This is the first chapter of the chronicle From beyond the seas – A history of the Alfort family.
The Alfort family came to Sweden in the middle of the 17th century when a master shipbuilder emigrated from England, but according to family tradition his ancestors were originally huguenot refugees fleeing religious persecution in France. Church registers and other archives of historical documents can tell us a lot about the history of the family in Sweden, but very few sources give direct information about this early period. Even so, we can make some educated guesses.
On Christmas day 1865, the old lady Anna Maria Ahlfort died after a long and prosperous life in which she had married one of the wealthiest and most illustrious men in the county, army registrar (mönsterskrivare) Sven Johan Bergman, who owned several large estates in Östergötland. The reason that she had been able to marry so well was of course the relative wealth and local importance of her own family, the Ahlforts (or Alforts); her father had been a vice district judge (vice häradshövding) and legal secretary, but he had also been heir to the beautiful family estate Liljeholmen on the shores of Lake Sommen, an estate which she had afterwards inherited. His father and grandfather had both been successful captains of the royal Swedish navy, and his grandmother was the daughter of one of the richest men in the kingdom, who had invested so cleverly that he ended up owning more than 60 manors and farms in the area.
When the old woman had been laid to rest, the priest sat down to register her burial in the church register. Church law demanded that he note down her name as well as the date and the reason for her decease, but in addition to this he always liked to add a little extra information about the person who had died. What was he to write about Anna? She had been a charismatic human being, and he wanted to honour her in the registry, so he set off to record her family history in broad outline, right down to the arrival in Sweden of her great-great grandfather, an immigrant English master shipwright whose name is unfortunately unknown to us, in the middle of the 17th century. One passage in this paragraph is particularly precious to us, since it is the only source we have that tells us where the family came from and how they came to settle in Sweden. It reads as follows, in the original Swedish version and in rough translation:
(…) Dotter af vice Häradshöfdingen Erik Anders Ahlfort och hans Fru Ingrid Elisabeth Busser från Lyckö; Sonsons sondotter af Skeppsbyggmästaren Ahlfort, som i midtet af 1600-talet ankom från England till Sverige (…)
Daughter of the vice district judge Erik Anders Ahlfort and his wife Mrs Ingrid Elisabeth Busser from Lyckö; great-great granddaughter of the master shipwright Ahlfort, who arrived in Sweden from England in the middle of the 17th century.
With the help of church registers, military archives and other documents we can trace the family back to the unnamed master shipwright’s son, captain of the admiralty Erik Alfort, but nowhere are we told anything about his parents or place of birth. We can make an educated guess based on the fact that his father must have worked at a shipyard, but let us first of all consider the question of the family’s origins abroad.
Family tradition has it that the roots of the Swedish Alfort family are ultimately to be sought among the French Huguenots fleeing from France as a result of the religious prosecutions in the late 16th century. It hasn’t been possible to positively confirm this story, as the family cannot at present be traced beyond Sweden, but oral history is often just as reliable as the kind that is written down, and it is at least highly likely that this one is true. Even so, the following can only be described as speculation.
Let us start by taking a look at the traces left in France. Is anything to be gleaned from the names of places and people left behind? Possibly. The modern Parisian suburb of Maisons-Alfort is effectively a fusion of what used to be two villages, Maisons and Alfort, the latter having acquired its name from the Château d’Alfort. This estate was the building eventually chosen to house the famous Alfort veterinary school founded in 1765 which made the name of Alfort known around the globe. Incidentally, it is only a stone’s throw from the headquarters of French protestantism in Charenton just across the bridge from Alfort, a point which may be highly significant given the theory of huguenot origins.
Alfort had not been the original name of this place; in 1312 it is referred to as hôtel d’Harrefort, and in 1495 possibly as Harcourt icon-external-link, but in 1612 the name surfaced as le château d’Hallefort, and when the area was transferred to the bishop of Paris in 1641, it had ended up as Alfort. So how did this change take place, and what is the connection with the family?
The château was built by the bishop of Hereford, Peter of Aigueblanche (d. 1268), and it is tempting to see the original Harrefort as a corruption of Hereford – indeed many sources favour this interpretation. Others disagree, however. Indeed, Peter of Aigueblanche was not British; he was born in Savoy but came to England as part of the party accompanying Henry III’s bride Eleanor of Provence. Is it really likely that he should have named his mansion outside Paris for his English bishopric Hereford?
A more plausible theory is that the name was much older and originally contained the Germanic man’s name Hari. It was a common way of naming places when the Germanic language Frankish was spoken in northern France, not least with the suffix -court, which in fact seems to have appeared on this name in 1495 at least. According to this alternative idea, the name would have been reinterpreted after the area had ceased to be Germanic-speaking. It would then have acquired a Norman reading in which the word halle, which was the word for rock in the new language, replaced the original prefix. Though certainly possible, and perhaps more natural, this sequence of events does not really explain much.
