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Madness And The Monarchy: How Two States Dealt with Two Mad Kings

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Lica Porcile's essay, Madness And The Monarchy How Two States Dealt with Two Mad Kings, comprises part of YHR Writes, a selection of excellent essays written by members of our Editorial Board.

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Madness And The Monarchy: How Two States Dealt with Two Mad Kings

  1. 1. FALL 2020 MADNESS AND THE MONARCHY How Two States Dealt with Two Mad Kings 1YALE HISTORICAL REVIEW by Lica Porcile Edited by Isabella Yang Struensee's execution: An Accurate View of the Execution of the Counts Struensee and Brandt’. The Fourth Quarter of Struensee’s Body Is Being Carried up to Its Display Wheel. 1772. Drawing. British Library.
  2. 2. ueen Caroline Matilda of Denmark realized her marriage was doomed when King Chris- tian VII, whom she married in 1766, de- clared it “unfashionable to love one’s wife,” but it is difficult to determine when the Queen rea- lized her husband was no ordinary philanderer.1 The initiator of their marriage, King George III of Great Britain and Caroline’s brother, was remarked by cour- tiers to have a great deal in common with Christian VII: they were first cousins and both rose to their res- pective thrones in the early 1760s. An additional com- monality unbeknown to many at the time, although intuited by Queen Caroline sometime in her first year of marriage, was that the kinsmen were both plagued by bouts of mental illness that would mark their rei- gn.2 Despite the cousins’ similarities, the ways in which their kingdoms dealt with their mental illnesses was markedly different, with Denmark experiencing far greater political turmoil than Britain. While Britain set up a formal system of regency where the transi- tion of power from father to son occurred smoothly, Denmark had a series of de facto regents. For decades the Danish court was beset by intrigue as people inclu- ding Queen Dowager Juliana Maria, conservative aris- tocrats, and Enlightenment-minded nobles vied for power. Most dramatically, German doctor Johannes Struensee gained total control of the government in 1769, passed a series of revolutionary bills, and fathe- red an illegitimate child with the Queen before being executed by a conservative palace coup led by Queen Dowager Juliane Maria.3 The dramatic difference in the two nations’ stability was largely a result of their differing institutions. Briti- sh institutions, comparatively more flexible and parti- cipatory, were better suited to deal with an ill monarch than Denmark’s. This difference was a result of Britain having a common law system while Denmark had a civil law system, which made Britain better equipped 1 Catherine Curzon, The Scandal of George III's Court, 2018, p.20. 2 Johan Schioldann, “‘Struensée’s Memoir on the Situation of the King’ (1772): Christian VII of Denmark,” History of Psychiatry 24, no. 2 (2013): pp. 227-247. 3 Catherine Curzon, The Scandal of George III's Court, 2018, p.22. 4 J Ridgway, Regency; and the Use and Abuse of the Great Seal (London, 1788), p.398. 5 Denis O'Bryen, The Prospect before Us. Being a Series of Papers upon the Great Question Which Now Agitates the Public Mind. To Which Is Added a New Postscript., 1788, p.3. 6 Ibid. 7 Ibid. 8 A Hamilton, Critical Review or Annals of Literature, 1789, p.72. to solve a problem neither country’s statues had fore- seen: the possibility of a mad king. The comparatively participatory nature of British government, the result of a relatively independent and powerful Parliament, made it relatively resilient during the monarch’s mad- ness. While in Denmark court intrigue brewed ins- tability, in Britain political competition was produc- tively channeled through Parliamentary debates. Although neither Denmark nor Great Britain had laws addressing the possibility of monarchical incapa- city, Britain’s common law system allowed Parliament to improvise.4 In 1789, during the King’s first bout of insanity, prime minister William Pitt the Younger proposed a Regency Bill, which appointed the King’s son, the Prince of Wales, as regent. Pitt argued that the bill abided by earlier precedents and was thus legi- timized by English common law. Pitts’ arguments are perhaps most eloquently put by Denis O’Bryen, who in his 1789 pamphlet points out that it had historically been Parliament’s role to appoint as a regent, and cited the regency following Henry V’s death as a historical precedent.5 Henry V chose “the Duke of Gloucester for the Regency of England” in his will, but “his will, in this instance, was directly set aside and the Duke of Bedford, the elder brother, presumptive heir to the crown named to that office by Parliament.”6 O'Brien's account supports Pitt’s assertion that Parliament tradi- tionally had the right to appoint a regent, even in di- rect contradiction to the Sovereign’s will. Yet, O’Bryen also pointed out that Parliament’s power in the matter was not arbitrary, but rather also bound to the tradi- tional line of succession: Parliament always appointed “the next heir to the crown, capable of executing its duties.”7 O’Bryen was not the only writer pointing to prece- dents. In fact, there is a whole literature of pamphle- teers who, in 1789, recounted often the same historical episodes as evidence of Parliament’s right to nominate a regent.8 O'Brien's contemporaries, John Debrett 2 MADNESS AND THE MONARCHY Q
