Thursday 11 July 2013

The Short, Scandalous Life of Queen Caroline Mathilde

Caroline Matilda of Great Britain (London, England, 11th July 1751 - Celle, Germany, 10th May 1775)

Portrait of Caroline Mathilde by Francis Cotes
Caroline Mathilde by Francis Cotes

She went from the House of Hanover to the court of Denmark and ended in scandalous exile and a tragically early death - today marks the birthday of Queen Caroline Matilde.

One of the women to whom grandmother Gilflurt was often favourably compared for the bloom in her cheeks and the grace of her manners, Caroline Mathilde was the youngest child of Frederick, Prince of Wales and Princess Augusta of Saxe-Gotha. A world away from the formal manners and customs of the Hanoverian court, Caroline's was raised in seclusion following the death of her father and she enjoyed a relatively simple life, delighting in nature and equestrian pursuits.

This quiet, settled existence was to end at the age of 15 when a very reluctant Caroline Mathilde travelled to Copenhagen to become the wife of her cousin, King Christian VII of Denmark. Known as something of an eccentric, the full extent of Christian's mental illness had yet to show itself and from the start their marriage was a far from happy one. Reluctant to consummate the marriage, Christian preferred to spend time with courtesans and prostitutes, frequenting the brothels of the city whilst rejecting all contact with his wife. With the line of succession in jeapardy, Christian's advisers became to whisper that it would be a shame if the king were to be thought of as impotent; their scheming did the trick and the couple finally produced the all-important heir.

By 1769 Christian's eccentricities growing more and more extreme and his decision to bring doctor Johann Friedrich Struensee to court was applauded by his counsellors, who saw the physician as a much-needed stabilising influence. In fact it was to prove a pivotal moment in the history of the Danish monarchy, shaking the house of Oldenburg to its very foundations.  Within a year the queen and Struensee were lovers and as the king grew more disturbed, so Struensee's influence at court increased until, in late 1770, he was elected privy counsellor (maître des requêtes). With the king confined, Struensee enjoyed a period of virtually unchallenged authority, initiating over a thousand reforms that began with the total restructure of the unwieldy Danish cabinet. One might have expected Christian to be disturbed by these developments but in fact it was the opposite; he delighted in the unusual arrangement, glad to see his wife happy, his own marital responsibilities discharged and the burden of government business lifted from his shoulders.

With the guidance and support of Caroline Mathilde, Struensee's reforms included the abolition of torture, the banning of slavery and widespread vaccination against smallpox for the poor. In fact, his experimental inoculation against the disease had been what first brought him to Caroline's attention when his decisive actions saved the life of her son.

The Time of Struensee was over within 16 months. Outraged by Caroline Mathilde's open liaisons with the doctor and her proclivities for dressing as a man and mixing with the populace of Copenhagen, the birth of a daughter that was assumed to be Struensee's child was the final straw. Facing higher taxes, reduced privilege and more reforms than they knew what to do with, the cabinet and court turned against the queen and her lover, their support for Christian returning with a fervour.

In January 1772, Caroline Mathilde and Struensee were arrested and interrogated. In April of that same year the royal marriage ended in divorce and Struensee went to the scaffold.

Having a king for a brother is always handy and George III successfully petitioned to have Caroline Mathilde released from prison and sent into exile in the Hanovarian Celle Castle; here, the former queen of Denmark devoted herself to charity as well as continuing to plan for the day when she would depose Christian and rule as regent. In fact, Caroline never saw Denmark nor her son again and she died of scarlet fever at the age of just 23.

George III rejected calls for Caroline Mathilde to be buried in Westminster Abbey and she was interred in her place of exile, Celle Castle, the final stop in a life that had been short, scandalous and ultimately tragic.

Read more about the tragic life of Caroline Mathilde in my book, Life in the Georgian Court

Life in the Georgian Court, true tales of 18th century royalty, is available at the links below.

Pen and Sword
Amazon UK
Amazon US
Book Depository (free worldwide shipping)


Rachel Knowles said...

What a tragic story and a major influence on George III's over-protective attitude towards his daughters, wishing to keep them with him rather than risk such a sad fate in marriage as his sister. :(

Catherine Curzon said...


One can only wonder at what Caroline Mathilde felt when it became apparent that George had no intention of recalling her to England; such a sad story.

Denise said...

What became of the daughter? What a tragic story after implementing some good reforms.

Catherine Curzon said...

HI Denise, thanks for your comment!

Princess Louise Auguste of Denmark was brought up as a daughter of the king, despite the questions over paternity. She married Duke Frederick Christian II and was incredibly popular at court due to her lively nature and appreciation of the arts. Sadly, political splits between her family and that of her husband eventually caused dissension in her own marriage but she remained a strong, influential force at court and died in 1843 at the age of 71.

Jen said...

Sophia Dorothea, the wife of George I and an ancestor of Caroline Mathilde's was also exiled for adultery and died in Ahlden but buried in Celle.

Catherine Curzon said...

I shall be posting on her at some point too; thank you!

Debra Brown said...

Somehow you got me to watch a movie about this family once... can't remember the name, but the pictures are vivid!

Catherine Curzon said...

It must be A Royal Affair, I think!

Sarah said...

Sounds as though the doctor was a better king than the real one, pity he was executed

Catherine Curzon said...

It was a shame; an awful outcome!

author said...

Interesting article! I didn't know that King Christian was amenable to his wife's affair!
Were you aware that Caroline Mathilde's grandmother Queen Caroline (George II's wife) vaccinated some of her own children for smallpox? I don't believe Frederick was one of them, as he stayed in Germany for most of his early years.
I am in the process of writing a biographical novel about Sophia Dorothea of Celle (under my pen name Sophia Alexander). Let me know if you would like a guest post on her!

Catherine Curzon said...

I was indeed aware of that and the story of her work to publicise variolation will appear in my forthcoming book. I'd love to chat with you about Sophia Dorothea, do let me have your contact details (you can get in touch via Twitter or Facebook)!