Between 1660 and 1848, Denmark was an absolutist monarchy. So absolutist, in fact, the country had that contradiction in terms, an absolutist constitution—the Royal Law of 1665, under which the king held all legislative, judicative, fiscal and executive power.Footnote 1 And in the Danish state, there were not yet Assemblies of Estates of the Realm or other kinds of corporate organs with any say in political affairs.Footnote 2 Danish landowners constituted a powerful, privileged elite, but this was in their capacity as owners of landed estates, not because they belonged to the nobility. Anyone—noble or commoner—could buy landed estates and would then automatically acquire a landlord’s privileges (including exemption from taxation and signorial rights over their tenant peasants). Conversely, nobility was not worth much if one was a nobleman who owned no land.Footnote 3 Absolutism had been introduced in 1660 in direct confrontation with the nobility, so commoners and foreigners who owed their careers entirely to their (absolutist) king were given preferential treatment for appointments and promotions within the civil service. The same went for officers in the army and the navy; indeed, the composition of the Danish officer corps was dominated by people of common extraction to an extent highly unusual by European standards.Footnote 4

The Danish monarch who concerns us here, King Frederick VI, was born in 1768, the son of the mentally incapacitated King Christian VII and the British-born Queen Carolina Matilda (Fig. 13.1). His parents had divorced in 1772 due to his mother’s affair with the German-born physician and statesman, Count Johann Friedrich Struensee. The latter was executed and the queen was banished to her family’s original homeland, the electorate of Hanover. Crown Prince Frederick was brought up in isolation by the power-holders who had staged the coup against Struensee in 1772: his step-grandmother Dowager Queen Juliana Maria and her son, the heir presumptive Prince Frederick, half-brother of the king. Yet in 1784, once he had received confirmation, Crown Prince Frederick could take his seat in the Privy Council, and during his first meeting, he carried out a well-prepared coup where the old guards from 1772 were ousted. From then on, he ruled as crown prince regent on behalf of his sick father, King Christian VII.Footnote 5 The decades after 1784 were characterised by governance often described as ‘enlightened absolutism’.Footnote 6

Fig. 13.1
figure 1

Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg, Frederik VI. © Nationalmuseum, Stockholm

As Denmark was neutral in the many European wars of the period, trade and shipping under the neutral Danish flag prospered, and the period is called ‘the flourishing period of trade’ in Danish historiography. However, by capitalising on its neutral status, it became a thorn in Britain’s side, and in 1801, the British launched a naval attack on Copenhagen. Due to the death of Denmark’s ally, the Russian Tsar Paul, and the ensuing international political reshuffles, this war soon ended, and Danish neutrality was re-established.Footnote 7 However, by 1807, neutrality was no longer an option. A British ultimatum was presented to Crown Prince Regent Frederick: Denmark should conclude an alliance with Britain, whereby the considerable Dano-Norwegian navy would be placed under British command; alternatively, Denmark could hand over her navy to Britain for the duration of the war as a pledge of her neutrality. Both offers were declined, but after a British bombardment of Copenhagen that went on for three nights, the capital surrendered and the navy was handed over to the British.Footnote 8 Crown Prince Frederick (who became King Frederick VI on his father’s death in 1808) now concluded an alliance with Napoleon and stuck to it till the bitter end, being dragged down with the emperor of the French. Further, in 1813, the Danish state suffered a monetary collapse which took decades to recover from.Footnote 9 The reason why King Frederick VI stuck with Napoleon despite the allies putting out feelers about changing sides was Norway. The government in Copenhagen knew that Sweden wanted to acquire Norway, as it had done for centuries. And Napoleon was the only one willing to guarantee Frederick VI his possession of Norway. The problem was that the allies needed Sweden’s military forces and the Swedish crown prince, Charles John (none other than Napoleon’s former marshal Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte), for the final showdown with Napoleon, and Charles John’s price for joining the war was Norway. For that reason, Frederick VI saw no alternative but to persevere with Napoleon. In January 1814, however, facing a combined Russo-Swedish invasion of the duchies of Schleswig and Holstein and the Danish province of Jutland, he had to give up and cede Norway to the king of Sweden, thus losing 85 per cent of Denmark’s territories. In doing so, he became the greatest loser of the Napoleonic Wars area-wise.Footnote 10

