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Artillery personnel
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The Great Northern War
Sunday, 20 August 2017
Princes from Chile: part 1
Topic: Miscellaneous

When I some twenty years ago was researching the naval officer Gustaf von Psilander (1669-1738) and his encounter with Rear Admiral William Whetstone's squadron in late July 1704, I came upon a rather peculiar item. As far as I remember it was like this: a man claiming to represent a number of Chilean princes made contact with the Swedish envoy in the Netherlands. According to this man two heavily loaded ships would be sent from Chile to Europe, preferably to a Swedish port. In return for the valuable cargo the princes wanted to buy guns and ammunition. 

This proposal went quite far (as I recall it). A brief discussion in the Council and longer discussions in the College of Commerce and the Chancery, where the conclusion was that it would be risky to accept because of possible hostile reaction from other European powers, most notably Spain. 

The story seems quite far-fetched. The Spanish never fully subjugated the Mapuche, so it is entirely possible that the latter would have been interested in acquiring weapons from some friendly European power. But how would they have found suitable ships and crews and manage to pull off such a major undertaking? A reasonable explanation would seem to be that they had to go through an intermediary, possibly a European merchant/smuggler who was not afraid to risk men and ships in order to make a profit by selling to a European power not directly involved in the War of the Spanish succession.  

During a recent visit to Riksarkivet I decided to see if I could find the story once more. I had a pretty good idea of where to look, but I was not sure if it happened in 1704 or later. But I did find it again and (if I remember correctly) even one additional item, which gave more information about the man who handed over the proposal. 

So next week: the proposal and the identity of the intermediary. 

Posted by bengt_nilsson at 12:01 AM MEST
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Sunday, 13 August 2017
An old debt
Topic: Factoids

It was recently suggested in a Facebook discussion I happened to see that the city of Danzig (Gdansk) still owed money for a loan made by Karl Knutsson Bonde in 1447. This is incorrect, but the story is rather fascinating. 

In the 17th and early 18th century the Gyllenstierna family considered themselves to be the closest relatives to Karl Knutsson. In 1704, as the GNW increased the demands on the Swedish economy, the matter was apparently brought to the attention of Charles XII. He viewed it as an opportunity and brought pressure on Danzig. Eventually the city agreed to pay a very considerale sum. The King made an agreement with the Gyllenstierna family that the money would be used for the war effort, but returned after the war.  

When the war eventually ended in 1721 the state was very heavily in debt and the Gyllenstierna famili did not receive any money. They came back with new pleas in 1731 and 1740, but to no avail. In 1766 the issue was again brought to the attention of the authorities, but in the end the claims failed again. It was brought up again in the early 19th century, but no decision had been made when Gustav IV Adolph was overthrown in 1809. So the family came back yet again in 1823, after some more of the relevant documents had been found. 

A parliamentary committee investigated the matter and came (unsurprisingly) to the conclusion that the family was not entitled to any money. The claims had come too late, it was not entirely clear that the Swedish state had borrowed the money (perhaps it was Charles XII personally) and perhaps the money had been repaid before 1709 but all relevant documents lost after Poltava?

The Gyllenstierna family made another attempt in 1834, but it went nowhere. 

Some of the conclusions made in 1823 seem ridiculous. How could it possibly have been a loan made to the King personally? And how could they possibly suggest that the money had been repaid some time between 1705 and 1709? The fact that the debt was too old (it had initially been decided that war debts would have to be claimed within 20 years) was more relevant, but the family had tried both in 1731 and 1740. 

So Danzig has no outstanding debt to pay (and it was of course rather peculiar that a loan from 1447 would become an issue more than 250 years later). But the Swedish army was powerful negotiating tool in 1704...


Herlitz, Nils, Från Thorn till Altranstädt (1916)

Saarinen, Hannes, Bürgerstadt und absoluter Kriegsherr (1996)
Statsutskottets betänkande 1823, nr 456 (Bihang till samtlige Riks-ståndens protocoll...4. saml., 4 bandet)


Posted by bengt_nilsson at 8:05 PM MEST
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Sunday, 6 August 2017
Magnus Stenbock
Topic: Factoids

It has frequently been claimed that Charles XII never forgave Magnus Stenbock for the surrender in 1713 and took his revenge by letting his old favorite remain a prisoner of war in Denmark. The evidence is slim. Not only did Charles XII on 12 August 1713 order the Council to prepare a new transport to Germany. Stenbock would be in command (the King assumed that the prisoners had been released in accordance with the agreement made when the army surrendered).

An even clearer evidence is a letter from Casten Feif to Stenbock, dated Demotika 24 July 1714. Feif assures the Field Marshal that he should not worry, the King continued to hold him in high regard. Stenbock should not, Charles had told Feif, listen to rumours who were intended to annoy him but rather take care of his health so that the King once more would have the joy of seeing his old friend as happy and amusing as he used to be.


