Monday, 8 March 2010

New books: Monarchy in the Age of Liberty

“The Age of Liberty” is the name accorded in Swedish history to the period between the death of Carl XII in 1718 and Gustaf III’s first coup d’état in 1772. After the misfortunes brought on the country be the absolute monarch Carl XII, his sister Ulrika Eleonora was elected monarch in 1719 under a new constitution whereby the King was left virtually powerless.
This epoch is the topic of the historian Jonas Nordin’s interesting book Frihetstidens monarki – Konungamakt och offentlighet i 1700-talets Sverige (“Monarchy in the Age of Liberty: Royal Power and Public Life in Eighteenth-Century Sweden”), which was published by Atlantis at the end of 2009.
As the author states, this is “a book about an institution, not about individuals”, i.e. a book on the monarchy and not on the monarchs. Nordin asks what the function of the monarchy was when the King had none and argues that the ideas behind the concept of monarchy are most easily studied in an era when the monarchy was at its weakest.
Nordin stresses that although the King’s powers were taken from him, one never considered abolishing the monarchy. He points out that only the Constitution of 1809 stated explicitly that Sweden was a monarchy, which he sees as a sign that until then this was a given fact.
It is interesting to note that Nordin stresses how rarely a Swedish king on his death had been succeeded by an adult son. This is something which is often overlooked in Sweden and which paints a picture of a monarchy which was not particularly stable (in fact one may say that it was only the advent of the Bernadottes in 1810 which brought dynastic stability to the Sweden). Nordin also makes some interesting comparisons with the Danish monarchy, which was at the time absolute and where son followed father in an unbroken line.
Under the Constitutions of 1719 and 1720, the King of Sweden merely presided over the Council of the Realm, which held the political initiative together with the four estates. One of the best-remembered aspects of the monarchy in this epoch is that the Council had a royal signature stamp to use in place of the monarch’s signature. It is correct that this was occasionally used against the will of the King, but Nordin points out that it was actually introduced to ease the King’s burdens so that he did not have to sign every single document. The signature of the King, Nordin argues, was the only guarantee of governmental impartiality and therefore in reality, although not theoretically, indispensable.
The symbolic meaning of the monarchy was greatly enhanced, and Jonas Nordin shows how some of the most lavish royal rituals in Swedish history took place at a time when the monarchy held no real power. This might perhaps be interpreted as an empty spectacle covering up the fact that the King was not actually the one who ruled the country, but Nordin shows how the notion that the King was the ruler was maintained throughout the Age of Liberty, for instance in the public decrees that were read from church pulpits. On the other hand the newspapers, which showed an increasing interest in the doings of the royal family, gave a more nuanced picture.
An interesting part of the book is the chapter dedicated to the visual representation of the royals. While paintings and sculptures were generally available only to the great and the good, woodprints, and to a certain degree coins, were the portraits which most of the population had access to. Often these held so little resemblance to the actual persons, or old prints were simply “recycled” with altered inscriptions to represent other people, that it seems fair to say that they portrayed the attributes of monarchy, or “royalty” in general, rather than the royal individuals themselves.
One of the most difficult things about history is to find out what were the views of the general populace, as these are generally not well documented. Nordin has however found an original and interesting solution – he has studied the court records of all the 250 cases of lèse-majesté in the Age of Liberty. Thereby he has reached the conclusion that people seem to have been well informed of the fact that the actual power lay not with the King, but with the Council and the Four Estates, yet they accorded the monarchy a high degree of legitimacy and tended to blame injustice on the Council rather than on the King.
Jonas Nordin concludes that despite the constitutionally imposed limits, the King was “the country’s most powerful politician” and someone whom the political system’s legitimacy was dependent on.
The author, who is a researcher at the Royal Library in Stockholm, takes a very scholarly approach to his topic. His prose is analytical as the same time as it avoids being dull. But this is not a book for starters – the “framework” of historical events in this epoch is mostly left out, meaning that the reader will need to have at least some knowledge of the basic facts of Swedish history at the time. Jonas Nordin’s book is an interesting and valuable addition not only to the history of the Swedish monarchy, but also to the understanding of it.

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