3. Absolute rule and the administration

Absolute monarchy in Denmark was introduced through an agreement between the king and the estates (stænderne), but it also rested on religion to legitimise its purpose and power. During the eighteenth century, this gradually gave way to a form of absolutism in which the legitimacy of the king was based on the notion that he ruled on behalf of the people, in accordance with their will and the ideals of the Enlightenment. This was also known as ‘enlightened absolutism’.

The establishment of absolute monarchy

Absolute power was conferred on Frederik III at a meeting of the estates in October 1660. At this meeting, the council of the realm (rigsråd) was dissolved, the king’s coronation charter was discarded and the three estates swore an oral oath to the king. In January 1661, this oath was confirmed by the Sovereignty Act (Enevoldsarveregeringsakten), signed by the estates, which affirmed the hereditary monarchy and the king’s absolute power. At the same time, the king swore that his eldest son would inherit the right to the throne. If the king did not have any legitimate sons, the throne would go to his younger brothers and then to his paternal uncles’ sons, and so on. Through the principle of primo-geniture, preventing the division of inheritance, the king secured the indivisibility of the country.

The legal basis for the absolute power of the monarchy was extended in 1665 with Kongeloven, the King’s Code, which was the absolute monarchy’s basic law or constitution. Kongeloven established the line of succession and bestowed unrestricted power on the king by confirming his authority as a legislator and his right to appoint and dismiss all officials, to have an army, to wage war, to pursue his own foreign policy and to levy taxes. It also secured the king’s supreme authority in ecclesiastical matters. His political power was safeguarded by the requirement that his signature appear on all the letters and laws issued by the government.

The King’s Code (Kongeloven) of 1665

The royal private copy of the King’s Code (Kongeloven), with Frederik III’s signature on the last page. The King’s Code of 1665 was Europe’s only written absolutist constitution, which remained in force until it was replaced by the constitution (Grundloven) of 1849. Religion was at the heart of the text, with the first section obliging the king to comply with the Augsburg Confession, the central confessional scripture in the Lutheran Church. The monarch was therefore committed to one particular confession. In the years immediately after 1665, the content of the code was unknown to the general population – it was first published in 1709. Photo: Royal Danish Collection, Rosenborg

The nobility in the age of absolutism

The noble estate had the most to lose when absolute rule was introduced. They had previously shared power and honour with the king through the council of the realm (rigsråd) and, as an estate, had enjoyed exclusive rights to offices of state and the ownership of lands and manors. Now nobles were demoted to the position of subjects on an equal footing with others, at least in principle. The former privileges of the nobility now came with the ownership of land and were therefore available to all who could afford to buy them. At the same time, positions as government officials, which had previously been reserved for the nobility, were now open to people of burgher descent. The nobility’s loss of estate privileges and status was emphasised in Christian V’s law of precedence (rangforordning) of 25 May 1671. This piece of legislation established a social hierarchy based primarily on royal service rather than lineage and noble birth. Each particular rank referred to an officially determined status, which also set the order in which people should sit at official occasions, for example.

A law on the privileges of counts and barons, which was issued on the same day as the order of precedence, introduced new high-ranking titles to the nobility. Becoming a count required a fairly large piece of farmland to produce 2,500 barrels of hard corn (a unit of land valuation) or 120,000 rigsdaler, and becoming a baron required 1,000 barrels of hard corn or 50,000 rigsdaler. Both positions were also dependent on royal approval. The title of count or baron carried the privilege of tax exemption but also the duty to bring local crimes before the manorial court (birkeretten), to collect fines and to administer the legal process at the court. The new privileges very much resembled those the nobility attained through birth before the introduction of absolutism, but they were now given to the wealthiest and at the king’s discretion. Along with the law of precedence, the new titled nobility helped to reduce the political power of the old, and to cement its loyalty to the king. The old nobility was still well placed to achieve status and power in the new system, but, whereas they were previously granted positions by birth, this now occurred at the mercy of the king.

