A self-made investor of the 17th century

Svenska – English

From beyond the seas – A history of the Alfort family.

Chapter 3

A self-made investor of the 17th century – Gabriel Gyllenståhl

© Esben Alfort 2014-2023

Erik Alfort’s father-in-law Gabriel Gyllenståhl is one of the most interesting personalities of his time, and perhaps also a somewhat misunderstood person, as his childhood has recently been shown to have been very different from what had previously been supposed. Indeed, he seems to have been the son of entirely different parents. He married wealth, and had the skill that allowed him to invest cleverly and make more money at a time when money was scarce among the nobility. He eventually achieved nobility for himself, but he never had a surviving son, despite marrying twice, so the line went extinct with his decease. He witnessed some remarkable events, such as an illegal duel which ended in cold-blooded murder and the revenge burning of an entire village during wartime. According to a wide-spread legend he once captured the Danish war chest, which is supposed to have made him immensely rich at a stroke. But are the legends really to be believed?

Gabriel Gyllenståhl. Reproduktion av originalmålning av David von Krafft 1700. Foto: Esben Alfort.

Gabriel Gyllenståhl (25/10 1644 – 1705) and his noble wife Maria Margareta Fahnehielm may be considered the family’s second founding couple, due to the immense importance of their wealth and status for the future of the family. On 3rd April 1701 Erik Alfort married their daughter Maria Sophia Gyllenståhl. He was then 42 years old and still by all accounts a bachelor, having spent most of his life at sea. His noble bride, on the other hand, was a young girl of 19.

Gabriel and Erik seem to have had very much the same sort of personality. Both were proud and ruthless men when opposed and tended to be a law unto themselves. They dictated their own rules and were not intimidated by neighbours or authorities.

For almost a century, Gabriel was believed to have been the son of soldier Per Ståhl and his Livonian wife Anna Sophia Anrep, a soldier who was executed for assaulting a Danish woman while drunk in wartime. Gabriel would still have been a child, and thus the event was thought to have strongly affected his future life. The idea was presented as a fact in a biography by lector O. Klockhoff in 1925 and then copied by others until recently, when new research has revealed that they were not his parents at all icon-external-link. An entirely new and less traumatic childhood is coming to light, if you can call joining the army as a teenager and being ordered to literally wipe out an entire parish less traumatic than losing your father.

Apart from the present chapter, the recent research has since been summarised in an article by recently deceased Kjell Holmåker in Svensk Genealogisk Tidskrift 2017:2, where new details have been added which finally seem to render the evidence conclusive. I had the pleasure to talk to him about his research in connection with a talk I was giving in Blåvik in 2018 and after that, and there is no longer any doubt that we have found the right person this time.

From tobacco smuggler to acclaimed officer

Gabriel grew up in Eksjö town in northern Småland, the son of court judge (rådman) and member of the Swedish Parliament for the burghers of Eksjö Måns Åkesson (d. 1648) and his wife Ingrid Joensdotter (d. 1682). The latter was in turn the daughter of Joen Andersson Enhörning from Merhulticon-map-marker  in Korsberga parish.

Merhult in Korsberga. Källa: Google.

They were respectable people, but not wealthy, so when Måns Åkesson died in 1648, leaving his wife with two small children, she found herself in a difficult situation. Gabriel was then three years old. He and his younger brother Jonas were the last two of their seven children, and they were the only sons to survive, so it is quite likely that they were rather spoiled.

Gabriel’s childhood town of Eksjö ca. 1690-1710.

His mother was indebted to the mayor of Växjö town Johan Mickelsson and was forced to take lodgers in order to earn a living. The first time we hear of Gabriel as a person is when he and his younger brother Jonas Ståhl have a dispute with one such lodger, swordmaker (svärdfejare) Per Månsson. Gabriel had already started what would be a long and frequently renewed relationship with the law.

In July 1663 he was caught smuggling tobacco from Germany. The tobacco trade had been regulated by law the previous year, and a monopoly had been introduced on importing, producing and selling tobacco. Tobacco inspectors had been given the power to penalise any infringement. Most of Gabriel’s wares were confiscated, but for some reason he was not penalised further, and consequently he was by no means afraid to try again. Around new year 1664 he and his brother employed carriage drivers from Malmö to transport another load of tobacco from Copenhagen to Kristianstad. When the drivers understood what their cargo was going to be, they wanted to withdraw from the deal, but Gabriel was of the opinion that as he had now paid them, they were bound to carry out their part of it. He was clearly not a man to be gainsaid, so they drove the goods to Kristianstad. When they arrived at the city gates, one of the drivers wondered whether they were not going to declare their goods to the customs officers, but Gabriel said no. They were of course caught; Gabriel’s brother was arrested along with the drivers, but Gabriel himself got away and was fined in his absence.

The confiscation of his wares and the fines that he received left Gabriel poor, and he therefore joined the cavalry in order to earn a living, using the surname Ståhl, which several of his relatives had also used, among them his brother Jonas Ståhl. It is unclear whether it was a real family name or just a recurring military name. For some reason Gabriel never attended a general muster, but was simply allowed to join. He did well and became a corporal in colonel Georg Henrik Lybecker’s company in 1667, representing the village of Gundrastorp in Vittsjö parish in northern Scania. Because of his prowess as an officer, the colonel helped him get off the charges so he could rejoin the company. He can’t have been very popular with his mother, though, as he was also forced to pledge her new house in order to pay the fines amounting to 389 daler and 16 öre.