King Frederick VI and his regime survived the defeat of 1814 and the ensuing calamities. The question examined in this essay is how the king and the institution of monarchy coped on an ideological and discursive level with the consequences of the disastrous defeat. The regime was shaken to the core and so was public confidence. Recent research has shown that public disaffection with the king and his regime was far more widespread and bitter than hitherto assumed. When Frederick VI returned to Copenhagen from the Congress of Vienna in 1815, he was cheered by the citizens of Copenhagen. Originally, it was thought that the people were showing their backing for their beloved king, despite the many disasters that had hit the country. Yet, recent research has pointed out that people thought the king was returning with a new and free constitution, and that was why they were out on the streets cheering. As soon as it turned out King Frederick had no intention whatsoever of changing the political system, the cheering stopped.Footnote 11

As the system was absolutist, disaffection with the king and the government could not be published or uttered publicly, but private letters and diaries provide clear indications, especially in 1819 and 1820 as the economic crisis peaked.Footnote 12 There were disturbances in the streets of Copenhagen, traditionally dismissed as anti-Jewish riots soon quelled by the authorities, but closer studies of the sources have established that the disturbances were not only aimed against the Jews but against the absolutist system as such; that Copenhagen saw frequent street disturbances in 1819 and 1820; and that due to the extent of the disturbances, the authorities were convinced that revolution was imminent and acted accordingly.Footnote 13 The regime responded to widespread popular dissatisfaction with increased control and police surveillance and other repressive measures.Footnote 14

King Frederick, for his part, obstinately opposed any changes to the absolutist system he had inherited, convinced that he could not change the absolutist system—and the absolutist constitution it was based on—which had been passed down to him.Footnote 15 In the Danish literature, there are two contrasting views on this. One tradition sees him as an oppressive, wilful and small-minded tyrant, a die-hard adherent of absolutism whose inflexibility cost the country and the people dear.Footnote 16 The other tradition does not deny that King Frederick was a stubborn absolutist and had his shortcomings intellectually, politically and strategically, and that not all of his decisions were wise; however, many of the foreign political calamities are put down to international relations, over which he had no influence. He is also said to have been a personally honest, hard-working and well-meaning man who lived modestly, thought only of the good of his people and was deeply committed to his royal vocation, which he had inherited from his ancestors, and that he felt duty-bound to uphold, and with the absolutist constitution, the Royal Law, unchanged. According to this tradition, he was a patriarch, a father to the country, and not a tyrant.Footnote 17

Popular disaffection with both the king personally and the absolutist system as such was widespread. The system nevertheless survived till 1848, outliving Frederick VI, who died in 1839. It is not the aim here to explain the political and social reasons for the survival of the regime. Frederick VI’s regime after 1814 was the focus of widespread popular dissatisfaction, but nonetheless refused to introduce political reforms or constitutional changes. How did the regime seek to legitimise itself and win round a sceptical or openly hostile public? How were the king and his regime spoken about publicly by adherents of the system? It cannot have been easy to speak out in defence of the regime when the odds were stacked against it, but speak out they did, and in favour of absolutism; that was what they were ordered and paid to do. However, there was more than one way of achieving that aim, and surely they chose arguments they assumed would best convince their audience. This is not to imply that their assumptions were correct or even that people bought their arguments, but rather that shifts in the argumentation will reflect the mounting challenges the regime faced, ideologically and politically.

The question to be considered here is which arguments were used by advocates of the king and the regime and which arguments could they have used. It will be answered using source material such as public proclamations and by sermons, anthems, cantatas and speeches on the king’s birthday and other red-letter days, analysed using discourse analysis. Inspiration has been found in Quentin Skinner’s notion of texts as speech acts, which should be analysed in relation to other texts as written answers, reactions or support of such texts. Skinner’s ‘rhetorical redescriptions’, where a concept is given another new meaning, positive or negative, as part of an ongoing political conflict, have also been fruitful.Footnote 18 The analysis falls into two: 1814–1830, starting with Denmark’s loss of Norway and its immediate aftermath, and 1831–1839, from the introduction of the consultative stænderforsamlinger or Assemblies of the Estates of the Realm to the death of King Frederick VI.


When the regime’s advocates referred to the king, it was as ‘Frederick’, ‘the Sixth Frederick’ or ‘our dear Frederick’, and the royal couple was simply referred to as ‘Frederick and Marie’, altogether more free and easy than the official title, ‘His Majesty King Frederick’.Footnote 19 Rather than a mighty, lofty and absolute potentate, he was spoken of as if he were a close relative or at least a good acquaintance. In this way, the king was humanised, and his and the regime’s damaged prestige was bolstered up. A recurrent metaphor about the relationship between the king and his subjects was that of a father and his children. The king was depicted as the good, considerate father of his country, taking good care of the welfare of his grateful children, his subjects, and the relationship between them as one of close, affectionate and trusting reciprocity.Footnote 20 The traditional, hierarchical aspects of absolutism, emphasising the duty of the subjects to show unconditional obedience and submission, were played down in order to strike a more affectionate, egalitarian tone. However, the king’s subjects were compared to minors, something that hardly chimed with the liberals’ growing demands for civil rights and constitutionalism.

