Today in History – April 28, 1772 – the Execution of Johann Friedrich Struensee

Yes…another execution.  Outside of history geeks and Danes few people have heard of Johann Friedrich Struensee.  Yet this German doctor effectively ruled Denmark for a few years and caused a spectacular royal scandal to boot.  The scandal also received movie attention last year.

Johann Friedrich Struensee
Johann Friedrich Struensee

The son of a Pietist theologian, the young Struensee received a University education where he was exposed to and became an adherent of the ideals of the Age of Enlightenment.  His rise to power began on his appointment as personal physician to the mentally unstable Christian VII of Denmark-Norway.  He soon gained influence over the weak ruler and reconciled the king to his unhappy wife Caroline Matilda – sister of George III of the United Kingdom.

Christian VII of Denmark-Norway
Christian VII of Denmark-Norway


Caroline Matilda of Great Britain
Caroline Matilda of Great Britain

By the spring of 1770 he was the queen’s lover and had taken supervision of the crown prince’s education.  In December that year he became the de facto regent of Denmark and held absolute power for the next 13 months.  Once in power he tried to cram through his package of enlightenment reforms, including:

  • abolition of torture
  • abolition of unfree labor
  • abolition of the censorship of the press
  • abolition of the practice of preferring nobles for state offices
  • ban of slave trade in the Danish colonies
  • abolition of capital punishment for theft

The problem was that Struensee showed no diplomatic tact in forcing through his reforms.  The initial support from the middle class waned as the German speaking Struensee showed no respect for Danish or Norwegian customs.  The nobility hated him for stripping away his privileges.  Worse, his open affair with the queen and the fact that the newborn Princess Louise Auguste was almost certainly fathered by Struensee brought the crown into contempt.

In January 1772, the rising tide of opposition came to a head.  Struensee and the Queen were arrested and a new regency under the King’s step-mother came to power.  The Queen was divorced and packed off into exile.  Struensee was convicted of lese majeste and beheaded, after which his body was drawn and quartered.

Struensee’s daughter remained recognized as a royal princess and since her heirs could eventually ascend to the throne the Danish government solved the problem of the “half-royal” by marrying her off into the royal family to another Danish prince.

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