Adolph Ribbing, Carl Fredrik Pechlin., Carl Pontus Lilliehorn, Caroline of Brandenburg-Ansbach, Christiansborg Palace, Claes Fredrik Horn, Jacob Johan Anckarström, King Carl XII of Sweden, King Frederik V of Denmark, King George II of Great Britain, King Gustaf III of Sweden, Princess Louise of Great Britain
Gustaf III (January 24, 1746 – March 29, 1792) was King of Sweden from 1771 until his assassination in 1792. He was the eldest son of Adolf Frederick of Sweden and Queen Louisa Ulrika of Prussia.
King Gustaf III was a vocal opponent of what he saw as the abuse of political privileges seized by the nobility since the death of King Carl XII. Seizing power from the government in a coup d’état, called the Swedish Revolution, in 1772 that ended the Age of Liberty, he initiated a campaign to restore a measure of Royal autocracy, which was completed by the Union and Security Act of 1789, which swept away most of the powers exercised by the Swedish Riksdag (parliament) during the Age of Liberty, but at the same time it opened up the government for all citizens, thereby breaking the privileges of the nobility.
A believer in enlightened absolutism, Gustaf spent considerable public funds on cultural ventures, which were controversial among his critics, as well as military attempts to seize Norway with Russian aid, then a series of attempts to re-capture the Swedish Baltic dominions lost during the Great Northern War through the failed war with Russia. Nonetheless, his successful leadership in the Battle of Svensksund averted a complete military defeat and signified that Swedish military might was to be countenanced.
Gustaf married Princess Sophia Magdalena, daughter of King Frederik V of Denmark and his first consort, the former Princess Louise of Great Britain, the youngest surviving daughter of King George II of Great Britain and Caroline of Brandenburg-Ansbach.
The by proxy marriage occurred in Christiansborg Palace, Copenhagen, on October 1, 1766 and in person in Stockholm on November 4, 1766. Gustaf was first impressed by Sophia Magdalena’s beauty, but her silent nature made her a disappointment in court life. The match was not a happy one, owing partly to an incompatibility of temperament, but still more to the interference of Gustav’s jealous mother, Queen Louisa Ulrika.
The marriage produced two children: Crown Prince Gustaf Adolph (1778–1837), future King Gustaf IV Adolph and Prince Carl Gustaf, Duke of Småland (1782–1783). For the consummation of the marriage, the king and queen requested actual physical instruction by Count Adolf Munck, reportedly because of anatomical problems of both spouses. There were also rumors that the queen was made pregnant by Munck, who would then be the true father of the heir Prince Gustav Adolph.
Gustaf’s mother supported rumors that he was not the father of his first son and heir. It was rumored at the time that Gustaf III was homosexual, a possibility asserted by some writers. The close personal relationships that he formed with two of his courtiers, Count Axel von Fersen and Baron Gustav Armfelt, were alluded to in that regard. His sister-in-law Charlotte implied as much in her famous diary.
Gustaf III’s war against Russia and his implementation of the Union and Security Act of 1789 helped increase hatred against the king which had been growing among the nobility ever since the coup d’état of 1772. A conspiracy to have the king assassinated and reform the constitution was created within the nobility in the winter of 1791–92. Among those involved were Jacob Johan Anckarström, Adolph Ribbing, Claes Fredrik Horn, Carl Pontus Lilliehorn and Carl Fredrik Pechlin. Anckarström was chosen to carry out the murder with pistols and knives, but there has also been evidence suggesting that Ribbing was the one who actually shot Gustav.
The assassination of the king was enacted at a masked ball at the Royal Opera House in Stockholm at midnight on March 16, 1792. Gustaf III had arrived earlier that evening to enjoy a dinner in the company of friends. During dinner, he received an anonymous letter that described a threat to his life (written by the colonel of the Life guards Carl Pontus Lilliehorn), but, as the king had received numerous threatening letters in the past, he chose to ignore it.
To dare any possible assassins, the King went out into an open box facing the opera stage. And after roughly ten minutes he said “this would have been an opportunity to shoot. Come, let us go down. The ball seems to be merry and bright.” The King with Baron Hans Henrik von Essen by his right arm went around the theatre once and then into the foyer where they met Captain Carl Fredrik Pollet.
The King, von Essen and Pollet continued through a corridor leading from the foyer towards the opera stage where the dancing took place. On the stage several masked men – some witnesses talked of 20 or 30 men – made it impossible for the king to proceed. Due to the crowd, Pollet receded behind the King, who bent backwards to talk to Pollet.
Anckarström stood with Ribbing next to him at the entrance to the corridor holding a knife in his left hand and carrying one pistol in his left inner pocket and another pistol in his right back pocket. They edged themselves behind the King, Anckarström took out the pistol from his left inner pocket and Ribbing or he pulled the trigger with the gun in Anckarström’s hand. Because of the King turning backwards the shot went in at an angle from the third lumbar vertebra towards the hip region.
The King twitched and said “aee” without falling. Anckarström then lost courage, dropped the pistol and knife and shouted fire. People from the King’s lifeguard stood some meters away. When they reached the King, they heard him say in French “Aï, je suis blessé” (Ouch, I am wounded).
The king was carried back to his quarters, and the exits of the Opera were sealed. Anckarström was arrested the following morning and immediately confessed to the murder, although he denied a conspiracy until informed that Horn and Ribbing had also been arrested and had confessed in full.
The king had not been shot dead; he was alive and continued to function as head of state. The coup was a failure in the short run. However, the wound became infected, and on March 29, the king finally died with these last words:
Jag känner mig sömnig, några ögonblicks vila skulle göra mig gott (“I feel sleepy, a few moments’ rest would do me good”)
Gustaf III’s gunshot wound was not initially considered life-threatening; reexamined evidence allows that the sudden serious infection that killed him almost immediately, 13 days into his convalescence, may have been caused chemically by attending surgeon Daniel Théel [sv] who was his known adversary.
Ulrica Arfvidsson, the famous medium of the Gustavian era, had told him something that could be interpreted as a prediction of his assassination in 1786, when he visited her anonymously – a coincidence – but she was known to have a large network of informers all over town to help her with her predictions, and she was in fact interrogated about the murder.