The absolute power of the monarchy

Before absolutism, the king had shared power, responsibility and state administration with the rigsråd, and thus with the nobility. After the introduction of absolutism in 1660, power and the tasks of government lay solely with the king. However, it was not humanly possible to rule alone. No individual king could perform all the necessary tasks himself. The court and royal civil servants (embedsmænd; singular embedsmand) came to play a new and central role in the political scene. Civil servants were not quite as we understand them today; to a large extent, they were politicians with the potential to exert a great deal of personal influence. The real power of the king therefore largely depended on the extent to which he could control his civil servants and balance power interests at court.

Christian V’s anointing in Frederiksborg chapel on 7 June 1671

Christian V’s anointing in Frederiksborg chapel on 7 June 1671. The bishop of Sjælland presided over the magnificent ceremony. Before absolutism kings had been crowned; Christian V was the first monarch to be anointed. The actual succession had taken place beforehand, since Christian V had become the absolute hereditary king from the moment his father died. At the ceremony, the king placed his own crown on his head and was subsequently anointed in order to receive God’s blessing. Painting by Michael van Haven (1625–1679). Photo: The Royal Danish Collection, Rosenborg

Personal absolutism

In the King’s Code, Frederik III had tried to limit the influence of civil servants by requiring that his signature appear on all letters and documents issued by the government. He kept track of embedsmænd and the political arena through a privileged civil servant who had the king’s confidence.

Christian V initially adopted the same approach but gradually came to develop a policy of ‘divide and rule’, in which no civil servant was entrusted with decisive power. Instead, a group of particular favourites, senior officials and advisers were kept in constant competition for the king’s favour and trust. This meant that the king retained power but politics became more volatile. The most famous of his favourites was Peder Schumacher (ennobled under the name Griffenfeld), who had been a political adviser to Frederik III and, as the king’s secretary, had prepared the King’s Code. Griffenfeld converted the young Christian V’s ideas into policy, but he fell out of favour when he supported a milder line against France and Sweden than the king. In 1676, he was accused of misconduct, corruption and treason and sentenced to death, but this sentence was later commuted to life imprisonment. After Griffenfeld, Christian V avoided having a senior civil servant with such immense political talent and power.

Frederik IV had the administrative skills, interest and will to exercise absolute power and actually controlled large parts of the state administration himself, without the help of privileged senior civil servants. His reign is regarded as the closest Denmark came to personal absolutism. In general, Frederik IV had little confidence in those surrounding him. He made decisions without consulting advisers, especially through his personal office, the cabinet, where the staff came to play a more political role than was usual.

Religious and alcoholic kings

Christian VI’s ruling style was similar to Frederik IV’s. He was conscientious and extremely diligent in his involvement in government affairs, and he parted ways with several senior ministers when they became too self-assured. Deeply religious, Christian VI was influenced by Pietism, which led him to issue laws on confirmation and education but also to impose a ban on the theatre and to restrict social life at court.

Frederik V departed from his father’s strictly religious ruling style. He was a weak ruler – inadequately educated and prone to drink. The stability and economic progress that characterised the country during Frederik V’s reign was largely due to the trust he placed in his civil servants. The foreign minister J.H.E. Bernstorff and Lord Chamberlain A.G. Moltke were the real leaders of the country during Frederik V’s reign. Political influence generally relied on having access to the king, which made the court a central arena for political power.

Christian VII and Struensee

Christian VII ascended the throne at the age of sixteen in 1766. He had a mental illness – most likely schizophrenia – and so like his father struggled to rule the kingdom, though for a different reason. Since the King’s Code did not account for occasions when the king was unfit to rule, the illusion of normality was largely maintained throughout his long reign. However, the king’s unstable mental state gave free rein to power struggles and court plots, and his reign was characterised by spectacular struggles for power.

Relatively soon after he assumed government responsibility, Christian VII hired a German physician, Johann F. Struensee. Struensee gradually won the king’s trust and thus full power. He ruled through cabinet orders, thus avoiding the civil servants and the state council (statsrådet). In 1770, Struensee abolished the state council and made himself ‘Master of Requests’ – in other words, the civil servant who should present all official documents to the king. He was given power of attorney to issue orders that were just as valid as those the king had signed. Struensee’s power lasted around eighteen months, during which he issued almost 2,000 cabinet orders. At the same time, he began a relationship with the young queen, Caroline Mathilde. His affair with the queen and the extent of his reforms created resistance within the royal family and parts of the nobility, and in January 1772 he was deposed after a masquerade ball at Christiansborg Palace. He was charged with lèse-majesté (insulting the king) and sentenced to death; he was beheaded before being drawn and quartered, and his body was put on public display.

