Wednesday, January 31, 2018
Monarch Profile: King Gustav I of Sweden
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.