A mad ruler makes an exciting premise for a story (if I do say so myself!). The idea has been used in subplots for both A Game of Thrones and The Lord of the Rings but it also has a basis in history. I’m not just talking about George III; Juana La Loca of Castille and the ‘sleeping king’ Henry Plantagenet spring to my mind first, but there are a lot more (follow Joan Bos on Twitter using @madmonarchs – she posts great facts!). One Georgian Princess, however, had the singular misfortune of being sister to one ‘mad’ king and wife to another.
Caroline Matilda was George III’s youngest sibling. Tragically, her father died before she was born, leaving George as a substitute. He felt this responsibility deeply and, as was so often the case with him, became overbearing in his desire to do right. However, Caroline was not subject to any of her brother’s ‘mad’ fits. No action during his guardianship suggested the whim of a lunatic. She would have witnessed an illness in 1765 where George was delirious and expected to die, but it’s unlikely she would have considered him insane. Like others at the time, she thought this an isolated incident of delirium brought on by a fever.
Caroline Matilda’s husband, however, was another kettle of fish. He was her – and George’s – first cousin, Christian King of Denmark. It’s fascinating to compare the mental troubles of these two cousins and the reaction of their wives, which were wildly different. One reason I am a supporter of the porphyria theory in George III’s case is that he showed no signs of instability or mania in his youth. He was a little slow to learn, rather shy and apt to blame himself, but that was all. Whereas Christian disturbed his family from an early age.
According to Veronica Baker-Smith in Royal Discord, Christian was already showing signs of instability by the time his mother, Louisa, died when he was two. She ascribes the King of Denmark’s early re-marriage to the fact that Christian was displaying overt mental illness, hence leaving the succession of Denmark in question. This would make sense, as the Danish King certainly loved his first wife and spoke of her on his deathbed. Following her sudden and tragic demise at age 27, from a similar internal rupture to the one that killed her mother Queen Caroline of Ansbach, he took to the bottle and then married Juliane Marie of Brunswick.
Juliane Marie took little interest in her step-children. She wasn’t unkind or unfair, just indifferent. She was far more interested in her own son, Frederick, when he was born and devoted her life to him. Christian, already troubled, was cut adrift after his mother died, and only had the familiar comfort of his sisters until he was six. At this time, he was put under the care of a tutor named Reventlow, who was reported to be a harsh man. Of course, you only have to look at the upbringing of the Hanoverian princes to understand that most tutors were harsh at this time, but the circumstance certainly didn’t help the sensitive Christian. A new, softer tutor, Reverdil, came when Christian was eleven and was shocked at what he found. The boy had retreated to an intense inner life. He was petrified at the idea of becoming King, wanting nothing to do with it. Demons stalked his mind and he was determined to repel them by making himself as physically perfect as possible. If he was strong, he reasoned, he could fight of the monsters and become capable of fulfilling the roll of King. Quite heartbreaking words to hear from a thin, exquisite little boy, as handsome as a china doll.
It was to such a man that the fifteen-year-old Caroline Matilda was married. Whilst she didn’t seem to know the worst of his mental state, she was reluctant to marry and to leave England. She resented her brother for bundling her off into a dynastic match for political reasons and wept all through her proxy wedding ceremony. It’s rather ironic, considering George III’s daughters were later to complain that he didn’t find them husbands. It’s tough being King – you just can’t win! Caroline Matilda had grown up closely sheltered by her mother, Augusta, but she had a mind of her own. She listened to the endless harangues of how to behave, who to butter-up, who to avoid, and most of all, how to push the British influence over the French at the Danish court. It wasn’t long before she ignored these instructions, choosing instead to forge her own identity.
Despite Christian’s mania, he was not a bad prospect altogether. He was handsome and could be charming and witty. But there was no chance for Caroline Matilda to form an emotional bond with him. She was just part and parcel of the hereditary duties of kingship which so scared him. While Christian wanted to retire, she wanted to lead and make a place for herself at court. She tried hard to learn Danish and ingratiate herself with her new husband, but she met with indifference. He was quite happy to go travelling with his friends and leave her alone. This is why, I feel, Caroline Matilda and Charlotte differed so much in their responses to their husbands’ illnesses. While Charlotte, who was less independent-minded to start with, had a former love binding her loyalty, Caroline Matilda was free in her affections. She did have a child to tie her to Christian, born when she was just sixteen: heir to the throne, another Christian. However, his birth doesn’t seem to have bridged the pit of apathy between his parents.