The coup against Struensee was orchestrated by Juliane Marie (Frederik V’s widow) and her son, presumptive heir to the throne Prince Frederik. After Struensee’s death, they became temporary rulers together with the crown prince’s teacher, Ove Høegh-Guldberg. The state council was restored and most of Struensee’s reforms were abolished. The heir presumptive and Høegh-Guldberg ruled for twelve years, until Crown Prince Frederik (son of Christian VII and Caroline Mathilde) was confirmed and, in 1784, at the age of sixteen, participated in his first state council assembly. Crown Prince Frederik led a coup, forcing Christian VII to sign an order stating that all royal orders should also bear the signature of the crown prince. Frederik ruled as crown prince from 1784 until Christian VII’s death in 1808 and, after this, as Frederik VI. Despite the enlightened ideals of the time, Frederik VI often ruled single-handedly when he became king, without involving his advisers.

Spaces of power

Copenhagen Castle had been the king’s main residence when absolute rule was introduced, but it had an old medieval structure that did not adequately represent the power of the absolute monarch. Frederik IV therefore had the castle completely rebuilt and modernised. At the same time, he added a new archive building and the so-called Red Building (Røde Bygning), which housed the main part of the central administration.

When Christian VI came to power, he demolished the castle and had Christiansborg Palace built in its place. The palace was in use from 1740, but it was only finished and decorated a dozen years later. It housed the private chambers of the king and queen as well as rooms for all the courtiers, divided according to estate and rank. In this way, it resembled international examples. The proximity of the king’s chambers, the administration offices and the social rooms of court reflected the relationship between state and king. More than eight hundred people lived in Christiansborg once it was completed. A further three hundred people associated with the court lived in the Prince’s Mansion (Prinsens Palæ) – now the National Museum of Denmark – or in the city of Copenhagen. Most of the palace burned down in 1794, but its rebuilding was completed in 1828.

In the meantime, Frederik V had manifested his power and taste through the construction of an entirely new district in Copenhagen, Frederiksstaden. In the centre of this new district, with its wide straight streets and noble mansions, was an octagonal courtyard (Amalienborg Slotsplads) containing an equestrian statue of Frederik V by French sculptor Jacques-François-Joseph Saly. The courtyard was, and remains, surrounded by four palaces, which were constructed when the district was founded in 1748. These four palaces were built by four different members of the nobility, who gave their names to the palaces, but when Christiansborg Palace burned down in 1794, two of the four became royal family residences, and the royal family never moved back into the rebuilt Christiansborg Palace. Amalienborg’s status as a temporary and then permanent residence for the Danish kings resulted in a division of the king’s private residence and the state administration, which has been maintained to this day.

The importance of the court

Alongside the official political system, the court was a place of unofficial power and influence. The two forums were rarely sharply separated, and it was the individual king who decided where the most power should lie. Gaining influence at court required engagement in its power games and intrigues, but also adherence to the standard norms of posture, gestures and compliments. There was an extensive literature on court etiquette, with guidance on how to behave at court and amongst the powerful.

Social life at court assumed many guises. Games of cards, chess or dice provided opportunities for social interaction. An invitation to the royal table was essential in order to gain the king’s favour and influence. There were weekly evening parties and, less frequently, balls of various kinds. On special occasions, the royal household arranged magnificent banquets, where the higher-ranking classes were seated according to rank, reflecting the hierarchy of society. Masquerade balls, at which rank was temporarily suspended and replaced by disguise (but the social code still required certain behaviour), were also a popular part of court life.

Social life at court

The personality of the king shaped the social character of the various royal courts. During the reign of the Pietist Christian VI, masquerade balls and other forms of ‘wicked’ entertainment, such as evening parties and balls, were suspended. Church services and devotions prevailed. Frederik IV, on the other hand, had a French theatre troupe of twelve people attached to the court, and masquerade balls flourished as a form of social interaction under Christian VII. Court life revived when Frederik V ascended the throne following the austere reign of Christian VI, with evening parties every Tuesday and Thursday, and theatre and opera as a part of court life. The latter years of Christian VII’s reign were characterised by a more bourgeois culture. This continued under Frederik VI, when the royal family were seen taking Sunday strolls in Frederiksberg Garden or rowing in the canals, and were depicted as such in paintings. Irrespective of the form it assumed, social life at court was an expression of the king’s need to act as a public and accessible figure who staged his power in convivial forms adapted to the ideals of the time.

