Sweden’s Super-Power Era 1611 – 1718



Between the years 1611 and 1718 Sweden grew and maintained for a while a position as a European Super-Power. In Swedish history- and school books it’s referred to as “Stormaktstiden”/The Super-Power Era. Sweden back then was rather unlike Sweden today in mentality and ambitions. It was much rougher, more focused on wars and expansion, and the civilians, peasants and ordinary workers had to suffer the most. All the same an embryo of Sweden today was shaped during those years. Cities were founded, the Church lists of people’s births, weddings, deaths etc shaped and systematized. A system that still exists. The first Swedish newspaper was founded, the development of bureaucracy and the small beginning of what later would become the more democratic Sweden.

In 1594 the crown-prince Gustav Adolf was born as son of king Carl IX. Gustav Adolf was the grandson of Gustav Eriksson Vasa who had made Sweden into an inherited kingdom in 1523. When Gustav Vasa’s third son Carl IX died in 1611 the young prince became the new king of Sweden at the age of 17. The year after that the statesman Axel Oxenstierna became Chancellor of the realm and would have an important role on Swedish policies until his death in 1654. The young king Gustav II Adolf of Sweden was ambitious, and had inherited wars against Poland and Denmark from his father. Sweden fought Denmark in the so called Kalmar War which ended with a peace treaty signed in Knäred, south-east Halland on January 20th 1613. It was a tough treaty where both parties had to give up and gain areas. Sweden was also obliged to pay Denmark 1 million Riksdaler in six years time. In 1614 the king started a great rearrangement of the judicial system and was also between 1613 and 1615 deeply in love with the young aristocratic beauty Ebba Brahe. The preserved love-letters between them show strong affections, but the surrounding court and the Royal family forbade this love and instead the general Jakob De la Gardie courted and married her. King Gustav II Adolf instead married Maria Eleonora of Brandenburg in 1620. On February 17th 1617 Sweden also signed a peace treaty with Russia at Stolbova near Lake Ladoga, surveyed by diplomats from the Netherlands and England. In that treaty Sweden got Ingermanland and Kexholm County, in Russian called Priozersk. This led to that Sweden who already had Finland as part of Sweden could control the Gulf of Finland.

In 1618 the 30-year war broke out in Europe after that some high officials and their secretaries were thrown out of a window in Prague. For the moment Sweden stayed out of that war, but that would change a few years later. In these days Denmark had a larger fleet than Sweden, but many war-ships were built in Sweden to change the balance of power. One famous incident though occured which later has given us an important remnant of the ship-building techniques from those days. In 1625 king Gustav II Adolf gave the order to build a ship of the line called Vasa. It was big and over-dimensioned. Ship builder Henrik Hybertsson had a tough job, and despite the fact that Admiral Henrik Clas Henning realised that the dimensions were wrong the ship sailed away to participate in the war on August 10th 1628. Only after a little while the ship lost its balance and sank. In the 20th century the wreck was found by archeologist Anders Franzén and it was taken up from the water on April 24th 1961. It might now be seen at the Vasa Museum in Stockholm. In 1629 a truce was signed between Sweden and Poland after war between the two countries since 1625.

The Swedish king though was worried that Denmark and Germany would grow too much in power and Sweden threw itself into the 30-year war in 1630. The Swedish king was successful at first and got the epithet “The Scandinavian Lion”. The Swedish army was efficient, but many soldiers died from diseases, wounds, bad and harsh weather, accidents and negligence. Many young peasants and farm-hands were enrolled by force or persuasion, as well as others. Many farms in Sweden were emptied on young men, and the women and older men had to take care of everything. The taxes to finance the wars also created agony for many ordinary people and the days were tough indeed. Compare this with today’s war-zones around the world. It’s very much the same today, even if our armies and weapons have become even more devastatingly lethal. In Germany the Swedish army created havoc and the locals scared the children with stories of the brutal and dangerous Swedes. One successful battle from a Swedish point of view was the battle of Breitenfeld near Leipzig on September 7th 1631. Gustav II Adolf defeated the German general Tilly. Even if the 30-year war was described as a war between Roman Catholics against Lutheran Protestants that is an oversimplification. France which is Catholic hated the also Catholic German Empire and sided with the Swedes. With Sweden fought Scots, Frenchmen and Croats against the German Emperial forces. However, on November 6th 1632 Gustav II Adolf was killed in the fog during the battle of Lützen also near Leipzig. His body was later found shot and stabbed to death, and sent back to Sweden together with his dead horse. The king’s clothes and stuffed horse might now be seen on the museum Royal Armouries at the Stockholm Castle. The queen Ulrika Eleonora grieved his death for a long time and kept his heart in a small box while the young princess Christina only could watch her mother. Christina was then pronounced queen but it would take until 1644 before she actually would reign.

