Gustav II Adolf [Gustavus Adolphus] – Formative Years

Gustav II Adolf was born in Stockholm on 9 December 1594. He was the oldest son of King Karl IX and Kristina of Holstein-Gottorp, though Karl was not yet king when Gustav was born. The king was Sigismund (crowned in 1593), King Karl’s nephew. Being the son of a royal duke and duchess, Gustav II Adolf had an opulent and sheltered upbringing. There were no indications that he would be a future king, as the Swedish crown was in a different branch of the family when he was born—his father, Karl IX, was not crowned king until 1604. Gustav Adolf had private tutors for every aspect of his education, and he was no idle child, being gifted with a considerable intellect combined with a great eagerness to learn.

It is reported that by the time Gustav was twelve he spoke perfect German—not surprising since his mother was a German princess—and was fluent in Latin, Italian, and Dutch. He also showed early signs of becoming an inspiring orator.

But it was in the study of diplomacy and military affairs that he really excelled. Young Gustav apparently read everything he could lay his hands on dealing with military art and science, and Maurice of Nassau became his hero. He was a strong athlete and became adept at horse riding and the use of various weapons. He displayed an early contempt for physical danger, a trait we find repeated in his later life and which eventually led to his death.

There was a truce in the Dutch War of Independence in 1609 and, according to Colonel Dupuy, many veterans from that war came to Sweden seeking employment in the Baltic wars. Gustav paid great attention to their description of the new method of warfare introduced by Maurice. These conversations and his own readings profoundly affected his life.

Sigismund was deposed by the Riksdag in 1599 and his uncle Karl became de facto king. Sigismund, the rightful heir, refused to accept the parliamentary decision engineered by his uncle, declared war in early 1600, and hostilities soon commenced in Livonia. This war, interrupted occasionally by truces, was to last until 1629.

Karl IX’s formal period as king was relatively short (1604-1611), but he began to have Gustav Adolf participate in the affairs of state at an early date. Gustav often attended meetings of the Council of State and met many foreign diplomats. In 1609, at the age of fifteen, Gustav took over the administration of the duchy of Vestmanland. The following year, he pleaded with his father to be allowed to participate in an expedition to Russia. His father refused.

The Polish-Swedish conflict was suspended after 1605 due to the implosion of the Russian government beginning with the death of Tsar Boris Godunov and ending with the reign of Michael Romanov in 1613—referred to as the Times of Trouble. A succession of pretenders claimed to be Dimitrii, the last Riúrik prince, who had actually died in 1591. Both Poland and Sweden took advantage of the Russian turmoil to grab Russian territory. Sigismund intervened in the Russian power struggle in 1609 by supporting a group of rebellious nobles who had besieged Tsar Vasilii Shuiskii in Moscow. Sigismund’s intent was to make his son Wladyslaw the new tsar.

The besieged tzar requested help from Sweden. In return for the help he promised to cede control of the disputed region on the Gulf of Finland to Sweden. Karl IX agreed and dispatched a corps under Field Marshal Jacob de la Gardie.

De la Gardie’s troops, in cooperation with troops loyal to Tsar Shuiskii, relieved the Russian capital and forced the rebels to retreat. After the success at Moscow, de la Gardie marched with his Russian allies to the rescue of the fortress of Smolensk, which was besieged by a Polish army. However, halfway between Moscow and Smolensk, the Russo-Swedish army was badly defeated at the battle of Klushino on 4 July 1610 by a much smaller Polish force under one of Poland’s greatest commanders, Field Marshal (hetman) Stanis-law Zolkiewski.

Zolkiewski thereupon marched on Moscow, captured the city and deposed Tsar Vasilii (Basil). Having sustained a serious defeat at Klushino and with Russia now under virtual Polish control, King Karl IX decided that the wisest course of action was to withdraw northward. He also decided that with the turmoil going on in Russia, this was the right time to seize some of the properties promised by Vasilii for Swedish help. De la Gardie captured the region around Kexholm as well as the city of Novgorod.

There may also have been a dynastic motive by Karl IX, similar to that of his nephew Sigismund. The Swedish historian Nils Ahnlund (1889–1957) writes that in the early summer of 1611, the Russian national militia assembled in Moscow, despairing of the chances of its native rulers, had chosen Gustav Adolf of Sweden as their tsar and grand duke. When Jacob de la Gardie concluded a treaty with the authorities in the captured city of Novgorod, Karl IX is referred to as the protector of the city and it was indicated that one of his sons would become tsar. It appears that Karl IX, who was trying to cope with the progress of the Poles, was surprised by the Russian offers.

