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Absolute Monarchy in Sweden

This is a part of the History of Sweden series. It covers Sweden from 1772 to 1809.

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Absolute Monarchy See also: Gustav III of Sweden

Adolf Frederick of Sweden died on February 12, 1771. The elections held on the demise of the Crown resulted in a Gustav’s partial victory for the Caps, especially among the lower orders; but in the estate of the peasants their majority was merely nominal, while the mass of the nobility was dead against them. Nothing could be done, however, till the arrival of the new king (then at Paris), and every one felt that with Gustav III an entirely incalculable factor had entered into Swedish politics. Unknown to the party leaders, he had already renewed the Swedish alliance with France and had received solemn assurances of assistance from Louis XV of France in case he succeeded in re-establishing monarchical rule in Sweden. France undertook, moreover, to pay the outstanding subsidies to Sweden, amounting to one and a half millions of livres annually, beginning from January 1772; and Vergennes, one of the great names of French diplomacy, was to be sent to circumvent the designs of Russia at Stockholm as he had previously circumvented them at Constantinople. Immediately after his return to Stockholm, Gustav endeavoured to reconcile the warring factions by inducing the leaders to form a composition committee to adjust their differences. In thus mediating he was sincere enough, but all his pacific efforts were frustrated by their jealousy of him and of each other. Still worse, the factions now entrenched still further on the prerogative.

The new coronation oath contained three revolutionary clauses:

  1. The first aimed at making abdications in the future impossible by binding the king to reign uninterruptedly.
  2. The second obliged him to abide, not by the decision of all the estates together, as heretofore, but by that of the majority only, with the view of enabling, the actually dominant lower estates (in which was a large Cap majority) to rule without, and even in spite of, the nobility.
  3. The third clause required him, in all cases of preferment, to be guided not ”principally” as heretofore, but “solely“ by merit, thus striking at the very root of aristocratic privilege. It was clear that the ancient strife of Hats and Caps had become merged in a conflict of classes; the situation was still further complicated by the ominous fact that the non-noble majority was also the Russian faction.

All through 1771 the estates were wrangling over the clauses of the coronation oath. A second attempt of the king to mediate between them foundered on the suspicions of the estate of burgesses; and on February 24, 1772 the nobility yielded from sheer weariness. The non-noble Cap majority now proceeded to attack the Privy Council, the last stronghold of the Hats, and, on April 25, succeeded in ousting their opponents. It was now, for the first time, that Gustav, reduced to the condition of a roi fainéant, began seriously to consider the possibility of a revolution; of its necessity there could be no doubt. Under the sway of the now dominant faction, Sweden, already the vassal, could not fail speedily to become the victim of Russia. She was on the point of being absorbed in that Northern System, the invention of the Russian minister of foreign affairs, Nikita Panin[?], which that patient statesman had made it the ambition of his life 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. The details of the famous revolution of August 19, 1772 are elsewhere set forth. Here we can only dwell upon its political importance and consequences.

The new constitution of August 20, 1772 which Gustav III of Sweden imposed upon the terrified estates at the bayonet’s point, converted a weak and disunited republic into a strong but limited monarchy, in which the balance of power inclined, on the whole, to the side of the monarch. The estates could only assemble when summoned by him; he could dismiss them whenever he thought fit; and their deliberations were to be confined exclusively to the propositions which he might think fit to lay before them. But these very extensive powers were subjected to many important checks. Thus, without the previous consent of the estates, no new law could be imposed, no old law abolished, no offensive war undertaken, no extraordinary war subsidy levied. The estates alone could tax themselves; they had the absolute control of the Riksbank - the Bank of Sweden , and the inalienable right of controlling the national expenditure. Thus the Riksdag held the purse; and this seemed a sufficient guarantee both of its independence and its frequent convention. The Privy Council, not the parliament, was the chief loser by the change; and, inasmuch as henceforth the Councillors were appointed by the king, and were to be responsible to him alone; a Council in opposition to the Crown was barely conceivable.

