Sunday, November 6, 2011

Monarch Profile: King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden

It is appropriate today to take a look at the late, great Swedish monarch Gustavus Adolphus (officially King Gustav II Adolf). In Sweden, he is a giant historical figure, a dynamic warrior king who presided over a Kingdom of Sweden that became the regional super-power of Scandinavia. In European terms he was a pivotal historical figure as the Protestant champion of the Thirty Years War without whom the Catholic Holy Roman Empire might have been resurgent as the dominant power on the continent. Even in world history Gustavus Adolphus is known across the globe by military historians as one of the great captains of all time. He built and led the most advanced and formidable army of his time and has since been dubbed by many the “Father of Modern Warfare” because of his innovative organization of military logistics and his revolutionary integration of infantry, cavalry and artillery as a mutually supportive combined force on the battlefield. All of the great military geniuses of modern times, particularly Marlborough and through him Napoleon, continuing down to the present owe a reverent salute to King Gustavus Adolphus.

Gustavus Adolphus was born in Stockholm on December 9, 1594, eldest son and heir of Duke Charles of the Swedish Royal House of Vasa and Christina of Holstein-Gottorp during the reign of his cousin King Sigismund III. Europe was in the grip of religious upheaval and King Sigismund III, a Catholic, was deposed in 1599 by Duke Charles who became regent and finally King Charles IX in 1604, making Prince Gustavus Adolphus heir to the Swedish throne. He was only seventeen when his father died in 1611 and Gustavus Adolphus was thrust upon the throne of Sweden with his cousin Sigismund III still trying to regain his crown (who was also King of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth). In 1626, in response to this and to recover Baltic territories Sigismund had transferred from Sweden to Poland, the young King Gustavus Adolphus launched a war against Poland for control of the Baltic. It was a long and frustrating conflict, but Gustavus Adolphus was victorious, his throne secure and while he did not quite make the Baltic a Swedish lake as he had hoped, he had certainly made Sweden the dominant power in the Baltic Sea.

King Charles IX had trained his son almost from birth to be the best king possible. Part of this was political training but a large part was also military training and Gustavus Adolphus excelled at it. Even as a teenager he led Swedish troops in repelling a Danish attack in East Gotland. As King of Sweden he proved to be a man of great courage, creative thinking, grand ambitions and disciplined determination. If he was better at war than government he at least had the self-awareness to realize it and, as any good King should do, appointed an eminently qualified statesman to oversee administration while he focused on the military. This man was Axel Oxenstierna who the King made his chancellor and together they proved a winning team in the political arena and on the battlefield. By the time the Thirty Years War broke out in Central Europe, Gustavus Adolphus was already known as the “Lion of the North” for his great victories in Latvia and around the Baltic. He was impressive enough to catch the attention of the French Cardinal Richelieu, the power-behind-the-throne in the Kingdom of France. Cardinal Richelieu considered the Swedish warrior king his great “find” and helped fund his entry into the Thirty Years War.

Although classified as a religious war (and one of the worst), the Thirty Years War was obviously not strictly so. The “Protestant side” included many Catholic soldiers and there were many Protestant forces fighting on the “Catholic side”. Although Cardinal Richelieu and the rest of France were devoutly Catholic, they supported the Protestant Kingdom of Sweden as a way to prevent their Catholic rival, the House of Hapsburg which ruled the Holy Roman Empire, from becoming too powerful. As far as Gustavus Adolphus was concerned, he had defeated the Danes, the Poles and even the Russians in battle so the mercenary armies of the Holy Roman Empire held no terror for him. He was a staunch Lutheran of course and he was also concerned for the safety of his country. So far, the Protestant forces had, frankly, been getting their clocks cleaned by some extremely capable Catholic Imperial commanders. If the Catholics continued to drive northward the Holy Roman Empire might decide to conquer Scandinavia as well. The decision to intervene was made.

With a formidable reputation and self-confidence born out of experience, King Gustavus Adolphus marched into Germany at the head of what was almost certainly, man for man, the best army of the early 17th Century. Although small, they were better organized than any other force in Europe. King Gustavus Adolphus was the first commander since practically Imperial Rome to organize his men into permanent military units and he established a permanent chain of command, with special officers in charge of special jobs. He also integrated his armed forces and no one else had done. Instead of leading a mob of hired men, the King of Sweden led an army based on teamwork. Infantry, cavalry and artillery would all work in conjunction in a way no one at the time had ever seen before. He also, very critically, established a modern and organized system of logistics with a chain of supply bases to keep his troops fed and equipped consistently while on campaign. Under his command the Swedish army was truly an elite force and King Gustavus Adolphus demanded discipline and good character from his men. They could not loot, fornicate, get drunk, utter blasphemy or swear under pain of severe punishment. Being morally upright was just as important to him as being brave and obedient and was part of his overall vision of building the best army possible and that he certainly did.

