In researching the origins and impact of An Account of Denmark as it was in the year 1692, I discovered that there was much more to it and its author, Robert Molesworth (1656-1725), than the rather biased myths that have been spread about them would suggest.

Some of the apparent discrepancies I faced:

1. Some Danish Descriptions of Robert Molesworth

“English politician and author appointed envoy to Denmark June 1689 until 1692 but achieved little and caused offence by his inconsiderate behaviour . . . together with his prejudiced description of Denmark and the Danes he asserted his anti-high church and anti-absolutist views. The book which shows some powers of observation, incurred displeasure in Denmark and was the cause of several rejoinders.” [Hagerups Illustrerede Konversations Leksikon – (1951)]

“English diplomat and author . . . . the son of a rich merchant with Irish estates. Just like his father had been an ardent supporter of Cromwell, his son was loyal to William III. In June 1689 he was sent to Denmark and made an agreement about auxiliary troops, but his strong sense of freedom conflicted with the strict concepts of the divinity of the monarchy, (he would not submit to the rigid court ceremonial) and his stubborness caused him to be at loggerheads with his surroundings. (He even broke into the royal game preserves on Amager)” [Salmonsen Konversations Leksikon, Bind xvii, 2.udg., (1924)]

“one cannot consider him to have been a learned man . . . . he did not really have any other qualifications than that he belonged to the victorious Whigs and had to be rewarded.” [Kjersgaard, Erik ‘England, Danmark og Robert Molesworth’, Postscript in Robert Molesworth – En beskrivelse af Danmark som det var i året 1692, Svend Lyndrup [trans], (1977)]

2. Could this really be the same man

– whose father and uncles fought for the Royalists?
– whose original mission was to threaten the Danes with war if they would not make peace at Altona?
– who wrote a bestseller that appeared in 4 English, 5 French, 2 Dutch & 2 German editions between 1693 & 1700 alone?
– who John Locke described as “so ingenious and extraordinary a man”?
– who was a close friend of the politician, philosopher and writer Anthony Ashley Cooper, 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury?
– who was inspired by Sir William Petty and who in turn inspired Adam Smith’s teacher, (the one who Smith called “the never to be forgotten Hutcheson”)?
– who was praised by Swift?
– whose writings were in the libraries of, and who inspired, several of the American Founding Fathers?
– who J C Beckett, a more recent Irish historian, in a study of the period has described as “one of the two leading figures in the intellectual life of Dublin of the time”?

3. Some of my findings

The Danish tradition about Molesworth was begun by a contemporary Danish courtier (La Fouleresse) who added to the material produced by three writers in England. Taken collectively the authors Dr William King, Jodacus Crull and Thomas Rogers can best be characterised as high-church Tories who were opposed to Molesworth’s Whiggism and ‘modern’ learning and hoped to be rewarded by the Danish authorities.

In 1879 a Danish clergyman, Chr. Brasch, published his study Om Robert Molesworth’s Skrift “An Account of Denmark as it was in the year 1692”. This has been much used by subsequent historians but is very unreliable. More a eulogist than an historian, Brasch was much affected by his focus on the importance of Prince George (in Danish Prins Jørgen), who was Christian V’s brother and was married to the future Queen Anne, the younger daughter of James II. In his rather idiosyncratic study, Brasch for example, tried to explain away comments like Charles II’s about George “I’ve tried him drunk and tried him sober and there’s nothing there” with the explanation that yes, George did drink claret, but he only drank it medicinally.

Molesworth did not get the job as envoy to Denmark because of any connection with the court of Princess Anne and Prince George. Having identified the Duke of Holstein Gottorp’s appeal from 1675 –  “the strong application to the crown of England, as guarrantee of the Northern Peace . . . written in English” it becomes clear that Molesworth had studied the circumstances surrounding the Danish occupation of the Duke’s territories when he traveled in Germany, while on his annual continental travels in the period 1684-88. There is also evidence that he undertook at least one important secret mission for William before the invasion in 1688.

Molesworth was not thrown out of Denmark. After the confederate defeat of the French fleet at La Hogue, King William finally gave him permission to leave to visit his estates in Ireland, and he left as soon as he could.

