Gustavus II (1594-1632) was king of Sweden from 1611 to 1632. He did much to make Sweden a major European power, and his military exploits were highly important in the history of Russia, Germany, Poland, and the Baltic Provinces.
The eldest son of Charles IX of Sweden and Christina of Holstein-Gottorp, Gustavus II was born on Dec. 9, 1594. Although his parents had Calvinist leanings, Gustavus received heavy doses of Lutheranism. History, government, warfare, and engineering were among the subjects he pursued, with special emphasis on language. Count Axel Oxenstierna, his most trusted adviser, said of his sovereign, "In his youth he obtained a thorough knowledge and perfect command of many foreign tongues, so that he spoke Latin, German, Dutch, French, and Italian like a native, understood Spanish, English, and Scotch, and had besides some notion of Polish and Russian." At 9 Gustavus was introduced into public life, and at 13 he was receiving petitions. At 15 he began to administer his duchy of Västmanland and opened the Riksdag at Örebro in his father's absence. On Aug. 15, 1609, he made his first speech to the Estates when he dismissed them after a stormy session, for his father was incapacitated by a stroke from which he never completely recovered. He henceforth was coregent until his father's death in October 1611.
A Dutchman described the new king as being "of lofty stature, of finely proportioned build, with a fair complexion, long face, blond hair, and pointed beard of an almost golden hue." As the years passed, the hair became more golden and the beard reddish, and in spite of his strenuous life, the King became corpulent and his features heavier. An engraving of 1616 confirms the rather elongated face, the large eyes, and the nose that gave him the nickname Gösta, or Hooknose. He suffered one serious physical defect:he was nearsighted, which hampered him on the battlefield and was a factor in his death.
Of an ardent and passionate nature as his relations with Ebba Brahe and the Dutch woman Margareta Slots would indicate, Gustavus was simple in his clothing and eating habits, often inspiring his troops by sharing their hardships. He was temperate in his drinking, not by inclination as his daughter Christina relates, but "of reasons of state." On the other hand, he delighted in the pageantry of ceremonial occasions. He was quick-tempered, impatient, intolerant, and strict and sometimes used wrath for a purpose.
Gustavus Adolphus believed strongly in honor, work, duty, and destiny. Knowing his own imperfections, he put his trust in God. He blended caution and constancy of purpose with a love of spontaneous action that attains its goal because of its unexpectedness. Active, energetic, and impervious to danger, he still had time to show interest in theology and was "a lover of all arts and sciences."
Such was the young king who took over a country at war with Russia, Poland, and Denmark. Kalmar had already fallen to the Danes, and soon Älvsborg capitulated. The newly built Göteborg (Gothenburg) was burned to the ground. Yet Stockholm held, and the armies of Christian IV encountered unexpected resistance from the Swedish people. Consequently a peace was signed at Knäred in January 1613 whereby Sweden agreed to pay Denmark one million riksdaler within 6 years and give up all claims to certain disputed Arctic regions. Älvsborg fort and the surrounding region were to be occupied by the Danes as pledge for payment. All other boundaries were to remain the same. Sweden did, however, retain exemption from the tolls at the Sound.
The struggle with Russia was aided by succession problems in the Muscovite state known as the "Time of Troubles." Playing off various succession candidates, Gustavus was able to conclude on Feb. 27, 1617, at Stolbova a favorable peace which excluded Russia from the Baltic. In autumn of that year Gustavus's long-delayed coronation took place in the Cathedral of Uppsala. On Nov. 25, 1620, he married Maria Eleanora of Brandenburg and thereby achieved "his first victory on German soil, " whose political rewards were obvious. Not so obvious was the Queen's emotional unbalance which made the King's domestic life difficult and which was passed on to their daughter Christina.
Less than 2 years before his death Gustavus wrote Oxenstierna:"If anything happens to me, my family will merit your pity, not for my sake only, but for many other reasons. They are womenfolk, the mother lacking in common sense, the daughter a minor—hopeless, if they rule, and dangerous, if others come to rule over them."
Gustavus inherited the throne by the Pact of Succession of 1604 and at the Estates of Nyköping in December 1611 was recognized king despite his youth. On the other hand, he was forced to concede certain powers to the Council and the Estates. Some of these concessions aided the Crown because Swedish administration was extremely complex.
The Charter of 1617 sanctioned all former privileges of the nobility and stipulated that all important crown offices be reserved to the nobility. No commoner could be employed in the central administration or serve as a judge or diplomat. By the Statutes of the Nobility of 1626 grades in the nobility were defined, and it became the right and the duty of the upper class to enlist in the civil service of the country. The nobility, however, was not a closed caste and was constantly recruited from below. Commoners with conspicuous abilities as soldiers and administrators were given the title commensurate with their positions. As time passed, a cleavage developed between the new aristocracy of service and the aristocracy of land and family. Furthermore, Gustavus gave the Estates considerable power and balanced the lower estates against the upper. The meetings of the Estates gradually were transformed into orderly discussions as opposed to the stormy and highly dramatic meetings held by earlier sovereigns. There were complaints over taxes, but the successful foreign policy of the King usually kept the Estates loyal.
Gustavus and his able chancellor Oxenstierna worked tirelessly to create a central organization to meet the country's administrative needs. Their efforts reached fruition in the 1634 å rs Regeringsform (Constitution). A central office, or college, was established for each of the chief administrative departments:war, justice, and so on. Over each college was an official with a seat on the Council, which most of the year sat permanently in Stockholm instead of meeting at the command of the King. On the local level, the country was divided into provinces with a crown official residing in the castle of the most important city of the province. It was this machinery that made it possible for government to function during the long absences of Gustavus and during the minority of Christina. Sweden was also fortunate in the number of able leaders it had to fill posts provided under the new arrangements.
