Gustavus III

Gustavus III (1746-1792) was king of Sweden from 1771 to 1792. He was an enlightened despot and a philosophe.

Born on Jan. 24, 1746, Gustavus III was the eldest son of Adolphus Frederick, an ineffectual king of Sweden, and Louisa Ulrika, the sister of Frederick the Great of Prussia. He was educated by Carl Gustav Tessin and Karl Scheffer, two of Sweden's more eminent statesmen, and by Olof von Dalin, poet and historian. On Nov. 4, 1776, he joined Sophia Magdelena of Denmark in what proved to be an unhappy marriage.

Throughout most of the 18th century Sweden was at the mercy of two selfish factions, the Hats and the Caps, which had made effective government almost impossible. The former wanted revenge on Russia and were subsidized by France, and the latter were subsidized by Russia, whose empress, Catherine the Great, used bribery, corruption, and diplomatic pressure to prevent any reform of the Swedish constitution.

After a trip to France and Prussia in early 1771, Gustavus III attempted mediation between the factions. The Caps, who held power, wanted to limit the monarchy and make Sweden a pawn in the Russian system. Between Aug. 17 and 21, 1772, Gustavus by a coup took over the government. The Riksdag (Diet) was dissolved and a new constitution adopted which curbed the power of the Estates but did not do away with them. In 1778 the Estates enthusiastically backed his administrative reforms, but in 1786 they opposed him. In 1788, while Sweden was at war with Russia and Denmark, certain members of the nobility were working and intriguing with the Russians. Gustavus appealed in person to the peasants of Dalarna, and on Feb. 17, 1789, by the Act of Unity and Security he was able to override the opposition of the nobility and, with the approbation of the three lower estates, to establish a constitution in which royal power was predominant except for the power of the purse. Because of events, Gustavus, a more ardent friend of the nobility than any other Swedish king, was forced to undermine the nobles' power and favor the lower estates.

Gustavus strengthened Sweden's naval and military forces. Although these moves were not directed against any single country, Gustavus had much to fear from Russia, who resented a nonsubservient Sweden. He entered the League of Armed Neutrality against Great Britain and through preparedness and luck was able to ward off attacks from both Russia and Denmark. On July 9-10, 1790, the Swedes won a resounding naval victory at Svensksund and the next month were able to sign at Väratä a peace with Russia in which Sweden was spared many humiliating concessions. Gustavus then tried to form a league against the French Jacobins.

Ever since the turbulent days of 1789, the Swedish nobility had been bitter. This was especially true among the younger aristocrats, who, fired by hatred and the battle cries of the French Revolution, imagined that they were fighting for justice and liberty against the King. Joined by hotheads and other malcontents, they plotted against the "Swedish tyrant." At the Stockholm Opera House, which he had done so much to foster, Gustavus attended a masquerade on March 16, 1792, and was shot in the back. He died on March 29.

Gustavus III, enlightened despot and philosophe, modeled his court on Versailles. He promoted the liberty of the press and was hurt when it attacked him. His court was highly ceremonial and at times reflected a theatrical king who not only could act but with his own hand created some of the best dramas of the Swedish theater. He wrote exquisitely, and his court became a meeting place for most of Sweden's great writers. The Swedish Academy was founded in 1786, and Gustavus made generous gifts to the advancement of science and to the University of Uppsala. He amended the poor law, proclaimed absolute religious liberty, and reformed the judicial system. No longer was torture used in legal investigations. There can be little doubt that he spent too lavishly for a poor country, that he surrounded himself with frivolous and adventurous flatterers, and that he welcomed every opportunity for pleasure and display. Still he was patriotic and saw an identity between the welfare of his subjects and the enhancement of his own glory. When compared with his immediate predecessors and his successors up to Charles XIV, his reign was refreshing and enlightened.

Further Reading on Gustavus III

R. N. Bain, Gustavus III and His Contemporaries, 1746-1792:An Overlooked Chapter of Eighteenth Century History (2 vols., 1894), although dated, is a useful work in English. Detailed accounts of Gustavus III appear in Carl Hallendorf and Adolf Schück, A History of Sweden (1929; rev. ed. 1938), and Andrew A. Stomberg, A History of Sweden (1931).