Thursday, 8 October 2009

New books: A critical biography of Frederik VI

In the last few years Danish historians have finally begun to write proper biographies of the nation’s former monarchs. A biography of King Frederik VI has long been at the top of my wish list and this autumn my wish came true when Politikens Forlag on 15 September published Den standhaftige tinsoldat – En biografi om Frederik 6. by Jens Engberg, a retired professor of history at the University of Aarhus. Having read it, I have mixed feelings about it.
It cannot be denied that Frederik VI was not exactly the best monarch Denmark has had. It was his misfortune to reign in an age marked by the Napoleonic Wars. His close alliance with France, entered into after the British terror bombardment of Copenhagen in 1807, meant that Denmark in 1814 lost Norway, which it had been united with for 434 years.
There are two schools about Frederik VI. Some historians are very critical of him, others less so. The historian Michael Bregnsbo has argued that Danish historians of today tend to judge Frederik VI based on what Denmark is today (i.e. a small country of no great importance on the world stage) and forget that the Danish realm 200 years ago was what Bregnsbo calls an “empire”, consisting not only of Jutland and the Danish isles like today, but also of Norway, the Duchies of Schleswig and Holstein as well as of Iceland, Greenland, the Faeroes and other possessions beyond the seas.
Bregnsbo, and to a lesser extent Ole Feldbæk, has argued that in this perspective an alliance with France made more sense, as no-one but Napoléon could guarantee the possession of Norway and that a rupture with France would most likely have lead to an invasion of the Duchies, which would have caused famine in Denmark and Norway. Jens Engberg does not share this view. By having written this biography Engberg establishes himself as the leading critic of Frederik VI.
Frederik VI did not have an easy start in life. His father, Christian VII, was insane and his mother, Queen Caroline Mathilde, carried on a relationship with the royal physician Johann Friedrich Struensee, who thereby became the actual ruler of the Danish realm. Struensee also made sure that the Crown Prince was brought up according to Rousseau’s ideals, something which apparently did permanent harm to the child’s character. When Frederik was four years old Struensee was toppled by a coup lead by the insane King’s stepmother, Dowager Queen Juliane Marie, and his half-brother, Hereditary Prince Frederik. Struensee was brutally executed and Caroline Mathilde exiled to Hanover, where she died three years later.
This left Frederik in reality without neither father nor mother. Juliane Marie and her supporters not only ruled Denmark, but also took care of the upbringing of the Crown Prince, who they probably would have been happy to be rid of as that would have opened the way to the throne for Juliane Marie’s son. The early years of Frederik’s life is well dealt with in this biography.
The first great watershed came in 1784, when Frederik, supported by the leading opponents of the Queen Dowager’s rule, carried out a coup d’etat by making his insane father sign a document saying that in future all documents signed by the absolute monarch would be invalid unless counter-signed by the Crown Prince. This made Frederik the actual ruler of Denmark at the age of only 16. The death of Christian VII occurred only in 1808, but changed nothing but Frederik’s title. As Crown Prince and King he was the absolute ruler of Denmark from 1784 to his own death in 1839 – Engberg prefers to call him “dictator” and does not abstain from comparing him to “his colleague as dictator, Adolf Hitler”. The latter is of course way off the mark.
For the first years of his 55-year rule, Frederik was wisely guided by Foreign Minister Andreas Peter Bernstorff. Things changed when Bernstorff died in 1797 and Frederik decided to gather all the reins of state in his own hands, something he was obviously not very capable for. Denmark was an absolute monarchy and Frederik would not tolerate opposition, something which is remembered by a catch-phrase summing up a royal resolution of his later years: “Only we know” – “we” of course being the Royal We.
While Bernstorff had manoeuvred Denmark through troubled waters as a neutral state, Frederik chose a foreign policy which Engberg describes as offensive and activist and which led to disasters en masse. Three disasters in particular clouded the years of Frederik’s rule: the Battle of Copenhagen in 1801, the second British attack on Copenhagen in 1807 and the loss of Norway in 1814.
During these critical years Frederik put himself at the helm of the armed forces, another task he was clearly not competent for. When things went wrong he blamed others rather than himself and Engberg scolds him for fleeing Copenhagen just before the British attack in 1807. In the critical years between 1808 and 1813 the King suspended the Council of State altogether and when he did rely on others he tended to choose incompetent people such as his friend and later father-in-law, Prince Carl of Hesse, who was useless as a military commander, yet held the position of commanding general in Norway for years.
