by Susan Flantzer
King Gustav III of Sweden is best known for being mortally wounded during a masked ball at the Royal Opera House in Stockholm, Sweden and dying thirteen days later. The incident was the subject of Giuseppe Verdi’s 1859 opera Un Ballo in Maschera (A Masked Ball). Gustav was the eldest son of King Adolf Frederik of Sweden and Louisa Ulrika of Prussia, daughter of King Friedrich Wilhelm I of Prussia and Sophia Dorothea of Hanover, daughter of King George I of Great Britain. He was the first cousin of Empress Catherine II (the Great) and the nephew of King Friedrich II of Prussia (the Great). Gustav was born on January 24, 1746, at the Wrangel Palace on Riddarholmen islet in Gamla Stan, the old town of Stockholm, Sweden. Wrangel Palace was the official Stockholm residence of the Swedish royal family from 1697 until 1754 when the Royal Palace of Stockholm was completed.
Gustav had three younger siblings:
- King Carl XIII of Sweden (1748–1818), married Hedwig Elizabeth Charlotte of Holstein-Gottorp, had two children who died in infancy
- Frederik Adolf of Sweden, Duke of Östergötland (1750–1803), unmarried
- Sophia Albertine of Sweden, Princess-Abbess of Quedlinburg Abbey, (1753–1829), unmarried
Until he was five years old, Gustav was under the care of a governess, Hedvig Elisabet Strömfelt. During the reign of his father, the Riksdag (Swedish Parliament) held all the power and they appointed Gustav’s governors. King Adolf Frederik often expressed his dissatisfaction with this arrangement, sometimes even in the presence of his son. Despite this, Gustav’s governors Carl Gustaf Tessin and Carl Fredrik Scheffer were among the most important Swedish statesmen of the time.
Past wars and the result of the 1743 election caused tension between Denmark and Sweden. To foster friendship between the two countries, a betrothal was arranged in 1751 between two five-year-olds, Crown Prince Gustav of Sweden and Princess Sophia Magdalena of Denmark, the eldest daughter of King Frederik V of Denmark and his first wife Princess Louisa of Great Britain, daughter of King George II of Great Britain. The betrothal was arranged by the Swedish parliament, not the Danish and Swedish royal families. The proposed match was disliked by both the mothers. Gustav’s mother, Queen Louisa Ulrika had long been in conflict with the Swedish parliament and would have preferred a marriage with her niece, Philippine of Brandenburg-Schwedt. Sophia Magdalena’s mother Queen Louise of Denmark feared that her daughter would be mistreated by her mother-in-law Queen Louisa Ulrika.
On October 1, 1766, Gustav and Sophia Magdalena were married by proxy at Christiansborg Palace in Copenhagen with the bride’s half-brother Frederik representing the groom. Sophia Magdalena then traveled to Sweden where she married Crown Prince Gustav in person on November 4, 1766, at the Royal Chapel at the Royal Palace of Stockholm.
The marriage was not a happy one. Sophia Magdalena was quiet and serious and found it difficult to adapt to the pleasure-loving Swedish court. The interference of Gustav’s jealous mother, Queen Louisa Ulrika, did not help the situation. Sophia Magdalena dutifully performed her ceremonial duties, but she did not care about social life and would rather exist in peace and quiet with a few friends.
In 1771, King Adolf Frederick of Sweden died and Gustav succeeded his father as King Gustav III of Sweden. Gustav and Sophia Magdalena’s coronation was held on May 29, 1772, at the Storkyrkan (The Great Church) in Stockholm.
In 1772, Gustav arranged for a coup d’état known as Revolution of 1772 or Coup of Gustav III. The coup d’état reinstated absolute monarchy and ended parliamentary rule. Gustav imprisoned opposition leaders and established a new regime with extensive power for the king.