Gundrastorp today. Source: Google.

The following years saw several incidents where Gabriel attacked nosy tobacco inspectors, until the College of War finally ordered the colonel to arrest him, which he did rather reluctantly in October 1668. Gabriel, who had by then apparently become a quartermaster of the Scanian regiment, then spent more than three months in detention at Kristianstad Castle. Apart from smuggling Tobacco into Kalmar, Kristianstad and Kristianopel and attacking the inspectors, he was also accused of contributing to a brawl in Ljungby that had led to a man’s death. In November he wrote to the College of War to plead innocence. He admitted to having smuggled tobacco on the two occasions when he had been caught red-handed, but since he had joined the cavalry he had been well-behaved, to which his colonel would attest. A ”despicable, bad man” had wrongly accused him of misbehaviour. Indeed colonel Lybecker looked into the case and found Gabriel ”a man who is truly as well equipped as any rider in the country who can be found, and well worthy of being made an officer”. In other words, he wanted Gabriel to be released as soon as possible so he could rejoin his company in the interest of his country.

The trial started on 27th January 1669, at which time Gabriel was given five weeks to assemble proof of his innocence. As neither party was able to deliver positive proof, the case was referred to the court of appeal. However, they refused to take up the case, so it seems that Gabriel got off all his charges except the original fines for smuggling. He immediately rejoined the cavalry, and on 18th November 1670 he was made an ensign (fänrik) of the Kronoberg regiment.

A noble marriage

Peder Jönsson Kempe nob. Fahnehielm.

During his time as an ensign, Gabriel set his eyes on the young noblewoman Maria Margareta Fahnehielm (1651 – 5/5 1691) from Näs manor in Torpa parish, who was of old Swedish nobility. Her deceased father had been a war hero, Peder Jönsson Kempe (1596 – 10/8 1655), who had achieved nobility for his efforts in the Thirty Years’ War, where he had served as a musketeer and captain of Östgöta Infanteri­­regemente. The story goes that during the battle of Leipzig in 1642 he was pierced by no less than 25 halberds but still managed to rescue the Swedish banner by hiding it under his cape – saving his own life in the bargain. Queen Kristina granted him nobility under the name Peder Fahnehielm (“banner helmet”) in commemoration of the event and donated beautiful Näs Manor in Torpa parish for him and his descendants.

Näs Säteri is beautifully situated at the end of lake Raklången. Photo: Esben Alfort 2017.

Maria’s mother Brita Armsköld (1616 – 1691) was of old nobility and could trace her ancestors to the first Danish and Swedish kings such as Gorm den Gamle of Denmark and Sverker I of Sweden, and also to king Hugues Capet of France. She had grown up in Ekäng Manoricon-map-marker on the tip of the peninsula Asby Udde with her parents, who also owned a range of other estates, many of them donated to her father Jöran Armsköld when he was ennobled for his war efforts in Poland and sent home to Sweden shot lame for life. When Bira married, she settled at Näs, however.

Maria’s ancestors had lived in Östergötland for many generations and had seen the birth of the Swedish kingdom in that very area. If she accepted him, Gabriel would marry nobility, power and wealth. On his part, he offered to provide a morning gift of 1000 riksdaler silver coins.

She did accept him, but unfortunately a commoner could not marry a noblewoman without a royal license. This was partly for reasons of snobbery, but mostly because nobility carried with it not only responsibilities, but also certain economic and political privileges which were not to be handed over to any odd soldier. He must therefore compose a letter to the royal office in which he applied for permission to marry the noble Miss Fahnehielm. After that, it was only a question of waiting in suspense.

In a letter he sent to the royal office at a later date, he explained that he had ”[by] Her Majesty the queen of the Swedish realm and the State council after a humble request been blessed and beatified with noble privileges.”

It seems, therefore, that tasks relating to the nobility were carried out by the dowager queen Hedvig Eleonora during the time when her son, the king, was still just a teenager. Permission was finally given on 17th August 1671 when he was granted a nobleman’s privileges (but not nobility as such) and started to call himself Gabriel Piedeståhl. The name is strange, but it appears to be a pun involving the word pedestal and his old name Ståhl, and one can only assume that it was meant as a witticism from unpolished Gabriel’s side, perhaps as a jibe at the established nobility. It is not entirely clear, however, to what extent the change of name was fully official. In the district court he continued to be referred to as Gabriel Ståhl. One wonders, of course, whether this was because the noblemen in the court disliked the new name. The priest, on the other hand, never failed to use it.

The Gyllenståhl and Fahnehielm coats of arms may be found hanging side by side in Torpa church to this day. Photo: Esben Alfort 2017.

The wedding ceremony was performed on 16th July 1672 in Torpa. They were 32 and 21 years old. The ensuing party was held at Näs, and we know that they served deer to the noble guests, because in 1673 the ranger Nils Månsson complained in court that a deer had been shot in the forest outside of the legal hunting time, to which Brita’s brother Oluf Armsköld answered that it had in fact been shot on his land and was to be consumed at his sister’s daughter’s wedding at Näs.

När Gabriel gifte sig med Maria Margareta i 1672 hette han fortfarande Piädeståhl: Fendrichen Gabriel Piädeståhl och Jungf. Maria Margaretha Fanehielm. Morgongåfva Et tusende dahler silfvermynt. Torpa församling.
The marriage between Gabriel Piedeståhl and noble maiden Maria Margaretha Fahnehielm. Torpa parish.

