Today, we’re going to spend some time with two little Swedish boys. They happen to share a couple of things: both of them were named Gustav. Both of them belonged to the Vasa dynasty (in the case of prince number two, he was really surnamed Holstein-Gottorp, but would become known as a Vasa prince). Both of them were born as heirs to the crown only to see that rosy future snatched away by others. They didn’t know each other. Okay, the second of today’s Gustavs may have known of the first one, but as close to three centuries divided them, they could not share their grievances over a beer. The first Gustav wouldn’t have known what beer was—he’d have drunk ale. The second Gustav probably preferred wine.
Seeing as I’m one of those very rational and structural peeps (blame it on my financial profession) I suggest we start with the boy who was born in 1568. At the time, Sweden was ruled by Gustav’s father, Erik XIV. Erik, in turn, was the son of the Gustav Vasa, the man who freed Sweden from the Danes and established the modern Swedish nation (well… But I give Gustav plus points for being a good, devoted and faithful husband, to all of his wives). Gustav Vasa was elected as king by the free men of Sweden. He decided electing a king was archaic nonsense and therefore made sure to change the laws so that, from that moment on, the king became a hereditary position.
Erik was Gustav Vasa’s firstborn. Intelligent, articulate and handsome, this was the perfect Renaissance prince, further enhanced by the thorough education his father arranged for him. (Gustav Vasa was a big believer in education – not only for his sons, but also for his many daughters) Erik sang, he drew, he danced, he plucked at lutes and spouted verse, he excelled at physical activities and looked great in armour. No sun is without its spots, and in Erik’s case these spots took the shape of occasional bouts of mental instability. Gustav Vasa chose to wave this off as inconsequential. After all, Erik’s obvious talents outshone these moments of darkness.
Erik needed a wife. He suggested that he woo Elizabeth I of England. Gustav Vasa was not all that impressed, but his handsome son with his long, athletic legs insisted and therefore had a magnificent portrait painted which he sent over to Elizabeth, accompanied by his declaration of undying love—or, as a prince would put it when addressing another prince, his declaration of obvious mutual benefits. Elizabeth was as unimpressed as Gustav Vasa, not necessarily by Erik, though. After all, Elizabeth was a bit leery when it came to this marriage stuff, having no desire to share her royal powers with a man.
Gustav Vasa died before his son had been safely guided into the marital harbour. Other than Erik, Gustav left three other sons: Magnus who was mentally unstable for most of the time and was kept far from court, Johan who was as intelligent as Erik and far more ambitious, and Karl who was as bright as his brothers, as ambitious as Johan and gifted with a streak of ruthlessness a mile wide. Erik had a lukewarm relationship with his half-brothers. At times, that relationship went into a deep freeze, like when he had Johan imprisoned in 1563 for having married the Polish princess, Katarina Jagellonica, without Erik’s permission.
At the time, Erik was still unwed. He had a sequence of mistresses and was likely planning to wed for political reasons. Until the day he met Karin, that is. In 1565, this fifteen-year-old girl knocked the air out of the thirty-two-year-old king. Love, as they say, was in the air. He took her to bed and fell so utterly in love he could not conceive of a life without his Karin. To everyone’s surprise and shock, he officially married the wench in 1568 (he’d married her in secret in 1567). An illiterate girl of low birth was now queen of Sweden and her two children by Erik were legitimised by the stroke of a quill. One of those children was little Gustav, a babe in arms who was carried into the church at his mother’s coronation by his proud father.
The political situation in Sweden was very unstable. The king had not helped when, in 1567, he sank into one of those recurring moments of mental instability and participated in the bloody murder of Nils and Svante Sture, members of Sweden’s aristocracy. His marriage to a commoner was the final straw and brothers Johan and Karl rose in rebellion.
By the end of 1568, Erik, Karin and their children were held behind lock and key. Not an entirely ungentle captivity—at least not initially. In 1573, Karin and her children were forcibly separated from Erik. The poor man was to live on for a further four years under very harsh conditions until, according to legend, he was poisoned by his brother in 1577.
Karin and her children were transferred over to Åbo castle in Finland. Johan had no reason to treat them harshly, but he was a man who saw potential enemies everywhere, and one such future risk was little Gustav. So in 1575 the little boy was dragged from his mother and sent off into exile. Alone. All of seven, and suddenly he found himself in Poland with no money, no family, a destitute little princeling.
He was educated by the Jesuits and converted to Catholicism and went on to lead an ambulating life. Because of his legitimate claim on the Swedish throne he was approached by the Russian tsar and various others who wanted to create unrest in Sweden, but he had no interest in participating in any such ventures. All Gustav wanted was to see his mother again. His requests (as well as her requests to see her son) were denied, over and over again. In 1596, however, the lost son and his mother were reunited in Reval. She was confronted with a grown man where what she had conserved in her heart were the images of a little boy. He saw a woman he vaguely recognised but couldn’t speak to as he’d forgotten all his Swedish. Very sad.
