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The Queen of Tears? Caroline Mathilde: The British-born Queen of Denmark

In the magnificent twelfth-century Gothic cathedral church of Roskilde on the island of Zealand, thirty-nine Kings and Queens of Denmark are buried. One Danish queen, however, is missing – and by no mere accident or fluke of history. Members of the Royal House of Denmark that she knew, such as her formidable stepmother-in-law, Queen Juliana Marie, are at Roskilde, as is, of course, her one-time husband, King Christian VII. Queen Caroline Mathilde (1751-1775) has come to exert a powerful fascination over the Danish imagination, as a figure of legend and romance; as the Queen who angrily created her own counter-court modelled on the principles of personal freedom and the Enlightenment, the exiled, imprisoned Queen who stared out of Hamlet’s ghostly castle of Kronborg, contemplating the Swedish Sound and her own murky future and finally, the banished Queen who lived out her final days in the castle at Celle in Lower Saxony, Germany.

Caroline Mathilde’s defiant life overturns many female stereotypes, causing those who read it – lawyer-like, to wish to spring to her defence – or join in criticism against her; she therefore still straddles these two opposite opinions as she did during her lifetime, inspiring strong feelings of either support or disdain. Whatever position the reader takes, what is unquestionable is her ability to fascinate. Indeed, the “fairytale-like” quality of her final years perpetuates the sense of spell which she still casts over late-eighteenth century Danish history – also, Caroline Mathilde refused to give up her self-confessed identity of Queen of Denmark. This she remained in her mind, until her death. She had, however, been born a Princess of Great Britain.

The British-born Queen of Denmark had been born Princess Caroline Mathilde of Wales on 11 July 1751, after a labour of two hours, at Leicester House – the London mansion residence of the Princes of Wales from 1717-1760. Princess Caroline Mathilde was born when her mother, the Dowager Princess Augusta of Wales, was already alone – having adopted the new, severe and widowed identity which would be so well captured in the portrait of her painted by Allan Ramsay. Princess Caroline Mathilde’s father, Frederick, Prince of Wales, had died four months earlier, perhaps the reason why her eldest brother, the Prince of Wales, later George III, took on the role of father for his whole family, in a way which in fact, dominated all his other emotions in turn.

She was named after her paternal grandmother, Queen Caroline, consort of George II – and Mathilde, that redoubtable English medieval princess who had fought against Stephen in the twelfth century. Caroline Mathilde is the baby clasped in the arms of the Dowager Princess of Wales, in the portrait of the family of Frederick, Prince of Wales, by George Knapton, today hanging in the State Dining Room at Windsor Castle. The political marriage eventually intended for Caroline Mathilde, was with Crown Prince Christian of Denmark, who became King just weeks before his seventeenth birthday on the death of his father, Frederik V. The first wedding by proxy, took place at St. James’s Palace on 1 October 1766, during which Caroline Mathilde wept violently, as her brother,  the Duke of York – and royal bridegroom per procurationem – witnessed and her other brother, Prince William noted with concern, nearly fainting as a result.

The official wedding took place in a second ceremony at the Christiansborg Palace in Copenhagen on 8 November 1766. By a strange twist, however, the first meeting with her future husband, Christian VII, took place at Roskilde – in whose city, the cathedral church was used by Danish royalty for both coronation and burial. Frederik V’s consort, Christian VII’s mother, had in fact, been the much-loved British-born Queen Louisa of Denmark, daughter of George II; a nervous, frightened child, Crown Prince Christian may well have welcomed the idea of an English wife for a bride, as a link with his dead mother, whom his father had adored.

There seems to be a discrepancy with the spelling of Caroline Mathilde’s name as being Mathilde or Mathilda – but Caroline Mathilda is as it is spelt by the Royal Danish Collection. (Kongernessamling). Caroline Mathilde, fluent of course in the language of the country of her birth, would henceforth speak in German – the tongue used in Copenhagen and of course, French, the language of both courts and correspondence. But she equally became fluent in Danish, the language of her maids, the daily life-language in Denmark. Imprisoned in the castle of Kronborg, she was described as speaking Danish “well.. as well as English, French and German…” (Tillyard, Pg 227). At the end of her life, the library which she gradually amassed in Celle consisted of books in German, English, French, Danish and Italian; in exile, she also read volumes of Danish history and also poignantly, in a way in which we might detect homesickness, Danish atlases.

