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The northern sea: to the 16th century

The Baltic, as a great inland sea, has much in common with the Mediterranean. Each is of a size and complexity to ensure maximum interaction between the people living on its coasts. Each has only the narrowest outlet to the ocean, raising the enticing possibility of treating the sea as an inland lake within a single vast empire. Once in history, under the Romans, this is achieved round the Mediterranean. Once it is almost achieved round the Baltic, by the Swedes.

More than fifteen hundred years separate these events, because the people of the northern sea are so much later than those of the Mediterranean in achieving civilization.

At the time of the early civilizations of the Mediterranean, Indo-European tribes such as the Balts and Germans reach the shores of the Baltic. During the Roman empire their descendants, in the form of Goths and Vandals, begin to move south to terrify more settled folk. A millennium later another wave of fierce Scandinavians - the Vikings - follow a similar pattern.

None of these groups could hope to control the great northern sea. Such an ambition only becomes feasible in the 16th century, when the Baltic coast is held by three strong nations (Denmark, Sweden, Poland) and a fourth, Russia, is eager for a share.

Denmark and Sweden: 1523-1574

Control of the Baltic, and of its entrance through the narrow Sound, first becomes an issue between Denmark and Sweden after the separation of the two kingdoms in 1523. The Swedish king Gustavus I makes plain his ambitions in the Baltic when he founds Helsinki, in 1550, as a trading post for the natural resources of Finland.

From 1559 a new king on the Danish throne, Frederick II, takes an aggressive stance by controlling the passage of foreign ships through the Sound - thus potentially severing Sweden's main channel of trade. Denmark's action is feasible because the Sound is only three miles wide at its narrowest point, and at this period both shores are part of the Danish kingdom.

By 1563 Denmark and Sweden are at war over the issue. The conflict lasts until 1570, becoming known as the Seven Years' War of the North. It achieves no territorial gain for either side, but Denmark wins international recognition of certain Danish rights over the narrow waterway.

After the war, ended by the peace of Stettin, it is accepted that Denmark may levy a toll on ships passing through the Sound. To ensure collection of the payment, Frederick II builds (from 1574) the world's most impressive tollbooth - the great Renaissance castle of Kronborg at Elsinore, overlooking the narrowest part of the channel. The toll is collected until 1857. Meanwhile, in the 17th century, Denmark intervenes rashly in the Thirty Years' War.

From Sweden's point of view the disappointment of the Seven Years' War is that Skåne, the southern province of the Swedish peninsula, remains in Danish hands. It will do so until 1658.

In the meantime the more volatile shore of the Baltic is the eastern one, where Sweden, Poland and Russia fight over the regions now known as Estonia and Latvia. Grouped together under the medieval name of Livonia, they have been harshly governed for some three centuries by a German military order, the Teutonic Knights. By the mid-16th century the Knights are vulnerable. Already disbanded in neighbouring Prussia, they are enfeebled in Livonia.

Sweden's gains: 16th - 17th century

The weakness of the Teutonic Order leads to intervention by all the neighbours of Livonia. In 1558 Sweden annexes the northern part of Estonia. In the same year the Russian tsar Ivan the Terrible invades from the east. Three years later Poland claims regions in the south.

During the next seventy years, in a series of wars and treaties, Sweden prevails over both its rivals. After the truce of Altmark, ending a war between Poland and Sweden in 1629, the whole of Estonia is in the Swedish empire. So is Latvia north of the Daugava.

Sweden's successes in the eastern Baltic are rapidly followed by similar gains from Denmark in two wars between 1643 and 1660. These wars bring into Swedish hands the two largest islands in the Baltic and even more significantly - after a Swedish march across the ice towards Copenhagen in 1658 - the ceding of the province of Skåne on the northern side of the narrow entrance to the sea.

These conquests give Sweden an unbroken stretch of the Baltic coastline all the way 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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