Mar 162011

Gustav III in 1777, painted by Roslin

On the evening of March 16, 1792, the Swedish King Gustav III was having a light supper at the Opera House in Stockholm before planning to attend a masked ball in the same house.

Now, as years go, 1792 wasn’t really the best of times for kings. The French Revolution was raging and later that year Louis XVI would be officially arrested and tried, ending with his execution in early 1793. Even in mostly peaceful Sweden there was discontent with the idea of an absolute monarch, something King Gustav had been ever since his coup d’état in 1772. In fact, a group of Swedish noblemen and officials was so displeased with the King that they were planning on murdering him in order to bring about reform.

The night before, on March 15, three of the central figures, Captain Anckarström and the Counts Horn and Ribbing, had dined at Horn’s estate outside Stockholm, allegedly planning the details of the murder, which was to take place at the masked ball.

The old guest wing of Huvudsta House, where the dinner is said to have taken place. The house is now used by the parish for its kindergarten activities. Ironic, isn’t it?

However, Lieutenant Colonel Lilliehorn, one of their co-conspirators, had gotten cold feet and decided to rat them out. He composed an anonymous letter which was delivered to the King during the supper. The King’s friend Count von Essen immediately begged him to change his plans and not attend the ball. In a magnificent gesture, the King shrugged it off. Should I have them believe I’m afraid? he asked. He even refused to wear any sort of armor or protection, settling merely on a hat, a cloak and a mask, his orders fully visible which made it easy for anyone to identify him (you can actually see his original outfit, including mask here at the Royal Armory Museum’s website).

Positioning himself in a window overlooking the room, he waited for a good quarter of an hour before saying: Now would have been ample opportunity to shoot! However, after entering the ball, he soon found himself surrounded by a group of men in masks and black dominos, greeting him in French (French was the language used at the Swedish court at the time) with the words:

Bonjour, beau masque.*

Anckarström then fired the gun, loaded with shrapnel, into the King’s back.

In the commotion that followed, the conspirators tried to get away by raising the fire alarm, but the doors to the building were shut and the Chief of Police arrived very quickly to unmask and start interrogating everybody. Meanwhile, the King was taken to his room, weakened but conscious and clear enough to tell the surrounding guards to arrest the miscreant, but not to do him any harm.

The police investigation was actually conducted with considerable efficiency and Anckarström was arrested already the next morning, traced through the pistols which had been found on the floor of the Opera House (and which you can see here, again at the Royal Armory), and a long line of others followed.

The King had survived the attack and it seemed the attempted murder would be a complete failure. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your position regarding absolute Swedish monarchs), the wound got infected and the King grew weaker and weaker until he finally died on March 29.

Only Anckarström was executed. Several of his co-conspirators were sentenced to be executed as well, but they were all pardoned and ordered to leave the country. Ribbing even made it to Paris in time to jeer at the execution of Louis XVI.

And that was what happened today, 219 years ago.

*It means ‘Good day, beautiful mask’ which is a very peculiar way of greeting, I always thought, because 1) it was evening and 2) it just sounds gauche, don’t you agree?

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