1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Gustavus III.
GUSTAVUS III. (1746-1792), king of Sweden, was the eldest son of Adolphus Frederick, king of Sweden, and Louisa Ulrica of Prussia, sister of Frederick the Great, and was born on the 24th of January 1746. Gustavus was educated under the care of two governors who were amongst the most eminent Swedish statesmen of the day, Carl Gustaf Tessin and Carl Scheffer; but he owed most perhaps to the poet and historian Olof von Dalin. The interference of the state with his education, when he was quite a child, was, however, doubly harmful, as his parents taught him to despise the preceptors imposed upon him by the diet, and the atmosphere of intrigue and duplicity in which he grew up made him precociously experienced in the art of dissimulation. But even his most hostile teachers were amazed by the brilliance of his natural gifts, and, while still a boy, he possessed that charm of manner which was to make him so fascinating and so dangerous in later life, coupled with the strong dramatic instinct which won for him his honourable place in Swedish literature. On the whole, Gustavus cannot be said to have been well educated, but he read very widely; there was scarce a French author of his day with whose works he was not intimately acquainted; while his enthusiasm for the new French ideas of enlightenment was as sincere as, if more critical than, his mother’s. On the 4th of November 1766, Gustavus married Sophia Magdalena, daughter of Frederick V. of Denmark. The match was an unhappy one, owing partly to incompatibility of temper, but still more to the mischievous interference of the jealous queen-mother.
Gustavus first intervened actively in politics in 1768, at the time of his father’s interregnum, when he compelled the dominant Cap faction to summon an extraordinary diet from which he hoped for the reform of the constitution in a monarchical direction. But the victorious Hats refused to redeem the pledges which they had given before the elections. “That we should have lost the constitutional battle does not distress us so much,” wrote Gustavus, in the bitterness of his heart; “but what does dismay me is to see my poor nation so sunk in corruption as to place its own felicity in absolute anarchy.” From the 4th of February to the 25th of March 1771, Gustavus was at Paris, where he carried both the court and the city by storm. The poets and the philosophers paid him enthusiastic homage, and all the distinguished women of the day testified to his superlative merits. With many of them he maintained a lifelong correspondence. But his visit to the French capital was no mere pleasure trip; it was also a political mission. Confidential agents from the Swedish court had already prepared the way for him, and the duc de Choiseul, weary of Swedish anarchy, had resolved to discuss with him the best method of bringing about a revolution in Sweden. Before he departed, the French government undertook to pay the outstanding subsidies to Sweden unconditionally, at the rate of one and a half million livres annually; and the comte de Vergennes, one of the great names of French diplomacy, was transferred from Constantinople to Stockholm. On his way home Gustavus paid a short visit to his uncle, Frederick the Great, at Potsdam. Frederick bluntly informed his nephew that, in concert with Russia and Denmark, he had guaranteed the integrity of the existing Swedish constitution, and significantly advised the young monarch to play the part of mediator and abstain from violence.
On his return to Sweden Gustavus made a sincere and earnest attempt to mediate between the Hats and Caps who were ruining the country between them (see Sweden: History). On the 21st of June 1771 he opened his first parliament in a speech which awakened strange and deep emotions in all who heard it. It was the first time for more than a century that a Swedish king had addressed a Swedish diet from the throne in its native tongue. The orator laid especial stress on the necessity of the sacrifice of all party animosities to the common weal, and volunteered, as “the first citizen of a free people,” to be the mediator between the contending factions. A composition committee was actually formed, but it proved illusory from the first, the patriotism of neither of the factions being equal to the puniest act of self-denial. The subsequent attempts of the dominant Caps still further to limit the prerogative, and reduce Gustavus to the condition of a roi fainéant, induced him at last to consider the possibility of a revolution. Of its necessity there could be no doubt. Under the sway of the Cap faction, Sweden, already the vassal, could not fail to become the prey of Russia. She was on the point of being absorbed in that northern system, the invention of the Russian vice-chancellor, Count Nikita Panin, which that patient statesman had made it the ambition of his life to realize. Only a swift and sudden coup d’état could save the independence of a country isolated from the rest of Europe by a hostile league. At this juncture Gustavus was approached by Jakob Magnus Sprengtporten, a Finnish nobleman of determined character, who had incurred the enmity of the Caps, with the project of a revolution. He undertook to seize the fortress of Sveaborg by a coup de main, and, Finland once secured, Sprengtporten proposed to embark for Sweden, meet the king and his friends near Stockholm, and surprise the capital by a night attack, when the estates were to be forced, at the point of the bayonet, to accept a new constitution from the untrammelled king. The plotters were at this juncture reinforced by an ex-ranger from Scania (Skåne), Johan Kristoffer Toll, also