1. Politics: 1718-71
The dramatic career of Charles XII had been a tragedy for Sweden. His aims had consulted his thirst for glory rather than the resources of his country. The Swedish people had borne with him valiantly while he exhausted their manpower and their wealth, but they had known, long before he died, that he was doomed to fail. By the Treaties of Stockholm (1719-20) Sweden yielded the duchies of Bremen and Verden to Hanover, and the larger part of Pomerania to Prussia. By the Peace of Nystad (1721) she surrendered Livonia, Esthonia, Ingermanland, and east Karelia to Russia. Sweden’s power on the mainland was ended, and she was compelled to withdraw into a peninsula rich in minerals and national character, but demanding arduous labor and persistent skill as the price of life.
The defeat of Charles weakened the monarchy, and allowed the nobles to regain control of the government. The constitution of 1720 gave dominant power to a Riksdag, or Diet, made up of four “estates”: a Riddarhus, or House of Nobles, composed of the heads of all noble families; a House of Priests—the bishops plus some fifty delegates elected by and from the parish clergy; a House of Burgesses—some ninety delegates representing the administrative officials and business leaders of the towns; and a House of Peasants—approximately a hundred delegates chosen by and from the free landowning farmers. Each estate sat separately, and no measure could become law unless three estates approved; in effect the peasant estate had no legislative power except by consent of two other estates. During the meetings of the Riksdag a “Secret Committee” of fifty nobles, twenty-five priests, and twenty-five burgesses prepared all bills, chose the ministers, and controlled foreign policy. The nobles were free from taxation, and had exclusive right to the higher offices in the state.38 When the Riksdag was not in session the government was led by a Råd (Council) of sixteen or twenty-four men chosen by the Riksdag and responsible to it. The king presided over this Council and could cast two votes; otherwise he had no lawmaking power. Russia, Prussia, and Denmark collaborated to support this constitution, on the ground that it favored a policy of peace and checked the martial propensities of strong kings.
The monarchy ceased to be hereditary, became elective. At the death of Charles XII (November 30, 1718) the throne would have passed by heredity to Karl Friedrich, duke of Holstein-Gottorp, a son of Charles’s eldest sister; but the Riksdag, assembling in January, 1719, for the first time in twenty years, gave the crown to Ulrika Eleanora, another sister of Charles, on her agreement to renounce the royal absolutism that her brother had exercised. Even so, she proved hard to manage, and in 1720 she was persuaded to abdicate in favor of her husband, Landgrave Frederick I of Hesse-Cassel, who now became King Frederick I of Sweden. Under the prudent guidance of Count Arvid Bernhard Horn as chancellor, Sweden was allowed eighteen years of peace in which to recover from the wounds of war.
Proud Swedes ridiculed his pacifism, and called his partisans “Nightcaps”—“Caps” for short—implying that they were dotards sleeping while Sweden fell behind in the parade of the powers. Against these a party of “Hats” was formed by Count Carl Gyllenborg, Karl Tessin, and others; this captured the Riksdag in 1738, and Gyllenborg replaced Horn. Resolved to restore Sweden to her former place among the powers, he renewed the lapsed alliance with France, which sent her subsidies in return for opposition to the aims of Russia; and in 1741 the government declared war against Russia, hoping to regain those Baltic provinces which had been lost to Peter the Great. But neither the army nor the navy had been sufficiently prepared; the navy was incapacitated by disease, and the army yielded all Finland to the Russian advance. Czarina Elizabeth, anxious to win Sweden’s support, agreed to restore most of Finland if her cousin, Adolphus Frederick of Holstein-Gottorp, was named heir to the Swedish throne. On these terms the Peace of Abo ended the war (1743). When Frederick I died (1751) Adolphus Frederick became king.
