The early sixteenth century heralded transformations to the organization of Sweden’s state formation, which elevated the poor and sparsely populated country to the status of a powerful and influential Scandinavian empire. Imperial Sweden, a dynamic government, proved itself to be an eclectic state of military, centralist, and localist influences distinct from many European contemporaries. For approximately two hundred years, this identity of a uniquely structured empire would operate under a complex formula defined by political turbulence, social and ecclesiastical changes, territorial expansion and economic proliferation, and perhaps its one true constant—war. Deconstructing the most influential variables of this formula individually conveys their significance in the greater equation while simultaneously allowing for a more a complete analysis necessary to evaluate the rise and eventual fall of Imperial Sweden.

Kings and Queens: Politics by Personal Preference

By many accounts Imperial Sweden has been classified as a centralist government in which the government was structured in a top-down approach. The monarchy, nobility, and upper social sphere shared almost complete power over the lower class, composed mostly of burghers and peasants. Laws were influenced predominantly by the desires of the select few in power and solely reflected their ambitions without necessarily paying heed to the needs of their subjects—the vast majority of the population.1Mats Hallenberg, et al, “Organization, Legitimation, Participation,” Scandinavian Journal of History 33, no. 3 (2008), 247–268. While there exists controversy amongst scholars about the veracity and extent of these claims as the definitive political system for Imperial Sweden, there can be no doubt that strong evidence exists which supports key principles of the theory. Examining the unbridled and paradigm shifting capabilities of a few select monarchs throughout its history demonstrates how this principle dictated the functions and identity of Imperial Sweden.

In the wake of the Nordic Union’s collapse, a union that consolidated the powers and responsibilities of Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and other regions connected to the heart of the Baltic Sea—the nesting grounds of economic trade and strategic military value in sixteenth century northern Europe—the political atmosphere was conducive for a burgeoning empire. Gustaf Vasa (1496–1560) realized the advantageousness of these conditions and seized them to become the first political leader and eventual king of what can be defined as Imperial Sweden. In 1528 he was crowned king of Sweden at Uppsala Cathedral after several years of consolidating power throughout the country by means of support of the Hansa League and discontent with Danish monarch Christian II. Gustaf Vasa, one of the most influential and significant kings who reigned throughout this period, can also be credited as introducing Protestantism to Sweden, a far-reaching action that would not only influence the international politics in the near future of reformation fueled political conflicts, but also Sweden’s long-term status as a country dominated by Lutheranism and close ties between Church and State. Furthermore, Vasa would introduce the concept of a hereditary monarch to Sweden, which would prove paramount to solidify the stability of the state by avoiding the uncertain and exploitable nature of elections. It is important to demonstrate the significance of these actions, which were heavily influenced by the personal whims and desires of Gustav Vasa. This is evident in his conversion to Lutheranism for practical means of monetary gain through seizing previously held Catholic church assets to pay off debts and buy loyalty from aristocrats who could be paid off or win loyalty from peasants who were discontent with the status quo religion. These examples of tremendously important self-serving actions exist as a recurring pattern that defines Imperial Sweden’s politics as a system sensitive to the individual desires of each respective monarch.2Neil Kent, A Concise History of Sweden, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 61–100.

Queen Christina (1626–1689) asserts herself as another example of a monarch whose unconventional or selfish whims would define state formation and policy of her country at large during her reign. Although less of a power-hungry centralist ruler than the dynastic pioneer Gustaf Vasa, her legacy demonstrates itself a relevant factor of the definitive atmospheric conditions of Imperial Sweden. Christina became heir apparent to the throne of Sweden at the age of six after her father, Gustav Adolf, died while abroad fighting in the Thirty Years War in the year 1632. At the time of her entrance into the monarchy the nobility’s powers were balanced by the Council of the Realm, whose authority was a rising influential voice in the country’s decision and policy making political sphere. In an almost unprecedented turn of events, she began a campaign to abdicate the throne after ruling for only seven years. Three years later, in 1654, her intentions came to fruition as she voluntarily stepped down from her duties and passed the reins of the hereditary monarchy to Karl Gustav, commander-in-chief of the Swedish army and one time marriage prospect. Without his promotion and with no true male heir to Gustav Adolf, it would have been logical to anticipate the Council to overtake the position of a monarch and transform Imperial Sweden into an aristocratic republic. However, because of her actions to relinquish her throne and the rights of heredity to Karl Gustav and his lineage, Imperial Sweden reversed political directions and again faced a landscape defined by almost absolute centralist control by the king.3AnnaSara Hammar, “Queen Christina” (lecture, Umeå, Sweden, March 3, 2014).

