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Christian Ditlev Frederik Reventlow


"The most noble statesman Denmark has reared". So writes a historian of the twentieth century of Christian Ditlev Frederik Viscount Reventlow, owner of vast forested Danish estates, holder of important offices during the years around 1800, a devoted servant to his King and his Country, an outstanding reformer of rural life in Denmark and not least a born scientist and investigator into the nature of tree growth.

C. D. F. Reventlow was born on March 11, 1748 in Copenhagen, the first son of Christian Ditlev Reventlow (I 710-1775) and Johanne Frederika Sophie, Baroness of Bothmar (1718-1754).

The Reventlow family is mentioned in the historical annals of Denmark and Holsten as far back as the year 1223. The first member of the family to take prominent part in the political life and government of the Kingdom of Denmark was Conrad Reventlow (1644-1708) a keen diplomat who, on behalf of the Danish king, negotiated with France, England and Holland regarding the freedom of Danish sca trade during the naval warfare of these countries around 1690. From 1699 to his death in 1708 he was Lord Chancellor to the absolute monarch, Frederik IV.

Among his numerous offices may also be mentioned that of Chief Conservator of the Royal Forests which he held from 1680 to 1699. During this period two decrees were issued which are outstanding in the history of Danish forest policy. These were the decree of December 29, 1681 prohibiting deforestation and the decrce øf September 139 1687 concerning the management not only of the Royal Forests but of private forests as well.

Conrad's son, Christian Ditlev Reventlow (1671-1738) is remembered for his military achievernents. He succeeded his father as Chief Conservator of the Royal Forests, but this was probably an honorary courtcharge as he spent most of his time as leader of a Danish army hired out for warfare in foreign countries. When the king, Frederik IV, who was married on his left hand to Reventlow's sister, died in 1730, the new king, Christian VI, deprived Christian Reventlow of all his offices. He thereupon retired to his estates.

Christian's son who bore the same name of Christian Ditlev Reventlow (1710-1775) was the father of C. D. F. Reventlow. He abstained from taking high offices and lived mainly for managing the many estates he had inherited from his parents. When his wife died in 1754, leaving him with four children of whom the eldest was only 6 years old, he was much depressed. He married again in 1762, and together with his second wife, Charlotte Amalie, born Holstein, (1736-1792) created a greatly beloved home for his gifted children.

His two sons, Christian Ditlev Frederik and Johan Ludvig (1751-1801) were educated by their father so that they were equipped to hold high office under the Danish government. In 1762 both boys were sent to school at the academic gymnasium ofaltona in Holsten where they learned much but also followed the unfortunate custom of drinking and brawling in the streets. Luckily they were prevented from running away from the gymnasium to join the Prussian army. In 1764 they were transferred to the Academy of Sorø on Zealand under the charge of a private tutor Dr. med. Carl Wendt (1731-1815) and this proved very successful. Dr. Wendt remained a close friend of the Reventlow family until his death and collaborated with C. D. F. Reventlow in later years when they both held high office in the Danish government.

In 1767, having completed their education at Sorø Academy, the two brothers and their tutor set forth on a long journey to foreign countries. They first spent two years at the University of Leipzig. Here C. D. F. Reventlow became influenced for life by the ideas of the German philosophers, C. F. Gellert (1715-1769) and Christian Garve (1742-1778), on social ethics and especially on freedom of tenure. In the spring of I 769 they left Leipzig to go to Frankfurt a. M. and Heidelberg, and from there to Switzerland. During the first months of the year 1770, they studied in Paris and then procceded to England for a stay of several months at Oxford. This travelling was not intended for sightseeing but primarily for meeting prominent people, scientists and government administrators and to study agricultural reform, silviculture, manufacturing and mining, all of great interest for young noblemen who were one day to own great landed and forested estates and presumably to hold high office in the Danish government.

In the autumn of 1770 they returned from England to Denmark via Belgium and Holland. But the political situation had become rather complex, and so the two young Reventlows were once more sent by their father from Denmark to study for a year in Sweden and Norway. Then at last, C. D. F. Reventlow was allowed to settle at Christianssæde on Lolland, one of the estates owned by his father. In June l 7 74 he married Charlotte v. Beulwitz (1747-1822) and so began an extremely happy family life. In 1773 Reventlow reccived his first official appointment - as Gommissioner in the State Department for Economy and Trade - and from then on he rose gradually to higher and higher office.

In 1775 he inherited from his father a number of estates in the southern part of Denmark, on the island of Lolland. Here he immediately began almost revolutionary agricultural reforms based on what he had seen, particularly in England. His entire possessions, comprising 32 villages with 270 tenant farms were mapped. The fields which had hitherto been cultivated by the common field system, in village-community, were allotted separately to each farm. Modern buildings were erected on each farm in the middle of its own fields. Better tools for tillage were introduced. Villeinage was abandoned and compensated by the payment of rents fixed according to the varying prices of agricultural products. Schools were established and midwifery organized. For the better management of the forests he sought the assistance of a Hanoverian forester, G. W. Br¸el (1752-1827), who was well acquainted with the new German ideas of high forest management. These activities on his own estates gave him a very valuable basis for introducing corresponding reforms throughout the entire country.

