Wednesday, August 19, 2009

King Gustav I of Sweden

A hero for some, a villain for others, Gustav I cannot be ignored. He was the founder of the Vasa dynasty, the liberator of his country from the Danes, the ruler responsible for bringing Lutheranism to Sweden. Gustav Eriksson was born May 12, 1496, the son of Erik Johansson and Cecilia Månsdotter. His family belonged to the highest Swedish nobility. Like most Scandinavians at the time, Gustav used no family name. He was originally known by his given name and patronymic, but the name of the dynasty, derived from the family's heraldry, has been given to him by later authors. At the time of Gustav's birth, Sweden belonged to the Kalmar Union, joining all three (technically independent) Scandinavian kingdoms in the person of a single monarch.

Denmark's dominant role in the Kalmar Union aroused Swedish resentment, and conflicts and wars between the kingdoms were frequent. Gustav's father participated in the revolt led by the Swedish regent, Sten Sture the Younger, against the Danish (and Union) king, Christian II. After a bitter struggle, Christian conquered Sweden. He seized Stockholm in 1520, executing a number of Sture's followers, including Erik Johansson. The young Gustav escaped by hiding, later to join, and eventually lead, the rekindled Swedish rebellion. From 1521-1523, he fought the Danes with a small army recruited from Dalarna. The Danes were eventually defeated, Sweden gained independence, and Gustav was proclaimed King on June 6, 1523. This date has been celebrated, ever since, as the country's national holiday.

Hitherto, Gustav had posed as a loyal son of the Catholic Church, but soon introduced Lutheranism to Sweden, in an effort to consolidate and expand his power.The Swedish church, led by Gustavus Trolle, Archbishop of Uppsala, had supported (or, at least, was viewed as supporting) the Danes, so it was not surprising that a conflict with the newly independent Swedish state rapidly emerged. Shortly after Gustav's accession, Trolle was banished. The King appealed to Rome to authorize the appointment of an Archbishop of his own choice, Johannes Magnus. The Pope refused to grant his request and insisted upon Trolle's reinstatement (Rome later relented, but, by then, it was too late). A feud between Pope and King erupted. To justify making his own episcopal appointments, Gustav espoused Lutheranism, which gave monarchs jurisdiction over ecclesiastical affairs. He favored the Lutheran scholar, Olaus Petri, and entrusted his brother, Laurentius, with the see of Västerås. The Petri brothers eagerly propagated Lutheranism in Sweden, and the years to come would see many critical changes, including the introduction of Lutheran Bibles, clerical marriage, and royal confiscation of church property.

Gustav's reign was shaken by a number of rebellions, sparked by his harsh and autocratic methods and his suppression of Sweden's traditional religion. The people of Dalarna, his staunchest supporters during the war of independence, revolted several times during the first decade of his rule, and were brutally suppressed. The peasants of Småland rose up in 1542. Under their leader, Nils Dacke, they put up a bitter (and, for several months, remarkably successful) fight in the dense woods, but were ultimately defeated by Gustav's army (supplemented by able royal propaganda, aimed at turning the population against Dacke). Nils perished in the struggle, and there are widely varying accounts of his end. He has traditionally been portrayed as a traitor to Sweden, but modern scholarship has adopted a more nuanced view, sometimes even lionizing him as a "Robin Hood" figure. In any case, his proclamations to his followers apparently centered on understandable grievances- the abolition of traditional Catholic practices, the seizure of church bells and church treasures to be melted down for money...

The final years of Gustav's reign were marked by an inconclusive war with Ivan the Terrible of Russia. On September 29, 1560, after a long period of illness, Gustav died, and was succeeded by his eldest son, Erik XIV. The heritage of this daring, cunning, capable and ruthless ruler has been much disputed, with many viewing him as the father of his country and a national hero, and others (especially, among recent, revisionist scholars) considering him a tyrant, who kept an iron grip on church and state alike...

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