Svenska – English
A fish out of water – Captain Erik Alfort
© Esben Alfort 2014-2021
Captain Erik Alfort is the earliest named member of the Swedish Alfort family and ancestor of every Alfort in Sweden. He had an interesting career in the navy where he contributed – directly or indirectly – to several historical moments such as the attack on Copenhagen and the famous battle of Narva. An invitation to a christening brought him to Östergötland where he met his future wife, whose father was one of the richest men in the country, thus securing the Alfort family’s position and fortune for generations. The occasion has been immortalised for us in a fascinating document listing the names of the witnesses, who were all prominent members of the military elite, gathered to celebrate the christening of a child at a historical moment of great tension, which was to be the signal for 21 years of constant warfare. Erik’s military career ended after he participated in a failed attempt at keeping Russia out of the Baltic, leading to the founding of St. Petersburg as well as the loss of a great deal of Swedish territory and of many lives.
The early sources
Erik Alfort eventually rose to the rank of captain in the Karlskrona-based navy. As he grew old and found that his naval days were gone, he started to feel the indignity of being marooned in a mansion as a maladjusted naval captain with a noblewoman for a wife and never having acquired noble rank himself. He therefore wrote a letter to the authorities requesting that his accomplishments be rewarded with a title. He pointed out the fact that he had:
…ever since his childhood for 32 years or from 1675 to 1707 served in the military at sea abroad among foreign powers and potentates as well as in [his] home country.
…allt sedan sin barndom i 32 år eller från 1675 intill 1707 varit i tjänst uti militären till sjöss så borta hos främmande makter och potentater som här hemma.
According to this statement, then, Erik had served from the age of 15, in 1675. The first 10 years he seems to have spent ’among foreign powers’, perhaps in the English, French or Dutch navy. He was definitely given permission to travel abroad on several occasions from 1692 to 1702, but we do not know where he went. Serving in a foreign navy was a common thing for young naval officers to do at the time. It was a way to learn the ropes as a kind of military exchange student before making a career at home. Usually, people would sign up as volunteers in Sweden and then after some initial education and an examination they would be allowed to take time off to spend some time abroad. Erik does not seem to have volunteered in the Swedish navy until 1685, however. This makes one wonder whether he specifically wanted to serve abroad, perhaps in the English navy. It is just as likely, however, that he joined either the French or the Dutch navy during the Franco-Dutch war 1672-1678, in which both England and Sweden were also involved.
Back in Sweden, he signed up as a volunteer in Karlskrona in 1685, and afterwards rose through the naval hierarchy with the titles arklimästare (master of artillery, 1687), konstapelsmat (vice constable, 1688), konstapel (constable, date unknown), underlöjtnant (sub-lieutenant, 17/3 1698), överlöjtnant (lieutenant, 1700) and skeppskapten (captain of the admiralty, 1702).
His relatively late entry in the Swedish navy and his commitment to his naval work meant that his personal life was delayed. He married late and in fact spent most of his life at sea. This made it particularly difficult for him to adjust to life on land when he finally retired.
Even after his return to Sweden, there is much that we simply do not know about his life during the early period. The surviving documents do not tell us which campaigns he participated in before the turn of the century, but he may have been involved in the Nine Years’ War (Pfalziska tronföljdskriget) 1688-1691, a conflict very much inflamed by Louis XIV’s revocation of the edict of Nantes (see chapter 1) and the consequent flight of the huguenots from France, if not actually brought about by it. The Swedish king Karl XI sent 12 warships on the occasion, and Erik may well have been aboard one of them.
Sweden left the war in 1691, and the following year we know that Erik was given permission to go abroad for a couple of years, perhaps to spend some time in a foreign navy once more. Interestingly, this time we know that his colleagues Carl Mannerfeldt and Gustaf Psilander, listed right below him in the registry above, were both employed in this way in the Dutch navy 1689-1693 and 1689-1695, respectively, so it is likely that Erik was doing the same thing or something similar.
