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Johann Friedrich Struensee

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Johann Friedrich Struensee
Posthumous portrait by Hans Hansen
Privy Councillor of Denmark
PredecessorJohann Hartwig Ernst von Bernstorff
SuccessorOve Høegh-Guldberg
Born(1737-08-05)5 August 1737
Halle an der Saale, Kingdom of Prussia
Died28 April 1772(1772-04-28) (aged 34)
Copenhagen, Kingdom of Denmark-Norway
IssuePrincess Louise Augusta of Denmark (avowedly)

Lensgreve Johann Friedrich Struensee (5 August 1737 – 28 April 1772) was a German-Danish physician, philosopher and statesman. He became royal physician to the mentally ill King Christian VII of Denmark and a minister in the Danish government. He rose in power to a position of de facto regent of the country, and he tried to carry out widespread reforms. His affair with Queen Caroline Matilda ("Caroline Mathilde") caused a scandal, especially after the birth of a daughter, Princess Louise Augusta, and was the catalyst for the intrigues and power play that caused his downfall and dramatic death.

Upbringing and early career[edit]

Born at Halle an der Saale and baptized at St. Moritz on 7 August 1737, Struensee was the third child of six born to Pietist theologian and minister Adam Struensee (baptized in Neuruppin on 8 September 1708 – Rendsburg, 20 June 1791), Pfarrer ("curate") in Halle an der Saale in 1732, "Dr. theol. (h. c.) von Halle" (Doctor of Theology (honoris causa, "for the honor") from the University of Halle) in 1757, pastor in Altona between 1757 and 1760, "Kgl. Generalsuperintendant von Schleswig und Holstein" ("Royal general superintendent of Schleswig and Holstein") between 1760 and 1791, and his wife (m. Berleburg, 8 May 1732) Maria Dorothea Carl (Berleburg, 31 July 1716 – Schleswig, 31 December 1792), a respectable middle-class family that believed in religious tolerance. Three of the Struensee sons went to University, but none became theologians like their father; two of the daughters married ministers.[1]

Johann Friedrich entered the University of Halle on 5 August 1752 at the age of fifteen where he studied medicine, and graduated as a Doctor in Medicine ("Dr. Med.") on 12 December 1757. The university exposed him to Age of Enlightenment ideals, and social and political critique and reform. He supported these new ideas, becoming a proponent of atheism, the writings of Claude Adrien Helvétius, and other French materialists.[2]

When Adam and Maria Dorothea Struensee moved to Altona in 1758, where the elder Struensee became pastor of Trinitatiskirche (Trinity's Church), Johann Friedrich moved with them. He was soon employed as a public doctor in Altona, in the estate of Count Rantzau, and in the Pinneberg District. His wages were meager and he expected to supplement them with private practice.

His parents moved to Rendsburg in 1760 where Adam Struensee became first superintendent (comparable to bishop) for the duchy, and subsequently superintendent-general of Schleswig-Holstein. Struensee, now 23 years old, had to set up his own household for the first time. His lifestyle expectations were not matched by his economics. His perceived intelligence and manner, however, soon made him fashionable in the better circles,[which?] and he entertained his contemporaries with his controversial opinions.

Portrait of Struensee, 1770

Struensee was ambitious and petitioned the Danish government through Minister of Foreign Affairs Count Johann Hartwig Ernst von Bernstorff for funds.[editorializing] He tried his hand at writing Enlightenment treatises and published many of them in his journal Zum Nutzen und Vergnügen ("For benefit and enjoyment").

Physician to King Christian VII[edit]

During Struensee's near ten-year residence in Altona he came into contact with a circle of aristocrats who had been sent away from the royal court in Copenhagen. Among them were Enevold Brandt and Count Schack Carl Rantzau, who were supporters of the Enlightenment. Rantzau recommended Struensee to the court as a physician to attend King Christian VII on his forthcoming tour to princely and royal courts in western Germany, the Netherlands, England, and France.

Struensee received the appointment in April 1768. The king and his entourage set forth on 6 May. While in England Struensee received the honorary degree of Doctor in Medicine from the University of Cambridge.

