A Swedish Military Dynasty

By Erik Faithfull

Some 10 years ago I started researching my Swedish heritage, my mother being the daughter of Baroness Anne-Marie Armfelt (1904-87), a descendent of General Carl Gustav Armfelt (1666-1736). Having documented a remarkably extensive family tree and armed with my life-long interest in military history I started to delve in more detail into some of the most interesting personalities I had discovered on this journey.

My grandmother, Baroness Anne-Marie Armfelt, taking part in the commemoration of the 260th anniversary of the Carolean Death March in 1978, aged 74, leading the walkers and carrying a full pack!! (Photos from commemorative booklet, Idébild, 1978)

I was soon drawn to researching the career of Carl Gustav Armfelt, inspired by a framed photograph of the David von Krafft Armfelt portrait at Drottningholm, one of many items I inherited from my grandmother, following her death in 1987. Having tracked down a copy of Eirik Hornborg’s 1953 book Karolinen Armfelt och kampen om Finland under stora nordiska kriget and commenced translating it for my own interest, I was inspired by his enthusiasm and empathy for his subject and thought that this may be of interest to a wider audience. I am delighted that Helion agreed and, with the enthusiastic support of Eirik Hornborg’s grandson, Professor Alf Hornborg at the University of Lund, the result is the first comprehensive account of the Great Northern War in Finland to be published in the English language.

The Hall of Generals at Drottningholm Palace. The Armfelt portrait is above the door, top left. (Photo: The author)

Armfelt was born in Ingria, at the easternmost limit of the then Swedish Empire. Commencing military service in 1683 at the age of 16 as a corporal in the Nyland-Tavastehus cavalry regiment, to advance his career he went to France in 1688 and learnt the soldier’s trade through eleven years active service in the army of Louis XIV, returning home in 1699 and then serving his country until the Treaty of Nystad finally ended hostilities in 1721.

Too little is known about Armfelt’s life outside of the war for a comprehensive biography to be written so of necessity Hornborg’s account concentrates on his military career and is thus in equal measure an account of the campaigns in which he fought. In addition to the two most well known Finnish battles of Pälkäne 1713 and Storkyro 1714, and the Trondheim campaign 1718-19 with its tragic ending – the Carolean Death March – the book covers many lesser known engagements such the battle of Systerbäck 1703, the Ingrian campaign of 1708 (launched as a diversion in support of Charles XII’s invasion of Russia) and the Russian seaborne landing by the Tsar’s new galley fleet at Helsinki in 1713. After the war Armfelt never returned to his Ingrian homeland, which had been lost to Russia, but settled in Finland where he remained until his death in 1736.

Hornborg provides some brief notes on Armfelt’s descendants, perhaps the most famous being his great grandson, Gustav Mauritz, who was instrumental in obtaining Finnish autonomy from Russia after the war of 1808-09 and consequently seen by many in Sweden as a traitor. Certainly he ranks low in Hornborg’s opinion – brave, yes, but fickle, vain and selfish.

On the direct line of descent to my grandmother, his son Vilhelm (1715-61) entered military service in 1729 and reached the rank of Major. He had been wounded at Lappeenranta during the Russo-Swedish war of 1741-43 and was killed by Prussian Hussars in a skirmish during the Pomeranian War of 1757-62. Vilhelm’s son, Adolf Carl (1751-1807), saw service only between this war and the subsequent war with Russia of 1788-90 so did not see action, but Adolf’s son, Colonel Axel Armfelt (1785-1867), my grandmother’s great grandfather, fought in Finland, Germany and Norway during the Napoleonic wars and was decorated for bravery.  

Gustav Maurtiz Armfelt                Axel Vilhelm Armfelt                    Carl Magnus Hultin
(1757-1814)                (1785-1867)                 (1789-1883)

Amongst my ancestors on my grandmother’s mother’s side were Arvid Wittenberg, veteran of the Thirty Years War and Charles X’s invasion of Poland in 1655, and Henrik Horn, who’s exploits included commanding the Swedish fleet in the disastrous battle of Køge Bay in 1677 during the Scanian War under Charles XI, despite being an army general with no naval experience! Anne-Marie’s great grandfather was Captain Carl Magnus Hultin who, like Axel Armfelt, also served in the Swedish army during the Napoleonic wars. He published his memoirs in book form in 1872; such memoirs are rare, and I am well on with translation and research into another fascinating period of Swedish history. Watch this space …

You can purchase Carl Gustav Armfelt and the Struggle for Finland during the Great Northern War here.

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