There is, however, a third possibility which might tentatively be suggested: Within France, the Alfort family seems currently to be most numerous in Provence, a region known to have fostered (and concealed) many Huguenots. Could the name have been brought to Paris from Provence by the Huguenots? Was it in fact an old family name common among the Huguenots of Provence? According to this theory, the sequence of events would be similar to the one previously described, with the difference that the original name Harrefort (whether it be originally named for Hari or the bishop of Hereford) would have been replaced by the similarly-sounding name of Alfort when the Huguenots arrived. The sudden arrival of a new group of people and their wish to preserve a connection to the ancestral region might have prompted such a change in a way which is hard to imagine if the name had simply been reinterpreted to mean ‘the rock fort’. The idea is further corroborated by the fact that the Parisian Alfort was certainly a highly important place for calvinist activities and was to figure in critical religious conflicts in the latter half of the 16th century, after the calvinists occupied the bridge at Charenton in 1567. The protestant Huguenots were strongly inspired by the teachings of Jean Calvin, so the Huguenots would probably also have felt a strong attachment to the place. Of course, they might just as well have brought the name in the opposite direction, from Paris to Provence, and in the end, we may never know the true sequence of events.
The Catholics were appalled at the new religious ideas; in fact, they were so afraid of their possible effects that they prosecuted and killed the huguenots en masse during the late 16th century. The Edict of Nantes, published as the century neared its end in 1598, explicitly granted the huguenots eternal religious freedom, but this unimpeachable right was later revoked by the ruthless cardinal Mazarin who reigned while Louis XIV was still too young to rule, and in the second half of the 17th century the huguenots were once again the victims of prosecutions and massacres. Those who survived fled in their hundreds of thousands to more protestant-friendly countries such as the Netherlands, England and Scandinavia. Probably our ancestors were among the 50.000 or so who chose to settle on English shores, perhaps one or two generations before the descendant master shipwright set sail for Sweden in the mid-1600s.
Unfortunately, we have no way of knowing exactly in what part of England the Alfort family made their home, but we do know that most Huguenots settled in London, Norwich, Southampton, Canterbury, Colchester, Thorney in Cambridgeshire, Bristol, Stonehouse in Plymouth and Thorpe-le-Soken in Essex, nearly all of them seaports. The master shipwright is of course likely to have come from a major shipbuilding site such as London, Southampton or Plymouth, but we can only guess at the exact spot. Finding traces of the family in England is difficult to say the least, when we do not even know the name of the emigrating shipwright. He is often said to have borne the name of Hindric, an old Swedish version of Henry, but this supposition seems to be wholly unfounded. There simply does not seem to be any mention of Erik Alfort’s father’s name in the surviving documents. Judging from the names chosen for the children in the following generations, Charles and George might be suggested as other likely candidates.
As if this wasn’t difficult enough, the search for British relations is further hampered by the fact that at least two indigenous and completely unrelated British families also bear the names of Alfort and Alford. These families derive their names from British localities and have no connection with France or the Huguenots. Most American bearers of these names descend from these same British families, although one American Alford family does indeed descend from a great-great-great-great grandson of the master shipwright who brought our family to Sweden, one Frans Ahlfort who emigrated with his family to Missouri in the 1860s and became known there as Frank Alford.
As the family cannot be definitely traced beyond Sweden, and as the immigrating master shipwright’s exact identity is unknown, I have chosen to consider his son Erik Alfort as the founding father. It is after all with him that the recorded history of the Alfort family begins. So far, the oldest document recording the presence of any member of the family on Swedish ground is an entry in the naval records at Karlskrona from 1688 at the occasion of Erik’s promotion from arklimästare (master of artillery) to konstapelsmat (vice constable). The search for older sources continues, however.
Why come to Sweden?
So what made a British master shipwright emigrate to Sweden in the middle of the 17th century? In order to answer this question, we need some background information. First of all, it should be borne in mind that this was a time of constant warfare in Europe, in which the seas were ruled by powerful navies. The Dutch and British in particular commanded large fleets equipped with cutting-edge technology, and when the British sailed into the Baltic sea, the Swedish king was so impressed that he immediately invited British master shipwrights to settle in Sweden and help him build a new and powerful Swedish navy to conquer the northern seas. The plan succeeded; the know-how brought by these men helped Sweden become one of the most powerful European superpowers of the century to come.
During this part of history, Sweden was in an incessant state of warfare with her neighbour Denmark, but lately Sweden had got the upper hand; in 1645 Denmark had been forced to cede the Baltic islands of Gotland and Øsel (Saaremaa) as well as the county of Halland (originally meant to be handed back after 30 years) and a section of Norway to the Swedes. Sweden had long felt threatened by Denmark, surrounded as the country had been by Danish territories, but this was all changing as Sweden was fast becoming a Baltic superpower. The Danes were not about to give up, however, and they consequently declared war on their neighbours in 1658 with the view to regaining the lost territories. The plan backfired terribly, and at the end of the war many more provinces had to be surrendered: Scania, Blekinge and (briefly) Bornholm and yet another part of Norway went to Sweden this time.
