Age of Liberty

Period of Swedish and Finnish history from 1718 to 1772
Kingdom of Sweden
Konungariket Sverige (Swedish 22)
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Common languagesSwedish (official)
Church of Sweden (official)
GovernmentUnitary parliamentary constitutional monarchy
• 1718-1720 (first)
Ulrika Eleonora
• 1720-1751
Frederick I
• 1751-1771
Adolf Frederick
• 1771-1772 (last)
Gustav III
President of the Privy Council Chancellery 
• 1718-1720 (first)
Arvid Horn
• April – August 1772 (last)
Joachim von Düben
LegislatureRiksdag of the Estates
5 December 1718
• Beginning of constitutional monarchy
21 February 1719
• Queen Ulrika Eleonora abdicated
24 March 1720
• Reconstituted
2 May 1720
19 August 1772
ISO 3166 codeSE
Preceded by
Succeeded by
Swedish Empire
Gustavian era
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In Swedish and Finnish history, the Age of Liberty (Swedish: frihetstiden; Finnish: vapauden aika) was a period that saw parliamentary governance, increasing civil rights and the decline of the Swedish Empire that began with Charles XII's death in 1718 and ended with Gustav III's self-coup in 1772. This shift of power from monarch to parliament was a direct effect of the Great Northern War.

Suffrage under the parliamentary government was not universal. Although the taxed peasantry was represented in the Parliament, its influence was disproportionately small, and commoners without taxed property had no suffrage at all.

Great Northern War

Following the death of Charles XI of Sweden, his young son Charles XII became king, and in 1697, when he was only 15 years old, he was proclaimed to be of age and took over the rule from the provisional government. The states which Sweden's expansion into a great power had primarily been at the expense of, Denmark and Russia, formed a coalition with Saxony two years later, with the aim of partitioning Sweden. After initial successes, Sweden's army was eventually reduced while the list of enemies grew. In a Swedish siege of Fredriksten Fortress in Norway in 1718, Charles XII was killed, after which most hostilities in the west ended. At the beginning of 1719, peace overtures were made to Britain, Hanover, Prussia and Denmark.

By the Treaties of Stockholm on 20 February 1719 and 1 February 1720, Hanover obtained the Duchies of Bremen and Verden for herself and Southern Swedish Pomerania with Stettin for her confederate Brandenburg-Prussia. Northern Swedish Pomerania with Rügen, which had come under Danish rule during the war, was retained by Sweden. By the Treaty of Frederiksborg on 3 July 1720, peace was also signed between Denmark and Sweden. Denmark returned Rügen, Further Pomerania as far as the Peene, and Wismar to Sweden, in exchange for an indemnity of 600,000 Riksdaler; in return, Sweden would pay the Sound tolls and give up her protectorate over Holstein-Gottorp. Peace with Russia was achieved in 1721. By the Treaty of Nystad, Sweden ceded Livonia, the Finnish province of Kexholm, and Viborg Castle to Russia, Ingria, and Estonia. Finland west of Viborg and north of Käkisalmi was restored to Sweden. Sweden also received an indemnity of two million Riksdaler and a solemn undertaking of non-interference in her domestic affairs.[1]

Age of Liberty

Early in 1720 Charles XII's sister, Ulrika Eleonora, who had been elected queen of Sweden immediately after his death, was permitted to abdicate in favour of her husband Frederick the prince of Hesse, who was elected king 1720 under the title of Frederick I of Sweden; and Sweden was, at the same time, converted into the most limited of monarchies. All power was vested in the people as represented by the Riksdag, consisting, as before, of four distinct estates: nobles, priests, burgesses and peasants. The conflicting interests of these four independent assemblies, who sat and deliberated apart and with their mutual jealousies, made the work of legislation exceptionally difficult. No measure could now become law until it had obtained the assent of at least three of the four estates.[1]

