Vasa Dynasty (Sweden)

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VASA DYNASTY (SWEDEN). The Vasa Dynasty, which ruled Sweden from 1523 to 1654, included Gustav I Vasa (Gustav Eriksson), Erik XIV, John III, Sigismund I Vasa, Charles IX, Gustavus II Adolphus, and Christina. During their reigns, Sweden left the Kalmar Union and became an independent state, adopted Lutheranism, developed a more complex economy, built a Baltic empire and a place of importance in European affairs, and became increasingly European culturally. (The Vasa name derives from the vase, a sheaf of grain in the family's insignia or shield. The family's noble roots lie in the fourteenth century.)

Gustav I Vasa (ruled 15231560) established the dynasty. Aided by the Hanseatic League and important elements of the Swedish commons, he led the last of Sweden's rebellions against the Danish-controlled Kalmar Union. He became king in June 1523, and for thirty-seven years worked diligently and ruthlessly to ensure Sweden's independence and development. He made and maintained peace with Denmark, encouraged the Reformation, expropriated the properties of the Catholic Church to the crown's benefit, supported economic developments, built up a modest army and navy, curbed the Hanseatic League's influence, used the Parliament to ratify his actions, made Sweden a hereditary monarchy (1544), crushed domestic disturbances, and fostered the growth of a central administration. One of Europe's "new monarchs," he enhanced the power of the crown and curbed that of the nobility. Following his death in 1560, many of his achievements were eroded by the half-century of internal turmoil and foreign wars initiated by his sons Erik, John, and Charles.

Erik XIV (ruled 15601568) was temperamental, suspicious, and mentally unstable. He squandered the fiscal and political assets his father had bequeathed him. He launched Sweden's age of imperial adventures in the Baltic, helped to precipitate the Northern Seven Years' War (15631570) with Denmark, and even sought the hand of Elizabeth I of England. He also engaged in a running conflict with his half-brother, Duke John, who, from his duchy in Finland, acted like a king in his own right. This conflict peaked in 1568, when John, with the aid of their brother Charles, deposed Erik and imprisoned him in Gripsholm Castle, where he died in 1577.

John III (ruled 15681592), more stable, cultured, and politically astute than Erik, worked to restore peace and stability. His efforts were undermined by religious strife. His marriage to Catherine, daughter of Sigismund II Augustus of Poland, led to a drift towards Catholicism, and this was reinforced when their heir, Sigismund, who was raised a Catholic, became king of Poland as Sigismund III Vasa in 1587.

When Sigismund (ruled Sweden as Sigismund I Vasa 15921599) succeeded his father as king of Sweden, a political arrangement was forged to balance the interests of the crown, those of the last of the Vasa sons (Charles), and those of the high nobility. Fear of the king's Catholicism led to a reaffirmation of Lutheranism at Uppsala in 1593. Sigismund stacked the administration with his favorites, which alarmed Charles, and civil war erupted in 1597. Sigismund was defeated at Stångebro the following year and deposed in 1599. He remained king in Poland, however, until his death in 1632, and for over half a century the two lines of the Vasa dynasty were in conflict.

Charles IX (ruled 15991611) acted as regent until 1604, and he was not crowned until 1607. He ruthlessly eliminated his opponents (Linköping Bloodbath, 1600) and ruled personally or through favorites. He ignored complaints that he was violating the nobility's privileges. Following his death in 1611, the nobles took their revenge. Charles's heir, Gustavus II Adolphus, was only seventeen, and the price of his recognition was an accession charter that guaranteed noble power in the country.

Until relatively recently, Gustavus II Adolphus (ruled 16111632) has been viewed as one of Sweden's greatest kingsarchitect of Sweden's age of greatness; author of creative and positive developments in government, administration, economics, and education; one of history's best military leaders; and the man most responsible for the survival of Lutheranism in Germany. This interpretation usually paired him with his adviser and chancellor, Axel Oxenstierna. More recent assessments tend to assign greater influence to Oxenstierna in political, economic, and administrative matters. In military matters he was less a creative thinker than an efficient and effective applier of ideas originating elsewhere. Gustavus II Adolphus spent almost his entire reign at war (successively with Denmark, Russia, Poland, and the Catholic-Imperial forces in Germany). He died at the Battle of Lützen on 6 November 1632.

Christina (ruled 16321654), Gustavus II Adolphus's only legitimate heir, was six when her father was killed. Power therefore passed to a regency dominated by Axel Oxenstierna, and for the next twelve years the influence of the nobility was enhanced. Christina's personal rule covered a decade, and her importance has been variously interpreted. Oxenstierna's influence declined, and she effectively played competing factions against each other to achieve her desire for peace in Germany and the recognition of her cousin, Charles X Gustav, as her heir. Unwilling to marry, she abdicated and left Sweden in 1654. She converted to Catholicism and lived the rest of her life in Rome, where she pursued her cultural interests and dabbled in politics. She died in 1689.

The Vasa dynasty ended with Christina's abdication, as the crown passed to Charles X Gustav (ruled 16541660), son of Gustavus II Adolphus's half-sister, Katherine, and John Casimir of Pfalz-Zweibrücken.

See also Charles X Gustav (Sweden) ; Christina (Sweden) ; Gustavus II Adolphus (Sweden) ; Kalmar, Union of ; Oxenstierna, Axel ; Sweden .


Kirby, David. Northern Europe in the Early Modern Period: The Baltic World 14921772. London and New York, 1990.

Nordstrom, Byron J., ed. Dictionary of Scandinavian History. Westport, Conn., 1986. This work contains articles on each of the rulers in the Vasa dynasty.

Robert, Michael. The Early Vasas: A History of Sweden. 15231611. Cambridge, U.K., and London, 1968.

Scott, Franklin D. Sweden: The Nation's History. Carbondale, Ill., 1988.

Byron J. Nordstrom