The political forums of the nobility and the burghers

The elite of the noble and burgher estates met to discuss the ideas of the time. In the European-style aristocratic salons that emerged in the second half of the eighteenth century, members of the nobility, financiers, civil servants, diplomats and artists discussed art, culture, politics, business and new social trends. The salons were an expression of the blurred boundary between the public and the private, and they also created an opportunity for women to participate in political discourse. As the political influence of the burgher estate gradually increased towards the end of the eighteenth century, the distinction between the private and the public became sharper. Politics became increasingly limited to the public sphere.

In the second half of the eighteenth century, new public forums made political debate and influence possible for a broader section of the male population. From the 1780s, club culture developed in Copenhagen and the larger provincial towns, beginning with the establishment of scholarly societies. The Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters (Det Kongelige Danske Videnskabernes Selskab) was founded in 1742, linked to the University of Copenhagen. Towards the end of the eighteenth century, several sections of society began to form patriotic associations that aimed to promote the common good in the spirit of the Enlightenment.

The emergence and significance of public opinion

Members of the men’s clubs that emerged at the end of the eighteenth century had access to newspapers, journals and books, and hosted informal events where current affairs could be discussed. The clubs often had a social and cultural purpose, while also creating a space for conversation about politics and society. Especially after the French Revolution, these clubs contributed to the politicisation of the burghers (or bour-geoisie), to the beginnings of opposition to absolutism and to the
emergence of national identity. The political discussions that unfolded in the clubs and spilled over into journals and newspapers were significant enough to lead historians to describe the power structure in the period towards the end of the eighteenth century as ‘opinion-guided absolutism’ (opinionsstyrede enevælde). Many new ideas were inspired by the Enlightenment ideals of reason and science, as opposed to faith in a social order governed by God. Such discussions helped to change perceptions of the king’s power from being God-given to being conferred by the subjects – and it was thus a power that should be exercised in accordance with the people’s wishes. In parallel with the debate on absolutism, a discussion arose regarding who ‘the people’ were. This discussion found expression in the law on citizenship from 1776, in which it was stated that royal civil servants had to have been born within the Danish kingdom.

Royal civil servants and the state administration

The absolute monarchs were entirely dependent on a well-functioning administration. The increase in the responsibilities of the state required a stronger administration, and so the royal administrative system was re-organised after 1660. A centralised hierarchy of public offices was established with the monarch at the top, while the role of the civil servant was gradually professionalised. The first absolutist kings were very aware of the need to change the social composition of the administration in order to establish loyal civil servants who could support and strengthen the growing state power. To this end, they deliberately recruited civil servants from burgher descent as opposed to members of the nobility, who had previously had a monopoly on many offices in the state administration. The new civil servants thus had different backgrounds; some had read theology at the University of Copenhagen, while others had studied at universities abroad or received practical training from another government official.

In 1736, a law degree was established at the University of Copenhagen and formal legal qualifications became a requirement to obtain a number of royal offices. Law graduates from the university slowly came to occupy public offices in central and later local administration. In addition, it became possible to take a more minor law exam after a period of training with a royal official. At the same time, new demands were placed on the civil servants’ knowledge of current legislation; from around the beginning of the nineteenth century most of the offices in both the central and local administration were occupied by men with formal legal qualifications. This did not completely prevent cases of corruption and abuse of office, however.

At the start of absolutism civil servants were very directly the king’s servants, but towards the end of the eighteenth century they were increasingly responsible for state and societal interests. Many civil servants warmly supported the move towards an enlightened or opinion--guided absolutism.

The central administration was located in the capital. It was divided into a military and a non-military section. The four central institutions were: 1) the Danish chancellery (Danske Kancelli), which was responsible for the legal system, the Church and education; 2) the German chancellery (Tyske Kancelli), which was responsible for matters in Schleswig-Holstein and foreign policy; 3) the treasury (Rentekammeret), which managed state finances; and 4) the war chancellery (Krigskollegiet), which administered the army and the navy.

