Not until about 980, however, are we sure
about the names of kings. After that date we
have over one thousand years during which we
can follow the monarchy in Sweden
comprising over fifty kings.
The oldest, historically reliable information about the monarchy in Sweden is the narrative about the Svear kingdom which stems from the 9th century and is to be found in the Ansgar Legend depicting the travels of the Christian missionary, Ansgar, to the Svear trading centre, Birka.
In the early Middle Ages, the power of the King was limited and largely confined to his function as the commander in war. The real political power was long vested in the “lawmen” in the various provinces, which still in the 13th century were largely independent units. However, central power was strengthened with the help of the Church. One expression of this was the introduction of laws for the whole realm during the latter part of the 13th century and of Magnus Eriksson's National Law Code which in 1350 replaced the laws of the provinces.
Not until about 980, however, are we sure about the names of kings. After that date we have over one thousand years during which we can follow the monarchy in Sweden comprising over fifty kings.
The Code of Kings in the National Law Code can be said to be Sweden's first Constitution, and contains provisions on how the King is to be elected and on his and his Council's tasks and powers.
Sweden had an elected monarchy throughout the Middle Ages. The nobles, who during the 14th and 15th centuries developed into a veritable counsellor aristocracy, gained great political power as a result of the influence they exerted over the election of kings. Sweden was on the way to becoming a feudal state. However, before this trend had got as far as in the rest of Europe, it was broken by the efforts of the kings to strengthen central power with the help of the burghers and the landowning farmers. In the 15th century this led to the establishment of a Riksdag (Parliament) consisting of representatives of the four estates: nobility, clergy, burghers and landowning farmers. During the reign of Gustav Vasa, 1521–1560, the monarchy definitely gained the upper hand with the result that kingship became hereditary. This was the time of the Reformation, when the King made himself head of the Swedish Church, and the administration of the country was greatly centralized, following the German pattern.
As in most other European countries, the 16th and 17th centuries in Sweden were characterized by the emergence of an increasingly efficient and centralized administration. Sweden's standing in military and foreign affairs was also radically changed after it intervened in the Thirty Years' War during the reign of Gustav II Adolf (Gustavus Adolphus), 1611–1632. As a result of its military successes Sweden became a great power and the leading state in northern Europe. Although the Council of the Realm exerted great influence at the time—such as during the minorities of Queen Kristina and Karl XI—the King's power became increasingly absolute and from 1680 the King was by the grace of God the all-powerful ruler.
One important feature of the period was the 1634 Constitution, which was a charter of administration used by the Council of the Realm to defend the powers still vested in it. However, none of the succeeding reigning monarchs, such as Queen Kristina, 1644–1654, Karl X Gustav, 1654–1660, or Karl XI, 1672–1697, considered themselves bound by this Constitution and at the 1680 session of the Riksdag it was formally annulled and royal absolutism was established. The Council of the Realm was replaced by a King's Council entirely subordinate to him.
The Age of Freedom
The misfortunes and reverses of the Great Northern War, 1700–1721, and the death of Karl XII in 1718 led to a violent reaction against the royal absolutism which during the reigns of Karl XI and Karl XII had developed into veritable dictatorship. The demands for a new form of government found expression in the 1720 Constitution. This reduced the power of the King to only two votes in the Council, whose leading member, the President of the Chancery, became the real head of government. The Council was in turn responsible to the Riksdag and during the so- called Age of Freedom, 1720–1772, the form of government developed along parliamentary lines, i.e. the Council represented the majority in the Riksdag and its composition changed in accordance with the composition of that majority. At the same time, and partly on account of economic developments, the standing of the commoners was strengthened. When antagonisms within the Riksdag developed into a conflict between nobles and commoners, Gustav III, 1771–1792, with the support of most of the aristocracy seized power by means of a coup d'état in 1772.