The origins of the absolutist system and the legitimacy that derived from it were subjects of which little was said. Some argued that the very fact that the regime had existed for over 150 years was itself proof that it was good and legitimate. The advocates of the system were well aware that there were other kinds of political regimes in Europe, but they stressed that this was of no concern to the Danes.Footnote 21 Otherwise, the adherents of the system often invoked history to emphasise that the royal family was ages old, thus stressing its continuity and hence its legitimacy. References to old Norse mythology, legends and the Middle Ages remained common.Footnote 22 Such historical references, stressing the historical legitimism, not only accorded with Europe after the Congress of Vienna, but also were in line with the Romantic fascination with the Middle Ages. Less was said about the regime’s functions and obligations, and little that was specific; nonetheless, the concepts of ‘peace’, ‘justice’ and ‘freedom’ were often-recurring phrases.Footnote 23 Freedom, which expressly included freedom of the press, might seem surprising. For example, in a speech to mark the king’s birthday in 1830, the grammar schoolteacher—and thus a servant of the state and the king—Christian Kalkar dwelt on the subject. ‘Man must be free to communicate his thoughts’, he said,

although not in a way that evil could unimpededly place its arrow on the bow of shrewdness and shoot them at the hearts of the fellow citizens—but in a way that what is living in the human heart should be allowed to express itself freely and thriftily. No inquisition under what name whatsoever must lurk at the oral expressions, no spirit of darkness must under the name of censorship suppress the noble truths or suppress those voices raised in order to speak the cause of justice; even what appears as disapproval of the obsolete institutions, what is wrong and incorrect, what is reproaching and condemning, must be allowed to express itself; because only then would opposing voices be heard, only then would the fight for justice and truth be fought, only then would the dearest treasure of truth be unshrouded from the veil in which it is wrapped.Footnote 24

Earlier in his speech, Kalkar had defined freedom as ‘the right to have exclusive disposal of one’s person, one’s thoughts and emotions, one’s speech and communication, one’s property and trade’, provided that it did not violate someone else’s freedom. This kind of freedom, which he termed ‘civic freedom’, did not seem to entail political freedom.Footnote 25

On the same day, another grammar schoolteacher, Peter Frandsen, delivered a speech in Holstein in which he warned against those who believed that a free constitution would be a panacea against all evils. Quite the contrary, he stressed, in many countries, this point of view had led to bitter conflict between kings and their subjects. Fortunately, this was not the case in Denmark, he went on, because they had succeeded in uniting ‘two otherwise incompatible things’, namely freedom and absolutism. And this system had now stood the test of time for 170 years and meant that Denmark was truly ‘the land of freedom’.Footnote 26

These were surprising words from two loyal supporters of absolutism, giving public addresses to celebrate an absolutist regent. One might think freedom and absolutism would be diametrically opposed concepts, but Frandsen managed to redescribe them with a rhetoric in which they were two sides of the same coin. The reason for the strong emphasis on freedom was probably because, as an arch-liberal core value, it was now standard in public opinion, to the point where not even the adherents of the absolutist system could ignore it, much less speak up against it. Instead, at the very least, they had to pay it lip service.

Attention was often called to the enlightened reforms of the 1780s and 1790s, and especially the agricultural reforms, under which the Danish peasants were supposedly granted freedom by the then crown prince regent on behalf of his father, King Christian VII.Footnote 27 In March 1827, on the occasion of a nationwide collection in churches to benefit the victims of a huge flood in parts of the country, the rural parson, Georg Frederik Weinschenck, delivered a sermon reminding his congregation (and later his readers) of all the boons the regime had granted the people back in the late eighteenth century. He underscored that no one was more touched by the plight of the victims of the current disaster than ‘our benign king’. He continued that the king would have come to their aid if only he had had the means; unfortunately, the country had been hit by so many unprovoked calamities in his reign—the British bombardment of Copenhagen in 1807, the ensuing war in 1807–1814, the monetary breakdown of 1813 and the loss of Norway the following year—that the king’s treasury did not have the means to assist the many victims, so therefore he had no other option but to appeal to his subjects for donations. In an attempt to increase his audience’s willingness to contribute, Weinschenck called attention to the many useful reforms the king had undertaken when he was a young crown prince regent, before said calamities had struck. Weinschenck sought especially to move the hearts of the peasantry: before King Frederick had seized power as crown prince regent back in 1784, the peasants had been ‘poor and wretched’ and treated like slaves. Few had been able to read, none to write, and all told that they had simply been considered ‘inarticulate beasts’. But then the young crown prince regent, now their king, had intervened to improve their living conditions and secured their rights, and consequently the peasantry was now ‘free, honest, enlightened and happy’.Footnote 28 The reforms Weinschenck praised so highly and enthusiastically had been introduced more than a generation earlier. Their frequent mention by such advocates served to bolster the regime, but simultaneously revealed that there were no more recent reforms for which the regime could take the credit. In other words, the finery the absolutist regime was strutting around in was not borrowed; it was its own and distinctly tattered.

