It’s the evening of March 16th, 1792, in Stockholm, the capital of Sweden.
At the grand Royal Opera House in the center of the city, a masked ball is in full swing. An orchestra plays as dancers in elaborate costumes strut and twirl.
Just off the dancefloor, two noblemen in their twenties linger in a corridor packed with partygoers. Like everyone else here, Jacob Johan Anckarström and Adolph Ribbing wear masks that obscure their faces. But these young men haven’t come here to dance.
They’re waiting for three men, who soon appear in the doorway. They’re also wearing masks. But Anckarström and Ribbing immediately recognize them, as do all the rest of the partygoers. It’s Gustav III, the King of Sweden, and his two closest friends.
As Gustav pushes through the crowd on his way to the dance floor, Anckarström reaches into the pocket of his jacket.
His clammy hand finds the cool metal of a pistol. He pulls the gun out and hides it among the folds of his long cape. As the 46-year-old king passes in front of him, Anckarström steps forward, raises the pistol... and fires.
Gustav survives the gunshot, at least for a time. The wound festers and in under just two weeks, Gustav will die, bringing an end to the rule of one of the most controversial kings in Swedish history, and igniting the Age of Revolution; a period in Sweden when the old ways are questioned, and the disagreements between the rulers and the ruled spill over into violence.
From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.
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Today is March 16th: The King of Sweden is Shot.
Act One: The King’s Coup
It’s August 19th, 1772, 20 years before the assassination of Gustav III.
In a palace in the Swedish capital Stockholm, more than two hundred armed officers line up. One by one, they sign an oath of allegiance to a young Gustav III. They promise undying loyalty, not to the people of Sweden, or their representatives, but to the king alone. Gustav needs their loyalty because he’s about to use them to enact a coup.
Gustav is just 26 years old and he’s been King for only eighteen months. When Gustav came to the throne, the Swedish parliament – the Riksdag – had replaced the monarchy as the dominant political force in the kingdom. It was Sweden’s ‘Age of Liberty’ when the country was ruled by parliament and its people gained more rights over who governed them and how. But it was also a chaotic time.
Parliament is divided between factions, often rendering government ineffective. The most powerful faction was the so-called ‘Caps’, a party representing Sweden’s clergy and peasants. The Caps favored a close relationship with the Russian Empire and they wanted to further reduce the powers of the Swedish monarchy.
These policies were unacceptable to the young king, Gustav III. And he was no friend to the Russian Empire. Instead, he was a close ally of the French ruler, Louis XV. But Gustav didn’t just want closer relations with France – he wanted to rule Sweden with the same absolute authority wielded by his French peer.
After eighteen months of trying to negotiate with the squabbling factions in parliament, the young king decided a more radical action was required. So he planned a coup. One he’s setting in motion today.
The armed officers who’ve sworn loyalty to the king move quickly. They seize the Swedish Fleet and arrest Gustav’s enemies in the government, including the leader of the Caps faction. Then Gustav himself parades through the streets of Stockholm to celebrate his victory.
Two days later, the young king calls a special meeting of the Swedish parliament. Gustav makes attendance mandatory – any representatives refusing to come will be branded traitors. Then in full royal regalia, he harangues the gathered politicians, saying…
“Ambition and lust for glory on the part of a few people have damaged the realm…” Gustav proclaims that “The establishment of their own power base has been the sole goal of those ruling, often at the cost of other citizens, and always at the cost of the nation.”
Gustav then introduces a new constitution that restores Royal power in Sweden. The cowed parliament has no choice. They approve the constitution unanimously. The Age of Liberty in Sweden is over.
It’s September 30th, 1782, ten years after Gustav III’s coup.
In Stockholm, it’s the opening night of the new Royal Swedish Opera and people line the streets of the capital, hoping to catch a glimpse of the royal carriage as it passes by.
