Childhood & Early Years
Gustav III was born on January 24, 1746, at the ‘Wrangel Palace,’ located on the islet of Riddarholmen in Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden. The ‘Wrangel Palace’ was the official residence of the royal family of Sweden until the ‘Royal Palace of Stockholm’ was completed.
Gustav III was the eldest son of King Adolf Frederik and Queen Louise Ulrika. He had three siblings: Carl XIII of Sweden; Frederik Adolf, Duke of Östergötland; and Sophia Albertine, Princess-Abbess of Quedlinburg Abbey.
Till the age of 5, Gustav III was taken care of by his governess, Hedvig Elisabet Strömfelt.
During his father’s reign, the ‘Riksdag’ (Swedish parliament) controlled the kingdom and appointed Carl Gustaf Tessin and Carl Fredrik Scheffer as Gustav III’s governors. His parents were against the governors. He was later inspired by poet and historian Olof von Dalin and turned into an avid reader.
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Gustav III ascended to the throne in 1771. His coronation ceremony was held on May 29, 1772, at the ‘Storkyrkan’ in Stockholm.
Back then, royal powers had been subdued by the ‘Riksdag,’ which controlled the kingdom since 1720.
In August 1772, he formed a new constitution that replaced the one formed in 1720, thus increasing the crown’s powers. His coup d’état was known as the Revolution of 1772, or Coup of Gustav III. Gustav took the opposition leaders captive and established an absolute monarchy, thus putting an end to parliamentary rule.
Gustav III then introduced a number of reforms. He abolished torture as a form of legal investigation; granted freedom of the press; amended the poor law; introduced religious tolerance, and increased the powers of the navy. In 1777, he introduced a full-fledged currency reform.
He also promoted free trade, revitalized the Swedish economy, and encouraged exports. In the late 1770s, many Jewish immigrants started settling in Sweden and started their businesses.
He was also a lover of the arts. He established the ‘Swedish Academy’ (1786) and promoted theater in Sweden. He wrote plays, too. In 1786, he collaborated with Johan Kellgren and worked on the opera ‘Gustaf Wasa’. His reign is also known as the age of Swedish (or Gustavian) Enlightenment.
However, the ‘Riksdag’ rejected his reforms. The king, in retaliation, adopted an aggressive foreign policy.
The Russo-Swedish War
While Russia was at war with Turkey, in 1788, Gustav III declared war on Russia. The war is now known as the Russo-Swedish War of 1788–1790.
The ‘Anjala League,’ a group of Swedish officers at the Finnish front, betrayed him. The situation was further worsened by Denmark’s entry into the war, as Russia’s ally.
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Gustav III approached the three lower estates (the clergy, the burghers, and the peasants) of the ‘Riksdag.’ In 1789, he introduced the ‘Union and Security Act,’ which gave more powers to the royalty.
He then averted a complete failure in the war by his naval trimph at Svensksund on July 9, 1790.
The Russians lost a third of their fleet and almost 7,000 men. A month later, on August 14, 1790, Sweden and Russia signed a peace treaty known as the ‘Treaty of Värälä’ and thus ended the war.
In October 1791, Gustav III ended an 8-year-old alliance with the Russian empress. The empress thus vowed to pay her new ally a yearly subsidy of 300,000 rubles.
Political Conspiracy & Death
By 1791, he focused on uniting a group of princes against the revolutionary French government. He seemed to have had a hint of the power of the French Revolution. However, his plans were marred by financial issues and the lack of support from the other European kingdoms.
The Russo-Sweden War and the ‘Union and Security Act’ in 1789 took away the powers of the nobility. This angered the nobles who were already offended since the coup of 1772.
Thus, a conspiracy was hatched by the nobility to assassinate the king and reorganize the government. Some of the conspirators were Swedish military officer Jacob Johan Anckarström, ‘Svea Life Guards’ colonel Carl Pontus Lilliehorn, Count Adolph Ribbing, former Swedish army general and ‘Riksdag’ member Baron Carl Fredrik Pechlin, and Count Claes Fredrik Horn.
Gustav III was to be assassinated at a masked ball at the ‘Royal Opera House’ in Stockholm, on the evening of March 16, 1792. He dined with his friends at the opera house before attending the masked ball that night.
While he was about to finish the supper, a letter reached Gustav. At the final moment, Lilliehorn had apparently felt guilty about being part of the conspiracy and had thus had sent an anonymous letter to the king to warn him about the murder plans.
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Count Hans Henric von Essen requested Gustav III not to attend the masked ball. However, Gustav, who had received many such threatening letters in the past, ignored the warning.
Gustav III walked with von Essen into the ball. He was wearing a mask, a hat, a Venetian cape, and the star of the ‘Royal Order of the Seraphim.’ His attire made the conspirators recognize him easily.
Soon, he was surrounded by Count Claes Fredrik Horn, Jacob Johan Anckarström, and Count Adolf Ludvig Ribbing. One of the conspirators wished him in French: “Bonjour, beau masque” (“Good-day, fine masked man”).
Following this, Anckarström shot Gustav III in the back. Von Essen instructed that the doors be closed and all guests be questioned. This got many conspirators arrested.
A few of the conspirators were charged. Anckarström was labeled as the main conspirator. He was tortured and beaten for 3 days before being beheaded.
Lilliehorn, who had written the anonymous letter, was allowed to go into exile. Other conspirators were either put in prison or sent into exile.
Thirteen days after being attacked, on March 29, 1792, Gustav III died of blood poisoning and pneumonia, at the ‘Royal Palace of Stockholm.’ He was 46 at the time of his death. His funeral was held at the ‘Riddarholm Church’ in Stockholm, after which he was buried at the same venue.
Family & Personal Life
To allay the political tension between Sweden and Denmark, an alliance was formed by the Swedish parliament in 1751, by the betrothal of 5-year-olds Prince Gustav of Sweden and Princess Sophia Magdalena of Denmark.
Sophia was the eldest daughter of Frederik V, the king of Denmark, and his first wife, Louisa of Great Britain.
Gustav III’s mother had earlier wanted to arrange his marriage with her niece, Philippine of Brandenburg-Schwedt.
Prince Gustav and Sophia were married by proxy on October 1, 1766, at the ‘Christiansborg Palace’ in Copenhagen. Sophia’s half-brother Frederik represented Gustav.
Sophia then traveled to Sweden to get married to Gustav in person, on November 4, 1766, at the ‘Royal Palace of Stockholm.’
The marriage was primarily unhappy and marred by the interference of Gustav III’s mother. It was rumored that Gustav III was homosexual or physically incompetent to consummate the marriage. Thus, Count Adolf Munck had reportedly instructed their physical union. Gustav III was also quite close to his courtiers Baron Gustav Armfelt and Count Axel von Fersen.
Gustav III and Sophia had two children: Gustav Adolf (born in 1778) and Carl Gustav, Duke of Småland (born in 1782). Rumors suggested that Gustav Adolf was fathered by Munck. Carl died a year after his birth.
Following Gustav III’s death, 13-year-old Gustav IV Adolf took to the throne.