The marriage of Sophia Magdalena and Gustav remained unconsummated for ten years. There were various theories regarding the cause including Sophia Magdalena’s strict religious upbringing and introverted character, Gustav’s sexuality, and the possibility that either or both Sophia Magdalena and Gustav had some kind of physical problem. Eventually, Count Adolf Fredrik Munck af Fulkila acted as a sexual instructor for the couple. The instruction resulted in the birth of a son. When it became known that Munck participated in the reconciliation between the royal couple, there were rumors that he was the father of Sophia Magdalena’s son. The couple eventually had another son, but he did not survive childhood:
- King Gustav IV Adolf of Sweden (1778–1837), married Frederica of Baden, had issue
- Prince Carl Gustav, Duke of Småland (1782–1783)
Like many 18th century monarchs, Gustav III was influenced by the French Age of Enlightenment philosophers. He was well-acquainted with the philosophy of Voltaire, well-known for his advocacy of freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and separation of church and state. Gustav was determined to reconcile his strengthened royal power with the ideas of tolerance and freedom of the enlightenment. He regarded himself as a true friend to the freedom of the press and encouraged publications in socially useful subjects. However, when the opposition to him grew stronger, Gustav restricted what could be written about him. In 1774, a new freedom of the press regulation was issued which contained a number of restrictions compared to the previous regulation of 1766.
In the 1780s, Gustav III was preoccupied with foreign policy: a growing hatred of Denmark and a desire to conquer Norway. In 1788, he began a war against Russia, the Russo-Swedish War, but had to retreat because of a mutiny in the army. In 1789, he resumed the war with varying success. The war ended in 1790 with the Treaty of Värälä. The war with Russia had destroyed Sweden’s economy, and when Gustav decided to attack France, a conspiracy developed.
The Russo-Sweden War and the implementation of the Union and Security Act in 1789, which gave the king more power and abolished many of the privileges of the nobility, contributed to the increasing hatred of Gustav III, which had existed among the nobility since the 1772 coup. In the winter of 1791-1792, a conspiracy was formed within the nobility to kill the king and reform the government. Among the conspirators were Jacob Johan Anckarström, a Swedish military officer, Carl Pontus Lilliehorn, colonel of the Svea Life Guards, Count Adolph Ribbing, Count Claes Fredrik Horn and Baron Carl Fredrik Pechlin, a former major general in the Swedish army and a member of the Riksdag.
The murder was to take place in the evening of March 16, 1792, at a masked ball held at Royal Opera House in Stockholm. Gustav and his friends ate a light supper at the opera house before joining the masked ball. Towards the end of the supper, a letter arrived for Gustav. At the last moment, Carl Pontus Lilliehorn regretted his part in the conspiracy and sent an anonymous letter to Gustav warning him of the murder plans. Gustav’s friend Count Hans Henric von Essen begged him not to go the masked ball. However, Gustav had received many threatening letters in the past and ignored the warning.
Gustav, wearing a mask, a triangular hat, a Venetian cape and the star of the Royal Order of the Seraphim, walked arm in arm with von Essen to the masked ball. Gustav’s was easily recognized because of the Royal Order of the Seraphim and he was surrounded by conspirators Jacob Johan Anckarström, Count Claes Fredrik Horn and Count Adolf Ludvig Ribbing. One of the conspirators said to him in French: “Bonjour, beau masque” (“Good-day, fine masked man”). Anckarström then shot Gustav in the back. von Essen ordered the doors to be closed and all guests were questioned which led to the arrest of several of the conspirators. It was decided that a limited number of the conspirators would be charged and that Jacob Johan Anckarström would be the scapegoat. He was beaten for three days before he was beheaded, mutilated and dismembered. Carl Pontus Lilliehorn, who wrote the anonymous warning letter, was released and exiled. Other conspirators were either imprisoned or exiled.
On March 29, 1792, thirteen days after being shot, King Gustav III died of pneumonia and blood poisoning at the Royal Palace of Stockholm at the age of 46. King Gustav III was given a magnificent funeral at Riddarholm Church in Stockholm where he was also buried. He was succeeded by his 13-year-old son King Gustav IV Adolf.
- En.wikipedia.org. (2017). Gustav III of Sweden. [online] Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gustav_III_of_Sweden [Accessed 23 Sep. 2017].
- Sv.wikipedia.org. (2017). Gustav III. [online] Available at: https://sv.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gustav_III [Accessed 23 Sep. 2017].
- Sv.wikipedia.org. (2017). Mordet på Gustav III. [online] Available at: https://sv.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mordet_p%C3%A5_Gustav_III [Accessed 23 Sep. 2017].
- Unofficial Royalty. (2017). Sophia Magdalena of Denmark, Queen of Sweden. [online] Available at: http://www.unofficialroyalty.com/sophia-magdalena-of-denmark-queen-of-sweden/ [Accessed 23 Sep. 2017].