There is a roar from the crowd as they spot the king’s mounted guardsmen, shining in their armor, clattering across the cobblestone. Behind them comes an ornate gilded coach carrying the king.
Inside, Gustav, resplendent in his royal robes, stares out at his people and the city he’s transforming. The King is a devoted patron of the arts. He sponsored the construction of the royal opera house himself. But the grand new auditorium is far from the only change Gustav has brought to Sweden.
He sees himself as a magnanimous king, a benign dictator. And since seizing power from the Swedish parliament, he’s embarked on an ambitious program of reform. He’s purged corrupt and inefficient officials from government. He’s liberalized trade and stabilized the Swedish currency. He’s outlawed harsh punishments like torture and introduced greater toleration of religious minorities. The king’s reforms aren’t popular with everyone, but Gustav is convinced he’s changing Sweden for the better.
Soon, the royal carriage pulls up outside the theater. A footman opens the door and Gustav climbs out. He smiles as the crowd hails the sight of him. Then, he walks briskly up the carpeted steps and into the opera house.
The people of Stockholm are cheering for now, but in the years to come, opposition to his rule will grow, especially among the nobility whose political and financial power has been curbed by his reforms. In the face of this growing opposition, Gustav will have to decide just how benign a dictator he will be.
Act Two: The Tyrant
It’s February 21st, 1789, three years before the assassination of Swedish King Gustav III.
In the Royal Palace, Gustav waits in his library for news from parliament.
Although its influence has been curbed, the Riksdag has the power to introduce new legislation and to veto any new taxes the king wants to impose. Today, members of parliament are voting on legislation that would deprive them of much of that power and grant even more authority to the king.
Throughout the 1780s, Gustav has grown increasingly autocratic – and unpopular. At the last meeting of parliament in 1786, the atmosphere was mutinous. All of the king’s proposals were rejected.
Seeking to revive his popularity with the people, in 1788, Gustav led his country into war with Russia. He hoped for a rapid victory over the forces of the Russian Queen, Catherine the Great. But his war was illegal. Under the constitution the king himself introduced, Gustav should have secured parliamentary backing for any declaration of war. But he didn’t. And when Gustav’s assault on Russia faltered, disgruntled noblemen plotted behind the king’s back to secure the peace.
It was then that Gustav managed to turn a possible disaster into political triumph. The conspiracy of the noblemen was exposed. Their treasonous conduct prompted outrage in Sweden and a surge of public support for the king.
Gustav quickly exploited his change in fortune. He arrested the traitors and then, in early 1789, he called a meeting of the Swedish parliament. He laid a new law before them. The Union and Security Act will remove the need for the king to seek parliamentary approval to declare war. And it will strip parliament of the ability to propose new legislation. If passed, it will be another concentration of power in the hands of the Swedish King.
Now, at his palace in the center of Stockholm, Gustav waits for the outcome of the vote. He looks up from the book he’s reading as one of his advisers hurries across the room. The man bows and tells the king that he has news from parliament. Despite opposition from the nobility, the Union and Security Act has passed.
The King smiles. At last, he has absolute power over Sweden.
It’s February 1792, three years later.
In a dark backstreet of Stockholm, a young nobleman named Jacob Johan Anckarström labors through knee-deep snow. Ahead, the frozen streets are illuminated by lights from a house. Inside, Anckarström’s co-conspirators wait for his arrival so they can discuss their plot to kill the king.
Anckarström already made one attempt just last month. Armed, he went to a meeting of the Swedish parliament in the hope of finding the perfect moment to attack. But he couldn’t get close enough to the king.
Still, Anckarström is determined to try again. It’s not just principle that motivates his hatred of Gustav III. For Anckarström, it’s personal as well. A few years ago, while traveling on the south Swedish island of Gotland, Anckarström was arrested because he was heard criticizing the king. Although he was acquitted at trial due to a lack of evidence, Anckarström hasn’t forgotten the experience. He pins the blame for his humiliating arrest on Gustav and is determined to exact revenge and, hopefully, spark a revolution.
