Vasa, Gustav I

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Gustav I Vasa

May 12, c. 1496
Uppland, Sweden
Stockholm, Sweden

King, rebel

Gustav I Vasa is considered the founder of the modern Swedish nation. During the Protestant Reformation he adopted Lutheranism as the state religion. He was also the first European ruler to form a national citizens' army, and he developed the Swedish navy into a major maritime (sea) power. Abandoning the tradition of electing a king, he established a hereditary monarchy that resulted in a Vasa dynasty (line of rulers from the same family). During his thirty-seven-year reign, Gustav I consolidated Sweden's independence and laid the foundation for the country's greatness in the next century.

Fights bravely in battle

Gustav was born in Uppland, Sweden, around 1496. He was the eldest son of Erik Johansson Vasa, lord of Rydboholm, who was a knight (nobleman soldier) and councilor of state. Information is lacking about Gustav's childhood and youth. He took the throne at age twenty-seven, during a tumultuous period in Swedish history. The crisis dated back to 1397, when Sweden, Denmark, and Norway were politically united by the Union of Kalmar. Under this arrangement the aristocracies (nobility, or upper class) of these countries, which shared similar cultures and languages, agreed to elect their kings. They took this step to fight off the efforts of German princes to gain influence over them. The Union frequently broke down throughout the fifteenth century, however, and it came to an end in the early sixteenth century as a result of conflict between the Danish king Christian II (1481–1559; ruled Sweden 1520–23) and the Swedish popular leader Sten Sture (called the Younger; c. 1492–1520).

Sten Sture took the title of regent of Sweden and was virtually an independent monarch, or ruler, but he still ruled on behalf of Christian II of Denmark. Like most Renaissance princes, Christian was eager to strengthen his power. He isolated Sten Sture diplomatically and then attacked Sweden directly in 1517. His pretext was that he had come to rescue Gustav Trolle (1488–1535), the archbishop of Uppsala in Sweden, who believed Sten Sture was trying to diminish the rights and privileges of the Roman Catholic Church. Seeing Trolle as a threat, Sten Sture won the assent of the Riksdag, or Swedish Estates (a gathering of the principal nobility), to demolish the archbishop's fortress at Almare-Staket. Sten Sture met and defeated Christian II on the battlefield of Brännkyrka in 1518. Among Sten Sture's troops was the twenty-two-year-old Gustav Vasa, who fought courageously.

In the treaty that followed this conflict, the victorious Sten Sture handed over young Gustav to the Danish king as a pledge of his good intentions. Christian II took Gustav back to a mild form of captivity in Denmark. When Gustav heard news of renewed fighting between Denmark and Sweden, he escaped and made his way to Lübeck, Germany. Lübeck was one of the cities in the powerful trade network, the Hanseatic League, which dominated trade in the Baltic Sea, northern Germany, and Scandinavia (see accompanying box). In 1520 Christian convinced Pope Leo X (1475–1521; reigned 1513–21) to excommunicate (expel from the church) Sten Sture and members of the Swedish Estates for their insulting behavior toward Archbishop Trolle. Christian renewed his attack, this time defeating Swedish forces at the Battle of Lake Asunden. Sten Sture was killed in the fighting. Christian then seized Stockholm, the capital of Sweden. On November 8, 1520, he presided over the "Bloodbath of Stockholm," in which his Danish soldiers chopped off the heads of nearly one hundred prominent Swedes who had supported Sten Sture. The massacre continued in the Swedish provinces in the weeks that followed.

Elected King Gustav I Vasa

The surviving Swedes cast about frantically for a leader and found one in Gustav Vasa. With help from supporters in Lübeck he had made his way home and discovered that his father, his brother-in-law, and two of his uncles had been killed in the Bloodbath of Stockholm. Gustav, therefore, had a powerful motive for taking up the fight against the Danes. He began to gather followers, and won his first victory over Christian at Västerås in the spring of 1521. Advancing on Stockholm, Gustav met the surviving Swedish aristocrats who appointed him regent (one who governs in the place of an official ruler). At first the aristocrats thought they could use Gustav to their advantage, but they gradually recognized his skills as a genuine leader and his determination not to be manipulated. In 1523 Gustav took control of Sweden with the backing of Lübeck merchants, who sent him mercenary, or hired, soldiers and ships to blockade (a method of preventing shipping into and out of an area) the remaining Danish military posts. In exchange for aid from Lübeck, Gustav had to promise major trading concessions. The Swedish aristocracy then elected him King Gustav I at Strängnäs.