The estates soon taught him that he was king in name only. They disputed his right to name new peers, or to choose the members of his household; they threatened to dispense with his signature if he objected to signing certain measures or documents. The King was docile, but he had a proud and commanding consort, Louisa Ulrika, sister of Frederick the Great. King and Queen attempted a revolt against the power of the estates. It failed; its agents were tortured and beheaded; the King was spared because the people loved him. Louisa Ulrika consoled and distinguished herself by becoming Queen of Letters: she befriended Linnaeus, and gathered about her a circle of poets and artists through whom she spread the ideas of the French Enlightenment. The Riksdag appointed a new tutor for her ten-year-old son, with instructions to inform the future Gustavus III that in free states kings exist only on sufferance; that they are invested with splendor and dignity “more for the honor of the realm than for the sake of the person who may happen to occupy the chief place in the pageant,” and that “as the glare and glitter of a court” might mislead them into delusions of grandeur, they would do well to visit the huts of the peasantry now and then, and see the poverty that pays for the royal pomp.39
On February 12, 1771, Adolphus Frederick died, and the Council summoned Gustavus III to come from Paris and accept the forms of royalty.
2. Gustavus III
He was the most attractive king since Henry IV of France. Handsome and gay, loving women, the arts, and power, he flashed through Swedish history like an electric charge, bringing to action all the vital elements in the nation’s life. He had been well educated by Karl Tessin, and had been spoiled by his fond mother. He was intellectually precocious and keen, well endowed with imagination and aesthetic sense, restless with ambition and pride; it is not easy to be a humble prince. His mother transmitted to him her love of French literature; he read Voltaire avidly, sent him homage, learned the Henriade by heart. The Swedish ambassador at Paris forwarded to him each volume of the Encyclopédie as it appeared. He studied history with attention and fascination; he was thrilled by the careers of Gustavus Vasa, Gustavus Adolphus, Charles XII; after reading of these men he could not bear to be a do-nothing king. In 1766, without consulting him, and without the consent of his parents, the Council married him to Princess Sophia Magdalena, daughter of Denmark’s Frederick V. She was shy, gentle, pious, and thought the theater a place of sin; he was skeptical, loved the drama, and never forgave the Council for projecting him into this uncongenial marriage. The Council appeased him for a time by a handsome grant for a trip to France (1770-71).
He stopped at Copenhagen, Hamburg, and Brunswick, but Paris was his goal. He braved the anger of Louis XV by calling upon the banished Choiseul, and he violated the conventions by visiting Mme. du Barry in her château at Louveciennes. He met Rousseau, d’Alembert, Marmontel, and Grimm, but was disillusioned; “I have made the acquaintance of all the philosophers,’ he wrote to his mother, “and find their books much more agreeable than their persons.”40 He shone as a northern star at the salons of Mmes. Geoffrin, du Deffand, de Lespinasse, d’Épinay, and Necker. Amid his triumphs he received word that he had become king of Sweden. He did not hurry back; he stayed in Paris long enough to secure large subsidies for Sweden from the almost bankrupt government of France, and 300,000 livres for his own use in managing the Riksdag. On his way home he stopped to see Frederick the Great, who warned him that Prussia would defend—if necessary by arms—that Swedish constitution which so strictly limited the powers of the king.
Gustavus reached Stockholm on June 6. On the fourteenth he opened his first Riksdag with amiable words strangely like those with which another hampered king, George III, had opened his first Parliament in 1760. “Born and bred among you, I have learned from my tenderest youth to love my country, and I hold it the highest privilege to have been born a Swede, and the greatest honor to be the first citizen of a free people.”41 His eloquence and patriotism won a warm response from the nation, but it left the politicians unmoved. The Caps, friends of the constitution and Russia, and financed by forty thousand pounds from Catherine II, won a majority in three of the four estates. Gustavus countered by borrowing 200,000 pounds from Dutch bankers to buy the election of his nominee as marshal of the Riksdag. But he had still to be crowned, and the Cap-controlled estates revised the coronation oath to pledge the king to abide by the decision of “a majority of the estates,” and to base all preferments on merit alone. Gustavus resisted for half a year this move toward democracy; then (March, 1772) he signed it. Secretly he resolved to overthrow this ungracious constitution as soon as opportunity came.
