1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Oxenstjerna

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OXENSTJERNA, an ancient Swedish senatorial family, the origin of which can be traced up to the middle of the 14th century, which had vast estates in Södermanland and Uppland, and began to adopt its armorial designation of Oxenstjerna (“Ox-forehead”) as a personal name towards the end of the 16th century. Its most notable members were the following.

1. Count Axel Gustafsson (1583-1654), chancellor of Sweden, was born at Fönö in Uppland, and was educated with his brothers at the universities of Rostock, Jena and Wittenberg. On returning home in 1603 he was appointed kammerjunker to King Charles IX. In 1606 he was entrusted with his first diplomatic mission, to Mecklenburg, was appointed a senator during his absence, and henceforth became one of the king's most trusted servants. In 1610 he was sent to Copenhagen to prevent a war with Denmark, but was unsuccessful. This embassy is important as being the beginning of Oxenstjerna's long diplomatic struggle with Sweden's traditional rival in the north, whose most formidable enemy he continued to be throughout life. Oxenstjerna was appointed a member of Gustavus Adolphus's council of regency. High aristocrat as he was, he would at first willingly have limited the royal power. An oligarchy guiding a limited monarchy was ever his ideal government, but the genius of the young king was not to be fettered, so Oxenstjerna was content to be the colleague instead of the master of his sovereign. On the 6th of January 1612 he was appointed chancellor. His controlling, organizing hand was speedily felt in every branch of the administration. For his services as first Swedish plenipotentiary at the peace of Knäred, 1613, he was richly rewarded. During the frequent absences of Gustavus in Livonia and Finland (1614-1616) Oxenstjerna acted as his vice-regent, when he displayed manifold abilities and an all-embracing activity. In 1620 he headed the brilliant embassage despatched to Berlin to arrange the nuptial contract between Gustavus and Mary Eleanora of Brandenburg. It was his principal duty during the king's Russian and Polish wars to supply the armies and the fleets with everything necessary, including men and money. By this time he had become so indispensable that Gustavus, in 1622, bade him accompany him to Livonia, where Oxenstjerna was appointed governor-general and commandant of Riga. His services in Livonia were rewarded with four castles and the whole bishopric of Wenden. He was entrusted with the peace negotiations which led to the truce with Poland in 1623, and succeeded, by skilful diplomacy, in averting a threatened rupture with Denmark in 1624. On the 7th of October 1626 he was appointed governor-general of the newly-acquired province of Prussia. In 1629 he concluded the very advantageous truce of Altmark with Poland. Previously to this (September 1628) he arranged with Denmark a joint occupation of Stralsund, to prevent that important fortress from falling into the hands of the Imperialists. After the battle of Breitenfeld (September 7th, 1631) he was summoned to assist the king with his counsels and co-operation in Germany. During the king's absence in Franconia and Bavaria in 1632 he was appointed legatus in the Rhine lands, with plenipotentiary authority over all the German generals and princes in the Swedish service. Although he never fought a battle, he was a born strategist, and frustrated all the efforts of the Spanish troops by his wise regulations. His military capacity was strikingly demonstrated by the skill with which he conducted large reinforcements to Gustavus through the heart of Germany in the summer of 1632. But it was only after the death of the king at Lützen that Oxenstjerna's true greatness came to light. He inspired the despairing Protestants both in Germany and Sweden with fresh hopes. He reorganized the government both at home and abroad. He united the estates of the four upper circles into a fresh league against the common foe (1634), in spite of the envious and foolish opposition of Saxony. By the patent of the 12th of January 1633 he had already been appointed legate plenipotentiary of Sweden in Germany with absolute control over all the territory already won by the Swedish arms. No Swedish subject, either before or after, ever held such an unrestricted and far-reaching authority. Yet he was more than equal to the extraordinary difficulties of the situation. To him both warriors and statesmen appealed invariably as their natural and infallible arbiter. Richelieu himself declared that the Swedish chancellor was “an inexhaustible source of well-matured counsels.” Less original but more sagacious than the king, he had a firmer grasp of the realities of the situation. Gustavus would not only have aggrandized Sweden, he would have transformed the German empire. Oxenstjerna wisely abandoned these vaulting ambitions. His country's welfare was his sole object. All his efforts were directed towards procuring for the Swedish crown adequate compensation for its sacrifices. Simple to austerity in his own tastes, he nevertheless recognized the political necessity of impressing his allies and confederates by an almost regal show of dignity; and at the abortive congress of Frankfort-on-Main (March 1634), held for the purpose of uniting all the German Protestants, Oxenstjerna appeared in a carriage drawn by six horses, with German princes attending him on foot. But from first to last his policy suffered from the slendemess of Sweden's material resources, a cardinal defect which all his craft and tact could not altogether conceal from the vigilance of her enemies. The success of his system [ 402 ] postulated an uninterrupted series of triumphs, whereas a single reverse was likely to be fatal to it. Thus the frightful disaster of Nördlingen (September 6th, 1634; see Sweden: History) brought him, for an instant, to the verge of ruin, and compelled him, for the first time, so far to depart from his policy of independence as to solicit direct assistance from France. But, well aware that Richelieu needed the Swedish armies as much as he himself needed money, he refused at the conference of Compiègne (1635) to bind his hands in the future for the sake of some slight present relief. In 1636, however, he concluded a fresh subsidy-treaty with France at Wismar. The same year he returned to Sweden and took his seat in the Regency. His presence at home overawed all opposition, and such was the general confidence inspired by his superior wisdom that for the next nine years his voice, especially as regarded foreign affairs, was omnipotent in the council of state. He drew up beforehand the plan of the Danish War of 1643-1645, so brilliantly executed by Lennart Torstensson, and had the satisfaction of severely crippling Denmark by the peace of Brömsebro (1645). His later years were embittered by the jealousy of the young Queen Christina, who thwarted the old statesman in every direction. He always attributed the exiguity of Sweden's gains by the peace of Osnabrück to Christina's undue interference. Oxenstjerna was opposed at first to the abdication of Christina, because he feared mischief to Sweden from the unruly and adventurous disposition of her appointed successor, Charles Gustavus. The extraordinary consideration shown to him by the new king ultimately, however, reconciled him to the change. He died at Stockholm on the 28th of August 1654.