a victim of Cap oppression. Toll proposed that a second revolt should break out in the province of Scania, to confuse the government still more, and undertook personally to secure the southern fortress of Kristianstad. After some debate, it was finally arranged that, a few days after the Finnish revolt had begun, Kristianstad should openly declare against the government. Prince Charles, the eldest of the king’s brothers, was thereupon hastily to mobilize the garrisons of all the southern fortresses, for the ostensible purpose of crushing the revolt at Kristianstad; but on arriving before the fortress he was to make common cause with the rebels, and march upon the capital from the south, while Sprengtporten attacked it simultaneously from the east. On the 6th of August 1772 Toll succeeded, by sheer bluff, in winning the fortress of Kristianstad. On the 16th Sprengtporten succeeded in surprising Sveaborg. But contrary winds prevented him from crossing to Stockholm, and in the meanwhile events had occurred which made his presence there unnecessary.
On the 16th of August the Cap leader, Ture Rudbeck, arrived at Stockholm with the news of the insurrection in the south, and Gustavus found himself isolated in the midst of enemies. Sprengtporten lay weather-bound in Finland, Toll was five hundred miles away, the Hat leaders were in hiding. Gustavus thereupon resolved to strike the decisive blow without waiting for the arrival of Sprengtporten. He acted with military promptitude. On the evening of the 18th all the officers whom he thought he could trust received secret instructions to assemble in the great square facing the arsenal on the following morning. At ten o’clock on the 19th Gustavus mounted his horse and rode straight to the arsenal. On the way his adherents joined him in little groups, as if by accident, so that by the time he reached his destination he had about two hundred officers in his suite. After parade he reconducted them to the guard-room of the palace and unfolded his plans to them. He then dictated a new oath of allegiance, and every one signed it without hesitation. It absolved them from their allegiance to the estates, and bound them solely to obey their lawful king, Gustavus III. Meanwhile the senate and the governor-general, Rudbeck, had been arrested and the fleet secured. Then Gustavus made a tour of the city and was everywhere received by enthusiastic crowds, who hailed him as a deliverer. On the evening of the 20th heralds perambulated the streets proclaiming that the estates were to meet in the Rikssaal on the following day; every deputy absenting himself would be regarded as the enemy of his country and his king. On the 21st, a few moments after the estates had assembled, the king in full regalia appeared, and taking his seat on the throne, delivered that famous philippic, one of the masterpieces of Swedish oratory, in which he reproached the estates for their unpatriotic venality and licence in the past. A new constitution was recited by the estates and accepted by them unanimously. The diet was then dissolved.
Gustavus was inspired by a burning enthusiasm for the greatness and welfare of Sweden, and worked in the same reformatory direction as the other contemporary sovereigns of the “age of enlightenment.” He took an active part in every department of business, but relied far more on extra-official counsellors of his own choosing than upon the senate. The effort to remedy the frightful corruption which had been fostered by the Hats and Caps engaged a considerable share of his time and he even found it necessary to put the whole of a supreme court of justice (Göta Hofrätt) on its trial. Measures were also taken to reform the administration and the whole course of judicial procedure, and torture as an instrument of legal investigation was abolished. In 1774 an ordinance providing for the liberty of the press was even issued. The national defences were at the same time developed on a “Great Power” scale, and the navy was so enlarged as to become one of the most formidable in Europe. The dilapidated finances were set in good order by the “currency realization ordinance” of 1777. Gustavus also introduced new national economic principles. In 1775 free trade in corn was promoted and a number of oppressive export-tolls were abolished. The poor law was also amended, absolute religious liberty was proclaimed, and he even succeeded in inventing and popularizing a national costume which was in general use from 1778 till his death. His one great economic blunder was the attempt to make the sale of spirits a government monopoly, which was an obvious infringement upon the privileges of the estates. His foreign policy, on the other hand, was at first both wise and wary. Thus, when the king summoned the estates to assemble at Stockholm on the 3rd of September 1778, he could give a brilliant account of his six years’ stewardship. Never was a parliament more obsequious or a king more gracious. “There was no room for a single No during the whole session.” Yet, short as the session was, it was quite long enough to open the eyes of the deputies to the fact that their political supremacy had departed. They had changed places with the king. He was now indeed their sovereign lord; and, for all his gentleness, the jealousy with which he guarded, the vigour with which he enforced the prerogative, plainly showed that he meant to remain so. Even the few who were patriotic enough to acquiesce in the change by no means liked it. The diet of 1778 had been obsequious; the diet of 1786 was mutinous. The consequence was that nearly all the royal propositions were either rejected outright or so modified that Gustavus himself withdrew them.
