In the Sweden of today, King Gustav I may not be as much remembered as he is no doubt quite politically incorrect, however, once upon a time, not so long ago, he was regarded as the “father” of his country. He was the founding monarch of the Vasa dynasty, something of a liberator and the man who took Sweden from the Roman Catholic to the Protestant camp in the division of Christendom that was going on at the time. For this reason he is sometimes referred to as the “Henry VIII of Sweden” though, not surprisingly, such a description will anger as many as it satisfies. He was, in any event, a giant figure in Swedish history, a man who changed the course of history in Sweden and thus, to receding degrees, that of the rest of Europe as well. In the long national story of the Swedish people, King Gustav I is one of those monarchs you absolutely have to know something about. If you understand Gustav Vasa, you will know what a formidable power the Swedish nation is capable of being.
Gustav Eriksson Vasa was born on May 12, 1496 to Erik Johansson Vasa and his wife Cecilia in his father’s castle northeast of Stockholm. This was during the period when Sweden was, along with Norway, under the Crown of the Kingdom of Denmark at the time ruled by King Christian II. It is no coincidence that this same monarch, a formidable figure in his own right, came to be known as “Christian the Tyrant” to the Swedes. This personal union of the crowns of Denmark, Norway and Sweden, known as the Kolmar Union, had been on rather shaky ground for a while and the Swedes were becoming increasingly restive. One of the leaders of the independence movement was Gustav’s father, though he was not the primary leader. Naturally, his son Gustav supported him and supported the struggle for Swedish independence from Denmark. At one point, Gustav was captured but escaped and maintained his resistance to Danish rule.
King Christian II of Denmark launched an attack on the pro-independence faction in 1520 and was successful. However, his victory was followed up by the mass execution of 80 to 90 nobles and clergymen who had been invited to the palace after his coronation as King of Sweden. Some were executed for treason, some on charges of heresy, though Christian II did try to play a bit of a double game on this point, apologizing to the Pope for having cut the heads off several Catholic bishops while telling the public that they had been heretical and that the Pope was about to place Sweden under the interdict if he had not taken such drastic action. In any event, this became known as the “Stockholm Bloodbath” and one of the most infamous events in Swedish history. Most pertinent to Gustav Vasa was that his father was numbered among the massacred. He had opposed Danish rule before, now Christian II had made it personal. Accusations of heresy being tossed around, as well as the story that this was done to assuage the Pope, combined with the fact that the King of Denmark had married the sister of Emperor Charles V of Germany and King of Spain, certainly made for “bad optics” as we would say today for the Roman Catholic Church in Sweden.
For the moment, however, Christian II was in charge and Gustav had to flee for his life, ultimately all the way to Norway. This period later became legendary in Sweden with all sorts of tales springing up about Gustav’s adventures in trying to arouse the national spirit of the Swedish peasants while dodging the authorities of the King of Denmark. Ultimately, he did manage to gather together a small but growing rebel army under his command and in April of 1520 won a smashing little victory over the pro-Danish forces after which support for his cause came pouring in. Shortly thereafter the local nobles elected him regent of the Kingdom of Sweden, causing many more Swedish nobles to abandon the Danish cause and rally to his banner. Those who did not fortified themselves in their castles but these began to fall to Gustav one by one.
By 1522 much of Sweden, though not Stockholm, was under his control and more support began to come in from the German city-states of the Hanseatic League which saw it as advantageous for them if the domination of the Baltic by the Kingdom of Denmark could be broken. This additional support provided sufficient momentum for the Swedish council of nobles to decide to elect Gustav Vasa to be their king. The representatives of the German city-state of Luebeck backed the decision, saying it was the will of God, and Gustav accepted. In light of later events it is interesting to note that Gustav had a very traditional, Catholic celebration to mark the occasion including Eucharistic adoration and singing of the Te Deum. In June of 1523 when the rebel forces finally marched into Stockholm, this was topped off with a mass of thanksgiving. Not long after, the remaining Danish garrisons in Finland surrendered and King Frederick I of Denmark (who had replaced the ousted Christian II) decided to quit before Gustav conquered any more territory. In 1524 the Treaty of Malmo was signed, ending the Swedish War of Liberation and dissolving the Kolmar Union, making the Kingdom of Sweden completely independence once again.
This, however, is when problems of a religious nature began to bubble up. The previous Archbishop of Uppsala and chief cleric of Sweden had been Gustav Trolle, who had taken the side of King Christian II of Denmark during the pro-independence movement, for which he had been attacked. Later, Archbishop Trolle was said to have, in response to this, prepared the list of the men to be massacred in the “Bloodbath of Stockholm”. As the tide turned against the Danes, he was forced to leave Sweden and take refuge in Denmark. As he was no longer in the country, King Gustav I considered his see vacant and wrote to Pope Clement VII requesting that Johannes Magnus be made archbishop in his place in 1523. However, Pope Clement VII absolutely refused and demanded that Archbishop Trolle be reinstated immediately, which is something that King Gustav, nor any other monarch in his position, would have ever done. Nor was Johannes Magnus, the King’s choice, in any way unorthodox, indeed, he would quickly make enemies due to his staunch opposition to the spread of Lutheranism.
