Privy Council of Sweden

This article is about the historical Swedish cabinet of medieval origin abolished in 1809. For the present-day Swedish cabinet, see Government of Sweden.
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The Council of the Realm, or simply The Council (Swedish: Riksrådet: sometimes in Latin: Senatus Regni Sueciae) was a cabinet of medieval origin, consisting of magnates (Swedish: stormän) which advised, and at times co-ruled, with the King of Sweden.

During the reign of Magnus III between 1275 and 1290 the meetings of the council became a permanent institution having the offices of Steward (Swedish: Riksdrots), Constable (Swedish: Riksmarsk) and Chancellor (Swedish: Rikskansler). Particularly from the reign of King Gustav Vasa, with his efforts of creating a centralised State, the members of the Council (Swedish: Riksråd) gradually became more of courtiers and state officials rather than the semi-autonomous warlords they once were.

The 1634 Instrument of Government, Sweden's first written constitution in the modern sense, stipulated that the King must have a council, but he was free to choose whomever he might find suitable for the job, as long as they were of Swedish birth. At the introduction of absolutism, Charles XI had the equivalent organ named as Royal Council (Swedish: Kungligt råd). In the Age of Liberty, the medieval name was reused, but after the bloodless revolution of Gustav III, the old organ was practically abolished, and he established in its place the Council of State (Swedish: Statsrådet), a similar organ which circumvented the constitution in force.

The 1809 Instrument of Government, created a new Council of State, also known as the King in Council (Swedish: Konungen i Statsrådet) which became the constitutionally mandated cabinet where the King had to make all state decisions in the presence of cabinet ministers (Swedish: Statsråd). Throughout the 19th century and reaching its culmination with the enactment of the 1974 Instrument of Government, this new Council gradually transformed into an executive cabinet of ministers chaired by a Prime Minister that governs the Realm independently of a ceremonial monarch.

Modern Sweden

Following the change of policies upon the death of Gustav II Adolf in action at Lützen in 1632, the 1634 Instrument of Government written by Chancellor Axel Oxenstierna laid the foundation for the administration of modern Sweden. For instance, the roots of the present-day administrative subdivision into counties (Swedish: Län) is a legacy from this time.

From 1634, the council was headed by the five Great Officers of The Realm, each leading a branch of the state administration:

Parliamentarism vs. absolute monarchy

The councillors had the highest position in the kingdom after the royal family and were styled "the King's cousins". From around 1672, the year of the coming of age of Charles XI, the council was assembled less and less frequently and eventually the king ruled autocratically, using an ad hoc group of trusted relations and advisors to discuss a particular matter or group of matters. The Scanian War (1674–1679) gave the king the opportunity to establish - with the approval of the Estates - an absolute Monarchy along the lines of Renaissance Absolutism. Council, Parliament, local government, legal system, Church of Sweden, all were brought within the power of the King and his secretaries.

This was the culmination of a long power-struggle between the kings and the aristocracy. The first of the Riksdag Acts ratifying the change of system was a declaration that the king was not bound by the 1634 constitution, which no king or queen had ever consented to freely. The councillors were now titles Royal Councillors, being appointed and dismissed at the king's pleasure.

In 1713, the son and successor of Charles XI, Charles XII, issued a new working order for the Chancellery to enable him to conduct government from the battle-field, but his sudden death at the siege of Fredricshald in Norway in 1718 provided the opportunity for the parliament (Riksdag of the Estates) to write a new constitution in 1719 and 1721, that gave Sweden half a century of first renewed conciliatory, and then parliamentary government.

The first Estate, the nobility, dominated both the parliament and the council. The council now had 16 members and was chaired by the King. Each councillor had one vote, while the king, as chairman, had two. The council was the government of the country, but also the supreme judicial authority.

From 1738 the Estates could remove councillors to create a majority corresponding to that of the Estates, the Estates also appointing the President of the Chancellery (the prime minister), along party lines. The Freedom of the Press Act (1766) was also passed during this period.

This Age of Liberty lasted until the bloodless coup d'état of king Gustav III in 1772, which restored royal sovereignty under the guise of the 1634 Instrument of Government.

In 1789, by the Act of Union and Security (Swedish: Förenings- och Säkerhets Acten), an amendment charter to the constitution, the exclusive right of the nobility to high offices was abolished and the Estates of the Burghers and the Peasants also received these privileges - a step towards modern democracy. Aristocratic control of state organs ceased, as among other things the Privy Council was able to be abolished altogether by the Act, although the then councillors retained their titles for life. The council's judicial function devolved on the King's Supreme Court (Swedish: Konungens Högsta Domstol) composed of an equal number of noble and non-noble members. In the 1789 constitutional amendment Gustav III, having desired to abolish the constitutional power of the Council (a pesky limitation to royal rule of the executive branch, in his view), had instead received the right to determine the number of councillors. He decided to have zero of them, and appointed instead Councillors of State - a circumvention that enabled him to deny their constitutional prerogatives if need arose.

The loss of the Finnish War in 1809 prompted a military coup which removed Gustav IV Adolf, replacing the Gustavian era with a new dynasty and a new constitution restoring initiative to the Estates.

Developments in 1809 and beyond

On 6 June 1809, a new constitution was adopted, and while the King still appointed the members of the Council, one again called the Council of State, the legislative powers were once again shared with the Riksdag of the Estates.

The new Council had nine members; the leading members being the Minister of State for Justice (Swedish: Justitiestatsminister) and the Minister of State for Foreign Affairs (Swedish: Utrikesstatsminister. The departmental reform of 1840 created seven ministries headed by a minister, and in 1866 the four Estates were abolished and the new bicameral Riksdag was constituted.

In 1917, as the outcome of the 1914 Courtyard Crisis (Swedish: Borggårdskrisen), the parliamentary system was firmly established in Sweden, and the King could no longer independently appoint cabinet members without taking the will of the Riksdag into account.

List of Lords High Chancellor and Presidents of the Chancellery from the advent of Absolutism in 1680 to 1809

See also


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