Gustav III – The enlightened despot


“Now there would have been time to shoot. Let’s go down. The masquerade seems jolly and merry”. These words were uttered by king Gustav III on March 16th 1792. He was standing by a window at the Royal Opera in Stockholm looking down on the dancing guests. Fifteen minutes earlier he had finished supper with some of his closest friends. Then a page appeared with an anonymous letter to the king. It said that there was a conspiracy to kill the king and that the assassination would take place during the masquerade ball this evening. King Gustav showed the letter to his friend von Essen who got upset and asked the king to put on a harness, but he refused. After having watched the dancing guests from the window the king put on his tiny masque, a three-pointed hat and a thin silk cloak and went down with his company. Quickly he was surrounded by five men in black cloaks. One of them said: “Bon soir, beau masque”/Good evening, beautiful masque”. He then shot the king in the back who stumbled and exclaimed in French which was the Swedish court language then: “Ah. I’m wounded. Take me away and arrest him. But don’t hurt him”. Gustav III was helped by his friends von Essen and Löwenhielm, while the conspirators called out that fire was loose, but to no avail. Another royal friend Pollet saw to that the doors were closed. There was a quick investigation. While the wounded king was resting at the castle District Police Commissioner Nils Henric Liliensparre led the investigation. Two pistols and a knife were found and a note that quickly revealed some identity.

The culprit who had pulled the trigger was a military called Jacob Johan Anckarström, 29 years old. In the winter of 1791- 1792 some Swedish noblemen had gathered to discuss their hatred of the king. Apart from Anckarström they were Carl Fredrik Pechlin, Adolph Ribbing, Claes Fredrik Horn, Carl Pontus Liliehorn, Johan Tore Bielke and the brothers Jacob and Johan von Engström. The king had withdrawn many of their noble privileges and moreover dragged Sweden into an unpopular and futile war against Russia 1787- 1790. Now they had had enough and plotted to kill the monarch and end his autocratic rule. Captain Anckarström was given the task to do the main job and he replied: “I’ll do it. If opportunity is given”. However, one of the conspirators, Carl Pontus Liliehorn, became reluctant and it was he that wrote the anonymous letter. District Police Commissioner Liljensparre was efficient. He soon succeeded to find all the plotters. All the same it was decided that only one should be executed and that was Anckarström. He was flogged and quartered. The king died from his wounds, blood poisoning and pneumonia on March 29th 1792. Anckarström was executed a month later. His co-conspirators were all imprisoned, but one soon found his way to France and was celebrated in the revolutionary realm.

Who was Gustav III? What had led to the assassination of him? He was born at the Wrengel Palace in Stockholm on January 13th 1746, as son of king Adolf Fredrik and queen Lovisa Ulrika of Prussia. Gustav also was cousin of Tsarevna Catherine II of Russia. A country and cousin he disliked intensely. As a boy he was taught a lot about the new enlightenment philosophers and was influenced by them, but the king and queen quarreled with his first tutors and changed the tutorship. At the age of 20 he was persuaded by the Parliament to marry the Danish princess Sofia Magdalena, even though he had no real feelings for her. The princess was also very disliked by her new step-mother, the Swedish queen. In the summer of 1768 crown prince Gustav had a short love affair with the young woman Charlotte du Riez, but he soon broke the connection. As a prince he also was very nationalistic and leader of the hat party in Parliament. On February 12th 1771 when his father died he was in Paris persuading the French monarch to help him. The old Louis XV of France gave him the advice to try and make peace between the fractions in Sweden. On May 29th 1771 Gustav was crowned king Gustav III.

Aided by Jacob Magnus Sprengtporten and Johan Christopher Toll the new king tried to instigate an uprising against the Parliament in Finland and Skåne/Scania. The Scanian uprising broke out too early and Sprengtporten hadn’t had time to get back from Finland. Then the king decided to perform a coûp d’état all the same on August 19th 1772. Surrounded by some close advisors he introduced a system of almost total autocratic dictatorship. However, Gustav III was for most of his 21 years of power an enlightened despot. He abolished torture in 1772, improved the health care system, made corruption more difficult, improved the salary system for civil servants, improved the free trade in 1775 and 1780 and made the penal system more lenient in 1777. But it wasn’t perfect. Instead of torture a prisoner could be in jail without limitations until he or she confessed. Gustav III also limitated the freedom of press, instead of easening the system in 1774. However, in 1777 he was the first leader in the world to acknowledge the USA as an independent nation. Already in 1776 Gustav III wrote: “It’s an interesting act to see a state that creates itself – If I hadn’t been who I am – I would go to America to follow all stages of development in the creation of this new republic from close quarters. This might become America’s century… Nevertheless I can’t help myself from admiring their courage and intensely like their boldness”.