The national setbacks and dire economic circumstances after 1814 were deep-felt and long-lasting and could not be ignored even by the spokesmen of the absolutist regime. But they were able to turn even this to good account. As the song written for the king’s birthday in 1817 went, he was ‘good in good times and even better in bad times’.Footnote 29


The duchy of Holstein and the small duchy of Lauenburg were not only part of the Danish state, but also member states of the German Confederation. As such each was entitled to an Assembly of the Estates according to the final accords of the Viennese Congress. However, since it would be problematic if some of the absolutist Danish state’s territories had such an assembly whereas others did not, the Danish government had been dragging its feet ever since 1815. After the Revolutions of 1830 shook Europe, the German Confederation told King Frederick VI that no further delay could be accepted. Thus, in 1831, the Danish government officially proclaimed that provincial Assemblies of the Estates were to be introduced in the Danish monarchy, and in 1834, the exact organisation and structure of those assemblies were specified and announced to the public in a new ordinance. There would be four Assemblies of the Estates: one for the duchies of Holstein and Lauenburg, one for the duchy of Schleswig and the kingdom of Denmark that would be divided between two assemblies. Despite their name, they were not composed of estates of the realm in the traditional sense; rather, the electorate was divided into three electoral groups (called ‘estates’), namely the great landowners, houseowners in towns and farmers whose farms were above a certain size, regardless of whether they were owner-occupiers or tenant farmers. Other members of the assemblies, such as academics, were appointed by the king. The assemblies had consultative powers only. The government committed itself to present any new legislative or fiscal initiatives to the assemblies to discuss and pass recommendations. The government could comply with these recommendations or not, as it pleased.Footnote 30

To begin with, the Assemblies of the Estates were seen as advisory bodies, and thus mere extensions to the existing absolutist system of government, especially as it was emphasised that they in no way restricted the king’s absolutist powers. Thus, in 1835, the top civil servant and official governmental representative to the assembly for the eastern provinces of Denmark, Anders Sandøe Ørsted, delivered a speech to newly elected members in which he spelled out that introducing such assemblies changed nothing ‘in the very constitution of the happy state in which Denmark had now for 175 years found itself’. The assemblies should be considered a complement, ‘a new and comprehensive means in order [for the king] always to be able to know what would serve as the good of the people’. To drive home the point, he called the assemblies ‘the king’s council’.Footnote 31 This was the regime’s official position on the assemblies. However, in the late 1830s, they were increasingly termed ‘the people’s council’, and the sceptre of the absolute king was even being compared to a ‘tree of freedom’.Footnote 32 So it was the spokesmen of the regime who adopted liberal terminology, making rhetorical redescriptions from ‘king’ to ‘people’. Correspondingly, the term ‘estate’ fell into disuse, probably because it sounded old-fashioned and divisive compared to ‘people’. All this was clearly designed to show assemblies as far more representative, far more liberal and far more powerful than they really were, by suggesting that they in fact represented the nation as a whole.

The electorate and the powers of the assemblies were strongly limited, but even so the election campaigns and debates led to the emergence of a political public and a political press in Denmark.Footnote 33 It soon evolved to an extent—and frankness—that alarmed the government to the point of considering prepublication censorship. Its plans were leaked to the public in 1835, and a petition appealing to the king to drop the idea was organised. Among the petition signers were many civil servants and officers—many of whom, of course, were employed in the service of the king—as well as tradespeople. In his answer to the appeal, the king expressed his astonishment, and continued:

because just as Our paternal concern has always been to contribute to do all that was in Our royal power to work for the good of the state and the people, correspondingly, no one but We alone will be able to evaluate what will be for the true good and benefit of the two.Footnote 34