During the Gustavian period, 1772–1809, the power of the King was further strengthened. Gustav III's and Gustav IV Adolf's strong opposition to the French Revolution and all its underlying ideas of the division of power, constitutionalism and democracy brought them into conflict with large sections of both the nobility and the civil servants in Sweden. This led to the murder of Gustav III in 1792, the result of a conspiracy of a group of nobles who were fanatically opposed to the King's autocratic rule. The defeat in the war against Russia, 1808–1809, when Finland was lost, led to a coup d'état which resulted in Gustav IV Adolf being deposed and the adoption of a new Constitution. The monarchy in the 1809 Constitution The Constitution of 1809, which was in force right up until 1975 and then was the second oldest Constitution in the world after the United States', was formulated in accordance with Montesquieu's theory of the separation of powers, taking into account constitutional developments in Sweden. The King was to be the sole ruler of the realm, but had at his side a Council of Ministers, who must countersign, i.e. approve, all decisions. Legislative power was divided equally between the King and the Riksdag, while the Riksdag alone could levy taxes.
The first Bernadotte
After the coup d'état of 1809, when Gustav IV Adolf was deposed, his uncle, Duke Karl, was made King with the title Karl XIII. As Karl XIII was old and childless, a successor to the throne had to be found. First, the Danish prince, Karl August of Augustenborg, was chosen, but as he died shortly after his arrival in Sweden, the French marshal, Jean Baptiste Bernadotte, was chosen to be the successor to the Swedish throne in the summer of 1810 and then assumed the name of Karl Johan. One of the reasons for this choice was a wish for alliance with France and Napoleon in the hope of gaining the latter's support for winning Finland back. After his arrival in Sweden, Crown Prince Karl Johan became in reality Regent of the Realm. In 1812, he initiated quite a different policy, joined the coalition against Napoleon and in the Kiel peace treaty won Norway from Denmark and after a short campaign forced Norway to enter into a union with Sweden in 1814. This union was not dissolved until 1905.
Karl Johan's arrival in Sweden was also the beginning of a new era in domestic policy. The interpretation of the 1809 Constitution and the practices developing within its framework very much bore the imprint of the King's personal ideas and wishes throughout his reign, 1818– 1844.
Karl Johan himself had the French Revolution to thank for his career. Without that he—not being a nobleman—would never have risen higher than a non-commissioned officer. In spite of his background and career, Karl Johan found it difficult right from the start to tolerate the restrictions placed upon his power by the Swedish Constitution. Even when he was Crown Prince, he was at cross-purposes with the more independent members of the Council.
When he became King after the death of Karl XIII in 1818, Karl XIV Johan increasingly chose his ministers from among loyal bureaucrats, who carried out his orders without demur. As time passed, he became more and more autocratic. The former revolutionary turned into somewhat of an old-style absolute monarch.
Towards parliamentarism and democracy
With the breakthrough of liberalism in the middle of the 19th century, the struggle started concerning the power exerted by the King himself. From the day Crown Prince Karl took over government in 1857 until the final capitulation of Gustaf V in the face of demands for parliamentarism and democracy in 1918, the struggle for royal power was the main theme of the history of Swedish kings.
In spite of the strengthened status of the ministers, resulting from the ministerial reform of 1840 which meant that the ministers became the heads of their own ministries, they had mainly been servants of the King during the reign of Oskar I, 1844–1859. He selected them and they were politically dependent upon him. The Council still played a subordinate role in the exercise of power. There was no cabinet in the real sense of the word during the reign of Oskar I.
The situation changed during the time Karl XV was on the throne, 1859–1872. Right from the beginning of his reign, the Council acted as an entity and on many occasions played a decisive role in Swedish politics. For example, in such vital questions as relations with Norway during 1858–1860, assistance to Denmark in the war with Germany in 1864 and as regards the reform of the representative system in 1866, it was the Council and the Riksdag—not the King—who shaped Sweden's politics and in critical situations made the final decisions.
In contrast, Oskar II sought during his reign, 1872—1907, to take a much more active role in leading developments than had his brother and predecessor. On his own initiative he made contact with leading politicians and tried to influence them in private talks. Also in his relations with the Council he tried to assert the right of the King to bring his opinions to bear on political decisions.
