The End of Aristocratic Power:


Sweden 1660-1680
























David Oxenstierna

April 18, 1995

Luncheon speech delivered to

The Swedish American Cultural Union of Washington, D.C.



The era of Charles XI is often perceived as a rather grey period of Swedish history ruled by one of the country’s least regarded or glamorous kings.  To the extent that the period has left an imprint at all, one recalls the incompetent and financially reckless Regents during Charles’ minority, composed of purportedly self-serving members of the high aristocracy; the huge reduktion of land from that same nobility which had been granted by the crown during the 30-years war; the reluctant but inevitable retreat from Great Power status in Europe; and, late in Charles’ reign, the rise of royal absolutism paving the way to military dictatorship under his son Charles XII.  In sharp contrast to the stunning successes of Gustavus Adolphus or the military heroism of Charles XII, the period of Charles XI (1660-1697) is not generally remembered as a great or very important part of Swedish history.   Indeed the king himself, though possessing an overpowering sense of duty, was not an outwardly impressive character.  Ignorant, clumsy, desperately shy, with a disposition more of a book-keeper than a hero-king and a strong bent towards the details of administration in preference to foreign expansion, he is not rewarded with even a single statue in the city of Stockholm.


The common perception does scant justice to an enormously important period of Swedish history and a tremendous achievement by the king.  Far from being merely a transition between two great eras, his reign and in particular the years 1674-1680 constitute a watershed in Swedish history.  First, Charles XI solved the Gordian Knot which had eluded the sagacity of the Regents during his minority, namely how the Great Power status of Sweden, inscribed in the treaty of Westphalia, could be reconciled with her painfully limited resources in money and manpower.  The answer, of course, was that Sweden’s grasp exceeded her reach by a margin, and Charles XI led the country towards accepting its justifiable status as a second-class power, and instituted several crucial and innovative reforms which secured that position.


Second, during this period came to an end the ancient constitutional tradition which pitted the riksråd (Council of the Realm) against the power and authority of the King in an arrangement explicitly designed to limit and check the monarchy, as inscribed in Magnus Eriksson’s Land Law of 1350.  The riksråd had always been utterly dominated by the great families of the high nobility (the Bondes, Bielkes, de la Gardies, Oxenstiernas, Sparres, etc), who, in possession of vast estates and considerable local power independent of the King, saw no contradiction between, on the one hand, safekeeping the constitutional interests of the country against encroaches by over-powerful monarchs, and, on the other, jealously guarding their own interests.


The power of the high nobility and the riksråd was destroyed by 1680. In its place rose royal absolutism under Charles XI and Charles XII, unchecked by any constitutional arrangement.  The Riksdag (parliament) was the king’s main accomplice in destroying the riksråd, and along with the civil service bureaucracy it benefitted enormously.  For the first four decades after 1680 parliament was subservient to, and acquiescent of, royal absolutism.  But after the death of Charles XII the monarchy as well as the riksråd was rendered utterly impotent, and parliament soon exercised powers similar to those of an absolutist monarch.   Further, the tight coupling between the offices of the government, run by members of the civil service, and the dominant parliamentary party meant that from the beginning the offices of government were little more than the administrative arms of parliament.  Thus the ancient system of checks-and-balances was superseded by a new constitutional system of parliamentary bureaucracy, wielding absolutist if collective power unchecked by any other body.  The present system of government in Sweden can in large measure directly trace its roots to these developments.


Third, coupled with Sweden’s transition from first- to second-rate power status and the fundamental constitutional change, the high nobility suffered a severe and immediate loss of political and economic power from which it never recovered, and gradually but inevitably lost social status as well.  As late as 1670 the families of the high aristocracy enjoyed a political and socio-economic status greater even than they had fifty years earlier.  Yet a mere ten years later their political position was destroyed, and their traditional channel of power, the riksråd, rendered impotent. Moreover, the majority of their estates were or would soon be repossessed, eliminating their independence of income and forcing many into virtual poverty or salaried service to the government.  And while pretensions lived on for many years still, their pre-eminent social position was irreparably lost.