Abroad the Swedish revolution made a great sensation. Catherine II of Russia saw in it the triumph of her archenemy France, with the prolongation of the costly Turkish War[?] as ifs immediate result. But the absence of troops on the Finnish border, and the bad condition of the frontier fortresses, constrained the empress to listen to Gustav’s pacific assurances, and stay her hand. She took the precaution, however, of concluding a fresh secret alliance with Denmark, in which the Swedish revolution was significantly described as “an act of violence” constituting a casus foederis, and justifying both powers in seizing the first favourable opportunity for intervention to restore the Swedish constitution of 1720. In Sweden itself the change was, at first, most popular. But Gustav’s first Riksdag, that of 1778, opened the eyes of the deputies to the fact that their political supremacy had departed. The king was now their sovereign lord; and, for all his courtesy and gentleness, the jealousy with which he guarded and the vigour with which he enforced the prerogative plainly showed that he meant to remain so. But it was not till after eight years more had elapsed that actual trouble began. The Riksdag of 1778 had been obsequious; the Riksdag of 1786 was mutinous. It rejected nearly all the royal measures outright, or so modified them that Gustav himself withdrew them. When he dismissed the estates, the speech from the throne held out no prospect of their speedy revocation.

Nevertheless, within three years, the king was obliged to summon another Riksdag, which met at Stockholm on the January 26, 1789. His attempt in the interval to rule without a parliament had been disastrous. It was only by a breach of his own constitution that he had been able to declare war against Russia in April 1788; the Conspiracy of Anjala[?] (July) had paralysed all military operations at the very opening of the campaign; and the sudden invasion of his western provinces by the Danes, almost simultaneously (September), seemed to bring him to the verge of ruin. But the contrast, at this crisis, between his self-sacrificing patriotism and the treachery of the Russophil aristocracy was so striking that, when the Riksdag assembled, Gustav found that the three lower estates were ultra-royalist, and with their aid he succeeded, not without running great risks in crushing the opposition of the nobility by a second coup d’etat on February 16, 1789 and passing the famous Act of Union and Security[?] which gave the king an absolutely free hand as regards foreign affairs and the command of the army, and made further treason impossible. For this the nobility never forgave him. It was impossible, indeed, to resist openly so highly gifted and so popular a sovereign; it was only by the despicable expedient of assassination that the last great monarch of Sweden was finally removed, to the infinite detriment of his country.

Reuterholm The ensuing period was a melancholy one. The aristocratic classes loudily complained that the young king, Gustav IV of Sweden, still a minor, was being brought up among Jacobins; while the middle classes, deprived of the stimulating leadership of the anti-aristocratic “Prince Charming” and becoming more and more inoculated with French political ideas, drifted into an antagonism not merely to hereditary nobility, but to hereditary monarchy likewise. Everything was vacillating and uncertain; and the general instability was reflected even in foreign affairs, now that the master-hand of Gustav III was withdrawn.. Sweden and renewed efforts of Catherine II to interfere in Sweden’s domestic affairs were, indeed, vigorously repulsed, but without tact or discretion, so that the good understanding between the two countries was seriously impaired, especially when the proclivities of Gustaf Reuterholm, who then virtually ruled Sweden, induced him to adopt what was generally considered an indecently friendly attitude towards the government at Paris. Despite the execution of Louis XVI of France on January 21, 1793, Sweden, in the hope of obtaining considerable subsidies, recognized the new French republic; and secret negotiations for contrading an alliance were actually begun in May of the same year, till the menacing protests of Catherine, supported as they were by all the other European powers, finally induced Sweden to suspend them.

The negotiations with the French Jacobins exacerbated the hatred which the Gustavians already felt for the Jacobin councillors of the duke-regent Charles. Smarting beneath their grievances and seriously believing that not only the young king’s crown but his very life was in danger, they formed a conspiracy, the soul of which was Gustaf Mauritz Armfelt to overthrow the government, with the aid of a Russian fleet, supported by a rising of the Dalecarlians. The conspiracy was discovered and vigorously suppressed.

The one bright side of this gloomy and sordid period was the rapprochement between the Scandinavian kingdoms during the revolutionary wars. Thus, on March 27, 1794, a neutrality compact was formed between with Denmark and Sweden; and their united squadrons patrolled the North Sea to protect their merchantmen from the British cruisers. This approximation between the two governments was happily followed by friendly feelings between the two nations, under the pressure of a common danger. Presently Reuterholm renewed his coquetry with the French republic, which was officially recognized by the Swedish government on April 23, 1795. In return, Sweden. received’a subsidy and a treaty between the two powers was signed on September 14, 1795. On the other hand, an attempt to regain the friendship of Russia, which had broken off diplomatic relations with Sweden, was frustrated by the refusal of the king to accept the bride, the grand duchess Alexandra, Catherine II’s granddaughter, whom Reuterholm had provided for him. This was Reuterholm’s last official act. On November 1, 1796, in. accordance with the will of his father, Gustav IV, now in his eighteenth year, took the government into his own hands.