During the eight-month tour, he gained the king's confidence and affection. The king's ministers, Bernstorff and Finance Minister H.C. Schimmelmann, were pleased with Struensee's influence on the king, who began making fewer embarrassing "scenes". Upon the court's return to Copenhagen in January 1769, Struensee was appointed personal physician to the king. In May, he was given the honorary title of State Councillor, which advanced him to the class of the third rank at court. Struensee wrote an important report on the mental health of the King.[3]

Rise to power[edit]

Queen Caroline Mathilda

First he reconciled the king and queen. At first Caroline Matilda disliked Struensee, but she was unhappy in her marriage, neglected and spurned by the king, and affected by his illness. However, Struensee was one of the few people who paid attention to the lonely queen, and he seemed to do his best to alleviate her troubles.[citation needed] Over time her affection for the young doctor grew and by spring 1770 he became her lover; a successful vaccination of the baby crown prince in May still further increased his influence.[4]

Struensee was very involved with the upbringing of the Crown Prince Frederick VI along the principles of Enlightenment, such as outlined by Jean-Jacques Rousseau's challenge to return to nature. However, he had his own interpretation of Rousseau's ideas and preferred isolating the child and encouraging him to manage things largely on his own. He also took Rousseau's advice about cold being beneficial for children literally, and the Crown Prince was thus only sparsely clothed even during wintertime.

In control of the government[edit]

The Kingdom of Denmark–Norway

Struensee was named royal adviser (forelæser) and konferensråd on 5 May 1770.[5] As in the course of the year the king sank into a condition of mental torpor, Struensee's authority became paramount.[4] On 15 September the 16-month period generally referred to as the "Time of Struensee" began.

At first, Struensee kept a low profile as he began to control the political machine. However, as the royal court and government spent the summer of 1770 in Schleswig-Holstein (Gottorp, Traventhal, and Ascheberg) his power grew. In December 1770, he grew impatient and on the 10th of that month, he abolished the council of state. A week later, he appointed himself maître des requêtes. It became his official duty to present reports from the various departments of state to the king. Because King Christian was scarcely responsible for his actions, Struensee dictated whatever answers he pleased.[4] Next, he dismissed all department heads, and abolished the Norwegian viceroyship. Henceforth, the cabinet with himself as its motive power became the one supreme authority in the state. Struensee held absolute sway for almost thirteen months, between 18 December 1770 and 16 January 1772. During that time, he issued no fewer than 1,069 cabinet orders, or more than three a day.[6]

Reforms initiated by Struensee included:[7]

  • abolition of torture
  • abolition of unfree labor (corvée)
  • abolition of the censorship of the press
  • abolition of the practice of preferring nobles for state offices
  • abolition of noble privileges
  • abolition of "undeserved" revenues for nobles
  • abolition of the etiquette rules at the Royal Court
  • abolition of the Royal Court's aristocracy
  • abolition of state funding of unproductive manufacturers
  • abolition of several holidays
  • introduction of a tax on gambling and luxury horses to fund nursing of foundlings
  • ban of slave trade in the Danish colonies
  • rewarding only actual achievements with feudal titles and decorations
  • criminalization and punishment of bribery
  • re-organization of the judicial institutions to minimize corruption
  • introduction of state-owned grain storages to balance out the grain price
  • assignment of farmland to peasants
  • re-organization and reduction of the army
  • university reforms
  • reform of the state-owned medical institutions

Other reforms included the abolition of capital punishment for theft; the doing away with such demoralizing abuses as perquisites; and of "lackey-ism", the appointment of powerful men's domestic staff to lucrative public posts.[4]

Critics of Struensee thought that he did not respect native Danish and Norwegian customs, saw them as prejudices and wanted to eliminate them in favour of abstract principles. He also did not speak Danish and conducted his business in German. To ensure obedience, he dismissed entire staffs of public departments, without pensions or compensation, and substituted with nominees of his own. The new officials were in many cases inexperienced men who knew little or nothing of the country that they were supposed to govern.

Initially, the Danish people favored his reforms, but they began to turn against him. When Struensee abolished all censorship of the press, it mostly resulted in a flood of anti-Struensee pamphlets.[8]

During the initial months of his rule, middle-class opinion was in his favour.[9] What incensed the people most against him was the way in which he put the king completely on one side, and the feeling was all the stronger as, outside a very narrow court circle, nobody seems to have believed that Christian VII was really mad, but only that his will had been weakened by habitual ill usage[clarification needed]. That opinion was confirmed by the publication of the cabinet order of 14 July 1771, which appointed Struensee "gehejme kabinetsminister" or "Geheimekabinetsminister", with authority to issue cabinet orders which were to have the force of royal ordinances, even if unprovided with the royal sign manual.[4]

Struensee's relations with the queen were offensive to a nation which had a traditional veneration for the royal House of Oldenburg, and Caroline Matilda's conduct in public scandalized the populace. The society which daily gathered round the king and queen excited the derision of the foreign ambassadors. The unhappy king was little more than the butt of his environment, but occasionally, the king would put up a show of obstinacy and refuse to carry out Brandt's or Struensee's orders. Once, when he threatened his keeper, Brandt, with a flogging for some impertinence, Brandt ended up in a struggle with the King and he struck the King in the face.[4]

Arrest and execution[edit]

The arrest of Struensee.
Contemporary woodcarving.
Public execution of Struensee on 28 April 1772
Drawing of Struensee and Brandt by Christian VII

Struensee's dismissal of many government officials and officers brought him numerous political enemies. On 30 November 1771, he declared himself and Brandt counts. Those actions stirred feelings of unease and dissatisfaction in the populace of Denmark and Norway.