Each estate was ruled by its talman, or speaker, who was now elected at the beginning of each Diet, but the archbishop was, ex officio, the talman of the clergy. The lantmarskalk, or speaker of the House of Nobles, presided when the estates met in congress and also, by virtue of his office, in the secret committee. This famous body, which consisted of 50 nobles, 25 priests, 25 burgesses, and, very exceptionally, 25 peasants, possessed during the session of the Riksdag not only the supreme executive but also the supreme judicial and legislative functions. It prepared all bills for the Riksdag, created and deposed all ministries, controlled the foreign policy of the nation, and claimed and often exercised the right of superseding the ordinary courts of justice. During the parliamentary recess, however, the executive remained in the hands of the Privy Council, which was responsible to the Riksdag alone.[1]

Hats and Caps

The policy of the Hats party was a return to the traditional alliance between France and Sweden. Chancery President, and member of the rival Caps party, Count Arvid Horn acted with the recognition of Sweden's unequal status in this alliance. The Hats, however, aimed to restore Sweden to her former position as a great power. France supported the efforts by their ally to become a stronger military power, and thus provided financial support to the Hats.[2]

The Hats initiated war with Russia. The unstable European political situation due to the almost simultaneous deaths of Charles VI, Holy Roman Emperor and Empress Anne of Russia seemed to favor the Hats' schemes. Despite the protests of the Caps, a project for the invasion of Russian Finland was rushed through the premature Riksdag of 1740. On 20 July 1741, war was formally declared against Russia; a month later the Diet was dissolved and the lantmarskalk set off to Finland to take command of the army. The first major battle occurred six months after the declaration of war, when the Russians routed the Swedes in Finland at Lappeenranta and captured the fortress. Neither side had major offensive achievements in the following six months, during which time the Swedish generals made a "tacit truce" with the Russians through the mediation of the French ambassador at Saint Petersburg. By the time that the "tacit truce" had come to an end the Swedish forces were so demoralized that the mere rumor of a hostile attack prompted a retreat to Helsinki. By the end of the year, the majority of Finland was held by Russia. The Swedish fleet was struck by an epidemic, and thus contributed little to the war.[2]

The Hats avoided a motion for an inquiry into the conduct of the war by shifting the focus of the Riksdag to the issue of succession. Queen Ulrike Eleonora of Sweden had lately died childless and King Frederick was old. Negotiations were thus opened with the new Russian empress, Elizabeth of Russia, who agreed to restore the greater part of Finland if her cousin, Adolph Frederick of Holstein, were elected successor to the Swedish crown. The Hats took the opportunity to recover the lost lands, as well as a bit of their own prestige. By the Treaty of Åbo on 7 May 1743 the terms of the empress were accepted and only the small part of Finland which lay beyond the Kymi River was retained by Russia.[2]

Arvid Horn

Since 1719, when the influence of the few great territorial families had been merged in a multitude of needy gentlemen, the first estate had become the nursery and afterwards the stronghold of an opposition at once noble and democratic which found its natural leaders in such men as Count Carl Gyllenborg and Count Carl Gustaf Tessin. These men and their followers were never weary of ridiculing the timid caution of the aged statesman who sacrificed everything to perpetuate an inglorious peace and derisively nicknamed his adherents "Night-caps" (a term subsequently softened into "Caps"), themselves adopting the sobriquet "Hats" from the three-cornered hat worn by officers and gentlemen, which was a display of the manly self-assertion of this opposition.[1]

Arvid Horn, President of the Privy Council Chancellery

These epithets instantly caught the public fancy and had already become party badges when the estates met in 1738. This Riksdag was to mark another turning-point in Swedish history. In the War of the Polish Succession between 1733–1738 Sweden supported Stanislaus Leszczyński against August III of Poland. The Hats carried everything before them, and the aged Horn, who had served thirty-three years, was finally compelled to retire from the scene.[3]

Pomeranian War

King Adolf Frederick of Sweden (reigned 1751–1771) would have given even less trouble than his predecessor but for the ambitious promptings of his masterful consort Louisa Ulrika of Prussia, Frederick the Great's sister, and the tyranny of the estates, who seemed bent upon driving the meekest of princes into rebellion. An attempted monarchical revolution, planned by the queen and a few devoted young nobles in 1756, was easily and remorselessly crushed; and, though the unhappy king did not, as he anticipated, share the fate of Charles Edward Stuart, he was humiliated as no monarch was humiliated before.[2]