Thus Charles XI presided over fundamental changes which secured and instituted Sweden’s position as a second-rate power; transformed the country from the time-honored medieval constitutional checks-and-balances arrangements into a constitutional, absolutist parliamentary bureaucracy which in its essence still forms the core of Sweden’s governmental system; and, as a consequence of both, crushed the power and position of the aristocracy.  In contrast, the exploits of his son, the hero-king Charles XII, seem little more than a transitional and painful distraction.


Before investigating these three fundamental changes in more detail, to appreciate the full extent of Charles XI’s achievements we need first to look at the range of problems facing Sweden in 1660-1670


By 1660 the Swedish empire had touched its zenith.  The Baltic empire was intact, and with the treaties of Brömsebro (1645), Roskilde (1658) and Copenhagen (1660) Skåne, Blekinge, Halland and Jämtland / Härjedalen had been brought into the fold.  Sweden had thus finally achieved its natural limits within the Scandinavian peninsula vis-à-vis Denmark.  Further, the Peace of Oliva ended the dynastic strife with Poland which had so plagued Sweden the previous sixty years.  Finally, the Peace of Kardis in 1661 registered the failure of Russia to gain a foothold in the Baltic.  Sweden was thus a territorially satisfied power, enjoyed a first-class Great Power status throughout Europe and a military reputation second to none.  The Treaty of Westphalia enshrined Sweden’s expected role as a balance-of-power broker in European politics, by making her one of three co-guarantors of the treaty, and by giving her a formal role in the business of the Holy Roman Empire and some of the German states.


But if Sweden’s rise to pre-eminence had seem astonishing in the first half of the century, there were good reasons to doubt the country’s ability to maintain its exalted status.  For Sweden was still a poor country, her empire widely scattered over a large territory.  Her war-time armies had been largely self-financing from the occupied territories, and demanded relatively few resources from Sweden itself.  This situation obviously no longer existed.  Thus the fundamental question facing Sweden was how the empire could be defended in peacetime, and, even more problematic, how she could play the role envisioned at Westphalia.


The Regents, appointed in 1660 upon Charles X’s death to run the government until Charles XI came of age in 1672, were drawn from the highest levels of the nobility and led by the gallophile and dashing Magnus Gabriel de la Gardie.  Already in 1660 economic realities forced them to halve the size of the army.  It was evident to the Regents that the survival of the empire depended on maintenance of peace.  If peace could be kept, Sweden’s external status could be protected.  If not, national pride would compel participation in European wars, lest Sweden’s position agreed at Westphalia were to be destroyed.  Or so the Regents believed.  But they were unable to find the financial and material resources even to maintain the status quo.   The Regents therefore took it for granted that Sweden required foreign subsidies to finance its empire.  De la Gardie turned to the French, and they, for their own excellent reasons, agreed.  By 1674 Louis XIV, who already rated Sweden a second-class power, found it useful to call the debt and ask for military assistance in the Anglo-Dutch war.  De la Gardie found himself backed into a corner and could not refuse.  The army, lacking both the resources and the motivation to fight in Brandenburg, performed badly and severely damaged Sweden’s enormous military prestige in Europe.  The heirs of Gustavus Adolphus had thus become the vassals of France.


In addition to incompetent foreign and military policies, the Regents stood accused of financial carelessness.  Whilst the extent of corruption remains an issue of some debate, the Treasury was chronically exhausted and government debt increased steadily.  The deepening financial crisis underscored how far removed from reality the Regents were.   The gulf between the political ambition of the Regents to maintain Sweden’s status as a Great Power and the realities of her limited resources was very wide.  One historian commented that “her pretensions were contradicted by her impotence.”   In retrospect, the Regents singularly failed to recognize the contradiction inherent in maintaining peace through status quo politics while depending on subsidies from one of the major power-brokers.  And in a larger sense, they failed to accept that Sweden could not remain a first-class power in Europe.


