Written by Hans Christian Andersen, this fascinating travelogue has been serialised into eight episodes by Carolyn Kain. This week, in the final episode, she looks at evidence and asks: “Was Hans Christian the son of a poor shoemaker and an illiterate washerwoman or of Danish royal descent?”
By the time he made his journey to Portugal, Hans Christian was 51 and a highly respected author of travel books and fairytales. His reputation was established throughout Europe and North America. From a supposedly lowly background, he had become so important that Dom Fernando – the widower of Queen Maria II – invited him to a private audience at the Palácio das Necessidades in Lisbon. He showed him round the exotic gardens and his glasshouses, which are described in detail by Hans Christian in his book and still exist today.
Dom Fernando almost certainly did not know that rumours were circulating in Denmark about his guest being the illegitimate son of King Christian VIII. It is unclear if Hans Christian himself knew about these scandalous assertions but, long after his death, they continue to persist.
The story begins in April 1805 at Broholm Castle when a baby was born in secret to an aristocratic Danish woman, Elise Ahlefeldt. The child’s father was supposedly Crown Prince Christian. The newborn baby was placed in the care of an employee at the castle and shortly afterwards adopted by Hans, the shoemaker, and his washerwoman wife.
The couple were an unlikely pair – he was 22, she was 40 and they had married two months before the baby was born. A birth certificate was issued but not until 1823 when the 17-year-old youth was given two forenames, Hans and Christian.
During the child’s early years it seems unlikely that such poor parents could have afforded to pay school fees, yet Hans Christian attended Slagelse High. This fact led to speculation about who the boy’s rich benefactors must be.
The current principal of Slagelse High, Jens Jorgensen, is an historian who has been delving into the mystery. He is convinced that records and tuition fees prove King Christian intervened on the boy’s behalf. He also claims the King regularly visited the school and, if this is true, the parentage of Hans Christian might well be royal.
After leaving Slagelse, Hans Christian showed a keen interest in acting, singing and dancing. Although his talents were limited, he was provided with significant help by Jonas Collins – one of the King’s Counsellors – and this enabled him to follow a stage career. He befriended Hans Christian in a fatherly way and as Financial Director of the Royal Theatre in Copenhagen he ensured his employment for a period of three years.
One of the first to spot Hans Christian’s writing abilities was Edward Collins, the son of Jonas. After reading a draft of his descriptions of the Danish countryside, he arranged for the manuscript to be published. Entitled “A Walk in the Amager”, it received good reviews and had a huge effect on Hans Christian’s self esteem.
“To see my name in print was a great moment in my life. I felt that it was a nimbus of immortality.”
The book was quickly followed up by an amusing playlet that was accepted by the Royal Theatre Company and performed to great applause.
Without doubt it was the guiding hands of Jonas and Edward Collins that put Hans Christian on route to becoming an accomplished author. Commander Wulff was another influential individual with royal connections who came into the young man’s life.
He helped by promoting his writing and introducing him to a new social scene. As well as being a naval officer, the Commander was a literary man who had translated Shakespeare’s plays from English into Danish. His public approval and appraisal of Hans Christian’s writing was a valuable asset.
Acting as more than a professional promoter, in 1825 he unexpectedly invited Hans Christian to share a family Christmas. He was overwhelmed by the occasion, likening the Commander’s home to a palace and describing the festivities as unforgettable.
Later the Commander, by now an Admiral, arranged for the budding author to be present at a royal occasion, the Cadet’s Ball. Through the close relationship Hans Christian built up with the Wulff family he was exposed to a lifestyle he had not experienced before.
It was whilst dining at the Wulff’s that he met two Portuguese brothers, Jose and Jorge O’Neill. Their father was the Danish Ambassador in Lisbon and he had sent his sons to Copenhagen to learn about the country of his birth. The three young men became firm friends and more than 20 years later, Hans Christian was to stay with Jorge in Lisbon. His reunion is recounted in ‘A Visit to Portugal 1866’.
“His eyes still had a youthful sparkle as we recalled the old days, our first meeting and the time we had spent together in our youth. Many words are needed to describe what lies in the heart – but one can see it all in one glance, just as one sees a flower with its myriad petals.”
Hans Christian is frequently inclined to express similar and deep emotions in his travel books. For instance whenever he refers to Hans, the shoemaker, it is clear his influence as a caring father had a massive impact. Just like Shakespeare – because of his genius – Hans Christian’s early life and education are called into question.
It is perfectly plausible that the influential people he encountered were charmed by the simplicity and ambitions of a poor shoemakers son. Alternatively – if the conspiracy theory is to be believed – the Danish monarch intervened until his son’s successful future was guaranteed.
A Series by Carolyn Kain