At the regional level, the local districts (len) were replaced in 1662 by districts (amter; singular amt), and the royal stewards (lensmænd) were replaced by royally appointed district stewards (amtmænd) and prefects (stiftamtmænd). The newly established districts had local responsibility for the legal system, cases under the Church, the supervision of local civil servants and the maintenance of roads and bridges, among many other things.

The administration of justice

The most important new addition to the judicial system after the introduction of absolutism was the establishment of the Supreme Court (Højesteret) in 1661. This court replaced the king’s court of final appeal (Kongens Retterting) as the highest court in the realm. Officially, the king presided over the Supreme Court personally, and the judges acted only as substitutes when the king was not present. However, from the end of the seventeenth century, the kings did not attend the hearings, meaning that, in practice, the judicial power lay with the court’s judges. Courts in the towns and countryside functioned as courts of first instance, with the regional law courts as courts of second instance under the Supreme Court.

In addition to the three formal courts, there was also a range of ad hoc commission courts and special courts, such as the partly ecclesiastical court (Tamperretten) which ruled in matrimonial cases until 1797. Minutes were taken at the various courts to document the proceedings. Many court records can today be found in the Danish National Archives, allowing insights into the vast scope of the various judicial bodies.

Christian V presiding over the Supreme Court, c. 1697

This painting shows Christian V presiding over the Supreme Court, c. 1697. The king is seated in the middle and the judges along two long tables. Following its establishment in 1661, the Supreme Court was first housed in Copenhagen Castle and then, from the 1740s, in the newly built Christiansborg Palace. When the palace burned down in 1794, the Supreme Court moved to the Prince’s Mansion, which today is part of the National Museum of Denmark. Unknown artist. Photo: Royal Danish Collection, Rosenborg

A standardised legal code

In order to create a standardised legal code for the country, the earlier provincial laws for the kingdom of Denmark were replaced by the Danish Code of 1683 and, for Norway, by the Norwegian Code of 1687. These laws were continually supplemented by new legislation issued in the form of decrees, orders, announcements and rescripts. This meant that administration could be increasingly based on the rule of law.

The collection of legislation in the Danish Code of 1683, issued by Christian V, constituted a milestone in Danish legal history, since in it all the country’s subjects were in principle equal in the eyes of the law and the rules for law enforcement were established. The Danish Code built to a large extent on legislation from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It supported the exercise of absolute power, but it also made the administration of justice more humane, with milder penal provisions. The code placed ethical demands on the judiciary in an attempt to ensure a class of judges who followed the rule of law and were incorruptible.

The establishment of uniform standards

The new national legal code formed part of the standardisation and centralisation of the state in the 1680s. In 1683, weights and measures were standardised across the entire country, putting an end to many different local measurement systems. Many taxes were paid in kind, with products such as grain and other food items, so units of measurement were crucial to the implementation of efficient and centrally controlled taxation. The new standardised units of measurement were prepared by the scientist Ole Rømer, from whom Christian V had requested practical assistance in solving a number of challenges of the time, such as street lighting, the water supply, the sewerage system and a survey of the road network. During the 1680s, the cultivated land, meadows and forests of the whole kingdom (with the exception of Bornholm) were surveyed and valued so the government could acquire a detailed overview of who owned and worked the land, as well as the tax potential of individual farms. Land was valued according to its quality and performance, as opposed to its area. These values were recorded in the Great Land Register (Den Store Matrikel) of 1688, which created a new and standardised basis for the levying of land tax and the potential for a more efficient system of taxation. The land register constituted an administratively simple basis for taxation in Denmark until the next land register was completed in 1844, and it represented a huge achievement for the early absolutist regime.

The absolute monarchy and administration changed significantly between 1660 and 1814. The investment of political power in the king was underpinned by the centralisation and professionalisation of the administration, which meant a standardisation of local administration, the legal system and taxation

The Absolutist State

Watch this film in which Nina Javette Koefoed talks about the absolutist state. The film is in Danish with English subtitles and lasts about nine minutes. Click 'CC' and choose 'English' or 'Danish' for subtitles.