  3. 3. King Chirstian VII's drawing of Struensee and Brandt in which he writes "I wish I could have saved them both". King Christian VII. Portraits of Stuensee and Brandt. 1775. 3YALE HISTORICAL REVIEW
  4. 4. and John Stockdale, for example, likewise pointed to the episode of Henry V when arguing that the ques- tion of regency was within Parliament’s prerogative. These arguments were not merely propagandistic, a power-grabbing move by Pitt supported by a handful of pamphleteers; rather, the narrative of a precedented Parliamentary prerogative was accepted by the King himself, who, having recovered from his bout of insa- nity before the Regency Bill could pass, commended Pitt for its contents.9 When the King eventually fell permanently ill in 1810, a Regency Act modeled on the 1789 bill was passed. Debrett best elucidated the importance of common law during the Regency Crisis: after providing a long list of historical regencies determined by Parliament, he concluded that “the first corollary that arises from this catalogue of examples is, that the English consti- tution, if its principles are to be inferred from the prac- tice of former times, has made a sufficient provision for cases of emergency.”10 Common law made British institutions flexible, as it allowed politicians to derive from historical precedent legitimate solutions to novel problems. On the question of regency, the effect of the doctrine of precedent is clear. Despite being personal- ly unpopular, the Prince of Wales faced no challenge to his legitimacy – no coup, no insurrection and no attempt by Parliament to overturn him – during the nearly ten years when he was regent, indicating that Parliament’s ability to appoint a regent according to defined rules helped maintain legitimacy and order. Denmark, on the other hand, lacked Britain’s insti- tutional flexibility. When faced with an unprecedented situation, it was ill equipped to effectively handle the crisis. Not only was there no statute to deal with a mad King and no doctrine of precedent to offer guidance, Denmark’s extreme absolutism also limited politicians’ freedom to even discuss, much less address, the King’s madness. While Britain had an unwritten constitution 9 The History of the Reign of George the Third, King of Great Britain, &c. from the Conclusion of the Sixth Session of the Fourteenth Parliament, in 1780, to the End of the Seventh Session of the Sixteenth Parliament or Great Britain, in 1790. Vol.III. (London, 1794), p.398. 10 John Debrett, The Law of the Parliament in the Present Situation of Great Britain Considered, 1788, p.11. 11 Robert N Bain, Scandinavia: A Political History of Denmark, Norway and Sweden from 1513 to 1900, 1905, p.267. 12 Ernst Ekman, “The Danish Royal Law of 1665,” The Journal of Modern History 29, no. 2 (June 1957), p.106. 13 Ibid. 14 Ibid. 15 Ibid. 16 Ibid. based on precedent and common law that limited the King’s power, Denmark had a rigid absolutist consti- tution since 1665 – the Danish Royal Law or Konge- lov. The Kongelov abolished the Rigsraad, Denmark’s traditional legislature, and established the King as the sole source of law.11 The King could “make laws and ordinances according to his own good will and plea- sure,” but he was also able to “to expound, to alter, to add to and take from, indeed simply to abrogate laws previously made by himself or by his forefathers.”12 While the Kongelov did make provisions for a regency minority in paragraphs IX-XV, stating that there must be “regents and tutors, (selected by the royal family),” these provisions were only in the event of a king’s mi- nority.13 Not only was there no legal mechanism to de- clare a King unfit to rule, the Danish monarchy was also unfit to come up with an ad hoc solution to this problem. Declaring a King unfit to rule was in itself a crime, with penury of death. Part C, Article C of the Kongelov specified that “whosoever who, either by word or deed, is found to desire to bring about any change in the king's absolute hereditary rule is to be punished.”14 Moreover, even discussing the King’s in- sanity was a crime, as Article 9 stated that “If someone speaks ill of the king's reign, he shall forfeit honor and property.”15 It seems impossible, then, to suggest the King is mad without forfeiting “honor and property,” and even proposing a formal regency was to be fol- lowed by “penury of death.”16 Thus, the Danish Royal Law lacking in provisions for a regency not only res- tricted statesmen’s ability to react effectively to the mad king, but also made openly discussing a regency perilous. This legal rigidity created an environment ripe for intrigue, in which regents were always informal. Wi- thout legally established roles, the regent’s position was inherently unstable: dangers faced by the de facto regent were most evident in Struensee’s downfall. Al- 4 MADNESS AND THE MONARCHY
