Sherlock Holmes and the King of Scandinavia


Joakim Eklund & Joakim Nivre (ed)

of the Swedish Pathological Society


Among the many noble clients who had reason to consult Sherlock Holmes, the King of Scandinavia occupies a special place in that he seems to have commissioned the Great Detective’s services not once but twice, a record which, as far as we know, is only equalled by His Holiness, Pope Leo XIII.

In this article, we will try to establish the identity of the King of Scandinavia and also put forward some speculations about the nature of the services rendered by Sherlock Holmes to the king. The best point of departure, as always, is an examination of the available Canonical evidence.

The first time in the Canon that we hear of Sherlock Holmes’s services to the King of Scandinavia is in NOBL when Holmes informs Lord St Simon that he is descending in terms of the nobility and rank of his clients: "‘My last client of the sort was a king.’ ‘Oh, really! I had no idea. And which king?’ ‘The King of Scandinavia.’ " [NOBL 291] According to the Company Consensus Chronology, this conversation took place in 1888. Moreover, it is important to note that Holmes does not say that the king was his last client, only his last client of the sort, which means that he may have had several clients (of other sorts) in between. (The fact that the King of Scandinavia was a client of the same sort as Lord St Simon may also give us a clue to the nature of the problem in which Holmes assisted the king, as we shall see later.)

The second mention of services rendered to the royal family of Scandinavia can be found in FINA, when Holmes says to Watson: "Between ourselves, the recent cases in which I have been of assistance to the royal family of Scandinavia, and to the French republic, have left me in such a position that I could continue to live in the quiet fashion which is most congenial to me, and to concentrate my attention upon my chemical researches." [FINA 470] Now, since this conversation took place in April 1891 and Holmes refers to his recent services to the royal family, and since his first service to the king must have been at least some three years earlier, it seems we must conclude that Holmes was of service to the Scandinavian royalty on more than one occasion.

Before we leave the Canonical evidence, it must be pointed out that there is one more reference to the King of Scandinavia in the Canon, although this time not as a client of Sherlock Holmes. The reference this time is made by another king, the King of Bohemia, when he says to Holmes: " ‘I am about to be married.’ ‘So I have heard.’ ‘To Clotilde Lothman von Saxe-Meningen, second daughter of the King of Scandinavia.’ " [SCAN 166]

Who was the King of Scandinavia? Let us begin by noting that the term "Scandinavia" does not refer (and has apparently never referred) to any single country, but to a geographical region in Northern Europe. In what appears to be its original and most restricted sense, it refers primarily to the Scandinavian peninsula, i. e., the peninsula today occupied by Sweden and Norway. However, the term is often also used to refer to the three countries of Sweden, Norway and Denmark, and sometimes in an even more extended sense to include also Finland and Iceland. (In the latter case, it is used to refer to what is more correctly known as the Nordic countries: Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland and Iceland.)

In the nineteenth century neither Finland nor Iceland were independent countries – and even today they are not monarchies. Norway belonged to Denmark until 1814 and was after that united with Sweden, which means that there were only two kingdoms in the area at the time: the Kingdom of Denmark and the United Kingdom of Sweden and Norway. In these circumstances, it seems overwhelmingly probable that the phrase "the King of Scandinavia" was used to refer to the King of Sweden and Norway. First of all, this corresponds to the original sense of the term "Scandinavia" (although this was never used as an official name for the United Kingdom of Sweden and Norway). Secondly, even if we grant that Scandinavia is often taken to include Denmark as well as Sweden and Norway, it would be distinctly odd to use the common denomination "Scandinavia" to single out only one of three countries (Denmark), especially when the two remaining countries were united. So unless Doctor Watson (or his literary agent) is deliberately trying to mislead us – which of course is a possibility that can never be ruled out completely, especially given the delicate nature of the problems involved – it seems we may conclude that the King of Scandinavia was in fact the King of Sweden and Norway, viz. Oskar II.

Oskar II was born in 1829 as the second son of Oskar I (1799—1859). In 1872, he succeeded his brother Karl XV (who died without male heirs) as king of Sweden and Norway. He remained king of Sweden until his death in 1907 but had to renounce the Norwegian throne in 1905 when Norway dissolved the union with Sweden. He was married to Sophie of Nassau (1836—1913) and had four sons (Gustav, Oskar, Karl and Eugen) but no daughter.

