October saw the 350th anniversary of the establishment of an absolute monarchy in the Kingdoms of Denmark and Norway. This was one of the most absolute systems in Europe; the only limitations put on the King’s powers were that he was not allowed to give away any part of his powers, not allowed to cede any part of his realms and should belong to the Lutheran faith. The Dano-Norwegian absolute monarchy was furthermore unique in Europe in that it was based on a written law, the Lex Regia of 1665.
The anniversary is being marked with an exhibition at Frederiksborg Palace and another at Rosenborg Palace. In addition the three historians Thomas Lyngby, Søren Mentz and Sebastian Olden-Jørgensen have written the book Magt og pragt – Enevælde 1660-1848, published by Gad of Copenhagen. It is not a chronological history of the 188 years of absolute monarchy; rather the three authors deal with various aspects of its history.
Olden-Jørgensen is first out with a chapter on the origins of the absolute monarchy. Until then Denmark was an elective monarchy (whereas Norway was hereditary) and although the eldest son of the deceased king was always elected king, he was obliged to sign a contract with the three estates, which thereby had the chance to restrict the monarch’s power as they saw fit. In the wake of the wars with Sweden in the 1650s King Frederik III allied himself with the priestly estate and the bourgeoisie (third) estate against the nobility, which was subsequently outmanoeuvred. The estates returned the royal contract to the King, who thereafter ruled as an absolute and hereditary monarch.
Olden-Jørgensen takes to task two myths about the absolute monarchy. One is that the absolute kings lived in unsurpassed splendour; the other that it was only during absolutism that the monarchy acquired a religious foundation. He sees the splendour surrounding the monarchs as a “political language” and stresses how the security of the realm was a priority, meaning that fortifications were built and the army and navy strengthened, while no substantial palace was built by the first three absolute monarchs.
In the book’s second chapter Thomas Lyngby looks at the staging of the monarchy through the ceremonies in connection with major royal events such as births, funerals, anointments and the reception of foreign ambassadors, while at the same time showing how the absolute monarchy led to the establishment of a centralised administration which may be seen as the precursor for the modern state. It was simply not possible for the King to make every single decision in his vast realms and eventually it turned out that the bureaucracy worked so well independently of the King that the absolute system was able to survive to monarchs (Frederik V and Christian VII) who were unable to reign.
Sebastian Olden-Jørgensen returns with a chapter on the Struensee affair, which seems somewhat superfluous as the story is very well-known and nothing of significance is added here. The facts that Struensee’s road to power went through Queen Caroline Mathilde and that the reins of power were subsequently held by Dowager Queen Juliane Marie as well as Olden-Jørgensen’s point that the absolute monarchy was “a family firm” rather than a one-man show remind me that I miss an evaluation of the roles played by the queens.
Finally Søren Mentz draws the larger picture in the fourth chapter, looking at absolutism as it was practised in England-Scotland, France, Russia and the realm of the Indian Grand Mogul. To a certain extent it is a drawback that Mentz bases this solely on literature in English and here I also miss a comparison with neighbouring Sweden. In my opinion the earlier chapters would also have benefited from adopting a comparative approach as there are interesting similarities between the origins and consequences of Dano-Norwegian absolutism and the system as practised in other European monarchies.
The perhaps most interesting question – of why the absolute monarchy came to an end in 1848 – might well have been accorded a chapter of its own, but as it is this question is dealt with by all the authors in various parts of the book. Whereas the authors of this book see the origins of absolutism primarily in regional and local conditions, they consider its end as part of a larger, international picture.
Thomas Lyngby sees part of the reason in the human aspect and argues that the task of ruling an absolute monarchy eventually became too much for one individual, thus breaking the psyche of Frederik V and Christian VII. But his suggestion that this was an international development, exemplified through George III of Britain and Gustaf IV Adolf of Sweden, is not entirely convincing given that those signs of mental unbalance which might have been showed by Gustaf IV Adolf mostly appeared following his deposal and that George III, who indeed went mad as a consequence of the illness porphyria, was not an absolute ruler.
It is a commonly held perception that the reason why the Dano-Norwegian absolute monarchy lasted so long as 188 years was that it managed to adapt to emerging ideas and make them their own. The loss of control of political and cultural developments was the reason why absolutism came to an end in France and England-Scotland, Mentz argues, whereas one in Denmark-Norway subscribed to the idea that the King governed after having listened to the opinions of the people. This was obviously no longer the case after the end of the Napoleonic Wars, when Frederik VI joined Alexander I’s reactionary “Holy Alliance”, thus putting himself in opposition to current ideas.
The emerging nationalism also spelt trouble for the Danish monarchy, which following the loss of Norway in 1814 was reduced to Danish and German nationalities. Christian VIII, who succeeded his cousin Frederik VI in 1839, realised that absolutism would have to be abolished, but feared that an abrupt abolishment might lead to civil war between Danes and Germans. He therefore intended to relinquish his absolute powers step by step, but his sudden death in January 1848 put an end to these plans and the absolute monarchy imploded in the early stages of his son Frederik VII’s reign.
This book, which is also rich in well-chosen illustrations, must surely count as one of the most interesting Nordic contributions to the understanding of the nature of monarchies.