Scandal, Divorce & Exile: The Legacy of Caroline Matilda

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I said a couple months ago that the “Georges” were as brutal as their Tudor counterparts, which primarily stems from their treatment of the women in their lives. It wasn’t so much the “Georges” themselves, as the time period. The corsets and classical music and horse-drawn carriages may conjure images of “civility,” but really those are only different dressings for a society that still insisted on many of the same benchmarks from its women. Fertility, of course. Fidelity, in public at least. And the hazier expectation that family honor is housed in the “virtue” of its women.

Like Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard in the 16th century, there are a few figures from the 17th and 18th century that scream out the same legacy of near-martyrdom at the altar of family service. One of them is Princess Caroline Matilda, who would serve as queen of Denmark for six years and die disgraced, divorced and alone.

Her legacy wouldn’t be forgotten, but it certainly wasn’t what anyone would have wished it to be. She was the youngest sister of King George III, born the daughter of Frederick, Prince of Wales, granddaughter to King George II. Aged just nine when her brother ascended the throne, she was sheltered, coddled and wholly unprepared for life at a foreign court, much less the head of one. Her epic crash and burn in Copenhagen would scar her brother for life; by some accounts, making him so gun-shy about marrying his female relations abroad that he was a driving force in so many of his own daughters living out their days as spinsters.

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Augusta and Caroline Matilda

Caroline Matilda’s aunt had been the first British princess in recent memory to marry into the Danish royal family. Louise of Great Britain, daughter of George II and Caroline of Ansbach, may not have had a happy marriage, but she was a popular figure in Denmark and she had been successful enough to leave behind a son, Christian, before she died on December 19, 1751 – the same year Caroline Matilda was born.

Originally, Caroline Matilda’s older sister, Louisa, had been destined for Denmark, but as marriage negotiations opened in earnest it was decided she was too frail (indeed, she would die in 1768 at the age of 19). They chose, instead, the youngest of the bunch in 1763, when Caroline Matilda was only 12. George III insisted that she was too young and would have to wait until at least her 15th birthday, but political pressures emphasized the need for a European alliance, not least of which was France’s growing influence and the effects of the Seven Years’ War in North America.

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Christian VII

Unfortunately, Prince Christian wasn’t quite the white knight for which one would have hoped. Historian John van der Kriste describes him thusly:

“Had they known anything about Prince Christian, it was unlikely that he [George III] would have agreed so readily. At the age of sixteen the imbecile Christian was badly brought up, debauched, probably venereally infected, too fond of drink, and displaying signs of mental derangement.”

Good stuff. The engagement was announced on January 10, 1765 and Caroline Matilda, who had never been seen by the public, sat for her first portrait. It would end up in her fiancé’s dressing room and, according to his father, he was well-pleased by it. His intended was less enthused: she spent the duration of their betrothal crying and begging to stay home, earning her sharp rebukes from her mother. Augusta of Saxe-Gotha, Dowager Princess of Wales, had been roughly the same age as her daughter when she left Germany for England, and while that could have engendered some sympathy, it seems only to have steeled her desire to see her daughter crowned the queen she never was.

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Louisa and Caroline Matilda, standing

On January 13, 1766, King Frederick V died and Christian ascended the throne was King Christian VII, accelerating the timetable for the wedding. While George III had misgiving about the match, premised mainly on his sister’s youth, he seemed to believe that her homesickness would abate and she, like so many princesses before her, would adapt quickly enough. On the eve of her departure he wrote:

“I think I can in no way so essentially show Caroline my real affection for her than to give her a few hints that may perhaps be a means of preserving her from the precipices into which she may also very probably fall.”

From there he urged her to follow the example of his own wife, Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, who never dabbled in politics and showed proper respect for her female elders.

When she departed England for Denmark in the autumn of 1766 it meant that she gave up all English attendants as per Danish custom that she only be surrounded by the countrymen of her adopted home. She spoke no Danish, though she was fluent in German, which helped. Her welcome in Copenhagen was warm and she and Christian were married on November 8th at the palace chapel at Christianborg.

Unfortunately for Caroline Matilda, the marriage was never going to be a success. Growing mental illness and physical handicaps aside, her new husband believed it was unseemly for a man to love his wife. She was treated as a passing fancy and “discarded” the way a king might a mistress, except in this case she was his consort and a princess in her own right. To quote Van Der Kriste again:

“King Christian’s progressive mental illness resulted in extraordinary bounts of self-masochism, visiting brothels, and spending nights on the town, returning in the early hours of the morning completely drunk. He took a mistress, with whom he might be seen walking about arm in arm, and she generally dressed as a man, often in naval uniform.”

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The birth of Prince Frederick

Even so, somehow by the next spring his wife was pregnant and in January 1768 she gave birth to a son, Prince Frederick.

That spring, worried that Christian’s growing unpopularity might spark a revolution, the King was persuaded to leave Denmark by his advisers for a period of several months. He visited England and France, but refused to take Caroline Matilda, despite her pleas that she be allowed to visit her dying sister, Louisa. When he returned, their marriage seemed to improve slightly, but this may have been due to a curious habit Caroline Matilda had picked up in his absence – wearing a male riding costume featuring scarlet coats and buckskin breeches.