We note here a slight problem with the identification of Oskar II as the King of Scandinavia, since the evidence from SCAN seems to suggest that the King of Scandinavia had at least two daugthers, the second being the mysterious Clotilde Lothman von Saxe-Meningen. On the other hand, it seems that all attempts at identifying this Scandinavian princess (and, by implication, her father) have failed, and we are probably justified in assuming that, in this instance, the phrase "the King of Scandinavia" was used by the Good Doctor to conceal the real identity of the persons concerned and not to refer to a historical individual. The fact that Oskar II had no daughter made it perfectly safe to use the phrase "the King of Scandinavia" without danger of implicating the real king in the scandalous affairs of the King of Bohemia.

However, even if the reference in SCAN is not to be trusted, it does not follow that the other references to the King of Scandinavia in the Canon are not genuine. And for the remainder of this article, we will assume that when the King of Scandinavia was mentioned as a client of Sherlock Holmes (in NOBL and FINA) the person concerned was in fact Oskar II.

Having thus established as a plausible hypothesis that the King of Scandinavia was the King of Sweden and Norway, Oskar II, we can now proceed to discuss the nature of the problems over which Sherlock Holmes was consulted by the king. As noted earlier, we are led to assume that the consultations took place on at least two different occasions, the first in 1888 (or even earlier) and the second in 1890-1891.

Oskar II was a king who enjoyed travelling in Europe and during the spring and summer of 1888 he travelled in the Mediterranean countries. There he seized the opportunity to discuss the political situation in Europe with monarchs and politicians, as he "sensed an agitation in the international atmosphere". In Rome he met both king Umberto and the prime minister Franceso Crispi, one of the leading figures in the formation of a united Italy. The main problem on the agenda was the risk of war due to the movement in France associated with Georges Boulanger. During his journey in the Mediterranean Oskar II also visited Madrid, where he spoke to the Spanish minister of foreign affairs, Moret. Later in 1888, Oskar II visited England to see Lord Salisbury and discuss the strategic effects of the new railroad from Luleå (on the East coast of Sweden) to Lofoten (on the Atlantic coast of Norway) which was also connected to the Russian railway system.

During the 1890s Oskar II was deeply involved in the problems of the Swedish-Norwegian union (which resulted in the dissolution of the union initiated by Norway in 1905). In 1891 the Swedish prime minister Gustaf Åkerhielm had to resign because of the "Norwegian issue" and the king appears to have remained in Sweden during most of this turbulent period. No journeys abroad are registred in the annals.

What, then, may have occurred in 1888 and 1890—1891 to cause Oskar II to commission the services of Sherlock Holmes? One possibility is suggested by the king’s popular reputation as a womanizer. There are numerous stories about the king’s romantic adventures, especially on the west coast of Sweden where Oskar II spent many of his summers in Göteborg and on the island of Marstrand. According to Rune Pär Olofsson, amateur historian and author of a book on Oskar II, the king had several extra-marital affairs and was especially fond of young actresses. In 1875, he was involved with a certain Miss Marie Friberg, a member of the choir at the Royal Opera in Stockholm. The king apparently made a fool of himself in the theatrical circles of Stockholm by using his influence to get Miss Friberg admitted to "Dramatens elevskola", the most prestigious acting school in Sweden. Among the other affairs related by Olofsson, we note a long-lasting relationship with a Norwegian consul’s wife by the name of Gerner. The affair seems to have been ended around 1883, when the king thought that Mrs Gerner was starting to "imagine that she was some kind of Madame Pompadour".

Even if many of the stories told about Oskar II may be exaggerated (or even untrue), it does not seem unlikely that one of the romantic adventures may have come back to haunt the king in later years in the guise of blackmail or extortion. And it is possible that the real reason for the king’s visit to England in the autumn of 1888 was not a desire to see Lord Salisbury but an urgent need to consult with Sherlock Holmes. This would fit well with Holmes’s statement to Lord St Simon (in October 1888) that his last client of the sort was the King of Scandinavia. (The two clients were both of noble rank, and their respective problems both concerned an affaire de cœur.)