Caroline Matilda chose instead to bestow her love on a court physician, Johann Friedrich Struensee. Her reasons for doing so were manifold. Not only did she need a plug to fill the emotional vacancy in her life, but Christian’s fits pushed her further and further away – and often placed her in need of protector. I’ve written in God Save the King about the emotional trauma caused to Queen Charlotte by George III’s bouts of mania, but quite frankly, his episodes were a walk in the park compared to Christian’s. Christian could often be violent, choosing to smash and destroy things, often throwing them from windows. He became obsessed with a prostitute and went out on the town in disguise, drinking and generally debauching with his friends. As you can imagine, the alcohol did nothing to ease his mental state. It’s little wonder Caroline Matilda had her head turned by the attentions of the handsome, charming, intelligent Struensee.
Caroline Matilda adopted Struensee’s radical, atheistical views for herself. The two made a little paradise, raising her son along Rousseau’s ideals and reforming the political world. It was a strange menage a trois: Christian was almost certainly aware of their relationship, but he viewed Struensee as his dearest friend and was quite happy to be guided by him. He was also probably relieved to have the responsibility of a wife taken from him. Christian remained fond of Caroline Matilda, though he seemed to fear her in equal measure, and would do anything she said. Hence, it became quite easy for the lovers to pass their reforms through, since obtaining the King’s signature was no problem. It is widely accepted they also had a daughter, Louisa, and persuaded Christian to acknowledge her as his own. It is possible, of course, that Louisa was Christian’s child, but if you see portraits of her she has an unmistakable Struensee nose!
I have neither the space or the expertise to cover, in this post, the radical changes Caroline Matilda and Struensee brought about in Denmark and their political impact. If you would like to know the full story I can recommend Stella Tillyard’s A Royal Affair or, if you want historical fiction, read The Visit of the Royal Physician by Per Olov Enquist. What is clear, however, is that Caroline Matilda was a driving force in the changes. George III liked to believe that his sister was a “good girl”, corrupted by a wicked court. He couldn’t be more wrong. Caroline Matilda knew her own mind and seized her opportunities. I like to contrast this with the behaviour of Queen Charlotte during the Regency crisis. Although Charlotte’s son the Prince of Wales criticised her for dabbling in politics, she was, in fact, only trying to keep her husband’s government in power, ready for him to return. If she had wanted, she could have easily cast her lot in with her son and changed the political scene – but she had none of Caroline Matilda’s ambition. The irony was that Charlotte’s son wanted political power but didn’t have support, whilst Charlotte had the influence but didn’t want to rock the boat. Another thing to note is that Charlotte was accused by some papers of having an affair with the Prime Minister Pitt. Unlike the situation in Denmark, there was no basis for this scandal. A preliminary look into the characters of both Charlotte and Pitt will show you how unlikely this was.
Sadly, Caroline Matilda and Struensee’s ideals ultimately cost her freedom and his life. In a skillful coup, Struensee’s enemies and Juliane Marie arranged for the lovers to be arrested and took Christian into their own keeping. He was as pliable with them as he had been with his wife; he was quite willing to sign whatever was put before him. Struensee was executed for his relationship with the Queen, whilst Caroline Matilda was imprisoned and separated from her children. Eventually, after a highly fraught struggle, George III managed to get her released into his own keeping, but for safety and diplomacy, Caroline Matilda still had to live a hermit’s existence in Celle. This, strangely enough, was the home town of George I’s wife Sophia Dorothea – also imprisoned for adultery. Caroline Matilda continued to plot and plan in secret. She was part of many schemes to return her to Denmark – and the throne – when her sudden death at the tender age of 23 cut all hopes short. Scarlet fever put an end to her brief, but eventful life.
I think it’s quite clear that Caroline Matilda’s story is a fascinating one that historical novelists should be drooling over. However, I only write things that have already been done if I think (a) I can do it better or, (b) I have something new to say. Quite frankly, I found The Visit of the Royal Physician so amazing, so exquisitely done, that I dare not follow it. However, Caroline Matilda’s story will feature in my novel about her mother, Augusta, and I look forward to interpreting this astonishing woman into fiction.