Most people know very little about Swedish history – and that comment is valid for most Swedish people as well. If people know anything at all, they may have heard of Queen Kristina (because she abdicated and converted to Catholicism) or her bellicose father (Gustav II Adolf, for modernising warfare and pillaging the European continent). Some have heard of Karl XII, that warrior king of ours who supposedly was shot to death with a button. (Hmm. Will revert on that one) And then, of course, there’s the king of operatic fame, that graceful dandy who did everything he could to yank his backward, rustic kingdom into more sophisticated times. So, ladies and gents, today I give you Gustav III, the man who gave the elegant flourish a face in Sweden. Well, he gave Sweden a lot more than that, including the the Royal Opera, the Royal Ballet, the Royal Theatre and the Royal Swedish Academy (of Nobel prize fame) as well as a couple of fantastic theatres and a number of beautiful buildings. But what he’s famous for is his death, shot in the back while enjoying his Masquerade Ball. Oh yes; and then there’s the matter of his son…
Gustav was the son of Adolf Fredrik – the dude who ate himself to death, see here for more about him. Maybe his father’s early demise made Gustav more than aware of the dangers of excesses – at least when it came to food – and he remained slender and in good shape throughout his life. The clothes he was wearing when he was shot indicate a man we would consider slight, a tight fit to both the coats and trousers that would display an agile and wiry physique. Didn’t help much…
Our young hero was in Paris, imbibing the sophistication of all things French when his father died. He hastened home immediately, and a year or so later he pulled off a bloodless coup that effectively muzzled parliament, making Gustav III an absolute monarch. Ultimately, this high-handed behaviour would cost him his life. Many were the men who were more than upset at seeing a return to a form of government based on the divine rights of the king – no matter how enlightened a despot Gustav III might be.
This little coup of his is considered one of the better examples of a well-planned hostile take-over. Even historians who have little fondness for Gustav III, can’t but admire just how elegantly he played the masses on that sunny day in August of 1772 when he effectively deposed parliament and replaced it with himself. Not, Gustav III hastened to assure the confounded spectators, out of any genuine desire to rule, but because he felt it necessary to defend “our common Swedish liberties”. People hear what they want to hear, and Gustav III was handsome and gracious, a man who happily paraded himself before his subjects, more than aware of the importance of good PR.
Of course the man wanted to rule! He wanted to sink his hands into the rustic mess that was Sweden and shake it into appropriate Continental shape. Gustav III wanted glitter and glamour, he wanted French fashion and French food, Italian statues and architecture. His passion in life was the theatre, and to this day, two of the theatres he built remain in existence. The king himself was no mean actor and an even better director, filling his court with masques and operas, with emotional tragedies and lighthearted comedies, with dancers that capered about like fauns, with handsome men and delightful ladies.
The Swedes were okay with the theatrics, and they liked the delightful ladies part. A lot. The rest, they were less enthusiastic about. The King himself was not a ladies’ man. In fact, he seems to have been rather uninterested in the more erotic aspects of life, this due to a “physical impediment” that had his lady mother quite convinced her precious Gustav would never sire any children.
Fortunately for Sweden, Gustav had two younger brothers who more than made up for his deficiencies in the erotic areas, lining up an impressive collection of mistresses. It was to Duke Carl and Duke Fredrik Adolf that Dowager Queen Louisa Ulrika set her hope when it came to grandchildren, but for all their enthusiastic bedding, neither of these two gentlemen left any legitimate children. Their older brother, however, did – despite the impediment. Or did he?
Let us backtrack a bit: In 1766, the then twenty-year-old Gustav had informed his mother that he intended to go through with the planned marriage to Sofia Magdalena, Danish princess. Gustav’s mother was not pleased. Her future daughter-in-law was not her choice. As to the princess herself, she wasn’t given any choice, and arrived in Sweden in November of 1766.
Where Gustav was outgoing and energetic, Sofia Magdalena was shy and phlegmatic. Where he was a man with a genuine appreciation of the arts, she was deeply religious and somewhat staid. He was happiest in front of an audience. She preferred being alone. In Gustav’s own words, he perceived his bride as being “ice cold”. She, apparently, never expressed an opinion. With so little in common, it is no surprise the newlyweds were far from happy. They lived separate lives, had as little as possible to do with each other, and where Gustav lived his life in the public eye, his wife preferred to melt into the background. So incompatible were they, that the marriage was not consummated. Not something anyone found particularly strange, given that little impediment.