The most immediate threat to Gustav's reign came not from Christian II of Denmark but from the supporters of Sten Sture. Among them was Sten Sture's widow Christina Gyllenstierna and young son Nils. They planned to make Nils king and were angry that Gustav had appointed some of Sten Sture's old enemies to major state offices. They rebelled in 1524. Claiming to be true Swedish patriots, they recruited hungry peasants who had admired Sten Sture's patriotism and were now suffering from poor harvests and high taxes. The determined Gustav defeated the rebels at their stronghold, the castle of Kalmar, in 1525.

For the first years of his reign, Gustav was beholden to the city of Lübeck. Lübeck merchants managed to dislodge Christian II from the Danish throne and install their own king, Frederick I (1471–1553; ruled 1524–53). Sweden and Denmark now owed debts to Lübeck and both feared Christian II's vengeance. He was related to the most powerful man in Europe, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (1500–1558; see entry). Together Swedes, Danes, and Lübeckers evicted one of Christian's generals from the strategic island of Gotland in 1526. In the years that followed, the new kings of Denmark and Sweden found other common points of interest, despite remaining tensions from the war that had broken the Union of Kalmar. The unsentimental Gustav never let gratitude toward Lübeck get the better of him. Gustav felt no obligation to Lübeck and he set out to diversify Sweden's trade rather than see it funneled into Lübeck on disadvantageous terms. Thus he began trade negotiations with Holland and signed a trading agreement with Prussia in 1526.

The Hanseatic League

The Hanseatic League was a trading network formed by German towns after 1100. A major reason for the league's development was the lack of a powerful national government that could support extensive commerce and provide safe passage for merchants when they traveled to foreign lands. As a result, companies of merchants made agreements that guaranteed mutual protection, exclusive trading rights, and trade monopolies (domination without competition) whenever possible. Implementing these agreements, the merchants began building towns that were closer together.

At first the league was controlled by a dozen or so German towns, known as Hansa, in the Baltic and Rhineland regions. Originally "hansa" referred to an association of warriors, but the term soon denoted a tax imposed on foreign merchants. Gradually, the word came to mean a group of merchants in a particular city who were engaged in trade with foreign lands. Finally the German "Hansa" signified a vast community of urban merchants who did business in the Baltic Sea and the North Sea. Three stages marked the expansion of the Hanseatic League: It was initiated during the period 1100 to 1200; it reached its height in the years 1200 to 1350; and its influence gradually decreased during the two centuries from 1350 to 1550. After 1550 the commercial unity of the Hansa fell apart, although certain cities such as Lübeck, Bremen, and Hamburg continued to prosper far into the modern period.

Dismantles Catholic Church

For Gustav, as for many other rulers seeking to enlarge their power, the Protestant Reformation (a movement to reform the Roman Catholic Church) was an irresistible temptation. Like every other part of Europe, Sweden had long been subject to intervention and taxation from the pope. A monarch, therefore, could benefit from gaining control over church affairs and properties. Gustav was not a rich man, and he had pressing debts from the recent war of independence, which he could not pay from the small revenues of his estates. (At that time monarchs funded wars themselves.) The church, by contrast, received from tithes (one-tenth of the income of all Catholics) alone almost five times as much as the king's annual income. It also owned estates, castles, and other forms of wealth in abundance. Gustav was determined to lay his hands on this wealth.

Gustav realized he could gain control over the church by supporting Protestant reform, which had been initiated by the German priest Martin Luther (1483–1546; see entry). In 1517 Luther had presented his Ninety-five Theses, a list of grievances against the church, at Wittenberg, Germany. In the 1520s the reform movement was still called Lutheranism, and a full-fledged Protestant Reformation came about later. Gustav's chancellor (secretary of state), Lars Andreae, had already converted to Lutheranism under the influence of the clergyman Olaus Petri (1493–1552). Petri had been a student in Wittenberg when Luther began his confrontation with the church. Within a year of taking the throne, Gustav was defending the small circle of Lutherans in Stockholm, and he gave his approval to Petri's marriage. (According to Catholic Church law, priests are not permitted to marry.) Most Swedes opposed the changes brought about by the Reformation. The Catholic bishop, Hans Brask of Linköping, tried to coordinate church opposition and stamp out Lutheranism. He warned aristocrats that the king would withdraw their privileges next if they did not resist his designs on the church. Brask could not prevail against the Gustav's counteroffer to his nobles that they could share in any wealth seized from the church. In 1527 the Swedish Estates met in Västerås to decide religious policy. The artful King burst into tears and threatened to abdicate (step down from the thrown) if his plan to strip the churches of their wealth was not endorsed. A new rebellion against the king, led by an imposter pretending to be Sten Sture's son, made the aristocracy afraid of the chaos that might follow. Ignoring Brask's pleas, they agreed to Gustav's plan in the "Recess of Västerås." Although the Recess denied that Sweden was turning to Lutheranism, the actual result was to hasten the dismantling of Swedish Catholicism. Laurentius Petri (1499–1573), brother of Olaus, was appointed the first Lutheran archbishop of Uppsala. In 1541, under his guidance, a Swedish language Bible marked the most ambitious publishing venture in Swedish history to that date.