  5. 5. though Struensee never held a position the King did not directly appoint him to, and the King’s personal affection for his doctor was evident even years after his execution, Struensee was nevertheless convicted of lese majeste – attempting to usurp royal autho- rity.17 The King’s mental illness made him so vulne- rable that he signed Struensee’s arrest order against his will when the Queen Dowager pressured him to do so. Thus, within Denmark’s rigid legal system the de facto regent was always in peril, as neither the law nor the King could protect them. The fact that there were three regents who quite forcefully ousted one another in the span of fifteen years – first Struensee, then the Queen Dowager and her favorites, and finally the Crown Prince – strongly suggests the extent Den- mark’s institutional rigidity posed a serious challenge to the country’s political stability.18 The Danish government was further beset by insta- bility, because its institutions were strikingly non-par- ticipatory.19 Whereas in England individuals and factions competed for power through parliamenta- ry elections and public debate, in Denmark political competition focused on access to and favor from the King instead. Consequently, the conservative and re- form-minded factions of the Danish court disputed power not through Parliamentary debate, but through court intrigue. The beginning of Christopher VII’s reign was mar- ked by conflict, as “sections of the urban middle class were dissatisfied with the… aristocratic, landed go- vernment.”20 These tensions resulted from Christian VII’s father, Frederick V, delegating nearly “all his authority to... his life-long confidant Adam Gottlob Moltke.”21 Moltke represented the conservative, aris- tocratic faction at court, and controlled “access to the 17 Peter Olov Enquist, The Royal Physician's Visit, 2001, p.17. 18 Clarissa Campbell Orr, Queenship in Europe, 1660-1815: The Role of the Consort, 2004, p.353. 19 Mette Frisk Jensen, “THE QUESTION OF HOW DENMARK GOT TO BE DENMARK - ESTABLISHING RULE OF LAW AND FIGHTING CORRUPTION IN THE STATE OF DENMARK 1660 – 1900,” Gutenberg University, 2014, p.19. 20 Clarissa Campbell Orr, Queenship in Europe, 1660-1815: The Role of the Consort, 2004, p.351. 21 Thomas Munk, “Absolute Monarchy in Later Eighteenth-Century Denmark: Centralized Reform, Public Expecta- tions, and the Copenhagen Press ,” The Historical Journal, 1998, pp. 201-224, p.207. 22 Ibid. 23 Bain, Scandinavia, p.267. 24 Michael Bregnsbo, Scandinavia in the Age of Revolution: Nordic Political Cultures, 1740-1820, 2011, p.59. 25 Ibid. 26 Ibid and Orr, Queenship in Europe, p.351. 27 Orr, Queenship in Europe, p.351. 28 Ibid. 29 Bregnsbo, Scandinavia in the Age of Revolution, p.59. king, and through close and daily personal collabora- tion with Frederik he was in effect first minister until the king's death.”22 Thus, at the time of Christopher VII’s ascension, political power was already largely de- termined by the degree to which a given individual had access to the King.23 The destabilizing effects of this system when coupled with a mad ruler were evident in the “numerous power struggles” that “took place during the first years of” Christopher VII’s reign.24 Membership to the privy council was coveted preci- sely because it provided access to the King, hence “the King’s favorites sought to drive out existing members of the privy council and enter it themselves.”25 The King’s illness exacerbated the destabilizing effects of this competition, as Christopher was so feeble minded that he could give in to pressure from any courtier. Moltke, for example, was “dismissed but later read- mitted” and “neither the… aristocratic landlords, nor the middle class supporters of reforms were able to dominate the king fully and completely; consequently the leadership of the state became unstable, volatile, and unpredictable.”26 It was to this “kind of anarchy” that Struensee ar- rived in 1769.27 Struensee’s initial champion at court wasCountSchackCarlRantazau-Ascheberg,who,des- pite being a nobleman, subscribed to Enlightenment values and championed the interests of the middle class, therefore becoming Moltke’s sworn enemy.28 It was Count Schack Carl Rantazau-Ascheberg who got Struense a position as the royal doctor in 1769, expec- ting the physician to use his influence on the King on his behalf.29 Thus, Struensee was at first a pawn of a factional struggle at court fueled by the fact that there were no other venues for political participation other than access to the King. This lack of checks and ba- 5YALE HISTORICAL REVIEW
