Gustav III (Sweden)

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Gustav III of Sweden, 1777
Signature of Gustav III.  of Sweden

Gustav III (Born January 13 . Jul / 24. January  1746 greg. In Stockholm ; † 29. March 1792 ibid), from the Duke House Schleswig-Holstein-Gottorf , was from 1771 to 1792 King of Sweden .

Youth, upbringing and inclination

Gustav III was born on January 24, 1746 as the eldest son of the future King of Sweden Adolf Friedrich and his wife Luise Ulrike von Prussia , a sister of Friedrich II . His trainers were Count Carl Gustaf Tessin and General Scheffer . As a youth he is said to have been intelligent, eloquent, friendly, ambitious and full of zest for action, but also without seriousness, perseverance and moderation.

He was very fond of the fine arts. He soon founded the Royal Opera (Kungliga Operan) or the so-called Royal Theater (Kungliga Teatern), d. H. the establishment of its own - Swedish - theater company in 1773 was and remained a significant step in terms of culture and history for Sweden.


Coup against the nobility

Coronation of Gustav III. of Sweden in St. Nicolai Church in Stockholm , painted by Carl Gustaf Pilo

When his father died on February 12, 1771, Gustav was in Paris . There he signed a commitment to the existing constitution presented to him by the Reichsrat. At the same time, he secured the support of the French king at the upcoming State Chamber Day . Louis XV advised him, however, for a reconciliation between the opposing parties and a cooperative government of the country with their mutual support. As Crown Prince Gustav had already observed the growing polarization between the nobility and non-nobles in the Estates' Congress. First he tried - in the spirit of the French king - to reconcile the separated parties, and therefore signed the new insurance file of March 5, 1772, which essentially restricted royal power. Ultimately, however, he decided to overthrow the aristocratic oligarchy , with which, paradoxically, he wanted to secure the support of the aristocratic party in the long term.

Fundamental to this decision was the view that the policies of the major parties of the "period of freedom" endangered the rule of the nobility and the feudal order . Gustav saw the hatred of the non-nobles against the nobility as a threat to the continued existence of the monarchy . In a fragment of the manuscript about his decision to launch the coup in 1772, the king wrote that political developments had become more and more dangerous and that the spirit of the bourgeois hatred of the nobility, which was basically aimed at the complete destruction of the state system and the liquidation of the nobility, was shaped . He later wrote in a letter that his coup d'état of 1772 had aimed to keep the nobility as the mainstay of his monarchy. Just like the demands for equality of the non-noble classes, however, the nobility's striving for unrestricted rule threatened royal rule. Gustav therefore saw himself in a decisive struggle for the continued existence of the monarchy, which he had to wage both against his aristocratic opponents and against the democratic aspirations that “wanted to overthrow everything”. Their discussions already centered around the introduction of democracy.

On August 19, 1772, Gustav appointed the leading members of the aristocratic party and had the other members of the State Council ratify a new constitution . In it, the Reichsrat was defined as a purely advisory body. Gustav reserved himself the sole right to conclude peace and pardon, as well as the occupation of the highest state offices and the elevation to the nobility. He pledged to rule the country according to the law, ordered that no one should be punished without a judicial verdict , and abolished special courts. He also undertook not to start a war of aggression without the consent of the Reichstag. The aim of this constitution was to let the demands of the non-aristocratic classes run into void by weakening the nobility. The ideal objective of the monarch appears to be the unity of a popular kingdom with a people who are devoted to the king.

New shine

Gustav III of Sweden, 1777, painted by Alexander Roslin

At first Gustav made wise use of the great power that was now at his command. Through his efforts, Swedish trade rose again, and industry increased with the circulation of hard cash produced. The king directed his attention primarily to the improvement of the external situation of the peasant class , to the medical system, to the construction of workhouses , orphanages and hospitals . He promoted the mining industry, canal and lock construction, organized the financial system , established a discount company ( Girobank ) and released trading in Marstrand . Agriculture also enjoyed his special care. He abolished the torture and introduced freedom of the press. He was against the death penalty and introduced a law in 1778 that reserved it for the king. He never imposed it, which earned him sharp criticism for excessive leniency in the case of moral offenses, since the practice of homosexuality in particular was usually punishable by the death penalty. He was suspected of being homosexual himself, but this cannot be proven.