Historians ever since have puzzled over the actions of the Pope on this issue. Given the recent change in Sweden, and the fact that the former Archbishop had been on the opposing side of the new king and even implicated in the murder of his father, combined with the fact that his proposed replacement was a solid Swedish Catholic, makes it difficult to say the least to understand why the Pope decided to force the King to choose between restoring such a cleric or separating the Kingdom of Sweden from the Catholic Church. The best that defenders of the Pope can propose is that he was simply not very well informed about the situation, though that too would raise questions about why he stubbornly insisted on the reinstatement.
The result, not surprisingly, was that King Gustav appointed his own choice anyway but was suddenly much more “tolerant” about the spread of Lutheranism in his country. When the King’s appointed Archbishop Magnus came into conflict with this growing support for Lutheranism, the Archbishop the Pope had opposed left the country, leaving a vacuum which the Lutherans were only too happy to fill. In fact, King Gustav had tried to go even farther when the Pope refused to confirm Magnus. He put forward other candidates but the Pope refused them all and when the King proposed other bishops to fill five vacant sees in Sweden, the Pope again turned down all but one of the King’s suggestions. With the Pope refusing to budge an inch, the King finally made the switch and in 1531 appointed a pro-Lutheran cleric to the post of archbishop, breaking with Rome and beginning the transition of the Kingdom of Sweden from a Catholic country to a solidly and officially Lutheran one. This, as was ever the case, ultimately led to a crackdown on those who continued to adhere to the Catholic Church, most of whom were also accused of being pro-Danish traitors. Obviously, the actions of the Pope only encouraged this view.
A series of generally small scale rebellions broke out in the aftermath of this change, sometimes due to taxes and other secular issues but also due to the confiscation of church lands by the state and the switch to Lutheranism. King Gustav was ruthlessly thorough in his elimination of all opposition to this new state of affairs, having the most famous of the rebel leaders quartered. It was an unfortunate and bloody business, however it is difficult to see how the King could be blamed for the break and his intolerance of opposition did spare Sweden from the sort of drawn-out religious civil wars that were seen in other European countries. It was because of these events, most of all the shift from Catholic to Protestant Christianity, that King Gustav is often compared to King Henry VIII of England who broke with Rome shortly thereafter. However, the two cases are actually quite different. There was a legitimate religious reason for the Pope to oppose King Henry and it also came at a time after Emperor Charles V had invaded Italy, defeated the papal forces, sacked Rome and basically taken the Pope prisoner, making it rather impossible politically for the Pope to have just given Henry his damn annulment for the sake of keeping England, a staunchly Catholic country, in union with Rome. No such circumstances applied in the case of King Gustav in Sweden.
Most of the rest of the reign of the first Vasa king in Sweden was spent dealing with the aftereffects of this religious change (he had his problems with the Lutherans too) as well as establishing the state of the Kingdom of Sweden as it would be for a very long time to come. As the leader of a victorious independence movement, King Gustav became a legend in his own time and showed a positive gift for what we would today call “public relations”. In no time at all he came to be viewed as a great heroic figure, a liberator from Danish rule and the stern but wise ‘father of his country’. A plethora of art, literature, coins, songs and books were produced hailing King Gustav as the champion of his country. Married three times in his life, the King fathered nine children, including three future Swedish monarchs, so he certainly did his duty as far as securing the succession was concerned.
The last, and largely only, foreign policy problem of his reign involved the Russian Empire where Czar Ivan the Terrible viewed the new Swedish monarch as an upstart. When King Gustav sent envoys to Moscow, the Czar refused to meet with them and in the message conveyed to them, basically said to tell Gustav that Russia is awesome and Sweden is a puny weakling (and I really am not exaggerating much at all there). This, as you might imagine, did not go over well in Stockholm and in 1554 the Swedes raided a Russian monastery and when a Russian envoy came to complain, he was taken prisoner. Ivan the Terrible launched a formal offensive and the Russo-Swedish War was on. However, neither side gained much satisfaction. The Swedes besieged Oreshek but failed to take it. The Russians, in turn, besieged Viborg but also failed to take it. Swedish diplomats also had no luck in enlisting other northern powers to join their fight against Russia, seeing it all as a silly and pointless enterprise and so, in 1557 a peace was signed and the two sides left each other alone.
By this time, King Gustav I was in obviously declining health and he finally passed away on September 29, 1560. Memories of King Gustav Vasa have changed considerably over time. For much of modern Swedish history, he was as much a figure of legend and folklore as anything else. Stories abounded of his cunning and daring escapes from Danish pursuers, his heroic rallying of the country to his cause to fight for independence and later, when Lutheranism became firmly established and accepted, as the king who had delivered them from the clutches of the “papists”, giving them a Swedish church for Swedish people rather than one ruled by an Italian prince in faraway Rome. Later, however, when Sweden became more liberal and “enlightened” (feel free to roll your eyes there), King Gustav was portrayed as a grasping and ambition man, still a national hero perhaps, but a bit on the tyrannical side. In truth, he was a brave man, a clever man and a hard man. He was a lover of music, a great patriot and, while not unreasonable or harsh without purpose, was certainly a man who would not tolerate defiance. The many legends about him may be simply that but in the context of his place in Swedish history, he was the sort of monarch about whom there should be legends. He really was the father of his country, or at least, the father of what it was for a very long time.
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