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Magnus Stenbock: The Count and the Spy

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Magnus Stenbock, the Swedish aristocrat and war hero, lived his life in pursuit of honour. Yet, as Andreas Marklund reveals, he died in disgrace, broken by the schemes of a cunning spy. 

On the freezing winter morning of February 23rd, 1717 a Swedish prisoner of war died alone in his cell at the Citadel of Frederikshavn in Copenhagen. The name of the deceased was Magnus Stenbock – Count Magnus Stenbock to be precise – field marshal and privy councillor, Lord of Vapnö, Rånäs, Medevi, Ugglenäs and Tillberga. Just a few years earlier Stenbock had been one of the highest-ranking individuals in the Swedish Empire, a favourite of Charles XII, the last and most enigmatic of the country’s warrior kings. During his years as Swedish commander-in-chief, between 1710 and 1713, Stenbock had been internationally acclaimed as one of the greatest military minds in Europe, praised by Louis XIV of France as well as the Duke of Marlborough. Yet he passed away in shame and humiliation, with a despairing plea for ‘a quick, easy and graceful end to my present misery’.

Marcus Stenbock painted this self-portrait while in captivity.

His nemesis was, in many ways, his exact opposite – Christian Erlund, a shadowy Danish spy of humble origin. When Stenbock and his army fell into Danish hands after a failed campaign in northern Germany, Erlund was handpicked by King Frederick IV of Denmark to monitor the prisoner’s communications with the outside world. Erlund had a background in the postal service and had mastered the dubious arts of seal-breaking and the secret opening of letters. He was cautious, diligent and clever, as gifted in exposing intrigues as creating them through his own cunning. Count Stenbock’s final battle, therefore, became a duel of words and the main target of his invisible enemy was his reputation as a man of honour. 

Of noble birth

Fifty-two years earlier, in Stockholm on May 12th, 1665, Magnus Stenbock had been born into honour as well as wealth and power. His father, Gustaf Otto Stenbock, was lord high admiral and his entrepreneurial mother, Christina Catharina De la Gardie, was sister to the lord high chancellor. The family was old Swedish nobility. They had been close to power since the 14th century and populated the kingdom’s official chronicles with knights, royal councillors and other prominent forebears. 

Both the father and uncle of Magnus Stenbock were members of the regency government which ruled Sweden until King Charles XI (1655-97) came of age. In the 17th century Sweden was a European great power, especially in terms of military strength. Through an active foreign policy and a number of aggressive wars, the rulers of the martial Vasa dynasty – six kings and one queen regnant – had created a veritable Swedish empire in the region surrounding the Baltic Sea. Vast numbers of people, ports and tracts of land were conquered from the neighbouring rivals of Denmark, Muscovy and Poland-Lithuania during the expansionist period between 1561 and 1658. The great power status was formally acknowledged through the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, when Sweden, France and the Holy Roman Emperor became joint guarantors of Europe’s new political order after the cataclysmic Thirty Years War. 

Apart from mainland Sweden, the territory ruled from Stockholm during Magnus Stenbock’s childhood included Finland, Estonia, Livonia, parts of Russia and the German provinces of Western Pomerania, Bremen-Verden, Stettin and Wismar. Imperial greatness was paralleled by the castles, baroque gardens and ostentatious habits of Sweden’s high nobility. As a result of the war-based wealth and increasing exposure to the outside world, the crude Germanic warrior caste at the top of Swedish society was gradually transformed into a Francophile European aristocracy. The Stenbock family was no exception. Magnus Stenbock’s parents were notoriously big spenders who displayed the honour and power of their family name through extravagant architecture and enormous estates. 

But neither wealth nor honour are solid, unshakeable entities, not even for a lord high admiral. When Magnus Stenbock was ten years old, his father suffered a major setback. Sweden was at war with its southern neighbours and a swift departure of the royal fleet was crucial for the defence of the overseas territories. On October 9th, 1675 an armada under Gustaf Otto Stenbock’s personal command left the archipelago of Stockholm. Ten days later the fleet returned to base in an utterly miserable state. No enemy had been sighted, but autumn storms, collisions within the fleet and a bad case of diarrhoea among the sailors had forced the lord high admiral to cancel the entire expedition. 

The fiasco was a painful shock to the young King Charles XI. To the father of Magnus Stenbock it was the beginning of the end. He lost his title and was forced to pay the expenses of the failed expedition out of his own pocket. When the so-called Scanian War ended in 1679 Charles XI seized the moment to establish absolute monarchy in Sweden. The members of the regency government were declared guilty of mismanaging the realm. Gustaf Otto Stenbock was stripped of his title of privy councillor and fined heavily. Furthermore, the family estates were badly affected when Charles XI initiated the Great Reduction during which many fiefs granted to the Swedish nobility were restored to the crown. 

