Wednesday 24 July 2013

Conspiracy, Coups and Crown Jewels: Louisa Ulrika of Prussia

Louisa Ulrika of Prussia (Berlin, Prussia, 24th July 1720 - Svartsjö, Sweden, 24th July 1782)

Louisa Ulrika by Alexander Roslin, 1775

Intrigue, ambition and political manoeuvring are staple ingredients in the heady world of dynastic politics and Louise Ulrika of Prussia, who died on this day in 1782, enjoyed more than her fair share of all three. From a marriage that even her own brother warned the groom against, she would rise to the heights of monarchy and try to bring about a revolution.

Born to Frederick William I of Prussia and Sophia Dorothea of Hanover, Louisa Ulrika was the younger sister of Frederick the Great. A sought after and eligible young woman, she married the Crown-Prince of Sweden, Adolf Frederick of Holstein-Gottorp, in 1744. The match was made against the express wishes of Frederick who thought his sister arrogant, overly-ambitious and a potentially dangerous influence on the Swedish monarchy. Perhaps that was true or perhaps Frederick thought that his other sister, Princess Anna Amalia of Prussia, would be a more pliant figure to achieve his own ends at court but whatever his reasons for speaking out, the marriage went ahead as planned.

With Sweden desperate for an heir, Louisa Ulrika was hugely popular with the people. Though her innate arrogance would eventually see her lose favour within the aristocracy, Louisa Ulrika formed strong alliances early on, especially with courtier Count Carl Gustaf Tessin. Tessin adored the new bride and made himself indispensable to her household, eventually serving as governor to her first child, the heir to the throne of Sweden. The Count's fortunes would change dramatically in 1751 when the newly crowned King found him on his knees at Louisa Ulrika's feet; outraged, Adolf Frederick removed Tessin from court and Louisa Ulrika did nothing to save the reputation of this perhaps too loyal follower.

At the time of her marriage Louisa Ulrika already held unshakable political opinions and was a firm believer in the system of absolute monarchy, something the Swedes did not subscribe to.  However, the intelligent Louisa Ulrika was also a strategist with one eye on the future and she drew loyalists to her until she eventually formed a political party of her own, the Hovpartiet (Court Party). Louisa Ulrika was not above using bribery to achieve her ends, all the time inspiring fierce affection in her followers.

The highly-cultured Louisa Ulrika championed the arts and sciences in Sweden, promoting and funding scientists in the country. As much as she made her cultural mark, the chance to stamp herself on the political landscape of her new nation would prove more elusive.

When she became queen in 1751 she realised the true limits of a Swedish constitution that rendered its monarchs as powerless figureheads, all policy decisions taken by parliament. Her personal ambitions were frequently frustrated by government and by 1756 she was ready to implement her plans, poised for revolution.

The plot had been gestating for years; indeed, half a decade earlier Louisa Ulrika substituted her coronation crown diamonds with glass in order to pawn the gemstones in Berlin and finance her coup d'état. With the followers of Hovpartiet behind her she would seize power once and for all, smashing the constitution and returning Sweden to the rule of an absolute monarchy. Never lacking in self-confidence, Louisa Ulrika's plans were initially frustrated when her own lady-in-waiting, Ulrika Strömfelt, informed parliament that the crown jewels had been tampered with. Even then fortune favoured the Queen as her husband fell ill and she was able to use his period of convalescence to retrieve the diamonds. All the time she continued to plot, arming her followers and developing a plan in which hired criminals would riot in the streets, causing widespread fear and chaos. The royalists, led by the King, would restore order and the monarchs would be swept to power on a tide of public adoration.

In the end it was alcohol and a loose tongue that caused the plot to falter as conspirator Ernst Angel drunkenly discussed the plans in the earshot of police. Arrested and interrogated, Angel gave up the conspirators and justice was swift and merciless as executions, flogging and exile followed. For the Queen the punishment was less painful but immensely humiliating. The proud Queen, who believed in the right of monarchy above all else, was forced her to write a letter of confession and regret. Louisa Ulrika did as she was commanded though said privately that her only true regret was that her revolution had failed. Her husband was put on notice by parliament that, should such a plot occur again, he would be removed from the throne.
Portrait of Count Carl Gustaf Tessin by Louis Tocqué
Portrait of Count Carl Gustaf Tessin by Louis Tocqué,  1741  

The ambitious Louisa Ulrika was not to be sidelined forever and her chance for redemption came with the Seven Years War, when Sweden faced Prussia across the battlefields. As the tide of war turned against Sweden in 1763, parliament found itself forced to ask Louisa Ulrika to negotiate with her brother, Frederick, King of Prussia. For a long time she refused, enjoying this new power over the government she so loathed but when she did intervene, her efforts were successful. All her outstanding debts were cancelled and the Queen was once again in a position to set about bribing members of the government to ensure the decisions of parliament went as she wished.

Her efforts were destined to fail once more and as King Frederick's reign entered its twilight, so too did her influence dim as her own followers drifted away to join her son, Crown Prince Gustav. In 1771 the King died and the following year the newly-crowned King Gustav III would succeed where she had failed, instigating a successful coup and restoring Sweden to an absolute monarchy. Enormously proud of his achievements, she was shocked and dismayed to find that Gustav intended to rule the country according to his own will himself and that her influence would not be needed. As he asserted his independence, Gustav actively went against her recommendations in matters of state and their relationship slowly and surely grew more vitriolic than ever before.

In 1777 our heroine was at the centre of yet more drama when she accused Gustav's wife, Sophia Magdalena, of philandering, claiming that the heir to the throne was the child of nobleman, Fredrik Munck. The scandal that followed was immense and embarrassing to the family as once again, Louisa Ulrika was forced to write yet another statement of regret and apology. The Queen Dowager was to remain estranged from Gustav until she was on her deathbed, when mother and son finally reconciled.

For Louisa Ulrika, luxury and privilege were no substitute for power; she lived a life of driving ambition fuelled by an unshakeable belief not only in monarchy but in her own abilities, ultimately  frustrated by hubris.

Read more about Louisa Ulrika's son, Charles XIII, here.

Life in the Georgian Court, true tales of 18th century royalty, is available at the links below.

Pen and Sword
Amazon UK
Amazon US
Book Depository (free worldwide shipping)


Unknown said...

What a story!!! What a woman!! Thank you,Madame.

Catherine Curzon said...

She was quite a character!

Mari Christian said...

What a very busy lady!

Catherine Curzon said...

Lots of schemes to scheme...

Julia Gasper said...

A brilliant article about an extraordinary woman whose political maneuvering was pretty outrageous.