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Stockholm Bloodbath: 1520

The three-year spell on the Swedish throne of the Danish king Christian II is the result of civil war. The victorious side, winning with Danish support, arrange for the coronation of Christian as king of Sweden as soon as they capture Stockholm in November 1520. Four days later, immediately after the coronation festivities, they arrange for the public execution of all their prominent opponents.

The pope, Leo X, has supported Christian II and has excommunicated his rival. The winning faction now accuse their enemies of heresy, for opposing the pope. They hand them over to the civil authorities.

At noon on Thursday November 8 some eighty Swedish prelates, nobles and influential burghers are brought to the main square in Stockholm to be beheaded. First to lay their heads on the block are two bishops. For three days the bodies lie in a pool of their own blood.

The Stockholm Bloodbath becomes one of most bitterly remembered moments in Sweden's history. But instead of securing the throne for the new king, the massacre has precisely the opposite effect. Among the victims are the father and two uncles of a young noble, Gustav Eriksson - known to history as Gustavus Vasa.

Gustavus I and the Reformation: 1520-1527

After the Stockholm Bloodbath in 1520 Gustavus emerges as the leader of the rebels opposing Christian II. He is greatly helped by economic rivalry in the Baltic. Christian has been attempting to make Copenhagen the major trading centre of the region, breaking the stranglehold of Lübeck and the Hanseatic League. To this end he has made an alliance with the Fuggers, encouraging them to extend their banking interests to the Baltic.

It is in the interests of the merchants of Lübeck to give assistance to Gustavus.

The uprising begins in 1521 in Gustavus' ancestral region, approximating to the modern province of Kopparberg. From here the rebels gradually win more towns and strongholds. By July 1522 Gustavus controls five Swedish provinces. In June 1523 he is elected king of Sweden. Two weeks later he and his army enter Stockholm.

The new king's position is nevertheless precarious, in a country where prolonged civil war has created many factions. Moreover the Lübeck merchants are impatient for a return on their investment. How to repay them, in a country where only the church is rich? As in England a decade later, economics are intertwined with the Reformation in Sweden.

Gustavus has no religious convictions but a great need of funds. In 1527 he uses Lutheran arguments (plus a threat of abdication) to persuade a diet at Västerås to authorize his appropriation of church property - amounting perhaps to a quarter of all the land in the kingdom.

Gustavus professes the Lutheran faith but he establishes no national Lutheran church in Sweden (only late in his reign does the new religion spread far outside Stockholm). Gustavus stands out among rulers for the cynicism with which he plunders the Catholic church before putting another in its place. Even Henry VIII observes the niceties in this respect by a few days.

Vasa dynasty: from1523

The dynasty founded by Gustavus I acquires its name from the family's emblem, the vasa (a sheaf or bundle of twigs). In his thirty-seven years on the throne Gustavus transforms Sweden from a weak monarchy, much put upon by powerful nobles, to a strong centralized state of the kind being established by his contemporaries in France and England.

He uses for this purpose the great wealth appropriated from the Catholic church. With some of it he buys the support of the nobles. The bulk he keeps for himself, adminstering it as crown lands which give him a stature far greater than that of any rival. Some of the church's wealth he spends on a navy and a standing army of conscripted militiamen.

In 1544 Gustavus persuades the riksdag to make the monarchy hereditary rather than elective. In spite of upsets from time to time, the crown remains in his family until the Napoleonic wars.

The first major upset is linked to the religious conflicts which plague the 16th century. By the end of Gustavus' reign the prevailing mood in Sweden is strongly Lutheran, but in 1562 his son - the future John III - marries a Catholic Polish princess. Their son Sigismund, born in 1566, is brought up by his mother as a Catholic. In 1587 he is elected to the Polish throne. Five years later he succeeds his father in Sweden.

The Catholic Sigismund fails to hold the Swedish throne. His father's younger brother leads a rebellion against him and becomes king in his place - effectively from 1599 and officially from 1607, as Charles IX.

This replacing of the rightful Vasa line by a junior branch of the family leads to decades of war between Poland and Sweden, though the conflict also becomes merged in two wider ones. One is the Thirty Years' War (1618-1648). The other is the much longer struggle for control of the eastern coast of the Baltic, involving many separate outbreaks of war between 1558 and 1721.