In addition to fundamental questions of fiscal, military, and foreign policy, Charles XI also faced an increasingly heated social and political climate.  The high nobility, and especially the great families of the riksråd, had effectively governed Sweden for much of the time since the 1630s and had been in a pre-eminent position since time immemorial.  Their material wealth had risen significantly from the spoils of the Thirty Years War and from royal donations, and they exercised a virtual monopoly on top government jobs.  The Regents were drawn from the same families and were, in addition, perceived to have been not only incompetent but also corrupt.  The lower Estates, and especially the peasants, resented the wealth and power of the aristocracy and feared, probably without much justification, that the ancient freedoms of the Swedish peasant might be substituted by Slavic or German forms of serfdom.


The nobility itself, moreover, was divided.  The high aristocracy consisted of no more than about a dozen families, who had held power, political position, and controlled large landed estates for centuries.  However, Queen Christina in particular had created a mass of new nobility, many of whom had neither the economic privilege nor the access to top jobs of the high aristocracy.  Deeply jealous, the low nobility was willing to ally itself with the king as well as the non-noble Estates in order to gain access to positions of privilege.


When Charles XI took over effective control in 1672, he thus faced a set of very serious external and fiscal crises, and a hotbed of domestic tension.  It is a testimony to the soundness of his policies that he found a way out of the first set of problems that had eluded the Regents, and turned the domestic tension, which had been ignored or worse by the Regents, to his advantage.


The King followed three main policies with remarkable consistency and success.  First, he solved the fiscal problem by reclaiming large properties previously donated to the nobility (the reduktion).  Second, he completely revamped the army by basing it on an allocation system of locally based and locally funded, but centrally administered forces (indelningsverket), and he also strengthened the navy considerably.  Third, he pursued a cautious foreign policy designed to keep Sweden at peace almost at any cost.  We will look at these in turn.


First, the fiscal problem was solved mainly through the device of the reduktion.  The concept was discussed as early as 1650, but implemented only half-heartedly since then, to the considerable consternation of the lower aristocracy and non-nobles.  Charles XI proceeded with vigor and characteristic administrative discipline.  Most outlying estates of the high aristocracy were confiscated, although ancestral homes were left alone.  Whereas the nobility owned 72 percent of the land in 1650, by 1700 they owned only 33 percent, and the land ownership of tax and crown peasants increased by the corresponding amount.  As a result, by the 1690s Charles had turned a huge budget deficit into a significant surplus.  He was a rich man, and for the first time since Gustav Vasa could a king abide by the clause in the Land Law requiring a king to “live by his own means.”  Moreover, it enabled the crown to pay regular salaries to an ever-increasing staff of civil servants - an unheard of luxury which, not least important, lured a significant number of newly-poor aristocrats into salaried government service and thus royal dependence.


The second major policy of the King was indelningsverket.  Charles devised an allocation system whereby each village in the nation would provide small homestead farms to one or several soldiers, who lived as self-sufficient peasants in peacetime, their needs if necessary supplemented by donations by the other villagers, and became full-fledged soldiers during war.  Sweden thus established a locally self-funded, permanent standing army.  Charles also organised an elaborate system for mobilization, which was so effective that when Russia, Denmark, and Saxony simultaneously attacked without provocation in 1700, the army mobilized with a speed and accuracy which was unmatched by any other military force in Europe.  As a result, Charles was able to turn a desperately under-funded and foreign subsidy-dependent army into what turned out to be the best-trained, best-equipped and fastest mobilizing army in Europe.  It was, perhaps, not well suited to fight wars abroad, as it was dependent on a natural, as opposed to cash-based economy; but Charles had no intention of using his military for other than defensive purposes.  Charles XI also used his rapidly improving finances to expand the navy.  Sweden’s scattered empire depended crucially on maritime strength, and her trade on secure communications.  The navy had been built up to considerable numbers in the 1630s and 1640s, but had by 1660 lapsed into weakness.  The King’s policies restored the navy to its former strength.