In April 1786 he founded the Swedish Academy based on the French model . He promoted the arts and called many artists to his court, including the sculptor Johan Tobias Sergel , the poet-singer Carl Michael Bellman and the composer Joseph Martin Kraus as well as the writers Johan Henrik Kellgren and Carl Gustaf af Leopold . In 1788 he arranged for the separation of the opera and theater in Stockholm, which until then had been united in the Royal Theater , by building the Royal Dramatic Theater , which has since become Sweden's national theater . In the north of the capital, on Lake Brunnsviken , he had an English-style park laid out, the Hagapark . He founded Tammerfors, today's Tampere in south-west Finland and Östersund in Jämtland .

Gustav was the first ruler to recognize the newly established United States of America . In 1784 he acquired from Louis XVI. as compensation for backward aid funds and the commercial law of France in Gothenburg the island of Barthélemy in the Lesser Antilles , on which he had a free port built. For a long time he had had a Swedish colonial empire in mind. Above all, however, he used his Caribbean acquisition for the slave trade . So he granted the Swedish West India Company the privilege for trade between Sweden and Saint-Barthélemy and for the slave trade from Africa. Together with Swedish entrepreneurs, he also founded a stock company for the slave trade in the Caribbean. He also organized slave expeditions in Africa, the victims of which were transported to the free port on Saint-Barthélemy and resold to Havana , among other places .

Several bad harvests, which began in 1780, darkened the mood in the country. The continuation of his reforms was hindered by the Imperial Council, which, on the assumption that the king was seeking absolute and unrestricted power, blocked the expansion of his powers. In the Imperial Council, the criticism of the king's measures grew louder. After the retirement of his cautious Foreign Minister Ulrik Schäffer in 1783, he took over his sphere of activity himself. The previous advisers were replaced by new people.

The Swedish-Russian War

King Gustav III of Sweden (around 1785)

Gustav planned to conquer Norway , but the requested support from Russia refused him Tsarina Catherine II , so that the plan had to be abandoned. Since then he has seen Russia as his worst enemy and has looked for an opportunity to attack it. In the meantime, the opposition in the Reichsrat became stronger even among the non-aristocratic estates due to many wrong decisions, the purchase of offices , the expansion of national debt without the consent of the Reichsrat, the favoritism and the aggressive Russia policy. At its head was the leader of the nobility party, Axel von Fersen the Elder. Ä. At the Reichstag of 1786, the Reichstag rejected almost all of the king's proposals to remedy the financial problem. Gustav looked for a way out in a war . At the end of June 1788, without informing foreign powers, without the support of Denmark and without a declaration of war , he had his troops march into Russia under the pretext of a border conflict he had staged himself. His plan to take St. Petersburg by surprise failed because his fleet failed to destroy the Russian fleet in the Battle of Hogland . The battle ended in a draw because the superior Swedish fleet ran out of ammunition. She then retired to Sveaborg . The Russian fleet saw it as a success to have thwarted the landing of Swedish troops.

The conquest of the border fortress Frederikshamn also failed. The colonels of several Swedish and Finnish regiments refused to storm; On August 12, officers and the nobility declared themselves against war with Russia and concluded an armistice of their own accord. Due to an assistance pact between Denmark and Russia from 1773, Denmark entered the war, the so-called "theater war", against Sweden. This gave Gustav the opportunity to appeal to the patriotism of the population. He received help from the Dalekarliers and in Värmland . The Danes advanced as far as Gothenburg, but were repulsed here by Gustav, whereupon, through the mediation of England and Prussia, a peace was reached.

Constitutional reform and peace agreement

The officers' rebellion in front of Fredrikshamn collapsed due to insufficient support from Russia. The king had the officers arrested and in December 1788 convened the Imperial Council, which met in February 1789. The aristocratic opposition tried to prevent the Imperial Council from granting the king financial support. Gustav had the leaders of the aristocratic party arrested and, with the help of the other estates, implemented a new constitution, the "Unification and Security Act", which partially changed the old constitution of 1772. Thus he received the right to go to war without the consent of the estates, and the unconditional disposal of the state income, while the bourgeoisie got access to most offices and was treated equally to the nobles in the acquisition of land. The right of the Reichsrat to propose laws was abolished.