But it was the mania and persistent mental disturbances of Christian VII which led to the gradual political ascendancy of the German doctor, Johann Friedrich Struensee, who was officially appointed as his Royal Physician, collected en route back to Copenhagen after the King’s European tour of 1768, as part of which he also stayed – and overstayed – a royal visit to London and the court of Caroline Mathilde’s reigning brother, George III. Struensee, was a charming, radically enlightened and cultivated physician, who may have seen himself as able to cure the sickness of Denmark’s internal problems which partly stemmed from its unstable king, who he understood how to soothe and in so doing, furthered his own personal ambitions. Perhaps he did indeed think he was able to be the royal doctor able to rout out the canker in the Danish body politic: “Perhaps Struensee was already thinking along the lines of the classical analysis of the state, that it was a body with a king at its head, that it was not just the king who was sick but the kingdom as well. Struensee believed he had the means and the ambition to cure it…” (Stella Tillyard, A Royal Affair, Pg 115-116, 2006).

It was in fact, a coup de foudre in slow motion: Caroline Mathilde’s decision to consult Struensee over her own health, led to what history has always assumed to have been a love-affair between them; a strange, royal triangle which underlined how much Struensee had come to be seen as a doctor as much for the Queen’s problems with her marriage as for her husband’s mental health. The three-cornered marriage, as part of which Christian VII appears to have almost been like the couple’s troubled child, was given sharp emphasis through the series of three oval portraits showing them individually, by the royal portrait painter, Jens Juel.

The downfall of Struensee, his subsequent execution and the Queen’s removal to Kronborg, resulted in Caroline Mathilde’s eventual banishment to first Göhrde – the hunting lodge near Luneburg in Germany and finally, Celle. This was where George III – his original plan to launch a fleet to save his disgraced sister through diplomatic correspondence now consigned to the fires of numerous ambassadorial stoves – intended his sister to remain, at least until her children were older and the situation in Denmark was such that she might be allowed to return. She pined desperately for her children back in Denmark, Prince Frederik and Princess Louisa Augusta, the latter who was – despite being officially acknowledged as Christian VII’s daughter, almost certainly the daughter of the erstwhile royal doctor, Struensee.

Caroline Mathilde did not intend to remain in Lower Saxony, but it was as if the Hanoverian rope had tugged and brought her back to where her family began, to the land of their electoral forebears, the land of Herrenhausen, the magnificent royal garden created by her great-great-grandmother, the remarkable Electress Sophie of Hanover. By an even more extraordinary circumstance, her great-grandmother, George I’s wife, Sophia Dorothea of Braunschweig-Lüneburg, was born at Celle and had been – with the marital hypocrisy typical of its time – also banished for the remaining thirty-three years of her life, to her prison-castle of Ahlden in Lower Saxony, following her own assumed love-affair with the dashing Swedish count, Phillip von Königsmarck, murdered in the Leineschloss in Hanover in 1694. Lower Saxony became, therefore, something of a rubbish tip for royal, disgraced (Hanoverian) wives. Sophia Dorothea of Braunschweig-Lüneburg was laid to rest in the Stadtkirche St Marien at Celle.

Caroline Mathilde became the focus of energetic plots to re-instate her in her former position; she herself never lost the identity of her Danish queenship, ever intent on returning to Denmark and even in Celle, using the red and gold livery employed at the Danish court. Caroline Mathilde’s sudden and unexpected death at Celle, presumably from scarlet fever, at the shockingly premature age of twenty-three, on 10 May 1775, had a stunning effect which sent the moated, white-towered castle of Celle into a veritable ‘Sleeping-Beauty sleep’. It locked in the life that had been led by the Queen of Denmark during the two years that she had presided over an exile court, in northern Germany. This was very much in keeping with the romantic ideal – already constructed by her admirer Nathaniel William Wraxall in her own lifetime – of her as a captive princess, feeding off of Horace Walpole’s Gothic novel The Castle of Otranto, as Caroline Mathilde’s biographer Stella Tillyard, has pointed out. (Stella Tillyard, A Royal Affair, Pg 255). Now an imprisoned princess was actually a dead one, not a sleeping one. Her letters were burned, her sheet music dispersed, her clothes catalogued in inventories.

