Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Who was Gustav I Vasa? (Part 2)

Gustav I
Gustav Vasa fought Denmark to gain Sweden's independence from the Kalmar Union. Explore the early beginnings of the founder of the Vasa Dynasty.

Reign of King Gustav I

Upon his ascension as King in 1523, he remarked that Sweden was a “devastated and crippled kingdom.” The country needed to rebuild itself from decades of conflict draining much of its resources and energy. From a military leader to a statesman, the responsibility of rebuilding Sweden burdened his shoulders. He ruled Sweden with an iron will and furious energy.

As a new ruler, he faced numerous challenges. First and foremost he constantly needed to defend his position as King of Sweden from contenders and pretenders both home and abroad. He also needed to confront the agenda of rehabilitating the country’s finance, military, and government.

He ruled Sweden with strong will and attitude. History defined him as a hot tempered and ruthless leader, which later defined many Vasa kings. Many of his critics then even called him as a tyrant. Nevertheless, his strong leadership and ruthlessness helped him to keep his position in a time where various sectors of society commanded great influence and other foreign powers waiting for an opportunity to cease territory.

Consolidation and Protection of Power

Being a new monarch who did not succeeded through inheritance and under system where regents who ruled the country and not kings got elected, Gustav needed to maintain his position strong. Foreign monarchs continued to aspire for the Swedish throne while others supported the claim of local pretenders to contest Gustav’s position. Rebellions also became a considerable challenge to Gustav as peasants, which helped him during the time of the war, felt disillusioned and used arms to express it. All of these he needed to meet with strength and determination to keep his crown.

King Frederick I
The immediate threat to his position remained Christian II of Denmark who although overthrown plotted to reclaim his crown and to reestablish the Kalmar Union. Gustav took the natural course of allying with Christian’s enemies including King Frederick. Together they ended their conflict in a Hanseatic League brokered peace agreement that announced Denmark’s renunciation of claim to the Swedish throne. From then on, Denmark and Sweden maintained peace and cordiality.

Domestically, Gustav took the path of creating an absolute monarchy with a centralized government. He created a centralized government by appointing local bailiffs that helped to administer cities, towns, and villages. It also helped him to check the nobles for any signs of disturbances or abuses. Any signs of abuse and corruption, Gustav crushed brutally. Coincidently, the nobility stood no chance against Gustav because most of the experienced, politically astute, and powerful nobles perished during the Stockholm Bloodbath paving a way to an easy establishment of an absolute monarchy.

In a manner of creating an absolute monarchy, before, he had to share power with the Riksdag that stood as the country’s parliament composing of representatives from powerful sectors of society, namely nobility, clergy, burghers, and peasantry. Each of these estates exercised great influence even the peasantry which in 16th century European standards stood weak against the other estates. Gustav also respected the peasantry for their contribution during the war. As his reign progressed, Gustav learned to manipulate the Riksdag by threatening abdication and anarchy that might followed the action that led to the submission of the Riksdag to his will. Eventually the body only became a rubber stamp for many of Gustav’s policies, making him and the position of king powerful.  

Disorganized Government

While the centralization and creating of absolute monarchy helped Gustav to maintain his position, it also served a practical solution in solving the issue of a disorganized government. Sweden lacked abled and competent officials. One time, he had difficulty in appointing an ambassador to the Holy Roman Empire because no Swede knew how to speak German. As a result of the shortage, he hired foreigners, mostly Germans to serve in the government. In the personal level, he took the simple clerical task along with his other regal duties working tirelessly every day.

Reformation in Sweden
An image showing Gustav Vasa wearing brown and cap in the right and overseeing
the subduing and capturing the Catholic Church symbolized by the women in bright dress

Another hallmark of Gustav’s reign was the rise of the Church of Sweden following a trend occurring in Europe. The rise of the Reformation in Sweden came as a result of politics rather than religious conviction of Gustav. Later on, it brought opportunities and challenges that added to the task ahead for King Gustav.

The Reformation shook the core of European society. It attacked the powerful institution that survived many trials including the fall of the Roman Empire back in the 5th century. But as its power and influence grew, wealth corrupted many clerics who violated their vows of poverty. A monk from Germany named Martin Luther protested what he saw as the decadence of the Church and the papacy. The division within the Church created Protestant sects that deplored the authority of the Vatican. The Holy Roman Empire, England, and later France all felt the impact of the Reformation as much as the Renaissance did. Sweden was not immune.