Riksarkivet, Ericsbergsarkivet, Autografsamlingen, vol.  69.

Posted by bengt_nilsson at 7:12 PM MEST
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Sunday, 30 July 2017
Vellingk, Oxenstierna and Maydell
Topic: Battles

The large autograph collection in the Ericsberg archive (preserved in Riksarkivet) contains a tremendous amount of valuable material concerning the GNW. The basis for the collection is in this regard the personal records of the Chancery President Bengt Oxenstierna (1623-1702) and his son-in-law Magnus Stenbock. The autograph collection consists of more than 300 large volumes and is divided into four parts. The Swedish royal autographs part naturally contains a large collection of letters from Charles XII, but these are rather well known. More rarely used are letters from Swedish officers and officials, particularly those who were not in the King's immediate circle.

One example is an undated letter from Otto Vellingk, apparently written in May 1700 and addressed to Bengt Oxenstierna. It deals with both political and military matters. It was originally accompanied by a letter to Vellingk from Major General Georg Johan Maydell, who together with Major General Johan Ribbing commanded the advance guard of the relief army sent towards Riga. Vellingk acknowledges the receipt of a letter from Oxenstierna, dated 24 April, in which the Chancery President apparently had written about "secret" and "reliable" warnings about more enemies than the Saxons and the Danes. Oxenstierna appears to have suggested that King Augustus would be discouraged from further expanding his war against Sweden because the Emperor had ordered several regiments in Bohemia and Moravia to march towards the Saxon border. Vellingk believed, he wrote, that this was very likely as their was no signs of any Russian support for the Saxons. The Swedish representative in Moscow Thomas Kniper had, Vellingk continued, also received written assurances from Golovin that the Czar was about to send an envoy to Sweden and then a large embassy. Golovin had stated that he would be a member of this embassy and had asked Kniper to inform the Swedish authorities of this so that a ship could be ready at Narva. This, Vellingk concluded, indicated that the Czar did not have any hostile intentions. There was also a shortage of money in Russia, forcing the Czar to mint copper coins worth a lot less than the existing ones. The Czar was still in Voronezh, where he was most upset with his Dutch Admiral Cruys because the latter had not been able to put to sea. 

Vellingk had started to raise two new regiments in Ingria. One consisting of 600 dragoons and another of 1,000 foot. He had also ordered the nobility to make preparations for mobilization. 

There was no indication of the Polish Republic being inclined to join King Augustus and reports from Riga were encouraging. The Saxons had been driven off and forced to back to the other side of the Düna.

Vellingk enclosed a report from Maydell, dated 7 May, which nowadays is in another volume: Colonel Klingspor had been sent ahead with 600 men and orders to stop the Saxon marauders. On 26 April Klingspor had encountered 200 Saxons at Wenden. Maydell had on 4 May driven off more Saxons. Later he had come upon 300 Saxon dragoons and 500 Cossacks. He had ordered Klingspor to move around the enemy force and strike it from behind, but as soon as the latter appeared they fled. Many of them were caught by the Finns and killed. After these three defeats the enemy had been struck with such fear that he had abandoned a fortification at Neuermühlen,thrown 36 guns into the river, retreated back across the Düna and burnt the bridge. The mood in Riga was ecstatic, Maydell wrote. 


Riksarkivet, Ericsbergsarkivets autografsamling, Vol. 39 and 232

Posted by bengt_nilsson at 9:34 PM MEST
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Sunday, 23 July 2017
Axel Sparre
Topic: Generals

Axel Sparre (1652-1728) was, despite the considerable age difference, one of Charles XII's favorite officers. At some point in the first years of the war Sparre sent the King a rather peculiar bill.

The King had, Sparre wrote, on 14 March 1701 promised him that he would be killed in the next battle. If he was not, the King would pay Sparre 1,000 ducats. Because of the Saxons poor shooting Axel Sparre was still alive so he wanted the 1,000. The King had furthermore on the 24th thrown away a cushion belonging to Sparre, worth 20 ducats. On 23 May the King had made an effort to wound Sparre in the leg with one of his spurs. This was particularly expensive: 200 for the illegal wound, 100 for the pain, 100 for the surgeon and 200 for forcing Sparre to travel on a simple peasant's wagon in front of his regiment and then having to limp during the battle after the crossing of the Düna. 

Another couple of items and the entire bill was for 1,650 ducats. The document does not indicate a payment, but it's well-known that the King was quite generous. In an article in Karolinska Förbundets årsbok 1968 Sven Grauers list some expenses during the first years of the war: 148 thalers in silver to three Polish women whose houses had burnt down by accident, 67 thalers to a Polish nobleman whose oxen had been taken by the Swedes, 630 thalers to Swedish and Saxon wounded after the battle of Kliszow etc. 

