ustav Vasa, born around 1496, was the king of Sweden between 1523 and 1560 and regent two years earlier, during the liberation war. His rise to power started as a rebellion against Unionist King Kristian II after the Stockholm struggles, which coincided with the end of the Kalmar Union. Gustav belonged to the Vasa family, which became the first dynasty to rule Sweden as a hereditary monarchy. His reign was characterized by state centralization, the introduction of an efficient bureaucracy and the establishment of a national Church based on Lutheran doctrine.
Gustav’s role in introducing the hereditary monarchy is today regarded as the founding act of the modern Swedish state, and on April 6, when he was elected king by parliament in 1523. Later, especially in the nineteenth century, future generations raised him to the rank of the parent of the nation, becoming a very powerful national symbol.
The more recent historical perspectives subject him to the actions of more critical analysis, emphasizing the often brutal methods, as well as the intense propaganda by which he strengthened his power and eliminated his opponents. The historian Lars Larsson points out to us that his work was a combination of willpower, cruelty and political ability in accordance with Machiavelli’s principles, which he greatly admired, things often overlooked by Swedish historiography.
ustav was the son of a knight and councilor Erik Johansson Vasa, who belonged to a family with old roots in the area of Uppsala, but he began to assert himself relatively late on a political and social level. The sources are not at all pleasing to Gustav’s father, describing him as a simple man without extraordinary talents, but Erik has managed to gain prestige by cultivating good relationships with important members of the aristocracy: Regent Sten Sture the Elder and his grandmother, the half-sister of King Karl Knutsson.
In addition, Erik becomes a Johansson by marrying Cecilia Månsdotter, the daughter of Councilor Måns Karlsson, the brother-in-law of Regent Sten Sture the Younger. These connections facilitated Gustav’s ascension.
Gustav was born in 1496, in the Orkesta parish. According to the chronicler Peder the Black, Gustav was sent at the age of 13 to the school and the University of Uppsala, where he would learn Latin and German. He left school after only two years because of an altercation with his Danish teacher. After the short experience, he got into the custody of Sten Sture the Younger, where he dealt with more practical things, such as fencing and legal sciences. He received more education from the office than he would have received in school.
According to traditional historiography, Gustav had early started to take part in the political events of the time, engaging in the battles of Vädla and Brännkyrka (1517–18). The denomination was interesting: King Kristian II of Denmark proposed to Sten Sture to pledge five of his most important men in exchange for negotiations at Södertörn. One of them was Gustav, held captive in the Kalo castle near Aarhus. In detention, the king tried in vain to lure him to his side.
In 1519 he succeeds in fleeing to Lübeck, after which he has returned to Sweden. In the meantime, Kristian defeated Sten’s forces in the battle of Asunder, and with the death of the regent, the Swedish opposition was too weak to oppose the Danish monarchy. Resistance points were still in Kalmar and Stockholm, but according to Peder the Black, Gustav was expelled who had asked them to continue the fighting.
Then he would have tried in vain to encourage the peasants to fight. The version is not very credible, as Kalmar surrendered only three months after his escape. On June 3, 1520, Kristian summoned the Swedes to the negotiations at the parliament meeting, promising the amnesty of the insurgents. But his intentions were far from friendly.
On November 4, Kristian was crowned King of Sweden, four days later following the blood bath in Stockholm, when Gustav’s father and brother, along with 80 other rebels, were executed. With the confiscated properties, Gustav was hunted by Danes throughout the country. Gustav decides to seek support in Dalarna. Several times he was about to be caught, but he escaped and drew on his side people from Rankhyttan, Ornäs, Svärdsjö, Isala, Marnäs, Rättvik, Mora, Utmeland or Sälen. Gustav, at the age of 24, became the leader in Dalarna and all regions that did not want to submit to the Danish crown. So the rebellion against Kristian begins.
Although devoid of firearms and fortresses, the army was increasing its ranks and rebellion was spreading rapidly in many provinces. At the end of April 1521, Gustav ruled Dalarna, Gästrikland, Västmanland, Närke. He arrives with the army at Stockholm, but cannot take the city by storm. The Swedes, who had been held captive by the Danes, returned to Gustav. At a diet held in Vadstena in August, Gustav is recognized as captain of the Gita provinces and regent of Sweden.
Meanwhile, Kristian’s government was under threat from the armies stationed at Rotebro and Botkyrka. In winter, the great fortress of Stegeborg falls into the hands of the rebels. However, the kingdom did not reach Gustav’s hands until 1523, because the lack of siege equipment made it very difficult to capture the cities. The only way was starvation. The last Danish outposts in Finland are delivered in October.
From the regent, he became king and tried to make concrete changes, not just nominal ones. The phenomenon of the Reformation enabled him to do so, as he could eliminate the position of high power of the Church, the large landowner, which prevented the formation of a strong Swedish state. But he did not act forcefully but preferred to do so tactfully, allowing and supporting the spread of Protestant doctrine and using the degree of financial resources of the old Church.
In the diet of Västerås, 1527, two essential things are decided: that a large part of the Church’s properties pass under the administration of the crown and the king becomes, instead of the pope, the head of the Church. The Council of Orebro of 1529 establishes that the sermons are based exclusively on the Scriptures, and in 1541 the first Bible in Swedish also appears.
One of the reasons Gustav confiscated church goods was the need to get out of Lübeck’s tutelage, which was highly privileged in Swedish trade. Paying the debt, Gustav further reduced the influence of the city by participating in the conflict of the Greve, which ends the domination of the Hanseatic League over the Swedish trade. On this occasion, he collaborates with the Danish Gustav Kristian III, but the tensions between the two states will reappear. During his time there was also a war with Russia, but without the borders being changed.
With the possibility of conducting an independent policy, Sweden is entering a new phase of internal development. The government is centralized, the king’s power being above personal interests. The nobles, weakened by Kristian II’s policy, were co-opted to govern by Gustav. The king became more and more involved in the exercise of power, and he also became a bureaucrat. It introduces a fundamental change, namely the hereditary monarchy. At the same time, the duchies within the kingdom could be left to the younger sons.
With only about 5% of the population living in cities, Gustav was careful to regulate and organize agriculture, adopting strict measures regarding the activity of farmers. The hay, for example, had to be tightened up in certain places and up to certain dates, otherwise, the penalties were harsh. The changes did not happen without encountering resistance. Perhaps the most serious rebellion took place in the years 1542–43, when the farmers of Småland, Västergötland, Öland, and Östergötland united against the king but were eventually defeated.
A good soldier and speaker, Gustav demonstrated his leadership qualities, often by force and by exploiting the personal character of power.
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