Gustavus I

Gustavus I Eriksson (1496-1560), first king of modern Sweden, reigned from 1523 to 1560. He led Sweden from chaos to a position as a minor European power.

Gustavus Vasa was born at his mother's estate at Lindholm on Ascension Day, 1496. The Vasas had played an active role in Swedish politics during the 15th century, but usually in the Union party rather than the Nationalist. His father, however, was in the party of Sten Sture, Regent of Sweden, who led the peasantry and some nobles against the Danish Union. In 1516 Gustavus was sent to Denmark as a hostage and was imprisoned in the island fortress of Kalö. He escaped to Lübeck in September 1519 and returned as a fugitive in May 1520 to Kalmar in Sweden.

In January of that year Sten Sture had died and left the forces of the Swedish peasantry leaderless. In March, Christian II had been proclaimed king by the Union aristocracy. On November 8 between one and four o'clock Christian carried out the "bloodbath" of Stockholm, in which no less than 82 persons were beheaded; others fell victim the next day. Among them were Gustavus's father, brother-in-law, and other relatives, and most of the Sture party. Gustavus was hunting near Lake Mälaren when he heard of this event, which overnight made him leader of the Nationalists.

His estates confiscated, a price on his head, Gustavus appealed to the peasants and miners of Dalarna, as had other antiunionists since the days of Engelbrekt. Already bled white by struggle, they first refused him, but when news came that Christian planned to spread fire and sword to Dalarna, ski runners were dispatched to recall the fugitive bound for Norway. They overtook him, and at Mora Church in January 1521 they proclaimed him their leader.

Aided by Lübeck's navy, the courage of the peasants and miners, and the leadership of patriotic nobles, the forces of Gustavus Vasa drove Christian's troops out of the country. A revolt at home deprived Christian of his throne, and in May 1523 the Swedish Riksdag (Diet) met at Strängnäs. On June 6 it elected Gustavus Vasa king.

Gustavus inherited a divided kingdom. Much of the leadership of the nobles had been liquidated in the bloodbath, and Gustavus was hard put to find competent administrators. He owed a tremendous financial debt to the Lübeckers. Moreover, the independent men of Dalarna felt that they had won the crown for Gustavus and expected political and economic compensations. They made at least four serious attempts to limit the Crown. An open revolt in 1531, when they refused to give every second church bell to pay off the debt due Lübeck, led to the arrest and execution of many of the King's old friends and comrades in arms. By intervening in the Count's War in Denmark (1534-1536), he helped place Christian III on the Danish throne and freed himself of Lübeck's economic restrictions.

The Swedish Church possessed great wealth and political power, and the archbishop of Stockholm, Gustavus Trolle, not only had backed the Danish kings but had been a catalyst in the Stockholm bloodbath. Needing money and faced with a revolt in Dalarna by the peasants, and elsewhere by some of the high ecclesiastics, Gustavus in June 1527 called a Riksdag at Västerås and threatened to resign as king if his ecclesiastical policy was not approved. In an agreement known as the Recess of Västerås, the King had his way. A break took place with Rome; church courts and discipline came under the Crown. Thus began the drift of Sweden toward Lutheranism, a movement primarily political and economic. In no country was church property so despoiled as in Sweden, the majority of it going to the Crown. Still, the transition was gradual and claimed few victims.

During his lifetime Gustavus was highly controversial, but time has usually weighed the scales heavily in his favor. Although he was greedy, lustful for power, overbearing, and at times cruel, he gave Sweden a strength and unity that it had heretofore lacked. He had an extraordinary memory, and often his writing and oratorical skills bordered on the theatrical. He had three wives and many children and was survived by a daughter, Cecilia, and four sons, Erik, John, Magnus, and Charles.

Gustavus's achievements in advancing his country culturally, economically, and politically survived his death on Sept. 29, 1560, at the Royal Palace in Stockholm. As his grandson Gustavus II Adolphus said of him, "This king was the instrument by which God again raised up our fatherland to prosperity."


Further Reading on Gustavus I

Perhaps the best account of Gustavus I in English is in Michael Roberts, The Early Vasas:A History of Sweden, 1523-1611 (1968). Extended accounts of him appear in Carl Hallendorf and Adolf Schück, A History of Sweden (1929; rev. ed. 1938), and Andrew A. Stomberg, A History of Sweden (1931).