Battle of Svensksund July 9th 1790

Gustav then continued the war with Russia emphatically, but with little skill. Despite some successes of his coast guard fleet, which consisted of sailing and rowing ships, this was initially unhappy; It was not until July 3, 1790 that Gustav managed to break through the enemy blockade with the fleet that was locked in Viborg and, six days later, when the Russian admiral Karl Heinrich von Nassau-Siegen attacked the archipelago in Svensksund near Kotka , he completely defeated it. The peace concluded on August 14, 1790 in Värälä am Kymijoki restored the pre-war assets; Gustav even signed a friendship treaty with Russia in 1791 in order to put down the French Revolution together with him as well as with Prussia and Austria . In it he saw the nucleus for the elimination of the monarchies in Europe. Through his envoy in Paris, Hans Axel von Fersen , he was instrumental in King Louis XVI's attempt to escape . involved. Gustav had to dismiss a Reichstag in Gävle in January and February 1792, which was supposed to raise the already expended and still to be contested immense war costs, without seeing his wish fulfilled. At the same time he was studying the English constitution and thinking of a similar constitution for Sweden. He planned another campaign against Norway for 1793 and then wanted to introduce a new constitution with an upper house: This should consist of 40 nobles and the bishops, but the lower house of freely elected representatives, regardless of class.

The constitutional conflict in Sweden was not a conflict between the nobility and the bourgeoisie, but a conflict that arose from the resistance of the nobility to the king's reforms, which the king considered necessary to save the nobility.

Arts and Culture

King Gustav III was very fond of theater and literature. As the birth of the Swedish theater par excellence, the beginning of performances under Gustav III. seen at Bollhuset on January 18, 1773. Back then it was simply called the Royal Theater (Kungliga Teatern) . The king endeavored to create a Swedish artist troupe, which, if necessary, would be trained by established foreign artists. On the one hand, this related to opera; H. the singing ensemble and the orchestra, the royal court orchestra (Kungliga Hovkapellet) and the ballet ensemble. In addition to the opera and ballet performances, plays were also performed. The creation of a Swedish theater ensemble meant, on the one hand, that the king was no longer dependent on traveling artist groups, and on the other hand, in the medium and long term, Sweden developed its own independent theater culture, which is still effective today in musical theater, drama and film is. The Drottningholm Palace Theater, built by order of his mother , also had Gustav III. play regularly.

The first, from Gustav III. built Royal Opera House (photo taken around 1880)

Gustav promoted the opera in particular and had an opera house built for the first time in 1775 on Stockholm's Gustav-Adolf-Platz (Gustav Adolfs Torg) according to plans by the architect Carl Fredrik Adelcrantz . Gustav's opera house was located in the immediate vicinity of the Royal Stockholm Palace until the end of the 19th century ; the Norrbro Bridge connected them across the Norrström River . At the inauguration on September 30, 1782, the Swedish opera Cora och Alonzo by Johann Gottlieb Naumann was performed. The era under Gustav III. is now commonly referred to as Gustavian opera in the history of Swedish opera .

After 15 years, Gustav also founded the Royal Dramatic Theater in 1788 as a spin-off from the existing Royal Theater ( Kungliga Teatern ) at a separate venue behind the opera house on Kungsträdgården in order to spatially separate music and spoken theater. Since then, plays have only been performed in the Royal Dramatic Theater , while the Royal Theater became a pure ballet and opera house; it has been called the Royal Opera ( Kungliga Operan ) since 1997 .

Gustav III was not only a friend of science and the theater, but also a gifted writer himself. He wrote several elegies and plays in Swedish (German von Eichel, Leipzig 1843). His memorial address for Lennart Torstensson , which he presented anonymously to the Swedish Academy, was awarded first prize. In 1780 Gustav III. Freemasons in the Great Lodge of Sweden . As Vicarius Solomonis, he was head of this order.

Violent death

The masked ball

Death mask of Gustav III.