16th July: Ensign Gabriel Piedeståhl – Miss Maria Margaretha Fanehielm – Morning gift A thousand daler silver coins

Translated from Swedish

Maria’s mother Brita seems to have had a profound influence on Gabriel which shaped his future life. After all, she was his nearest point of reference with regard to learning how to behave as a nobleman, locally and in the district court, where all the civil questions where processed. As a noblewoman she had a right to a manor house of her own, but when her husband died and their children took over Näs, Brita no longer had one to herself. In stead of lodging with her children she simply rebuilt her noble farm Linnekullaicon-map-marker as a manor house and requested at the district court that it be given manor status (and consequently freedom from taxes). The request was immediately granted, as the district court found that she had built a stately building of several storeys, at least as fine as any manor house in the area.

The oldest remaining building at Södra (South) Linnekulla. Photo: Esben Alfort 2017.

Gabriel’s new-won privileges not only allowed him to settle on a manor, but even required him to do so, according to certain regulations put in place in order to make sure that people lived according to their rank. Normally, an officer must live within the area of his company, but in another letter from 1671 Gabriel wrote to the state council to regret the fact that it was not in his power to comply with this rule, seeing as he did not in fact own an estate. He therefore requested the use of the property Varabökeicon-map-marker in Göteryd parish outside Älmhult, very close to the Scanian border. As late as the 19th century this was still an estate for military personnel, but it is unclear exactly what status it would have had at the time. Apparently the request was not granted, but then his mother-in-law stepped up and helped them, because after all she had just upgraded the (Södra) Linnekulla manoricon-map-marker to manorhouse status, so Gabriel and Maria could have that. Presumably she made sure that she would be allowed to stay on for the rest of her life.

Varaböke today. Source: Google.

Gabriel was still responsible for a company in Växjö in Småland, more than 200 km from his place of residence. It was a long way to travel, so he soon tired of this arrangement, and in a letter dated 6th November 1672 he requested to be transferred to a post as lieutenant in the locally-based Östgöta infantry. Far from acceding to this request, the officers in charge told him to patiently await promotion within his own regiment just like everybody else.

The duel

Suddenly everybody was talking of a shocking affair – a duel between two men of honour. The event was to give young Gabriel Piedeståhl nation-wide fame, but it would also demonstrate his honest nature. In fact, reading this story made me start to reconsider his personality in a much more positive light. I now think he deserves considerably more respect than he usually gets. He is normally described as a hard and ruthless person, but it seems to me that he was probably also a thoroughly moral individual, at least when it came to questions of honour, and to the extent that he could control his roguish temper. It was just that his strong personality – including his morals – made him very sure of himself and caused him to be a law unto himself. Having read the surviving documents, I think he acted with a conviction of doing the right thing all his life, although people around him might not always have agreed. He cared very much about his wife and daughters, and disagreements in the family circle made him thoroughly dejected.

The story behind the duel begins with a humiliating military defeat at Lyck in Poland in 1656, where two officers by the names of colonel Hans Ulfsparre and major general Erik Drake were both present. Afterwards, Ulfsparre defamed the major general to such a degree that the latter wished to settle the score in a duel. This is where Gabriel comes in, because major general Drake appointed him to communicate the illegal challenge to the colonel. Interestingly, Drake lived at Göberg in Linderås parish, not far from Gabriel’s home, and his sister Margareta was married to Christer Lillie, who owned the Liljeholmen estate, which was destined to become Gabriel’s property later, and eventually the Alfort family seat for a very long time. The two of them were probably good friends, and Drake must have thought Gabriel a thoroughly decent man to choose him for this office.

As duelling was illegal, Gabriel must seek Ulfsparre covertly. He first went to Stockholm, but did not find him there. He then decided to try his luck at the market in Norrköping, where he hoped Ulfsparre would turn up. The plan succeeded, but he did not receive a warm welcome – not so much because of the challenge to a duel as because the colonel resented Drake’s choice of a simple ensign to communicate the challenge to him. Having a rather high opinion of himself, he thought he deserved to hear it from a “more sensible and reputable man”. This notion in turn incensed Gabriel, who was himself a very proud man in spite of his modest background as compared to the two main characters of this farce. Later, he would make the following statement to the royal court in which he sought to restore his honour:

as the colonel mentions that the deceased major general ought to have employed more sensible and reputable people for it (i.e. to communicate the challenge), to that I answer that I according to my standing and worth prize myself just as good as any of those the colonel has used (be they however in their due respect); although I have not reached the age and therefore have not represented the chargie [of those], I thank God and his Royal Majesty my most gracious king for what has been entrusted to me; I hope through God’s help eventually to be of so good and exact a service to my gracious king as they have been, for I have not yet heard of any officer or private born with boots and spurs, but must await what time offers; though I am not of high provenance, I thank God for an honest and chivalrous temperament and prefer to live virtuously and honestly in poor provenance to the serious wrongdoing [of people] of higher provenance.

Translated from Swedish

Ulfsparre certainly proved to be anything but an honourable man, as the continuation of this story will show.

Carrying out the duel was not easy, since it had to be done clandestinely. The antagonists kept deciding on new places and times in order to evade discovery, and Gabriel followed Drake on all of these travels. Once, they had decided to meet at Fredrikshall. Drake had come all the way to Strömstad when he was forced to give up because the authorities had got wind of the planned duel. They finally met by Tranås Kvarn, close to Gabriel’s residence. But instead of meeting him in a duel, Ulfsparre traitorously shot his opponent in the back as he was going home in his sled from Liljeholmen to Göberg. A week later, he died from the wound.

