The Vision of Charles XI

The Vision of Charles XI
Translated by Corry Cropper, 2005.

There are more things in heav’n and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
–Shakespeare, Hamlet

We make fun of visions and supernatural apparitions; some of them, however, are so well documented that, if we refuse to believe in them, we would be obligated, in order to be consistent, to reject en masse all historical testimony.

A legally completed affidavit bearing signatures of four reliable witnesses guarantees the authenticity of the fact that I am going to relate. I will add that the prediction contained in this affidavit was known and spoken of long before the recent events, that seem to fulfill it, took place.

Charles XI, famed father of Charles XII, was one of the most despotic monarchs, but one of the wisest in the history of Sweden. He restricted the monstrous privileges of the nobility, abolished the power of the senate and imposed his own authority as law; in a word, he changed the country’s constitution: from an oligarchy, he forced the states to grant him absolute authority. He was an enlightened man for his time, courageous, very attached to the religion of Martin Luther, with an inflexible, cold, calculating personality, entirely devoid of imagination.

He had just lost his wife, Ulrique Eleonore. Although his harsh treatment of this princess, according to some, quickened her demise, he held her in high esteem and appeared more affected by her death than would have been expected for a heart as hard as his. After this event, he became more and more somber and taciturn and he devoted himself so entirely to his work that it was clear he was attempting to avoid painful thoughts.

Late one autumn evening, he was seated, wearing a bathrobe and slippers, in front of a large fire in his study at the Stockholm palace. Next to him were his chamberlain, count Brahé, that he honored with his favors, and doctor Baumgarten, who, it should be known, had a very sharp wit and felt that everything should be subject to doubt, except medicine, of course. This evening he had been brought to examine the king for some unspecified ailment.

The evening progressed and the king, contrary to his custom, did not make them feel that it was time to withdraw. His head bowed and his eyes staring at the coals, he remained in a profound silence, annoyed by his company but, without knowing why, fearing solitude. Count Brahé noticed that his presence was not entirely appreciated and he had already made it known that His Majesty may need rest: a gesture from the king made him stay in his place. For his part, the doctor talked of the negative effects of late nights on one’s health. But Charles answered under his breath: “Stay. I am still not ready to sleep.”

The two men tried various topics of conversation but each subject died out after two or three sentences. It seemed obvious that His Majesty was in one of his dark moods and, in such a circumstance, the position of a courtier is delicate at best. Count Brahé, suspecting that the sadness of the king stemmed from the loss of his wife, looked for some time at the portrait of the queen hanging in the study, then sighed: “That portrait is so lifelike! It captures an expression that is both majestic and mild!…”

“Bah!” the king brusquely replied. He took it as a criticism each time the name of the queen was uttered in his presence. “This portrait is too flattering! The queen was ugly.” Then, angry with himself for his harsh words, he rose and walked around the room in an effort to hide an emotion that embarrassed him. He stopped by the window that opened onto the courtyard. The night was dark and the moon not even a quarter full.

The palace where the kings of Sweden live today was not yet completed and Charles XI, who began building it, was still living in the old palace situated at the tip of Ritterholm overlooking Lake Moeler. It is a large building in the form of a horseshoe. The king’s study was at the end of one of the wings and more or less straight across from the large hall where the estates met to receive information from the throne.

The windows of the hall, in this moment, looked brilliantly lit from the inside. This seemed strange to the king. He assumed at first that the light was coming from a servant’s torch. But what would he be doing at this hour in a hall that had been locked for so long. Moreover, the light was too bright for a single torch. It could have been light from a fire; but there was no smoke, the windows weren’t broken, there was no noise; instead, everything indicated that the hall’s torches had been lit.

Charles looked at these windows for some time without speaking. In the meantime, count Brahé reached to ring for a page that could go find the cause of this strange light; but the king stopped him. “I want to go to the hall and see for myself,” he said. As he said this, the others saw him turn pale and his face showed a sort of religious terror. Nevertheless, he set out confidently; the chamberlain and the doctor followed, each one carrying a lighted candle.

The concierge, who had the keys, was fast asleep. Baumgarten went to wake him and ordered him, on behalf of the king, to immediately open the hall of the estates. He was extremely surprised by such an unexpected order; he dressed quickly and joined the king with his ring of keys. He first opened the door to a gallery that served as an antechamber to the estates’ hall. The king entered; but stopped short when he saw that the wall draped entirely in black!

“Who gave the order to have this room draped in black?” he asked angrily.

“Sire, no one to my knowledge,” replied the concierge, somewhat troubled. “And the last time I swept the gallery it was panelled with oak like it always has been. These drapes certainly are not from Your Majesty’s palace.” And the king, walking quickly, crossed two thirds of the gallery. The count and the concierge followed closely behind; doctor Baumgarten was a little farther back, torn between fear of being left alone and fear of being exposed to the end of an adventure that had begun so mysteriously.

“Do not go any farther, sire!” the concierge cried out. “Upon my soul, there is sorcery afoot. At this hour… and since the death of the queen, your gracious spouse…, they say that she walks in this gallery. May God protect us!”

“Stop, sire!” the count cried out at the same time. “Don’t you hear the sound coming from the hall? Who knows what dangers Your Majesty might encounter!”