He prepared his ground by establishing popularity. He made himself accessible to all; he “bestowed favors as if receiving them”; he sent no one away discontent. Several army leaders agreed with him that only a strong central government, untrammeled by a venal Riksdag, could save Sweden from domination by Russia and Prussia—which at this very time (August 5, 1772) were partitioning Poland. Vergennes, the French ambassador, contributed 500,000 ducats to the expenses of the coup. On August 18 Gustavus arranged that army officers should meet him at the arsenal the next morning. Two hundred came; he asked them to join him in overthrowing a regime of corruption and instability fostered by Sweden’s enemies; all but one agreed to follow him. The exception, Governor-General Rudbeck, rode through the streets of Stockholm calling upon the people to protect their freedom; they remained apathetic, for they admired Gustavus, and had no love for a Riksdag that, in their view, covered an oligarchy of nobles and businessmen with democratic forms. The young King (now twenty-six) led the officers to the barracks of the Stockholm Guards; to these he spoke so persuasively that they pledged him their support. He seemed to be repeating, step by step, the procedure by which Catherine II had reached power in Russia ten years before.
When the Riksdag met on August 21 it found its Rikssaal surrounded by grenadiers, and the hall itself held by troops. Gustavus, in a speech that made history, reproved the estates for having debased themselves with party quarrels and foreign bribery, and he ordered read to them the new constitution that his aides had prepared. It retained a limited monarchy, but widened the powers of the king; it gave him control of the army, navy, and foreign relations; he alone could appoint and depose ministers; the Riksdag was to assemble only at his call, and he could dismiss it at will; it could discuss only such measures as he laid before it, but no measure could become law without the Riksdag’s consent, and it would retain control of the purse through the Bank of Sweden and the right to tax. The king was not to engage in a war of offense without the Riksdag’s concurrence. Judges were to be named by the king and be then irremovable; and the right of habeas corpus would protect all arrested persons from the delays of the law. Gustavus asked the delegates to accept this constitution; the bayonets convinced them; they accepted, and swore loyalty. The King thanked the Riksdag and dismissed it, promising to recall it within six years. The Hats and Caps parties disappeared. The coup d’état was effected with bloodless expedition, and apparently to the satisfaction of the people; they “hailed Gustavus as their liberator, and loaded him with blessings; … men embraced one another with tears of joy.”42 France rejoiced, Russia and Prussia threatened war to restore the old constitution. Gustavus stood his ground; Catherine and Frederick retreated, lest war should endanger their Polish spoils.
In the ensuing decade Gustavus behaved as a constitutional monarch—i.e., subject to constituted law. He carried out beneficent reforms, and earned a place among the “enlightened despots” of the century. Voltaire hailed him as “the worthy heir of the great name of Gustavus.”43 Turgot, frustrated in France, had the satisfaction of seeing his economic policies succeed in Sweden, where free trade was legalized in grains, and industry was released from the cramping regulations of the guilds. Commerce was stimulated by the organization of free ports on the Baltic and free market towns in the interior. Mirabeau père was asked for advice on improving agriculture; Lemercier de la Rivière was commissioned to draw up a plan for public education.44 Gustavus sent to Voltaire a copy of the ordinance guaranteeing freedom of the press (1774), and wrote: “It is you that humanity has to thank for the destruction of those obstacles which ignorance and fanaticism have opposed to its progress.”45 He reformed the law and the judiciary, abolished torture, reduced penalties, and stabilized the currency. He lowered the taxes of the peasantry. He reorganized the army and the fleet. Ending the Lutheran monopoly on Swedish piety, he granted toleration to all Christian sects and, in three major cities, to Jews. When he summoned the Riksdag in 1778, his first six years of rule were approved by it without a single dissenting voice. Gustavus wrote to a friend: “I have reached the happiest stage of my career. My people are convinced that I desire nothing but to promote their welfare and establish their freedom.”46
3. The Swedish Enlightenment