The diet of 1786 marks a turning-point in Gustavus’s history. Henceforth we observe a determination on his part to rule without a parliament; a passage, cautious and gradual, yet unflinching, from semi-constitutionalism to semi-absolutism. His opportunity came in 1788, when the political complications arising out of his war with Catherine II. of Russia enabled him by the Act of Unity and Security (on the 17th of February 1789) to override the opposition of the rebellious and grossly unpatriotic gentry, and, with the approbation of the three lower estates, establish a new and revolutionary constitution, in which, though the estates still held the power of the purse, the royal authority largely predominated. Throughout 1789 and 1790 Gustavus, in the national interests, gallantly conducted the unequal struggle with Russia, finally winning in the Svensksund (9th-10th July) the most glorious naval victory ever gained by the Swedish arms, the Russians losing one-third of their fleet and 7000 men. A month later, on the 14th of August 1790, peace was signed between Russia and Sweden at Värälä. Only eight months before, Catherine had haughtily declared that “the odious and revolting aggression” of the king of Sweden would be “forgiven” only if he “testified his repentance” by agreeing to a peace granting a general and unlimited amnesty to all his rebels, and consenting to a guarantee by the Swedish diet (“as it would be imprudent to confide in his good faith alone”) for the observance of peace in the future. The peace of Värälä saved Sweden from any such humiliating concession, and in October 1791 Gustavus took the bold but by no means imprudent step of concluding an eight years’ defensive alliance with the empress, who thereby bound herself to pay her new ally annual subsidies amounting to 300,000 roubles.
Gustavus now aimed at forming a league of princes against the Jacobins, and every other consideration was subordinated thereto. His profound knowledge of popular assemblies enabled him, alone among contemporary sovereigns, accurately to gauge from the first the scope and bearing of the French Revolution. But he was hampered by poverty and the jealousy of the other European Powers, and, after showing once more his unrivalled mastery over masses of men at the brief Gefle diet (22nd of January-24th of February 1792), he fell a victim to a widespread aristocratic conspiracy. Shot in the back by Anckarström at a midnight masquerade at the Stockholm opera-house, on the 16th of March 1792, he expired on the 29th.
Although he may be charged with many foibles and extravagances, Gustavus III. was indisputably one of the greatest sovereigns of the 18th century. Unfortunately his genius never had full scope, and his opportunity came too late. Gustavus was, moreover, a most distinguished author. He may be said to have created the Swedish theatre, and some of the best acting dramas in the literature are by his hand. His historical essays, notably the famous anonymous eulogy on Torstenson crowned by the Academy, are full of feeling and exquisite in style,—his letters to his friends are delightful. Every branch of literature and art interested him, every poet and artist of his day found in him a most liberal and sympathetic protector.
See R. N. Bain, Gustavus III. and his Contemporaries (London, 1904); E. G. Geijer, Konung Gustaf III.’s efterlemnade papper (Upsala, 1843-1845); C. T. Odhner, Sveriges politiska historia under Konung Gustaf III.’s regering (Stockholm, 1885-1896); B. von Beskow, Om Gustaf III. såsom Konung och människa (Stockholm, 1860-1861); O. Levertin, Gustaf III. som dramatisk författare (Stockholm, 1894); Gustaf III.’s bref till G. M. Armfelt (Fr.) (Stockholm, 1883); Y. K. Grot, Catharine II. and Gustavus III. (Russ.) (St Petersburg, 1884).(R. N. B.)