The happy days of the Swedish high nobility were over. Magnus Stenbock grew up during the formative years of Caroline Absolutism: an austere political regime based on the stern warrior values and Lutheran orthodoxy of the king himself. Charles XI turned his kingdom into a military state, a Sparta of the North similar to neighbouring Prussia, then known as Brandenburg. All national assets were channelled into the military defence of the empire. Every Sunday and religious holiday, from thousands of pulpits across the realm, the Caroline priesthood preached manly sacrifice for God, King and Fatherland. 

Young Magnus Stenbock sensed which way the wind was blowing. If the family name was to be restored after his father’s humiliation he had to follow a military career. After studies in Uppsala, Amsterdam and Paris, he started his military training in a Dutch regiment commanded by Count Gustaf Carlson, an illegitimate member of the Swedish royal family. His first proper battle experience was at Fleurus in present-day Belgium on July 1st, 1690, where he served as a major in the Swedish auxiliary forces. His unit was virtually annihilated by French cavalry, but Stenbock managed to distinguish himself by taking an enemy field-banner and a number of French prisoners. Shortly after the bloody battle, he wrote to his wife with pride: ‘Have patience, my virtuous little wife, since my absence concerns my honour.’

A couple of months before Fleurus, Stenbock had married the Countess Eva Magdalena of the powerful Oxenstierna family. Their union was clearly strategic, typical of the high nobility, but a strong sense of love and affection developed between the spouses. In fact, the tensions between love and honour turned into the great, unresolvable dilemma in Magnus Stenbock’s life. Judging by the trust and tenderness in his letters to Eva Oxenstierna it was only with her that he felt completely at ease. Yet they remained physically separated for the main part of their marriage. In one of his last letters home, read and approved by the Danish censors, Stenbock provided his wife with a sad summary of their life together: ‘You have spent two thirds of this time in sorrowful solitude and tears, since I, driven by false ambition, have lived in pursuit of honour and death, without being able to find them.’

The Great Northern War

In 1700 everything changed for Magnus Stenbock and for the Swedish empire. Charles XI had died of cancer in 1697 and his 15-year-old son assumed the throne as Charles XII (1682-1718). The transition presented a golden opportunity for Sweden’s neighbours to settle old scores. In the spring of 1700 the empire was attacked by a mighty coalition consisting of Denmark-Norway, Russia and Saxony-Poland. This was the beginning of the Great Northern War, which would last for 21 years and profoundly shift the balance of power in northern Europe. 

Stenbock, in his capacity as colonel of the Dalacarlia regiment, followed his king into battle. He fought in the first line of attack during the blizzard-swept Battle of Narva, on November 30th, 1700, where the Swedes won a decisive victory despite being vastly outnumbered by their Russian adversary. Stenbock was wounded by musket fire but managed to capture the Russian commander-in-chief, Charles Eugène de Croy, and brought him to the king as a personal trophy. As a result, Stenbock was promoted major-general and won access to the inner circle of King Charles. 

Narva was also the battle that made the king of Sweden a living legend. Almost overnight the image of Charles XII changed from immature boy-king to invincible warrior-king. The victorious campaigns of 1701-06 strengthened Sweden’s status as the leading military power of northern Europe. At the same time, Charles XII achieved a near-messianic status. Envoys from the western great powers swarmed to the royal field camp, trying to persuade the ‘Lion of the North’ to intervene in the parallel War of the Spanish Succession. 

Stenbock marched with the Swedish army through the Baltic countries, Poland-Lithuania and Saxony. In 1706 he was appointed military governor of Scania – the southernmost province of mainland Sweden, taken from the Danes in 1658. It was here that Stenbock enjoyed the greatest achievement of his military career. In the Battle of Helsingborg, on March 10th, 1710, he led an army of approximately 14,000 men to victory against an invading Danish army of roughly the same strength. This was a crucial victory for Sweden, especially in terms of propaganda. The previous year, in June 1709, an entire Swedish army had been annihilated by the Russians in present-day Ukraine. King Charles had managed to flee into the depths of the Ottoman Empire, along with an entourage of roughly a thopusand cavalry-men, but the spell of invincibility was broken and Sweden lay open to enemy invasions. Yet the victory at Helsingborg proved that there were still people around that could defend the empire. People like Stenbock. 

