Finland needed a ruler. That, at least, was the claim of the monarchist faction in its 1918 parliament, keen to hold off the Swedish aristocracy and Bolshevik agitators, and to establish the newly proclaimed independent country as a European monarchy.
Before claiming independence, Finland had spent a century as a Russian grand duchy, causing the policy wonks of the new state to dig deep into the archives in search of a precedent. They found it in a 1772 statute, back when Finland was still part of Sweden, suggesting that in the case of a monarch not being available, a new one could be elected. Determined not to have a Russian or a Swede in charge, the Finns turned to the Germans, who eventually offered them Prince Frederick Charles of Hesse (1868-1940), the Kaiser’s brother-in-law.
Frederick threw himself into Finnish lessons, which soon turned out to be harder than he was expecting, while the womenfolk of Finland started enthusing about his eldest surviving son, Wolfgang, the Crown Prince. Plans were afoot for the new king to take to his throne late in 1918, as King Karl I of Finland, although republican rumour-mongers started spreading the fake-news version, that he would have the ridiculously old-school name King Väiniö. But it was the republicans who were the problem, refusing to show up for the critical votes in the Finnish parliament that would establish the state as a constitutional monarchy, and bogging the negotiations down.
Prince Frederick Charles was only the nominated “king” for sixty days. By December 1918, Germany had surrendered in the Great War, and other states were refusing to acknowledge Finland except as a republic – they wanted no German princeling raised to power in what used to be part of the Tsar’s empire. Frederick Charles officially gave up his crown on 14th December, before he had even been to Finland, and instead Baron Carl Gustaf Mannerheim was proclaimed the republic’s new regent until a president could be elected.
But there is far more to this footnote of Finnish history than meets the eye. Although on paper it sounds like little more than an exchange of telegrams and some faffing around a possible political appointment, the plan to create a Finnish king was far more involved. At the time Prince Frederick Charles walked away from the idea, Finnish designers were already hard at work on his monograms and his crest, and the uniforms of his honour guard, hand-picked from the ranks of the German-trained Jägers who had fought in the Finnish civil war. The carpets and fixtures for his palace (the former Imperial Palace, now the Presidential Palace) had already been ordered, and artisans from the Stockmann department store in Helsinki were already delivering his sofa.
It’s these elements that lend such weight to the Suomen Kuningas exhibition currently running in Tampere – not merely the story of the king that never was, but the sight of the chairs he had planned to sit on. These cool Deco items were a matter of some controversy – delivered for a kingdom that would not exist, no official of the new republic would pay for them, and Stockmann was obliged to put on a special sale of almost-royal furniture. The curators are to be commended for rounding up some surviving examples in this centenary exhibition, along with the designs for his crown, and his guards’ uniforms, and a snide pop song from the period about the man who would be king.
The almost-King of Finland died in 1940, as the Head of the House of Hesse. Two weeks after his funeral, an envoy arrived from the Finnish embassy in Berlin, and discreetly laid a wreath on his tomb.
Jonathan Clements is the author of An Armchair Traveller’s History of Finland. The Suomen Kuningas exhibition runs at the Museo Milavida in Tampere until October.