Gustavus II: 1611-1632

The son of Charles IX inherits the Swedish throne in 1611 as Gustavus II (known also as Gustavus Adolphus). Sixteen at the time, he appoints as his chancellor the 28-year-old Axel Oxenstierna. Their partnership proves a fruitful one for Sweden. Together they usher the kingdom into its greatest period.

Internally they bring in reforms of lasting value in government and the administration of justice. They greatly improve standards of education. They create a military establishment of unprecedented efficiency. And Gustavus evolves tactics in the field which make Swedish armies the most effective in Europe.

When Gustavus succeeds to the throne, Sweden is involved in three wars - against Denmark, Poland and Russia. Judging the conflict with Denmark to be a hopeless cause, Gustavus ends it in 1613 with the humiliating peace of Knäred, by which Sweden's only harbour outside the Baltic (at Älvsborg) is surrendered into Danish hands until a massive indemnity is paid.

Within the Baltic itself, Sweden wins better terms. The peace agreed at Stolbova, in 1617, returns into Russian hands Novgorod (captured by the Swedes in 1611) but gives Sweden the entire coast round the gulf of Finland and down to Estonia. Russia is denied access to the Baltic, in a settlement which holds until the time of Peter the Great.

A six-year truce signed with Poland, at Altmark in 1629, is equally fruitful. The Polish part of Livonia (approximately Latvia and southern Estonia) is ceded to Sweden, as is the right to customs duties paid in Gdansk and the ports of Prussia.

With his Baltic wars settled, and a guaranteed income from the ports, Gustavus is free to take his place on a wider stage - the great struggle between Protestant and Catholic powers known as the Thirty Years' War. The effectiveness of his northern army astonishes the rest of Europe.

Swedish tactics: 1631

During the early years of his reign Gustavus II has effected a quiet revolution in the Swedish army. Where other monarchs rely on foreign mercenaries, he conscripts and trains his Swedish subjects - thus achieving an organized version of a citizen army. He instils in his soldiers sufficient discipline for them to be able to respond to flexible tactics on the battlefield.

For the same purpose he makes his infantrymen's pikes less unwieldy, shortening them from 16 to 11 feet. He lightens the weight of armour, wearing himself only a leather jacket in battle. And he reduces the number of men in each company in battle formation.

Together with these measures of increased human mobility go similar improvements in artillery. Gustavus's ordnance factories produce a cast-iron cannon less than half the weight of any other in the field, but still capable of firing a four-pound shot. Moreover a form of cartridge holding a prepared charge of powder means that the cannon can be reloaded faster even than the muskets of the day.

This field artillery is mounted on carriages which can be pulled by two horses or even, when required, by a platoon of men.

When Gustavus's army is first seen in action in Germany, at Breitenfeld in 1631, the opposing Catholic army under Tilly is deployed in the cumbersome Spanish squares which have been the military convention for a century and more.

The Swedes begin the encounter with an artillery barrage from about 100 cannon which they have been able to bring to the field of battle. Thereafter the rout of the Catholics is completed in a series of unwelcome surprises - musketeers appear among lines of infantrymen instead of on the flanks, cavalry charges suddenly materialize from unexpected quarters. The battle sets a new order of military priority. Fire power and mobility are now the trump cards on the battlefield.

Breitenfeld and Lützen: 1631-1632

The Swedish victory at Breitenfeld causes many of the German Protestant princes to declare their support for Gustavus, who presses his campaign further south into Catholic Germany. In May 1632 he takes Munich. In the same month his ally the Protestant elector of Saxony enters Prague.

Confronted by these threats, the emperor Ferdinand II has already reappointed Wallenstein to his post as commander of the imperial army. Wallenstein's subtle strategies manoeuvre Gustavus out of his newly won territories in the south without risking a pitched battle. When this comes, it is again in the north near Leipzig - at Lützen in November 1632.

Swedish tactics again win the day at Lützen, though Gustavus himself dies leading a cavalry charge. Swedish armies continue to campaign in Germany. But the death of the king ends the heady period when there has been a serious possibility of Protestant Sweden playing a major role in German affairs.

Swedish and Danish wars: 1643-1660

After losing much of his territory to the Catholic armies of the empire in 1627, the Danish king Christian IV recovers them in the peace of Lübeck in 1629. This is thanks partly to the support of his fellow Lutheran monarch, Gustavus II of Sweden. But it is the last occasion in this century when there is any cooperation between the Baltic kingdoms.