Honour salvaged

The family name was finally restored. Stenbock was feted as a Swedish Hercules and the saviour of the realm, a beacon of light following Sweden’s defeat by Russia at the Battle of Poltava in 1709. He was made field marshal as well as privy councillor, the highest ranking titles of Caroline Sweden after members of the royal family. But the days of glory were not to last. In 1712 Stenbock led an expeditionary force from mainland Sweden to Pomerania in present-day Germany. According to the original battle plan, Stenbock was to march eastwards to Poland, where he would convene with Charles XII. Major logistical setbacks, however, pushed him in the opposite direction, towards Mecklenburg and Schleswig-Holstein in the north-west. This quickly turned into the path of doom. Stenbock and his men defeated a Danish-Saxon army at Gadebush in December 1712, but the much-acclaimed triumph was a Pyrrhic victory. The Swedish continued their forced and increasingly desperate march to the north, pursued by an ever-growing enemy coalition. 

In the early days of 1713 Stenbock’s international reputation was seriously sullied when he ordered the burning of Altona, a defenceless Danish market town on the shores of the River Elbe. In fact this was not the first time that Stenbock ordered the use of military violence against civilians. He had been the king’s avenging angel in Poland, where manors, villages and occasionally towns belonging to hostile Polish noblemen had been burned to the ground by Stenbock’s troopers. ‘The bastards do not deserve any better,’ he wrote to the king in 1702, after one of his raids on the Polish countryside. Still Altona was different, especially since the atrocity was made public through the enemy’s printing presses. The black memory of the Schwedenbrand (The Swedish Conflagration) turned into a powerful propaganda weapon against Sweden and Stenbock. 

Everything went wrong after Altona. The Swedish forces were hounded into the frozen marshlands of southern Jutland. Secret negotiations with representatives of Schleswig-Holstein-Gottorp, an old ally of Sweden, opened the doors to the fortress of Tönningen, but the sanctuary was short-lived. Lack of provisions, deadly diseases and mutinous tendencies among the soldiers forced Magnus Stenbock to surrender to King Frederick IV of Denmark on May 16th, 1713. Ten thousand Swedish soldiers went into Danish captivity, along with their commander. 

The captive field marshal was initially treated with respect and dignity. He dined with King Frederick on several occasions and was promised a quick release as soon as the technicalities of the ransom and prisoner exchange had been settled. The negotiations broke down, however, and instead of being shipped back home Stenbock was transferred to Copenhagen, the capital of Denmark, along with his servants and private belongings. 

Privileged prisoner

His prison was a palace, spacious and luxurious. He was free to walk within the city walls and had special permission to handle personal matters through ‘open correspondence’, i.e. letters sent without seals. Nevertheless, the palace was surrounded by armed sentinels and Stenbock’s movements were supervised by two Danish colonels, who were designated as his personal warders. 

The high-ranking prisoner gave voice to his frustrations in secret letters to Charles XII and the Council of the Realm. He railed against King Frederick as an oath-breaking tyrant and claimed that he was treated as a ‘dog and a spy’. Unfortunately for Stenbock this was also the time when Christian Erlund, a spy in the service of King Frederick, started to monitor his written correspondence. 

Not that Stenbock was completely off guard. Being of a suspicious nature, he experimented with various kinds of secret communication, such as false names, invisible ink and the use of other people’s wax-seals as camouflage. One of his channels in Copenhagen was the French envoy, Monsieur Poussin. The Frenchman had received specific instructions from Versailles secretly to support the interests of Sweden. Stenbock could therefore send a number of reports and sensitive letters under the protection of Poussin’s diplomatic seal. 

Erlund mobilised his skills and network of informants to uncover the prisoner’s clandestine channels. This espionage bore immediate fruit. Not only could Erlund inform his king of the French connection, he also discovered a cunning arrangement involving a local merchant named Aron Goldzieher. Secret messages were smuggled in and out of Stenbock’s prison through Goldzieher’s grocery deliveries, as wrapping around sugar-loaves and tobacco, for example. Erlund confronted the merchant and managed to recruit him to his spy ring through threats or bribery. Henceforth, all messages that Stenbock sent via Goldzieher took a roundabout route over Erlund’s desk. 

Under surveillance

Slowly but surely, the spymaster spun his shadowy web around the imprisoned commander. Erlund was careful to avoid any suspicions as to his own existence. He took meticulous notes and kept King Frederick informed of the main content, but most letters were redistributed to their intended recipients. First, however, they were stamped with exact copies of the broken wax-seals created in Erlund’s black chamber. 

The conspiracy grew bolder when Erlund learned how to forge the prisoner’s handwriting. Soon he was confident enough to keep the original letters in Copenhagen, while Stenbock’s network was fed with the forgeries. Erlund was thereby able to withhold information that he deemed harmful to Danish interests. Moreover, by forging the handwriting of Stenbock and other key correspondents, he could add questions and other decoy information that helped him to gather intelligence regarding his target in particular as well as Sweden in general. 

