Life’s hard out there for a megalomaniacal, lust-obsessed monarch with some serious “emotional availability” issues. Though King Christian VII of Denmark technically held absolute power over the Scandinavian nation, by the end of his life his disturbing mental issues—not to mention a particularly awkward cuckold situation—made him ruler only in name.
But what’s fact and what’s fiction when it comes to the Mad Dane? Read these 44 facts about King Christian VII of Denmark to find out.
Christian was born to King Frederick V and Louise of Great Britain at the lavish Christiansborg Palace in Copenhagen. Though Christian’s family were filthy rich and powerful, this didn’t mean that they were happy. Louise lost a child before bearing Christian, and she miscarried her sixth child before dying from complications.
When his mother died, Christian was barely three years old.
Christian’s father Frederick was no caretaker to the newly-bereft boy. At the best of times, Frederick was utterly uninterested in either state affairs or the bothersome task of raising a well-adjusted son. According to historians, Fredrick was much more intrigued by far less chivalrous pursuits.
The famed 18th-century writer Horace Walpole described King Christian VII during his travels in England as an “insipid boy” who “took notice of nothing” and “took pleasure in nothing”.
In contrast to the terrible reputation he would grow into, as a child Christian couldn't be more different.
The young prince was reportedly bright, talented, and surprisingly not a maniac.
Everything changed for the young Crown Prince when his parents hired him a tutor. Because this was a royal tutor and not just any old teaching position, they pinned the illustrious Detlev, Count of Reventlow, for the job. It was the worst decision they could have made. The Count was incredibly cruel to Christian, and delighted in beating him to a pulp.
Christian was always a small and frail boy. As time wore on, he developed a crippling insecurity about his short stature and slender frame.
Shortly after his mother’s death, Christian’s father remarried Juliana Maria of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel-Bevern, whose wealth and status were just about as big as her name. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Christian despised his stepmother.
When he became king, he all but pushed her out of his court and ignored her whenever he could.
Spoiler: That did not work out well for him.
At the height of his madness, Christian would frequently go off on incoherent ramblings in front of his advisors.
Reportedly, the pint-sized Christian liked to make his might known in any way he could. When he was a boy, he and a gang of other youths loved to trawl the streets of Copenhagen and attack anyone they came across. But that's not even the worst part.
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Even when Christian grew up, he still maintained a childlike disposition—but not a gentle one. Instead, His Royal Highness was more like the high school bully. If one of his councillors said something that displeased him, the king would often respond by slapping them hard across the face.
During one of the Count of Reventlow’s cruel beatings on the young Christian, attendants reportedly found an utterly chilling sight: the boy on the floor, foaming at the mouth.
In 1766, King Frederick V died after a long illness following a drunken accident. The old king was just 42 years old—and his troublesome heir Christian was still a surly 16-year-old with a reputation for immaturity and mental imbalance. Making the most of a bad situation, Christian's advisors quickly engaged in power struggles that went way over the young monarch’s head.
Less than a year into his disastrous reign, Christian’s councillors were beginning to see that his “rebellious phase” was more like “permanent mental issues”. In response, they forced him into a marriage with his 15-year-old cousin, Princess Caroline Matilda, to try to steady his violent tendencies.
Resentful of the match, Christian treated Caroline coldly. He even delayed consummating their union.
Though they remain whispers, some of the members of his court believed that King Christian VII hid a dark secret. The King might have been gay or perhaps bi.
Young Caroline was anxious about the marriage before she’d even met Christian. She knew she'd have to leave England and travel to far away Denmark, but she was horribly ignorant about the worst parts of her impending marriage.
First, she couldn't bring any of her maids with her, meaning the 15-year-old girl would be completely isolated.
Even worse, as she walked to the altar on November 8, 1766, Caroline had no idea that the young King suffered any mental instability at all. She was going in totally blind.
Queen Caroline was generous and open by nature, and her new bridegroom’s scorn for her was both hurtful and alarming to the young girl. In an effort to fully ensnare the king, she took the advice of a friend and once withheld physical intimacy in the hopes that it would make him want her more.