Of course it may also be the case that he needed some time off from the wars and got into trade on the big seas instead. Certainly, the next thing we hear from Erik is when a news reporter stationed in the Danish town of Elsinore (Helsingør) notes down who is passing through the Sound on 2nd June 1696 for the benefit of the readers of the newspaper Ordinarie Stockholmske Post-Tijdender. Erik is among the captains mentioned.
Erich Ahlfort at home in Stockholm travels home from St. Martin with wine.
Erich Ahlfort hemma i Stockholm löper från St. Martin hemåt med Wijn.
This made me look at the Øresund tax registry in Elsinore, where he is indeed registered as passing through that day on his ship Veritas. St. Martin probably refers to the French-Dutch island of that name in the Caribbean. He had left Stockholm on 23rd October the previous year with London as his destination.
Later in the year 1696, they report him passing through once more. This time he seems to have left Stockholm for London on 9th October, passing through the sound at Elsinore on 20th November.
It would seem, then, that at this time at least he apparently made his home in the capital, and also that he found employment in trade, at least during half of the year from October to June. We know that some of his colleagues also found employment aboard foreign trade vessels during their years abroad – and indeed his own son would do the same.
Erik stayed in Stockholm until he married in 1701. That year he pawned an English clock with the tradesman Niels Forsbergh in the capital. It may well be that he was the very same tradesman who had been selling the wine imported by Erik.
At some point Erik rose to the rank of constable, but as state money was dwindling after the many wars, he and his colleague and friend Gustaf Macklier, who was fifteen years his junior (mentioned along with him in the registry shown above), were still paid as vice constables until 1698. This colleague of his was to play an important role in his life, especially after Macklier married in 1699 and introduced Erik to his wife’s sister.
Gustaf Macklier’s father was a Scottish nobleman, John MacLean, who had immigrated to Gothenburg and established himself as a powerful tradesman under the name of Hans Makeléer. He had 15 children who almost without exception either became, or married, naval officers. Incidentally, John MacLean is also an ancestor of the Alfort family in the narrow sense, i.e. those of us who presently spell our name Alfort (through Märta Cronholm). Whether Erik knew the Macklier family before his time in the navy is an open question, but however that may be, they were to play a crucial role in Erik’s life a few years on.
In 1698, when the Nine Years’ War had come to an end, Erik was again promoted, this time to sub-lieutenant (underlöjtnant), replacing Gustaf Macklier in that capacity. Once again, Erik was given permission to go off duty for a while.
Sweden now had a new king, the unusually confident teenager Karl XII, and he had some interesting assignments in store for Erik.
A pivotal moment
The year 1700 represents a milestone in Erik’s career and life, and indeed in the history of our family. That year he was back on duty as captain of the 120 m long ship Wrede with 52 guns, 381 boatmen and 75 soldiers. Quite a responsibility to shoulder. The ship, which had been built in 1697 by shipwright Falk in Karlskrona, is known to have been used for expeditions to Denmark and Livonia that year. Erik participated in at least the former, and almost certainly both of these voyages.
The purpose of the expedition to Denmark was to convey the Swedish king Karl XII across the water, frighten the Danes by bombarding Copenhagen, and then make landfall at Humlebæk. The king was the first to disembark and wade onto the beach at Tibberup Hills on 4th August. The expedition was highly successful in demonstrating Danish vulnerability, and despite a courageous resistance from the Copenhagen population, the Danish king decided to agree to an international peace treaty, forcing Denmark to withdraw from the war for many years to come.
This incident could not fail to fuel the enmity between the two countries and their allies and led directly to the Great Northern War 1700-1721 in which the surrounding countries, who were tiring of Swedish megalomania, attempted to, and eventually succeeded in, putting an end to it. Erik consequently had lots of work to do for the rest of his career. Another consequence of the event was that because Denmark had been forced to withdraw for the time being, Erik’s assignments would all be in the Baltic, mainly in the Gulf of Finland.
