Tuesday, 15 February 2011

New books: Royal mistresses and morganatic wives

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”.


  1. I find it rather strange to mix royal mistresses and morganatic wives as if these categories had anything in common.After all a morganatic marriage is a marriage legally valid both according to church, house and state laws. Children of morganatic marriages are -if any princely house really still uses the concept- and were perfectly legitimate. They just did not inherit any title from their fathers but only the name and title that the wives normally were granted in connection with the marriage.

    I doubt the Tecks and the Battenbergs (Mountbattens) would have liked to be dealt with as having anything in common with children of royal mistresses.

    Not even an aboslute monarch who is legally married can in my mind name his mistress his morganatic wife.At least not according to church laws. He will have to divorce or chop his consort's head off first. Then he can marry morganatically.
    Martin Rahm

  2. Michael Bregnsbo does not mix royal mistresses and morganatic wives, but makes clear the distinction between them. However, it should be born in mind that the morganatic wives of the Dano-Norwegian monarchs were mistresses before their became morganatic wives and as such they too belong in this book as examples of how a mistress might be "upgraded".

    I do not think it is very fruitful to compare this with the Tecks or the Battenbergs. It should not be forgotten that the status of morganatic wives of the Dano-Norwegian monarchs were not necessarily the same as those of the Battenberg or Teck morganauts. For one thing the children did not take their mother's title and Frederik IV contracted two morganatic marriages while still married to his queen, which naturally rendered these marriages less "accepted" or "recognised" than for instance that of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Bigamy was punishable by death in Denmark-Norway at the time, but the Lex Regia of 1665 put only three limitations on the King: he could not renounce any part of his realm, he had to be Lutheran and he could not renounce any part of his power. Thus the King stood above the law and could thus break it - this meant that he could also marry his mistress morganatically without having to divorce the Queen or chop off her head.

    So the situation does not correspond exactly with those of the Tecks, the Battenbergs or the Hohenbergs. In Denmark one also used another term than morganatic - "marriage by the left hand".

  3. I have not read Michel Bregnsbo's book.Perhaps I aught to keep quite.
    I am sure that you are right as far as the absolute Danish monarchs are concerned.As a lawyer, however, I get a bit confused whenever the notion of "morganatic" is used outside the states and houses which once belonged to the Holy Roman Empire of German Nation, for which, as far as I know,the institution of morganatic marriages was created. But of course the Danish/Norwegian kings were simultanously princes of the German-Roman empire so perhaps their ladies were "morganatic" wives in Denmark/Norway but mere mistresses in Schleswig and in Holstein?
    I made my remark partly because I object to the term "morganatic" sometimes being used to any "unqual marriage"-if that term can still be used-within the Scandinavian royal families.

    Theoretical question: Is there a difference between the status of the Norwegian Crown Prince Haakon Magnus and the prince with the same name of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg- Glücksburg? Or did the latter never inherit his father's family title since his father married morganatically? The whole word is waiting for a reply!!

    Martin Rahm

  4. As I said the term "morganatic" is not generally used in Denmark, but that would nevertheless be the English translation of the Danish term "ægteskab til venstre hånd".

    From what I know a different status for the wives of the Dano-Norwegian monarch in Schleswig and Holstein was never an issue.

    Yes, the term "morganatic marriage" is often used wrongly to describe an unequal marriage - of course it should only be used in cases where the groom kept his title and rights, but these were not shared by a legal wife and their children. I sometimes see claims such as that the late Prince Sigvard married morganatically, which is of course wrong - it would only have been a morganatic marriage if he had remained "HRH Prince Sigvard of Sweden, Duke of Uppland" and his wife had been styled Mrs Erica Bernadotte or Countess Sonja Bernadotte af Wisborg.

    I do not think there is much point of talking about "equal" or "unequal" marriages in the Scandinavian royal houses today. The distinction would rather be between approved marriages (such as that of Crown Princess Victoria) and unapproved marriages (such as that of Prince Sigvard).

    The Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg titles have not been used by Christian IX or his descendants for more than a century and a half (although I am not sure if the future Christian IX did actually renounce them), so that is an issue I see no use in debating.

    (Crown Prince Haakon has by the way never used his second name Magnus, just like your Crown Princess does not use the names Ingrid Alice Désirée).

  5. Sorry for calling the Crown Prince of Norway by the two names. I have seen them both used in different newspaper articles. One should of course always check carefully before repeating anything.
    Another comment relates to the family name of the royal houses of Denmark and Norway. The Swedish royal family is called Bernadotte and if- God forbid-the Swedish monarchy were to be abolished I am sure the members of the family will start using that name. What about Denmark and Norway if the same disaster would occur in those countries ? They could of course as many no longer ruling German houses keep the name of the state were they last ruled or the name Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg or go further back and use the name Oldenburg. Hopefully a theoreticol question. But again does not a dynasty or ex-dynasty have to have some kind of name?
    Martin Rahm

  6. It does indeed seem parts of the Swedish media have still not caught up on the fact that Crown Prince Haakon, like Queen Silvia (or should we say "Queen Silvia Renate"?) only uses the first of his names.

    The Norwegian Court takes the line that the name of the dynasty is "The House of Glücksburg" (Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg has been dropped at some unknown stage along the way), but the titled members of the royal family do not have any surnames. The latter is also the case in Denmark (and indeed in Sweden, where Prince Daniel is the only member of the royal house to have a legal surname).

    Thus it is really impossible to say what surname (if any) the Norwegians or Danish royals would take if they were reduced to ordinary citizens of a republic. Given the very restricted use of royal titles in Norway it also seems quite likely that the children of Prince Sverre Magnus will not be princes and princesses, but what their surname will be is another question which it is impossible to predict the answer to.

    And does a deposed dynasty need a surname? This seems to vary from house to house. The French former imperial family have adopted "Napoléon" as some sort of surname (the head of the house is titled "the Prince Napoléon", but his sister is titled "Princess Caroline Napoléon", his uncle "Prince Jérôme Napoléon" etc, but one of the reasons why ex-King Konstantinos of the Hellenes does not have a Greek passport seems to be that he denies that he has a surname and rejects official Greek attempts at calling him "Konstantinos Glücksburg". On the other hand ex-King Simeon of the Bulgarians assumed the surname "Saxecoburgotski" when he became Prime Minister. In Germany the royal and noble titles have been turned into surnames, for instance "Dr Johann Georg Prinz von Hohenzollern". But most members of deposed royal families tend to use their former titles, cf. Prince Nikolaós of Greece.

    It might seem that a surname is required if the ex-royals live in the country which they formerly ruled, but there are exceptions to this too - for what I know ex-King Mihai of Romania or ex-Crown Prince Aleksandar of Serbia have not adopted any surname.


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