A book on Danish royal mistresses may sound like a saucy collection of gossip, particularly after the uproar over the recent “biography” of King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden. But Michael Bregnsbo’s new book, Til venstre hånd – Danske kongers elskerinder, published by Gyldendal in Copenhagen, is no such thing. Instead it is a serious, analytical study of the history of the mistresses and morganatic wives of the monarchs of the house of Oldenburg and of the system of which these women were part.
Bregnsbo, a leading Scandinavian historian of monarchies, points his finger at the discrepancies between the punishment meted out to “ordinary people” who committed adultery or bigamy and how the kings got away with doing the exact same thing. In this book he wants to identify the reasons behind the rise and fall of the “system” of official mistresses and to identify the political influence of it. The result is an interesting book, a good read and a valuable addition to our understanding of the Dano-Norwegian monarchy.
Both mistresses and morganatic wives are included in this study, but it is not a biographical study of these women, although the reader does of course learn quite much about their lives. Bregnsbo shows how they were often pawns in the power game which went on in the monarch’s proximity. The common denominator between Christian II’s mistress Dyveke and Kirsten Munk, who became Christian IV’s morganatic wife after the death of his Queen Anna Cathrine, is that they both had ambitious mothers who got to positions of influence through their daughter’s relation with the monarch.
Christian V, the second of the absolute monarchs, was the first king to take an official mistress (Sophie Amalie Moth) while his wife was still alive. His son, Frederik IV, took this to a new level by contracting two morganatic marriages during the lifetime of his Queen and crowning the second of them Queen almost as soon as his first Queen had died. In both cases the existence of an official mistress or a morganatic wife naturally weakened the position of the legitimate Queen, who might otherwise provide a “safe haven” or perhaps even a rallying-point for those out of favour with the King.
The position of an official mistress could, according to Bregnsbo, be viewed as much the same as that of a male favourite, through whom one might obtain favours from the monarch. This was particularly important after the introduction of absolute monarchy in 1660, which had seen the abolishment of the State Council and left the royal court as the only existing political arena.
Thus the relationship between a king and an official mistress was not simply an emotional and sexual relationship between two individuals, but the mistress was a means which could be used in the struggle for the omnipotent monarch’s attention, interest and favours. The fact that one might more easily get what one wanted by going by way of the mistress rather than through the Queen also contributed to weakening the Queen’s position.
The children born of extramarital affairs or morganatic marriages were also part of the power game. The illegitimate sons and sons-in-law of Christian IV, Frederik III and Christian V were given prominent official positions and came to play important roles on the public stage.
These royal children, who were considered some sort of superior nobility above the “ordinary” aristocracy, could also be used to forge alliances between the monarch and the nobility. Christian IV’s and Kirsten Munk’s children are examples of this, but in this case it eventually backfired on the King when the sons-in-laws had to choose between being loyal to the King or supporting their own and chose their own noble caste.
The influence of mistresses and illegitimate/morganatic children decreased from the days of Christian VI, who is not known to have had any mistress, and Frederik V, who had several, but none who came to hold any significant position of influence. As Bregnsbo sees it this was due partly to evolving political structures but also to attitudes in society in general.
The King was no longer as all-powerful as he had once been. In 1670 Christian V had established a privy council consisting of a handful of advisors. The influence of the Privy Council eventually increased and the way the realm was governed became more formalised. At the same time a state administration evolved, which meant that the court was no longer as dominant as before and that court intrigues were no longer the only way to achieve influence. This also meant that illegitimate/morganatic children were no longer needed to forge alliances with noble families.
At the same time changing attitudes in society meant that the same moral standards were expected on all levels, something which made it less acceptable for the monarch to keep an official mistress. The concept of influential mistresses thus died with Frederik IV in 1730.
It was only his great-great-grandson Frederik VI who some eighty years later again took an official mistress in the person of Bente Rafsted, who bore him several children. Although this was at the time when the Frederik VI took various steps in reaction to the absolute system slowly beginning to unravel, Bregnsbo does not believe that the King took an official mistress in order to project himself in the role as an absolute monarch on par with Christian V or Frederik IV.
He also points out that it was all done in a very different way. Rafsted was given the name and title of “Mrs Colonel Dannemand” rather than Countess or Duchess like her predecessors and Mrs Dannemand did not appear at court at all; instead the King came to her house in town, where he kept her and their children as a second family in addition to Queen Marie Sophie Frederikke and their two daughters. Mrs Dannemand also had no political influence, was not used as a pawn in the power game and her and the King’s children, although helped along in life, did not receive any influential positions in society.
The final case in such a study is Louise Rasmussen, the former ballet dancer who became the morganatic wife of King Frederik VII in 1850, two years after the fall of the absolute system. She came to play a political role through allying herself with the opposition which aimed at influencing the King to adopt a different policy than that favoured by his government. Ennobled as Countess Danner, Louise was kept at a distance by polite society and generally reviled.
As Bregnsbo points out this was partly a result of the monarch’s private life no longer being considered private and that society no longer tolerated what had been generally acceptable in the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries. The fact that the new constitution had introduced freedom of expression also meant that such criticism of the King’s morganatic wife could now be voiced publicly.
But many a public figure has found comfort in the thought that the contemporary view is not necessarily the same as the judgement of posterity and today most historians conclude that Countess Danner was a good influence on King Frederik VII and helped keep him afloat. The historian Harald Jørgensen, who died in 2009 at the age of 102, once discussed Countess Danner with King Frederik IX, who remarked: “May one not admit that the Countess was a good wife for the King?” This in sharp contrast to what his grandfather, the historian A. D. Jørgensen, was told by King Christian IX: “Yes, Mr Jørgensen, I have known the Countess. She was a bitch”.