Between 1643 and 1660 they engage in two wars, both of which bring great advantage to Sweden.

The first begins in 1643 when the Swedish general Lennart Torstensson makes a lightning raid from the south and occupies Schleswig-Holstein and Jutland. The conclusion of that campaign, agreed in the peace of Brömsebro in 1645, is that Denmark cedes to Sweden the Baltic islands of Gotland and Ösel and part of the mainland north of the Baltic. She also exempts from tolls in the Sound all goods destined for Swedish territories.

The second war, beginning in 1657, is initiated by Denmark. The Swedish king, Charles X, is engaged in a war against Poland. Frederick III of Denmark hopes to use the opportunity to recover some of the lost Danish territory. The result is the opposite of what he intends.

Charles X, repeating Torstensson's tactic of an attack from the south, occupies Jutland in the autumn of 1657. He follows this with an extremely bold move. A cold spell early in 1658 freezes the sea between peninsular Denmark and the islands. Charles marches his army across the ice to the island of Sjaelland on which Copenhagen stands.

On this occasion the Danes rapidly yield (though the citizens of Copenhagen resolutely withstand a Swedish siege later in 1658). In terms finally agreed in Copenhagen in 1660 Denmark cedes a region of immense strategic value to Sweden - the Skåne provinces at the southern end of the Swedish peninsula. This brings to an end Denmark's control of both shores of the Sound.

Christina and Charles X: 1644-1660

During the period of Sweden's wars with Denmark the country is ruled in succession by two talented cousins, grandchildren of Charles IX.

The first is a famously lavish patron of the arts, Queen Christina. She is only six when her father Gustavus II dies in battle in 1632, but after coming of age in 1644 she rapidly makes her court in Stockholm one of the most civilized in Europe - inviting distinguished musicians and writers to visit her.

Christina even persuades Descartes, against his better instincts, to travel north to instruct her in philosophy. With wilful disregard for her distinguished guest, the young queen schedules her lessons for five in the morning in the Swedish winter. In January 1650 the philosopher catches a chill when returning to his house. He dies two weeks later.

Christina shows equally little regard for the nation's finances, depleted by her father's wars and further damaged by her own extravagance. Nor does she feel constrained by Sweden's strong Lutheran tradition; she converts secretly to Roman Catholicism, the practice of which is against the kingdom's laws.

The result, in a sudden move which astonishes Europe, is her abdication in 1654 and departure for Rome - where for another three decades she continues to preside over a glittering court in exile.

Christina has already designated as her successor her cousin, who becomes Charles X. He immediately takes drastic action to improve the country's finances, imposing in 1655 the Reduction - a decree by which the nobles are required to return a quarter of all crown lands granted to them since 1633.

Charles XI: 1660-1697

The bold device of the Reduction is not immediately effective, since Charles X spends most of his short reign conducting military campaigns abroad. But the same policy is followed - and even made more rigorous in the level of royal demands - under Charles's son and successor, Charles XI. By the end of the century the proportion of crown land in Sweden has risen from 1% to 30% - about the level at which it stood in the early 16th century after Gustavus I seized the wealth of the church.

The nation's territorial possessions are also at their peak during this period. Peace treaties since Altmark in 1629 have given Sweden an unbroken coastline from Göteborg in the west to Riga in the east.

This stretch of territory so nearly rings the entire Baltic that Charles X claims in 1658 a right to keep foreign fleets out of the Swedish sea. English and Dutch outrage soon forces him to back down. But profit from ferrying international trade through the Baltic remains a central part of Swedish economic policy - particularly Russian trade, since Sweden's territorial gains have blocked Russia's access to the sea.

The founding of the Bank of Sweden in 1668 is an indication of the kingdom's commercial health. So is the construction of a merchant fleet which amounts at its peak to 730 ships.

Equally the building of a strong navy and the maintenance of a massive standing army (40,000 national conscripts and 25,000 mercenaries) represent a clear statement of Sweden's new status as a European power. But it proves hard to maintain.

The Swedish gains of the 17th century have been at the expense of many different powers - Denmark, various states of north Germany, Poland and Russia. The death of Charles XI in 1697, when his son Charles XII is fifteen, is followed by secret alliances between Sweden's enemies for concerted action. The result, beginning in 1700, is the Northern War.

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