Peasants, Men, and Women: Do You Hear the People Sing?

In direct contrast to the aforementioned theory of Imperial Sweden having qualities that could reasonable classify it as a centralist government, there are scholars who purport that large amounts of local ambitions influenced the actions of the throne and organization of the state. Evidence of a localized formation of Imperial Sweden suggests that relevant discourse and communication existed between national and local or urban and rural Sweden. This discourse elevated the status of peasants to contributing members of society in various degrees, depending on their localities, gender, and time period. Over the span of Imperial Sweden’s approximate two centuries of prominence, population growth, social progress, and industrial evolution would also distort the desires of the peasants and their subsequent influence.4Hallenberg, “Organization, Legitimation, Participation.”

From the year 1571 to 1718, the population of Sweden more than doubled from 639,000 to 1,408,000. The majority, estimated to be almost ninety-five percent, were peasants. In the sixteenth century the majority of these peasants would be small-scale farmers or possibly coastal fishermen, but by the eighteenth century many had adapted to advances in manufacturing, which encouraged larger scale farms and diminished the importance of guilds and independent artisans.5AnnaSara Hammar, “Social Changes” (lecture, Umeå, Sweden, March 10, 2014).One of the most important factors of involvement in a localized government is the ability for reception of policy to be relevant. This concept of peasants imposing consequences upon the monarchy can best be exemplified by the Dacke rebellion. Collecting power for his dynastic kingdom, Gustav Vasa imposed a series of escalating regulations and taxes aimed to facilitate further expansion of his state. Many of these policies, such as seizing of private economics for public good proved too upsetting and controversial and sparked a large-scale, long-term rebellion among peasants of Småland in 1542. After an extensive military intervention lasting longer than twelve months, Vasa calmed the uprising and acquiesced to the demands and influence of his subjects. Although dynastic power continued to grow under his rule, the rebellion proved the relevance of the peasantry as a viable estate of the Diet.6Hallenberg, “Organization, Legitimation, Participation.” Displeasure with policy was not always demonstrated with such violence, as many documented legal injunctions exist on record in the form of more petty and small scale acts of defiance. By refusing to operate public duties such as maintaining roads, facilitating stage coach rides, or paying taxes, peasants were able to voice their discontent in small-scale and nonviolent means that would still prove bothersome enough for the monarchy to notice.7Eva Österberg, “Alternative Protests among Ordinary People in Early Modern Sweden,” in Mentalities and Other Realities: Essays in medieval and Early Modern Scandinavian History, ed. Göran Rystad and Sven Tägil, trans. Alan Crozier (Lund: Lund University Press, 1991), 168–175.

Women of Imperial Sweden were heavily stratified in their rights and influence by their marital status. Widowed women in particular proved to be granted special privileges that would normally be reserved for men. The petitioning of widows to the government for financial aid best exemplifies this principle. Because of the state of war that constantly drew Sweden’s men to battle and possible death, soldiers’ widows were a relevant proportion of the population—and according to the theory of a localized government, Imperial Sweden would consider the needs and desires of this interest group of peasants in order to help keep their support and integration. Imperial Sweden accomplished this goal by awarding monetary and territorial gains to war-time widows, who, through proper procedure, could petition the king for inheriting property that belonged to their deceased husbands, receiving wages their husbands were owed before their death, or simply getting basic financial support because of the difficulty of their economic situation as recent widows. Copious amounts of hard physical evidence in forms of these preserved letters for assistance demonstrate that Imperial Sweden did value meaningful interaction between its subjects, even that of often marginalized widowed women—a key tenant of the localized philosophy of government.8Mary Elizabeth Ailes, “Wars, Widows, and State Formation in 17th Century Sweden,” Scandinavian Journal of History 31, no. 1 (2006), 18.