Amid this activity of legislation and administration, the King contributed with all his heart to the magnificent outburst of literature and science that put Sweden fully abreast of European intellectual developments in the eighteenth century. This was the age of Linnaeus in botany of Scheele and Bergman in chemistry; we have elsewhere paid them honor. But perhaps we should have included under science one of the most remarkable Swedes of the age, Emanuel Swedenborg, for it was as a scientist that he first earned fame. He did original work in physics, astronomy, geology, paleontology, mineralogy, physiology, and psychology. He improved the air pump by using mercury; he gave good accounts of magnetism and phosphorescence; he proposed a nebular hypothesis long before Kant and Laplace; he anticipated modern research on the ductless glands. He showed, 150 years before any other scientist, that the motion of the brain is synchronous with the respiration rather than with the pulse. He localized in the cortex of the brain the higher operations of the mind, and assigned to specific parts of the brain the control of specific parts of the body.47 He addressed the House of Nobles on the decimal system, the reform of the currency, the balance of trade. All his genius seemed directed to science. But when he concluded that his studies were leading him to a mechanistic theory of mind and life, and that this theory led to atheism, he reacted strongly away from science toward religion. In 1745 he began to have visions of heaven and hell; he came to trust these visions literally, and he described them in his treatise Heaven and Its Wonders and Hell. He informed his thousands of readers that in heaven they would not be disembodied spirits but real flesh-and-blood men and women, enjoying the physical as well as the spiritual delights of love. He did not preach, nor did he found a sect; but his influence spread throughout Europe, affecting Wesley, William Blake, Coleridge, Carlyle, Emerson, and Browning; and finally (1788) his followers formed the “New Jerusalem Church.”
Despite his opposition Sweden gave its mind more and more to the Enlightenment. The import or translation of French and English works rapidly produced a secularization of culture and a refinement of literary taste and forms. Under Gustavus III and his mother the new liberalism found wide acceptance in the middle and upper classes, even among the higher clergy, who began to preach toleration and a simple deistic creed.48 Everywhere the watchwords were reason, progress, science, liberty, and the good life here on earth. Linnaeus and others organized the Swedish Royal Academy of Sciences in 1739; Karl Tessin founded the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in 1733. A Royal Academy of Belles-Lettres had had a brief existence under Queen Louisa Ulrika; Gustavus revived it (1784) with a rich endowment, and directed it to award yearly a medal worth twenty ducats for the best Swedish work in history, poetry, or philosophy; he himself won the first award with his panegyric of Lennart Torstenson, the most brilliant of Gustavus Adolphus’ generals. In 1786 the King established (to use his own words) “a new academy for the cultivation of our own language, on the model of the Académie Françahise. It is to be called the Swedish Academy, and will consist of eighteen members.” This and the Academy of Belles-Lettres were provided with funds for pensions to Swedish scholars and authors.49 Gustavus personally helped men of letters, of science, or of music; he made them feel that his bounty was their due; he gave them new social status by inviting them to his court; and he stimulated them by his competition.
There had been drama in Sweden before him, especially under encouragement by his mother, but it had been provided by French actors presenting French plays. Gustavus dismissed the alien troupe, and called upon native talent to produce plays for a really Swedish theater. He himself collaborated with Johan Willander in writing an opera, Thetis och Pelée; this had its première on January 18, 1773, and ran for twenty-eight nights. Then for eight years the King gave himself to politics. In 1781 he took up the pen again, and composed a series of plays which still rank high in Swedish literature. The first of them, Gustaf Adolfs Adelmod (Gustavus Adolphus’ Magnanimity, 1782) marked the beginning of the Swedish drama. The King took his subjects from historical records, and taught his people the history of their country as Shakespeare had taught the English. In 1782, at state expense, a superb theater was built for both drama and music. Gustavus wrote his plays in prose, had them versified by Johan Kellgren, and had native or foreign composers put them to music; so his plays became operas. The best results of this collaboration were Gustaf Adolf och Ebha Brake, celebrating the great commander’s love story, and Gustaf Vasa, which told how the first Gustavus had freed Sweden from Danish domination.