But Oskar II had little success in his efforts to assert the personal power of the King. This was mainly due to the fact that after the reform of 1866, which meant the abolition of the old Estates Riksdag and the introduction of a bicameral assembly, the Riksdag became increasingly powerful and supported the Council vis-à-vis the King.
The limitation of franchise and the electoral qualifications laid down in the 1866 Riksdag Act meant that whereas the First Chamber was the forum for estate-owners, higher civil servants, and the wealthy merchants and industrialists of the towns, the self-owning farmers were in the majority in the Second Chamber.
The demands made by the First Chamber for rearmament and the expansion of the civil service were not compatible with the stringent thrift and anti-subsidy policies of the Second Chamber combined with its emphatic demands that land taxes should be written off. Political life deteriorated into a trench war between the two chambers of the Riksdag. Initiatives taken by the King, most of which leant towards conservatism and mainly concerned rearmament and the improvement of civil servant salaries, were frustrated by the opposition of the Second Chamber. Not until the 1890's was a compromise found, whereby it was possible to solve the questions of land taxes and the defence. The man behind this policy, however, was no longer the King but his Prime Minister. Power had slipped out of the hands of the aging King.
King Oskar had finally given up the struggle for the personal power of the monarchy. The final battle, however, was not fought until later—during the reign of his successor, Gustaf V.
When Gustaf V became King in 1907 he refrained from being crowned. He thus became the first uncrowned King on the Swedish throne. But this gesture was hardly meant as a sign of a more democratic attitude. It was rather more a reaction to Oskar II's delight in ceremonies of all kinds and was an expression of the discomfort suffered by the more reserved Gustaf when having to take part in spectacles of this kind.
On the other hand, he was quite prepared to fight for the status of the King as such. The first ten years of Gustaf V's reign were marked by his efforts to assert the personal power of the monarchy. The conflict reached its peak in the “Courtyard Speech” of 1914.
The case in point was a matter of Sweden's defence, and the King demanded an immediate decision on the strengthening of the armed forces, whereas the Liberal government, which had come into power partly on a promise of disarmament, only wanted to advance step by step. In support of the King's views as regards the armed forces, the “Farmers' Rally” was organized in February 1914 when more than 30,000 farmers from all parts of the country assembled in the courtyard of the Royal Palace in Stockholm.
But it was not the Farmers' Rally as such which gave rise to the intense political crisis resulting in a change of government, the dissolution of the Riksdag and a new general election. The cause was the King's speech to the farmers, in which he concurred in the farmers' demands for an immediate strengthening of the armed forces.
The Courtyard Speech was an attempt to use extra-parliamentary means for imposing the personal will of the King as regards the defence issue with no reference to the lawful government of the country. The cause of the conflict was no longer only the question of defence. Now it was also—and primarily—a question of whether it was the King in person or the government led by the Prime Minister who was to govern the country.
Seen from today's vantage point, in the light of the generally accepted interpretation of the Constitution for many decades, King Gustaf had exceeded his authority when, without the advice and consent of the government, he made his statements in the Courtyard Speech. But in all fairness we must remember that then, before the First World War, Sweden's Constitution was not construed as it is today. The phrase in the Constitution saying that “the King alone shall govern the realm” was far from being a dead letter in 1914.
In his speech to the farmers in the Palace courtyard, Gustaf V pleaded with vigour and no little skill the cause of the personal power of the King. But the struggle for royal power was nevertheless doomed to failure. The future belonged to democracy and parliamentarism.
King Gustaf's action could easily have led to an even greater defeat. Demands for his abdication and for a republic were already in the air. But Gustaf V was saved by the very issue on which he had built his action— defence. As far as the situation in Europe was concerned, he had been more clearsighted than the leading politicians. In June 1914 came the assassination in Sarajevo. In August the First World War broke out. Sweden mobilized and the defence issue was solved in the spirit of unity.
The personal power of the monarchy, however, had had its day.