The Reformation in Sweden, as in England, left the cathedrals, bishops, and clergy largely undisturbed while monasteries (religious houses for men) and convents (religious houses for women) were gradually eliminated. There was surprisingly little Catholic resistance outside a small circle of theologians, yet the reform process was anything but painless for the clergy. Even those willing to renounce Catholicism and take up Lutheranism witnessed Gustav's plundering of their churches for gold and silver items, candlesticks, and other wealth that could be converted into cash. For himself and his nobles the king seized estates, castles, and lands that had been church property for centuries. This policy led to an uprising of Catholic nobles and peasants in the southwestern provinces of Sweden in 1529, but Gustav soon outwitted the rebels and executed the ringleaders.

In 1531 a more serious threat to Gustav's power came from Christian II, the former king of Denmark. After eight years of exile in Holland, Christian II finally mounted a campaign to regain what he saw as his rightful rule of Sweden and Denmark. Aided by Emperor Charles V, Christian II landed in Norway and advanced quickly at first. He ran out of energy when he met fierce Swedish resistance. Frederick I of Denmark was finally able to capture Christian II in 1532. Christian was imprisoned and confined until his death twenty-six years later.

Wins decisive Count's War

Christian II was more easily disposed of than the Lübeck merchants. Gustav had repeatedly put off repayment of his debts and was eager to bring an end to Lübeck's trading monopoly. In 1534, after a period of complex diplomacy, Lübeck declared war on both Denmark and Sweden for breaking their promises. All of Gustav's enemies who had been driven into exile during the previous decade—including the Sten Sture faction, disaffected Catholics, and his own brother-in-law, John of Hoya—joined forces with Lübeck against him. Swedish historians call this the "Count's War." Gustav responded by again allying with Frederick I and taking to the battlefield, where he defeated the Lübeckers at the Battle of Halsingborg. From the start of his reign he had been collecting ships, hoping to challenge the trading power of the Hanseatic ports. Now his newly formed navy won victories at Bornholm and the Little Belt in 1535, inaugurating the growth of Swedish naval and maritime power.

Gustav then became obsessed with gathering financial surpluses to safeguard his kingdom. He repeatedly warned his subjects that without military and financial preparedness, events like the Bloodbath of Stockholm could occur again. In the late 1530s he began developing Sweden's one silver mine at Sala. As a royal monopoly it filled Gustav's treasury and cushioned the country against accelerating inflation (price increases). The king also established an iron industry in Sweden and tried to establish direct trade links with Holland and England. The trading ventures did not work out because Swedes had no real experience in trade.

In running his kingdom, Gustav, like most of other European monarchs, tried to free himself from dependence on the aristocracy. According to tradition, government positions were passed from father to son, not on the basis of merit but on the right of inheritance. Gustav wanted to change this system and appoint government officials whose advancement depended on his favor rather than their social position. But recruiting competent civil servants was no easy matter. Most of the aristocrats were hard-drinking and uneducated, with no administrative skills. Sweden's one university, at Uppsala, had fallen into disuse in the second decade of the century. Even though Gustav had become rich, he showed no interest in investing any of his wealth in education. Swedes who wanted an education had to go abroad, while government workers had to be brought in from other countries. This brought problems of a different kind. The most famous example was an era called the "Rule of Secretaries," when two Germans, Georg Norman and Konrad von Pyhy, ran the king's affairs. Neither man knew Swedish history and tradition. They gained the furious resentment of the aristocracy through their tactless methods of running the kingdom and raising revenue. Norman and Pyhy contributed to the worst domestic upheaval of Gustav's entire reign.

