Johann Friedrich Struensee

Johann Friedrich Struensee
Regent of Denmark
(De Facto)
In office
20 March 1771 – 16 January 1772
Monarch Christian VII
Succeeded by Prince Frederick (de jure)
Queen Juliana Maria (de facto)
Personal details
Born 5 August 1737(1737-08-05)
Halle an der Saale, Kingdom of Prussia
Died 28 April 1772(1772-04-28) (aged 34)
Copenhagen, Kingdom of Denmark
Spouse(s) None
Children Louise Auguste of Denmark
Profession Physician
Religion Pietist, then Atheist

Count Johann Friedrich Struensee (5 August 1737 – 28 April 1772) was a German doctor. 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 factoregent of the country, where he tried to carry out widespread reforms. His affair with Queen Caroline Matilda (“Caroline Mathilde”) caused 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. He died unmarried.


Upbringing and early career

Born at Halle an der Saale and baptized at Kirche 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 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.

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.[1]

When Adam and Maria Dorothea Struensee moved to Altona in 1758, where the elder Struensee became pastor of Marienkirche (Mary’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. ("Stadsfysikus i Altona og Landfysikus i Grevskabet Rantzau") 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. Johann 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 superior intelligence and elegant manners, however, soon made him fashionable in the better circles, and he entertained his contemporaries with his controversial opinions.

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

Ministering to King Christian VII

During these almost ten years in Altona he came into contact with a circle of aristocrats that had been rejected from the court in Copenhagen. Among these friends were Enevold Brandt and Count Schack Carl Rantzau, leader of a circle of followers of the Enlightenment who treated Struensee as his protégé. They managed to maneuver Struensee into a position as King Christian VII's travelling physician, also with the hope that he could give them access to the royal court again.

June–July 1767 the king had spent the summer in Schleswig-Holstein, along with his court and chancellery. Struensee was a clever doctor, and having somewhat restored the king's health while visiting the area, gained the king's affection. He was retained as travelling physician ("Livmedikus hos Kong Christian VII") on 5 April 1768, and accompanied the entourage on the King’s foreign tour to Paris and London via Hannover from 6 May 1768 to 12 January 1769. He was given the title of State Councilor ("etatsråd") on 12 May 1768, barely a week after leaving Altona. In that year he also became a Doctor in Medicine from the University of Oxford ("Dr. med. i Oxford").

During the nine month trip he developed a close relationship with the king. The king’s ministers Bernstorff and Finance Minister H.C. Schimmelmann saw Struensee as having a positive influence on the king, and stood behind his being named the king's personal physician January 1769 after their return to Copenhagen.

Rise to power

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

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 rather strict interpretation of Rousseaus ideas, by 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 winter time.

Struensee was named royal adviser (forelæser) and konferensråd on 5 May 1770 and "Maître des requêtes" on 18 December.

The royal court and government spent the summer of 1770 in Schleswig-Holstein (Gottorp, Traventhal and Ascheberg).

On 15 September the King dismissed Bernstorff, and two days later Struensee became maître des requêtes (privy counsellor), consolidating his power, and starting the 16 month period generally referred to as the "Time of Struensee".

When in the course of the year the king sank into a condition of mental torpor, Struensee's authority became paramount.

In control of the government

At first, Struensee kept himself in the background as he began to control the political machine. However, in December he grew impatient, and on the 8th of that month he abolished the council of state and, and appointed himself maître des requêtes. It became his official duty to present to the king all the reports from the various departments of state. Because King Christian was scarcely responsible for his actions, Struensee dictated whatever answers he pleased.

Next, he dismissed all department heads, and abolished the Norwegian stadholderships. Henceforth the cabinet, with himself as its motive power, became the one supreme authority in the state. Other reforms included the establishment of foundling hospitals, the abolition of capital punishment for theft and of the employment of torture in judicial process, the doing away with such demoralizing abuses as perquisites, and of "lackeyism," or the appointment of great men's domestics to lucrative public posts.

Struensee held absolute sway for ten months, between 20 March 1771 and 16 January 1772. During this time he issued no fewer than 1069 cabinet orders, or more than three a day. For this reason, he has been criticized for having an imprudent "mania" for reform.

Other criticisms of Struensee are that he did not respect native Danish and Norwegian customs, seeing them as prejudices and wanting to eliminate them in favor of abstract principles. He also did not speak Danish, conducting his business in German. In order to be sure of obedience he dismissed wholesale without pension or compensation the staffs of all the public departments, substituting for old and experienced officials nominees of his own, in many cases untried men who knew little or nothing of the country they were supposed to govern.

While initially the Danish people favored his reforms, they began to turn against him. When Struensee abolished all censorship of the press, it mostly resulted in a flood of anti-Struensee pamphlets.[2]

Still in spite of all his blunders, it is clear that, for a short time at least, middle-class opinion was, on the whole, favourable to him; and had he been wise, he might perhaps have been able to defy any hostile combination. What incensed the people most against him was the way in which he put the king completely on one side; and this 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; and this opinion was confirmed by the publication of the cabinet order of 14 July 1771, appointing 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.

