It started out as a fairy tale fit for an 18th-century wannabe prince.
The young boy is born into a poor family in a small, occupied town in Germany. Through feats of his own fierce intellect and will, he goes to medical school and makes a success of himself.
With a dash of sheer luck, he gets close to the Danish monarchy and eventually comes to rule a nation, complete with enjoying the love of a queen.
But then it all goes awry. Fairy tales aren’t real, after all.
The truth is that this aspiring prince was actually a court doctor, his lover, the queen of another man. Their affair ended in disaster—execution, banishment, and demolition.
The last of those was reserved for the Hirschholm Palace, the heart of their liaison. You know a royal scandal is really bad when an entire palace—one nicknamed the “Versailles of the North,” no less—becomes a victim of the fallout.
It all started when Princess Caroline Mathilde of England was married off to her cousin Christian VII of Denmark when she was only 15, in 1766. The marriage was doomed from the start.
While Caroline Mathilde wanted to see more of the world than her circumscribed stomping grounds as a daughter of the king of England, she wasn’t thrilled about the process of being shipped away from her homeland for good. But she played the dutiful princess and followed the wishes of her brother King George III when he decided she was the next pawn to play in Europe’s favorite game of empire.
“I do not know whether we are not rather objects of pity than envy, when we are politically matched with princes whom we never saw, and may not, perhaps, find in us those charms which, if even real, are too often eclipsed by the beauties of a court set off with national partiality,” a precocious Caroline Mathilde wrote to her aunt, Princess Mary of Hesse Caseel, after the announcement of her wedding.
It turns out, her letter was prescient. Her intended prince didn’t exactly find in her the charms he was looking for. Although, to be fair, Christian VII wasn’t inclined to find the charms he was looking for in any one woman.
It didn’t matter how young, beautiful, or queen-like his bride may have been, Christian was not interested in the arranged marriage as anything more than a duty, and he was wholly unwilling to give up his philandering ways.
The marriage continued on. Caroline Mathilde gave birth to an heir to the throne, and Christian’s debauchery continued as it slowly gave way to the mental illness that he also suffered from.
“From the start Christian wanted only ‘to cease to rule and even to stop being king,’” Stacy Schiff wrote in her New York Times review of the book A Royal Affair: George III and His Troublesome Siblings. “The bad news was that the desire was feverish and pathological, involving violent delusions, elaborate bondage fantasies and orgies of chair-tossing and tapestry-slashing. (It is something of a miracle that any l8th-century Danish furniture survives.)”
For much of their early marriage, the queen would remain home in the castle while the king traveled. On one of his trips around his lands, he met a young German doctor, Johann Friedrich Struensee, who was also an avid fan of the ideas of the French Enlightenment. The two hit it off, and Christian eventually invited Struensee to join him on his journeys.
At first, Caroline Mathilde was not a fan of her husband’s new best friend. But after she suffered a breakdown at the age of 18 and was treated by Struensee, she warmed up to the doctor… a little too much. The physician and the queen began a torrid love affair.
While their new love was blooming, Christian VII was becoming increasingly debilitated by schizophrenia and other mental illness issues. His behavior was often erratic and out of control, and he hated being shackled with the responsibility of actually ruling the country.
Struensee had moved into the royal palace in Copenhagen by this time, and he began to take over more and more of the king’s duties. The king was only too happy to oblige.
It’s impossible to know exactly what Struensee was thinking. Maybe he originally just wanted to help out the clearly mentally ill king. Maybe he saw an opening to implement the Enlightenment ideas that he so treasured. Or maybe, from the very beginning, he realized this was his shot at power and he took it.
Whatever his motivation, in 1770, Struensee began to make moves to consolidate power into his own hands.
Christian began deferring to Struensee when it came to choosing sides in the increasingly fraught power struggle taking place among the nobility.
When Struensee decided he wanted to make his position official, Christian was all too eager to appoint the doctor as the maître des requêtes, the “overseer of all state business.”
With his new title, the de facto ruler made one last power play: He passed a decree that required all new laws must have two signatures to go into effect—the king’s, of course, and also his own.
Struensee was now the effective ruler of Denmark and he wasted no time in squandering his position.
