THE SWEDISH ROYAL PLACAT OF 1666: 'THE FIRST ANTIQUITIES LEGISLATION IN THE WORLD'?

AuthorAdlercreutz, Thomas

In 1666 the Governing Council of Sweden, on behalf of the young King, Charles XI, enacted legislation, a 'Placaf, to protect cultural property within the kingdom. This has been hailed as "the first antiquities legislation in the world" (see website), but, as will be seen below, this is not in fact the case.

The entire text, in an attempt to translate it fully into modern English, is affixed as an appendix at the end of this text. The baroque language is difficult to follow in all its flowery intricacies, but here is a condensed reader's digest.

The young King: Charles XI, just eleven years old by a couple of days, and whose thoughts are expressed by his governors, is dismayed by the way in which cultural property is being manhandled. He refers to castles, fortresses and cairns, stones with runic inscriptions, tombs and other remains of the old kings and other nobles of Sweden and Gothia (part of today's Sweden). Such monuments should be treasured as objects which by themselves and by virtue of their creation ought to be saved from desecration and disrepute, to the immortal glory of ancestors and the realm. Therefore, he has decided to protect and manage them against unlawful treatment, by imposing a number of orders on his subjects: firstly, that no-one shall in any manner tear down or destroy remaining castles, houses, fortresses, strongholds or cairns, regardless of how small these remains may be, nor should standing stones or stones with runic inscriptions be ruined, but should be left untouched in their original location. The same applies to all big, amassed mounds of earth and burial sites, where many kings and other worthies have established their tombs and resting places. All such old monuments on land pertaining to king or crown, be it the king's or taxable property, are protected regardless of whether it is still that kind of property or has been in the past. Such property is taken into royal custody and trust. Members of the nobility are requested to care for antiquities in their lands of tenure as their honour would command. No-one, regardless of standing in society, is permitted to plunder or rob tombs of royals, princes or other nobles, which may be found in ruined or still standing churches or monasteries, much less to use them for own interment or in any way cause their old and rightful proprietors any infringement. All churches and monasteries and all their inventory, apparatus, decorations on walls and windows, paintings or any kind of mindfully created interior, as well as tombs and burial places inside churches or outside in churchyards, should be shown the care, peace and safety as befits their Christian customs, practice and exercise, so that conclusively all elements may serve as confirmation and remembrance of an historic deed, person, place or family, should carefully be respected. No permit should be given to waste or destroy even the slightest part thereof. And if anyone should contravene the placat, this person should suffer punishment in the same way as anyone who disobeys any other royal command, but should also be subjected to the king's disgrace. Any abuse, disorder or damage should be corrected, and restitution executed to former condition. The general stateholder in Stockholm, governors general, governors, provincial governors, stateholders, mayors and councils in the cities, provincial and town constables in the countryside should oversee this placat. The archbishop, bishops, superintendents, provosts and vicars should make the placat publicly known and also watch over the objects which may be found in their dioceses, deaneries and parishes and which are of the abovementioned kind. Everyone with knowledge of such objects, or who may possess old scripture, books, letters, coins or seals, should report to their vicars or constables, to facilitate communication. SHORT OBSERVATIONS AS TO CONTENT

We see that the legal technique of categorising protected objects is applied here. It is not only certain specified runic stones that should be spared, but all such stones. Some categories that today it would seem natural to protect, such as hidden archaeological remains indicating traces of settlements, trading posts, workplaces etc. are missing, but this list was compiled at the very dawn of archaeological science.

A further observation is that the call on the clergy to make the placat known publicly is explained by the fact that in those days the clergy was the only workable channel of communication with the people at large. Attendance at mass was almost obligatory and a part of each service was taken up with announcements from the pulpit of everything from family events such as births and christenings, banns and deaths to various messages from the rulers.

There are two questions as to content that also come to mind. What punishment--apart from royal disgrace--could be meted out? Is less expected of the nobility than of the lowlier classes? To these questions I have no clear answer. These two questions may have a connection.

