The Swedish statesman Count Axel Gustafsson Oxenstierna (1583-1654) was a major architect of his country's brief rise to greatness among the powers of 17th-century Europe.
Axel Oxenstierna was born at Uppsala on June 16, 1583. His was among the most influential families of the Swedish nobility. His social background, as well as a quick intelligence honed by education in German universities, enabled Oxenstierna to enter top government circles at an early age. He received his first appointment in 1605; by the decade's end he was the leader of the nobility in the Royal Council.
As in other states of eastern and central Europe, the relative weakness of the local bourgeoisie had enhanced the standing of the Swedish nobility. This enabled the aristocracy to wrest concessions from the monarchy, the better to be able to exploit the peasantry. Nevertheless, a dispute within the reigning Vasa dynasty during the 1590s had split the nobility along religious lines, thus shifting the balance of forces back in the King's favor.
King Sigismund Vasa (III), a Catholic who had also been elected King of Poland, tried to bring Lutheran Sweden back into the Roman fold. The result was a coup (1598) which put his uncle into power as Charles IX and led to a purge of the aristocratic minority loyal to Sigismund. Such a purge could only strengthen the incoming King. However, Charles IX and led to contend with Sweden's relatively weak power position with respect to other Baltic states, especially Denmark. Too weak to challenge Denmark's hold over the Baltic Sound (and thus over revenues from the wealthy Baltic commerce), he attacked Muscovy. He was in Moscow in 1610 and was planning to add the Czar's domains to his own, when death cut short further expansion.
His youthful heir, Gustavus Adolphus (Gustavus II), now had to face the power of a reunited nobility under Oxenstierna's leadership. A first round of concessions was granted in the charter of 1611; in 1612 Oxenstierna was made the King's chancellor, and a noble monopoly of higher state offices was secured by the formal coronation oath of 1617. Yet, for all this, Sweden did not suffer the fate of Poland and other countries where the nobility ran unchecked. The chancellor and the king found it more convenient to collaborate than quarrel. The pressure to bolster Sweden's security by territorial expansion and to augment its wealth by exploiting its mineral resources and metallurgical industries (chiefly gun manufactures) made for sufficient cooperation among the country's leaders to thrust Sweden dramatically on the stage of European Great Power politics.
At home, succeeding years brought administrative measures similar to those applied by centralizing monarchies to the West. Central and local government, the Estates (Riksdag), and the judiciary were all affected. Oxenstierna played a key role in all decisions taken. Particularly significant was his reorganization of the nobility itself. By the Riddarhusordning of 1626 it was restructured according to criteria for membership in one of three newly formed aristocratic subclasses.
When Gustavus came to power, Sweden was at war with Denmark. Oxenstierna was instructed to conclude the 1613 Peace of Knäred with that country. This removed the Danish threat and gave some concessions to Sweden with respect to Baltic commerce. Gustavus now resumed the Swedish march to the east. By the time Oxenstierna negotiated the Treaty of Altmark with Poland (1629), his country was in effective command of eastern Baltic commerce. The impetus provided by this aggressive policy, coupled with the outbreak of the Thirty Years War in 1618, sufficed to draw Sweden into the broader conflict in Germany. Oxenstierna now added the duties of war leader to those of administrator and diplomat. In 1630, with financial support from Russia, France, and the Dutch, Gustavus marched into Germany; in 1631 he called Oxenstierna to his side; and when the King was slain at the battle of Lützen (November 1632), his chancellor assumed control of the Swedish war effort.
By that date, Sweden had become the strongest power inside Germany. After Gustavus's death, however, Sweden's position began to slip. Oxenstierna's armies were badly defeated at Nördlingen (1634), and his German allies made their separate Peace of Prague with the emperor in 1635. But the war went on, with France playing a role on the "Protestant" (anti-Hapsburg) side equal to Sweden's. Denmark took Austria's side in 1643 but was handily defeated by the Swedes. In the same year (1645) in which the two countries signed the Treaty of Brömsebro, Swedish armies marched all the way to Vienna. Oxenstierna now retired from the war with profit and honor. After 1648, strengthened by acquisitions from Denmark and the German princes, Sweden emerged as the greatest Baltic power.
Gustavus was succeeded by his daughter, Queen Christina, and Oxenstierna remained the dominant figure in the regime throughout her reign. He died in Stockholm on Aug. 28, 1654.
Further Reading on Count Axel Gustafsson Oxenstierna
The leading English-language expert on the period of Oxenstierna and Gustavus Adolphus is Michael Roberts; see his Gustavus Adolphus: A History of Sweden 1611-1632 (2 vols., 1953-1958). See also I. Anderson, A History of Sweden (1956).
Additional Biography Sources
Roberts, Michael, From Oxenstierna to Charles XII: four studies, Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991.