By the late 1770s, Gustav had begun to realise his brothers weren’t about to fill a nursery. The royal line was threatened by extinction, so Gustav took a deep breath, downed a cup or two of fortifying wine, and … turned to his stable master for help. Said stable master was a Finnish gentleman named Adolf Munck, who, by all accounts, was well endowed and more than experienced in bedsport. In fact, Munck had the reputation of being a major rake, quite an achievement in an environment as libertine as that of Gustav III’s court.
Claiming “inexperience”, the king demanded Munck’s assistance in the royal bedchamber. And here I must just stop and take a breath, wondering how on earth this played out and just what poor Sofia Magdalena might have thought of all this. It’s not as she could close her eyes and think of England…
As per Munck’s memoirs, he was obliged to “physically touch and guide” so as to ensure consummation took place. His contemporaries were far more crude, as can be seen in this caricature. The Dowager Queen was more inclined to believe the artist than her son’s version – especially given the very expensive watch Sofia Magdalena presented Munck with. When the court announced the Queen was expecting, the Dowager Queen called a meeting with her younger sons, explained that she wasn’t about to let the bastard of an up-and-coming Finn usurp their royal rights, and actively went about spreading the rumours that her eldest son, the king, was a cuckold and the expected child a bastard. After all, she added sadly, she knew for a fact her eldest son was incapable of ever fathering a child. Nice lady…
Predictably, Gustav III flew into a rage.He banished his mother from Sweden, but was convinced to allow her to stay if she issued a writ, stating all her previous statements had been malicious gossip, which she did. Except, of course, that when some months later, a little prince saw the light of the day, the Dowager Queen sent Gustav III a letter in which she expressed she was happy for him but hoped that the scales would soon drop from his eyes and have him realise the baby was no prince. This time, the rift between mother and son became permanent. Only when Louisa Ulrika lay on her deathbed were they reconciled – ironically with the then four-year-old crown prince present…
By all accounts, Gustav was fond of his son, little Gustav Adolf. He was even more fond of son number two, born four years later, but this child was not destined to live. Gustav took his death very hard – so hard some of the more cold-hearted among his companions took it for an indirect admission that only the youngest boy was Gustav’s true-born son. Gustav recovered from the loss of his son and went back to his life of arts and theatre, of planned spectacles and lavish parties. And to ruling his nation, of course.
Gustav III was in many ways a competent ruler. Influenced by the Enlightenment, he revised the judicial system, restricted the use of the death penalty, advocated religious liberty (to a point), implemented laws to protect the poor, promoted free trade in some areas, reviewed fiscal policy and even allowed a certain freedom of press. In 1778, he presented all his achievements to Parliament and was hailed and lauded by its members. Some of the savvier members, however, noted that the king repeatedly drove home that it was he, not Parliament, that held the power. These savvier members were less than happy with the development, and when next the king called a Parliament, in 1786, his opponents had prepared themselves. This time, each and every one of the king’s suggestions were either rejected or so modified the king himself retracted them. Gustav’s solution to the dilemma posed by the uncooperative Parliament was simple: he ignored them.
In 1788, Gustav resorted to that most ancient of distracting devices, he declared war on Russia. Some of his more level-headed aristocratic officers were appalled, and mutinied. This gave Gustav just the excuse he needed. Swiftly, he squashed the mutiny and called a Parliament, explaining that in the present circumstances the future of Sweden was at stake unless he was given unlimited (well, more or less) powers. These hot-blooded aristocrats needed to be brought to heel, he added, throwing an elegant sop at the feet of the other three Estates (The Swedish Parliament consisted of four Estates: The aristocracy, the clergy, the burghers and the farmers) Parliament agreed – or at least three of the Estates did – and the act of Union and Security was passed, whereby the king was given almost unrestricted executive powers. Parliament, however, wisely chose to remain in control of the purse strings.