The Swedish king did, however, face a serious problem. Sweden was dependent on imported Dutch expertise for her navy, but now the two countries had suddenly ended up as opponents in a new war. This is the backdrop for the scene in which the Swedish king Karl X Gustaf witnessed the British fleet and immediately appointed British master shipwrights such as Francis Sheldon and Thomas Day to oversee the construction of his new navy that was to rule the seas for times to come. Never again would Sweden be bested by its Baltic neighbours.
Having acquired the old Danish region of Blekinge on the southern coast of the Scandinavian peninsula, the Swedes set about to construct a new naval base there, which was to replace the one in Stockholm as the country’s new military headquarters. The city of Karlskrona was founded on the spot in 1679 under the auspices of the young king Karl XI. The Skeppsholmen shipyard in Stockholm was shut down, and the personnel was sent to Karlskrona and two other new shipyards – one in Kalmar and the other in Riga in present-day Latvia, which was an integral part of the Swedish realm at the time.
Sheldon had left England in favour of Sweden in 1655 after an attempt to free king Charles I from his prison. He worked in Sweden for 30 years, but then decided to leave the country in protest, as he had never been recompensed for the capital he had invested in the Swedish navy. To add insult to injury, he went to the archenemy, helping to modernize the Danish fleet. Although he tried to persuade his children to follow his example, they chose to stay on in Karlskrona, where the Sheldons built magnificent naval ships for several generations.
We do not know in which part of Sweden the master shipwright Alfort settled. Indeed, I have not found a single reference to him in any document apart from the burial epitaph from 1865 cited above. It must have been a seaport of some importance, with a shipyard. The most obvious candidates are Gothenburg and Stockholm (since Karlskrona was yet to be founded), but there are many other possibilities, including Kalmar and Västervik on the east coast, or possibly the cities on the then Swedish coasts of Finland and the Baltic states. Gothenburg had long provided the Swedes with their only access to the western seas, with Danish territories both to the north and south of a narrow strip of land. This was consequently a highly strategic and strongly fortified spot. Foreigners from the Netherlands, Britain and Germany were invited to settle and conduct trade in Gothenburg. In fact, this was a town built entirely by and for foreigners, and the administration was conducted in four languages, with German as the principal language, so Gothenburg is definitely a good candidate for a point of arrival for the Alfort family in Sweden. Unfortunately, there is no trace of anyone bearing the name of Alfort in Gothenburg at the time to confirm the theory. There are hints to suggest that he might actually have settled in Stockholm. As we shall see in the next chapter, his son Erik appears to have made the capital his home in 1696, after having spent many years in the navy, and what would be more natural than to return to the town where he grew up? Indeed, the very size of Stockholm would explain how the family can be so difficult to find.
As regards the year of immigration, we can only speculate, but it is highly likely that Erik Alfort’s father arrived with the invited shipwrights in the late 1650s, possibly as late as 1659. That would still definitely make it “in the middle of the 17th century”, and his son seems to have been born later that year, which might indicate that he married a local girl on arrival. Unfortunately, we do not know whether Erik’s mother came with him from Britain or not, or even whether Erik himself was born in Sweden or Britain. The sources only tell us that when he died in December 1729 he was 70 years old, so he must have been born in 1659, or possibly in December 1658.
The matter is complicated by the fact that his son Gabriel kept a diary in which he reports from his travels in Spain that he has been informed of his father’s death at Liljeholmen, and that he reached the age of 73 (if indeed we can trust the transcript – I have unfortunately not had access to the original). However, there are reasons to believe that the diary was in fact written several years after Erik’s death, using old notes, so his information may not be entirely accurate.
Francis Sheldon and Thomas Day were installed at the shipyard in Gothenburg in 1659, and no British shipwrights seem to have been invited after that year. Of course, we do not know whether Erik’s father was actually invited at all, or simply came on his own initiative to try his luck in the wake of the invitations. In fact, who is to say that Erik wasn’t the illegitimate child of one of these well-known shipbuilders and an immigrant woman by the name of Alfort? We simply do not know.
Whatever the circumstances, Erik grew up somewhere in Sweden, presumably at a port town, surrounded by magnificent vessels, and he decided when the time came to register as a seaman in the navy, where he made a long and brilliant career. On land, he behaved like a fish out of water, as his temper was clearly not cut out for peaceful life among civilised folk. However, one does not marry a nobleman’s daughter and acquire a beautiful estate without some attempt at civilised behaviour, as he found out to his cost.
icon-arrow-right The next chapter “A fish out of water” is about Captain Erik Alfort‘s life and career.
This text is a synthesis of several years of work and is derived from countless sources. Among them are the following.
- ArkivDigital / Riksarkivet
- Church registers
- Naval registers
- Cercle généalogique de Maisons-Alfort
- The Huguenot Society of Great Britain & Ireland
- The Alford American Family Association
- Tranås Hembygdsgille (1955), Från Sommabygd till Vätterstrand: Ur Gabriel Ahlforts dagbok