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Gustav III of Sweden

Gustav III
ReignFebruary 12, 1771-March 29, 1792
CoronationMay 29, 1772
Royal motto "Fäderneslandet"
("The Fatherland")
QueenSophie Magdalen of Denmark
Royal HouseHolstein-Gottorp
PredecessorAdolf Frederick of Sweden
SuccessorGustav IV Adolf of Sweden
Date of BirthJanuary 13, 1746 1 (O.S.)
Place of BirthStockholm
Date of DeathMarch 29, 1792
Place of DeathStockholm
Place of BurialRiddarholmskyrkan, Stockholm
(1) January 24 Gregorian calendar/(N.S.)

Gustav III, King of Sweden, born January 13, 1746 (O.S.) (= January 24 (N.S.)), ascended the throne February 12, 1771, dead March 29, 1792, the eldest son of Adolf Fredrick, King of Sweden, and Louisa Ulrica of Prussia, sister of Frederick the Great.

Table of contents
1 Education
2 Politics of an Heir Apparent
3 Revolution
4 Between constitutionalism and absolutism
5 Absolute Monarchy
6 Contributions to Culture
7 See also
8 References


Gustav was educated under the care of two governors who were amongst the most eminent Swedish statesmen of the day, Carl Gustaf Tessin and Carl Scheffer; but he owed most perhaps to the poet and historian Olof von Dalin. The interference of the state with his education, when he was quite a child, was, however, doubly harmful, as his parents taught him to despise the preceptors imposed upon him by the Estates of the Realm, and the atmosphere of intrigue and duplicity in which he grew up made him precociously experienced in the art of dissimulation. But even his most hostile teachers were amazed by the alliance of his natural gifts, and, while still a boy, he possessed that charm of manner which was to make him so fascinating and so dangerous in later life, coupled with the strong dramatic instinct which won for him his honourable place in Swedish literature. On the whole, Gustav cannot be said to have been well educated, but he read very widely; there was scarce a French author of his day with whose works he was not intimately acquainted; while his enthusiasm for the new French ideas of enlightenment was as sincere as, if more critical than, his mother's. On the November 4, 1766, Gustav married Sophie Magdalen, daughter of Frederick V of Denmark. The match was an unhappy one, owing partly to incompatibility of temper, but still more to the mischievous interference of the jealous queen-mother.

Politics of an Heir Apparent

Gustav first intervened actively in politics in 1768, at the time of his father’s interregnum, when he compelled the dominant Cap faction to summon an extraordinary diet from which he hoped for the reform of the constitution in a monarchical direction. But the victorious Hats refused to redeem the pledges which they had given before the elections. "That we should have lost the constitutional battle does not distress us so much," wrote Gustav, in the bitterness of his heart; "but what does dismay me is to see my poor nation so sunk in corruption as to place its own felicity in absolute anarchy." From February 4 to the March 25, 1771, Gustav was at Paris, where he carried both the court and the city by storm. The poets and the philosophers paid him enthusiastic homage, and all the distinguished women of the day testified to his superlative merits. With many of them he maintained a lifelong correspondence. But his visit to the French capital was no mere pleasure trip; it was also a political mission. Confidential agents from the Swedish court had already prepared the way for him, and the duc de Choiseul, weary of Swedish anarchy, had resolved to discuss with him the best method of bringing about a revolution in Sweden. Before he departed, the French government undertook to pay the outstanding subsidies to Sweden unconditionally, at the rate of one and a half million livres annually; and the comte de Vergennes, one of the great names of French diplomacy, was transferred from Constantinople to Stockholm. On his way home Gustav paid a short visit to his uncle, Frederick the Great, at Potsdam. Frederick bluntly informed his nephew that, in concert with Russia and Denmark, he had guaranteed the integrity of the existing Swedish constitution, and significantly advised the young monarch to play the part of mediator and abstain from violence.


On his return to Sweden Gustav made a sincere and earnest attempt to mediate between the Hats and Caps who were ruining the country between them. On June 21, 1771 he opened his first Riksdag of the Estates (parliament) in a speech which awakened strange and deep emotions in all who heard it. It was the first time for more than a century that a Swedish king had addressed a Swedish Riksdag from the throne in its native tongue. The orator laid especial stress on the necessity of the sacrifice of all party animosities to the common weal, and volunteered, as "the first citizen of a free people," to be the mediator between the contending factions. A composition committee was actually formed, but it proved illusory from the first, the patriotism of neither of the factions being equal to the puniest act of self-denial.

