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Gustav III, King of Sweden by Alexander Roslin, 1777

Sweden’s Age of Liberty

  • Charles XII’s death (1719)
  • Peter the Great’s victory (1721)

Between 1611 and 1721, Sweden was an Empire and between 1796 and 1718, it was ruled by absolutist King Charles XII (b. 17 June 1682 – 30 November 1718 [aged 36]). Charles XII was killed during the Siege of Fredriksten, in 1718. In 1731, Voltaire wrote a History of Charles XII (Histoire de Charles XII), the last ruler of the Swedish Empire. After his death, Sweden and its allies lost the Swedish Empire to the Tsardom of Russia, henceforth a Tsardom and an Empire. As we have seen in an earlier post, Peter the Great wanted access to seas, which, to the west, was the Baltic Sea and, by extension, the Baltic provinces and the Baltic states. Peter I was successful in his quest, but he ended Sweden’s age of “greatness.”

However, and ironically, Charles XII’s death and Sweden’s defeat provided a window of opportunity for the development of a rudimentary parliament in Europe. Sweden had lost its “greatness,” but it had entered its Age of Liberty, or Age of Freedom. Sweden’s Age of Liberty is:

a half-century-long period of parliamentary governance and increasing civil rights, beginning with Charles XII‘s death in 1718 and ending with Gustav III‘s self-coup in 1772.

(See Age of Liberty, Wiki2.org.)

In 1719, Count Arvid Horn (6 April 1664 – 17 April 1742), President of the Privy Council Chancellery of Sweden, transferred power from an absolute monarchy to a parliament, Sweden’s Riksdag of the Estates, a name used by the Estates when they assembled.

Charles XII was childless. He was succeeded by Ulrika Eleonora, his sister, who abdicated because power was in the hands of the Riksdag of the Estates. Her husband Landgrave Frederick I of Hesse-Kassel, a prince consort, would serve as King Frederick I of Sweden until 5 April 1751.

The Treaty of Nystad (10 September 1721)

Frederick I of Sweden signed the Treaty of Nystad (1721) which ended the Great Northern War (1700 – 1721). Sweden surrendered Swedish EstoniaSwedish Livonia  (which had capitulated in 1710) and Southeast Finland (Kexholmslän and Karelia), in exchange for two million silver thaler.


Treaty effects: pre-war Sweden in yellow, Russia in green, Russian gains indicated. (Wiki2.org.)

The Riksdag of the Estates

  • the Riksdag of the Estates vs Britain’s Parliament
  • the Hats and the Caps (Nightcaps)
  • Arvid Horn

The Riksdag of the Estates differs from Britain’s Parliament. It may consist of two parties opposing one another. During the Age of Liberty, the Riksdag opposed the Hats (les Chapeaux) and the Caps (les Bonnets). I noted the role played by the Hats and the Caps in the short version of this post. But I should add that the “Horn Period” was a better Age of Liberty than the period during which the Hats ruled.

His strong hand kept the inevitable strife of the parliamentary factions within due limits, and it was entirely owing to his provident care that Sweden so rapidly recovered from the wretched condition in which the wars of Charles XII had plunged her.

(See Arvid Horn, Wiki2.org.)

The Two Kings

  • Frederick I and Adolph Frederick
  • The Hats: Wars and Greatness

As for the relationship between the Riksdag of the Estates and the kings who reigned during the Age of Liberty, it reflects to a large extent, the rule of the Hats and the Caps. I have mentioned the Russo-Swedish war of 1741-1743. Sweden, the former Swedish Empire, was defeated and, under the terms of the Treaty of Åbo, it had to cede territory east of the Kymi river to Russia. Elizabeth of Russia demanded that pro-absolutist Adolph Frederick from the House of Holstein-Gottorp be the future king of Sweden. As a result, members of the house of King Frederick I of Sweden, the Landgraviate of Hesse-Kassel were eliminated from the line of succession.

Under pro-absolutist Adolp Frederick of the House of Holstein-Gottorp, the Riksdag of the Estates was attacked twice: the Coup of 1756 and the very serious December Crisis of 1768. (See Sweden’s Age of Liberty, 8 November 2018.)

The Hats also involved Sweden in the Pomeranian Theatre of the Seven Years’ War. Sweden lost 40,000 men in a war France did not win. Sweden suffered immense losses seeking the “greatness” it had lost.

The End of the Age of Liberty

According to the Encyclopædia Britannica, the reason for the transfer from absolutism to its Age of Freedom was “the complete failure of the policy of ‘greatness’ connected with the Carolingian [Charles XII] absolutism.” In 1772, Gustav III‘s self-coup re-introduced absolutism. Gustav III is described as a popular king. He was when he modelled his absolutism on his uncle, Frederick the Great of Prussia’s enlightened despotism. But what of the people’s will?

They [enlightened desposts] typically instituted administrative reform, religious toleration, and economic development but did not propose reforms that would undermine their sovereignty or disrupt the social order.

(See Enlightened Despotism, Britannica.)

They felt, as did Empress Catherine the Great of Russia, that aristocracy was their “profession.” Elizabeth of Russia used the Treaty of Åbo as a coup. She became an Empress of Russia and named her successor: Peter III of the House of Holstein-Gottorp. In Sweden, kings and queens were elected! When Gustav IV lost Finland, he was deposed by officers of his army and various notables. He had to abdicate and go into exile, never to return. A democracy is a “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” (See Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburgh Address, Wiki2.org.)

The Age of Liberty‘s early Riksdag of the Estates took all powers away from monarchs. This would change as Swedish democracy developed, a process usually marked by trials and errors. The Age of Liberty can be viewed as an experiment in democracy. Matters  change. Arvid Horn’s grew increasingly neutral, and his neutrality was opposed. Ulrika Eleonora, Charles XII’s sister, abdicated because she refused to be a figurehead. But, although King Charles XIII was prematurely senile, he was involved in the drafting of the Instrument of Government of 1809, Sweden’s constitution. It was not developed unilaterally and it remained unchanged until 1974.

In fact, to what extent was Charles XII an absolute monarch? Voltaire preferred Charles XII to Peter the Great.

The form of government instituted in Sweden under King Charles XI and passed on to his son, Charles XII is commonly referred to as absolute monarchy; however, the Swedish monarch was never absolute in the sense that he wielded arbitrary power.

(See Absolute Monarchy, Wiki2.org.)

It remains that, as an absolute monarch, Gustav III tried to abolish the Privy Council of Sweden and propably did so out of fear. Gustav III’s Union and Security Act of 1789, “swept away most of the powers exercised by the Swedish Riksdag.” He “severely curtailed” the Freedom of the Press Act of 1766. (See Gustav III, Wiki2.org.)

Yet, Sweden defeated Russia at the Battle of Svensksund, Gustav III demonstrating leadership and “greatness.” But such “greatness,” Sweden had probably outgrown in its Age of Liberty.


Swedish warships fitted out in Stockholm in 1788; watercolor by Louis Jean Desprez

Love to everyone 💕


Sources and Resources

© Micheline Walker
9 November 2018