Today it often seems as though the relatively stable nations of western Europe have always been there, but they were all founded at some point. Sweden, historically the greatest power in the Baltic, was forged amidst war and revolution in the 16th century by a formidable soldier, statesman and autocrat called Gustav, who lead his people to independence from Danish rule.
Nominally, Sweden had been in the equal Kalmar Union with Denmark and Norway since the 14th century. In reality, however, the Union was dominated by the Danes to an extent where Sten Sture – regent of Sweden in the early 16th century – actively sought Swedish independence – through war if necessary. Gustav was born into the noble family of his father Erik Vasa in 1496, and grew up supporting Sture like his father. Following the victorious battle of Brännkyrka in 1518, Sture and the Danish King Christian II arranged a meeting to negotiate Sweden’s future, with the Swedes sending six – hostages – including the young Gustav – to show their good faith. The arrangement was a trick, however, as Christian failed to turn up and the hostages were kidnapped and taken back to Copenhagen. There they were treated with decepive kindness by the Danish King, and were all converted to the Unionist cause apart from Gustav Erikson, who remained stubbornly rude to his host.
Disgusted by the easy capitulation of his companions, Gustav managed to escape his prison of Kalø castle dressed as a bullock driver (something which he was very touchy about – having a man killed as King for mocking him as “Gustav cow butt”) and flee to the Hanseatic city of Lübeck. Whilst there in exile he was overwhelmed by a flood of bad news as Christian invaded Sweden in a bid to remove Sture and his supporters. By the start of 1520 Sweden was firmly back under Danish rule and Sture was dead, and Gustav decided that it was time to return to save his native land. Shortly after returning he learned that his father had refused to denounce his former leader and had been executed along with a hundred others under Christian’s orders. If Gustav needed any extra motivation to fight the Danes, he now had it. Aware that his own life was at risk, he fled to the remote northern province of Dalarna, where he managed to gather some local miners to his cause. These men would be the first step towards an army that could drive the Danes out of Sweden.
Steadily, his numbers grew, and by February he had a guerrilla force of around 400 men, who first saw action at Brunnbäck’s Ferry once the land had thawed in April, defeating a detachment of the King’s forces. With Christian’s armies stretched by other rebellions in Götaland, they were able to take the city of Västerås and its gold and silver mines. With great wealth now at his disposal, Gustav saw a massive and unsurprising increase in the numbers of men who flocked to his cause. As Spring turned to Summer the Götaland rebels joined Gustav and declared him regent in August after an election. Christian, for the first time in a long time, had a real rival. This election, and the sudden shift in momentum, made many of the greatest nobles of Sweden change sides, while Gustav had the worst collaborators murdered or executed. Over the next few years town after town fell to his growing armies, until the humiliation resulted in Christian being deposed in the winter of 1523. In a mirroring of his fall from grace, Gustav was elected King by the great men of Sweden in June of that year, though he would have more fighting ahead of him before he could be crowned. That same month, the capital of Stockholm was taken, and the Swedish armies entered it triumphantly with their new, young and dynamic King leading their procession.
The new Danish King, Frederick I, was just as bitterly opposed to Swedish independence as his predecessor, but by the end of 1524 was in a position where admitting the end of the Kalmar Union was the only option available to him. The Treaty of Malmö between the two nations confirmed Swedish independence that year and Gustav had won. His would reign until 1560 after being crowned, and he would become famous for his own Swedish reofrmation, and for putting down rebellions as brutally – if not more so – than Christian. Most infamously, he crushed an uprising in Dalarna, where his own had begun, and claimed that the province’s inhabitants had been collaborators with the Danes during the war of independence. Whatever his faults as a man, however, he proved to be a very effective King, and over the next two centuries Sweden would rise and overshadow Denmark as the greatest power in the north.