The third major policy of Charles XI was to maintain the peace at all cost.  Foreign policy became cautious and conciliatory; Charles took the heat out of communications with foreign powers in order to avoid quarrels and misunderstandings.  He delegated all day-to-day deliberations to Bengt Oxenstierna, who ran foreign policy from 1680 to 1702, the last, rather unhappy years under Charles XII.  Bengt Oxenstierna was a cautious, ceremonious, and deliberate man who epitomized the style Charles XI required, and, perhaps more substantially, realigned Sweden away from France towards the maritime powers of England and Holland.  He was one of very few members of the high nobility who played a significant role under Charles XI or Charles XII, and unlike most of his social peers he agreed with or at least acquiesced in royal absolutism, much to his personal advantage.  Whether due to style or substance, Sweden remained at peace between 1680 and 1700, a remarkably long absence from war.


These three major policies were implemented by Charles XI with vigor and remarkable success.  He proved possible what the collective wisdom of the Regents thought unthinkable: that Sweden could live without a paymaster; that a first-class army could be maintained in peacetime; and that Sweden could remain neutral at will while retaining international prestige.  Charles XI thus solved the problem of how to withdraw from Great Power status to a well-respected second-class status, without becoming either a puppet or a carcass:


For a generation Sweden had been drunk with victory and bloated with booty: Charles XI led her back into the grey light of everyday existence, gave her policies appropriate to her resources and real interests, equipped her to carry them out, and prepared for her a future of weight and dignity as a second-class power. (Michael Roberts, “Charles XI,” in Essays in Swedish History)


Whilst the military and fiscal security of Sweden and the gracious withdrawal from first- to second-rate power status were Charles’ primary, conscious focus, his policies also brought about fundamental, long term constitutional changes and a parallel elimination of aristocratic power.  Ironically, it is very unlikely that he was aware of the magnitude of the changes he wrought.  Nor did he himself have anything in particular against the aristocracy.  But the tactics he used and policies he applied meant that these transformations were the direct result of his regime.  In terms of Sweden’s long-term historical development the fundamental constitutional changes, and the smashing of the high nobility were perhaps even more significant than securing and cementing Sweden’s second-rate power status.


Let us first look at the constitutional changes.  Sweden is practically unique in Europe in that it has always been ruled by laws (the main exception being the despotism of Charles XII).   The king has never been considered above the law, and in fact until 1544 the monarchy was elective, not hereditary.  Even after 1544 the monarchs were not considered above the rule of law.  Magnus Eriksson’s Land Laws of 1350 enshrined traditions which were deeply rooted in the Viking age.  The Land Laws remained the fundamental constitution for centuries to come, and strictly proscribed the King’s authority in several key areas, notably fiscal policies.  Moreover, balancing and checking the power of the King was a group of notables who formed the riksråd, elected for life and responsible not to the King but to the Realm, and tasked with ensuring that the King and the people obeyed the constitution and exercised their mutual responsibilities.  Especially during the 15th century, the riksråd used their powers frequently and vigorously.  For example, Karl Knutsson Bonde, who himself came from the high nobility, was elected King in the 1440s in opposition to the Union king desired by Denmark.  A party lead by the riksråd, archbishop, and later Chancellor Jöns Bengtsson (Oxenstierna), repeatedly fought and dethroned the King when he was considered to exceed his constitutional authority.


