The Madness of King George’s Cousin

Christian VII, King of Denmark-Norway and Duke of Schleswig and Holstein, shuffled off his mortal coil on 13 March 1808, leaving his son – who had already been ruling as Prince Regent of Denmark-Norway since 1784 – to become monarch Frederick VI in name as well as in fact.


Christian was born on 29 January 1749, the fourth child and second son of King Frederick V and his first wife Louise of Great Britain, who was the youngest aunt of King George III. Christian’s elder brother, also named Christian, had died as a toddler just a couple of years before, so there was great rejoicing in the birth of a new heir. However, by the time the young prince reached his teens it became apparent that he was mentally ill, possibly with “schizophrenia as argued in doctor Viggo Christiansen’s book Christian VII’s mental illness (1906).”

Although King George III of England was also mentally ill, he did not evince symptoms of his malady until after middle age, making it incredibly unlikely that he suffered from schizophrenia as well; the onset of schizophrenia is by early adulthood or not at all.

It seems, then, that two kings did not share a common genetic disorder, which is fortunate because Christians was married to George’s sister, his fifteen-year-old cousin Princess Caroline Matilda. The poor girl was not told that her future husband was mad as a march hare, so she had a nasty shock when she arrived in Denmark. Nevertheless, she did her duty and gave her insane and debauched young husband a son on 28 January 1768, just a little over a year after the wedding. The baby boy does not seem to have inherited a mental illness of any kind.

birth of Frederick VI

Queen Caroline’s second child, her daughter Princess Louise Auguste, was much less at risk of inheriting a mental illness than her brother because she was almost certainly not the biological child of Christian VII. The baby girl was most likely the result of Caroline’s relationship with Johann Friedrich Struensee, Christian’s personal physician and advisor.

In 1772, Christian’s stepmother Queen Dowager Juliane Marie, his half-brother Hereditary Prince Frederick, and influential conservative politician Ove Høegh-Guldberg staged a kind of coup against the progressive and modernizing Struensee. The arrested the doctor, and coerced Christian into signing Struensee’s death warrant and into divorcing Queen Caroline. From that year onward, Christian was subordinate to a regency, beginning with the trio who had murdered Struensee.

Juliane_Marie holding picture of son Frederick

Amazingly, the Queen Dowager Juliane Marie did not murder Crown Prince Fredrick in favor of her own son Frederick. The crown prince did not forget or forgive their de facto coup, though, and when he was declared legally an adult on 14 April 1784, Frederick wasted no time claiming the regency as his own and booting anyone loyal to the queen dowager and her son out of the palace. There is even a historical rumor he beat the crap out of his half-uncle when the hereditary prince didn’t go along quietly.

The future Frederick VI was a much better regent than the future George IV, mostly because Frederick was smarter and less prone to ridiculous self-indulgence. He was also a student of the Enlightenment, and as such instituted many progressive reforms both as regent and when he became king in the spring of 1808 … all of which would have been regarded favorably by my heroine in Mansfield Parsonage, Mary Crawford. As the opposite of the conservative Fanny Price, protagonist of Jane Austen’s original Mansfield Park, I depicted Mary Crawford as a Whig reformer, and a ardent supporter of all Enlightenment progress. Like most educated people in England during the Regency period, Mary would have kept a keen eye on reports of the war and European politics, so she would have been cognizant of the reforms Frederick was instituting.

Unfortunately, Frederick VI changed after the Napoleonic Wars ended. He had done his best, but he had still lost Norway, and was crowned King of Denmark only in 1815. This made him bitter, and he became a rather hidebound reactionary for the rest of his reign.  


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