The 1917 election was won by the parties to the left, i.e. Liberals and Social Democrats, and Gustaf V had once again to accept a Liberal government, this time in co-operation with the Social Democrats, who for the first time gained seats in a government. As far as the King was concerned, it was not without hesitation he admitted to the government representatives of a party which had the establishment of a republic on its programme.
Parliamentarism had thus won its final victory; the Riksdag, and not the King, has since then decided what government Sweden is to have. After the end of the First World War, a number of amendments were made to the Constitution which further weakened the position of the King and which together denote the definite breakthrough of democracy.
The democratic monarchy
Despite his defeat in the struggle for the personal power of the King, Gustaf V won the affection of his people during his long reign, 1907–1950. During the Second World War he symbolized the unity of the nation. This means that the monarchy was rooted in the personal popularity of the King.
Gustaf VI Adolf strictly observed the rules which had emerged for a constitutional monarchy during his reign, 1950–1973. His personal qualities were in tune with developments and perhaps more than any other of the admittedly few contemporary monarchs he helped to create a new type of kingship—a democratic monarchy.
Practically throughout the reign of Gustaf VI Adolf work was being done on a new Constitution, one which in 1975 replaced the 1809 Constitution. During the period the constitutional reform was being prepared, Gustaf VI Adolf probably meant more than anyone else for the perpetuation of the monarchy in Sweden.
There were several reasons why, despite the demands for a republic, he succeeded in creating a practically unanimous public opinion in favour of the preservation of the monarchy. The main reason was the King's personal qualities.
One factor which undoubtedly played a major role in this context was Gustaf VI Adolf's wide-ranging learning and interests in fields quite outside his own “vocation”. Among archeologists, his was a respected name.
Another side of the King's personality which greatly contributed towards his popularity was his informal and natural approach to people. He purposely avoided ceremonial and pomp.
Gustaf VI Adolf's great contribution to Sweden's history was that during his reign he succeeded in transforming the monarchy in step with and along the lines of the Swedish society of today, and thereby created the conditions necessary for the perpetuation of the Swedish monarchy with a member of the House of Bernadotte on the throne.
The monarchy in the 1975 Constitution The provisions of the 1809 Constitution regulating the duties of the King opened with the words: “The King alone shall govern the realm”—and this right was limited only by the obligation to seek the advice of a Council which he had himself appointed.
However, long before the introduction of the new Constitution in 1975 Sweden's development into a parliamentary and democratic state had made a dead letter of the King's right “alone to govern the realm”.
The 1975 Constitution opens with the words: “All public power in Sweden emanates from the people”, and accordingly places all political power in the hands of the Riksdag and the government.
According to the new Constitution the King's duties are as follows:
The King enjoys immunity under penal law, i.e. he cannot be subject to prosecution for his actions, but civil law claims can be made against the King before a court of law. The King must submit returns of his private income and property and pay taxes in the same way as all other Swedish citizens.
Allowances for the Royal Household and for the fulfillment of the King's duties are decided annually by the Riksdag. Members of the Royal Family are entitled to vote but following established practice refrain from exercising this right.
New Act of Succession
According to the Act of Succession which in 1980 superseded that of 1810, succession to the throne of Sweden is fully cognatic. This means that the eldest child of the King and Queen is heir to the throne, regardless of sex. Accordingly, the Crown Princess Victoria, born on 14 July 1977, is heir to the Swedish throne.
Carl XVI Gustaf
With Carl XVI Gustaf's accession to the throne in 1973, Sweden had a King who was no less than two generations younger than his predecessor. When the 27-year-old Carl Gustaf—the youngest of the Bernadotte monarchs—ascended the throne he took as his motto “For Sweden—in Keeping With the Times”.
Carl XVI Gustaf was born on 30 April 1946, the youngest child and only son of the Hereditary Prince Gustaf Adolf and Princess Sibylla of Sachsen-Coburg-Gotha. The Prince and Princess already had four daughters, three of whom were to marry commoners. As Prince Gustaf Adolf was killed in an air crash in 1947, his son was already Sweden's Crown Prince when his grandfather Gustaf VI Adolf acceded to the throne in 1950. His mother, Princess Sibylla, died in 1972.