Tranås Kvarn in the 1880s.

Ulfsparre then made another mistake, which would just serve to underline his already apparent dishonesty. When Drake’s widow brought her husband’s assassin to court, Gabriel helped her as much as he could. He knew better than anyone what had happened, so Ulfsparre decided to make a stab at buying his silence for the sum of 200 gold ducats. Gabriel did not fall for it. When Ulfsparre haughtily stated that the witness Gabriel was not even “worthy of being called a man” (värdig att kallas en man), he answered: ”I cannot deny that had I been eius inconstantiae and in accordance with the intentions of the colonel’s supporters and good friends allowed myself to be corrupted, I should by no means merit an honest man’s title or name”. He adds that he: ”neither from enticement, which has taken place, nor from threats would allow himself to deviate from the truth”.

His straight and honest handling of the case, in combination with his obvious willpower and personality, recommended him to the people in charge in the army and assisted him in his career in times to come. He was about to be promoted.

War with Denmark and Gabriel’s rise to nobility

Two years later, on 28th August 1674 Gabriel was finally promoted to lieutenant, when an old lieutenant in von Buchwald’s cavalry regiment in Småland who appears to have been a relative of Gabriel retired and requested that Gabriel be made his successor. The request was granted on the strength of Gabriel’s merits during the six years with colonel Lybecker. However, as his new assignment was with the local cavalry, he still had to travel just as far.

In spite of the privileges given to him at his marriage, Gabriel was not actually a nobleman, and it is likely that he had a strong wish to acquire the same status as his wife. The usual way to achieve this was by showing extraordinary courage and audacity in war. When you read about Gabriel you certainly often get the impression of a determined and unscrupulous man who did exactly as he wished. At home, it would often land him in trouble, but in war it worked well.

In September the following year, Sweden was drawn into one of her many wars with Denmark, and the Swedish army was suffering severe Danish attacks in Scania, which Denmark wanted to liberate from the Swedish occupation. This was weakening the Swedish defences, and so in 1676, colonel Hans Ramsvärd was given the task of strengthening the army by erecting a new regiment consisting of old dismissed cavalry men from Småland, adding young recruits as necessary. Gabriel was immediately made captain and squadron leader in this new regiment. He seems to have been a great asset in his new job, among other things by personally enlisting three equestrian troops for the regiment from his home area.

The Battle at Lund, painting by Johan Philip Lemke (1696).
The Battle of Lund 1676. Painting by Johan Philip Lemke 1696.

Ramsvärd’s regiment of “old Smålanders” played an important role in the war, partaking in the victorious battle of Lund, as well as at the Danish siege of Kristianstad, the battles of Hälsingborg, and probably the one at Landskrona. Gabriel had by then become a quartermaster of the regiment, and on 1st April 1677 he was made captain of the Scanian cavalry regiment. He must have done well, for on 2nd September he finally received his coveted knighthood. The reason for granting him nobility was his “long, loyal and courageous war service and the skilfulness and good conduct shown by him”. The letter of arms issued by the king at the occasion includes the following statement:

not only born and originating from honourable parents, and thereby from his childhood having the possibility, will and desire to make himself, particularly in the military, skilful in Our and the crown’s service, but also, since he was there enrolled as a common horseman, has shown this same laudable intent to such an extent that he has through his decent and courageous services held one charge after the other until this his present position as captain.

Translated from Swedish

No one could say now that he did not deserve his privileges. From that day, he was known as Gabriel Gyllenståhl.

Gabriel Gyllenståhl in Ramsvärd's company in 1678.
Gabriel Gyllenståhl in Ramsvärd’s company in 1678.

In northern Scania, local gangs of guerrilla soldiers preferring Danish rule were successfully fighting the Swedes. The king therefore ordered that all able men in Örkened parish be executed without mercy, all farms burned and all livestock and victuals plundered. Ramsvärd and Gabriel were among those selected to carry out these orders in April 1678. This year also saw Gabriel promoted to major with 80 horsemen under his command, but he seems only to have served in that capacity for a very short time, as he suddenly and unexpectedly left war service in 1679, only 35 years old. In fact, his title as major, which he used on every occasion for the rest of his life, was not confirmed by the king until 9th November 1695.

Why did Gabriel leave the regiment? There may have been several reasons for this. Probably, his sense of honour could not bear the humiliation of a certain royal inspection at which his squadron did so poorly that the king “considered it with some disgrace” (med någon onåde velat anse). Gabriel wrote to the king after the inspection, explaining that his bad performance was due to his having fallen off his horse shortly before the exercise, and also to his having caught his foot in the stirrups of a horseman riding towards him during it. Hardly a good excuse for bad performance in wartime.

Perhaps he had better reasons for wishing to quit his military career, however. He had at this point acquired a substantial fortune, including a large number of manors and farms, which naturally demanded his attention. From that date, he starts fighting his battles in court instead, and his name immediately crops up everywhere in the legal documents from all the areas where he owned property.

The Danes capture Kristianstad 1676. Painting by Claus Moinichen 1686.

