King Gustav III of Sweden was born on 13 January 1746. He ascended the throne on
February 12, 1771. He was the eldest son of Adolf Fredrick, King of Sweden, and Louisa
Ulrika of Prussia, sister of Frederick the Great. Gustav was educated under the care
of two governors who were amongst the most eminent Swedish statesmen of the day,
Carl Gustaf Tessin and Carl Scheffer; but he owed most perhaps to the poet and historian
Olof von Dalin. Even his most hostile teachers were amazed by his natural gifts,
and, while still a boy, he possessed that charm of manner which was to make him so
fascinating and so dangerous in later life, coupled with the strong dramatic instinct
which won for him his honorable place in Swedish literature.
On the whole, Gustav cannot be said to have been well educated, but he read very
widely; there was scarce a French author of his day with whose works he was not intimately
acquainted; while his enthusiasm for the new French ideas of enlightenment was as
sincere as, if more critical than, his mother's. On November 4, 1766, Gustav married
Sophie Magdalen, daughter of Frederick V of Denmark. The match was an unhappy one,
owing partly to incompatibility of temper, but still more to the mischievous interference
of the jealous queen-mother.
Gustav first intervened actively in politics in 1768, at the time of his father's
interregnum, when he compelled the dominant Cap faction to summon an extraordinary
diet from which he hoped for the reform of the constitution in a monarchical direction.
But the victorious Hats refused to redeem the pledges which they had given before
the elections. "That we should have lost the constitutional battle does not distress
us so much," wrote Gustav, in the bitterness of his heart; "but what does dismay
me is to see my poor nation so sunk in corruption as to place its own felicity in
Gustav made a sincere and earnest attempt to mediate between the Hats and Caps who
were ruining the country between them. On June 21, 1771 he opened his first Riksdag
of the Estates (parliament) in a speech which awakened strange and deep emotions
in all who heard it. It was the first time for more than a century that a Swedish
king had addressed a Swedish Riksdag from the throne in its native tongue. The subsequent
attempts of the dominant Caps still further to limit the prerogative, and reduce
Gustavus to the condition of a figurehead, induced him at last to consider the possibility
of a revolution. Of its necessity there could be no doubt. Under the sway of the
Cap faction, Sweden was on the verge of being absorbed into their gigantic neighbor,
Russia. Only a swift and sudden coup d'etat could save the independence of a country
isolated from the rest of Europe by a hostile league.
At ten o'clock on 19 August, 1771, Gustav mounted his horse and rode straight to
the arsenal. On the way his adherents joined him in little groups, as if by accident,
so that by the time he reached his destination he had about two hundred officers
in his suite. Meanwhile the Privy Council and its president, Rudbeck, had been arrested
and the fleet secured. Then Gustav made a tour of the city and was everywhere received
by enthusiastic crowds, who hailed him as a deliverer. The king summoned the legislature,
imposed a new Constitution of his own devising, dissolved the parliament and for
the next twenty years, Gustav ruled Sweden more or less single-handedly.
When the French Revolution broke out, Gustav aimed at forming a league of princes
against the Jacobins, and every other consideration was subordinated thereto. But
he was hampered by poverty and the jealousy of the other European powers, and he
fell victim to a widespread aristocratic conspiracy of nobles and former politicians
seeking revenge for the 1771 revolution. At a midnight masquerade at the Royal Swedish
Opera in Stockholm, on March 16, 1792, the king was shot in the back with a flintlock
pistol by Jacob Johan Anckarstrom. Gustav expired on March 29. Anckarstrom and several
other participants were executed, but it has always been felt that the real masterminds
behind the conspiracy escaped.
The assassination of Gustav III, with the specifics changed by censorship, became
the bass of Giuseppe Verdi's 1859 opera Un Ballo in Maschera.