The Crown Prince Carl Gustaf was educated at a boarding school at Sigtuna, not far from Stockholm, and passed his university entrance examination in 1966.
After that the Crown Prince fulfilled his military service which meant two and a half years of training in the army, navy and air force. He concentrated mainly on his naval training and has since then kept his great interest in life at sea.
After his military training, the Crown Prince pursued a specially designed one-year educational programme including a number of courses in history, sociology, political science, fiscal law and economics at the University of Uppsala. Later the Crown Prince continued studying national economy at the University of Stockholm.
In order to give the Crown Prince a thorough and diversified knowledge of how Sweden is governed and functions, as well as an insight into how Swedes of today live, a training programme for his future position as Head of State was composed for him. He made study visits to state and local government agencies and administrations, to industries, factories, laboratories and schools. He studied law courts, social welfare institutions, trade unions and employer associations. Special emphasis was placed on the work of the government, the Riksdag and the Foreign Ministry.
He also gained experience of the international political scene by studying the activity of Sweden's Permanent Mission to the United Nations in New York, by studies of the work of the Swedish International Development Authority in Africa, and by spending some time at Hambro's Bank in London and at the Swedish Embassy and Chamber of Commerce in that city.
After having acceded to the throne, Carl XVI Gustaf has continued to keep himself well informed of developments in the various sectors of Swedish society, by visiting authorities, organizations and institutions. Of great importance in this context are the official tours of every province and county in Sweden, a royal custom called “Eriksgata” dating back to the Middle Ages.
Ever since his boyhood days as an active member of the Boy Scouts, the King has been keenly interested in nature and outdoor life. In 1977 he became honorary president of the World Scout Foundation. He very early took a strong and outspoken position in favour of protecting the environment, and is president of the Swedish organization for the World Wide Fund for Nature.
The King enjoys boating, scuba diving, downhill and cross-country skiing and has participated a couple of times in the 90-km Vasa Race, Sweden's famous annual cross- country skiing competition.
In 1976, Carl XVI Gustaf married Silvia Renate Sommerlath, thus making her Queen of Sweden. Queen Silvia was born in Heidelberg on 23 December 1943, daughter of the West German business man, Walther Sommerlath and his Brazilian wife, Alice, née de Toledo. Sweden's queen-to-be lived for many years in São Paulo where her father represented a Swedish company. After the Sommerlath family had returned from Brazil to the Federal Republic of Germany, Miss Sommerlath attended the Munich School of Interpreting and in 1969 graduated as Spanish interpreter. In 1971, she was appointed Chief Hostess in the Organization Committee for the Olympic Games in Munich in 1972. It was while working as Olympic Games Hostess that Miss Sommerlath got to know the then heir to the Swedish throne. They became engaged on 12 March 1976, and on 19 June the same year the marriage ceremony took place in Storkyrkan, the Stockholm Cathedral. The King and Queen are members of the Lutheran State Church of Sweden.
Queen Silvia is actively working for the disabled and is chairperson of the Royal Wedding Fund which supports research in sports and games for disabled youth.
The King and Queen have three children: Crown Princess Victoria, born 14 July 1977, Prince Carl Philip, born 13 May 1979, and Princess Madeleine, born 10 June 1982. The children attend regular Swedish schools. The family lived in the Royal Palace in Stockholm until 1981, when they moved to Drottningholm Palace, in a park-like setting on the outskirts of the City.
Authors: Jörgen Weibull, Carl-Fredrik Palmstierna, Björn Tarras Wahlberg
This fact sheet is part of SI’s information service. It can be used as background information on condition that the source is acknowledged.
The table of the Bernadotte Dynasty and photos of the Royal Family in the printed version are not included in the Internet edition.
Printed in Sweden, September 1995
Classification: FS 108 a Kc
Fact Sheets on Sweden