1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Gustavus I. Eriksson

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GUSTAVUS I. ERIKSSON (1496–1560), king of Sweden, was born at his mother’s estate at Lindholm on Ascension Day 1496. He came of a family which had shone conspicuously in 15th-century politics, though it generally took the anti-national side. His father, Erik Johansson of Rydboholm, “a merry and jocose gentleman,” but, like all the Swedish Vasas, liable to sudden fierce gusts of temper, was one of the senators who voted for the deposition of Archbishop Trolle, at the riksdag of 1517 (see Sweden, History), for which act of patriotism he lost his head. Gustavus’s mother, Cecilia Månsdåtter, was closely connected by marriage with the great Sture family. Gustavus’s youthful experiences impressed him with a life-long distrust of everything Danish. In his eighteenth year he was sent to the court of his cousin Sten Sture. At the battle of Brännkyrka, when Sture defeated Christian II. of Denmark, the young Gustavus bore the governor’s standard, and in the same year (1518) he was delivered with five other noble youths as a hostage to King Christian, who treacherously carried him prisoner to Denmark. He was detained for twelve months in the island fortress of Kalö, on the east coast of Jutland, but contrived to escape to Lübeck in September 1519. There he found an asylum till the 20th of May 1520, when he chartered a ship to Kalmar, one of the few Swedish fortresses which held out against Christian II.

It was while hunting near Lake Mälar that the news of the Stockholm massacre was brought to him by a peasant fresh from the capital, who told him, at the same time, that a price had been set upon his head. In his extremity, Gustavus saw only one way of deliverance, an appeal for help to the sturdy yeomen of the dales. How the dalesmen set Gustavus on the throne and how he and they finally drove the Danes out of Sweden (1521–1523) is elsewhere recorded (see Sweden: History). But his worst troubles only began after his coronation on the 6th of June 1523. The financial position of the crown was the most important of all the problems demanding solution, for upon that everything else depended. By releasing his country from the tyranny of Denmark, Gustavus had made the free independent development of Sweden a possibility. It was for him to realize that possibility. First of all, order had to be evolved from the chaos in which Sweden had been plunged by the disruption of the Union; and the shortest, perhaps the only, way thereto was to restore the royal authority, which had been in abeyance during ninety years. But an effective reforming monarchy must stand upon a sound financial basis; and the usual revenues of the crown, always inadequate, were so diminished that they did not cover half the daily expenses of government. New taxes could only be imposed with extreme caution, while the country was still bleeding from the wounds of a long war. And men were wanted even more than money. The lack of capable, trustworthy administrators in Sweden was grievous. The whole burden of government weighed exclusively on the shoulders of the new king, a young man of seven and twenty. Half his time was taken up in travelling from one end of the kingdom to the other, and doing purely clerical work for want of competent assistance. We can form some idea of his difficulties when we learn that, in 1533, he could not send an ambassador to Lübeck because not a single man in his council, except himself, knew German. It was this lack of native talent which compelled Gustavus frequently to employ the services of foreign adventurers like Berent von Mehlen, John von Hoja, Konrad von Pyhy and others.

It was not the least of Gustavus’s many anxieties that he had constantly to be on the watch lest a formidable democratic rival should encroach on his prerogative. That rival was the Swedish peasantry. He succeeded indeed in putting down the four formidable rebellions which convulsed the realm from 1525 to 1542, but the consequent strain upon his resources was very damaging, and more than once he was on the point of abdicating and emigrating, out of sheer weariness. Moreover he was in constant fear of the Danes. Necessity compelled him indeed (1534–1536) to take part in Grevens fejde (Counts’ War) (see Denmark, History), as the ally of Christian III., but his exaggerated distrust of the Danes was invincible. “We advise and exhort you,” he wrote to the governor of Kalmar, “to put no hope or trust in the Danes, or in their sweet scribbling, inasmuch as they mean nothing at all by it except how best they may deceive and betray us Swedes.” Such instructions were not calculated to promote confidence between Swedish and Danish negotiators. A fresh cause of dispute was generated in 1548, when Christian III.’s daughter was wedded to Duke Augustus of Saxony. On that occasion, apparently by way of protest against the decree of the diet of Vesterås (15th of January 1544), declaring the Swedish crown hereditary in Gustavus’s family, the Danish king caused to be quartered on his daughter’s shield not only the three Danish lions and the Norwegian lion with the axe of St Olaf, but also “the three crowns” of Sweden. Gustavus, naturally suspicious, was much perturbed by the innovation, and warned all his border officials to be watchful and prepare for the worst. In 1557 he even wrote to the Danish king protesting against the placing of “the three crowns” in the royal Danish seal beneath the arms of Denmark. Christian III. replied that “the three crowns” signified not Sweden in especial, but the three Scandinavian kingdoms, and that their insertion in the Danish shield was only a reminiscence of the union of Kalmar. But Gustavus was not satisfied, and this was the beginning of “the three crowns” dispute which did so much damage to both kingdoms.

