Magnus Stenbock: The Count and the Spy

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’.

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. 

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