The king’s family life was anything but happy. The marriage was a conventional one with little or no affection between the king and queen. In 1775 stable master Adolf Fredrik Munck tried to make the royal couple coming closer to each other. In 1778 a new crown prince was born, Gustav Adolph, and a rumour said that Munck was the real father. In 1782 queen Sofia Magdalena gave birth to another infant boy, Karl Gustav, but he died a year later. This family tragedy of lost family members, a loveless marriage and rumours of infidelity probably triggered the king’s downward trend. Still Gustav III tried to continue developing the Swedish society. He loved arts. He was himself skilled in writing, wrote several plays, was good at sketching and loved partcipating in stage plays and ballets. In 1771 he founded the Music Academy, the Academy of Painting and Sculptury in 1773, the Academy of Belles Lettres, History and Antiquities in 1786 and the Swedish Academy that same year. The Royal Great Theatre/The Royal Opera was founded in 1782. In 1777 Gustav III had introduced the old-fashioned national costume for all people at court. The design looked like costumes from the beginning of the 1600’s and was intended to stifle the competition at court of who had the most luxurious dress. This national costume was very disliked by many courtiers. In 1778  more voices were heard against the king’s dictatorship. He was against death penalty and passed a new law that said that all death penalties should be signed by himself. Then he simply refused to sign any of those. Some people criticized the king for leniency. Gustav III also founded four cities between 1779 and 1786.

From 1780 and onwards Sweden suffered from famine. At the same time the opposition grew stronger and stronger. The social reforms had all but stopped and the king was criticized for wasting government money, and for extending his autocracy to increased absolutism. Ordinary people in the street just saw the waste of money on petty court things which didn’t help them at all. Bit by bit the king grew more impopular. His reductions of noble rights within the aristocracy made him intensely hated in those quarters. In 1783-1784 the king was abroad to raise money for his new projects and in Paris he bought a slave colony in the West Indies, called Swedish S:t Barthélemy. Gustav III tried to raise money from Catherine in Russia and get her help, but to no use.

In the autumn of 1787 war broke out between Russia and the Turkish Ottoman Empire and Gustav III saw his chance. In June 1788 Swedish troups crossed the Russian border from Finland and tried to take Saint Petersburg and Fredriskhamn Castle but failed. This Russian war was highly impopular in Sweden and also among Swedish officers. The king also wanted to attack Norway and Denmark. Russia got help from Denmark who marched from Norway into western Sweden. Skirmishes were fought, Gothenburg put under siege, but the defence improved there. A British diplomat helped Sweden getting a ceaze-fire and the Danish-Norwegian troups withdrew after threats from Great Britain and Prussia. This short war has gone down in history as the Theatre War or Lingonberry War since no big battles were fought. The Russian war however dragged on with some minor victories, but heavy losses and many people dead. The Swedish state was by now tired of futile wars, a destroyed country, a wasted economy and futile embellishments on the surface. A peace treaty with Russia was signed on August 14th 1790 at Värälä in Finland. It was with these experiences in the back that the assassination on Gustav III took place today 221 years ago.

What can we learn from this? Gustav III lived in a time when the modern democracy movement was in its infancy in Europe. As an enlightened despot he started out fairly well, but as time went by the problems increased. “No man is an island, entire of itself”, as John Donne said. Totalitarian systems always contribute to increased fanaticism and a lack of respect for people’s varied rights and experiences. Wars too always lay countries waste. Even if my country hasn’t been to war as a nation for a long time we must realise that the darkness that befalls all people that experience humanity’s darker aspects affect us also in today’s democratic Sweden. We ought to consider that we too have experienced good and bad things, as well as the frailty but importance of a peaceful and democratic society where people get a chance to live and grow. There will always be power-games, corruption, psychopaths, scheming and killings, but we must learn from previous periods in history, both from recent events and more distant. We have to live here and now, do what we can of our own lives and the world we live in so that the future becomes at least acceptably humanitarian.

Anders Moberg, March 16th 2013


5 thoughts on “Gustav III – The enlightened despot

  1. Thank you for posting this great information here! I have taken a few facts for a debate in my European History course tomorrow. I like your site; I think I may come back every once in a while.

  2. Dear Anders,
    Your text is historically correct and well written. I do agree with your last paragraphe.
    Kind Regards,
    Johan Magnus (von) Toll (Johan Christopher Toll swedish family member)
    Montreux, Switzerland

    • Hej, Johan Magnus. Det gläder mig mycket att du uppskattade min text om Gustav III. Jag har borgerlig bakgrund och är aktiv folkpartist, även om jag inte har några politiska uppdrag. Min text om Gustav III är den näst mest lästa av alla mina blogginlägg och framför allt har läsare i USA uppskattat den.

  3. Pingback: Comparisons Sweden and US – continued | magisterwernegren

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