The events which led to the rupture of Gustavus with the Holy See are set forth in the proper place (see Sweden: History). Here it need only be added that it was a purely political act, as Gustavus, personally, had no strong dogmatic leanings either way. He not unnaturally expressed his amazement when that very juvenile reformer Olavus Petri confidently informed him that the pope was antichrist. He consulted the older and graver Laurentius Andreae, who told him how “Doctor Martinus had clipped the wings of the pope, the cardinals and the big bishops,” which could not fail to be pleasing intelligence to a monarch who was never an admirer of episcopacy, while the rich revenues of the church, accumulated in the course of centuries, were a tempting object to the impecunious ruler of an impoverished people. Subsequently, when the Protestant hierarchy was forcibly established in Sweden, matters were much complicated by the absolutist tendencies of Gustavus. The incessant labour, the constant anxiety, which were the daily portion of Gustavus Vasa during the seven and thirty years of his reign, told at last even upon his magnificent constitution. In the spring of 1560, conscious of an ominous decline of his powers, Gustavus summoned his last diet, to give an account of his stewardship. On the 16th of June 1560 the assembly met at Stockholm. Ten days later, supported by his sons, Gustavus greeted the estates in the great hall of the palace, when he took a retrospect of his reign, reminding them of the misery of the kingdom during the union and its deliverance from “that unkind tyrant, King Christian.” Four days later the diet passed a resolution confirming the hereditary right of Gustavus’s son, Prince Eric, to the throne. The old king’s last anxieties were now over and he could die in peace. He expired on the 29th of September 1560.

Gustavus was thrice married. His first wife, Catherine, daughter of Magnus I., duke of Saxe-Lauenburg, bore him in 1533 his eldest son Eric. This union was neither long nor happy, but the blame for its infelicity is generally attributed to the lady, whose abnormal character was reflected and accentuated in her unhappy son. Much more fortunate was Gustavus’s second marriage, a year after the death of his first consort, with his own countrywoman, Margaret Lejonhufvud, who bore him five sons and five daughters, of whom three sons, John, Magnus and Charles, and one daughter, Cecilia, survived their childhood. Queen Margaret died in 1551; and a twelvemonth later Gustavus wedded her niece, Catharine Stenbock, a handsome girl of sixteen, who survived him more than sixty years.

Gustavus’s outward appearance in the prime of life is thus described by a contemporary: “He was of the middle height, with a round head, light yellow hair, a fine long beard, sharp eyes, a ruddy countenance ... and a body as fitly and well proportioned as any painter could have painted it. He was of a sanguine-choleric temperament, and when untroubled and unvexed, a bright and cheerful gentleman, easy to get on with, and however many people happened to be in the same room with him, he was never at a loss for an answer to every one of them.” Learned he was not, but he had naturally bright and clear understanding, an unusually good memory, and a marvellous capacity for taking pains. He was also very devout, and his morals were irreproachable. On the other hand, Gustavus had his full share of the family failings of irritability and suspiciousness, the latter quality becoming almost morbid under the pressure of adverse circumstances. His energy too not infrequently degenerated into violence, and when crossed he was apt to be tyrannical.

See A. Alberg, Gustavus Vasa and his Times (London, 1882); R. N. Bain, Scandinavia, chaps. iii. and v. (Cambridge, 1905); P. B. Watson, The Swedish Revolution under Gustavus Vasa (London, 1889); O. Sjögren, Gustaf Vasa (Stockholm, 1896); C. M. Butler, The Reformation in Sweden (New York, 1883); Sveriges Historia (Stockholm, 1877–1881); J. Weidling, Schwedische Geschichte im Zeitalter der Reformation (Gotha, 1882).  (R. N. B.)