The subsequent attempts of the dominant Caps still further to limit the prerogative, and reduce Gustavus to the condition of a roi fainéant, induced him at last to consider the possibility of a revolution. Of its necessity there could be no doubt. Under the sway of the Cap faction, Sweden, already the vassal, could not fail to become the prey of Russia. She was on the point of being absorbed in that northern system, the invention of the Russian vice-chancellor, Count Nikita Panin, which that patient statesman had made it the ambition of his to realize. Only a swift and sudden coup d'etat could save the independence of a country isolated from the rest of Europe by a hostile league. At this juncture Gustav was approached by Jacob Magnus Sprengtporten, a Finnish nobleman of determined character, who had incurred the enmity of the Caps, with the project of a revolution. He undertook to seize the fortress of Sveaborg by a coup de main, and, Finland once secured, Sprengtporten proposed to embark for Sweden, meet the king and his friends near Stockholm, and surprise the capital by a night attack, when the estates were to be forced, at the point of the bayonet, to accept a new constitution from the untrammelled king. The plotters were at this juncture reinforced by Johan Christopher Toll, also a victim of Cap oppression. Toll proposed that a second revolt should break out in the province of Scania, to confuse the government still more, and undertook personally to secure the southern fortress of Kristianstad. After some debate, it was finally arranged that, a few days after the Finnish revolt had begun, Kristianstad should openly declare against the government. Prince Charles, the eldest of the king's brothers, was there upon hastily to mobilize the garrisons of all the southern fortresses, for the ostensible purpose of crushing the revolt at Kristianstad; but on arriving before the fortress he was to make common cause with the rebels, and march upon the capital from the south, while Sprengtporten attacked it simultaneously from the east. On August 6, 1772 Toll succeeded, by sheer bluff, in winning the fortress of Kristianstad. On August 16 Sprengtporten succeeded in surprising Sveaborg. But contrary winds prevented him from crossing to Stockholm, and in the meanwhile events had occurred which made his presence there unnecessary.

On August 16, the Cap leader, Ture Rudbeck, arrived at Stockholm with the news of the insurrection in the south, and Gustav found himself isolated in the midst of enemies. Sprengtporten lay weather-bound in Finland, Toll was five hundred miles away, the Hat leaders were in hiding. Gustav thereupon resolved to strike the decisive blow without waiting for the arrival of Sprengtporten. He acted with military promptitude. On the evening of August 18 all the officers whom he thought he could trust received secret instructions to assemble in the great square facing the arsenal on the following morning. At ten o'clock on the August 19 Gustav mounted his horse and rode straight to the arsenal. On the way his adherents joined him in little groups, as if by accident, so that by the time he reached his destination he had about two hundred officers in his suite. After parade he reconducted them to the guard-room of the palace and unfolded his plans to them. He then dictated a new oath of allegiance, and every one signed it without hesitation. It absolved them from their allegiance to the estates, and bound them solely to obey their lawful king, Gustav III. Meanwhile the Privy Council and its president, Rudbeck, had been arrested and the fleet secured. Then Gustav made a tour of the city and was everywhere received by enthusiastic crowds, who hailed him as a deliverer. On the evening of the August 20 heralds perambulated the streets proclaiming that the estates were to meet in the Rikssaal on the following day; every deputy absenting himself would be regarded as the enemy of his country and his king. On August 21, a few moments after the estates had assembled, the king in full regalia appeared, and taking his seat on the throne, delivered that famous philippic, one of the masterpieces of Swedish oratory, in which he reproached the estates for their unpatriotic venality and licence in the past. A new Constitution was recited by the estates and accepted by them unanimously. The diet was then dissolved.

