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Gustaf Mauritz Armfelt


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Gustaf Mauritz Armfelt - Finnish statesman and cosmopolitan

Ulf Fagerlund

Count Gustaf Mauritz Armfelt was one of the most remarkable men that Finland has fostered. His life had been subject to changes, which sometimes brought him to exile and the threat of death and sometimes to the pinnacle of honor and influence. He had been a favourite of and had given counsel to two illustrious and outstanding rulers, Sweden’s Gustaf III and Russia’s Alexander I. Historians have described him as a giant in Finland’s history and a man who more than most influenced the future development of his native land.

Gustaf Mauritz Armfelt was born on March 31, 1757 in a second lieutenants service quarters in the parish of Marttila, near Åbo. His father was captain Magnus Wilhelm Armfelt, who later became the governor of the county of Åbo. His mother was Maria Katarina Wennerstedt. From his father Gustaf inherited the famous stately soldier body, bravery and restless nature and from his mother his sensitive and emotional nature. After schooling at home and a few years at Åbo Akademi Armfelt entered the military. On the way he was aided by his mentor Jacob Magnus Sprengtporten, who in 1774 arranged for him a second lieutenant position in Stockholm. There the youngster rapidly advanced in ranks and soon gained access to the upper circles in Stockholm, and ultimately to the court, where he became acquainted with the king, Gustaf III. His unruly nature landed the young soldier into adventures that forced him to leave Stockholm, and for two years he served military duty in foreign countries. During his travels he befriended the king, who took him to Stockholm. Through his personal characteristics, his genius, social graces, adventuresomness and physical strength Armfelt gained the kings admiration and favor, although his former excesses had caused the kings displeasure. At the court he was in 1781 given the position of companion to the young crown princes. He became a member of the Swedish Academy and was appointed Director of the royal theatres in which capacity he helped the king arrange merry theatre events. He developed an affection for and loyalty to the king, which he held to the death of the king and even carried over to his descendants.

For nearly a year in 1783-1784 Armfelt accompanied the king in travels to Italy and France and he became acquainted with several European courts. He was then 26 years old. The king’s purpose for the journey was to involve himself in central European politics, but perhaps the experiences of the journey were more important in their effect on the arts scene in Sweden. In the following years there appeared a sharp turn, especially in architecture, towards Greek new classicism, which the king and Armfelt personally had acquainted themselves with in Italy. For Finland’s part a stylistically pure example of this trend is the circular church in Tavastehus.

In 1785 Armfelt married Hedvig Ulrika De la Gardie, who was a lady-in-waiting in Gustaf III’s court. They had five sons and one daughter. Hedvig was Armfelt’s guardian angel who faithfully stood by him and to whom he always returned. He retained his devotion to her, although he had liaisons with many women he met, the longest one with Magdalena Rudenschöld, another lady-in-waiting at the court. These liaisons should be seen in the light of the moral attitudes of the upper echelons of society during this era. To the picture should be added that he was a devoted family father who had deep concerns for the wellbeing of his children.

During the latter part of the 1780’s the king acted to diminish the influence of the nobility and the diet, which culminated in that the diet in 1789 signed a new law, the Act of Union and Security, which increased the power of the monarch. Armfelt was not involved in these activities, but when the king went to war against Russia in 1788 Armfelt took part in the war. He faithfully supported the king against Finnish and Swedish officers – the Anjala League - who had conspired to capture and imprison the king. Before the league could put their plan into action the king received word that Denmark had declared war on Sweden and he hastily returned home to prepare for the war. Gradually the plans of the League ran into the sand. Leading the Swedish forces on the Norwegian front Armfelt became the Commander-in-chief. In 1790 Armfelt successfully fought in Finland showing ingenuity and bravery and was raised to the rank of General. He was one of the signatories of the peace treaty of Värälä in the same year.

Disillusionment with King Gustaf within the nobility resulted in the formation of a secret association with the purpose to murder the king. On February 16th 1792 the king was shot by captain J. J. Ankarström during a masquerade ball and he died 13 days later. The affairs of the state were taken over by a guardian administration under a regent, Duke Karl, because Gustaf III’s son, Gustaf Adolf was too young to ascend to the throne. Armfelt was not in Karl’s favor and he lost the position as major of Stockholm, which Gustaf III had promised him on his deathbed. Instead, Armfelt was sent in 1792 as ambassador to Italy, which obviously was a demotion and deeply embittered him. Armfelt’s displeasure with the new administration was known and Duke Karl’s favorite, Baron K. A. Reuterholm, to whom the duke left most decisions and who was Armfelts enemy, had his spies follow Armfelt through Europe. While there, Armfelt conspired to overthrow the regime in Sweden with the help of Catherine II of Russia and with the consent of the crown prince Gustaf Adolf. Words of these activities reached Sweden. The “Three Gustavians” Armfelt, J. A. Ehrenström and J. A. Aminoff together with Armfelt’s lover, Magdalena Rudenschöld, were sentenced in 1794 to death and Armfelt’s possessions in Sweden were confiscated. However, with the help of his friends he was able to flee to Russia.