The payment of the Ä lvsborg ransom, enlarged political responsibilities, and the heavy expenses of almost constant war put a strain on Sweden's finances that could not be maintained without adequately utilizing the natural resources of the country. An elaborate mercantilist system was erected which not only specialized arts and crafts within various cities but specialized cities themselves. Some cities were newly built or resurrected, but the only really successful one was Göteborg. Government policies were highly successful in the mining industries. Dutch capital, traders, and industrialists such as Louis de Geer established large new ironworks and reorganized old ones. Large numbers of Flemings and Walloons came into the country, and Calvinists mingled with the native Lutherans. Many characteristics of Low Country origin may be discerned in the areas in which they settled. Soon Sweden had sufficient ordnance for its army and navy plus some for export. Shipyards were busy building naval and merchant ships, and a Swedish colony in the New World was planned but not actually attempted until 6 years after the death of Gustavus. Although the results of the economic policy did not always reach government hopes and expectations, they must be regarded as fairly satisfactory because they enabled Sweden to carry successfully the heavy burdens imposed from the outside.
War and Diplomacy
For Gustavus Adolphus war and diplomacy intermingled. It has been said that he was the first man in modern times to reduce war to a system and to secure brilliant results by strict application of that system. He was skilled in military engineering and cartography and was a student of the scientific side of war. Some of his officers were trained by Maurice of Orange, and Gustavus took the tactics of the brilliant Dutchman and gave them his own twist by combining them with the best of the Spanish school. Consequently there developed through his efforts a general European system of fighting—formation in line.
Gustavus developed naval superiority since campaigns across the Baltic were impossible without it. The backbone of his army was Swedish and Finnish regiments drafted from each province, but a number of Germans and Scots served under him. His armies were usually outnumbered, but he substituted maneuverability for size. His highly mobile army was supplied with light up-to-date equipment with large stores of supplies kept in readiness for their needs. His artillery was capable of rapid fire, and his units coordinated the various arms into an organic whole possessing superior striking power. Gustavus paid close attention to detail and to instructing his officers personally. Consequently he developed a school of generals which included Swedes, Germans, and Scots.
Sigismund of Poland refused to recognize Gustavus's right to the throne partly because of his own claims and partly as an element of the Catholic offensive in Europe militarily underway since the outbreak of the Thirty Years War in 1618. In 1621 Gustavus captured Riga and soon the rest of Livonia. From 1626 to 1629 he continued military operations against Poland. In these he built his military skills and trained his forces. He could not obtain sufficient guarantees to help Christian IV against the Catholics, and after the defeat of Christian in Germany by the Catholic general A. E. W. von Wallenstein, the Swedes were beaten at Struhm on June 29, 1629, by the Poles led by Stanislaus Koniecpolski aided by 10, 000 mercenaries of Gen. Wallenstein. This battle led to the Peace of Altmark, which left Gustavus free to cope with the German situation. Wallenstein meanwhile threatened Pomerania, and Gustavus sent aid to the besieged city of Stralsund. After much soul-searching, Gustavus decided to espouse the Protestant cause, motivated by religion highly mixed with a concern for Sweden's well-being.
On May 19, 1630, Gustavus formally took leave of the Estates, realizing he might never return to Sweden. On June 24 he landed at Rügen. He cleared Mecklenburg of imperial troops, and Pomerania soon followed. In the spring of 1631, strengthened by a definite alliance with France, the Treaty of Bärwalde, and aided by the dismissal of Wallenstein, Gustavus decided to relieve the city of Magdeburg, which was under siege by the imperial general the Count of Tilly. Brandenburg and Saxony refused his troops passage so Gustavus remained in Pomerania while Magdeburg was sacked. Tilly found Gustavus's fortifications at Verden too strong to attack so he moved into Saxony to compel its elector, John George I, to disband his army. This leader of the neutral princes in Germany appealed for aid, and Gustavus joined his troops to those of the Saxons, and on Sept. 7, 1631, at Breitenfeld battle was joined. Although the Saxon wing was shattered, the Swedes held firm and turned defeat into victory. This was the turning point in the war because never again did the imperial forces gain complete ascendancy.
Wallenstein was recalled to action, and Gustavus mobilized the whole of northern Germany to meet him. In 1632, when he received news that Wallenstein was threatening Protestant Nuremberg, Gustavus began a successful invasion of Bavaria. He was repulsed in his attempts to relieve that city and turned his troops toward Austria, hoping to draw off Wallenstein. In this he was successful. He then made a series of rapid marches, hoping to return to his base, but found Wallenstein entrenched in Saxony. On Nov. 6, 1632, the two met at Lützen. The Swedish troops won the battle but lost their king. Gustavus fought without armor because it irritated old wounds and was uncomfortable because of his weight. Somehow in the mists, the nearsighted king became detached from his troops and was slain. There was no one to take his place, and henceforth neither Catholics nor Protestants were able to gain a complete mastery over the other.
Gustavus's life was cut short when he stood at the height of his success. He has been called everything from a selfish Swedish nationalist who ruined Germany to a dreamer for a united Scandinavian-German empire. He has been hated and revered by posterity as he was in his own lifetime. There can be no doubt that he set his stamp on his age and that he is one of the outstanding examples of the importance of the personal factor in history.
Further Reading on Gustavus II
Two excellent works in English on Gustavus are Nils Ahnlund, Gustav Adolf the Great (trans. 1940), and Michael Roberts, Gustavus Adolphus:A History of Sweden, 1611-1632 (2 vols., 1953-1958). Considerable accounts of Gustavus appear in Carl Hallendorf and Adolf Schück, A History of Sweden (1929; rev. ed. 1938), and Andrew A. Stomberg, A History of Sweden (1931).