See Axel Oxenstjernas skriften och brefvexling (Stockholm, 1888

et seq.); A. de Marny, Oxenstjerna et Richelieu à Compiègne (Paris,


2. Count Johan Axelsson (1611-1657), son of the foregoing, completed his studies at Upsala in 1631, and was sent by his father on a grand tour through France, the Netherlands and Great Britain. He served under Count Gustavus Horn in the Thirty Years' War from 1632, and was subsequently employed by his father in various diplomatic missions, though his instructions were always so precise and minute that he was little more than the executor of the chancellor's wishes. He was one of the commissioners who signed the truce of 1635 with Poland, and in 1639, much against his father's will, was made a senator. Along with Salvius he represented Sweden at the great peace congress of Osnabrück, but as he received his instructions direct from his father, whereas Salvius was in the queen's confidence, the two “legates” were constantly at variance. From 1650 to 1652 he was governor-general of Pomerania. Charles X. made him earl marshal.

3. Gabriel Gustafsson (1587-1640), brother of (1), was from 1612 to 1618 the chief adviser of Duke John, son of King John III., and Gustavus Adolphus's competitor for the Swedish throne. After the duke's death he became, virtually, the locum-tenens of the chancellor (with whom he was always on the most intimate terms) during Axel's frequent absences from Sweden. He was also employed successfully on numerous diplomatic missions. He was most usually the intermediary between his brother and the riksdag and senate. In 1634 he was created lord high steward. His special department, “Svea Hofret,” the supreme court of justice, was ever a model of efficiency, and he frequently acted as chancellor and lord high treasurer as well.

See Gabriel Gustafssons bref till Riks Konsler Axel Oxenstjerna, 1611-1640 (Stockholm, 1890).

4. Count Bengt or Benedict Gabrielsson (1623-1702), was the son of Axel Oxenstjerna's half-brother, Gabriel Bengtsson (1586-1656). After a careful education and a long residence abroad, he began his diplomatic career at the great peace congress of Osnabrück. During his stay in Germany he made the acquaintance of the count palatine, Charles Gustavus, afterwards Charles X., whose confidence he completely won. Two years after the king's accession (1654), Oxenstjerna was sent to represent Sweden at the Kreistag of Lower Saxony. In 1655 he accompanied Charles to Poland and was made governor of the conquered provinces of Kulm, Kujavia, Masovia and Great Poland. The firmness and humanity which he displayed in this new capacity won the affectionate gratitude of the inhabitants, and induced the German portion of them, notably the city of Thorn, to side with the Swedes against the Poles. During Charles's absence in Denmark (1657), Oxenstjerna, in the most desperate circumstances, tenaciously defended Thorn for ten months, and the terms of capitulation ultimately obtained by him were so advantageous that they were made the basis of the subsequent peace negotiations at Oliva, between Poland and Sweden, when Oxenstjerna was one of the chief plenipotentiaries of the Swedish regency. During the domination of Magnus de la Gardie he played but a subordinate part in affairs. From 1662 to 1666 he was governor-general of Livonia. In 1674 he was sent to Vienna to try and prevent the threatened outbreak of war between France and the empire. The connexions which he formed and the sympathies which he won here had a considerable influence on his future career, and resulted in his appointment as one of the Swedish envoys to the congress of Nijmwegen (1676). His appointment was generally regarded as an approximation on the part of Sweden to Austria and Holland. During the congress he laboured assiduously in an anti-French direction; a well-justified distrust of France was, indeed, henceforth the keynote of his policy, a policy diametrically opposed to Sweden's former system. In 1680 Charles XI. entrusted him absolutely with the conduct of foreign affairs, on the sole condition that peace was to be preserved, an office which he held for the next seventeen years to the very great advantage of Sweden. His leading political principles were friendship with the maritime powers (Great Britain and Holland) and the emperor, and a close anti-Danish alliance with the house of Holstein. Charles XI. appointed Oxenstjerna one of the regents during the minority of Charles XII. The martial proclivities of the new king filled the prudent old chancellor with alarm and anxiety. His protests were frequent and energetic, and he advised Charles in vain to accept the terms of peace offered by the first anti-Swedish coalition. Oxenstjerna has been described as “a shrewd and subtle little man, of gentle disposition, but remarkable for his firmness and tenacity of character.”

See F. F. Carlson, Sveriges historia under Konungarne af Pfalziska

huset (Stockholm, 1883, 1885); O. Sjögren, Karl den elfte och Svenska folket (Stockholm, 1897); and Négotiations du comte

d'Avaux pendant les années 1693, 1697-1698 (Utrecht, 1882, &c.).
(R. N. B.)