Gyllenståhl the legend

Gabriel’s riches would naturally have engendered a certain amount of jealousy, and that is probably the origin of another story about Gabriel which has been widely spread, but which already Klockhoff showed to be most likely just an old man’s misremembered tales, and thus completely without foundation. According to this myth, Gabriel had during the war in Scania succeeded in laying ambush to a Danish convoy with horses and foodstuffs, as well as the entire Danish war chest, complete with 50,000 riksdaler in copper plate. When he addressed the king and handed over the treasures, the king was so pleased that he let Gabriel keep the war chest, making him one of the richest men in the kingdom. Klockhoff traces the story to some biographical notes by major Carl Ludvig Du Rietz in Stora Tidersrum, a grandson of Gabriel’s, who was 86 years old when he wrote the following account:

During king Karl XI’s war with Denmark, the king was in Scania with the army, where he had received information from his snapphanar – that was what spies were called at the time – that the Danish war chest was on its way to the Danish camp. The king then ordered that the lieutenant at Uppvidinge Company with 38 horsemen, among them also the horseman Maths Stål, should, along with a quartermaster, attempt to capture the mentioned chest.

This division left camp immediately, and when the Swedish division met the Danes, fighting broke out on both sides with equal ferocity, whereby on the Swedish side the lieutenant and the quartermaster were both shot. My comrades then made to retreat to our camp, but I stopped them and said: if our commander has been shot, I shall lead on personally, for the chest we shall have, I told [or: said I?] Maths Stål, and avenge our shot brothers. Under my command, fighting was resumed with double ferocity, and when the commander of the Danish troop was shot, the Danes who were in command(?), fled, and the war chest was ours along with 15 equipped Danish horses and everything else which we had captured, and which is now in Your Majesty’s camp.

Thus was the oral report that the horseman Stål gave the king in His Majesty’s tent. The king thanked Cornet Stål for the bravery he had shown under his command and presented him with the Danish war chest, but the letters and other documents that it contained, were left to the king, who kept the 15 Danish horses with what else they had captured for themselves. Then the king saw to it that the cornet in Uppvidinge Company was made a lieutenant at the same company, and Stål was made cornet after him with a salary and a cottage.

Translated from Swedish

It is a very good story, but it is flawed in several respects, as observed by Klockhoff. First of all, nothing really connects this story to Gabriel Gyllenståhl. The hero in the story is called Maths, not Gabriel. Gabriel was not a common horseman either – he was squadron leader and captain. Klockhoff suggests that the old major Du Rietz was reporting a variation on an old camp story. As pointed out by Klockhoff, it is also highly unlikely that even the most heroic of soldiers would have been rewarded with a large amount of money at the time, since money was very scarce. The constant wars had drained the Swedish finances, so awards were given in the form of promotions and livings rather than money.

Interestingly, the story would in fact seem to bear some resemblance to an event known as Loshultskuppen which definitely took place in the area at the time, but with the exact opposite effect. On 24th July 1676 a Swedish war chest was captured by local farmers who had teamed up with Danish horsemen to fight the Swedes. The value is estimated to have been at least 28,600 daler in copper plate, a phenomenal sum, and this loss was one of many reasons why the Swedish finances were in a bad state. This event may well be the origin of the story assigned to Gabriel Gyllenståhl, a suspicion which would seem to be confirmed by the otherwise very strange use of the word snapphanar for Swedish spies. A snapphane was a Scanian rebel or guerrilla soldier who acted as a spy for the Danes and fought the Swedes. The Swedish king would simply not have had snapphanar. The fact that the writer adds a comment explaining the meaning of the word – ‘it simply meant spy at the time’ – suggests that either he himself felt that the use of the word was inappropriate in this case, or alternatively that he (and people around him) would no longer be certain about its meaning. I believe the story about Gabriel was an adaptation of this story which arose in the camps through a mixing up of names and facts in order to explain his sudden wealth.

Gyllenståhl the investor

So how did Gabriel Gyllenståhl acquire his great wealth? One document in particular is of importance when trying to find an answer to this question. When his daughter Märta Christina was courted by two competing rivals, one of whom seemed to be in financial difficulties, her stepmother wrote to her:

however, I ask my dear daughter to take care and remember with what difficulty your dear father has gathered his property in order to conserve [i.e. ensure an inheritance for] his children

Translated from Swedish

Clearly, then, he did not acquire his wealth overnight, but rather had to work hard for it.

The fact seems to be that he was simply a very skilful investor. Gabriel inherited several manors through his advantageous marriage, and he invested his money cleverly in other estates, which gave him a larger income. Eventually, he owned more than 60 manors and farms in Östergötland. In practice, these were run by tenants, but he derived a lot of money from them.

His not having been born a nobleman would in fact have been an advantage, because having no inheritance to speak of – no manors or lands bestowed by earlier kings – he had nothing to lose when the financially troubled Karl XI started to withdraw such earlier bestowals in order to strengthen the state finances. Large tracts of land were confiscated, reducing the income of the nobility to such an extent that many families found it very difficult to pay the upkeep of their manors. It is no wonder that Gabriel’s rise to wealth in such times generated a certain amount of jealousy.

Gabriel, who was not affected by these so-called reductions for the simple reason that he wasn’t made a nobleman until late in the period, managed to exploit the situation for his own gain by lending money to an array of noble families who found themselves in financial difficulties. He would for example offer to pay all their debts in exchange for an estate. This was the way in which he collected the many manors and farms over the years. It was also common at the time to simply exchange farms in order to acquire more farms in the same area, because it didn’t really matter what farm you owned as long as it gave a good income. It was simply a form of investment.