“Fueled by his determination to carry out Enlightenment theories and his burgeoning dictatorial sense that only he knew what was good for the kingdom, Struensee pushed the cabinet into promulgating an average three orders a day, adding up to 1,069 mandates between December 18, 1770, and January 16, 1772,” Donald Dewey wrote in the Scandinavian Review.
He outlawed torture, slavery, bribery, and capital punishment for crimes that weren’t capital offenses. He instituted freedom of the press, established a hospital for the poor, and distributed farmland to peasants.
In a move that disrupted the already grumbling royal court, Struensee also outlawed preferential treatment for the nobility when it came to awarding government positions.
While Struensee was instituting new laws right and left, the king had gone completely off his rocker.
In an 1865 biography of Caroline Mathilde, Sir C.F. Lascelles Wraxall writes that Christian had to be physically held down and threatened with “deposition” in order to get him to sign documents and to prevent violent outbursts in front of the court.
For fun, “Christian consequently found great delight in smashing the windows and china, with the black boy’s assistance, and beheading the statues in the garden. As a change, he rolled on the floor with the lad, biting and scratching him. From time to time, however, there was something that resembled a lucid interval.”
Caroline Mathilde, for her part, had come into her own with her newfound love. She became a fan of hunting, and, to the dismay of her biographer, dressed like a man when she went out on hunting parties. The nobility was not impressed by her newfound freedom and lack of conservative decorum.
During the summers, the group would decamp to the royal summer retreat, Hirschholm Palace just north of Copenhagen.
The palace had been built by the famous Danish architect Lauritz de Thurah between 1730 and 1744. It was designed in the Baroque style for Christian’s grandparents, King Christian VI and Queen Sophie Magdalene.
It was said to be one of the most magnificent palaces in all of Europe. Built on an island in the middle of the lake, the palace was two floors tall with four separate wings.
According to Wraxall, it made quite the impression. “Adorned externally with all the nicest French refinements in gardening and pleasure-grounds, it dazzled the eye within by the profusion of solid silver intermingled with mother-o’-pearl and rock crystal, with which not only pictures and looking-glasses, but even the very panels of the audience-chamber, were prodigally encircled,” he wrote.
On June 17, 1771, the royal court decamped to their summer house for what would come to be known as “The Hirschholm Summer.”
It was here that Struensee and Caroline Mathilde fully embraced their affair. In Copenhagen, rumors had swirled about the scandal, but once they reached Hirschholm, it became an open secret.
On July 7, the queen gave birth to a daughter who—despite being accepted by the king—everyone knew to be the doctor’s. Add to that the excesses of balls and masquerades and hunting parties that the couple instituted in the formerly conservative court, and the result was an outraged nobility.
The scandalous goings-on of The Hirschholm Summer was the last straw. On Jan. 17, 1772, when everyone was settled back in Copenhagen, a coup against Struensee and Caroline Mathilde was orchestrated with the unwitting support of the king.
The lovers were arrested. The plotters tried to condemn the doctor on charges of treason, but they couldn’t prove his guilt. After all, everything he had done was with the full support and acceptance of the king. So they convicted him to death for his affair with the queen. Just a few short months later, Struensee was paraded in front of a crowd, relieved of his right hand, and beheaded. His body was drawn and quartered and then left in public to rot for four years.
Caroline Mathilde was also found guilty, but her dear brother George interceded on her behalf. Executing the sister of the king of England would cause some diplomatic difficulties, so she was instead condemned to live out the rest of her years in secluded exile. The punishment would be short lived. In 1775, the former queen succumbed to illness and died.
The king had no hard feelings, even commenting after the fact that he wished he could have saved his physician friend from death. But it was not to be. His queen, best friend, and the seat of their torrid affair were all condemned.
After the jeering crowds has dissipated and the guilty parties dealt with, Hirschholm Palace was abandoned and left to decay.
As local lore has it, the castle’s role in the goings-on was too great, and it “died of shame.” In 1810, the decaying building was eventually torn down and a church was built in its place. Today, only a small vestige of the once fantastic building remains: the bells that chime to this day from the top of the church tower.