Source: Riksarkivet, Ericsbergsarkivet,  Vol. 196

Posted by bengt_nilsson at 5:37 PM MEST
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Sunday, 16 July 2017
Topic: Literature

In 2005 the Swedish novelist Ernst Brunner published a most peculiar book called Carolus Rex. Was it a novel or was it a biography? In many appearances the author insisted that it was a true version, even the ultimate true story of the life of Charles XII. In some cases he went as far as claiming that nobody knew more about the subject than he did and that he had used "secret, personal sources" which were unknown to everybody else. 

Many reviewers appeared to be overwhelmed by the sheer size of the book (more than 800 pages) and the enormous amount of details, names etc., assuming that this meant that Brunner actually had carried out extensive research. Others simply did not listen when Brunner claimed that the book was the truth and went on to review it as a work of fiction.

Since no one else seemed inclined to really analyze Carolus Rex, I took it upon myself to try and determine what Brunner's sources were and if the book could be considered to be the "truth". I rapidly found that Carolus Rex heavily dependent on Anders Fryxell's Berättelser ur svenska historien, published in the 1850's (Fryxell was used heavily by both Strindberg and Heidenstam). In many cases Brunner had simply borrowed paragraphs directly from Fryxell in a way which could be described as plagiarism. 

The author was made aware of my findings and was not too pleased, even going as far as on occasion claiming that the only ones who did not approve of his book were extremists. This tended to make him somewhat of a martyr for the truth. Many years later he revisited the controversy around Carolus Rex in an autobiographical work called Där går han. In this Brunner makes some absolutely fantastic claims, such as writing that his visit to Lund on 30 November 2005 was disrupted by nazis marching in the street carrying banners with swastikas and saluting. He also stated that the head librarian of a major Swedish university library had called him in the middle of the night to discuss certain things Brunner had said on TV. 

Very well, Brunner has subsequently published a book on Anckarström, the man who assassinated Gustav III in 1792. This was however supposed to be a biography and Brunner listed sources, something he had not done in 2005. The only problem was that there were no footnotes, so it was absolutely impossible to check his statements. The list of unpublished sources was even more odd. It simply said "Uppsala University Library, Royal Library" etc. No references to specific manuscripts - just the name of the archive or the library. 

A couple of months ago Ernst Brunner struck again, this time with a book on Swedenborg (some 750 pages). Same type of list of unpublished sources, no footnotes - but according to the publisher "the first biography which starts with Swedenborg, the man" and according to the author the first biography which is objective.

Since Swedenborg was born in 1688 it's inevitable that Charles XII turns up here and there, so I have done some checking. Is the size of the book and the myriad of details really proof of Brunner's expertise (as some reviewers have implied)?

Well, on page 151 Brunner explains the calendars used in 1710. He claims that Sweden used the Julian and Britain the Gregorian. This is of course quite wrong. Britain did not switch until 1752 and Sweden in 1753. In 1710 Sweden used the peculiar Swedish calendar and Britain the Julian.  

On pages 128 and 149 Brunner explains the monetary system. He writes that a student had received a scholarship worth 500 thalers in silver and that this was the equivalent of 1500 Reichsthaler. This is obviously also incorrect. The student had received 1500 thalers in copper, which was roughly 500 thalers in silver and slightly more than 200 Reichsthaler. So the "expert" does not know the calendars and not the exchange rates. But how about Charles XII?

On page 96 Brunner describes how Charles XII learned of the Saxon attack on Riga: on 14 April 1700 Charles left Stockholm to go to Kungsör. There he amused himself with bear hunting and parties. Swedenborg's father Jesper Svedberg turns up and is unhappy. Surely someone can make the King stop? Well, Svedberg takes over mass on Sunday and starts to preach on the subject. Suddenly the church door is thrown open and a messenger from Riga rushes in. The Saxons have attacked!

This is of course utter nonsense. The news reached Stockholm at the beginning of March and Kungsör a couple of days later. The King's journey on 14 April went to Karlskrona, where he wanted to oversee the naval preparations. 

And Brunner still cuts and pastes. For example on page 337 there is a very odd paragraph: "Assessor Swedenborg hade mottagit ett brev från baron Conrad Ribbing, guvernör över Närke och Värmlands gruvdistrikt, i vilket Dylta svavelbruk ingick". What's this? A Swede would not use "guvernör" but "landshövding" and certainly not "gruvdistrikt" - Ribbing was "landshövding över Närke och Värmlands län", pure and simple. 