It backfired horrifically. Enraged, Christian only further withdrew his affections.
According to one of the more dramatic stories about King Christian VII, the young monarch indulged a truly disturbing hobby. Apparently, the mad king loved public executions and torment so much that he built his own custom-made rack.
Not one to let the fruits of his labor languish unused, he then ordered his lackeys to flog him on it until he bled.
In the end, Christian was persuaded to begrudgingly do his duty and consummate his marriage to Caroline Matilda. As these things generally go, the couple then welcomed a son and heir, the Crown Prince Frederick, on January 28, 1768.
Christian celebrated the momentous event by dropping all interest in Caroline and taking up a very vested interest in the city’s houses of the night instead.
The next phase of King Christian’s life was less Fatherhood: The Wonder Years and more Sexcapades: How Much Is Too Much?
Besides earning himself premium membership to Copenhagen’s red light district, Christian also took up with Anne Benthagen, AKA Støvlet-Cathrine, one of Denmark’s most famed courtesans.
As far as Christian was concerned, Støvlet-Cathrine was the good-time gal of his dreams. Witty and worldly, she would often accompany the king and his friends during their brothel bacchanals.
In return, Christian scandalously took her to court functions and other public events, lauding her as the “Mistress of the Universe”.
Despite a good first impression, Queen Caroline Matilda was never very popular at the Danish court, and many said she was too plump to be pretty.
As she gained more weight, a cruel insult circulated through the court. Of the royal couple, Caroline was “the better man of the two”. I'm sure this really helped Christian's own insecurities about his small size.
Christian came by some of his excesses naturally. His father Frederick was a notorious hedonist and womanizer, who even had five illegitimate children with one of his mistresses.
While his wife Louise was still alive, daddy Frederick had no qualms about bandying around his other lovers in public. Wonder where Christian got it from…
In the late 1760s, Christian met the man whom he thought was going to be his savior: the progressive Doctor Johann Friedrich Struensee.
By this time, the king’s bedroom excesses were surpassed only by his rampant mental illness. His hallucinations and paranoia had now become frequent yet terrifying occurrences at court.
Somehow, Struensee seemed to be able to calm the monarch. It wasn’t long before Christian made the physician his royal advisor. Unfortunately, Struensee repaid this kindness with a cold-hearted betrayal.
The cultured, radical Doctor Struensee soon captured the interest of Queen Caroline, Christian’s utterly neglected and mistreated wife. Caroline was still an impressionable teenager at the time, and Struensee’s lively manners and open affections were irresistible to her. To be fair, after a husband like Christian, probably half a smile would have done her in.
At least at first, Struensee didn’t intentionally woo Caroline. Instead, he was actually trying to get Christian more interested in her for the sake of his mental health. Struensee encouraged the king to plan a lavish three-day birthday party for his Queen and to start treating her more kindly.
Caroline saw these efforts and became, well, very grateful to the Royal Physician—not her husband.
Deep breath here. Christian VII’s full royal title was: By the Grace of God, King of Denmark and Norway, the Wends, and the Goths, Duke of Schleswig, Holstein, Stormarn, and Dithmarschen, Count of Oldenburg and Delmenhorst.
By 1770, Struensee and Queen Caroline were an illicit item, and many palace employees claimed they’d gotten together months before. It’s not like these employees had to be good detectives, either. After all, there was something even more scandalous than the affair going on. Caroline was allegedly so indiscreet that she would boast to her chambermaids after Struensee’s nightly visits and even show them her ruffled clothing. Come on, Caroline, the idea of an affair is that it's a secret.
In the deepest ravages of his illness, Christian would often sit in corners and stare at people with a distressed look.
During one lucid moment, he made a heartbreaking confession to his tutor, “There is a noise in my head”. But on the worst days, he was unreachable. He’d bang his head against walls until he bled or claim that he was actually an elfin changeling rather than a human man.
From 1770 onward, Struensee consolidated his power and rose to unprecedented levels of influence.