In 1634 Sweden got a new form of government which gave most of the power to the richest aristocracy. Castles, finer positions, estates, power over the people. In 1635 a new modern road system was begun and the year after the alliance with France grew. Since 1610 Sweden also had invited skilled craftsmen from Belgium and northern France, so called Walloons. Many of them settled in Finspång and Norrköping, many went back home, but ca 900 stayed. The city of Gothenburg/Göteborg was founded already in 1604, was burned in the Kalmar War in 1611, but rebuilt 1619-1621. The city grew in importance during the 17th century, mainly inhabited by a mix of Dutchmen, Germans and Swedes.

In 1638 the Swedish colony New Sweden/Nya Sverige was founded in North America in the states of Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Maryland. Land was bought by the Lepane Indians by Nya Sverigekompaniet/The New Sweden Company. That colony flourished with good relations to the native Indians 1638-1655 until the Dutch took over. Axel Oxenstierna had started the negotiations already in 1635 when he met some Dutch merchants who told him of the North American colonies. Back home in Europe general Johan Banér died and was replaced by Lennart Torstensson. In 1644 Queen Christina was crowned and started a reign with focus on culture and trade. Among others she invited the philosopher René Descartes to Sweden, and the cultural life began to flourish. Something less flattering for Sweden is our participation in the West-African slave trade for a few years. Sweden had slave forts in Ghana between 1648 and 1660 and competed in the foul slave trade with Danes, Portuguese, Dutchmen and Englishmen. The general idea and the colonial mentality was no doubt racist, in Sweden as in many other countries. Tragic but true. In 1643 General Lennart Torstensson invaded and sacked Skåne: burning, violating and killing the local population. This is called the Torstensson-war. At the same time queen Christina continued to discuss culture and assembled many intellectuals and books.

After the sea-battle at Femern which Denmark lost a peace-treaty between Sweden and Denmark was signed at Brömsebro in Blekinge on October 13th 1645. Sweden then recieved the island of Gotland, the counties Jämtland and Härjedalen near Norway, the island of Ösel off the Estonian coast and the province of Blekinge for 30 years. That same year Sweden got its first newspaper filled mainly with information about the wars and propaganda. It was called Ordinari Post Tijdender/Original Post News. The war in Germany was though drawing to a close and ended in 1648 with the Westfal Peace. Was this the end on a period of war? Absolutely not. The wars would go on for many more years. In 1654 Queen Christina decided to become a Roman Catholic, abdicated and moved to Rome. She took many books and scriptures with her and saved them for the coming generations, since the Royal Castle in Stockholm, called Tre Kronor/Three Crowns would later burn in 1697. In 1654 Axel Oxenstierna died and Christina’s cousin Carl X Gustav became the new king. It’s him we see on his horse as a statue on the Major Square here in Malmoe.

In 1655 the new crown-prince Carl was born while his father the king looked with eager eyes on Denmark and especially East Denmark: Scania, Halland and Blekinge. When the Swedish armies were in Germany the king decided to invade Denmark after the Danish king had declared war on Sweden in the winter of 1657- 1658. This was during the little ice age in Europe and the winters were very cold. Carl X Gustav decided to take his troups over the ices Lille Bält and Store Bält from Jutland to Zeeland and put a siege on Copenhagen. It was dangerous and parts of the Swedish troups drowned. In the Swedish national propaganda the event was then portrayed as very neat and without problems, while reality was much more harsh. The Swedish king fought the Danes and a new treaty was signed in Roskilde Cathedral in February 1658. Sweden then got what until then had been East Denmark, the Scanian provinces Skåne, Halland and Blekinge. Now Sweden was as biggest, and the map above shows where the borders were. I have made Sweden’s areas dark yellow on that map. Apart from what’s Sweden now, the central areas of Norway in the west, then Finland which had been part of Sweden since the mid 1200’s and would remain so until 1809. Moreover parts of western Russia, what’s now Estonia and most of Latvia, as well as areas in northern Germany around Rostock, Lübeck and Bremen. Only a few months after the peace Carl X Gustav wanted to invade the rest of Denmark and Norway to make entire northern Europe, or at least the Scandinavian countries, into a big Swedish Empire. He started making plans for such invasions.