“Sire,” Baumgarten added as his candle was blown out by a draft, “at least allow me to call for twenty or so of your guards”

“Let’s go in,” said the king with resolve as he stopped in frot of the door to the great hall. “And you, concierge, open this door quickly.” He kicked it with his foot and the noise, echoing through the gallery, boomed like a cannon blast.

The concierge was shaking so violently that the key clattered against the door but he could not manage to fit it in the keyhole. “An old soldier trembling!” Charles said, shrugging his shoulders. “Come on, count, open this door for us.”

“Sire,” the count replied, taking a step back, “if Your Majesty order me to march in front of a Danish or German cannon, I would obey without hesitation; but now you are asking me to defy hell itself.”

The king tore the key from the hands of the concierge. “I see,” he said with disgust, “that this is my business alone;” and before the others could stop him he had opened the thick oak door and entered the great hall, declaring, “By the grace of God.” The three others, driven by a burning curiosity that was stronger than their fear, and perhaps ashamed to abandon their king, entered with him.

The great hall was lit by an infinite number of torches. A black drape had replaced the antique tapestry and its human characters. Hanging from the walls, as usual, were German, Danish and Muscovite flags, trophies brought back by the soldiers of Gustave-Adolphe. In the center there were Swedish banners, covered with black ribbons in sign of mourning.

An immense assembly filled the benches. The four orders of the Estate (1) were seated according to their rank. Everyone wore black and this multitude of human visages, which seemed luminescent against the dark background, so struck their eyes that the four witnesses of this extraordinary scene could not distinguish a single familiar face. They were like actors in front of a vast public who can only see a confusing mass without recognizing any individuals.

On the elevated throne where the king usually sat to address the assembly, they saw a blood-covered corpse, dressed in the symbols of royalty. To his right, a child stood, wearing a crown and holding a scepter in his hand; to his left, and old man, or rather another ghost, leaned on the throne. He was wearing the ceremonial robe worn by the former Administrators of Sweden, before Wasa had made it a kingdom. Facing the throne, several grave and austere personages, dressed in long black robes and who appeared to be judges, were seated at a table on which they saw large binders and several parchments. Between the throne and the assembly benches was a chopping block covered in black with an axe resting against it.

No one in this superhuman assembly seemed to notice the presence of Charles and the three people that accompanied him. When they first entered they could hear a confused murmur out of which only a few articulated words could be distinguished; then the oldest of the judges in black, the one that appeared to preside, rose and struck an open binder three times with his hand. A profound silence immediately reigned. Several healthy young men, richly dressed, their hands tied behind their backs, entered the hall through a door opposite the one the Charles XI had just opened. They walked with their heads held high and a confident gaze. Behind them, a robust man wearing a brown leather vest held the end of the ropes that bound their hands. The one walking in front, and who seemed to be the most important prisoner, stopped in the middle of the hall, in front of the chopping block, which he looked at with superb contempt. At the same time, the corpse appeared to tremble convulsively, and fresh, bright red blood flowed from its wound. The young man knelt down and stretched out his neck; the axe shone in the air and fell quickly with a thud. A stream of blood gushed onto the stand and mixed with the blood of the corpse; and the head, bouncing several times on the red floor, rolled to Charles’ feet and stained them with blood.

Until that moment, shock had rendered him speechless; but at this horrible spectacle, “his tongue was loosed;” he took several steps toward the stand and, speaking to the figure dressed in the Administrator’s robe, boldly stated the well known phrase: “If you are of God, speak; if you are of the Other, leave us in peace.”

The ghost answered him slowly and solemnly: “CHARLES KING! This blood will not be shed during your reign… (at this point the voice became less distinct) but five reigns after you. Cursed, cursed, cursed be the blood of Wasa!”

Then the forms of the numerous personages of this surprising assembly began to become les clear and appeared to be nothing more than colored shadows. Soon they disappeared entirely. The supernatural torches went out and the lights of Charles’ little band dimly illuminated the old tapestries, blown gently by a breeze. They still heard, for a short time, a melodious sound that one of the witnesses compared to leaves rustling in the wind, and another to the sound made by a harp when it is being tuned. All agreed as to the length of the apparition, that they judged to have lasted about ten minutes.

The black drapes, the severed head, the rivers of blood that had colored the floor had all disappeared with the ghosts; only Charles’ slipper still had a red stain, a stain that would have sufficed to remind everyone of that night’s scenes if they had not already been so forcefully engraved in their minds.

Once back in his study, the king had the description of what he had seen written down and signed by his companions and by him. The several precautions that were taken to hide the contents of this declaration from the public were of no use, as the events were broadly known even during the life of Charles XI. The declaration still exists and, to this point, no one has ever raised doubts as to its authenticity. The end of it is remarkable: “And if what I have just related,” the king says, “is not the exact truth, I renounce all hope of a better life which I may have earned for my good works and more for my zeal in working for the happiness of my people and for defending the religion of my ancestors.”

Now, if we remember the death of Gustave III and the judgment of Ankarstroem, his assassin, we will find more than one link between it and the circumstances of this unusual prophecy.

The young man, decapitated in the presence of the estates would be Ankarstroem.

The crowned corpse would be Gustave III.

The child, his son and successor, Gustave-Adolphe IV.

Finally, the old man would be the duke of Sudermanie, uncle of Gustave IV, who served as regent of the kingdom then as king after his nephew was deposed.

Mérimée’s notes:
(1) The nobility, the clergy, the merchant class and the people.