The same years which beheld this great domestic triumph of the Hats saw also the utter collapse of their foreign "system". At the instigation of France they plunged recklessly into the Seven Years' War; and the result was ruinous. The French subsidies, which might have sufficed for a mere six weeks campaign (it was generally assumed that the king of Prussia would give little trouble to a European coalition), proved quite inadequate; and, after five unsuccessful campaigns, the unhappy Hats were glad to make peace and ignominiously withdraw from a little war which had cost the country 40,000 men. When the Riksdag met in 1760, the indignation against the Hat leaders was so violent that an impeachment seemed inevitable; but once more the superiority of their parliamentary tactics prevailed, and when, after a session of twenty months, the Riksdag was brought to a close by the mutual consent of both the exhausted factions, the Hat government was bolstered for another four years. But the day of reckoning could not be postponed forever; and when the estates met in 1765 it brought the Caps into power at last. Their leader, Ture Rudbeck, was elected marshal of the Diet over Frederick Axel von Fersen, the Hat candidate, by a large majority; and, out of the hundred seats in the secret committee, the Hats succeeded in getting only ten.[2]

The Caps struck at once at the weak point of their opponents by ordering a budget report to be made; and it was speedily found that the whole financial system of the Hats had been based upon reckless improvidence and the willful misrepresentation, and that the only fruit of their long rule was an enormous addition to the national debt and a depreciation of the note circulation to one third of its face value. This revelation led to an all-round retrenchment, carried into effect with a drastic thoroughness which has earned for this parliament the name of the "Reduction Riksdag". The Caps succeeded in reducing the national debt, half of which was transferred from the pockets of the rich to the empty exchequer, and establishing some sort of equilibrium between revenue and expenditure. They also introduced a few useful reforms, the most remarkable of which was the liberty of the press in 1766. But their most important political act was to throw their lot in with Russia, so as to counterpoise the influence of France.[2]

Although no longer a great power, she still had many of the responsibilities of a great power; and if the Swedish alliance had considerably depreciated in value, it was still a marketable commodity. Sweden's particular geographical position made her virtually invulnerable for six months out of the twelve, her Pomeranian possessions afforded her an easy ingress into the very heart of the moribund empire, while her Finnish frontier was not many leagues from the Russian capital.[2]

A watchful neutrality, not venturing much beyond defensive alliances and commercial treaties with the maritime powers, was therefore Sweden's safest policy, and this the older Caps had always followed out. But when the Hats became the armourbearers of France in the north, a protector strong enough to counteract French influence became the cardinal demand of their opponents, the younger Caps, who now flung themselves into the arms of Russia, overlooking the fact that even a pacific union with Russia was more to be feared than a martial alliance with France. For France was too distant to be dangerous. France sought an ally in Sweden and it was her endeavour to make that ally as strong as possible. But it was as a future prey, not as a possible ally, that Russia regarded her ancient rival in the north[citation needed]. In the treaty which partitioned Poland there was a secret clause which engaged the contracting powers to uphold the existing Swedish constitution as the swiftest means of subverting Swedish independence; and an alliance with the credulous Caps, "the Patriots" as they were called at Saint Petersburg, guaranteeing their constitution, was the corollary to this secret understanding.[2]

The domination of the Caps was not for long. The general distress caused by their drastic reforms had found expression in pamphlets which bit and stung the Cap government and came in swarms under the protection of the new press laws. The senate retaliated with an order, which the king refused to sign, declaring that all complaints against the austerity measures of the last Riksdag should be punished with fine and imprisonment. The king, at the suggestion of the crown prince thereupon urged the senate to summon an extraordinary Riksdag as the speediest method of relieving the national distress, and, on their refusing to comply with his wishes, he abdicated. This resulted in the December Crisis (1768). From 15 to 21 December 1768 Sweden was without a regular government. Then the Cap senate gave way and the estates were convoked for 19 April 1769.[4]

