the 'great power era' of sweden -- 9/22/20

Today's selection -- from Scandinavians by Robert Ferguson. The "Great Power Era" of Sweden:

"In many ways, the Swedish Empire that arose over the seventeenth century between 1611 and 1718, a period known as Stormaktstiden or 'Great Power Era', was a long-term result of the military energy unleashed in the process of breaking free from Danish regional domination. The Swedish revolt against the Kalmar Union that began in 1434 and reached a climax in the Stockholm Bloodbath of 1520, independence in 1523 and the break with the Church of Rome in the 1530s set in train a fierce rivalry for supremacy in the region. From a military point of view the Swedes faced a daunting task to assert themselves, ringed around as they were by Danish possessions in the Baltic, in Skåne, the southernmost region of the Scandinavian peninsula, the Jutland peninsula in the south, and in the west a border with Norway that was under the control of Denmark.

Gustav II Adolf, King of Sweden
Jacob Hoefnagel1624

"Control of the Baltic was the first essential of national security. The Swedes, building on their possession of Finland, emerged as victors in a three-way struggle between Sweden, Poland and Russia for possession of the Baltic states. Sweden's right to Estonia was recognized by the Treaty of Teusina in 1595.

"Over the next few years there was a steady stream of military triumphs, strategic alliances and acquisitions. The balance of power began to tip during the reign of Gustavus Adolphus II (1611-32) and shifted decisively in Sweden's direction during the Thirty Years' War, the last great religious war in Europe, in which the historically Roman Catholic states ranged themselves against the newly created Protestant states of northern Europe, with Germany as the devastated battleground. His hand was forced by the series of defeats inflicted on Protestant Denmark by the Austrian Holy Roman Emperor, and by Emperor Ferdinand's Edict of Restitution (1629), which divested Protestants of all Church lands taken or acquired since the Peace of Augsburg in 1555, a move that seemed to presage the extinction of state Protestantism. Gustavus Adolphus's entry into the war gained him a reputation as the great defender of Protestantism, a kind of Lutheran equivalent in terms of political and religious responsibilities to the Catholic Emperor himself. As the long and bitter struggle twisted on into the middle of the seventeenth century, its various staging posts and treaties brought Sweden a foothold on the north German coast, east of the Jutland peninsula, a possession it was able to exploit to great tactical advantage in the Torsteinsson War of 1643, and again during the Swedish wars of 1657 to 1660.

"Charles X, who succeeded Gustavus Adolphus's daughter Kristina when she abdicated in 1654, was able to respond to a Danish declaration of war in 1657 by bringing his army up through northern Germany to occupy Jutland, the continental-mainland element of the oddly dimensioned Kingdom of Denmark. He completed the rout of the Danes with a manoeuvre of extraordinary daring and imagination, marching his troops across the thick ice that had frozen the waters in the straits of the Lillebælt and Storebælt (the Little and Large belts) during that exceptionally cold winter to occupy Sjælland-Zealand. This piece of tactical boldness and brilliance paid the highest possible dividends at the Peace of Roskilde in 1658, at which Denmark was forced to concede Skåne, Blekinge, Halland and Bohuslän in the east of Norway, and the island of Bornholm. Emboldened by the almost shocking speed of these gains, Charles declared war on Denmark a mere six months later, intending this time to complete the conquest of the entire country. A siege of Copenhagen that showed no sign of succeeding indicated that things would not go so smoothly this time; and when Charles died suddenly and unexpectedly of natural causes in 1660, at the age of thirty-eight, the ambitious plan to unite all of Scandinavia under the Crown of Sweden was abandoned forever.

"Charles's son and successor Charles XI, after thwarting a Danish attempt to recapture Skåne, devoted his energies to mending the royal finances, which had been greatly weakened following Gustavus Adolphus's cultivation of the Swedish aristocracy's support for the Thirty Years' War, a policy that had involved transferring ownership of a vast number of Crown estates into private hands. A programme known as the 'Reduction' reversed many of these grants, while the Swedish parliament further enhanced the king's power (and correspondingly reduced that of the aristocracy) by decreeing that the king need only consult the Council for advice if he felt the need for it. With further adjustments, the Swedish monarchy had become absolute by 1689, and the king ruled by the Grace of God alone. The power of the old, land-owning aristocracy was broken, passing instead to a new class of paid civil servants.

"Charles's son and heir, Charles XII, presided over a gradual dismemberment of the Swedish Empire, and by 1718 it had shrunk to the smaller and more manageable size that a modest population could sustain. The enduring benefits for Sweden included the disappearance of the long-standing threat to its national security exerted by that arc of Danish possessions stretching up its eastern approaches, a development that also gave Swedes control of the entrance to the Baltic, and with it access to the markets in the east which their ancestors the Rus, the Swedish Vikings, had exploited to such advantage 800 years earlier. The territorial gains also gave Sweden control over the mouths of the great rivers of Germany -- the Oder, Elbe and Weser -- with the right to collect tolls from those who used them. Sweden, at the height of its Age of Greatness, was twice the size of the present-day country, with Stockholm at its centre and Riga on the far side of the Baltic as its second city. In territorial terms, it was the third-largest country in Europe, after Spain and Russia. But of all these rapidly acquired possessions, the most significant was the acquisition of Skåne. It guaranteed the geographical integrity of modern Sweden."



Robert Ferguson


Scandinavians: In Search of the Soul of the North


The Overlook Press


Copyright Robert Ferguson, 2016


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