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Gustav III of Sweden: The Forgotten Despot of the Age of Enlightenment

A.D. Harvey recalls the career of the Swedish king whose assassination inspired a famous opera.

Gustav III of Sweden (1746-92) is one of the least studied of the later eighteenth-century rulers known as the Enlightened Despots. He was not a great general like Frederick II of Prussia or a great empire-builder like Catherine II of Russia, nor did he labour tirelessly to rationalise the administration of a conglomeration of disparate principalities like Joseph II of Austria.

In many ways, while the other Enlightened Despots were trying to push the clock forward, Gustav III was struggling to force its hands back. In the seventeenth century, under a succession of outstandingly able soldier kings, Sweden had been a great power but after the death in 1718 of Karl XII, the last and most monomaniacal of the line, the country had become a by-word for weak government, corruption and impotence. Gustav III set himself the task of making Sweden great again. He was assassinated in March 1792 – the third Swedish monarch in 160 years to die of gunshot wounds – with his life’s work still less than half completed.

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