The war efforts of Imperial Sweden would have been unfeasible without the participation of large amount of peasant men participating in the military. Through a process of conscription, the military was composed heavily of farmers or fishermen who would be uprooted and mobilized at a moment’s notice for military and strategic needs. Besides being financially taxing, the conscription service also came at a heavy cost of morale and support of the subjects of the kingdom. In order to offset the polarizing nature of involuntary service, Imperial Sweden implemented systems of military rank progression which allowed motivated and loyal peasant soldiers to ascend the ranks of their outfits, creating a system for highly desirable financial and social improvement that aimed to stimulate effort by militias.9Klaus-Richard Böhme, “Building a Baltic Empire: Aspects of Swedish Expansion, 1560–1660,” in In Quest of Trade and Security:The Baltic in Power Politics 1500–1990, ed. Rystad Göran and Klaus-Richard Böhme, et al. (Lund: Lund University Press, 1994), 177–221. Beyond their military service, average men of Imperial Sweden were defined by their adherence to strict societal codes of honor, violence, and masculinity. Maintaining a successful and respectable reputation hinged upon being ready to defend one’s self against personal slights and perceived trespasses through physical dominance of the offenders.10Hammar, “Social Changes.” While the ecclesiastical ideal of this extreme masculinity translated to a father’s role in family life, transcripts of canonization hearings reflect a differing, more realistic approach of compassion, emotional support, and proud commitment towards fatherhood.11Sari Katajala-Peltomaa, “Fatherhood, Masculinity and Lived Religion in Late-Medieval Sweden,” Scandinavian Journal of History 38, no. 2 (2013), 223–244.

War: You Win Some; You Lose Some

A background upon the virtual entirety of Imperial Sweden’s lifespan, the ubiquitous monotony of war was punctuated by two particularly large conflicts that heavily influenced the rise and fall of Sweden. In between, many other wars were fought and won or lost for a complex variety of reasons. Territory, resource advantages, military value, expansion, and religious conflict are some of the suite of catalysts that can be prescribed to the conflicts. Military needs motivated changes to technology, resource management, and the very structure itself of Imperial Sweden.

The Thirty Years War was one of Europe’s greatest military conflicts prior to World War I. Involving a myriad of diverse countries over a span of approximately three decades, this war was the definitive launching pad for Sweden onto the world stage as a relevant, respectable, and powerful empire. The war began in 1616 and was largely a conflict between Catholic and Protestant regions, jostling for position in the religious and territorial landscape of seventeenth century Europe. Heavily within its own borders, it could be described as a civil war between a collection of countries whose loyalties were split between the Protestant Union of Lutheran Princes and the Catholic League. Because of Gustav Vasa’s conversion to Lutheranism some 100 years earlier, Sweden aligned itself with the Protestant Union among the likes of Denmark, France, and Germany—an alliance that was slow to materialize but ultimately successful. Not until 1630 was Sweden led into battle by Gustav Adolf, and not until the subsequent defeat of Sweden-allied town Magdeburg did they gather enough momentum to garner tangible support and even subsidization from their allies. Adolf revenged the sacking of Magdeburg by achieving a decisive victory at the battle of Breitenfeld, slaying some 20,000 Catholic troops led by feared commander Johann Tserclaes, count of Tilly, who was also killed. This battle solidified the brilliance and bravery of Adolf, which would prove a valuable tool of inspiration as the war waged on. Gustav Adolf would fall in battle just a year later, but not before he—the proclaimed Lion of the North—solidified Sweden’s position as an influential military body. Although they would settle into a slump that would demand assistance from the French, ultimately the Thirty Years War ended with great Swedish victory. This success abroad expanded the monarchy through recruitment of valuable nobles abroad, hoards of loot from victorious battles, and success of the economic expansion of Sweden’s iron- and copper-based weapon foundries.12Elise Dermineur, “Thirty Years War” (lecture, Umeå, Sweden, February 26, 2014).