Between constitutionalism and absolutism

Gustav was inspired by a burning enthusiasm for the greatness and welfare of Sweden, and worked in the same reformatory direction as the other contemporary sovereigns of the "age of enlightenment". He took an active part in every department of business, but relied far more on extra-official counsellors of his own choosing than upon the senate. The effort to remedy the frightful corruption which had been fostered by the Hats and Caps engaged a considerable share of his time and he even found it necessary to put the whole of Göta Hovrätt, a supreme court of justice, on trial. Measures were also taken to reform the administration and the whole course of judicial procedure, and torture as an instrument of legal investigation was abolished. In 1774 an ordinance providing for the liberty of the press was even issued. The national defences were at the same time developed on a "Great Power" scale, and the navy was so enlarged as to become one of the most formidable in Europe. The dilapidated finances were set in good order by the "currency realization ordinance" of 1776. Gustav also introduced new national economic principles. In 1775 free trade in barley was promoted and a number of oppressive export-tolls were abolished. The poor law was also amended, absolute religious liberty was proclaimed, and he even succeeded in inventing and popularizing a national costume, which was in general use from 1778 till his death. His one great economic blunder was the attempt to make the sale of spirits a government monopoly, which was an obvious infringement upon the privileges of the estates. His foreign policy, on the other hand, was at first both wise and wary. Thus, when the king summoned the estates to assemble at Stockholm on September 3, 1778, he could give a brilliant account of his six years'; stewardship. Never was a parliament more obsequious or a king more gracious. "There was no room for a single question during the whole session." Yet, short as the session was, it was quite long enough to open the eyes of the deputies to the fact that their political supremacy had departed. They had changed places with the king. He was now indeed their sovereign lord; and, for all his gentleness, the jealousy with which he guarded, the vigour with which he enforced the prerogative, plainly showed that he meant to remain so. Even the few who were patriotic enough to acquiesce in the change by no means liked it. The diet of 1778 had been obsequious; the diet of 1786 was mutinous. The consequence was that nearly all the royal propositions were either rejected outright or so modified that Gustav himself withdrew them.

Absolute Monarchy

The Riksdag of 1786 marks a turning-point in Gustav's history. Henceforth we observe a determination on his part to rule without a parliament; a passage, cautious and gradual, yet unflinching, from semi-constitutionalism to semi-absolutism. His opportunity came in 1788, when the political complications arising out of the war with Catherine II of Russia enabled him by the Act of Union and Security, on February 17, 1789 to override the opposition of the rebellious and grossly unpatriotic gentry, and, with the approbation of the three lower estates, establish a new and revolutionary constitution, in which, though the estates still held the power of the purse, the royal authority largely predominated. Throughout 1789 and 1790 Gustavus, in the national interests, gallantly conducted the unequal struggle with Russia, finally winning in the Battle of Svensksund, on July 9, the most glorious naval victory ever gained by the Swedish arms, the Russians losing one-third of their fleet and 7 000 men. A month later, on August 14, 1790, peace was signed between Russia and Sweden at Värälä. Only eight months before, Catherine had haughtily declared that "the odious and revolting aggression" of the king of Sweden would be "forgiven" only if he "testified his repentance" by agreeing to a peace granting a general and unlimited amnesty to all his rebels, and consenting to a guarantee by the Swedish diet ("as it would be imprudent to confide in his good faith alone") for the observance of peace in the future. The Treaty of Värälä saved Sweden from any such humiliating concession, and in October 1791 Gustav took the bold but by no means imprudent step of concluding an eight years' defensive alliance with the empress, who thereby bound herself to pay her new ally annual subsidies amounting to 300,000 roubles.

Gustav now aimed at forming a league of princes against the Jacobins, and every other consideration was subordinated thereto. His profound knowledge of popular assemblies enabled him, alone among contemporary sovereigns, accurately to gauge from the first the scope and bearing of the French Revolution. But he was hampered by poverty and the jealousy of the other European Powers, and, after showing once more his unrivalled mastery over masses of men at the brief Gävle diet January 22 - February 24, 1792, he fell a victim to a widespread aristocratic conspiracy. Shot in the back by Johan Jacob Anckarström at a midnight masquerade at the Royal Opera in Stockholm, on March 16, 1792, he expired on March 29.

Contributions to Culture

Although he may be charged with many foibles and extravagances, Gustav III was indisputably one of the greatest sovereigns of the 18th century. Unfortunately his genius never had full scope, and his opportunity came too late. Gustavus was, moreover, a most distinguished author. He may be said to have created the Swedish theatre, and some of the best acting dramas in the literature are by his hand. His historical essays, notably the famous anonymous eulogy on Lennart Torstenson crowned by the Swedish Academy, are full of feeling and exquisite in style, his letters to his friends are delightful. Every branch of literature and art interested him, every poet and artist of his day found in him a most liberal and sympathetic protector.

The assassination of Gustav III, with the specifics changed by censorship, became the basis of Giuseppe Verdi's 1859 opera Un Ballo in Maschera.

See also


Preceded by:
Adolf Frederick
List of Swedish monarchs Succeeded by:
Gustav IV Adolf

A note on dates: Sweden changed from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar during Gustav III's lifetime, with February 17, 1753 followed by March 1, 1753.