Meanwhile a conspiracy against the life of the king had formed among the nobility, the chief instigator of which was General Karl Fredrik Pechlin . Count Adolph Ribbing and Clas Fredrik Horn as well as Captain Jacob Johan Anckarström , who was personally insulted by Gustav , joined the conspiracy, developed the murder plan and decided by lot who should murder the king. The nobles Jacob and Johan von Engeström, Carl Pontus Lillehorn and Ture Johan Bielke were also involved .

The lot fell on Anckarström. A masked ball at the Royal Opera on the night of March 16-17, 1792 was chosen for the murder. Carl Pontus Lillehorn, who had learned of the murder plan, was an old friend of Gustav III. He sent the king a warning and advised against attending the masked ball. Gustav III However, ignored the warning and appeared accompanied by his adjutant Hans Henrik Graf von Essen . When he entered the hall, a crowd of masked people surrounded him. Anckarström then found the opportunity to shoot the king. The shot was shot and hit the left of the third lumbar vertebra . Gustav died as a result of the gunshot wound almost two weeks later on March 29, 1792. Before that, he set up a regency for his underage son Gustav IV Adolf . King Gustav III is buried in Stockholm's Riddarholmskyrkan . After the attack, Lillehorn fled to Bonn , where he lived under the name Berg von Bergheim until his death and is buried in the old cemetery .

The court composer Joseph Martin Kraus wrote his symphony in C minor “ Symphonie funèbre ” on Gustav's death ; it was performed on the day of laying out in Riddarsholm Church, April 13, 1792.


The plant genus Gustavia from the potted fruit tree family (Lecythidaceae) was named after King Gustav by Carl von Linné in 1775 .

On his orders, all of Gustav's papers were locked in boxes that were kept in the University Library in Uppsala and that a king of his family would only open after 50 years. This opening took place on March 29, 1842. Erik Gustaf Geijer published these papers. Dechaux published a collection of his œuvres politiques, littéraires et dramatiques .

The tragic end of the king provided Eugène Scribe with the material for an opera libretto that Auber wrote in the opera Gustave III in 1833 . ou Le bal masqué (German Gustav or the masked ball ) was set to music and also Verdi's Un ballo in maschera (1859, German A masked ball ) is the basis. Verdi's opera premiered on February 17, 1859 at the Teatro Apollo in Rome. The names of the actors and the place of the action had to be alienated, however, since according to the demands of the censorship in the Italian states of that time, the freedom movement in the country could not be associated with the subject matter of the opera. Therefore, the action had to be moved to Boston , and the political background was also erased.


Gustav III married Sophie of Denmark in 1766 , with whom he had two sons:

  • Gustav IV Adolf (November 1, 1778 - February 7, 1837), King of Sweden, and
  • Karl Gustav (25 August 1782 - 23 March 1783), Duke of Småland.


Christian Albrecht of Schleswig-Holstein-Gottorf (1641–1695)
Christian August of Schleswig-Holstein-Gottorf (1673–1726)
Friederike Amalie of Denmark (1649–1704)
Adolf Friedrich King of Sweden (1710–1771)
Friedrich VII. Magnus of Baden-Durlach (1647–1709)
Albertine Friederike von Baden-Durlach (1682–1755)
Augusta Marie of Schleswig-Holstein-Gottorf (1649–1728)
Gustav III King of Sweden
Friedrich I. King in Prussia , (1657–1713)
Friedrich Wilhelm I King in Prussia (1688–1740)
Sophie Charlotte of Hanover (1668–1705)
Luise Ulrike of Prussia (1720–1782)
George I King of Great Britain (1660-1727)
Sophie Dorothea of ​​Hanover (1687–1757)
Sophie Dorothea of ​​Braunschweig-Lüneburg (1666–1726)


Gustav III sentenced a murderer to drink one cup of coffee a day . Back then it was believed that coffee was poisonous.