  6. 6. lances allowed Struensee “crucial access to the only technically indisputable source of authority,” which he used to push his radical political agenda, which in- cluded deeply destabilizing policies.30 Between 1770 and 1772 Struensee passed over 2,000 decrees, many of them radically reformist.31 Some of his reforms, such as the abolition of chateau slavery and the abo- lition of the system “adscription” under which “all male peasants were forbidden to move from their na- tive estate without the permission of their landlord” were popular.32 Yet when he passed a decree ensuring freedom of speech, he was surprised to find that the newly free press was overwhelmingly against him.33 Public opinion was thoroughly anti-Struensee in part because his affair with the Queen was scandalous, but also in part because his policies were rushed and unfit for Danish realities.34 His reforms regarding the army, for instance, were so unpopular that they led to mutiny among detached sailors in Copenhagen.35 These misguided policies and the unrest they caused directly resulted from the non-participatory nature of Denmark’s government coupled with a mad King, as “Struensee’s reforms were planned and imple- mented in a hurry and were ill prepared.”36 The lack of extended discussion an independent legislature would have afforded significantly hindered Struensee’s ability to govern. This lack of institutional venues for dialogue and compromise contributed to the mutinies and social discontent that characterized the troubled Struensee era. In Britain, the King’s indisposition did not create the vacuum of power it did in Denmark because the participatory nature of British institutions meant discussions regarding the regency occurred in Par- liament, as did political competition. Parliament was 30 Munk, “Absolute Monarchy in Later Eighteenth-Century Denmark,” p.209. 31 Vincenza Rico, “Johann Friedrich Struensee,” Guided History (Boston University, n.d.) 32 Orr, Queenship in Europe, p.353. 33 “‘Proto-Internet Trolls’: Johann Friedrich Struensee and Freedom of Expression in 18th Century Denmark,” Brit- ish Library, June 25, 2018. 34 John Christian Laursen, “Spinoza in Denmark and the Fall of Struensee,” Journal of the History of Ideas 61, no. 2 (April 2000): pp. 189-202, p.190 and Orr, Queenship in Europe, p.353. 35 Baldwin, Cradock, and Joy, “The London Magazine,” 2 (1820), p.177. 36 Bregnsbo, Scandinavia in the Age of Revolution, p.61. 37 “The Struggle for Democracy,” The National Archives, n.d. 38 The History of the Reign of George the Third, King of Great Britain, &c. from the Conclusion of the Sixth Session of the Fourteenth Parliament, in 1780, to the End of the Seventh Session of the Sixteenth Parliament or Great Britain, in 1790. Vol.III. (London, 1794), p.398. 39 Ibid. 40 T. C. Hansard, The Parliamentary History of England, vol. XXVII, 1816, p.1048. able to be regarded as a representative body insofar as, albeit suffrage was restricted, it was elected by hun- dreds of thousands of men.37 The effects of British par- ticipatory institutions in the Regency crisis were most evident in the debate between Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger and his rival Charles James Fox in 1789, transcribed by contemporaries. While the Foxite faction argued “that the Prince of Wales had an abso- lute right to succeed to the regency,” the Peelite faction contended that he had only “an irresistible claim” to the regency.38 The difference is not merely a seman- tic one: both factions agreed that the Prince of Wales ought to be regent, but disagreed on whether his right to be regent was contingent on Parliament’s nomina- tion. Fox believed that “the Prince of Wales had as clear a right to exercise the power of sovereignty as if the king were actually dead.”39 Pitt, on the other hand, argued that Parliament ought to adjudicate on who was to be regent, so much so that he allegedly said that “the Prince of Wales has no more right to the regen- cy, previous to the designation of the two Houses of Parliament… than any other person.”40 Fox yielded at least partially to Pitt, having realized that “he had pressed his doctrine of right beyond its constitutional limits,” and that indeed it was within Parliament’s pur- view to proclaim and determine the duties of a Regent. This recorded event demonstrates the participa- tory nature of British institutions in two ways. First, members of Parliament having the freedom to de- bate the issue of regency in the first place reveals a policy-making situation that, in sharp contrast with Struensee’s decrees, was based on debate and collabo- ration. Second, the fact that even Fox conceded that Parliament indeed had the power and responsibility to nominate the regent further indicates how Britain 6 MADNESS AND THE MONARCHY
