In 1720, Fredrick William I of Prussia and his wife welcomed a baby girl to the world. She was the tenth (but not the last) child of their union, and as she was a girl, rather than the much desired male spare, I dare say Fredrick William did not exactly do cartwheels of joy. Still: a girl had her uses, and for Fredrick William, intent on expanding the influence of Prussia, a baby daughter meant he had yet another girl with whom to cement a future alliance.
The baby was christened Louisa Ulrika, her godmother Queen Ulrika Eleonora of Sweden. I think the general idea was that once Ulrika Eleonora had a son, he’d marry Louisa Ulrika. Except that Ulrika Eleonora never did have a child, which sort of killed that plan. Still: in the fullness of time, Louise Ulrika was one of the two potential brides for the future king of Sweden, Adolf Fredrik.
By then, Fredrick William I was dead and Louisa Ulrika’s fate was very much in the hands of big brother Fredrick the Great. Theirs was probably not the closest of relationships, how else to explain that Fredrick the Great expressed to the Swedish ambassador that Louise Ulrika was too bright, too temperamental, far too haughty and manipulative and much too domineering to make a good wife. No, Fredrick went on, best Adolf Fredrik choose his baby sister, Anna Amalia, instead. (It is thought Fredrick’s character assassination was motivated by his desire to have an easily manageable spy in Sweden, and whatever else Louisa Ulrika was, she was not manageable)
To everyone’s surprise, Adolf Fredrik chose Louisa Ulrika. Maybe he took one look at her portrait and saw a mild, gentle woman. Let’s just say he was in for a surprise.
In 1744, Louisa Ulrika and Adolf Fredrik were married—first by proxy in Berlin, then in Stockholm, where the wedding was followed by a ball and an immediate consummation of the marital vows. Fortunately, Adolf Fredrik and Louisa Ulrika hit it off. Where he was shy and retiring, somewhat submissive to his nature, she was a veritable force of nature—and more than delighted to realise her husband would happily follow her lead in everything.
Louisa Ulrika was welcomed with open arms by the Swedes. They thought her beautiful and witty and as an added plus she came from a fertile family—and God knew Sweden was longing for the pitter-patter of small royal feet. Louisa Ulrika did not disappoint: in 1747 a healthy prince was born, to be followed by three more children.
Other than making babies, the new Swedish crown princess dived right into the political arena. She learned Swedish, used bribes and threats to get various members of the Swedish parliament to vote as she desired. Her goal? To make big brother Fredrick happy by having Sweden move away from its dependency on Russia and instead ally itself with Prussia. Soon enough, she had Adolf Fredrik agreeing that Prussia was a much, much better ally.
But when she broached the idea that Sweden should implement absolute monarchy, her hubby was less than thrilled. So were most of the other men in her proximity, which may be why she started planning a little coup. After all, enlightened despotism was a much better alternative than the present political mess in Sweden, the country torn between the “hats” and the “caps”, political parties that disagreed about more or less everything.
Louisa Ulrika’s plan was simple: wait until Fredrik, King of Sweden, lay on his deathbed, and move immediately to have Adolf Fredrik proclaimed as king without going through the customary process of having him swear his oaths to the Riksdag (The Swedish Parliament)—oaths confirming he recognised the restrictions imposed on his kingship by the Riksdag.
Fortunately for Sweden, Adolf Fredrik refused to play along. I am thinking this is to some extent because Adolf Fredrik was not all that interested in taking charge of a kingdom or doing anything much but fiddle with his snuffboxes. This king of ours spent hours and hours making snuffboxes to the detriment of doing any of the king stuff. So focussed was he on snuffboxes that the Swedish Parliament created a signature stamp so as to be able to sign all the documents the king should sign but didn’t have time to sign. You know: on account of working that lathe…
By now, the Swedes had realised Louisa Ulrika was not all sweetness and smiles. Oh, no, their new queen had a core of iron, as unbendable as a poker when it came to matters close to her heart. She was also condescending, something of a steam-roller and afflicted with more than her share of the capital sin of pride. Said pride may have been why she refused to back down when it came to her aspirations to push Sweden towards an absolute monarchy. Clearly, she was surrounded by fools—fools who did not understand how much better things would be with dear Adolf Fredrik (read Louisa Ulrika) fully in charge.
Over the coming years, our Machiavellian lady started a party and began recruiting men with influence to her cause. Tensions between her and the Riksdag increased. She went on and on about the king’s powers being too restricted and manipulated Adolf Fredrik into not signing certain documents so as to stall the administration. And yes: that signature stamp mentioned above was not only because of Adolf Fredrik’s fondness for snuffboxes, but also to be able to sign stuff on his behalf if he refused to do so—effectively proving Louisa Ulrika right, at least to some extent.
In 1755, Louisa Ulrika was ready to act. Her hubby was not entirely happy with her plans, which involved travelling to Uppsala, there to assemble an armed force and return to Stockholm and take control. To finance all this, Louisa Ulrika pawned some of the crown jewels and borrowed money from relatives. She was raring to go. Adolf Fredrik, not so much, and when he fell ill the plan had to be abandoned—to the relief of the mild king.
However, Louisa Ulrika was nothing if not tenacious. Soon enough, she and her supporters decided to go for a major riot in Stockholm instead. Plans were set in motion during the winter of 1755-56. Louisa Ulrika used her funds to bribe people to join the riot, bribed soldiers to be ready to take control of the garrison. Adolf Fredrik did not like any of this—but by now he’d learned not to oppose his determined wife. Everything was coming together when suddenly the Riksdag demanded to inspect the crown jewels.
