The Battle for Dominion over the Baltic Sea

Swedish arquebusier. Thirty Years War

A Swedish officer of the Thirty Years War

Swedish pikemen and matchlock arqubusiers in the thick of battle under the command of King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden, Thirty Years War

During the seventeenth century, Stockholm underwent major urbanization that transformed the Swedish capital into a metropolis befitting an ambitious monarchy. In 1632, Swedish politicians harbored qualms about inviting the other European monarchs to attend the funeral of King Gustavus Adolphus. Stockholm was a rather scruffy little town at the time, but by mid-century, the city had been redesigned and laid out along geometric lines. In addition, the towns of Norrmalm and Södermalm had been built up as well. The central administration that was created in 1634 needed new buildings for its growing personnel, while the enlargement of the country’s fleet required wharves, docks, and workshops. The merchants’ quarter of Skeppsbron was founded to accommodate Sweden’s growing copper and iron exports. Although Stockholm was not the largest city in the Baltic region, its attractiveness as a residential, administrative, and mercantile city drew inhabitants from the rest of the region and beyond. Between 1620 and 1668, the city quadrupled its population to 40,000. According to Schering Rosenhane, the governor of Stockholm, 443 foreigners were actually given citizenship rights. In addition, migrants from Germany, the Netherlands, Scotland, France, and Russia were attracted by the abundance of work. The most successful, such as the Dutchmen Louis De Geer (1587–1652) and Jakob Momma (1625–1678), demonstrated their status by building palaces outside the city in Södermalm, while the city center, apart from the noble palaces, came to be dominated in part by functional buildings in the Dutch style. Calvinist Sunday services, generally forbidden in a Lutheran state, regularly drew 200 parishioners.

Sweden played a key role in several theaters of war in the Baltic during the seventeenth century.2 It was a major player in the Thirty Years’ War, first in northern Germany and then in large parts of the Holy Roman Empire, and also in Poland, and Livonia. In addition, the rivalry between Denmark and Sweden led to persistent skirmishing over Scania and Seeland. In the end, Sweden achieved dominion over the Baltic, which Denmark had long exerted as a result of its control of the Øresund. Sweden benefited from its effective war fleet, which was largely captained by sailors from the Netherlands.3 The country also boasted an oversized army and a network of more than 100 fortresses.

In northern Germany, the battles of the Thirty Years’ War were waged mainly in Mecklenburg and Pomerania. Danish ambitions in northern Germany were the original reason the Holy Roman Emperor had sent his troops northward, fresh from their success in Bohemia, in 1624. Danish king Christian IV, whose mother Sophie came from the ducal House of Mecklenburg, and whose brother Ulrich served as the administrator of the Bishopric of Schwerin, attempted to control the mouths of the Elbe and Weser Rivers. With the emperor threatening, Christian, as duke of Holstein and colonel of the Lower Saxon Circle, formed a defensive alliance with Mecklenburg dukes Adolf Frederick I of Schwerin (1588–1658) and John Albert II of Güstrow (1590–1636), both of whom were relatives.

The ensuing battle at Lutter am Barenberge, in 1626, was a defeat for Christian, and it cleared the way for imperial troops to control northern areas. While Christian extricated himself from this debacle at the Treaty of Lübeck (1629), without losing too much territory, Adolf Frederick and John Albert were less fortunate. They were deposed by the emperor, and Albrecht von Wallenstein (1583–1634) was first given their territory as a pledge and then received Mecklenburg as a fiefdom. Wallenstein attempted to reform the territorial administration and to limit the participation and influence of the estates. Among other things, he introduced the “contribution,” a permanent tax to finance the army. Wallenstein’s ambitions as “General of the Oceanic and Baltic Seas” were not limited to Mecklenburg. His larger intention was to play a major role in the region by building up the imperial Baltic fleet and revitalizing the Hanseatic League. This provoked Gustavus Adolphus, who had already successfully enforced his claims against Poland, both in Livonia and at the mouth of the Vistula.

Pomerania had more or less accepted its fate without putting up a fight and had been occupied by imperial troops in 1627, and this was one of the reasons why Sweden intervened in northern Germany. Only the city of Stralsund had defended itself, first with Danish and then with Swedish assistance. After an armistice was concluded between Sweden and Poland, with French intercession, the Swedish army, in 1630, landed on the island of Usedom near Peenemünde and relatively quickly occupied Pomerania and parts of Mecklenburg. The Swedes advanced rapidly to the south, where they encountered imperial troops. Although Gustavus Adolphus was killed at the Battle of Lützen (1632), the Swedes came away with a victory. In the hands of Lord High Chancellor Axel Oxenstierna (1583–1654), to whom newly crowned queen Christina (1626–1689) had entrusted the affairs of state, the army was transformed into an effective instrument of power. Oxenstierna’s hegemonic pretensions in Germany collapsed only when Sweden and her allies were defeated at the Battle of Nördlingen, in 1634.4 Once Sweden’s fortunes had changed, imperial troops exploited the power vacuum to plunder in the north between 1637 and 1639, and again in 1643. In addition, quartering and feeding Swedish and imperial troops was economically disastrous to the region, and population losses due to disease and death were one consequence.