In 1799 the crown prince became head of state under the name of Gustaf IV Adolf. A year later Armfelt was pardoned and was allowed to return to Sweden. In 1802 he was made ambassador to Vienna, where he stayed two years. After returning home he became the commander of the Swedish forces in Pomerania, where Prussia and Sweden together fought Napoleon’s army. He was successful in driving the French out of that Swedish territory in 1807. However, in later engagements his forces were defeated and he was called home in disfavor.

In accordance with a secret agreement between Czar Alexander I and Napoleon made in Tilsit, Alexander in February 1808 moved his troops against Finland in order to capture the country. King Gustaf Adolf did not concern himself with arming his forces in Finland until the summer and only later made some unsuccessful attempts to help the Finnish troops, who had been left to their own devices. The Finns found it impossible to withstand the Russian advances. In the resulting peace treaty of Fredrikshamn, signed in 1809 Finland was seceded to Russia.

When the war in Finland started Armfelt was offered the position of Commander-in-Chief of the Finnish forces, but ultimately he ended up leading the Swedish forces on the Norwegian border facing the Danish army. This operation did not go well because it was poorly administered by the government in Stockholm.

In the revolution of 1809 Gustaf IV Adolf was deposed. Armfelt knew about the plans, but didn’t take part in them. As a “Gustavian” he would have liked to save the crown for Gustaf Adolf’s son. Instead, Duke Karl was chosen to be king under the name of Karl XIII. Being of advanced age Karl left many of the affairs of the state in the hands of the new crown prince, selected by the diet in 1810. The crown prince, a former French general, who’s original name was Jean Baptiste Bernadotte, took the name Karl XIV Johan.

After the revolution the relations between the new regime and Armfelt became strained. When Finland was seceded Armfelt harboured plans to move to Finland. To that end he traveled there in 1810 but returned to Sweden the same year. That year he swore allegiance to Alexander I in the offices of the Russian envoy in Stockholm. He also went to St. Petersburg to personally present to the Czar his views regarding the organization of the Finnish government. In 1811 he finally moved to Finland and settled in for a private life together with his wife at his estate Åminne in Halikko in the county of Åbo, but he soon was called to St. Petersburg. There he received Alexander’s complete trust and moved into a position of influence in the Czar’s inner circle. The same year he was made a count and a general in the Russian army.

Towards the end of 1811 a committee for Finland’s affairs was established in St. Petersburg and Armfelt became its first chairman. In this position his personality and talent allowed him to greatly advocate in Finland’s favor. He gained his greatest achievement in this regard by working for the unification of “Old Finland”, those parts of Finland that had been lost to Russia in the wars of 1721 and 1743, with the rest of the country. Partly through Armfelts influence Alexander established Finland as an autonomous Grand Duchy. The Czar, who was liberally minded at this stage of his rule, saw Finland - with its society built on the basis of western principles and laws - as an example for the future development of the Russian society. Two of the central concepts the two men embraced were the end of serfdom and the circumscribing of the powerful Russian landlords in Karelia. In 1812 Armfelt together with the councilor of state G. A. Rosenkampff, who also was a member of the committee for Finland’s affairs, drafted a proposal for the elimination of serfdom in all of Russia. These ideas Alexander had to abandon when he became occupied with the war against Napoleon. Armfelt in 1812 took part in the war at the Czar’s side, but only for a short time because his health was deteriorating. The same year the two traveled to Åbo and carried out negotiations with the crown prince Karl Johan. These resulted in an alliance between Sweden and Russia directed against France. Sweden finally acknowledged the transfer of Finland to the Russian crown. Russia in return pledged to help Sweden acquire Norway, which still belonged to Denmark. The agreement conformed with Armfelts geopolitical theory, advanced already during Gustaf III’s time, according to which Finland’s security depended on peace between Sweden and Russia.

During Gustav III’s time Armfelt was for a while the chancellor of Åbo Akademi. In 1811 he again was appointed chancellor. By electing Armfelt the leadership at the Akademi hoped, through him, to gain the Czar’s favor. In fact, Armfelt energetically worked to put in effect the expense budget, which had been doubled in 1811, and he achieved a decision to continue the stalled construction of the Akademi’s main building and gave directives regarding the finishing of the building and its contents.

One of the last large changes Armfelt worked for before his death was that of raising Helsingfors to the status of capital of Finland. He had never been at ease with what he perceived to be narrow-mindedness of the inhabitants of Åbo. The Czar proclaimed in 1812 that Finland’s government and central administration were to be moved from Åbo to Helsingfors as soon as suitable housing for these functions were constructed. However these offices did not begin their function until 1819. Armfelt died in Tsarskoe Selo near St. Petersburg in 1814 at the age of 56 and his body was brought to Halikko church to be buried.

Armfelt’s fluctuating life contained drama, victories, defeats, sickness and countless human relationships to statesmen as well as to lovable women. He seemed to be able to emerge from the darkest adversities because of remarkable realism, stoical discipline, formidable energy and humor, while at the same time 0showing consideration for others. He was an officer through his formal upbringing, but he was also a gifted writer and artist and a sharp observer of all aspects of life.

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