The constitutional tradition was enforced throughout the centuries, often in the face of royal opposition and even executions of the members of the riksråd who dared oppose the King.  Thus even after Gustav Vasa largely overpowered the riksråd for several decades in the 16th century, the constitutional battle was renewed against Gustav’s sons, and especially Charles IX, by Hogenskild Bielke and Erik Sparre who later lost their lives (in 1600) for their struggle.  They did, however, manage to extract the traditional constitutional guarantees from King Sigismund upon his accession to the throne.  In the 17th century, Chancellor Axel Oxenstierna obtained even greater concessions from Gustavus Adolphus in 1611 and 1612.  The Form of Government of 1634, written by Axel Oxenstierna, further enshrined the constitutional principles, and the traditional arguments were used by the riksråd in the 1670s and again in the 1710s, although by that time the arguments were far removed from the realities of the time. The high nobility thus stood for limited government and constitutional guarantees for well over three centuries.  The principle of monarchia mixta, to protect against despotism, remained alive until the late 1600s.  


The charge is often made, of course, that the aristocracy simply wanted to protect their political power, monopolize key government jobs, dominate the social life of the nation, and above all protect and expand their landed economic interests.  The claim that the aristocracy protected the people from despotism is therefore often regarded as spurious.   There is without a doubt truth in these charges.  The battle between Karl Knutsson Bonde and Jöns Bengtsson Oxenstierna, for example, was at least as much about personal and family interests as about constitutional principles.   Indeed, the opposition to the aristocracy which eventually proved fatal in the 1670s was directed towards their economic and political privileges, and not usually against the constitutional principles.  While the Swedish nobility in general was far more modest than their Slavic, German or Gallic counterparts, Axel Oxenstierna clearly foresaw the mortal dangers inherent in privilege, and throughout his career urged modesty and caution to his peers.


But although the privileges of the aristocracy eventually became their undoing, it did not prevent them from exercising constitutional controls.  On the contrary, their independence of means from the monarchy allowed them to take a different line of argument through the riksråd or, when necessary, to take up arms.  Nor did the aristocracy confuse domestic political quarrels with the need to serve the nation.  The high aristocracy maintained a remarkably consistent track record of national service in the centuries up to 1680, which was rarely compromised by political or socioeconomic interests.


The political defeat of the riksråd in 1674-1680, and thereby the high nobility, was decisive.  In its place came first royal absolutism under Charles XI and military dictatorship under Charles XII.  Not only was the riksråd eliminated, but also the Riksdag (parliament) acquiesced to absolutism.  But while it could not have been apparent to contemporary observers, ironically out of the dust of three centuries of constitutional tradition arose not royal absolutism as a permanent institution, but eventually absolutism in the form of parliamentary bureaucracy.  For Charles XI accelerated a development which, again ironically, had been made necessary by the administrative demands of Empire several decades earlier, namely an ever-expanding civil service bureaucracy.  The defeat of high aristocracy was certainly a victory for the lower nobility and the non-noble Estates of Parliament.  But more fundamentally, it was a victory for the salaried civil servant, operating the laborious machinery of government.  Under Charles XII’s 15-year absence from Swedish soil the civil service proved itself fully capable of managing the government without a king, and upon the Charles’s death, the civil service in perfect symbiosis with the Estates made short shrift of the claims of both the high nobility and the monarchy.  By the mid-18th century an observer quipped that the civil service and Riksdag exercised powers identical to those of Charles XI in 1693, except that they bothered less with their responsibility to God.


Thus centuries of limited government and constitutional guarantees was replaced by a structure from which the present-day government system in Sweden directly can trace its lineage.  The decline of the aristocracy was the vehicle through which these changes were effected.


The second major effect of Charles XI’s policies was the smashing of the high nobility.  It may seem surprising that the aristocracy, so powerful in 1670, was utterly defeated by 1680.  There were several reasons.  First, the nobility was deeply divided.  The low nobility was often hardly wealthier than well-to-do peasants, and lacked access to key government jobs.  To add insult to injury, the high nobility insisted on maintaining a Table of Ranks which placed birthright before merit at a time when more and more civil servants were educated and qualified for higher office, and even more galling, retained a decisivum votum in the Estate of Nobles.  Here the King, and the three  non-noble Estates had a ready body of supporters for reform.