Christian VII along with his queen, Struensee, Brandt, and members of the royal court, spent the summer of 1771 at Hirschholm Palace north of Copenhagen. They stayed there until late in the autumn. On 7 July, the queen gave birth to a daughter, Louise Augusta. The court moved to Frederiksberg Palace just west of Copenhagen on 19 November.

The general ill will against Struensee, which had been smouldering all through the autumn of 1771, found expression in a conspiracy against him, headed by Schack Carl Rantzau and others, in the name of the Queen Dowager Juliana Maria,[4] to wrest power away from the king, and secure her and her son's positions of power.

The court returned to Christiansborg Palace on 8 January 1772. The season's first masquerade ball was held at the Court Theatre on 16 January.

A palace coup took place in the early morning of 17 January 1772, Struensee, Brandt and Queen Caroline Matilda were arrested in their respective bedrooms, and the perceived liberation of the king, who was driven round Copenhagen by his deliverers in a gold carriage, was received with universal rejoicing. The chief charge against Struensee was that he had usurped the royal authority in contravention of the Royal Law (Kongelov). He defended himself with considerable ability and, at first, confident that the prosecution would not dare to lay hands on the queen, he denied that their liaison had ever been criminal.[4] The queen was taken as prisoner of state to Kronborg Castle.

On 27 April/28 April, Struensee and Brandt were condemned first to lose their right hands and then to be beheaded. Their bodies were afterwards to be drawn and quartered. The Kongelov had no provisions for a mentally-ill ruler who was unfit to govern. However, as a commoner who had imposed himself in the circles of nobility, Struensee was condemned as being guilty of lèse majesté and usurpation of the royal authority, both of which were capital offences according to Paragraphs 2 and 26 of the Kongelov.[4]

Struensee awaited his execution at Kastellet, Copenhagen. The sentences were carried out on 28 April 1772, with Brandt being executed first.[7]

The king himself considered Struensee a great man, even after his death. Written in German on a drawing the king made in 1775, three years after Struensee's execution, was the following: Ich hätte gern beide gerettet ("I would have liked to have saved them both"), referring to Struensee and Brandt.[10]

Cultural depictions[edit]

Kristian Zahrtmann: Scene from the court of Christian VII. History painting from 1873 at the Hirschsprung Collection.
Kristian Zahrtmann: Interior from the court of Christian VII. History painting from 1881 at the Hirschsprung Collection.

Struensee, his affair with the queen and his relation with the king have been featured in many artistic works:





  1. ^ Jens Glebe-Møller: Struensees vej til skafottet: fornuft og åbenbaring i Oplysningstiden. Museum Tusculanum Press 2007. (in Danish)
  2. ^ Jonathan Israel: A Revolution of the Mind, Princeton University Press, 2010, p.76. ISBN 978-0-691-14200-5.
  3. ^ Schioldann J (2013) "Struensée’s memoir on the Situation of the King" (1772): Christian VII of Denmark. History of Psychiatry 24: 227-247.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i Bain 1911.
  5. ^ Edvard, Holm, Danmark-Norges Historie, G.E.C. Gads Forlag, 1902, vol. 4, part. 2, p. 27.
  6. ^ Henry Steele Commager, "Struensee and the Enlightenment," in Commager, The search for a usable past, and other essays in historiography (1967) pp 349-623.
  7. ^ a b Birkner, Gerhard Kay (2002). ""Cramer wird doch noch, wie ich hoffe, ein ordentlicher Mensch werden." Cramer, August von Hennings und die "Plöner Aufklärung"". In Schütt, Rüdiger (ed.). Carl Friedrich Cramer. Revolutionär, Professor und Buchhändler (in German). Nordhausen. pp. 271–302, 286. ISBN 9783892448853.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)
  8. ^ John Christian Laursen, Luxdorph's Press Freedom Writings: Before the Fall of Struensee in Early 1770s Denmark-Norway, pp. 61–77 in: The European Legacy, vol. 7, no. 1, 2002.
  9. ^ Johann Friedrich Struensee. (2014). Retrieved September 7, 2015, from http://www.nndb.com/people/197/000097903/
  10. ^ Ulrik Langen, Den afmægtige - En biografi om Christian 7., Jyllands-Postens Forlag, 2008, pp. 450ff. ISBN 978-87-769-2093-7.
  11. ^ Meyerbeer & Letellier (1999–2004) I, 15 (Foreword by Heinz Becker) (1980) 250; Becker (1989), 108–9
  12. ^ Die Liebe einer Königin at IMDb Edit this at Wikidata
  13. ^ The Dictator at IMDb Edit this at Wikidata
  14. ^ King in Shadow at IMDb Edit this at Wikidata
  15. ^ A Royal Affair at IMDb Edit this at Wikidata