Incidentally, the hypothesis that Holmes’s first encounter with the King of Scandinavia concerned a romantic adventure may give us a clue to the strange reference to the King of Scandinavia in SCAN, which according to the Company Consensus Chronology took place approximately six months later than "the first case of the King of Scandinavia". In writing up the SCAN case and searching for a suitable alias for the potential father-in-law of the King of Bohemia, Dr Watson may have been reminded – perhaps subconsciously – of a royal person recently involved in the same kind of difficulty as the King of Bohemia (and subsequently realized that "the King of Scandinavia" would be a perfect alias since the real King of Scandinavia had no daughter and therefore could not be mistaken as the real father). Given that Irene Adler was a performer on the operatic stage just like the young Miss Friberg mentioned earlier, the parallel between the King of Bohemia and the King of Scandinavia would have been rather striking. It may also be suggestive that the admittedly rather unusual Canonical title of SCAN almost contains the name "Scandinavia" in disguise ("A Scandal in Bohem[av]ia".) While all this is certainly beyond the realm of hard and fast evidence, it nevertheless provides stimulating food for thought.

If we assume that the first problem in which Sherlock Holmes assisted the King of Scandinavia concerned a romantic adventure, it is of course tempting to assume that the second problem, occurring two and a half years later, was of the same kind. But the way in which the royal family of Scandinavia is mentioned in FINA may also suggest more serious things, perhaps of international importance. In 1891, we know that Oskar II was very active on the political scene, especially with regard to the "Norwegian issue" (i.e., the growing discontent in Norway with the Swedish-Norwegian Union). It is therefore possible that when the King of Scandinavia commissioned the services of Sherlock Holmes for the second time, it was in regard to some delicate problem in the political situation between Sweden and Norway, where the threat of war was very tangible in the 1890s.

We also know that Holmes and Watson went to Norway in 1895 [BLAC 572], when the Swedish-Norwegian relations were at their worst, and Baring-Gould has remarked that "it is quite possible that Holmes’ visit to Norway in July, 1895 ("The Adventure of Black Peter") was also connected with a mission for Oscar II."

Another possibility is that the two recent cases mentioned by Holmes at the beginning of FINA – concerning the French Republic and the royal family of Scandinavia, respectively – were in fact one and the same case. Without making any claims, we may observe that a very important military treaty between France and Russia was signed on the 27th of March 1891 (although it was not revealed to the public until six years later). This was little more than a month before Holmes’s reunion with Watson at the start of FINA, and it is certainly possible that Holmes, especially with his French ancestry, may have played a role in the preparation of this treaty. We also know that the relation to Russia was very important for the King of Sweden and Norway, as evidenced by his discussions with Lord Salisbury in 1888. Moreover, Oscar II had a rather special relation to the French republic, his grandfather being Jean Baptiste Bernadotte, a French general who served under Napoleon Bonaparte and who was an ardent republican before he was made King of Sweden in 1812 (when the old king, Karl XIII, died without male heirs). This may possibly account for Holmes’s choice of words in speaking of the French Republic and the royal family of Sweden, since the connection between Sweden and the French Republic was so to speak a "family affair".

Finally, we must point to the possible connection between Sherlock Holmes, Oskar II, and the Swedish explorer Sven Hedin, who was a personal friend of the king with whom he corresponded on all his journeys. In an earlier article, we have suggested that Holmes may have met Hedin, alias Sigerson, on his way to Tibet during the Great Hiatus, and it is possible that this meeting was connected with some kind of mission for Oskar II, initiated in 1890—1891 and referred to by Holmes at the beginning of FINA.

At this point, we can do little more than speculate. On the whole, we think it is rather more likely that the first problem of the King of Scandinavia was of a romantic nature, while the second had a political or military significance, but it is difficult if not impossible to reach any definite conclusion on these points. Concerning the identity of the king we are on much surer ground and we think there can be little doubt that the King of Scandinavia, to which Sherlock Holmes rendered invaluable services on at least two occasions, was none other than Oskar II, ruler of the United Kingdom of Sweden and Norway.