War was capricious and fickle towards Sweden, taking away its greatness as easily as it bestowed it. It proves important to reiterate that, while these conflicts present themselves as most historically relevant, various conflicts arose in-between. Notably, almost constant skirmishes with long-time rivals Russia, Denmark, and Poland were in-between the end of The Thirty Years War, which were largely responsible for launching Imperial Sweden into its greatest days of prosperity, and the Northern War of 1700. The Northern War ended Imperial Sweden’s reign as a Scandinavian superpower through a prolonged series of almost constant defeats and unsustainable scope. Disgruntled with the constant back and forth of revenge- and territorial-based battles between Imperial Sweden, an alliance of Denmark, Russia, and Poland-Sachsen joined forces to attempt to neuter their aggressively meddlesome neighbor. Although they led off with a series of victories, Imperial Sweden’s fate eventually turned fatally south. In 1718 at the unsuccessful siege of Fredrikshald, King Charles XII died suspiciously, under conditions that could be attributed to mutiny from his own soldiers who were disgruntled by his continued lack of successful leadership. Three years later would mark the official end of the war, although it had long since proved itself a lost cause. The longevity of the losing battles completely drained Sweden’s resources in an economic maneuver that directly opposes the fruits of The Thirty Years War. The newly impoverished country, denied of its Baltic Sea and Germanic territories that had long propped up military and economic success, devoid of a strong king, started to fundamentally shift view of a successful government structure. The estates of the Diet asserted themselves as more powerful than ever before and democratic political parties emerged from the ashes of Imperial Sweden.13AnnaSara Hammar, “The Great Northern War” (lecture, Umeå, Sweden, March 5, 2014).

Geography: Communication and Trade on the Baltic Sea

The Baltic Sea was the hub of the efficient transportation throughout Early Modern northern Europe and as such was valuable real estate for the countries surrounding its coastal localities, including Imperial Sweden. Coastal property along the Baltic Sea allowed increased maneuverability of naval forces, enhanced economic leverage through taxes and supervision of important international trade routes, and strategic access to further territorial expansion. Sweden’s geographic position on a peninsula with great access to such integral waterways fundamentally affected the mentality of its political, economic, and military motives.

Imperial Sweden utilized the Baltic to transport both trade goods and information. Imperial Sweden’s post office, in some circumstances, could take advantage of increased speed for delivery via waterways to give themselves advantages in communicating important economic trades, spreading important political messages, or securing the network of information for their empire.14Örjan Simonson, “Information Costs and Commercial Integration: The Impact of the 1692 Swedish Postage Tariff,” Scandinavian Economic History Review 61, no. 1 (2013), 60–81. Trade in particular benefited from the ease and convenience of large scale international transportation through the Baltic Sea and its respective waterways. Exporting wood, iron, copper, and military supplies was one of the cornerstones of the elevated economic expansion of Imperial Sweden, afforded only because of their control of Baltic Waters.15W. S. Unger, “Trade Through the Sound in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries,” The Economic History Review 12, no. 2 (1959), 206–221. Finally, the Baltic Sea provided valuable military value as it created harbors for valuable naval bases, provided easy and reliable access to waterways for further expansion inland, and afforded control of exploitable strategic locations such as the Sound between Denmark and Sweden.[2] These highly desirable qualities proved worth fighting over, contributing to many of the skirmishes between Imperial Sweden and its Danish, Polish, and Russian neighbors who also vied for control of the hotbed of naval power and economic advantage.

Conclusion

Imperial Sweden operated as dynamic, powerful, unique system of government for almost two hundred years. Hard to concretely define in absolute terms of social, military, and political normalities, it proves to be a complex government whose constant evolution led to fluctuations of prosperity and hardship. Although ultimately crumbling under the reins of an impotent centralist monarch, expensive debts of revenge, and ambitions stretched farther than their reach, Imperial Sweden transformed the country from a poor and empty land of little relevance to a respected and acknowledged player on the Early Modern stage.

 

Bibliography

Ailes, Mary Elizabeth. “Wars, Widows, and State Formation in 17th Century Sweden.” Scandinavian Journal of History 31, no. 1 (2006): 18.

Böhme, Klaus-Richard. “Building a Baltic Empire: Aspects of Swedish Expansion, 1560–1660.” In In Quest of Trade and Security:The Baltic in Power Politics 1500–1990, edited by   Rystad Göran and Klaus-Richard Böhme, et al., 177–221. Lund: Lund University Press,1994.