“Shit!” Louise Ulrika probably said. (No, she didn’t, she was far too refined—et elle parlait francaise—but the sentiment was the same) You see, the crown jewels belonged to Sweden, not to her. So when one of the queen’s ladies-in-waiting informed the Riksdag that some of the jewels were missing, they quickly concluded Louisa Ulrika was attempting to raise funds on the sly. It didn’t take a genius to guess for what purpose… They demanded an immediate inventory.
The queen presented some of the crown jewels to the Riksdag for inspection, saying that the missing pieces were those she’d been presented with upon her marriage and which she therefore considered private property. Nope, the representatives of the Riksdag said: they wanted to see all the jewels. Louisa Ulrika managed to buy herself some time, but the window for setting the plot into motion had now shrunk to a couple of weeks. Everyone involved became a tad frantic.
Add to this that one of the conspirators couldn’t hold his liquor and let slip that change was coming—soon—and the powers that were (with Count Axel von Fersen Sr. at the helm) moved with surprising speed. In one fell sweep, the four noblemen closest to the queen were arrested as well as the talkative conspirator who told them everything.
In July of 1756, the queen’s most loyal men were tortured and executed for treason. The king wrote a letter where he adamantly stated he had never approved the attempted coup. And the queen was subjected to a long and humiliating lecture along the lines that “she had forgotten her duty to God, to her husband and the kingdom, her hands stained with the blood of those recently executed.” Just to make sure the king and queen toed the line going forward, the Riksdag informed them the king would be deposed should there be a future attempted coup.
Well, that really was a major, major monkey wrench in Louisa Ulrika’s hopes to establish absolute monarchy in Sweden. Plus, her hubby told her he wasn’t interested and would not support any future foolishness. But if Louisa Ulrika failed in converting hubby to the cause of absolute monarchy, she was successful in ensuring her eldest son embraced the concept. Essentially, this was the single thing Louisa Ulrika and the future Gustav III would agree on—but I am leaping way ahead here, so let us return to the 1750s when Gustav was still a child and Louisa Ulrika had decided to direct her considerable energies elsewhere.
Louisa Ulrika had her good moments too. In 1757, she received a Kammermohr as a gift from a Danish nobleman. A Kammermohr was a black servant—usually a slave. The little boy who now stood before Louisa Ulrika was born in the West Indies, lost his parents in a fire while still very young and somehow ended up in Stockholm as a frightened and confused little boy. Couchi was uneducated and unpolished. In the nomenclature of the times, he was a “savage”, and Louisa Ulrika found that fascinating.
Among Louisa Ulrika’s various interests was a passion for science. She founded The Royal Academy of Letters, History and Antiquities to pursue her interests. She was au courant with new trends and theories and was particularly interested in Rousseau and his ideas about education. She glanced at Couchi and tapped her chin.
“Hmmm,” she said, before announcing that Couchi—hastily renamed Gustav Badin—was going to receive a free education. Well, she did insist on him being taught the tenets of the Christian faith, to read and write, but other than that, no one was to curb his curiosity or teach him to behave.
Refreshingly colour blind, Louisa Ulrika raised Badin with her children. The little orphan found a new family with the Swedish royal family and would, with time, become a voracious reader and book collector. He also became one of Louisa Ulrika’s most loyal servants and there seems to have been a lot of affection between the tough-as-boots Prussian princess and the orphan from St.Croix.
Life went on. Louisa Ulrika remained her normal, meddling, brilliant self. When war erupted between Sweden and her beloved Prussia she was devastated, but indirectly this war—and her efforts to negotiate a peace treaty—led to her regaining the confidence of the Riksdag who even offered to pay her debts.
This allowed her to yet again start her own party in the Riksdag, but over the coming years she found herself more and more in opposition with her son. Gustav was no push-over (he was his Mama’s son, after all) and refused to let her manage him as she’d always managed his father. No, Gustav had plans of his own, and soon enough the people who had previously flocked to Louisa Ulrika, flocked to him. She never forgave him for this, nor did she forgive him for marrying Sofia Magdalena of Denmark rather than the Prussian bride she’d selected.
Hubby died in 1771—he is the only Swedish king who ate himself to death. Louisa Ulrika was now the dowager queen, not a role she was comfortable with. She heartily disliked her daughter-in-law, was mostly marginalised by Gustav III, and committed a major faux-pas when she announced to the world that her eldest son had an…err…impediment, that likely made it impossible for him to father a child. More of that here, but let’s just say Gustav III never forgave her for casting a shadow of doubt over the paternity of his eldest son.
In 1782, Louisa Ulrika died. Other than her younger children and her loyal servants, her death did not inspire much grief. Truth be told, most of the Swedish establishment heaved a sigh of relief: she may have been impressively driven and highly intelligent, but Louisa Ulrika was, by all accounts, hard to like.
Some decades later, her grandson would be deposed and her second son would take the throne as Charles XIII. As he had no son, the Riksdag searched high and low for an adequate king before selecting Jean Baptiste Bernadotte as the new heir to the proud Swedish crown.
“Hmph!” Louisa Ulrika may well have said. “The son of a lawyer? No, no, that will never do!”
By then, of course, no one cared about the opinion of the Prussian Iron Lady. That’s the drawback of being dead, right?