Johann Friedrich Struensee

By: Victoria Yates

Johann Friedrich Struensee

Johann Friedrich Struensee was born on the 7th of August 1737 in Halle an der Saale in the Kingdom of Prussia (present day Germany). He was the third of six children born to Adam Struensee, a pietist theologian and minister, and his wife Maria Dorothea Carl.

Struensee rebelled against the strict religiosity and discipline of his father, studying medicine at the University of Halle, and graduating in 1757. While at university Struensee came into contact with enlightenment ideals and started to explore atheism.

In 1758, Struensee followed his family and moved to Altona, a small town near Hamburg. Although a town of Evangelicals, who Struensee had little time for, Altona also attracted a group of influential visitors who had fallen out of favour with the Copenhagen court.

His intelligence and manners made him a fashionable companion for socialites, who he impressed with his controversial opinions and ambitious ideas. During this period Struensee also experimented with writing his own enlightenment treatises.

Amongst his new friends, Struensee became close to Count Schack Carl Rantzau who sent him to the court to be a physician for King Christian VII while he toured western Germany, England, France and the Netherlands.  After his April 1768 appointment, they left court in May for the eight-month tour.

Christian VII had taken the throne of Denmark weeks before his 17th birthday, after the death of his father following a period of illness. The young King had been terrorized by his governor and suffered from mental illness; eventually sinking to paranoia, self-mutilation and hallucinations.

During the tour, Struensee managed to win the King’s trust, becoming a confidant and calming influence. Christian VII was so improved on his public outings that the King’s ministers, Count von Bernstroff and H.C. Schimmelmann, made Struensee the King’s personal physician on their return.

His growing hold over the King became increasingly evident, but Struensee moved cautiously. One obstacle was the Queen, who neither trusted not liked him, particularly because of his atheism.

Struensee managed to reconcile the King with Queen Caroline Matilda, the lonely British princess who had married her cousin Christian VII in 1766 at the age of 15. Although the marriage had briefly revived the King’s better nature, it was a short-lived change. The King shamed her with his behavior and often treated her cruelly. Under Struensee’s influence, however, the King’s contempt for her faded.

The Queen’s gratitude turned opinion in his favour, and the two began to meet more frequently. Struensee showed the lonely monarch sympathy and admiration, and by 1770 the pair began an affair.

Struensee actively involved himself in the upbringing of the crown prince, Frederick VI, who had been born in 1768, rigorously applying enlightenment principles.

On May 5th 1770, Struensee was named royal advisor.

Later that year, Struensee managed to rid himself of one of the last remaining blocks to power when the King dismissed Chancellor Bernstoff and Struensee appointed himself privy counselor. The move started a 18-month period known later as the “Time of Struensee.”

Virtually uninhibited in his new influence, Struensee set out to effect an enlightenment agenda including freedom of the press, abolition of torture, changing the rules of appointments and removing penalties for those who had illegitimate children.

As part of his effort to ‘purify’ public departments, large swathes of employees were dismissed without their pensions, while the system was reordered to answer directly to Struensee.

In all, Struensee issued more than 1069 cabinet orders.

Despite his visionary plans, the power was clearly having a negative impact on him. The initial support for his changes turned and, ironically, the abolition of press censorship led to an overwhelming collection of anti-Struensee pamphlets.

Struensee stirred further rancor by stripping official wages to starvation levels while undertaking a public display of extravagance for himself and those in his favor.

The King’s condition worsened in 1771 when he was essentially incapacitated by his illness. Struensee abolished all department heads and made the cabinet, with himself at its helm, the sole source of authority.

The King occasionally fought back, refusing to carry out orders, but he had little power. After once threatening his keeper Enevold Brandt with a flogging for impertinence the King ended up instead being struck after a struggle.

In the summer of 1771, the Queen gave birth to a baby girl, baptizing her Princess Louise Augusta.

Dislike came to a head when, in 1772, the Queen Dowager Juliane Marie orchestrated a plot to overthrow Struensee. In the early hours of January 17th, Struensee, Brandt, and the Queen were arrested in their bedrooms. The King, in turn, was paraded around Copenhagen in a golden carriage.

Initially, Struensee defended himself adeptly, but the success did not last.

The Queen, who earned the moniker “Queen of Tears,” was taken prisoner and divorced. Although initially fearing for her life, the sympathetic young Queen was rescued by George III and sent to live in Hanover where she died at the age of 24 beloved by those around her.

Struensee had been found guilty of usurpation of royal authority, a capital offence, and, along with Brandt was sentenced to lose his right hand before being beheaded, drawn and quartered.

The sentence was carried out on the 28th of April 1772. Even after Struensee’s death, the King considered him a great man, writing that he would have liked to have saved him on a drawing several years later.

In his wake, Struensee left a complex legacy. Although his grab for power and subjugation of the King are clear, his enlightenment reforms introduced progressive concepts and liberties on Danish society. In history, Struensee will be remembered as a difficult figure that managed to carve out a name as both a revolutionary and a dictator.