Dermineur, Elise. “Thirty Years War.” Lecture, Umeå, Sweden, February 26, 2014.

Glete, Jan. “Bridge and Bulwark. The Swedish navy and the Baltic 1500–1809.” In Trade and Security: The Baltic power Politics, 1500–1890, edited by Rystad Göran and Böhme       Klaus-Richard, et al., 9–60. Lund: Lund University Press, 1994.

Hallenberg, Mats, et al. “Organization, Legitimation, Participation.” Scandinavian Journal of History 33, no. 3 (2008): 247–268.

Hammar, AnnaSara. “Great Northern War, The.” Lecture, Umeå, Sweden, March 5, 2014.

Hammar, AnnaSara. “Queen Christina.” Lecture, Umeå, Sweden, March 3, 2014.

Hammar, AnnaSara. “Social Changes.” Lecture, Umeå, Sweden, March 10, 2014.

Katajala-Peltomaa, Sari. “Fatherhood, Masculinity and Lived Religion in Late-Medieval Sweden.” Scandinavian Journal of History 38, no. 2 (2013): 223–244.

Kent, Neil. A Concise History of Sweden. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

Kujala, Antti “The breakdown of a society. Finland in the Great Northern War 1700–1714.” Scandinavian Journal of History 25, no. 1–2 (2000): 69–86.

Simonson, Örjan. “Information Costs and Commercial Integration: The Impact of the 1692 Swedish Postage Tariff.” Scandinavian Economic History Review 61, no. 1 (2013), 60–81.

Unger, W.S. “Trade Through the Sound in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries.” The Economic History Review 12, no. 2 (1959), 206–221.

Österberg, Eva. “Alternative Protests among Ordinary People in Early Modern Sweden.” In Mentalities and Other Realities: Essays in medieval and Early Modern Scandinavian History, edited by Göran Rystad and Sven Tägil, translated by Alan Crozier, 168–175, Lund: Lund University Press, 1991.

References   [ + ]

1. Mats Hallenberg, et al, “Organization, Legitimation, Participation,” Scandinavian Journal of History 33, no. 3 (2008), 247–268.
2. Neil Kent, A Concise History of Sweden, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 61–100.
3. AnnaSara Hammar, “Queen Christina” (lecture, Umeå, Sweden, March 3, 2014).
4. Hallenberg, “Organization, Legitimation, Participation.”
5. AnnaSara Hammar, “Social Changes” (lecture, Umeå, Sweden, March 10, 2014).
6. Hallenberg, “Organization, Legitimation, Participation.”
7. Eva Österberg, “Alternative Protests among Ordinary People in Early Modern Sweden,” in Mentalities and Other Realities: Essays in medieval and Early Modern Scandinavian History, ed. Göran Rystad and Sven Tägil, trans. Alan Crozier (Lund: Lund University Press, 1991), 168–175.
8. Mary Elizabeth Ailes, “Wars, Widows, and State Formation in 17th Century Sweden,” Scandinavian Journal of History 31, no. 1 (2006), 18.
9. Klaus-Richard Böhme, “Building a Baltic Empire: Aspects of Swedish Expansion, 1560–1660,” in In Quest of Trade and Security:The Baltic in Power Politics 1500–1990, ed. Rystad Göran and Klaus-Richard Böhme, et al. (Lund: Lund University Press, 1994), 177–221.
10. Hammar, “Social Changes.”
11. Sari Katajala-Peltomaa, “Fatherhood, Masculinity and Lived Religion in Late-Medieval Sweden,” Scandinavian Journal of History 38, no. 2 (2013), 223–244.
12. Elise Dermineur, “Thirty Years War” (lecture, Umeå, Sweden, February 26, 2014).
13. AnnaSara Hammar, “The Great Northern War” (lecture, Umeå, Sweden, March 5, 2014).
14. Örjan Simonson, “Information Costs and Commercial Integration: The Impact of the 1692 Swedish Postage Tariff,” Scandinavian Economic History Review 61, no. 1 (2013), 60–81.
15. W. S. Unger, “Trade Through the Sound in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries,” The Economic History Review 12, no. 2 (1959), 206–221.