On the eve of the contest there was a general assembly of the Hats at the French embassy, where the Comte de Modêne furnished them with 6,000,000 livres, but not till they had signed in his presence an undertaking to reform the constitution and give it a monarchical sense. Still more energetic on the other side, the Russian minister, Andrei Osterman, became the treasurer as well as the counsellor of the Caps, and scattered the largesse of the Russian empress with a lavish hand; and so lost to all feeling of patriotism were the Caps that they openly threatened all who ventured to vote against them with the Muscovite vengeance, and fixed Norrköping, instead of Stockholm, as the place of meeting for the Riksdag as being more accessible to the Russian fleet. But it soon became evident that the Caps were playing a losing game; and, when the Riksdag met at Norrköping on 19 April, they found themselves in a minority in all four estates. In the contest for speaker of the Riksdag (Lantmarskalk) the leaders of the two parties were again pitted against each other, when the verdict of the last Diet was exactly reversed, von Fersen defeating Rudbeck by 234, though Russia spent no less a sum than 90,000 Riksdaler to secure the election of the latter.[5]

The Caps had short shrift, and the joint note which the Russian, Prussian and Danish ministers presented to the estates protesting the result, in menacing terms, against any "reprisals" on the part of the triumphant faction, only hastened the fall of the government. The Cap senate resigned en masse to escape impeachment, and an exclusively Hat ministry took its place. On 1 June the "Reaction Riksdag", as it was generally called, removed to the capital; and it was now that the French ambassador and the crown prince Gustav called upon the new Privy Councillors to redeem their promise as to a reform of the constitution which they had made before the elections. When, at the end of the session, they half-heartedly brought the matter forward, the Riksdag suddenly seemed to be stricken with paralysis. Impediments multiplied at every step; the cry was raised: "The constitution is in danger" and on 30 January 1770 the Reaction Riksdag, after a barren ten months session, rose amidst chaotic confusion without accomplishing anything.[5]


The Great Northern War had left Sweden in a state of economic and demographic ruin at the start of the Age of Liberty. This period brought economic and social upheaval as well as industrial development. However, by the time the Age of Liberty ended in 1772, Sweden was by all objective measures a weaker nation than it was during its “Era of Great Power”. Its land was diminished, its monopoly over the bar iron trade was gone,[6] and it was lagging behind in the race towards early industrialisation.[7] This decline can be attributed both to fiscal, monetary and executive policy errors by the various Riksdag parties in power, as well as to technological and economic shifts which allowed Sweden's rivals and neighbours get ahead on the global stage. It was, however, the agricultural reforms, the early industrial developments, and the gradual change from mercantilism to free trade that occurred during this period which pioneered the path for Sweden's agricultural revolution in the 1790s and eventual large scale industrialization in the mid to late 19th century.[7]

See also


  1. ^ a b c d Chisholm 1911, p. 206.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h Chisholm 1911, p. 207.
  3. ^ Chisholm 1911, pp. 206–207.
  4. ^ Chisholm 1911, pp. 207–208.
  5. ^ a b Chisholm 1911, p. 208.
  6. ^ Edvinsson, Rodney; Gad, Christoffer Tarek (2018-09-02). "Assessing trade in the mercantilist era: evidence from a new database on foreign trade of Sweden – Finland, 1738–1805". Scandinavian Economic History Review. 66 (3): 229, 230, 242. doi:10.1080/03585522.2018.1516234. ISSN 0358-5522.
  7. ^ a b Schön, Krantz, Lennart, Olle (2015). "New Swedish Historical National Accounts since the 16th Century in Constant and Current Prices" (PDF). Lund Papers in Economic History. No. 140: 5, 11, 14, 16.


  •  This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Sweden". Encyclopædia Britannica. Vol. 26 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. pp. 188–221.

Further reading

  • Roberts, Michael (2003). The Age of Liberty: Sweden 1719-1772. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-52707-1.
  • Wolff, Charlotta (2007). "Aristocratic republicanism and the hate of sovereignty in 18th-century Sweden". Scandinavian Journal of History. 32 (4): 358–375. doi:10.1080/03468750701659392. S2CID 144282078.
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