Some historians have suggested that Napoléon’s disastrous retreat from Moscow in 1812 might have been an advantageous occasion for Frederik VI to switch sides in the Napoleonic Wars without risking a French invasion. His cousin and heir, Prince Christian Frederik, was among those who begged him to do so, but the King refused to budge.
When Crown Prince Carl Johan of Sweden invaded Holstein in 1813 he placed the knife against Denmark’s throat and by the Treaty of Kiel of 14 January 1814, Frederik VI ceded Norway to the King of Sweden. It could have been interesting if the biographer had spent some time considering the attempts made by Frederik VI at stimulating the Norwegian people’s loyalty to the King and helping them by sending grain to the starving population. The late Knut Mykland, the doyen of Norwegian historians of 1814, saw these shipments in relation to what he thought may have been the King’s secret support for Prince Christian Frederik’s rebellion, but Engberg does not address this exact question.
But he does reach the conclusion that it is reasonable to believe that the King indeed did support his heir’s rebellion, although he could not make it clear and had to distance himself from it publicly in order not to bring further disasters upon Denmark. The rebellion lead by Christian Frederik brought him to the throne of Norway in May 1814, opening up a possibility for a future reunification of Denmark and Norway. But a few months later Christian Frederik had to abdicate and Norway entered a personal union with Sweden under King Carl XIII. Jens Engberg launches a new theory that Frederik VI and Christian Frederik, who both dreamt of a unification of all Scandinavia, had intended that this should be achieved by Christian Frederik abdicating on the condition that the old, childless Carl XIII should adopt him as his heir, despatching the adopted Crown Prince Carl Johan to another European throne.
After his return from the Congress of Vienna the remaining years of Frederik VI’s life and reign until his death in 1839 were less eventful. His decision in 1831 to establish consultative general estates for the Kingdom and the Duchies was a small step in a democratic direction, yet it gave the suffrage to a mere 3 % of the population. Engberg also downplays the importance of other reforms carried out under Frederik VI’s rule.
Engberg writes that he King’s most important duty in life was “to retain Denmark-Norway as the absolute monarchy he had inherited from his ancestors. When he died he should pass the realm to the next king of the Oldenburg dynasty, who would be his son”. If so, Frederik VI failed dismally. Not only did he lose Norway, but he also failed to sire an heir, something Engberg explains by degeneration caused by too much intermarriage. Absolutism survived him by only ten years.
Of Frederik VI’s eight children with Queen Marie, two daughters were alone in reaching adulthood. This meant that the throne of Denmark on his death passed to his cousin Prince Christian Frederik (Christian VIII), who Frederik well knew was in fact fathered by not by Hereditary Prince Frederik, but by the courtier Frederik Blücher. Frederik VI tried to ensure his own descendants a future on the Danish throne by marrying his youngest daughter to Christian Frederik’s son (the future Frederik VII) and his eldest daughter to Christian Frederik’s brother. One of the marriages was a disaster, both of them were childless.
Frederik’s private life with both a wife and a publicly recognised mistress is dealt with quite extensively in this biography. Yet we learn more about the mistress than about his relationship with the Queen, who, Engberg seems to think, was superior to the King in many respects. If so, she could well have been given a more prominent place in the book.
What makes the narrative somewhat difficult to follow at times is the fact that the author cannot really agree with himself about whether he should take a chronological or a thematic approach to the story. This means that there are some rather confusing jumps back and forth in time, but also that he will suddenly break the story of for example the dramatic events of 1814 to write a detailed account of the King’s meeting a man with whom he would later make some financial transactions which seem quite unimportant in that context.
The author throughout adopts a somewhat ironic distance to his subject which eventually turns into a rather sarcastic condescension towards the King, who he ridicules both for his failures but also for his looks and character traits. Engberg’s Frederik VI is a useless, incompetent, self-congratulating, ruthless, dim-witted dictator. It has apparently been very hard for the biographer to say anything positive about Frederik VI, and on the rare occasions he manages it, it seems to be through clenched teeth, such as the statement: “Despite his miserable childhood Frederik developed into being in some respects a somewhat decent person”. Jens Engberg’s conclusion is that Frederik VI “was a terrible king who became Denmark’s misfortune”.

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