With such royal leadership, and three universities (Uppsala, Abo, and Lund), Sweden moved into its own Enlightenment. Olof von Dalin provided an Addisonian prelude by writing anonymously, and periodically publishing (1733-34), Den svenska Argus,discussing everything except politics, in the genial style of the Spectator. Nearly every reader was pleased. The Riksdag voted a reward to the author, who forthwith came out of hiding. Queen Louisa Ulrika made him court poet and tutor to the future Gustavus III. This fettered and dulled his Muse, but it allowed him time and money to write his chef-d’oeuvre, Svea Rikes Historia, the first critical history of the Swedish realm.
The most interesting figure in the new Pléïade was a woman, Hedvig Nordenflycht, the Sappho, Aspasia, and Charlotte Brontë of Sweden. She alarmed her puritan parents by reading plays and poetry; they punished her, she persisted, and wrote verses so charming that they resigned themselves to the scandal. But they compelled her to marry the overseer of their estate, who was wise and ugly; “I loved to listen to him as a philosopher, but the sight of him as a lover was unendurable.”50 She learned to love him, only to have him die in her arms after three years of marriage. A handsome young clergyman ended her mourning by courting her; she became his wife, and enjoyed “the most blissful life that any mortal can have in this imperfect world”; but he died within a year, and Hedvig went almost insane with grief. She isolated herself in a cottage on a small island, and voiced her sorrow in poems that were so well received that she moved to Stockholm and issued annually (1744-50) Aphorisms for Women, by a Shepherdess of the North.Her home became a salon for the social and intellectual elite. Young poets like Fredrik Gyllenborg and Gustaf Creutz followed her in adopting the classic French style and in espousing the Enlightenment. In 1758, aged forty, she fell in love with Johan Fischerström, twenty-three; he confessed that he loved another, but when he saw Hedvig desolate he proposed marriage to her. She refused the sacrifice, and to simplify matters she tried to drown herself. She was rescued, but she died three days later.Shepherdess of the North is still a classic in the literature of Sweden.
Creutz followed her romantic flight with an exquisite cycle of songs, Atis och Camilla (1762), which remained for many years the most admired poem in the language. Camilla, as a priestess of Diana, is vowed to chastity; Atis, a hunter, sees her, longs for her, wanders through the woods in despair. Camilla too is stirred, and asks Diana, “Is not nature’s law as holy as your decree?” She comes upon a wounded hart; she tends and comforts it; it licks her hand; Atis begs similar privileges; she rebukes him; he jumps from a high cliff, seeking death; Cupid breaks his fall; Camilla tends him and accepts his embrace; a serpent buries its fang in her alabaster breast; she dies in Atis’ arms. Atis sucks the poison from her wound, and nears death. Diana relents, revives them both, and releases Camilla from her virgin vows; all is well. This idyl was acclaimed by literate Sweden and by Voltaire, but Creutz turned to politics and became chancellor of Sweden.