Gustav never had Protestant leanings to begin with, rather he was practical and realistic individual who cared little of religion. His support of the Reformation movement only came as a result of slight made to him by the Vatican. In 1523, he asked the Vatican to appoint a new primate for Sweden in form of the position of Bishop of Uppsala. He had in his mind along with other clerics Johannes Magni as the candidate for the position rather than the hated “bloodthirsty” Gustavus Trolle. Many in Sweden loathed Trolle because he supported the Kalmar Union and Christian II and his responsibility for the traumatic Stockholm Bloodbath.

Gustav promised the Vatican his absolute loyalty if the Roman Curia appointed Johannes Magni. But the King was made disappointed and even insulted. Johannes Magni returned to Sweden bearing letter reappointing the hated Gustavus Trolle as the new primate. The decision came as an anticipation of a victory of Christian II of Denmark against Sweden and Gustav I. The decision along with the reason angered Gustav so much to the point he broke up relations with the Catholic Church and began the rise of the Reformation movement in Sweden.

Attacking the established Roman Catholic Church in Sweden meant enormous benefits for Gustav. It placed the huge lands under the control of the Church under his mercy. Moreover, once he removed the authority of the Vatican, his powers expands covering not only the state but also the church.

Slowly into his reign, changes in the Sweden’s church began starting with the translation of the New Testament from Latin to Swedish. Church lands also started to be taken over by the state with the Gripsholm Monastery as one of the earliest samples of land confiscation. Then in 1527, a Riksdag convened in Vasteras where the religious issues took the center stage. Gustav demanded control over the church of Sweden along with all its lands, but bishops and peasants opposed the measures. He threatened to abdicate if the body failed to support his proposal. Fear of chaos and anarchy and weakness among the members to oppose the King led eventually to the issuance of the Vasteras Recess and the Vasteras Ordinance.

The Vasteras Recess placed all Church lands under the control of the state, which would then return the lands taken from 1454 onwards back to their respective owners. The Vasteras Ordinance meanwhile severed the connection of the Swedish church to the Vatican and the Roman Catholic Church and placing much authority on religious affairs to the King. In effect, the Vasteras Riksdag cemented the Reformation in Sweden.

The Church of Sweden with Gustav at its head started to grew within the cities and nobilities. In 1529 Synod convened in Orebro to discuss “better regulation of church ceremonies and discipline according to God’s words.” It attacked many practices and rituals of the Catholic Church including the Latin Mass which Gustav sought to be made in Swedish. One occurrence even described that peasants opposed the change in language and so Gustav had an official to speak in front of the crown in Latin. When none of the peasants understood a word uttered, Gustav said to have stated that why then do they love their Latin mass so much.

Laurentius Petri
The governance of the Church also took its shape. Gustav enlisted the help of his Chancellor Laurentius Andreae and the brothers Laurentius and Olaus Petri. Olaus Petri himself had been heavily influenced by Luther during his studies in Germany. By the time he returned to Sweden, he preached Lutheran ideals and became a well-known cleric in Stockholm. His brother Laurentius meanwhile also took the same path of becoming a strong pillar of the Church of Sweden. In 1531, Gustav appointed Laurentius Petri as the Archbishop of Uppsala, thus he became the primate of the Church of Sweden. The brothers eventually made great contribution to the rise of the Church of Sweden. They strengthen its roots within cities, especially Stockholm. In 1541, the brothers succeeded in translating the Bible into Swedish which became known as the Gustav Vasa Bible.

Nonetheless, the relation between Gustav and the brothers soured in 1530’s and 1540’s. Gustav wanted to expand his authority in the Church. He took over lands and sold them to the nobility. He appointed bishops and disregarding the decision of the college of bishops. Eventually the tension reached its climax in 1540, while they worked for the translation of the bible, the Petri brothers were arrested and sentenced to death. With the help of influential friends as well as the merit of their contribution to the Church as well as Swedish literature with their translation, the King pardoned them in 1542 and both decided to keep themselves in the sideline.

Rebellions and Incursions

The establishment of the Church of Sweden, however, presented Gustav with numerous challenges. Peasants hated the Reformation of the Church and displayed their anger in form of armed uprisings. One uprising even received foreign support that threatened to destroy Gustav.