The nobility clearly had a special relationship with the King, and a special status as the dominant landowners with tax concessions for providing man- and horsepower to the armed forces. But in Sweden there were also landowning farmers. They too wielded some political power as one of the four estates of Parliament (Riksens stander). The system of privileges for the nobility implied that the King would be more lenient with regard to transgressions on land that was exempt from tax. This is probably why the nobility is called on to do as "their honour would command". But there is also a message of punishment as "anyone who disobeys". The nature of that punishment was probably to have been found in the general code of the country--in its edition of 1608--but I have not investigated what particular provisions might have been applicable.

What effect could "royal disgrace" have had? This could well have been of great significance, depending on the culprit's dependence on King and government. For a military man or a courtier it meant loss of rank or office and accompanying salary though not all offices were salaried. Needless to say, loss of influence and status also followed. Therefore, nobles, clergy and the occasional farmer or merchant were the ones most sensitive to that form of royal dissatisfaction. Royal disgrace, however, was in most cases temporary.

THE IMMEDIATE BACKGROUND

The year 1666 was not momentous in Swedish history but 1660 was. Two years earlier the Peace Treaty of Roskilde had resulted in a territorial apogee. The Swedish realm now encompassed former Danish provinces all the way to the strait of Oresund, plus the Bornholm island, from Norway the province of Trondheim, Finland (which had been a part from the twelfth century) all through to Ladoga lake and the mouth of river Neva (the later site of St Petersburg), Estonia, Livonia (part of present day Latvia) and several provinces and cities in northern Germany. The expansion at the cost of Denmark-Norway had been achieved by the daring military expedition from Jutland across the frozen-over Danish straits under the personal command of King Charles X Gustavus, an adventure which nearly crashed the Danish realm. In 1660, however, the King's concluding effort to capture Copenhagen failed and Bornholm and Trondheim had to be restituted. Then the King died, at the age of 37. His waistline is reported to have measured two metres.

1660 marked a turning point. One hundred years earlier another King, Gustavus Vasa, had died after nearly 40 years of successfully resurrecting the Swedish State from many centuries of internal family feuds and wars with Denmark over succession. There were now two Scandinavian powers with defined borders, confirmed royal lineage and constantly at odds. Gustavus's grandson, Gustavus II Adolphus, entered the internal religious wars of the German-Roman empire, and when they finally ended in 1648, Sweden had gained the northern German provinces--in addition to much booty acquired during the many years of criss-crossing Swedish troops throughout central Europe. Though the Swedish war efforts had largely been financed by France--which had an old bone of contention with the German emperor--there was no question that Sweden had become one of the major power players on the European stage. But how could this continue? The population of Sweden including Finland has been estimated at 1.675 million in 1650. At around that time Germany had roughly 10 million inhabitants (having been decimated by 5 million since 1600), England and Wales had 4.5 million, France (in 1670), 18 million, and Russia 15 million. The only comparable neighbouring power, Denmark with Norway, had a population of approximately 1.25 million. (1)

Now, in 1660, with the King dead and no successor ready to step into his shoes, one can say that one key issue was how this large but very thinly populated kingdom could be able to maintain the tremendous effort of keeping territories, which many far more resourceful countries and their allies would dearly want to lay their hands on, particularly Denmark, and the emerging power Russia.

As is well known, Sweden's status as a major European power did not last long, but that is another story.

The years following 1660 became a period of relative tranquillity for the soon-to-end superpower. The undisputed successor, Charles XI, was only four years old at the time of death of his father, so governing passed to the hands of a regency government with Dowager Queen Hedvig Eleonora as its nominal head.

Chancellor of the Realm was Magnus Gabriel de la Gardie. By all standards he was a remarkable character in Swedish history. His grandfather, of unclear French origin, had joined Swedish armed forces in 1565 as a...

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