Gustav III won his war with Russia. Life, in his opinion, was pretty good, albeit that he was very concerned about the development in France. He should have been as concerned about certain events in his own country. The disgruntled aristocrats had had enough, and under Gustav III’s very nose, a conspiracy grew. It is said that the conspiracy numbered close to 3 000 people. “Never has a conspiracy had so many members, never has the vows of secrecy been so carefully kept.” At some point, the more daring among the conspirators decided the king had to die. That caused a couple of swallows: regicide is never pretty, and as most of the leading conspirators were aristocrats, they definitely didn’t want to inspire something similar to the bloodbath presently drenching France. Still, at some point they nodded solemnly and agreed: the king must die.
On March 16, 1792, Gustav III held a magnificent Masquerade Ball at the Royal Opera House. Everyone was there – including a number of the men charged with the task to kill him. One of the involved men suffered a case of cold feet and sent the king a warning, but Gustav III did not take it seriously – he received such warnings too often to do so. No sooner did he enter the large ballroom but he was surrounded by a group of men in black masks and black cloaks. Moments later, a shot went off, and the king cried out “Je suis blessé, tirez-moi d’ici et arrêtez-le!” (I am hurt, carry me away from here and arrest him).
The king was immediately transported to a separate room and placed on a sofa. All other exits to the Opera were sealed. Meanwhile, the king was doing his best to make light of things, conversing with the few people allowed in to see him, joking about the spreading stain of blood on his cloak and the sofa. At long last, arrangements were made to carry him back to the palace. He is said to have laughed – if weakly – when lifted, saying that here he was, being carried about like the pope.
By the morning, the man who had fired the gun, a certain Anckarström, was under arrest. He had actually managed to flee the Opera, but his gun was left behind, and a gunsmith recognised it. Anckarström immediately confessed to murder, but denied the existence of any conspiracy. However, other people were arrested, and pretty soon the extent of the conspiracy became clear, even if most of those arrested refused to name anyone.
The king, however, still lived. The shot had hit him in the lower back, to the side, and the physicians were hopeful of saving his life – at least initially. But when infection set in, it became apparent to all that the king would die, and a slow painful death it was, until at last, on March 29, he expired. So died a king who lived and breathed art, whose love of song and language left behind a legacy of poets and composers. So died a king who insisted on his divine right to rule, yet applauded the birth of the United States of America (Sweden was one of the first nations to recognise the fledgling state, the king having expressed that were it not for the fact that he was a king, he’d be more than happy to join the courageous effort to create a new country). An enigma in some ways, a sunny extrovert in others. A man who always knew that the world it is a stage, and a king must live and die, forever in the public eye.
Anckarström was executed. For three days, he was whipped publicly before being beheaded before a huge and silent crowd. The rest of the conspirators went back to their normal lives, and the fourteen-year-old Gustav Adolf was crowned as king. But was he truly the son of Gustav III? Wasn’t there an uncanny resemblance to Adolf Munck? Gossip flew unhindered now that Gustav III was dead, and among those who spread the rumours about the new little king’s parentage were his uncles and aunt.
When, in 1809, Gustav Adolf was forced to abdicate (he was blamed – to some extent deservedly – for the loss of Finland), he did so to safeguard the crown for his own little son. Parliament was having none of it, barring Gustav Adolf’s children from the succession. Yet again, that infamous little impediment came into play, and instead of the ten-year-old potential grandson of Gustav III, Parliament chose to give the crown to Gustav’s senile brother, Duke Carl, who ascended the throne as Carl XIII. Gustav Adolf and his family were sent off to exile, and instead of a true-born heir to the Swedish throne, a certain French marshal, Jean Baptiste Bernadotte, was adopted by Carl XIII.
Many years later, in 1882, Gustav Bernadotte (soon to be Gustav V of Sweden) was to marry the great-granddaughter of Gustav IV Adolf, Victoria of Baden. A vindication of sorts, even if by then the man who lived his life in the shadow of his father’s impediment had been dead for fifty years. As a consequence of this wedding, Gustav Adolf’s remains were brought back to Sweden, together with those of his son and his baby grandson, and re-interred. Somehow, I think they were beyond caring by then.