  • Ingrid Czaika: Gustav III. and Verdi's “Masked Ball”. Lit, Vienna / Berlin / Münster 2008, ISBN 978-3-8258-1655-1 (= musicology , volume 13).
  • Jörg-Peter Findeisen: The enlightened absolutism of Gustav III. Inaugural lecture. Friedrich Schiller University, Jena 1989 (= selected lectures from the Friedrich Schiller University Jena, publication by the Friedrich Schiller University Jena ).
  • Eric Gustav Geijer: The King Gustav III. papers abandoned and opened fifty years after his death. Four volumes, Hamburg 1843–1846.
  • Ronald D. Barley : The Magician King . Gustav III and Sweden's golden age. Steidl, 1996, ISBN 3-88243-418-X .
  • S. Hallesvik: Axel von Fersen och gustaviansk politik 1771–1779. Gothenburg 1977.
  • Georg Mondwurf: Giuseppe Verdi and the Aesthetics of Liberation . Lang, Frankfurt am Main et al. 2002, ISBN 3-631-38400-9 .
  • B. Hennings: Ögonvittnen om Gustav III. [ Eyewitnesses to Gustav III. ] Stockholm 1960.
  • E. Lönnroth: Roll the stora. Kung Gustav III spelad to honom själv. Stockholm 1986.
  • Carl Pontus Lillehorn. In: Josef Niesen : Bonner Personenlexikon. 3rd, improved and enlarged edition. Bouvier, Bonn 2011, ISBN 978-3-416-03352-7 .
  • Johan Rosell: Gustav III . In: Robert Aldrich, Garry Wotherspoon (eds.): Who's Who in Gay & Lesbian History, from Antiquity to World War II. London / New York 2001, ISBN 0-415-15982-2 .
  • Gustaf III. In: Theodor Westrin (Ed.): Nordisk familjebok konversationslexikon och realencyklopedi . 2nd Edition. tape 10 : Gossler-Harris . Nordisk familjeboks förlag, Stockholm 1909, Sp. 671-679 (Swedish, ).
  • Högsta Domstolen: Protocoller hållne uti kongl. Maj: ts highest domstol eller justitie-revision med dertil Hörande handlingar, rörande det å Högstsalig hans May: t Konung Gustaf den III: dje, glorwyrdigst i åminnelse, föröfwade mord. Anders Zetterberg, 1792.

Web links

Commons : Gustav III. (Sweden)  - Collection of pictures, videos and audio files

Individual evidence

  1. Quoted from Findeisen, p. 15.
  2. Geijer, Part I, p. 119 and Part II, p. 70.
  3. Gejer, Part I, p. 202.
  4. Hallesvik, pp. 31-34.
  5. Findeisen, p. 16.
  6. Göran Söderström, Eva Borgström (eds.): Sympatiens Hemlighetsfulla Makt: Stockholms Homosexuella 1860-1960 . Stockholm 1999, ISBN 91-7031-095-5 .
  7. Erik Lönnroth: Roll the stora. Kung Gustaf III spelad av honom själv. Bokförlaget Atlantis, 2008.
  8. Anna Klerkäng, Roy T. Haverkamp: Sweden - America's First Friend , Örebro / Stockholm 1958th
  9. See parliamentary motions 2001/02: U220 “Sverige och slavhandeln över atlases” and 2006/07: U213 “Sverige och slavhandeln” (texts in Swedish).
  10. Lönnroth p. 259.
  11. Lönnroth p. 267 ff.
  12. Hennings p. 354.
  13. Findeisen p. 25.
  14. Leif Landen: Gustaf III. Stockholm 2004, ISBN 91-46-21000-8 .
  15. ^ Richard Engländer: Joseph Martin Kraus and the Gustavian Opera . Uppsala 1943
  16. ^ Anna Amalie Abert: History of the Opera. ISBN 3-476-01261-1 , p. 417.
  17. ^ Wm. R. Denslow: 10,000 Famous Freemasons . Missouri Lodge of Research, St. Louis MO 1958.
  18. Lotte Burkhardt: Directory of eponymous plant names - Extended Edition. Part I and II. Botanic Garden and Botanical Museum Berlin , Freie Universität Berlin , Berlin 2018, ISBN 978-3-946292-26-5 doi: 10.3372 / epolist2018 .
  19. Uppsala 1843-45; German by Crepplin, three volumes, Hamburg 1843–46.
  20. ^ Five volumes, Paris 1805; German in the extract from Rühs, three volumes, Berlin 1805–1808; Swedish, six volumes, Stockholm 1806–1812.
  21. ^ Johannes Jansen: Giuseppe Verdi dtv portrait. ISBN 3-423-31042-1
predecessor Office successor
Adolf Friedrich King of Sweden
Gustav IV