If Hedvig Nordenflycht was the Sappho of Sweden, Karl Bellmann was its Robert Burns. Brought up in comfort and piety, he learned to prefer the jolly songs of the taverns to the somber hymns of his home. In the taverns the realities of life and feeling were revealed with little concern for convention and propriety; there each soul was bared by liquor, and let truth come out between fancy and wrath. The most tragic figure in this human wreckage was Jan Fredman, once clockmaker to the court, now trying to forget in drink the failure of his marriage; and the gayest was Maria Kiellström, queen of the lower depths. Bellmann sang their songs with them, composed songs about them, sang these before them to music composed by himself. Some of his songs were a bit loose, and Kellgren, the uncrowned poet laureate of the age, reproved him; but when Bellmann prepared Fredmans Epistlar for the press (1790), Kellgren chaperoned these verse letters with an enthusiastic preface, and the volume received an award from the Swedish Royal Academy. Gustavus III heard Bellmann gladly, called him “the Anacreon of the North,” and gave him a sinecure in the government. The assassination of the king(1792) left the poet without income;he sank into poverty, was imprisoned for debt, was released by friends. Dying of consumption at the age of fifty-five, he insisted on a last visit to his favorite tavern; there he sang till his voice failed him. He died soon afterward, February II, 1795. Some rank him as “the most original of all Swedish poets,” and “by all odds the greatest in the circle of poets” that honored this reign.51
But the man whom his contemporaries recognized as second only to the King in the intellectual life of the time was Johan Henrik Kellgren. Son of a clergyman, he discarded the Christian creed, marched with the French Enlightenment, and welcomed all the pleasures of life with a minimum of remorse. His earliest book, Mina Löjen (My Laughter) was an extended ode to joy, erotic joys included; Kellgren hailed laughter as “the one divine, distinguishing mark of humanity,” and invited it to accompany him to the end of his days.52 In 1778, aged twenty-seven, he joined with Karl Peter Lenngren in founding the Stockholmsposten; for seventeen years his lively pen made this journal the dominant voice in Swedish intellectual life; in its pages the French Enlightenment held full sway, the classic style was honored as the supreme norm of excellence, German romanticism was laughed out of court, and Kellgren’s mistresses were exalted in poems that scandalized the conservatives of the hinterland. The assassination of his beloved King took the heart out of the poet’s hedonistic philosophy. In 1795 one of his amours ran out of control and deepened into love. Kellgren began to acknowledge the rights of romance, idealism, and religion; he retracted his condemnation of Shakespeare and Goethe, and he thought that, after all, the fear of God might be the beginning of wisdom. However, when he died (1795), aged only forty-four, he asked that no bells be tolled for him;53 he was, at the end, again a son of Voltaire.
A charming aspect of his character was his willingness to open the columns of the Posten to opponents of his views. The most vigorous of them was Thomas Thorild, who declared war on the Enlightenment as the immature idolatry of superficial reason. At the age of twenty-two Thorild startled Stockholm with Passionerna (The Passions), which, he said, “contains the full force of my philosophy and all the splendor of my imagination—unrhymed, ecstatic, marvelous.” He declared that “his whole life was consecrated to … revealing nature and reforming the world.”54 Around him gathered a group of literary rebels who fed their fires with Sturm und Drang, ranked Klopstock above Goethe, Shakespeare above Racine, Rousseau above Voltaire. Failing to win Gustavus III to these views, Thorild migrated to England (1788), nourished his soul with James Thomson, Edward Young, and Samuel Richardson, and joined the radicals who favored the French Revolution. In 1790 he returned to Sweden and published political propaganda that stirred the government to banish him. After two years in Germany he was readmitted into Sweden, and subsided into a professorial chair.
There were several other stars in this literary firmament. Carl Gustaf af Leopold pleased the King with the classic form and courtly tone of his verse. Bengt Lidner, like Thorild, preferred romance. He was expelled from the University of Lund because of his escapades (1776); continued his studies and irregularities at Rostock; was put on a ship bound for the East Indies, escaped from it, returned to Sweden, and attracted the attention of Gustavus with a volume of poetic fables. He was appointed secretary to Count Creutz in the embassy at Paris; there he studied women more than politics, and was sent home, where he died in poverty at the age of thirty-five (1793). He redeemed his life by three volumes’hot with Byronic fire.—And there was modest Anna Maria Lenngren, wife of Kellgren’s collaborator on the Stockholmsposten. To that periodical she contributed verse that won her a special commendation by the Swedish Royal Academy. But she did not let her Muse interfere with her household chores, and in a poem addressed to an imaginary daughter she counseled her to avoid politics and society and content herself with the tasks and joys of the home.
Was there, in Swedish art, any movement answering to the literature and the drama? Hardly. Karl Gustaf of Tessin decorated in rococo (c. 1750) the royal palace that his father, Nicodemus Tessin, had built in 1693-97, and he gathered a rich collection of paintings and statuary, which is now part of the Stockholm National Museum. Johan Tobias Sergel carved a Venus and a Drunken Faun in classic style, and commemorated in marble the robust features of Johan Pasch. The Pasch family included four painters: Lorenz the Elder, his brother Johan, his sister Ulrica, and Lorenz the Younger; each of these painted royalty and nobility. They were a modest part in the brilliant Enlightenment that graced this reign.