Molesworth’s dispute with Haxthausen before his departure was almost certainly about a wager. Many members of the Danish court, including the French ambassador had put money on the success of a French invasion to return James II to the English throne. They lost, and Molesworth must have left Copenhagen much wealthier, but with a bad taste in the mouths of many courtiers.

‘An Account’ should be interpreted in the context of previous descriptions of Denmark. Contemporary publications in Denmark were indirectly censored, not least by royal decrees about paper rationing, and the content of histories owed more to an unquestioning acceptance of authorities like Saxo, than to actual observations. In contrast Molesworth’s ‘modern’, Baconian upbringing had been greatly influenced by his grandmother whose social circle included some of the leading intellectuals of the day and founder members of the Royal Society (e.g. Milton, Hartlib, Dury, Boyle, Lady Ranelagh & Petty). His ideals were thus based on observation of facts and his values on utility, education and economic progress. In politics he believed in the ‘Gothic polity’ and the chapter of ‘An Account’ which describes this was the most criticised in the answers that were written to it.


Brief Facts

Robert Molesworth (1656-1725)


(all dates OS)
1656-Sept     Death of Robert Molesworth (father) (3rd), Robert Molesworth born (7th), Fishamble St. Dublin
1672 – 1675  Trinity College, Dublin;
1675 – 1676   Lincoln’s Inn, London
1676-Aug      Marriage to the Hon Letitia Coote (16th)
1698-Mar      Fellow of the Royal Society (23rd)
1725-May      Death at Swords, Co Dublin (22nd)

As William and Mary’s Envoy to Denmark

1689-Jun      Credentials dated (6th), 1st Instructions dated (6th), 2nd Instructions dated (19th), Treaty of Altona signed (20th)
1689-Jul        Arrives in Denmark (7th)
1689-Aug      Agreement reached on treaty to hire Danish troops (15th)
1689-Sept     William III ratifies treaty to hire Danish troops (4th)
1690-Mar     The Danish Force lands in Ireland (13th)
1690-Jun       Defeat of Anglo-Dutch fleet at Beachy Head (30th), William lands nr Carrickfergus (14th)
1690-Jul        Battle of the Boyne (1st), William enters Dublin (6th)
1690-Sept     Joined by family in Copenhagen (3rd)
1692-May     French fleet defeated at Barfleur & La Hogue crushing James II’s hopes of reclaiming throne (19th-24th), First news arrives in Copenhagen (30th)
1692-Jun      More news arrives of La Hogue (3rd & 7th), Permission to depart received (13th), Departure from Denmark (20th)

Irish Parliament

1695 – 1699   MP[I] for Dublin
1697 – 1713   Privy Councillor [I] – dismissed Jan 1713
1703 – 1705   MP[I] for Swords
1714-Oct       Privy Councillor [I]
1716-Jul        Created Lord Molesworth, Baron of Phillipstown in King’s County and Viscount Molesworth of Swords, County Dublin (16th)

Westminster Parliament

1695 – 1698       MP for Camelford
1705 – 1706-01  MP for Lostwithiel
1706-01 – 1708  MP for East Retford
1714 – 1716       Commissioner for Trade and Plantations
1715 – 1722       MP for Mitchell
1721 – 1722       Commissioner in the Enquiry into the South Sea Bubble
1722                  Prospect of Molesworth standing as MP for Westminster.

Writings etc

1693-12-15     First publication of An Account of Denmark as it was in the year 1692. (13 eds. published before 1700; 22 by 1752)
1711               Published translation of Francis Hotoman’s Franco-Gallia without the preface
1716               Preface to his daughter, the Hon M Monck’s Marinda, Poems and Translations Upon Several Occasions
1717               A Short Narrative of the Life and Death of John Rhinholdt Count Patkul.
1721               Translation of Francis Hotoman’s Franco-Gallia, reissued with the preface. Preface later published as The Principles of a Real Whig
1723              Some Considerations for the Promoting of Agriculture and Employing the Poor.

His Influence

1724              Frances Hutcheson finishes An Inquiry into the Original of our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue, which includes an acknowledgement to Molesworth.
1724-12-03   Swift dedicates The 5th Drapier’s Letter to Molesworth.