Gustav III of Sweden: The Forgotten Despot of the Age of Enlightenment: A.D. Harvey Recalls the Career of the Swedish King Whose Assassination Inspired a Famous Opera

By Harvey, A. D. | History Today, December 2003 | Go to article overview

Gustav III of Sweden: The Forgotten Despot of the Age of Enlightenment: A.D. Harvey Recalls the Career of the Swedish King Whose Assassination Inspired a Famous Opera


Harvey, A. D., History Today


GUSTAV III OF Sweden (1746-92) is one of the least studied of the later eighteenth-century rulers known as the Enlightened Despots. He was not a great general like Frederick II of Prussia or a great empire-builder like Catherine II of Russia, nor did he labour tirelessly to rationalise the administration of a conglomeration of disparate principalities like Joseph II of Austria.

In many ways, while the other Enlightened Despots were trying to push the clock forward, Gustav III was struggling to force its hands hack. In the seventeenth century, trader a succession of outstandingly able soldier kings, Sweden had been a great power but after the death in 1718 of Karl XII, the last and most monomaniacal of the line, the country had become a by-word for weak government, corruption and impotence. Gustav III set himself the task of making Sweden great again. He was assassinated in March 1792--the third Swedish monarch in 160 years to die of gunshot wounds--with his life's work still less than half completed.

Under Karl XII's successors, his central-Gemnan brother-in-law Fredrik I and his north-German second-cousin-once-removed Adolf Fredrik (Prince Bishop of Lubeck before the Swedish Riksdag chose him to be Fredrik's heir) the country passed through the so-called Age of Liberty. Political power was entirely in the hands of the Riksdag, or parliament, which consisted of four houses: nobles, clergy, burgesses and peasants. Swedish constitutionalism is often compared to the parliamentary system in eighteenth-century Britain. In practice it was very different. Adolf Fredrik, Gustav III's father, was described by one English contemporary as having 'the title of king, with hardly the privileges of a subject'. Unlike his British counterpart George II, he had no power to summon or dissolve his parliament. He could appoint ministers from a list of three candidates presented by the Riksdag but he could not dismiss them. There were some progressive features in the Swedish system, for example, qualified women were entitled to vote in elections to the two lower houses, but the heads of the noble families, both titled and untitled, who sat in person and almost outnumbered the elected deputies from the other three houses, provided half the members of the Riksdag's Secret Committee, and it was the latter that was the real locus of power. The peasants were not even represented on the Secret Committee, which kept all matters relating to finance and foreign affairs from the ordinary members of the Riksdag. The Rad (Senate or Council), which acted as the executive arm of the Secret Committee, also consisted chiefly of men of noble birth.

A parliamentary facade behind which a hereditary aristocracy monopolised power might equally describe the government of both Britain and Sweden in the mid-eighteenth century: but in Britain the aristocracy owed its dominance to the influence of property, and for the most part opposed itself to increases of public expenditure, while in Sweden the nobility were generally impoverished and depended on public expenditure for their income: more than hall of them were military officers or higher civil servants. The corruption of British elections in the eighteenth century is notorious: but elections in Sweden's Age of Liberty were no less corrupt. The difference was that in Britain the money for bribery came from the pockets of Britain's rich, whereas in Sweden it was provided by foreign governments.

Riksdag polities were dominated by two parties, the 'Hats' (after the tricorne hats of the army officers, for it had originally been the young man's aggressive foreign policy party) and the 'Caps' (after the nightcaps supposedly worn by superannuated elder statesmen). In practice the 'Hats' were the pro-French and the 'Caps' the pro-Russian party, though their pro-Frenchness or pro-Russianness had little to do with abstract principles of Swedish interests.

In April 1771 the British minister in Stockholm--Sweden was not important enough to rate a fully-fledged ambassador--reported:

   The last diet [Riksdag] cost England
   above Forty Thousand Pounds, which
   was not a Third of the whole Expense
   made on our Side. 

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