The peasants held much influence in the Riksdag as stated before. They also had high confidence as they knew they helped Gustav to get the throne and they knew they had the power to undo it. When the religious reforms came into action and Gustav started to attack the peasants’ beloved Catholic Church, they rose up in rebellion with some even planning to march into Stockholm which they deemed as the new Sodom and Gomorah and burn it to ashes.

First revolts erupted in Dalarna in 1524 when ambitious clerics, Peder Sunnavader and Knut Mickilsson, who once received favor from Gustav, instigated a revolt. They enflamed the anger of the peasants on heavy taxation, sacrilege of the King on the Church, and foreign influence. Eventually, Gustav ended the revolt peacefully by promising reforms and improvement in standard of living; however, the 2 instigators, Sunnavader and Mickilsson, escaped to Norway.

Revolts also erupted in 1526 in upland due to Gustav’s attack on the Catholic Church. Gustav successfully quelled the revolt through negotiations and explaining the benefits of the changes in the Church, in particular, the use of Swedish.

In 1527, however, another revolt rose up in Dalarna and this time threatened the legitimacy of Gustav’s rule. A pretender appeared and revolted. This pretender claimed he was the son of Christina Gyllenstierna and Sten Sture, Nils Sture. He gathered support but Gustav acted quickly by publishing a letter written by Christina stating that his son was dead and the one leading the revolt an imposter. The imposter tried to save himself by claiming his mother disregarding him, but the peasants disillusioned and turned against him. The imposter fled and later captured and executed.

In 1524, another revolt erupted in Vastergothland. This came also in the midst of the Swedish Reformation and a revolt by peasants and nobles. The rebels even captured Gustav’s sister Margareta. Gustav, on the other hand, chose to use a diplomatic approach. He contained the rebellion in the province preventing it from spreading to other provinces. He also successfully rescued his sister and negotiated with the rebels. The negotiations ultimately led to a division among the rebels causing its end. 2 leaders of the rebellions Ture Jonsson and Bishop Magnus Haraldsson, nonetheless, escaped to Denmark and supported King Christian II in his goal to reestablish himself and the Union. In 1532, the Jonsson and Haraldsson failed to escape Gustav and later executed.   

Another rebellion in Dalarna began in 1530. Once again religious sacrilege was the root cause. Gustav took the measure of melting bells to mint coins to pay debts to the Hanseatic League, but the people of Dalarna refused and peasants rioted and attacked government offices to retake their bells. The rebellion lasted for years because Gustav focused his attention in defeating Christian II who threatened Sweden once again in 1531 and 1532. When this threat was neutralized, only then Gustav marched to Dalarna with more than 10,000 troops and convinced the peasants to lay down their arms.

In 1542 came the greatest rebellion that Gustav faced. The rebellion led by Nils Dacke began in Smaland in 1542. The rebellion grew due to the support of Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire to end the Reformation supported by Gustav. Peasants rose up also against the religious policies of the government. The combination of discontent and foreign support threatened to topple down Gustav. Dacke, a peasant by birth, planned to overthrow Gustav and replace him with Svante Sture. The plan, however, ended when Sture refused to collaborate and even condemned the rebels by handing over the messenger who delivered the proposal to Gustav.

Gustav marched a large host of his force to Smaland and crushed the rebels in 1543. Nils managed to evade capture but later on arrested and killed.

Foreign and Military Affairs

Gustav handled his country’s foreign affairs with great sensitivity. He needed peace with other countries and develop friendships in order to proceed with Sweden’s reconstruction smoothly. He started also to reorganize his military enabling it to respond against rebellions as previously stated. Although much of his reign saw peace, it never prevented him to go to war if the benefits of the conflict benefits Sweden.

After the war in 1523, Sweden’s military was the remnants of Gustav’s peasant army. Only few thousand stayed to serve as part of a standing army. Gustav followed the practice of other kingdoms in hiring foreign mercenaries to augment their military force. In case of Gustav, he hired German mercenaries like the Landsknecht. This army helped to keep order within the country quelling rebellions in different provinces.

Although Gustav’s army internally secured Sweden, he knew Sweden’s weakness when it came to foreign wars. As a result, he developed cordial relations with many countries and avoided military conflicts as much as possible. But when the situation called for war that secured Sweden’s interest, he never hesitated to declare war. For instance, in 1532, he fought a war against the dethrone Christian II in his attempts to retake the Danish and Swedish throne and reestablish the Kalmar Union.