It would appear that he got the idea for this approach in 1680 when helping his mother-in-law Brita Armsköld acquire the noble farm Aspa in the Asby peninsula as payment for money owed to her for several years by the owner Christer Horn. Maybe this was when the idea was created in his mind, or perhaps the idea arose later when he realized that he could do the same with other noblemen in difficulties.

It is almost impossible to get an overview of the many estates Gabriel Gyllenståhl owned, but some of them will be enumerated here for reference.

As mentioned above, he inherited the estate of Södra Linnekulla in Torpa parish in Östergötland through his wife at their marriage in 1672. His additional acquisitions started out modest. In 1678, while he was still in service in Växjö, he bought part of Högerås in Svinhult parish in Småland, which had belonged to his mother-in-law’s sister Karin Armsköld, and in 1679 he added Rås, the neighbour of Linnekulla. He then quit the army and soon after extended his properties by Lake Sommen considerably when he bought Sommenäs manor with its dependent farms in Malexander parish from Per Biälke and Märtha Sparre in Stockholm for a sum of 6325 riksdaler in silver. It wasn’t long before the first ownership dispute arose between his Björndal under Sommenäs and the neighbouring cottage Kättestorp, as well as between Björndal and Pinnarp, where Gabriel at several occasions is reported to have overturned a stone fence. Not surprisingly, this incensed the neighbours quite a bit, but Gabriel could afford to be taken to court. At this time, he also owned the manors Somvik and Stjärnesand farther to the north, as well as Brevik on the island of Torpön in the lake. It is unclear when he came to possess these. He was in a legal dispute with his neighbour Börshult on Torpön in the year 1700 because a farmer had felled some trees on the tiny islet of Klovön, which Gabriel claimed was the property of Brevik, but which the owner of Börshult was sure was his to fell. Gabriel won that first dispute, although nowadays the islet is in fact counted as part of Börshult.

In 1682, he acquired Aspanäs manor (known as the home of Saint Birgitta) and a range of farms. During the next few years he bought several additional properties and exchanged some for others. In 1685, he signed a deed of purchase for Börsjö manor and ironworks in Finspång, now known under the name of Stjärnevik – but as was so often the case during this period, the intended sale led to a dispute with the owner’s relatives. According to the law at the time, property acquired through inheritance or as part of a morning gift could not be sold to a stranger if the owner had relatives with an inheritance claim to it who protested against the sale. Therefore, when a deed of sale had been signed, this fact must be announced publicly at three consecutive courts. If nobody protested, the sale could go ahead. Unfortunately, people often did protest, and the rule had many family disputes on its conscience. In this case, too, the owner’s resentful relatives stopped the sale of Börsjö manor and Gabriel was forced to return the deed. It wasn’t until 1688 that he was finally allowed to buy it.

By then his acquisitions had really started to accumulate. That same year, he bought Liljeholmen manor along with the farms Hårdaholmen and Fiskarp from Mrs Margaretha Drake, who had run into financial problems. He paid her debts and in return got the properties cheap.

In 1689, he added Lyckö and Häggarp. He also acquired Kuseboholm manor in Vårdnäs parish whose owner was unable to pay his debts, and a year later he added the island Unön in the middle of Lake Stora Rängen, which he bought from the nearby Säby Palace. Its owner owed Gabriel money, probably because of a loan given to help him through the tough times, and in 1699 Gabriel would take over several farms in the area as payment. He had also recently received several manors confiscated from Captain Patkul in Kalmar County as payment for lost interest. Most likely this was Johann Patkul (1660 – 1707), who led the Livonian nobility’s resistance against the reduction. Patkul was later condemned to death for his actions.

Gabriel lived at Södra Linnekulla all his life, but only during winter. His summers he would spend at Börsjö. He explicitly stated that he considered both of these manors his home, and that he only left Börsjö during winter because he did not wish to “waste the forests at the expense of the ironworks” (utöda skogen bruken till skada) for his own household needs. However, this statement was probably just an attempt at persuading the local reverend Jonas Lithinius to perform the wedding ceremony between his daughter Hedevig and Gustaf Adolf Macklier, which he refused, among other things because he did not consider her to belong to his parish. But more of this later. They certainly seem to have spent most of their time in Torpa. His children had received their religious education from Torpa church, and there he would eventually be buried in a family grave outside the church. Börsjö was where he had his business.

The family ironworks

Louis De Geer sr. (1587 - 1657), painting by David Beck.
Louis De Geer sr., painting by David Beck.

The Swedish iron industry was pioneered by the father of Swedish industry himself, Louis de Geer sr. (1587 – 1657), in that very area. In a time rife with wars, there was a huge demand for cannons and cannon balls, and Louis de Geer exploited this fully. This made him so rich that he actually lent money to the king at one point. A darker side to his riches, however, is his involvement in the first Swedish slave trade. His son, Louis de Geer jr., continued his ironworks business, but by then others had cottoned on and had started their own establishments.