Nor were Struensee's relations with the queen less offensive to a nation which had a traditional veneration for the royal House of Oldenburg, while Caroline Matilda's shameless conduct in public brought the Crown into contempt. 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. And once, when he threatened his keeper, Brandt, with a flogging for some impertinence, Brandt ended up in a struggle with the king, and in the course of this he struck the king in the face.


The arrest of Struensee.
Contemporary woodcarving.

Things were at their worst during the winter of 1771. Struensee created himself and Brandt counts on 30 November that year. But the countless dismissals of government officials and officers in the course of his administrative reforms, he steadily built up a large group of enemies. This feeling of unhappiness with his reign spread through the populace as well.

The king, queen, Struensee and Enevold Brandt, along with the royal court spent the summer of 1771 at Hirschholm Palace north of Copenhagen, and stayed there until late in the autumn. On 7 July the Queen gave birth to a daughter, Louise Augusta; and a proclamation commanded that a Te Deum in honour of the event should be sung in all the churches.

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 at last in a secret conspiracy against him, headed by Rantzau-Ascheburg and others, in the name of the Queen Dowager Juliana Maria, who in this way was willing to wrest power away from the king, and secure her and her son’s position of power for many years to come.

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.

Early in the 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. 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. Sentence of death was the least that Struensee had to expect. The Kongelov had no provisions for when the ruler was insane and unfit for government, so as a commoner who had imposed himself in the circles of nobility, he was condemned as being guilty of lèse majesté and usurpation of the royal authority, both capital offences according to paragraphs 2 and 26 of the Kongelov, although he had only done what many had done before him, and others would do after him with no repercussions.

He awaited his execution at Kastellet, Copenhagen. The sentences were carried out on the 28 April 1772 with Brandt being executed first.

History's judgment

Many of Struensee's reforms were reasonable, but badly timed and poorly executed; many of them were eventually realised many years later, most notably after the coup d'état of 1784. Many backfired on him, and were opposed by the aristocracy who had much to lose from these "Enlightenment" era reforms, especially the fear of a weakened or toppled political and economic elite. He was demonised by a chorus of disgust, gossip and lies all the way to his execution, and these reverberated unchallenged for many years to come. The conservative reaction to his reforms, helped, however, build a positive climate for their eventual realisation.

His affair with the queen was intolerable to the public at large, although sexual infidelity was not unusual in royal circles, and the king himself was notorious for his sexual exploits. Judgement of the queen's affair was much harsher than that accorded the king, and Victorian-era morality in the next century was not kinder to either Struensee or Caroline Matilda.

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.

In literature

  • The visit of the royal physician (Livläkarens besök) (1999, novel) by Per Olov Enquist.
  • The Favorite of the Queen (Der Favorit der Königin) (1935, novel) by Robert Neumann.
  • The Lost Queen by Norah Lofts, a biography of Queen Caroline Matilda, naturally gives a major place to Struensee


  1. ^ Jonathan Israel, A Revolution of the Mind, Princeton University Press, 2010, p.76. ISBN 978-0-691-14200-5.
  2. ^ 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.


  • H. Arnold Barton, Scandinavia in the Revolutionary Era 1760–1815, University of Minnesota Press, 1986. ISBN 0-8166-1393-1.
  • (Danish) Amdisen, Asser. Til nytte og fornøjelse Johann Friedrich Struensee (1737–1772). Denmark. Akademisk Forlag, 2002. ISBN 8750037307.
  • (Danish) Barz, Paul. Doktor Struensee – rebel blandt hofsnoge Trans. I. Christensen. Lynge. Bogans forlag, 1986. ISBN 8774660837.
  • (Danish) Bech, Svend Cedergreen. Struensee og hans tid. 2nd ed. Viborg. Forlaget Cicero, 1989. ISBN 8777140389
  • (Danish) Lars Bisgaard, Claus Bjørn, Michael Bregnsbo, Merete Harding, Kurt Villads Jensen, Knud J. V. Jespersen, Danmarks Konger og Dronninger (Copenhagen, 2004)
  • (Danish) Bregnsbo, Michael. Caroline Mathilde – Magt og Skæbne. Denmark. Aschehoug Dansk Forlag, 2007. ISBN 9788711118566
  • (Danish) Gether, Christian (editor), Kronprins og Menneskebarn (Sorø, 1988)
  • (Danish) Glebe-Møller. Struensees vej til skafottet – Fornuft og åbenbaring i oplysningstiden. Copenhagen. Museum Tusculanums Forlag, 2007. ISBN 9788763505130
  • (Danish) Thiedecke, Johnny. For Folket. Oplysning, Magt og vanvid i Struensee-tidens Danmark. Viborg. Forlaget Pantheon, 2004. ISBN 8790108299
  • Tilliyard, Stella. A Royal Affair: George III and his Scandalous Siblings. Chatto & Windus, 2006. ISBN 9780701173067

External links

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