Another war freed Sweden from the clutches of the Hanseatic League. Before that point, the relation between the League and Sweden were warm yet subservient. Sweden and Gustav had to bow to the Hanseatic League as a gratitude for its support during the war against Denmark. Gustav borrowed heavily from the League which demanded control over Sweden’s foreign trade. As a result, Sweden’s domestic traders had no chance of success due to the League’s influence and wealth. In 1530, when the League demanded Sweden payments for its debt, Gustav resorted to melting bells from churches that later resulted to rebellion within the country.

When the Hanseatic League suddenly supported Christian II’s restoration to the throne of Denmark, Gustav and King Christian III together declared war against the Hanseatic League in a conflict that became known as the Count’s Feud. Here, Gustav developed a strong navy and together with the Danes crushed the influenced and power of the Hanseatic League forever in 1537. At the time of the war’s end, Gustav gained a free hand to develop his country’s economy.

Charles V
Meanwhile, the Reformation and his break with the Roman Catholic Church altered the dynamics of Swedish policy. He had tenuous with the Vatican as well as the Holy Roman Empire that championed the Catholic cause. Holy Roman Emperor Charles V even supported the rebellion of Nils Dacke to topple Gustav’s rule.

This position, however, allowed Gustav to sought new partners in Europe to fight the influence of the Holy Roman Empire. For instance, he started to establish relations with King Henry VIII who like him severed relations with the Catholic Church. He also sought friendship with the French who stood as Charles V’s rival in the continent.

On the other hand, Gustav kept cordial relations with Denmark. Both countries and their Kings sought to prevent Christian II from retaking power. In addition, both Gustav and Christian III promoted the Protestant Reformation. So peace but uneasy relations between the 2 countries prevailed during Gustav’s reign. Tensions continued to exist nonetheless such as in 1548 when Christian III gave a coat of arms Christian III to his daughter for her wedding to the Duke of Saxony. The coat of arms depicted symbols of Sweden which implored Denmark’s claim of dominion over Sweden. This issue did not proceed to war but it once again riffed the relation between the 2 Scandinavian countries.

Economic Policies

After the war for the liberation of Sweden, the country faced a dire financial situation. Much of the country’s industries laid in ruins. The tax base of the country, the peasants, were just beginning to restart their lives. The government’s tax revenues were always in deficit and debts burdened the country further.

Although difficult, Gustav took the measure of increasing taxes on peasants. This he did with great caution as he knew that revolts would be rising up. Indeed, many of the revolts that occurred during Gustav’s rule arose due also to heavy taxation of the government.

Besides taxes, Gustav also used the Reformation as a means to take over the vast lands controlled by the Church. With the Vasteras Ordinance, Gustav acquired huge track of lands that he then returned or sold to the nobility for revenues.

On the other hand, the economy of Sweden was in a bad shape in the early years of his reign. Much of the stagnation especially in trade came as a result of Gustav’s concession to Hanseatic League which gave the organization a monopoly on the international trade of Sweden. As a result few to none Swedish merchants flourished that could have been another source of revenue for the government. Only with the Count’s Feud did the country finally broke free from the clutches of the league and started to trade actively on their own.

Later on, Gustav promoted the development of trade and new industries. Trade with the Dutch and French rose. He encouraged mining such as silver in Sala and copper in Falan. He also supported the development of agriculture hiring foreign experts to share new techniques to partners. He also gave patronage to the development of dairy industry which he handed over control to his wife.

End of Reign

Swedes remembered Gustav as a hot headed and ruthless leaders while other labelled him as a tyrant; nevertheless, the Swedish people respected him for freeing and rebuilding their country from the war of independence.

Gustav made strives to preserve his legacy by making the position of king hereditary. In June 1560, another diet of all the estates met in Stockholm. There Gustav revealed his desire for the country to be united and giving hints of his health decline. After Gustav’s speech, the Riksdag conferred to Gustav the honor of making his position hereditary, thus his Erik would be his heir.

Few months after the Riksdag in Stockholm, on September 29, 1560, Gustav Ericksson Vasa passed away, leaving behind a kingdom independent. 

See also:

Nilsson, Victor. History of Sweden. New York: The Co-operative Publication Society, 1899.

Stefansson, Jon. The Story of the Nations: Denmark and Sweden with Iceland and Finland. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1917.

Svanstrom, Ragnar & Carl Fredrik Palmstierna. Short History of Sweden. New York: Oxford University Press, 1934.

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