In 1607, Gustav died in Russia. He left no wife, no children, having drifted through life entirely alone since that summer day in 1575 when his uncle ordered that he be separated from his family.
Well, that was a cheerful story, wasn’t it?
Let us leave the sad story of our first Gustav behind and leap ahead to 1799. In November of that year, a little prince was born in Stockholm and was named…taa-daa… Gustav after his father, Gustav IV, and his grandfather, Gustav III.
Gustav was born during tumultuous times. The French revolution had caused the established order to be questioned in various countries and in Sweden the baby’s grandfather, Gustav III, had been murdered because of his insistence that he ruled by divine right, not at all in line with the increasing demands that the people (or at least the nobility) be given a voice in how they were governed.
Baby Gustav’s father has gone down in history as a bad, bad king. This is not an entirely objective assessment. Gustav IV Adolf was held responsible for everything from the loss of Finland to the war with France (he was anti-Napoleon). The real reason behind why he was so disliked has to do with his conviction that he ruled by divine right—by now a very old-fashioned approach to things. Plus, the up-and-coming generation was not about to accept a state of affairs where one person, no matter how royal, had the say-so over everything.
In 1809, Gustav IV was taken prisoner. Some months later, he was “unkinged”. He and his children were barred from the succession—forever.
One person who objected against this was the new queen. Hedvig Charlotte was married to Gustav IV’s uncle, Karl XIII. She has left us the treasure of very extensive journals, a treasure trove for those who want an insider’s take on events. She doesn’t come across as being an ardent admirer of her husband – a sentiment returned in full – but she seems to have had her fair share of ardent admirers, including Count Axel von Fersen.
Anyway: Hedvig Charlotte did everything she could to convince the new men in power not to disinherit little Gustav. The ten-year-old was sweet and mild-tempered, studious and well-behaved. It wasn’t his fault his dear Papa was a disappointment, she said. Give the boy a chance, she added, but the men behind the coup would not listen. They feared the boy, once a man, would exact revenge on them for what they had done to his father.
Just like Erik’s Gustav, this little Gustav was sent off into exile. In difference to his namesake, Prince Gustav—oops, no longer prince, just plain Gustav—was accompanied by his family: his father, his mother and his rather impressive little sister. Also, they were not rendered destitute. Gustav’s mother, Frederica of Baden, had a family who welcomed the exiles. But Gustav was a tender soul, and I imagine things weren’t helped when his hitherto so happy parents ended up not so happy. Whether this was a consequence of Gustav IV losing his crown, I don’t know. It does seem likely, though, as prior to this he and Frederica were, by all accounts, blissfully happy. Now, he expressed a desire to lead a simple religious life with simple, religious women and father simple, religious children. Frederica was, understandably, very hurt.
While her husband went off to do his spiritual thing, Frederica took care of the children. This she seems to have done rather successfully—helped along by the fact that her family had connections in all the right places. Our Gustav was no longer prince of Sweden, but after several years in the service of the Hapsburg emperor he was made Prince of Vasa by Francis I. In some ways a hollow title, but still.
At some point, things looked rather bright for our Gustav. He’d been invited to visit with the Dutch king and there were hopes of an engagement with the Dutch princess, Marianne. This did not please everyone, principally the parvenu Jean Baptiste Bernadotte a.k.a. Karl XIV Johan, who was now king of Sweden and who went as far as to threaten war unless the engagement was called off. Why? Because someone had described Gustav as “Prince of Sweden” (which he no longer was, having been stripped of that title in 1809) and I guess Karl XIV Johan was not entirely comfortable on his throne, more than aware of the fact that Gustav had been cheated out of what was rightly his. Not that Gustav ever expressed an interest in trying to reclaim his inheritance. Plus, if we’re going to be honest, Karl XIV Johan was an excellent king, no matter that he was but the son of a French lawyer.
Whatever the case, the match with Marianne was now a dead duck. Instead, in 1830, Gustav married his first cousin, Louise of Baden. In difference to his parents, Gustav never experienced the joys of a happy marriage. He and Louise were incompatible and did little more than share a house and the occasional night. This resulted in two children, a boy who died young and a girl, Carola, who was to become the last queen of Saxony but die childless.
Just like our first Gustav, this Gustav left little mark on the world. Not quite as lonely, not quite as destitute as his namesake, his life was all the same affected by the events of 1809. Maybe he’d have married someone else. Maybe he would have been a good king. Maybe he was happier living the life he led, with ample time for his various hobbies. We will never know.
Some generations later, the great-granddaughter of Gustav IV, Victoria of Baden, married the future Bernadotte king, Gustav V. The (by now rather diluted) Vasa blood was thereby reinserted into the royal Swedish line. As a gesture, the bodily remains of Gustav IV, his son and baby grandson, were transported to Sweden and reburied in Riddarholmskyrkan, side by side with so many other Swedish kings and queens.