Peasants rebel against policies

The Rule of Secretaries, the Reformation, heavy taxation, and the king's autocratic policies contributed to a rebellion in 1542. It was led by Nils Dacke, a prosperous peasant in the Småland district of southern Sweden. Dacke's peasant volunteers outwitted Gustav's German mercenaries for more than a year. Despite early setbacks, the resourceful king was able to isolate Småland with a blockade and an embargo, or prohibition, on trade. He then defeated Dacke at the Battle of Hogsby. To ratify his victory, Gustav convened the Swedish Estates at Västerås in 1544. He persuaded the Estates to convert his elective monarchy into a hereditary one by claiming that without a secure center the nation might again fall victim to a new bloodbath. Such an event would occur, he warned, if foreign powers took advantage of internal turmoil, as they had tried to do with Dacke. In the early years of his reign Gustav had frequently summoned the Estates as a way of assuring broad support for his actions. They had not met since 1529, however, as Gustav had acquired increasing power. For instance, in 1539, without consultation, he had declared that the church was a department of state, making it completely subordinate to the government. Now Gustav wanted the Estates' approval to strengthen his authority once again. He was also trying to rid himself of dependence on mercenary soldiers, who were expensive and unreliable. In their place he wanted to create the nucleus of a citizen-army. Gustav succeeded in both objects, establishing a Vasa dynasty and making Sweden the first country in Europe to have a permanent army of its own farmer-soldiers.

From that time until his death in 1560, Gustav's throne rested secure. In 1554 he even tried to expand his eastern frontier with Russia by going through Finland, which was then a Swedish province. His actions provoked an inconclusive three-year war with Russian Czar Ivan IV (1530–1584; ruled 1533–84). In the meantime, Gustav continued draining church resources and extracting ever-larger sums of money from cities with threats of looming danger. During his lifetime Gustav had three wives. In 1531 he married Katarina of Saxe-Lauenburg. According to an unconfirmed rumor, he killed her with a hammer. He then married Margareta Leijonhufvud in1536 and Katarina Stenbock in1552. Gustav was an irritable and vengeful old man when he died. His reign continued with

Vasa Dynasty Strengthens Sweden

In 1544 Gustav I persuaded the Swedish Estates to abolish the elective monarchy and substitute it with a hereditary one. Thus he took the first step in establishing a Vasa dynasty. He also convinced the Estates to discontinue the practice of using mercenary soldiers to fight wars. In their place Gustav created the nucleus of a citizens' army. Sweden became the first country in Europe to have a permanent army of its own farmer-soldiers.

Gustav I's decisions ultimately led to the strengthening of the Swedish nation. His descendent, Gustav II Adolf (1594–1632; ruled 1611–32), was one of the great Swedish kings. Gustav II's reign brought higher standards of government, such as better administration and tax collection, as well as the rule of law and educational advancement. In 1600, Sweden did not have a central government. By 1626 it boasted the most efficient and well-ordered government in Europe. Gustav II was also one of the world's leading military geniuses. He is credited with creating the first modern army. During his reign he defeated Poland and conquered Livonia. By winning a war with Russia he also acquired Ingermanland and Karelia. In 1620 Sweden entered the Thirty Years' War (1618–48), a political and religious conflict involving major European powers, to join France against the Holy Roman Empire and the Catholic Habsburgs.

At this time Sweden was the foremost Protestant power on the European continent. Although Gustav II Adolf was killed at the Battle of Lützen in 1632, his policies were carried on during the reign of his daughter Christina (1626–1689; ruled 1632–54). She was assisted by his prime minister Axel Oxenstierna (1583–1654).

Under the terms of the Peace of Westphalia (1648), which ended the Thirty Years' War, Sweden acquired a large part of Pomerania, the island of Rügen, Wismar, the sees (church headquarters) of Bremen and Verden, and other German territory. This entitled the Swedish sovereign to three votes in the diet (meeting of church officials and representatives of states in the Holy Roman Empire) of the Holy Roman Empire. Sweden then became the greatest power in the Baltic region. In 1654 Queen Christina abdicated, naming her cousin Charles X Gustav (1622–1660; ruled 1654–60) as her successor. She lived the rest of her life in Rome, Italy. Charles declared war on Poland, initiating the conflict known as the First Northern War (1655–60). Sweden was victorious and, in 1660, under the terms of a treaty called the Peace of Oliva, Poland formally gave the province of Livonia to Sweden. Charles invaded Denmark twice in 1658, gaining provinces in southern Sweden that Denmark had acquired in the sixteenth century.

his son, who took the name Erik XIV (1533–1577; ruled 1560–68) and carried on the expansion of Swedish power. By the 1620s, Sweden was a major player in European politics.

For More Information

Web Sites

"Gustav I Vasa." [Online] Available, April 5, 2002.

"Gustavus I." Learning Network. [Online] Available, April 5, 2002.