The opposition were quick to paraphrase his answer as ‘We alone know’, and ever since it has been said that this was Frederick VI and his regime in a nutshell. And indeed, this attitude does seem at odds with the principles of the consultative, advisory Assemblies of the Estates just introduced. However, the rhetorical and discursive context ought to be considered when trying to explain Frederick VI’s ‘We alone know’ proclamation. In Ørsted’s opening address to the Assembly of the Estates for the Danish islands, he as the king’s representative had said that its members would not necessarily agree on everything, and differences of opinion neither could nor should be avoided. And precisely because not everyone would be of the same opinion, it would be up to the king ‘to keep everything in a proper balance’. Indeed, the king would distinguish between the different opinions, ‘and, just as the people until now had relied and in the future could still rely on his wisdom and paternal affection, in the same way the more certain he would be able to evaluate what would be for the good of the people after the matter had once been the object of discussion from so many sides’.Footnote 35

The language here bore similarities with the ‘We alone know’ proclamation, and no wonder, because Ørsted had a hand in both that and the proclamation that introduced the Assemblies of the Estates as well as his own speech.Footnote 36 A comparison of the ‘We alone know’ proclamation with Ørsted’s speech sheds new light on the intention and meaning of the proclamation. The opposition may have paraphrased it as ‘We alone know’, but the proclamation itself had ‘evaluate’, not ‘know’. And evaluating is quite different from knowing. Ørsted’s speech stressed that the king—being absolutist—was above the narrow vested interests of certain groups or classes, and thus in a position to see what was good for the society. Thus, the meaning of ‘We alone know’ was not that the king was omniscient and wiser than everybody else but that—unlike the members of the Assemblies of the Estates, and by virtue of being absolute—he was above vested interests, and thus, having considered the assemblies’ points of view, was uniquely placed to make balanced decisions for the benefit of all. The ‘We alone know’ proclamation with such a subtext added would run as follows:

because just as Our paternal concern has always been to contribute to do all that was in Our royal power to work for the good of the state and the people, correspondingly, no one but We alone—who as an absolutist monarch is above the vested interests of certain groups and classes, and having listened to and considered the points of view expressed by the Assemblies of the Estates—will be able to evaluate what will be for the true good and benefit of the two’.Footnote 37

This is probably what the king had meant. Certainly, the appeal was a success, as the plans for prepublication censorship were abandoned.Footnote 38

As long as old King Frederick VI was alive, everyone knew that the prospects of real change to the regime were minimal. But on his demise in December 1839, the widespread expectation was that the winds of change would soon be blowing. It was evident even in the published sermons and elegies that marked the king’s death. One Danish poet wrote in memory of the late king and in praise of the new one:

From you the Dane will fully expect his freedom:

Freedom for all that descends from spirit:

Freedom for the word on the lips of the free man!

Freedom for the pen in the free hand!

Freedom for everything, only bound by reason!

The freedom which life is endeavouring.Footnote 39

The anticipated effect of the word ‘freedom’ can be seen from its mention in every line of the poem. Similar expectations of a change in political direction were found in a published sermon in memory of the late king. Its author, the village pastor Ole Peter Momme, mentioned the introduction of the Assemblies of the Estates and praised the late king for voluntarily curbing his absolute power. Therefore, he was a truly great man.Footnote 40 Prior to King Frederick’s death, the official position had been that the Assemblies of the Estates placed no restrictions on the king’s absolute powers, but according to Momme, this had nonetheless been the case. Plainly, a radical reinterpretation of the nature of the regime was possible within a very short time. The way the system was conceptualised and conceptualised itself in the reign of Frederick VI was outdated the moment he died—and one might argue that it had been so for a long time.


Denmark’s was a political regime forced onto the defensive, devoid of ideological renewal and self-confidence, still less new and positive visions. That applied to both King Frederick VI and his system. The regime survived ideologically and politically by yielding to the liberal discourse; by depicting the king in familiar, humane terms; by seeking its legitimacy in history and old Norse mythology; and to an ever-larger extent by including liberal vocabulary, turned to its own ends by rhetorical redescription. The ‘We alone know’ attitude was not characteristic of King Frederick and his regime, not in practice, and scarcely in theory either. On the contrary, the Assemblies of the Estates were conceptualised by a regime intent on appreciating and securing liberal core values such as a free debate and participation in public affairs, for which the assemblies were the vehicle. The fact that they had only advisory and consultative powers was seen as an advantage, as their king—their absolutist king—could thus ignore vested interests and make decisions to benefit society as a whole. It was an enervated system trying to carry on.