It all paid off. As soon as he landed his forces he won a quick victory on the edge of the Baltic before moving inland where he confronted and defeated the Imperial commander Johann Tserclaes Graf von Tilly, one of the two most capable and victorious Catholic generals of the war. Gustavus Adolphus used innovative tactics no one at the time was prepared for, spreading his men out rather than packing them together in tight formations, having smaller units that could deploy and maneuver faster than anyone else and highly mobile artillery that could be re-positioned as circumstances required. He was everywhere victorious and the tide of war turned in favor of the Protestants and the Swedish army pushed farther and farther south. They spent the winter in the Rhineland and the following spring, in 1632, met Graf von Tilly in battle again in Bavaria. Once again the “Lion of the North” was victorious and in that battle the great Graf von Tilly was killed, a terrible blow to the Imperial forces. Desperate to stop the Swedish juggernaut the Emperor called upon a man he did not entirely trust but the only military commander of such reputation as to be capable of defeating Gustavus Adolphus; Albrecht Wenzel von Wallenstein, the conqueror of Silesia and the man whose victories against the Danes had been partly responsible for bringing an alarmed Sweden into the war in the first place.

The result was the battle of L├╝tzen on November 6, 1632 (by the Protestant calendar), an epic showdown between the best Catholic and Protestant commanders in Europe. At first it seemed that in Wallenstein, Gustavus Adolphus had met his match. He got the jump on the Swedes as they moved to attack him, yet, in the initial assault on his lines, the Swedish forces made serious headway before the timely arrival of reinforcements set them back a bit. Rallying his men, the ever bold Gustavus Adolphus led a cavalry charge himself against the imperial lines, in a thick fog, in which the courageous monarch was shot down, still fairly early in the course of battle. At almost any other time, with any other army, this would have been the end of the Swedes. Any other army would have been disheartened, demoralized and their final defeat a forgone conclusion. This was not, however, the case with the Swedish army and it was thanks to all of the care the late King had taken to ensure a disciplined, devoted and determined army. They were not demoralized by the death of their monarch, they were enraged. The redoubled their efforts, steeled themselves for the fight and threw themselves back into the battle with a fury to avenge their fallen sovereign. The tide turned again and the Imperial army was soundly defeated. The King was dead but the great Wallenstein had been beaten.

Wallenstein retreated from Saxony to Bohemia while the Swedes carried their King home, his death ending the hopes of a total Protestant conquest of Germany. In Sweden the date of the King’s death became a holiday, still commemorated to this day (even after the change in calendars). His young daughter was placed on the throne as Queen Christina (or King as she had been raised as a boy) and the widowed Queen, Maria Eleanor of Brandenburg who the King had married in 1620, went mad with grief after the death of her husband. His death was a tragedy and helped ensure the Thirty Years War would end in stalemate rather than outright victory for one side or the other. Yet, he left a larger and more powerful kingdom than he had inherited. He laid the foundation for the “Swedish Empire” and had made Sweden the dominant power of Northern Europe. Gustavus Adolphus had united his people, instilled in them a righteous national pride and he had revolutionized the art of war for all time since. He was, by every measure, one of the great men of history.


  1. Genuinely interested if you've ever read Eric Flint's Ring of Fire alternate history series which catapults the aforementioned Vasa into an even greater position than the one history has given him.

    The later books even have temporally displaced Americans swallowing their pride and admitting the monarchical system works far better than they want it to.

    1. Wow, I actually picked this guy for my monarchy project because I read most of The Ring Of Fire series and wanted to learn more about Gustavus. What a conincidence.

  2. Afraid not, so far I've never read any alternate history books. I hear alot about them but I've never seen one and I very, very rarely read anything in the fiction department. However, I do wonder if Gustavus Adolphus should get some of the credit for Sweden, even today, having a rather 'independent' streak when it comes to national defense.

  3. He might've been a Protestant and an enemy of Mother Church, but I'm willing to recognize and honor valor no matter what side of the field displays it.


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