Well, the explanation can be found in The Letters and Memorials of Emanuel Swedenborg. Alfred Acton writes (vol. 1, page 338): "Accordingly, early in June, Swedenborg received a letter (now lost) from Baron Conrad Ribbing, the Governor of the Nerike and Vermland mining district, within which was situated the highly important sulphur works at Dylta".

Brunner has simply translated Acton's sentence, without adapting it to Swedish. Does this indicate a profound knowledge and extremely deep research? I think not...

Posted by bengt_nilsson at 1:16 PM MEST
Updated: Sunday, 16 July 2017 1:20 PM MEST
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Sunday, 25 June 2017
Topic: Miscellaneous
Updates will be a bit sporadic during the coming weeks....

Posted by bengt_nilsson at 7:59 PM MEST
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Monday, 19 June 2017
A Holstein surprise?
Topic: Diplomacy
In his dissertation” Karl XII och hans rådgivare” (1960), Gustaf Jonasson describes the circumstances surrounding the decision to send Swedish troops into Holstein in 1699. According to Jonasson it was made by Charles XII in mid-July without consulting his foreign policy advisors and was a result of the influence of the Duke of Holstein, who had arrived in Sweden at the beginning of the month. The King’s orders were dated 15 July, but Jonasson claims that the Chancery did not find out until 1 August. On that date Thomas Polus, Bengt Oxenstierna and Nils Gyldenstolpe held a meeting to discuss what the King had told them the same morning.

If Jonasson’s account is to be believed the logical conclusion seems to be that the Duke had convinced the King during the journey from Ystad to Stockholm and the two of them had then managed to keep the matter completely secret for more than two weeks. This seems rather unlikely. Thomas Polus had at the very least been in Ystad just before the Duke arrived and in an undated letter to Bengt Oxenstierna he writes: “The Duke will likely upon his arrival try to persuade the King to act vigorously”. Polus found this most disconcerting and adventurous.   

So perhaps Polus wasn’t aware of the decision when it was made, but he certainly seems to have feared it would come. Had Polus managed to postpone it until the King came back to Stockholm or was he just pretending to be uninformed as late as 1 August?

Source: Riksarkivet, Ericsbergsarkivet, Autografsamlingen

Posted by bengt_nilsson at 8:14 PM MEST
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Sunday, 11 June 2017
28 January 1701
Topic: Miscellaneous

On 28 January 1701 Major General Magnus Stenbock, never one to let an opportunity for showing off his skills pass by, organized a celebration in the King's headquaters at Lais. It was the King's name day, but the event should more be looked at as a celebration of the recent Narva victory. 

According to a contemporary description it started with a hunt and then a dinner. After dinner Stenbock had organized amusements. First a man entered and after him two local musicians with bagpipes. After them came ten beautiful girls, dressed according to local custom. Every girl carried a lamp and after greeting the King and his guests they put these lamps on the walls. The first one had the King's name, the fourth showed a lion who chased two eagles, the fifth a Lion who opened a mouse trap and released all the captive mice, the sixth a lion who rested upon the arms of Denmark, Poland and Russia. On the lamps seven to ten were poetic verses. Then a disguised Stenbock appeared and sang a mass (or an opera) along with several other officers (also in disguise).

Posted by bengt_nilsson at 6:50 PM MEST
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Sunday, 4 June 2017
Never had such a strong army
Topic: Factoids

Modern historians frequently tend to view the battle of Poltava as the beginning of a dramatic change in European history, i.e. the event which broke the back of the Swedish empire and signalled the rise of Russia. 

This was not necessarily how the battle later was perceived by the surviving Swedes. Per Adlerfelt (1680-1743), in 1709 a captain in the Life Guards, was in 1739 a Councillor of the Realm and a supporter of the plans to send troops to Finland for the purpose of putting pressure on the Russian government. On 31 August he wrote to Carl Gustaf Tessin, stating that 6,000 men were about to be transferred to Finland. These were under the command of Major General Buddenbrock and Colonels Didron, Pahlen, Silfversparre and Wrangel (all veterans of the GNW and a couple also participants in the campaign of 1708-1709).

When these reinforcements arrived in Finland, Aderfelt wrote, the army would number 20,000. This would make it stronger than any army Charles XII had commanded in battle against the Russians. As God had always used to help the Swedes this would hopefully continue.

The decision had been kept very secret, so if everything worked out the arrival of this force in Finland would make a profound impression in Saint Petersburg. The Russian envoy had not been in Stockholm on the day the orders went out. He had not discovered anything until three days later. The envoy had been profoundly stunned and not sent his first report until the next day. There was great enthusiasm among the officers and the soldiers, Adlerfelt ended his report.

Source: Riksarkivet, Ericsbergsarkivets autografsamling, Vol. 2 

Posted by bengt_nilsson at 5:54 PM MEST
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