Gabriel Gyllenståhl seems to have founded his own ironworks at Börgöl in 1674. This was a business which he cared very much about, and which his son-in-law Erik Alfort would later inherit. It is likely, however, that Gabriel bought the Börsjö estate with its ironworks because of a wish to establish a more extensive and lucrative iron business, perhaps inspired by the success of the de Geers. He didn’t stop there; for years he attempted to buy Ysunda Ironworks east of Finspång, but was stopped by the owner’s relatives. It was only in 1692 that he could finally buy half of the establishment, still under protests from the children. By then, the first of several legal disputes had recently arisen with another ironworks downstream from Börgöl, Lotorp, the owner of which accused them of using too much of the stream’s water power. In 1694, the owners had died, and Gyllenståhl bought it, too, once again under protest from their relatives.

Whatever his other qualities, Gabriel must have realized that he lacked the necessary knowhow to run the business at Börgöl, for in 1683 he sold half of it to Louis de Geer jr.; henceforth the two thrifty men ran the ironworks together. They obtained permission to operate it on condition that:

it be fuelled with his own coals, which are obtainable from his noble properties in Börgöl and other apartments thereabouts, as well as with the pig iron that he produces at the non-noble works at Finspång, or otherwise can obtain from his farmers as taxed pig iron, so that neither through the buying of pig iron or the use of coals any other works thereabouts suffer disadvantage or harm.

Translated from Swedish
Den äldsta resp. den mest använda kontrollstämpeln som sattes på järn från Börgöls Bruk.
The oldest and the most used stamp for marking iron produced at Börgöl.

They were given a privilege to strike 310 skeppund bar iron, approximately 46.5 tonnes. The work needed a master smith (hammarsmedmästare) and 3-4 workers, and eventually they erected a frame saw and a flourmill on the premises. The activity also provided employment for many others – the raw iron needed to be brought in from ovens in Bergslagen, and prepared bar iron conveyed to Norrköping, coal needed to be extracted and transported, and foodstuffs procured for the ironworks depot.

Workmen’s housing at Börgöls Bruk. The building to the right is preserved in its original state. Source: Building inventory, Risinge (1971).

When Börgöl Ironworks accidentally burned down in 1693, Louis de Geer didn’t want to rebuild it, but Gabriel was adamant. He eventually got a royal permission to rebuild it from his own funds. Thenceforth he owned it alone, on the condition of paying de Geer an annual sum of 15 daler in silver for continuing to use the stream’s water power. From then on, he would include a paragraph in the contracts with his master smiths that if it were damaged, they would be personally responsible for rebuilding it. He was not going to risk another expensive fire.

Gabriel never had the skill or the time to manage the works himself, so he hired people to oversee the production on his behalf at each of the ironworks. It was very important to choose the right man. At Börsjö, he had a manager (gårdsfogde) called Lars Jönsson. In the beginning, he was apparently content with his manager’s work, but in 1698, when the works performed poorly, their relationship started to get strained. Gabriel complained of the performance and drew up a contract with his manager to regulate the business. As this didn’t improve the results, he started to mistrust him, and finally accused him of embezzlement in 1703. Lars Jönsson protested his innocence. Unfortunately, we do not know how it all ended.

Perhaps Gabriel’s mistrust had its roots in his experience with another entrusted employee a few years before. In 1694, his secretary (handskrivare) Lars Påhlsson, had been condemned to death for repeated theft and embezzlement. It is clear from the documents left to us that the true cause of Gabriel’s indignation was not really the thefts so much as the implied breach of trust:

As I have reluctantly had to trouble the legal district court with my accusation against my former secretary Lars Påhlsson, whom I had sent to learn to read and write and had reared, and thought nothing but a man would be made of him, but thus he has ignored all my goodness and made himself a rogue and a thief, in numerous cases which I can never proclaim and describe

Translated from Swedish
Gabriels namnteckning på Torpa kyrkas räkenskap 1694.
Gabriel’s signature on the accounts of Torpa church in 1694.

As Gabriel probably could not read and write himself, it was extremely important for him to be able to trust his secretary. In court, he enumerated the many cases of theft and embezzlement, and the lies told to him by his trusted secretary to account for the missing money and documents, betraying great bitterness. Several of his possessions had also been stolen from his home while he was ill and bedridden, among them a couple of his best pistols and a belt of elk hide adorned with a silver buckle. The swindler hade finally made off with a huge sum of money and boarded a ship for Stralsund, where he had joined the army, only to be rediscovered later and brought to court in Sweden.

This is all that is left at Börgöl today. Photo: Kjell Quarfot.

When Gabriel died, 5/6 of Börgöl Ironworks were sold to the army secretary Hans Ekelund, “who however did not come into true possession until 17th September 1716”. From 1710 to 1716 the ironworks was thus run by his son-in-law Erik Alfort, who had inherited the last sixth through his wife. He restored the dilapidated works to service in 1712 and ran it himself until 1716 when it finally went out of the family. In 1727, Ekelund accused him of having illicitly appropriated his 5/6 of the works and used the resources for a decade without recompensing him. The famous Emanuel Swedenborg was one of the assors at the ensuing hearing in the College of Mines.

The ironworks later grew and expanded its privileges and became a great success, until finally in the second half of the 19th century that type of ironworks became obsolete. The hammer was shut down in 1871, after 200 years of continuous banging.

Torpa Church was very much dominated by the Gyllenståhl and Fahnehielm families, and later also the Alfort family. At the time, it would have been undecorated. Photo: Esben Alfort 2017.

A noble line goes extinct

Less than eight months after their wedding, Maria bore Gabriel a son, whom they called Peder Gabriel. It is unclear whether this early birth was in any way shocking, since he had after all committed to the marriage long before by writing to the royal office. The boy died after 15 months, on the same day as Maria bore him another son, which was consequently given the same name. This second Peder Gabriel survived for five years.