In 1784 a court-revolution took place, overthrowing the reactionary reign of the Dowager Queen who on behalf of her stepson, the insane Christian VII, had taken over the autocracy. The Prince Royal, later Frederik VI (1768-1839) was established as Prince Regent. Reventlow took a prominent part in this revolution and from then until 1813, when he took his leave, he worked in close and friendly collaboration with the Prince Regent, who became the Sovereign in 1808.

The reforms carried out by Reventlow during these 29 years were many and varied. First should be mentioned the agricultural reforms along the lines introduced by himself upon his own estates. During the years from 1781 to 1800 agricultural conditions in Denmark were totally changed and the life of a Danish peasant revolutionized. Since the Middle Ages by far the largest part of the farm land had been cultivated, according to the communal system of agriculture, by peasants who were copyholders under the great land owners. A land owner had the privilege of terminating copyhold rights at will and any of the peasants on the estate could be forced to move to an unoccupied strip holding. The copyhold rents were unspecified, especially that portion which comprised enforced labour on the estate i. e. villeinage. This had come into being in the middle of the fifteenth century and under this form of tenure no peasant was allowed to leave his birthplace without permission of his lord and master. This compulsory restraint was abolished in 1702, but was re-established in 1733 under a form known as "adscription".

In 1781 a Royal Ordinance proclaimed the voluntary abandonment of the collective system of agriculture involving the exchange of strip holdings for one compact holding. However this had no practical value before radical agricultural reforms were carried through by co-operation between Reventlow, A. P. Bernstorff (1735-1797) and C. Colbiørnsen (1749-1814), his colleagues in the Gabinet. First the copyholds under the Royal Estates in northern Zealand were abolished, farmhouses and buildings were moved from the old villages out into the fields and the farms themselves were transferred to the copyholders on reasonable terms, cither as copyhold or as frechold. In 1787 definite rules were fixed for legal transactions between the estate owners and the copyholders. For this purpose a series of actions were taken towards abolishing tenure in villeinage and transferring the farms under copyhold or freehold. In 1788 the adscription was abolished.

These important and comprehensive reforms were the basis for the great development of Danish agriculture from the time they came into effect until the present day.

Reventlow promoted further social advancement for the common people through new laws on the treatment of prisoners, poor relief and the establishment of primary schools all over the country. He participated in the reorganization of the state finances and the banking system and in the establishment of a new credit institution for financing the reforms of the land owners and farmers. Trammels on the trade of corn and other agricultural produets were abolished. Better roads were constructed and new harbours built. The Royal silver mines in Norway were rationalised. Measures were taken to check the migration of sand dunes over fertile soils in the coastal distrikts. Last but not least, he worked for the improvement and spread of organized forestry in Denmark.

Denmark's unfortunate participation on the side of France in the Napoleonic wars, with the naval battle in the harbour of Copenhagen in 1801, and the bombardment of Copenhagen in 1807 necessitating the maintenance of an expensive army, brought the Kingdom of Denmark to bankruptcy in 1813. Reventlow could not agree with the King, who during his later years had grown very self-confident, about the correct methods for handling this difficult situation. Therefore Reventlow requested permission to resign as Chancellor. This was granted in December, 1813.

He then retired to his estates, Christianssæde and Pederstrup, on Lolland. Here he found full and satisfactory occupation in managing his estates, in building a new house at Pederstrup and in literary work. Owing to frugal living his health was good throughout his life until he died on October 11, 1827 at the age of 78 years.

Reventlow was buried at the churchyard of Horslunde near Pederstrup, characteristically at a place he himself had chosen in the part of the churchyard where hitherto only poor people were buried. A modest stone was placed on the grave with an inskription composed by himself. This inscription tells us of a man who although self-confident and aware of his own achievements was humble towards God and man: "Strongly he felt his faults and shortcomings, yet God strengthened him and gave him health, energy and courage to serve with loyalty, eagerness and good fortune his King and his Country through a number of years, aided by many noble collaborators, and to accomplish much to the honour of God and the benefit of Denmark. Through 48 years he was happily married to F. L. S. C. v. Beulwitz, who was pious, wise and gentle. Their marriage was blessed with 12 children of whom 9 survived them. They loved God and humanity, bore hatred to none, lived and died in the hope of a happy resurrection in Jesus Christ, our Saviour. You, who read this, work too with the gifts God has bestowed upon you, and leave the glory to God alone".

Not all of his contemporaries, however, looked upon C. D. F. Reventlow as a benefactor of his countrymen. The greater part of the landed nobility of his time was opposed to his agricultural reforms, which they considered ruinous to themselves and to the country, and they believed him to be a radical traitor to their class. An obelisk commemorating the abandonment of adscription was erected in 1792 at the West-Gate of Copenhagen today the heart of the city. But in 1938 contributions from the entire country made it possible to acquire the mansion and park on C. D. F. Reventlow's beloved estate of Pederstrup. to restore building to the original plan of Reventlow and to create in the rooms of his own home a Reventlow Museum containing furniture, pictures and books relating to the life of C. D. F. Reventlow and his family.