How Did Gustav I Win Sweden’s Independence?

History Hit

3 mins

16 Jan 2017

While today it might seem an unlikely home for upheaval and violence, Sweden, historically the greatest power in the Baltic, was forged amidst war and revolution in the 16th century.

Gustav I, the man behind the birth of the modern Sweden, was a formidable soldier, statesman and autocrat, who lead his people to independence from Danish rule.

Nominally, Sweden had been a constituent nation of the 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.

Taken by the enemy

Gustav was born into the noble family of his father Erik Vasa in 1496, and grew up supporting Sture. Following the Battle of Brännkyrka in 1518, Sture and the Danish King Christian II arranged a meeting to negotiate Sweden’s future, with the Swedes submitting six hostages, including the young Gustav, to show their good faith.

Christian II of Denmark was Gustav’s chief opponent. Credit: National Museum of Fine Arts

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 kindness by the Danish king, and all converted to the Unionist cause, apart from Gustav.

Disgusted by the easy capitulation of his companions, Gustav managed to escape his prison in 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 fled to the Hanseatic city of Lübeck.

Whilst there in exile he was overwhelmed by a flood of bad news as Christian II 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.

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High time to return home

Gustav decided it was time to return to save his native land. Soon, he learned that his father had refused to denounce his former leader Sture, 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, Gustav’s forces grew, and by February he had a guerrilla army 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, Gustav’s men were able to take the city of Västerås and its gold and silver mines. With great wealth now at his disposal, Gustav saw a surge in the numbers of men who flocked to his cause.

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A rising tide

As spring turned to summer the Götaland rebels joined Gustav and declared him regent in August after an election. Christian now had a real rival. The election, and the sudden shift in momentum, made many of the great nobles of Sweden change side, while Gustav had the worst Danish collaborators executed.

Over the next few years town after town fell to Gustav’s armies, culminating in Christian being deposed in the winter of 1523. Gustav was elected king by the Sweden nobles in June of that year, although 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.

Independence at last

The new Danish King, Frederick I, was just as bitterly opposed to Swedish independence as had been his predecessor, but by the end of 1523 had no option but to recognise the collapse of the Kalmar Union.

The flag of the Kalmar Union, which finally collapsed in 1523.

The Treaty of Malmö between the two nations confirmed Swedish independence that year and Gustav was finally victorious. He would reign until 1560, and became famous for his own Swedish reformation, as well as his brutality and ruthlessness when facing rebellion.

Whatever his faults however, Gustav 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.

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