It was the King himself who brought the bright flowering to a tragic end. The American Revolution, so powerfully aided by France, seemed to him a threat to all monarchies; he called the colonists “rebellious subjects,” and vowed that he would never recognize them as a nation until the King of England had absolved them from their oath of allegiance.55 More and more in his final decade he strengthened the royal power, surrounded it with ceremony and etiquette, and replaced able aides of independent mind with servitors who obeyed his wishes without hesitation or dissent. He began to restrict the freedom that he had given to the press. Finding his wife dull, he indulged in flirtations56 that shocked public opinion, which expected the kings of Sweden to give the nation a model of marital affection and fidelity. He alienated the people by establishing a governmental monopoly in the distillation of liquor; the peasants, accustomed to distill their own, evaded the monopoly by a hundred expedients. He spent increasingly on the army and navy, and was visibly preparing for war with Russia. When he assembled his second Riksdag (May 6, 1786) he found no longer, in the estates, the approval that the Riksdag of 1778 had given to his measures; almost all of his proposals were rejected, or were amended to futility, and he was compelled to surrender the government’s liquor monopoly. On July 5 he dismissed the Riksdag, and resolved to rule without its consent.
That consent, by the constitution of 1772, was necessary for any war but one of defense, and Gustavus was meditating an attack upon Russia. Why? He knew that Russia and Denmark had signed (August 12, 1774) a secret treaty for united action against Sweden. He visited Catherine II at St. Petersburg in 1777, but their mutual pretenses of friendship deceived neither the hostess nor her guest. As Russian victories against Turkey mounted, Gustavus feared that if nothing were done to end them the Empress would soon direct her immense armies westward in the hope of subjecting Sweden to her will as she had done with Poland. Was there any way of frustrating that design? Only, the King felt, by aiding Turkey with a flank attack upon St. Petersburg. The Sultan helped him decide by offering Sweden a subsidy of a million piasters annually for the next ten years if she would join in the effort to check Catherine. Perhaps now Sweden could recover what she had surrendered to Peter the Great in 1721. In 1785 Gustavus began to prepare his army and navy for war. In 1788 he sent to Russia an ultimatum demanding the restoration of Karelia and Livonia to Sweden, and of the Crimea to Turkey. On June 24 he embarked for Finland. On July 2, at Helsingfors, he took charge of his assembled forces, and began to drive toward St. Petersburg.
Everything went wrong. The fleet was stopped by a Russian flotilla in an indecisive battle off the island of Hogland (July 17). In the army 113 officers mutinied, charging that the King had violated his pledge to make no offensive war without the Riksdag’s consent; they sent an emissary to Catherine offering to place themselves under her protection and to cooperate with her in making both Swedish and Russian Finland an independent state. Meanwhile Denmark dispatched an army to attack Göteborg, the richest city in Sweden. Gustavus accepted this invasion as a challenge that would arouse the spirit of his people; he appealed to the nation, and especially to the rugged peasants of the mining districts called the Dales, to give him a new and more loyal army; he went in person, dressed in the Dalesmen’s characteristic garb, to address them from that same churchyard, in the village of Mora, where Gustavus Vasa had asked for their aid in 1521. The people responded; volunteer regiments were formed in a hundred towns. In September the King, fighting for his political life, rode 250 miles in forty-eight hours, made his way into Göteborg, and inspired the garrison to continue its defense against twelve thousand besieging Danes. Fortune turned in his favor. Prussia, unwilling to let Sweden fall subject to Russia, threatened war upon Denmark; the Danes withdrew from Swedish soil. Gustavus returned in triumph to his capital.