  • Barton, H. Arnold. Scandinavia in the Revolutionary Era 1760–1815, University of Minnesota Press, 1986. ISBN 0-8166-1393-1.
  • Commager, Henry Steele. "Struensee and the Enlightenment," The search for a usable past, and other essays in historiography (1967) pp 349+.
  • Dewey, Donald. "The Danish Rasputin" Scandinavian Review (2013) 100#1 online
  • Tilliyard, Stella. A Royal Affair: George III and his Scandalous Siblings. Chatto & Windus, 2006. ISBN 978-0-7011-7306-7

In Danish, Swedish or German[edit]

  • Ahnfelt, Arvid (1883). Från Europas hof, dess furstehus och aristokrati: skildringar hemtade i nya specialverk samt svenska och utländska arkiv [From Europe's royal courts, its princely houses and aristocracy: depictions taken from new special works as well as Swedish and foreign archives.] (in Swedish). Vol. 1. Stockholm: Oscar L. Lamms förlag. pp. 3–103.
  • Amdisen, Asser (2002). Til nytte og fornøjelse : Johann Friedrich Struensee (1737-1772) [For benefit and pleasure : Johann Friedrich Struensee (1737-1772)] (in Danish). Copenhagen: Akademisk Forlag. ISBN 87-5-003730-7.
  • Barz, Paul (1985). Doktor Struensee : Rebell von oben [Doctor Struensee: Rebel from above] (in German). Munich: Kabel Ernst Verlag. ISBN 3-8225-0001-1.
  • Barz, Paul (1986). Doktor Struensee – rebel blandt hofsnoge (in Danish). Translated by Ib Christensen. Lynge: Bogans forlag. ISBN 87-7466-083-7..
  • Feldbæk, Ole (1990). "Den lange fred" [The long peace]. In Olsen, Olaf (ed.). Gyldendal og Politikens Danmarkshistorie (in Danish). Vol. 9: 1700-1800. Copenhagen: Gyldendal og Politikens Forlag. ISBN 87-89068-11-4.
  • (in Danish) Bech, Svend Cedergreen. Struensee og hans tid. 2nd ed. Viborg. Forlaget Cicero, 1989. ISBN 87-7714-038-9
  • (in Danish) Lars Bisgaard, Claus Bjørn, Michael Bregnsbo, Merete Harding, Kurt Villads Jensen, Knud J. V. Jespersen, Danmarks Konger og Dronninger (Copenhagen, 2004)
  • (in Danish) Bregnsbo, Michael. Caroline Mathilde – Magt og Skæbne. Denmark. Aschehoug Dansk Forlag, 2007. ISBN 978-87-11-11856-6
  • (in Danish) Gether, Christian (editor), Kronprins og Menneskebarn (Sorø, 1988)
  • (in Danish) Glebe-Møller. Struensees vej til skafottet – Fornuft og åbenbaring i oplysningstiden. Copenhagen. Museum Tusculanums Forlag, 2007. ISBN 978-87-635-0513-0
  • (in Danish) Thiedecke, Johnny. For Folket. Oplysning, Magt og vanvid i Struensee-tidens Danmark. Viborg. Forlaget Pantheon, 2004. ISBN 87-90108-29-9
  • (in German) Winkle, Stefan: Johann Friedrich Struensee. Arzt – Aufklärer – Staatsmann, Stuttgart: Fischer 1989 (2nd ed.). Online excerpt (Ärztekammer Hamburg).

Primary sources[edit]

  • Alenius, Marianne, ed. (1986). Mit ubetydelige Levnets Løb. Efter Charlotte Dorothea Biehls breve (in Danish). Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanums Forlag.
  • Cedergreen, Svend, ed. (1975). Brev fra Dorothea. Af Charlotta Dorothea Biehls historiske breve (in Danish). Copenhagen: Politikens Forlag.

External links[edit]

Political offices
Preceded by Privy Councillor of Denmark
1770 - 1772
Succeeded by