1717 and the invasion that never was
300 years ago, ambassadors at the Swedish Foreign Ministry attempted to foment an invasion plan and embark a force for the British Isles, in support of the Jacobite Pretender’s claim to the throne.
In 1716, after James Francis Stuart had left Scotland, the Swedish envoys in London and Paris, Carl Gyllenborg and Count Sparre, plotted with Jacobite agents to secretly loan money to Charles XII (last of the Vasa kings in Sweden) in exchange for Sweden’s help in a new Jacobite enterprise against the Hanoverian King George I. In Britain, as intercepted Jacobite correspondence testifies, rumours circulated that James, commonly referred to as the Old Pretender, had been offered money and 12,000 Swedish soldiers by France.
Britain’s interests were far larger than those of Hanover. British statesmen and diplomats sought world trade domination and colonial expansion, while Hanover mostly sought the acquisition of Swedish territories in north Germany. The electorate of Hanover itself, moreover, had been an anti-Swedish ally of both Russia (under Peter the Great) and Denmark-Norway during the Great Northern War.
While Swedish diplomatic designs were initially anti-Hanoverian (rather than pro-Jacobite), Ambassador Gyllenborg kept in touch with crypto-Jacobite MPs in London in a Machiavellian attempt to reverse the fortunes of Sweden as a declining maritime power. Gyllenborg was an able and respectful diplomat, having done his best to foster the help of any MP sympathetic to the Swedish cause, or merchant who feared Russian rivalry in the ‘Eastland’ carrying trade; he also appealed to public opinion by pamphleteering.
As ministerial representative of the Swedish legation, Gyllenborg had earlier married the politically active Tory, Sarah Wright. As a known Jacobite sympathiser, Wright used her wealthy connections to attempt a coup on behalf of the exiled Stuart claimant. A project to assassinate King George’s Cabinet and kidnap the royal family was directed by Lord Oxford, then in the Tower awaiting impeachment. Other High Tories implicated in the plot included Francis Atterbury, Bishop of Rochester, whom the Pretender made his chief representative in England, and Lord Bathurst, who alone contributed £1,000 (over £80,000 today) to the invasion fund.
Speculation began in the autumn of 1716 when overtures were made by Gyllenborg, promising a force of 10,000 Swedes. Hanover had one of the most advanced intelligence services and the British were fully aware of these Jacobite agitations. The government of George I seized the moment to intervene.
Before the northern question –the balance of power in the Baltic region – could be brought to Westminster, Gyllenborg was arrested in London on 29 January 1717 by George Wade. 1 Following the protests of the ambassadors of Spain and Holstein, George I’s chief ministers the Earl of Sunderland and Lord Stanhope made public incriminating documents during the trial. Count Görtz (Gyllenborg’s superior at The Hague) was at the same time arrested in Gelderland, on a charge of undermining the Protestant succession. The fact that the United Provinces as well as Britain were at least by treaty allies of Sweden (even though Hanover was at war with Sweden), made these events sensational.
The government, disregarding international law, seized Gyllenborg’s papers. They were laid before Parliament, showing that English Jacobites had undertaken to raise upwards of £20,000 to be sent abroad. A fleet under Sir George Byng was dispatched to the Baltic (see SP 35/8/83), following an embargo placed on trade with Sweden.
British ministers authorised these actions to prevent the flagrant breach of the (1701) Act of Settlement by directly involving Britain in a war on behalf of Hanover’s interests. The whole affair would become a quest to safeguard the Anglican Church from the Catholic House of Stuart, which was seen to be supported by Lutheran Sweden (who in turn had been traditionally financed by France). Meanwhile Swedish privateers menaced British mercantile shipping on the high seas, and were consequently very often manned by British or Irish Jacobite crew members.
The publishing of these diplomatic secret documents was positively explosive, considering that the usual practice of the times was to ask for a ministerial recall, and generally excluded the confiscation of state papers. The bellicose Charles, though outraged, told the French Regent (Philippe of Orléans, who was mediating the crisis) that at no time did he have any intention of offending Great Britain. He had in reality sent Görtz to Holland to seek Jacobite monetary aid. Moreover, such shadowy figures as (the financier and freemason) Emanuel Swedenborg, would also engage the services of the (largely English) Jacobite pirates of Madagascar on behalf of the Swedish crown (see SP 42/17/9).
By 1717 rumours had contributed to a sense of crisis. In February, it was reported from Rotterdam that there was a danger of the Jacobites invading Scotland from Sweden (a report based on Danish intelligence under the formidable Commodore Tordenskjold at Stavern).
In the spring, it was also reported that Sweden was mustering a force of 12,000 troops at Gothenburg (see SP 42/16/65) that was to land at Bridlington Bay. The government was determined to use the Gyllenborg affair in order to secure a definitive parliamentary commitment to support George I’s anti-Swedish policy.
The Whig politician Robert Molesworth, even claimed that, ‘there’s not a Jacobite schoolboy or poor tradesman’s wife…who has not been instructed how conveniently Norway lies to Scotland, and how much of it was in their master’s interests that the brave King of Sweden should succeed in his undertakings.’ 2
Since the arrested diplomats were eventually exchanged, Gyllenborg and the implicated Navy Board Secretary Jacob Bancks, were ironically both awarded financial settlements by Parliament. George I for his part, hoped that these acts of courtesy would prevent a separate peace between the northern rulers, and a Stuart alliance with the Russian Empire.
Although Charles XII was to be killed (at Fredrikshald in 1718), the Jacobites, as ever, did not become disillusioned and continued plotting, this time by turning to the support of Bourbon Spain.
The ‘Swedish’ invasion was at best an illusionary scare (a ‘splendidly convenient’ excuse by the Hanoverians to wage war against the non-sovereign House of Stuart). However, much might have been made of this opportunity, save the strength of the Anglo-Danish alliance and the untimely death of Charles in his Norwegian siege lines aged 36.