The second expedition for which the Wrede ship was used was the conveyance of the king to Livonia in October the same year. The commanding officer on both of these naval expeditions was admiral Kornelius Anckarstierna. No doubt Erik was in charge of the ship on this voyage as well, and thus contributed to the campaign which was to reach its climax in the famous battle of Narva, one of the most celebrated military victories in Swedish history, where Sweden defeated the Russian army who had laid siege to the Swedish town of Narva in present-day Estonia, mainly because the Russians got a lot of snow in their eyes due to a sudden blizzard.
By then, the convoy was back in Sweden, and Erik had received an invitation to witness the christening of Gustaf Macklier’s new-born daughter Maria Catharina on 10th November, only a week or two before the battle took place in Narva. He consequently made his way over land to the Macklier estate of Linnekulla in the parish of Torpa in remote Östergötland, far from any naval battles. This area was a favourite haunt of Swedish officers due to its presumed immunity to the horrors of war; the enemy would never get to this secluded area around Lake Sommen which has preserved an astonishing amount of beautiful 17th century manors to this day.
Even during the christening, one could hardly forget about the war, for the other witnesses were all military men and their families, and they must have had a lot to talk about at this pivotal moment in Swedish history.
As was usual among the rich and famous, the child was christened ’by special license’ at home in Linnekulla rather than in church, and this may be the reason for the rather unceremonious appearance of the entry in the church registry which the priest made afterwards. He was told about it later and was forced to squeeze it into the margin of the page. It is a truly remarkable document. On this day, a new life was celebrated, surrounded by men of war. Men who, between them, held some of the keys to Sweden’s military and economic future. One can only imagine the atmosphere on the occasion.
Now take a look around the table while the guests are being served. Admiral Kornelius Anckarstierna who has led the expeditions is there to witness the christening. With him is counter admiral (shoutbynacht) and district judge of Älvsborg county Clas Sparre, who was in charge of the bombardment of Copenhagen earlier that year, and of course captain Erik Alfort. Also invited are some members of the child’s own family, such as Anna Hedvig Macklier, a cousin who is old enough to have recently married admiral Jacob de Prou, as well as uncle David Macklier who is a district judge (landshövding) and his sister-in-law, duchess Sophia Aschenberg (1664 – 1720). She is married to duke Hans Wachtmeister (1641 – 1714), admiral general of the entire Swedish navy and counsellor to the king. Having spent many years building up the navy with the help of British shipwrights, he can take some credit for the victories which have made Sweden so powerful. He was also the commanding leader at the bombardment of Copenhagen which Clas Sparre executed.
When Wachtmeister retired, Sparre replaced him as leader of the navy. He was much more of a seaman than an administrator, though, and this has been put forward as one of the reasons for the eventual collapse of Sweden’s status as a superpower at the end of the Great Northern War.
The atmosphere around a table is not only shaped by those present but also by those who are conspicuously absent. One of the guests, Mrs Maria (née) Macklier was married to the child’s uncle, general David Duncan of the Danish army (!), who for very good reasons seems not to have been invited. One wonders what her own relationship to her family was like, but military work was probably just seen as a necessary job and not associated with violent feelings.
The child’s mother was Hedvig Margareta Gyllenståhl, whose father, major Gabriel Gyllenståhl of the Swedish army, also lived at Linnekulla. Even so, the sole representative of the Gyllenståhl family recorded as witnessing the christening was his second wife Catharina Cronhielm.
It was of course inevitable that Erik should meet Gabriel’s other daughter, Hedvig Margareta’s younger sister Maria Sophia Gyllenståhl, whom a few months later he would marry. They may of course have already been acquainted, given that her sister’s husband was Erik’s close colleague.
They married in Torpa church on 3rd April 1701. The morning gift was 500 gold ducats, a large sum for someone whose father had been an immigrant shipbuilder, but then the money enabled him to marry a rich nobleman’s daughter, and he got the beautiful manor of Liljeholmen in the bargain. Maybe it wasn’t without reason that he pawned that clock of his…
Right Honourable Mr Captain Eric Ahlfort
Right Honourable Miss Maria Sophia Gyllenståhl
Morning gift 500 ducats
Wällborne H:r Capitein Eric Ahlfort Wällborne Jungfru Maria Sophia Gyllenståhl Morgongåfva 500 Ducater
They named their first daughter Maria Catharina – quite possibly after the child who had initially brought them together.