One item of clothing which was however, not scattered to obscurity or distributed amongst the mourning members of her household, were Queen Caroline Mathilde’s precious red garters, which she called her “ties of feeling” (“sentiments strompfenbänder”), kept at the Rosenborg Castle in Copenhagen, which incidentally, has its own Christian VII Room, in which hang several portraits of Caroline Mathilde. These garters had been given to the Queen by Struensee and are remarkable survivors of a forbidden – but presumably consummated – royal love, poignantly preserved as cherished objects of intimacy. Court mourning was declared in Great Britain for one of its princesses; although an error of etiquette occurred when the announcement of her death had to be made – traditionally this was done by the head of the Royal House to which the deceased member had belonged, and this meant that George III had to inform Denmark accordingly, itself an admission that Caroline Mathilde had died as a British princess – for had the Danish royal family informed George III of his sister’s death, this would have meant admitting that she still belonged to that Royal House. In the event, George III referred to his sister as the Queen of Denmark; and this error was overlooked.

Celle has several monuments to Caroline Mathilde – a monument erected in its ‘French Garden’ in 1784 and an urn-shaped memorial erected to her by Ernst zu Mecklenburg. Today, Celle Castle contains the ‘Residenzmuseum’, which may be visited. Caroline Mathilde has been the subject of both novels and films; the most recent screen portrayal of Caroline Mathilde was played by Swedish actress Alicia Vikander, in the 2012 Danish historical film ‘A Royal Affair. Next to nothing of her remains in Britain, apart from pictures – and correspondence which by chance, happens to have survived. The Christiansborg Palace in Copenhagen that Caroline Mathilde once knew, now no longer exists – this original complex burned down in the fire of 1794; today’s Christiansborg Palace is the third of its kind.

A British princess, Marie Louise of Schleswig-Holstein, granddaughter of Queen Victoria, through her mother, Princess Helena, owned some poignant mementoes which had once belonged to Caroline Mathilde, popularly named as ‘the Queen of Tears’. These included a sofa, which Caroline Mathilda had helped to embroider while in imprisonment at Kronborg Castle: “I have various souvenirs of this unfortunate great-great-grandmother of mine [Queen Caroline Matilda]. They were originally given by her to her chaplain, a certain Pastor Lehzen, who was brother to Baroness Lehzen – grande-gouvernante to Queen Victoria. She in turn gave them to my mother, and now they are in my possession. They consist of a settee which the poor ‘Queen of Tears’ and her ladies-in-waiting embroidered whilst in prison; a Battersea enamel etrui, a cross of gold and rubies, and a gold and turqoise bracelet. I have left instructions that, on my death, I wish our Queen to possess these historic treasures…” (Princess Marie Louise, My Memories of Six Reigns, Pg 22-23, 1956).

Caroline Mathilde was buried in the Fürstengruft of the Stadtkirche St. Marien at Celle, established by Duke William the Younger in 1576 – the same location as her disgraced, adulterous great-grandmother, Sophie Dorothea of Braunschweig-Lüneburg – in a sarcophagus ordered by her brother, King George III. But Celle is a long way from Roskilde. Somehow the presence of Caroline Mathilde in the crypt at Celle could make the visit to her grave a powerful and unsettling one. One might presume to suppose that she is dissatisfied with her resting place and is still defiantly wanting to get back to Denmark; this is because her voice and her actions so clearly demonstrated this prior to her death and she refused the careful, quiet life that George III advised her in her German exile.

For this reason, it could feel an angry resting place, far from Copenhagen. But it is nevertheless, hers.

©Elizabeth Jane Timms, 2018

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About author

Elizabeth Jane Timms is a royal historian and writer, specializing in Queen Victoria's family, Russian royalty and the Habsburgs. An independent scholar of royal studies, she has studied historic British and European royalty for nearly twenty years, speaking on the subject for both TV and BBC radio.