Now, emboldened by a new army dedicated to him, he summoned the Riksdag to assemble on January 26, 1789. Of 950 men in the House of Nobles, seven hundred supported the mutinous officers, but the other houses—clergy, burgesses, and peasants—were overwhelmingly for the King. Gustavus declared political war against the nobles by submitting to the Riksdag an “Act of Unity and Security” which ended many privileges of the aristocracy, opened nearly all offices to commoners, and gave the King full monarchical powers over legislation, administration, war, and peace. The three lower estates accepted the act, the Riddarhus rejected it as unconstitutional. Gustavus arrested twenty-one nobles, including Count Fredrik Axel von Fersen and Baron Karl Fredrik von Pechlin—one honorable and ineffective, the other clever and treacherous. But the power of the purse still remained with the Riksdag, and appropriations required the consent of all four chambers. The three lower orders voted the King, for as long as he might consider necessary, the funds he asked for continuing the war against Russia; the House of Nobles refused to vote supplies beyond two years. On April 17 Gustavus entered the Riddarhus, took the chair, and put to the nobles the question of accepting the decision of the three other houses. The noes preponderated, but the King announced that his proposal had won. He thanked the nobles for their gracious support, and withdrew, having risked assassination by the infuriated magnates.
He now felt free to prosecute the war. During the remainder of 1789 he rebuilt the army and the fleet. On July 9, 1790, his navy met the Russian in the Svensksund part of the Gulf of Finland, and won the most decisive victory in Sweden’s naval history; the Russians lost fifty-three ships and 9,500 men. Catherine II, still busy with the Turks, was ready for peace; by the Treaty of Väräla (August 15, 1790) she agreed to end her efforts to control the politics of Sweden, and prewar boundaries were restored. On October 19, 1791, Gustavus persuaded her to sign with him a defensive alliance which pledged her to send Sweden 300,000 rubles per year.
Doubtless their common fear of the French Revolution turned the old foes to this new partnership. Gustavus remembered gratefully that France had been Sweden’s faithful friend through 250 years, and that Louis XV and Louis XVI had supported him with 38,300,000 livres between 1772 and 1789. He proposed a League of Princes to invade France and restore the monarchy to power; he sent Hans Axel von Fersen (son of his enemy Count von Fersen) to arrange the flight of Louis XVI from Paris; he himself went to Aix-la-Chapelle to lead the allied army; and he offered asylum in his camp to the French émigrés. Catherine gave money but no men, Leopold II refused to co-operate, and Gustavus returned to Stockholm to protect his throne.
The nobles whose political supremacy he had ended were not reconciled to defeat. They looked upon Gustavus’ absolute rule as a plain violation of the constitution that he had sworn to support. Jakob Ankarström brooded over the fall of his class. “I bethought me much if perchance there was any fair means of getting the King to rule his land and people according to law and benevolence, but every argument was against me. … ‘Twere better to venture one’s life for the commonweal.” In 1790 he was tried for sedition. “This misfortune … knit my resolve rather to die than live a wretched life, so that my otherwise sensitive and affectionate heart became altogether callous as regards this horrible deed.”57 Pechlin, Count Karl Horn, and others joined in the conspiracy to kill the King.
On March 16, 1792, a date ominously recalling Caesar, Gustavus received a letter warning him not to attend a masquerade ball scheduled for that night in the French Theater. He went half masked, but the decorations on his breast revealed his rank. Ankarström recognized him, shot him, and fled. Gustavus was carried to a coach and led through an excited crowd to the royal palace. He was bleeding dangerously, but he jokingly remarked that he resembled a pope borne in procession through Rome. Within three hours of the attack Ankarström was arrested; within a few days, all the ringleaders. Horn confessed that the plot had had a hundred accomplices. The populace cried out for their execution; Gustavus recommended clemency. Ankarström was scourged, beheaded, and quartered, Gustavus lingered for ten days; then, told that he had only a few hours of life left to him, he dictated documents for a regency to govern the country and the capital. He died on March 26, 1792, aged forty-five. Nearly all the nation mourned him, for it had learned to love him despite his faults, and it realized that under his lead Sweden had lived through one of the most glorious ages in her history.