Oxenstierna, Axel (1583–1654)

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OXENSTIERNA, AXEL (15831654), Swedish diplomat and statesman. The son of Gustaf Gabrielsson Oxenstierna and Barbo Axelsdotter Bielke, and a contemporary of Richelieu and Mazarin, Oxenstierna was a major figure in Swedish history for over half a century. The leading member of the family in this period, he served as governor of several Swedish imperial territories in the Baltic region including Prussia, director of Sweden's war efforts in Germany, member of the council of state, head of the regency for Christina from 1632 to 1644, and chancellor from 1612 to 1654. During this time, Oxenstierna redefined Sweden's constitution through a series of documents and helped to design and implement reforms in almost every aspect of state affairs. His efforts contributed importantly to Sweden's successes in the seventeenth century.

Oxenstierna was the primary proponent of Swedish aristocratic constitutionalism during this period. His position was formalized in Gustavus II Adolphus's accession charter (1611), by which the king promised to "rule with the council's advice" and honor the legal, tax, property, and career privileges of the nobility, and in the 1634 Form of Government. Oxenstierna's views were also manifested in his definitions of the parliament, the estate of the nobility, the justice system, and provincial administration. He was most able to implement his views during the reign of Gustavus II Adolphus (16111632) and Christina's regency period (16321644).

Despite holding a constitutional view that, if carried to the extreme, would relegate the crown to the role of figurehead, Oxenstierna was able to work effectively (to varying degrees) in all manner of state business with Charles IX, Gustavus II Adolphus, and Christina. He established a truly remarkable partnership with Gustavus Adolphus in which the roles of leader and follower blurred and were often indistinguishable. They effected an end to the crownnoble conflict that had marred much of the sixteenth century, created a new high court system, regularized the makeup and roles of the parliament, systematized the central administration and revised regional government, reformed the military, made peace with Denmark and Russia, concluded a six-year truce with Poland, extended Sweden's holdings in the southeastern Baltic region, intervened in and made substantial gains for Sweden in the Thirty Years' War (16181648), and nurtured the development of Sweden's economy and educational institutions.

During the years of Christina's minority, Oxenstierna was the most powerful person in Sweden and effectively its leader. It was then that he secured acceptance of the 1634 Form of Government, a sixty-five-paragraph constitutional document that defined Sweden's political system, probably written by Oxenstierna, which he claimed carried Gustavus Adolphus's approval. The king's right to rule was clear, and ordinary business was entrusted to the five great officers of state (chancellor, steward, treasurer, marshal, and admiral), each of whom headed one of the "colleges" (departments). The competencies and review procedures for each were defined. The parliament's place in the system was affirmed. Overall, it spelled out existing trends in political development and assured the continuance of government during the absence of a monarch or during a minority.

In this same period, Oxenstierna directed Sweden's involvement in Germany, negotiated new subsidies from the French, and engineered a brief war with Denmark (16441645). He also worked successfully to improve the state's economic situation, which was accomplished by encouraging the immigration of experts in banking, trade, mining, and manufacturing (many from the Netherlands), helping to found commercial companies (such as the New Sweden Company), supporting monopolies (such as those in the copper, iron, and grain trades), and revising the toll systems in Swedish-held ports in the Baltic to increase revenues.

During the last decade of his life, Oxenstierna's health and powers declined. Christina did not share his constitutional views, and she asserted her independence via court favorites and clever political manipulations. She opposed him on the war in Germany, financial policies, her marriage, and the succession issue. Her abdication and the accession of Charles X Gustav in 1654 were both defeats for the aging statesman.

Historians vary in their assessments of Oxenstierna. Some argue that he was power-hungry and wanted to create a dynasty, if not to gain the throne, then to control it. Others believe he hoped to make Sweden an aristocratic republic, on the model of Poland but more effective. There are also those who claim he epitomizes the selfless public servant working for the good of his state. There is no consensus, and the truth probably lies in a mixture of these views. Whatever his motives were, it is clear that he devoted his entire professional life to the development of Sweden.

See also Charles X Gustav (Sweden) ; Christina (Sweden) ; Constitutionalism ; Gustavus II Adolphus (Sweden) ; Prussia ; Sweden ; Thirty Years' War ; Vasa Dynasty (Sweden) .


Jespersen, Leon, ed. A Revolution from Above? The Power State of 16th- and 17th-Century Scandinavia. Odense, 2000.

Nilsson, Sven A. "Gustav II Adolf och Axel Oxenstierna: En studie i maktdelning och dess alternativ." Scandia, 62 (1996), 169194.

Roberts, Michael. Gustavus Adolphus. London and New York, 1992.

. Sweden as a Great Power. New York, 1968. This collection of documents includes translations of Gustavus Adolphus's accession charter and parts of the 1634 Form of Government.

Byron J. Nordstrom