In the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia, Sweden was given dominion over the mouths of the Elbe and Weser Rivers (the Bishoprics of Bremen and Verden). In Mecklenburg, the Swedes received Wismar, Poel, and Neukloster, and in Western Pomerania the cities of Stettin, Greifswald, and Stralsund, including the islands of Rügen, Usedom, and Wolin. Brandenburg was forced to make do with the Bishoprics of Minden and Halberstadt, though it was given to expect Magdeburg after the death of the present archbishop, which it received in 1680. Brandenburg also received parts of Eastern Pomerania and the Bishopric of Cammin, acquiring Bütow and Lauenburg from Poland in 1657. Pomerania, Sweden’s most important territory in the Holy Roman Empire, increasingly became an object of contention as it was claimed by both old and new enemies in Poland and Brandenburg. Starting in 1675, for example, Brandenburg waged war against Sweden and conquered Swedish Pomerania, but then it was unable to consolidate its victory in the Treaty of Saint-Germain-en-Laye in 1679.

Swedish intervention in the Thirty Years’ War had been made possible by the Truce of Altmark (1629), which had been brokered by France to allow its Swedish ally to take up positions against the emperor. This truce put a temporary halt to skirmishes between Sweden and Poland in Livonia and the southern Baltic coast. King Gustavus Adolphus conquered Riga in 1621, a feat that his father, Charles IX (1550–1611), had repeatedly attempted but without success. In 1617, he signed the Treaty of Stolbovo with the newly elected czar Michael I of Russia (1596–1645), who ceded East Karelia and Ingria to Sweden. After annexing Riga, Sweden also occupied Dorpat in 1625, which gave it a major say in the political life of Estonia and Livonia.

In the Truce of Altmark, which was in effect for five years, Poland was forced to renounce parts of Livonia. At the same time, Sweden was given control over the mouth of the Vistula, which gave it a portion of the customs duties in Danzig. Sweden imposed levies on other Baltic ports as well, which overall proved crucial to financing the Swedish military. However, Swedish control of the Vistula led to a decrease in Polish grain exports. Nor was Sweden able to secure an alliance with Russia against Poland.

For a time, the Nobles’ Republic of Poland-Lithuania was able to maintain its position in the face of Swedish expansion, although Polish king Władysław IV (1595–1648) had to renounce the Polish house of Vasa’s claims to the Swedish throne.5 The uprising by the Zaporozhian Cossacks in the 1640s under Bohdan Khmelnytsky (ca. 1595–1657) led to the loss of Polish-Lithuanian territories east of the Dnieper River, which then came under Russian protection. In 1654, Smolensk fell into Russian hands as well. At about the same time, the new Swedish king Charles X Gustav (1622–1660) from the House of Palatinate-Zweibrücken renewed hostilities with Poland. His goal was to control the entire Baltic coast from Stettin to Riga. To counter that, the Swedish armies swept across the Oder into Poland from the west, while a Baltic army advanced on Lithuania from Riga. Polish king John II Casimir (1609–1672) fled, and the Swedish king considered ways he himself might assume the Polish crown. In this situation, both Sweden and Poland cast about for new allies. One potential ally was Frederick William of Brandenburg (1620–1688), who was able to negotiate sovereignty over the Duchy of Prussia in exchange for his support of Sweden. However, when the war began to favor Poland, he switched sides and had his former lord reconfirm his sovereignty over Prussia. At the same time, Russia, under Czar Alexis (1629–1676), used this unsettled situation to conquer parts of Livonia while also laying siege to Riga.

In the 1645 Treaty of Brömsebro, Sweden had received the islands of Gotland and Ösel, the Norwegian provinces of Jämtland and Härjedalen, and Halland (pledged for thirty years)—and her ships were no longer required to pay tolls through the Øresund.6 The new king Frederick III of Denmark (1609–1670), however, thought he saw a potential benefit to the Swedish hostilities in Poland: he might be able to regain territories previously lost to Sweden and perhaps even take his past objectives, Bremen and Verden, away from them as well.

But in the winter of 1657, the Swedes opened up another front and conquered Seeland, which they reached by way of the Baltic, which had frozen over. And in a truce in February 1658, which culminated in the Treaty of Roskilde, Denmark was forced to cede Scania, Blekinge, Halland, Bornholm, Bohus, and Trondheim to Sweden. But when Sweden resumed its acts of war, conquered Kronborg and laid siege to Copenhagen, the Netherlands could no longer countenance Swedish dominance in the area and sent a replacement fleet to relieve Copenhagen. It was only a matter of time before this stalemate would force a peace. In the Treaty of Copenhagen, Trondheim and Bornholm were returned to Denmark, but the eastern Danish provinces remained in Swedish hands.7 Poland, Sweden, and Brandenburg reached a settlement in the Treaty of Oliva, in May 1660, with John Casimir renouncing his claims to Livonia and to the Swedish crown, while all parties recognized the sovereignty of Brandenburg over the Duchy of Prussia. In 1661, Sweden and Russia agreed to the restoration of the status quo, while Poland ceded Smolensk and adjacent territories to Russia in the Treaty of Andrusovo in 1667. Sweden had achieved dominion over the Baltic Sea, while Poland and Denmark were the big losers, both territorially and politically.

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