Meanwhile, Christian VII retreated within his paranoid delusions, paving the way for what is now know as “The Time of Struensee”. The doctor did as he saw fit—from firing councillors to naming himself “The Master of Queries” without consulting Christian at all.
For the 13 months he held all but absolute power, Struensee introduced a whopping 1069 cabinet edicts, many of them focusing on criminal reform in line with his progressive Enlightenment principles.
Look, Johann did a bad thing. But—and I say this with love—can you honestly tell me he was a worse ruler than King Christian VII?
One of Christian VII’s reported delusions was that he was actually the son of Catherine the Great.
Though she seemed to be surrounded by idiots, Christian’s stepmother Juliana was nobody’s fool. When some upstart, progressive commoner usurped her stepson’s kingdom, Juliana took one look and said, “not in my absolute monarchy, bud”. On January 17, 1772, she and her supporters launched a coup against Struensee and had him arrested—along with his lover Queen Caroline.
Optics, as they say, are everything.
When the coup was successfully completed, Juliana and her lackeys paraded Christian around Copenhagen in a golden carriage. While propped up on plush cushions, Christian greeted his adoring public—who knew little to nothing about his mental troubles—as they rejoiced his “liberation”.
On April 28, 1772, the Danish government reaped their brutal revenge on Struensee.
Along with another conspirator named Enevold Brandt, the doctor was sentenced to a brutal end. Executioners chopped off their right hands, beheaded them, and then submitted them to be drawn and quartered. In case you’re wondering: major ouch.
When all was said and done, Queen Caroline Matilda may have suffered an even darker fate than her lover.
While the government spared her life, Juliana nonetheless insisted that Christian and Caroline divorce which, hey, fair point. Juliana then allowed the girl to retain her title, but—most disturbingly—none of her children. She lived out the rest of her heartbroken days in exile.
Sadly, Queen Caroline’s remaining days were very short indeed. She died in the German territory of Hanover at the shockingly young age of 23.
She succumbed to scarlet fever.
After the 1772 coup, Queen Dowager Juliana took away nearly all of her stepson’s lavish toys, and King Christian lost even the small shred of power he had left by then. Instead, Juliana placed herself and her own son Frederick on the throne as regents of the country.
Power hungry? Sure. But somebody had to do something, right?
When all of this “usurping” and “coup” hoopla went down, Christian VII was only a scant 23 years old. He spent the rest of his life subdued and controlled by his regents, dying in 1808 from a stroke. He was 59 years old.
Though King Christian VII’s midnight carousing and womanizing horrified his advisors, the mad monarch had an even darker bedroom habit. Apparently, Christian was obsessed with masturbating. The King did the lewd act so much as a teen that his council members were afraid it was affecting his ability to govern properly.
Um, whatever gave you that idea?
Despite Struensee’s betrayal, King Christian VII was wracked with grief and guilt over the doctor’s death. Three long years after the executions, Christian doodled two profiles on a piece of paper and scrawled five chilling words on the drawing in German: “Ich hätte gern beide gerettet," or “I would have liked to save them both”.
Christian’s stepmother Juliana was none too pleased with his gallivanting about with the sexy, sassy Støvlet-Cathrine —so she came up with an utterly ruthless plot. She had the courtesan arrested, exiled, and placed under surveillance.
When the King tried to see Cathrine a few months later, he was barred from visiting his one true love.
Christian wasn’t an easy man to like, let alone love, but historical evidence indicates that he and Støvlet-Cathrine had genuine affection for each other. Cathrine reportedly wrote the king multiple letters from her exile, even though she knew the de-facto ruler Struensee would intercept most of her missives.
On July 7, 1771, Queen Caroline Matilda gave birth to her second child, a little girl named Louise Augusta. But the innocent babe hid a dark secret. Historians now widely believe that the princess was actually Struensee’s daughter, you know, on account of all that cuckoldry. Plus there’s the really awkward fact that even in 18th-century portraits, the girl definitely resembles the good doctor.
Though environmental factors certainly played a role in Christian VII’s mental illness, the doctor and historian Viggo Christiansen argues that the mad monarch may also have suffered from a personality disorder like schizophrenia.
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