In 1660 Karl X Gustav died however, and was succeeded by his son Carl XI, who then was a kid. Until he came of age the government were in the hands of his custodians. Carl XI would grow up to become another warrior king and was educated both in theology, statemanship and warfare. In 1661 a man called Erik Dahlberg was permitted to publish the book “Suecia antiqua et hodierna”/Sweden in antiquity and present day.  It was a massive book with pictures describing the history and invented history of the country to suit the mentality of a super-power. In 1675 the Scanian War broke out when king Fredrik II of Denmark tried to take Skåne/Scania back. At the battle north of Lund on December 4th 1676 the two armies met and it became one of the bloodiest in modern Scandinavian history. The 8 000 Swedes met 13 000 Danes and 9000 were killed. In these days the uniforms were not yet distinct and it was difficult to tell friend from foe. At one point Carl XI happened to lead some Danish troups and had to flee. The Swedish troups won the battle however, but the war dragged on until 1679. In 1680 Carl XI introduced autocracy and a reduction was made where he withdrew many castles from the aristocracy to the state. The king was sometimes called “the grey coat” for his modest soldier clothing, in contrast to the flamboyant fashioned dresses of Carl X Gustav. In 1682 the Subdivision Authority was founded and rules for general uniformation: What the uniforms would look like, how to tell Swedish soldiers from foreign and tell the different regiments apart. Also new regiment banners were made. The Caroline Soldiers which you see in the photo above have copied the uniforms from this era.

In 1697 the Royal Castle Tre Kronor was burned by accident while Carl XI was dying. The new king Carl XII, 15 years old,  had to save his family from the burning flames. Carl XII was declared having come of age and entered the throne. Carl XII was the last Swedish warrior king and spent most of his rule out of the country in various wars. Carl XII also chose to dress like a common soldier unlike the aristocratic officers. The king also became appreciated in the ranks for his own bravery, but also hated by others. In 1700 the Great Scandinavian War broke out with Swedish attacks on Denmark, and it would last 1700 – 1721. Carl XII was then 18 years old. One early Swedish success anno 1700 was the battle of Narva in Ingermanland, northern Estonia. 10 500 Swedes fought ca 30 000 Russians under Zcar Peter the Great. 12 000 Russians fell but “only” 600 Swedes. However in 1709 the luck changed. At the battle of Poltava in southern Ukraine Zcar Peter defeated the Swedish forces who despite help from Kazak leader Mazepa didn’t win. Carl XII had to flee with some officers and troups to the Turkish sultan, while many Swedes were either killed or taken captive by the Russians, taken to Moscow and then to Siberia. Many died there, and only a few survivors returned to Sweden 10 – 20 years later. After this loss the Danish king tried to take Scania back, was invited by the citizens of Helsingborg, which the Swedes recented.The battle of Helsingborg was fought in February 1710 and  was won by the Swedish army. That was the last Danish attempt to regain its losses from the 1600’s. After the battle the Swedish authorities punished the citizens of Helsingborg for having welcomed the king of Denmark, and Sweden’s authorities neglected Helsingborg for the next 100 years and only in the mid 1800’s the city regained its strength.

The Turkish sultan welcomed the Swedish monarch and his troups in 1709 and Carl XII tried to persuade the Sultan to go to war against Zar Peter. He did, but then made a truce with Russia. This vexed king Carl and he stayed at Bender in Moldava for several years while he sent his messengers to Sweden and abroad on scientific journeys. During this time in Bender Carl XII also made plans for new buildings in Stockholm, a system for driving on the right side of the road, (which was introduced in Sweden in 1967), and also plans for income-tax return. On February 1st 1713 the Sultan had had enough and decided to force the king and his troups away. Thousands of Turks attacked the small camp at Bender where the king and about 40 Caroline soldiers defended themselves. The king refused to leave and this episode is called “The kalabalik in Bender”. “Kalabalik” in Turkish means “crowd“, but borrowed into the Swedish language it has got the meaning “chaos/turmoil“. It would take a year before the Swedish monarch returned to Sweden. King Carl XII brought with him to Sweden in his entourage among others, some Arabs, some Turks and a few Jews. In those days the Swedish law said that all inhabitants of Sweden had to be Christians. However, in a responding letter dated February 12th 1718 king Carl XII gave permission for the newcomers to practice their religions. (Real freedom of religion nevertheless would come gradually from the late 1800’s until the mid 1900’s). When the Swedish king tried to invade Norway he met his destiny on November 30th 1718. Carl XII was standing in a shooting trench outside Fredriksten Fort near Oslo/Christiania. The king was looking up from the trench leaning his head on his hand. A shot came and entered one of his temples. According to eye-witnesses it sounded like a tiny smack, his head sank down and he was dead. The debate has been fierce whether he was shot by Norwegians or if he had become the victim of a Swedish political plot where maybe other Royals and officers were involved. The Swedish army had to go back to Sweden and general Armfeldt and his troups went through wintry blizzards and deep snow over the mountains where many soldiers froze to death, or were victimized in other ways. Some of them succeeded to get back to Sweden though. The coat and gloves of Carl XII might also be seen at the Royal Armouries.With the death of Carl XII the Swedish Super-Power Era came to an end, then to be replaced in the 1700’s by the Freedom Era, enlightenment and Gustav III’s enlightened despotism. But that is another chapter in the Swedish history.

Anders Moberg, June 26th 2013


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