Second, the three non-noble Estates were enthusiastic supporters of the King against the privileges and wealth of the high nobility.  The peasants feared, probably without much justification, Baltic or Continental-style aristocratic oppression into serfdom.  The Clergy supported the peasants because they lived with them and was largely drawn from their ranks.  The Burghers hoped, as it turned out erroneously, that the reduktion would reduce taxes.


Third, Sweden was in a serious military crisis.  The Regents had landed the country in a war the parliament had expressly asked them to avoid.  Military necessity thus contributed to a willingness to concentrate power in a single hand.


Fourth, the idea of absolutism had been gaining ground intellectually for several decades, in Sweden as in the rest of Europe.  This was the time of Louis XIV, Charles II of England, and Fredrik III of Denmark, who all instituted royal despotism justified by theories of Divine Right.  While absolutism under Charles XI never seriously operated outside the law as it did in all other countries, it was certainly not, as the famous historian Geijer argued, “an accident that looked like an idea.”


Fifth, the Regents and therefore the riksråd had been discredited through mismanagement and charges of corruption.  Charles XI even allowed Parliament to establish a Commission of Enquiry to look into the affairs of the Regents between 1660 and 1672.  They were found guilty, especially Magnus Gabriel de la Gardie, and were sentenced to repay enormous sums to the crown.  It was these fines, more than the reduktion itself, which ruined several of the great families.


Sixth, the riksråd was politically isolated by Charles XI.  In the 1674-75 war, royal administration fell into the hands of the King’s close military advisors in the field, while the riksråd sat in Stockholm and issued dignified trivialities.


Finally, the riksråd committed several tactical blunders, including giving the King unsolicited advice against the reduktion; arguing their constitutional rights by referring to the Recess of Kalmar (1483), one of the most extreme expressions of aristocratic independence; and claiming to be a separate Estate of the Realm.  The King saw his chance and took it.  He posed several direct questions to Parliament regarding the claims of the riksråd, and the Estates, predictably, responded in favor of the King and in effect declared him irresponsible before the law.  The process led gradually to the declaration in 1693, by Parliament, that the King was “only responsible to God.” 


It may seem strange that the Riksdag would give away its hard-earned liberties by consenting to the absolutism of the King.  But the constitutional questions were secondary to the socio-economic struggle.  Reforms as radical as those under Charles XI required unquestioned support for the King.   Moreover, at every stage the King asked the parliament to recommend solutions to questions he posed, rather than him asking for their consent to cooked-up policy changes.  The Riksdag therefore participated in and indeed effected virtually all the changes, albeit no doubt guided by the hidden hand of the King.  Finally, the King always acted within the letter of the Land Law, or at least an interpretation of it.  He thus ostensibly adhered to the ancient Swedish tradition that constitutional changes required the assent of the people.  “Swedish absolutism was absolutism by consent of the many, by conviction of the few, and acquiescence of almost all.”


Thus many factors combined brought down the aristocracy.  The impact was severe.  In 1679 Magnus Gabriel de la Gardie’s income was 1/20th of the crown; ten years later he lived on handouts and his loyal archivist starved to death.  Three-quarters of a century later, many great families had not recovered; for example the poet Johan Gabriel Oxenstierna, who later rose to eminence under Gustav III, initially had to work as a clerk in the Riksdag.  On the other hand, the Swedish peasants benefited enormously. The number of free peasants doubled under Charles XI, and the threat of serfdom receded for ever.  Indeed the pattern of rural society was violently wrested back into traditional Swedish patterns during this period.


The aristocracy never forgave Charles XI.  It was said that when Stockholm castle burned in 1697, the only portion not to burn was reduktionsverket, because it was drenched in the tears of the victims of the reduktion.  The King had died shortly before, and during the fire his coffin was dumped on the table around which reduktionsverket had conducted most of its business; the high nobility thought it an appropriate resting-place.