The intercepted letters were of a varying character. Some spoke of King Frederick and the Danish nation in foul and dishonourable language. Others contained dangerous intelligence about Danish politics and military matters and proved that Stenbock was indeed spying on his warders: he sent details of Danish battle plans to the Council of the Realm in Stockholm. He also told of foreign plans for the succession to the Swedish throne if Charles XII met a sudden death.

In the spring of 1714 Erlund intercepted letters in coded language between Stenbock and his old aide-de-camp, Peter Malmberg. The unreadable messages caused an immediate setback to the investigation. But the code turned out to be a simple Caesar’s cipher, a basic encryption technique known since Roman times. It took Erlund no more than a couple of weeks to decipher the correspondence. The result was staggering: Magnus Stenbock was planning an escape from prison. Malmberg had hired a skipper in Lübeck, who was to pick up the field marshal in Copenhagen and sail him across the sea to Sweden, hidden in the hold. Erlund warned his superiors and in August 1714 a group of Danish soldiers intercepted the vessel and its Prussian crew in Copenhagen harbour. 

The spymaster’s biggest achievement, however, was the seizure of Stenbock’s field archive. The documents were hidden in Lübeck, in the house of the Swedish envoy, Herman Fock, whom Erlund deemed ‘a cunning and suspicious Swede’. Erlund managed to deceive Fock through careful forgeries of Stenbock’s handwriting. The heavy chest was transported by stagecoach to Copenhagen, where it was opened in the presence of the king. It contained letters, military maps and other Swedish state secrets. Most importantly, Erlund got hold of a secret tract which proved that the Duke of Schleswig-Holstein-Gottorp had opened the fortress of Tönningen to Stenbock’s army. This substantiated Denmark’s claim that the duchy had broken its vow of neutrality and was used to legitimise the Danish appropriation of Schleswig, formalised in the 1720 Treaty of Frederiksborg. 

As a result of Erlund’s espionage, Stenbock was transferred to safer quarters at the gloomy Citadel of Fredrikshavn. His confiscated letters were used as Danish propaganda. Delicate passages were published and spread in a number of anti-Swedish pamphlets. Interested readers could, for example, find the contents of the failed escape plan. To make matters worse, the pamphlets demonstrated that the prisoner had almost simultaneously given King Frederick his word of honour that he would not attempt to flee. Magnus Stenbock was thereby portrayed as an oath-breaking liar and a treacherous spy, a man devoid of honour.  

This was the death-blow. The count had lived a life in pursuit of honour, so when his good name was taken from him, he had nothing left to live for. All that remained beyond the fields of glory was his anguish, his pain and his sinful soul that had to be prepared for his God. After writing out his own version of his military career and biding farewell to his loved ones, Stenbock curled up in the darkness of his cell and made himself ready to leave what he called ‘my miserable and exhausted body’. 

Fall from grace

The Stenbock affair was the greatest success of Erlund’s spying career. But his triumph was short-lived. The nature of his trade made him powerful enemies and there were insistent rumours about his overzealous letter-opening. Some even accused him of spying on the crown prince. After the accession of the new king in 1730, the spymaster consequently fell from grace. Erlund was dismissed without a pension and faded into oblivion, leaving few traces in Danish historiography. 

Stenbock, on the other hand, had a vivid afterlife, especially in Sweden, where he became the incarnation of bygone glory and greatness. The image is less flattering in other countries. He enjoys surprisingly good standing among Danish historians, but the name of Stenbock still bears connotations of arson and war crimes in Poland and northern Germany. A 2009 article in Der Spiegel, recalling the burning of Altona, described Stenbock as ‘the diabolical general’ from Sweden. 

Charles XII was killed in battle on November 30th, 1718, possibly shot by one of his own officers, and Sweden was reduced to a second-rank power through the peace treaties of 1720-21. Warriors like King Charles and Magnus Stenbock have long since lost their validity as Swedish national icons, but the memory of the empire and the so-called Age of Greatness (stormaktstiden) is still a powerful presence in the Swedish mind and self-image. 

Andreas Marklund is a Carlsberg research fellow at the Museum of National History in Denmark. He has published a Swedish biography of Magnus Stenbock: Stenbock: Ära och ensamhet i Karl XII:s tid (Historiska Media, 2008).

Further reading: 
  • Peter Englund, The Battle that Shook Europe: Poltava and the Birth of the Russian Empire (I.B. Tauris, 2003)
  • Robert I Frost, The Northern Wars: War, State and Society in Northeastern Europe 1558-1721 (Longman, 2000) 
  • Anthony F Upton, Charles XI and Swedish Absolutism, 1660-1697 (Cambridge University Press, 1998)
  • Michael Roberts, The Swedish Imperial Experience 1560-1718 (Cambridge University Press, 1979)
  • Ragnhild M Hatton, Charles XII of Sweden (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1968)


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