After all, revolution is in the air. Years back, the American colonies threw off the yoke of British rule, and in Europe, the French have risen up against their tyrannical king. There are many in Sweden who dream of emulating those revolutions, but few are brave enough to act.
When Anckarström arrives at the house in Stockholm, the meeting is already underway. He shakes the snow off his boots and peels off his winter coat, before hurrying through the halls into a dining room where his cohorts are waiting. Anckarström’s friend, Count Ribbing is already there – the house belongs to his mistress. With him is another young nobleman in his twenties, Count Fredrik Horn. They rise to greet Anckarström and eagerly bid him to join them at the table.
For the rest of the evening, over dinner and wine, the young men plot. Count Ribbing is in contact with another group of noblemen - older, more powerful men - who are ready to leap into action. Once the king is dead, these older men will restore the old constitution.
The only question is when and where to strike. Luckily, Anckarström’s just learned of the perfect opportunity: a masquerade ball set to take place at Stockholm’s Royal Opera House in a few weeks’ time. The event is open to the public and the king is sure to be there. There will be crowds of people in attendance, and every one of them will be wearing a mask. Anckarström’s conspirators agree. It’s the perfect opportunity.
Weeks later, on March 16th, 1792, the young nobles will put their plan into action. Jacob Johan Anckarström will shoot Gustav III at point-blank range. But beyond that, nothing will go as the young men planned.
Act Three: Death of a King
It’s March 29th, 1792, in Stockholm, Sweden, thirteen days after Gustav III was shot.
At the Royal Palace, the king lies in bed, surrounded by doctors and advisers. Gustav is pale and feverish. He doesn’t have long to live.
The shot fired by Jacob Johan Anckarström at the Opera House was not immediately fatal. When the would-be assassin fired his gun, the king happened to turn away to say something to a friend. The bullet missed the king’s major organs, and guards quickly carried him away from the Opera House while doctors were summoned to the palace. With the king’s apparent survival, the plot against him quickly unraveled. Anckarström and his conspirators were promptly arrested and confessed to their crimes. But in the days after the shooting, the king’s wound became infected and sepsis set in.
Now, thirteen days later, the king dictates an amendment to his will. His breath is shallow and rasping. Those around him bend their heads closer to hear what Gustav has to say. The king knows he’s dying and he’s about to name the men who will rule Sweden until his 13-year-old son comes of age.
He appoints a council of five men, including his brother, to act as regents for his heir. Then, in a low whisper, the king says, “I feel sleepy, a few moments' rest would do me good”. But Gustav III of Sweden will never wake from his slumber.
Fourteen people will be brought to trial for the king’s murder. Five will be convicted, including Count Ribbing and Count Horn. But only the man who pulled the trigger, Jacob Johan Anckarström, will be executed. On April 27th, 1792, after three days of public floggings, Anckarström will be beheaded. It will be the last political execution in Swedish history.
Gustav will be succeeded by his 13-year-old son Gustav Adolf. But his reign will end as abruptly as his father’s. In 1809, after an unpopular war with Russia, the young king will be forced to abdicate the throne as a result of another coup. The absolute monarchy established by Gustav III will be erased and parliament will once again rule.
Gustav remains an enigmatic figure in Swedish history. He was a romantic lover of the arts with big ideas and grandiose dreams. But he was also an autocratic opportunist. He cemented the monarchy as the ultimate power in Sweden but, in curbing the privileges of the aristocracy, he paved the way for a more egalitarian system of government to emerge. For a man of such contrasts, it’s a suitable irony that he was shot in an opera house that he built on March 16th, 1792.
Next on History Daily.March 17th, 1861. After more than a decade of revolution, the Kingdom of Italy is officially founded on what is known as the Day of Unity.
From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.
Audio editing by Mollie Baack.
Music and sound design by Lindsay Graham.
This episode is written and researched by William Simpson.
Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.