Erik Alfort’s late career
Having married a young noblewoman did not keep Erik from returning eagerly to service as an artillery lieutenant and captain of the brand-new lesser brigantine Kräftan with 14 guns and a length of 90 feet. During the next seven years he participated in several expeditions to the Gulf of Finland where Sweden attempted to keep Russia from gaining access to the Baltic. The Russian Tsar Peter the Great had set his sights on the fort Nyenskans at the mouth of the Neva in the then Swedish region of Ingermanland. Capturing it would give him the coveted gateway to the Baltic. Secretly, he was planning to build a new capital at the site. The fort held 600 Swedish soldiers, but when the Tsar sent an army of 20,000 men to annihilate it in 1703, things quickly started to look black for the Swedes. The Russians succeeded in blowing up the fort by hitting the Swedish gunpowder stores, and after that taking it was easy. They went on to raze the fort and under cover of darkness reused the building materials for founding their new capital, St. Petersburg.
This is when Erik enters the scene again. He was commanded to Nyenskans the following year as part of a rescue mission. The ships brought a further 1000 soldiers from Viborg in Finland whose job it would be to reconquer the fort.
The plan was to make landfall on the island known as Kotlin or Retusaari in the gulf outside St. Petersburg, but when they arrived on the spot on 13th June 1704 Tsar Peter had a shocking surprise in store for them. It was only possible to get to the town through a narrow channel near the island, and consequently he had constructed a strong fortification, Kronslott, on this island.
The Swedes tried both going past the island and landing on it, but both plans failed spectacularly. They were at length forced to give up and return the following year with a squadron of 22 ships, once more led by Kornelius Anckarstierna. This time we lack actual documentation that Erik participated in the operation, but it is highly likely that he did. The Swedes were very sure of themselves this time, but the campaign was to end in disaster – a nightmare of one and a half months of death and drowning soldiers. They were finally forced to accept defeat; Sweden was never to reconquer Ingermanland. Instead, a blockade was maintained in the Gulf of Finland for many years, preventing Russian trading vessels from entering the Baltic. Erik participated in this blockade, probably every year until 1707, but we only have concrete documentation of his participation from that last year of his career. He was then captain of the ship of the line (linjeskepp) Halland, still under the command of Kornelius Anckarstierna.
Erik is sometimes claimed to have been plagued by leg injuries which he got during a naval battle, but this is not true. His son Gabriel writes in his diary that his father died after lying in bed with a broken leg, and this is confirmed by the court registers which report that he cannot be present at a court session due to an unfortunate leg [or bone] fracture (olyckeligit Benbrådt). He was bedridden for approximately six months 1729-1730, when he certainly had not recently participated in any battle. The injury must therefore simply have been caused by an accident at Liljeholmen.
[…] but merely adduced his illness, from an unfortunate leg fracture, for which reason the Chamberlain out of kindness allowed deferment until this July […].
[...] utan allenast åberopat sin siukdom, af ett olyckeligt Benbrådt, hvarigenom H:r Cammarherren af midskundsamhet då efterlät upskof till förl. Julii månad [...].
On 18th May 1707 he retired from the navy and returned to his Liljeholmen manor. This was when the trouble really started. But before we delve into that story, we need to get to know his wife and her background, which was very different from his.
Chapter 3, A self-made investor of the 17th century, tells the fascinating story about Erik’s father-in-law Gabriel Gyllenståhl.
Selected sources for chapter 2
This text is a synthesis of many years of work and is derived from countless sources. Among them are the following.
- ArkivDigital / Riksarkivet
- Church registers
- Naval registers
- Öresund customs registers
- Axel Setterdahl (1913), Östgöta Nation i Lund
- Digitaliserade svenska dagstidningar (Digitized Swedish newspapers)
- C. D. Burén’s notes
- Carl Bruun (1890), Kjøbenhavn
- Three Decks’ Forum