  7. 7. possessed key checks and balances. While the power to make decisions during Denmark’s regencies was li- mited to courtiers with access to the King, in Britain it remained with elected officials. The stabilizing effects of this representation are evident in the degree to which political competition in England remained civil, as the country did not ex- perience Denmark’s anarchy during the King’s indis- position. In fact, Prime Minister Pitt remained prime minister throughout the Regency Crisis and was again Prime Minister following the 1790 general election, revealing a high degree of popular approval for his Whig government and a great deal of continuity in the government despite the crisis.41 The institutional factors stated above, the presence of a strong Parliament and the importance of prece- dent under common law, made Britain more able to effectively handle a mad monarch than Denmark. The relative stability Britain enjoyed despite George III’s insanity can be attributed to the country’s com- paratively flexible and participatory institutions. Den- mark, in contrast, lacked these institutional features: while Britain possessed a system of common law and a Parliament with a robust political role, Denmark had instead an absolutist monarchy within a civil law system. While order was largely restored in Denmark after Christian VII’s death, the long-term effects of the Danish regency crisis deserves future scholarly atten- tion. In particular, Denmark attained universal male suffrage in 1848, before Britain, and the role of Danish experiences under Christian VII’s reign in these 19th century democratizing reforms can be a subject deser- ving more future scrutiny.42 41 “The Struggle for Democracy,” The National Ar- chives, n.d. 42 Ibid. LICA PORCILE is a senior double majoring in History and Political Science interested in political and legal history, as well as the history of social movements. She was born in Brazil, but lived many years with her family in Chile before coming to Yale. 7YALE HISTORICAL REVIEW Bain, Robert N. Scandinavia: A Political History of Denmark, Norway and Sweden from 1513 to 1900, 1905. Baldwin, Cradock, and Joy. “The London Magazine ”2 (1820). Bregnsbo, Michael. Scandinavia in the Age of Revolu- tion: Nordic Political Cultures, 1740-1820, 2011. Curzon, Catherine. The Scandal of George III's Court, 2018. Debrett, John. The Law of the Parliament in the Present Situation of Great Britain Considered, 1788. Ekman, Ernst. “The Danish Royal Law of 1665 .” The Journal of Modern History 29, no. 2 (June 1957). Enquist, Peter Olov. The Royal Physician's Visit, 2001. Gruberg, Martin. “John Wilkes.” The First Amendment Encyclopedia, n.d. Accessed 2006. Hamilton, A. Critical Review or Annals of Literature, 1789. Hansard, T C. The Parliamentary History of England. Vol. XXVII, 1816. Jensen, Mette Frisk. “The Question of How Denmark Got to be Denmark- Establishing Rule of Law and Fighting Corruption in the State of Denmark 1660 – 1900.” Gutenberg University, 2014. Laursen, John Christian. “Spinoza in Denmark and the Fall of Struensee.” Journal of the History of Ideas 61, no. 2 (April 2000): 189–202. May, Thomas Erskine. The Constitutional History of England since the Ascension of George III. Vol. 1. New York: W.J Widdleton, 1874. Munk, Thomas. “Absolute Monarchy in Later BIBLIOGRAPHY
  8. 8. Eighteenth-Century Denmark: Centralized Re- form, Public Expectations, and the Copenhagen Press .” The Historical Journal, 1998, 201–24. O'Bryen, Denis. The Prospect before Us. Being a Series of Papers upon the Great Question Which Now Agitates the Public Mind. To Which Is Added a New Postscript., 1788. Orr, Clarissa Campbell. Queenship in Europe, 1660- 1815: The Role of the Consort, 2004. “Proto-Internet Trolls’: Johann Friedrich Struensee and Freedom of Expression in 18th Century Den- mark.” British Library, June 25, 2018. Rico, Vincenza. “Johann Friedrich Struensee.” Guided History. Boston University, n.d. Ridgway, J. Regency; and the Use and Abuse of the Great Seal. London, 1788. Schioldann, Johan. “‘Struensée’s Memoir on the Si- tuation of the King’ (1772): Christian VII of Denmark.” History of Psychiatry 24, no. 2 (2013): 227–47. The History of the Reign of George the Third, King of Great Britain, &c. from the Conclusion of the Sixth Session of the Fourteenth Parliament, in 1780, to the End of the Seventh Session of the Sixteenth Par- liament or Great Britain, in 1790. Vol.III. London, 1794. “The Struggle for Democracy.” The National Archives, n.d.

Lica Porcile's essay, Madness And The Monarchy How Two States Dealt with Two Mad Kings, comprises part of YHR Writes, a selection of excellent essays written by members of our Editorial Board.

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