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Charles XI of Sweden

Charles XI of Sweden

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Charles XI was king of Sweden from 1660 to 1697. Charles, along with Gustavus Adolphus, was one of Sweden's most important monarchs in the Seventeenth Century. Charles was the only son of Charles X and was born in November 1655. He was 4 when he was crowned king, so a regency existed until he was 18. Charles was educated under the guidance of the Queen Mother. His education had an outdoor bias and not an academic one.

The reign of Charles is characterised by the overthrow of the high nobility and the establishment of bureaucratic absolutism.

His reign is divided into two periods; the Regency from 1660 to 1672 and the Personal Rule from 1672 to 1697.

The Regency: the regency was lead by Count Magnus de la Gardie, the king's uncle. The high nobility persuaded the Diet to set aside the will of Charles X. They then took advantage of de la Gardie's incompetence to advance themselves.

The regents adopted a foreign policy that switched from supporting Louis XIV of France or his enemies. The logic behind this approach was to gain money from whatever source so they could to invest in Sweden's army. However, such an approach did little to enhance Sweden's reputation in Europe even if though the Swedes knew that France needed an ally in the Baltic states.

At home, the regents ended the policy of resumption - to their own great benefit. The crown was better off during this time as a result of revenue from foreign subsidies, but this dependence of foreign money soon backfired.

In April 1668, Sweden joined the anti-French Triple Alliance with Holland and Britain. In 1672, Sweden allied with France who was about to embark on the French-Dutch War. The regency had no intention of keeping to her military commitments but they were forced to do so by Louis XIV who pressurised Sweden into attacking Brandenburg. In 1675, the Swedes were defeated at the Battle of Fehrbellin which resulted in Sweden being driven out of Swedish Pomerania - a vital link to mainland Europe.

Denmark took this moment of Swedish military weakness to overrun Holstein-Gottorp and then to launch an invasion of Sweden itself - the Scanian War of 1675 to 1679. The general incompetence of de a Gardie was clear to see. Under Gustavus, Sweden had been the leading power in the Baltic. Less than fifty years later, Sweden was invaded by Denmark.

The Personal Rule: Charles came of age in December 1672 but his time of personal rule did not start until 1674. Charles used the Scanian War to his own advantage. With Sweden at war, Charles decided that the country needed firm leadership. He dispensed with the nobles and assumed full authority himself. By doing this, he was playing the patriot's card - if the nobles objected to what Charles was doing, then they could not have Sweden's best interests at heart. If they agreed, as they did, to his sole rule, then they were playing into his hands.

Charles defeated the Danes at Lund in December 1676 and then set about making peace with Denmark. Louis XIV pressurised Brandenburg to return what had been Swedish Pomerania to Sweden in an effort to court stronger ties with a country now lead by a king rather than a group of noblemen. However, Charles was more interested in a policy of neutrality when it came to foreign affairs. If he wanted to be an absolute monarch in his own country, then foreign involvements were likely to be an unwanted distraction. For the rest of his reign, Charles was all but neutral when foreign affairs were concerned.

Charles was more concerned with his own power in Sweden. During the Scanian War, he had assumed what was effectively dictatorial power. He now had no intention of giving it up when Sweden was not involved in a war. The main target for Charles was the high nobility. They had acquired much land, power and wealth since the times of Gustavus. Such power threatened his status as king.

Charles was a very hard working man and lead a life of self-denial. This was in stark contrast to the high nobility who lead a life that copied Louis XIV at Versailles Palace. They openly flaunted their wealth at a time when Charles was seen as living a pious and, by the standards of a monarch, meager lifestyle.

Charles took on the nobles by allying himself to the lesser classes - the lower nobility, the clergy, the burghers and the peasants. The logic was simple. There were a lot more people in the lesser classes than there were high nobles. Charles could count on huge popular support if he took on the high nobles. With this support, Charles made legal and constitutional changes in four major areas: land, government, the army and bureaucracy.

With regards to land, Charles resumed the policy of resumption (reduktion) whereby former royal land sold cheaply to the nobles to raise revenue was restored to the crown. Charles X had put a limit of 25% on reclaimed land but Charles extended it. A Great Commission was established to get the senior nobility to hand over their ex-crown land. When Charles was crowned in 1660, the monarchy owned just 1% of all land in Sweden. By his death in 1697, the crown owned 30% of land. The income from this land had two important effects; i) it freed Charles from having to rely on foreign subsidies which might have threatened his policy of independence when foreign affairs were concerned and ii) it financed more reforms at home.

With regards to government, the Rad had lost a great deal of its traditional power during the lead up to the Scanian War and the successful conclusion of it by Charles. Those responsible for these failings which culminated in the invasion of Sweden by Denmark, were the high nobles. Charles came out of the war with absolute power - which, by its very nature, had to severely undermine the authority of the Rad.

In 1680, the Riksrag (which represented the lesser classes in Sweden's government) declared that Charles was no longer bound by the decisions of the Rad. In 1682, the Council of State was re-named the King's Council. This move was deliberate - it was the king's council thus emphasising his supremacy over it. In 1693, the king was declared to be “by God, Nature and the Crown's high hereditary right… .an absolute sovereign king” by the Riksdag.

The army was reformed onto an allotment system - the so-called indelningsverket. This was a conscript citizen army paid for by being given farms from land that had been returned to the king as a result of resumption. “It became the best trained and equipped force ever to leave Sweden” (E N Williams) It was most notable for the speed with which it could be mobilised and its ability o get to a war zone quickly.

Government bureaucracy was reformed and modernised by the crown. In 1680, the Table of Ranks was introduced. This made promotion dependent on service and merit rather than birth. Though the civil service was dominated by the nobility, it became progressively more open to commoners. Pay was regular and the king took a close interest in its activities. When Charles XII was absent for 15 years due to the Great Northern War, the civil service adequately ran Sweden.

Charles XI was a very able king and he did a great deal to modernise Sweden. He kept the nation out of foreign entanglements and he dedicated his life to Sweden itself endearing him to the four lower classes in Sweden - if not to the high nobility.

Charles died suddenly of stomach cancer in April 1697 aged just 41 years of age.