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Caroline Matilda in military dress

By the fall she fell seriously ill, and while the malady might have been physical, there is some likelihood it was a nervous breakdown brought on by her marriage. Christian begged her to heed medical advice, which she was refusing, and finally persuaded her to consult Dr. Johann Struensee. Within a week her health had improved, but the relationship didn’t end there.

Christian was taken by Struensee and began to trust his advice completely – a fact which the doctor played to his advantage, but also to Caroline Matilda’s. He went so far as to tell the Queen that someone would have to rule Christian and it should probably be here. Together, they set about establishing a method to keep the King in check and push him towards their own policies – effectively the exact opposite advice George III had given her before her marriage.

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Struensee

When Caroline Matilda’s mother came to visit her in the spring of 1770 she was horrified by what her daughter had turned into. Instead of a humble and sweet 15-year-old, she had turned into a cold and arrogant young woman who took to heart her status and authority as queen. When Augusta attempted to address her in English, she responded that she had long since forgotten the language. And when Augusta followed up by criticizing her intervention in politics – most recently, by attempting to have Christian’s prime minister dismissed – or her favor of Struensee, Caroline Matilda shut her down. They parted ways hours later and wouldn’t meet again.

Meanwhile, the relationship between the Queen and doctor was heating up and while the exact nature is unknown, certainly everyone around them assumed it was romantic. They met privately, she insisted on his presence constantly and they publicly exchanged gifts. When her second child, Louise, was born on July 1, 1771, everyone assumed Struensee was the father.

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“Princess” Louise

In all likelihood, the two were engaging in a sexual relationship that was underway by the spring of 1770, but may have begun as early as 1769. And while Christian was no gift, such was the flagrancy with which the two conducted their affair that people began to feel sympathetic towards the King. As Struensee’s political power grew, which it certainly did right around the birth of Louise, rival court factions, including members of the Danish royal family, devised a plan to get rid of him.

On the occasion of a masked ball on January 17, 1772, Christian’s stepmother, the Dowager Queen, and her conspirators entered the King’s rooms through a secret entrance and forced him to sign papers ordering the arrest of Struensee, Caroline Matilda and another councilor, Count Brandt.

The Queen and Louise were imprisoned at Kronborg, while Struensee was confined in harsher conditions elsewhere. Christian readily signed a death warrant for his former friend, while he divorced his wife and sentenced her to life imprisonment at Aalborg Castle.

The situation put her brother, George III, in a tricky situation. Naturally protective of her and insulted by the Danish treatment of his sister, he also couldn’t ignore the fact that Caroline Matilda had seemingly conducted an extramarital affair, now held the status of a divorced woman and has wholly shamed the entire family. His wife, Charlotte, refused to receive her, and while George sought her release, he also didn’t go so far as to offer her respite in England. She was officially in no man’s land.

Under threat of British force, Denmark released her and she was transferred to Celle, within Hanover, still part of George’s territories. Ironically, it was the same location where her great-grandmother, Sophia Dorothea of Celle, had been held after her own adultery and divorce a century before, all of which had taken place before her husband, George I, ascended the British throne and established the House of Hanover.

Separated from her children, the young Queen at first plotted ways to make her way back to Copenhagen, but she eventually realized any freedom would be a long way off. The light at the end of the tunnel was that her son, Prince Frederick, hadn’t been disinherited and so, at the very least, she would one day be the mother of the king.

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Celle Castle, where Caroline Matilda spent her last years

Towards the end of 1774, a conspiracy took shape, led by an Englishman named Nathaniel Wraxhall, to overthrow the Danish government and reinstate Caroline Matilda, for, while unpopular, was still seen by some as a better alternative to the mentally unstable Christian. In the spring of 1775, she received the tepid support of George III who said he wouldn’t stand in her way or work against her, but he also wouldn’t take any firm action.

Within days Caroline Matilda took ill from an outbreak of scarlet fever and died shortly before midnight on May 11, 1775. The conspiracy was dropped and two days later she was buried near her ancestor, Sophia Dorothea. On her deathbed she insisted on her innocence and wrote a last letter to her brother, which read:

“But more than all else, and even than death, it pains me that not one of all those whom I loved in life is standing by my dying bed, to grand me a last consolation by a pressure of the hand, or a glance of compassion, and to close my eyes in death.”

She was 23. Whatever lessons that George learned from his sister, it is perhaps not surprising that he grew overprotective of his daughters and horrified by the thought of sending them to a foreign court.

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Frederick VI

Caroline Matilda’s son, Frederick, was declared of age in 1884 and took over a regency that had begun after his mother’s downfall in 1772. He formally ascended the throne after his father’s death in 1808 and ruled Denmark and Norway until 1814, and only Denmark until his death in 1839.

Her daughter, Louise, remained at the Danish court, her position solidified despite her questionable paternity by her close relationship to her brother. At his behest she married Frederick Christian II, Duke of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Augustenburg (Good God) and had three children. The marriage was unhappy and she is believed to have had a series of affairs, one of which, ironically, was with a doctor, Carl Ferdinand Suadacini.

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“Princess” Louise

Frederick was succeeded by his cousin, Christian VIII, who took as his wife Louise’s daughter, Caroline Amalie. Named for her mother, it was a bittersweet tribute to the brief and turbulent life of Caroline Matilda.

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