The government of Gustav IV of Sweden was almost a pure autocracy. At his very first Riksdag, held at Norrköping in March 1800, the nobility were compelled, at last, to ratify Gustav III’s detested Act of Union and Security[?], which hitherto they had steadily refused to do. Shortly after this Riksdag rose, a notable change took place in Sweden’s foreign policy. In December 1800 Denmark, Sweden and Russia acceded to a second Armed Neutrality of the North[?], directed against Great Britain; and the arsenal of Karlskrona, in all probability, was only saved from the fate of Copenhagen by the assassination of the emperor Paul of Russia, which was followed by another change of system in the north. Hitherto Sweden had kept aloof from continental complications; but the arrest and execution of the Duc d’Enghien in 1804 inspired Gustav IV with such a hatred of Napoleon that when a general coalition was formed against the French emperor he was one of the first to join it. (December 3, 1804), pledging himself to send an army corps to cooperate with the English and Russians in driving the enemy out of the Netherlands and Hanover. But his senseless quarrel with Frederick William III of Prussia detained aim in Pomerania; and when at last in December 1805 he led his 6,000 men towards the Elbe district the third coalition had already been dissipated by the victories of Ulm[?] and Austerlitz. In 1806 a rupture between Sweden and Prussia was only prevented by Napoleon’s assault upon the latter power. After Jena Napoleon attempted to win over Sweden, but Gustav rejected every overture. The result was the total loss of Pomerania, and the Swedish army itself was only saved from destruction by the ingenuity of J. K. Toll. At Tilsit[?] the emperor Alexander I of Russia had undertaken to compel “Russia’s geographical enemy,” as Napoleon designated Sweden, to accede to the newly established “Continental Russian System”. Gustav IV naturally rejected all the proposals of Alexander to close the Baltic against the English; but took no measures to defend Finland against Russia, though, during the autumn of 1807, it was notorious that the tsar was preparing to attack the grand duchy. On February 21, 1808 a Russian army crossed the Finnish border without any previous declaration of war. On April 2 the king ordered a general levy of 30,000 men; but while two army corps, under Armfelt and Toll, together with a British contingent of 10,000 men under Moore, were stationed in Scania and on the Norwegian border in anticipation of an attack from Denmark, which, at the instigation of Napoleon, had simultaneously declared war against Sweden, the little Finnish army was left altogether unsupported.

The loss of Finland Its immediate consequence in Sweden proper was the deposition of Gustav IV on March 13, 1809, who was clearly incapable of governing. The nobility took advantage of this opportunity to pay off old scores against Gustav III by excluding not only his unhappy son but also that son’s whole family from the succession - an act of injustice which has never been adequately defended. But indeed the whole of this intermediate period is full of dark subterranean plots and counterplots, still inexplicable, as, for instance, the hideous Fersen murder on June 20, [[1810] evidently intended to terrorize the Gustavians, whose loyalty to the ancient dynasty was notorious. As early as June 5, 1809 the duke regent was proclaimed king , under the title of Charles XIII, after accepting the new liberal constitution, which was ratified by the Riksdag of the Estates the same day. The new king was, at best, a useful stopgap, in no way likely to interfere with the liberal revolution which had placed him on the throne. Peace was what the exhausted nation now required; and negotiations had already been opened at Fredrikshamn. But the Russian demands were too humiliating, and the war was resumed. But the defeats of Sävarsbruk and Ratan August 19, 1809 broke the spirit of the Swedish army; and peace was obtained by the sacrifice of the entire Finland, the Åland islands, "the fore-posts of Stockholm," as Napoleon rightly described them, and Westerbotten and Lappland as far as the rivers of Torneå[?] and Muonio[?] at the Treaty of Fredrikshamn, on September 17, 1809.

See also: List of Swedish monarchs, Realm of Sweden, History of Finland, History of Russia


Sweden and the Great Northern War
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