Note: In Torpa church there is a plaque in memory of Peder Gabriel Gyllenståhl, bearing the years 1673-1677. This makes no sense in view of the information in the church registers, so there must be some error. The two sons lived 1673-1674 and 1674-1677. Perhaps a restoration effort has resulted in the wrong year being read and painted?

The coat of arms in honour of Per Gabriel Gyllenståhl. Photo: Esben Alfort 2017.

The couple eventually had six children, but they were never to have any surviving sons. The third child, Brita Maria, only grew to 14 years of age, but after that things started looking up. By now, Gabriel had been ennobled and really needed a son if his title and privileges were to be handed down to the next generation. This was not to be, but at least the next three daughters all survived and married well. Hedevig Margareta married lieutenant Gustaf Adolf Macklier, and Maria Sophia married captain Erik Alfort. The youngest daughter, Märta Christina, married the vice district judge (vice häradshövding) Johan Svanhals after Gabriel’s death. Much more will be told of these daughters and their marriages in chapter 4.

Maria died on 5th May 1691, having apparently lived a happy life with her rough-diamond husband, if we are to believe the words of the priest in Torpa:

Anno 1691, 5th May, the noble and right honourable lady Maria Margaretha Fahnehielm to Linnekulla, Aspanäs, Sommenäs etc, the right honourable Sir Major Gabriel Gyllenståhl’s dearly beloved wife, passed away in the Lord.

Translated from Swedish
Maria Margaretha Fahnehielms död 1691: Ao 1691, d. 5. Maji afsomnade i Horaholm(?), den ädle och wällborne fru Maria Margaretha Fahnehielm till Linnekulla, Aspanäs, Sommenäs och Wällb:ne Hr Majorens Gabriels Gyllenståhls fordom kiärälskeliga hustru. Torpa församling.
Maria Fahnehielm’s death 1691. Torpa parish.
Maria Fahnehielms kista

Gabriel still had no son, so his line would go extinct after its very first generation unless he married a younger woman now. He was not a man to give up when once he had plan, so a year later he was wed to the 18 years old nobleman’s daughter Catharina Cronhielm (2/4 1674 – 2/11 1731). Gabriel had by then reached the respectable age of 48, so she was of an age with his daughters. He had chosen the daughter of district judge (landshövding) in Västerås Polycarpus Krumbygel, ennobled as Polycarpus Cronhielm, and Hebbla Standorph. Her father was actually employed with the reduction committee, whose job it was to confiscate land from the nobility, so they must have had a lot to talk about!

Catharina Cronhielm.
Catharina Cronhielm.

Once again, Gabriel had married wealth, this time in the form of approximately 5000 riksdaler specie. Catharina eventually bore him another three children, but to Gabriel’s regrets, still no son survived.

  • 7. icon-femaleUlrica Christina ”Stina” Gyllenståhl (23/2 1694 – 19/10 1742)
    •  icon-user Carl du Rietz icon-play
  • 8. icon-female Hebbla Catharina (23/4 1696 – 22/4 1700)  icon-times
  • 9. icon-male Carl Magnus (3/11 1698 – 22/4 1700)  icon-times

Gabriel was now forced to accept that he was not going to have a son, and so he must turn his attention to “conserving” his daughters, i.e. providing them with sufficient means to ensure that they would marry well. He therefore started to sell off some of his many properties. After all, he only needed one for himself and one for each of his daughters – the rest of the fortune might be better for them to inherit in cash. The eldest sisters’ share of their mother’s inheritance they had in the main settled at her death, though they would only receive it on marrying.

He had already transferred “several farms and apartments in Östergötland” (åtskilliga Hemman och Lägenheeter i Östergiöthelandh) to district judge Eric Lovisin in 1689, something which would lead to many years of legal dispute with Lovisin’s children after his death, because no payment had in fact been made. Now he sold off several of his other acquisitions. He also mortgaged some of his estates, so it is possible that his money had actually started to run out towards the end of his life. The upkeep of his many properties must after all have been enormous. Nevertheless, his entire fortune was valued at 56,442:21.15 after his death, which was a very substantial sum.

Erik Alfort and his wife inherited the beautiful Liljeholmen manor, the neighbouring farm Hårdaholmen and the cottages Fiskarp, Häggarp and Arnäs in Torpa parish (nowadays in Blåvik parish), as well as Braskebo in Asby parish and the Börgöl Ironworks in Risinge parish for himself and his descendants. Liljeholmen was to be the stronghold of the family for two centuries, until it was finally sold to the company Boxholmsbolaget in the latter half of the 19th century. As late as the early 20th century there were still descendants living at Liljeholmen as farm hands.

Liljeholmen i 1905. Foto: Carl Stille.
Liljeholmen in 1905, when there were still a few descendants working there. Photo: Carl Stille.

Gabriel died in 1705, 61 years old and worn out after a very eventful and active life. He was buried in the Fahnehielm family grave in Torpa cemetery. The grave was removed in the 19th century, and the remains of the dead were relocated. Nobody knows exactly where the great Gabriel Gyllenståhl reposes.

Chapter 4, The price of wilfulness, recounts the dramatic story of Gabriel’s daughters and their love lives.

Selected sources for chapter 3

This text is a synthesis of many years of work and is derived from countless sources. Among them are the following.

icon-check   02-12-2023