Anhlund maintains there is evidence to show that in the summer of 1612 Gustav Adolf was still considering the Russian offers, possibly for tactical reasons in dealing with his Polish enemy. In the end he decided that it was not a good idea because of Sweden’s and Russia’s conflicting interests.

However, Karl IX had a younger son Karl Filip who might rise to the challenge. Gustav Adolf was not too enamored of this idea either. He realized that the conflicting future interests of Russia and Sweden had the potential to create animosity between himself and his younger brother. He undoubtedly had the Polish situation in mind where he was fighting his cousin.

Nevertheless, the project was apparently favored by Queen Kristina. Considerable time passed, however, before Karl Filip headed to Russia. An event which took place before he reached the Russian frontier, however, destroyed any hope of establishing a junior Vasa line in Moscow. This event was the election of Michael Romanov as tsar in 1613—and he was to rule Russia until 1645. Sweden continued her struggle against Russia until the Peace of Stolbova in 1617.

THE KALMAR WAR (1611–1613)

Kristian IV of Denmark decided to take advantage of Sweden’s deep involvement in Russia and Livonia to settle old scores. It was a crafty move on the part of Kristian since all of Karl IX’s best troops were in the Baltic region and these could not be brought back to Sweden if the powerful Danish fleet could blockade the ports in the eastern Baltic from where it was logical they would embark. Kristian also appears to have known that Karl IX had come down with apoplexy. What we do know is that Gustav Adolf considered the attack treacherous and that he and Kristian IV remained bitter rivals until Gustav died in 1632.

Let us take a quick look at the reasons for this war, which began just forty-one years after the bloody Northern Seven Years War had been settled by the Treaty of Stettin. This treaty was a defeat for Sweden’s King Erik in virtually every area. The Treaty of Stettin only led to bitterness for the losing side and increased ambition on the part of the winning side.

As a result, the leading power in the Baltic at the beginning of the seventeenth century was the kingdom of Denmark-Norway. Even if the distant territories of Iceland and Greenland are left out, the kingdom covered an immense area from northern Germany to the extremity of the European continent. The total length of the coastline was huge, providing easy access to both the Atlantic and the Baltic. To the south, the duchies in Jutland added a considerable German-speaking population. The nearby secularized bishop -rics of northern Germany were attainable objectives for the ambitious Oldenburg dynasty. The entrance to the Baltic was completely in Danish hands, and this not only brought great wealth into the royal coffers but gave the Danes great leverage with the western maritime powers. The islands of Gotland and Ösel, off the southeast coast of Sweden, were controlled by Denmark and posed a threat to Sweden, since they were stepping stones to the eastern Baltic, and locations facilitating naval control of the Baltic.

Norway’s contribution to the union was first and foremost the Norwegian genius for seamanship—their seamen provided the backbone for the navy as well as the merchant marine. The deep-sea fishery and the large export of timber benefited from high demands in an extensive market. Norway’s northern coast made it possible to control trade coming from the White Sea. Meantime, there was only one power that Denmark-Norway needed to reckon with and that was Sweden, including Finland.

Sweden, on the other hand felt surrounded. The area to the west and north was controlled by Norway as well as two provinces east of the Scandinavian watershed. Conflict from there could reach the Baltic and separate the northern part of Sweden from the southern. Norway’s geography also posed problems for Sweden’s hoped-for outlet to the Arctic Ocean. To the east Sweden faced two great powers: Orthodox Russia and Catholic Poland. To the south she had to contend with Denmark, which occupied a large portion of the Swedish mainland, and the German Hansa League across the southern Baltic.

The mining industry had for centuries been one of Sweden’s most important resources, but its full potential was far from being realized. Agriculture was undependable; in some years surpluses were produced while in others the country had to rely on imports. Sweden and Finland were extensively forested but their exploitation was mainly for domestic use and little was left for export. Swedish shipping was in no way comparable with that of Denmark-Norway. Sweden had no outlet to the west except for a sliver of land around the fortress and harbor of Älvsborg.

King Karl IX’s policy of extending Swedish and Finnish territories to the Arctic Ocean as a way to interrupt Russian trade from the White Sea and provide the Swedes with an outlet to the Atlantic raised alarm bells in Den mark. This was at least one reason for Kristian IV’s surprise attack on Sweden in 1611 that led to the two-year conflict known as the Kalmar War. There were many other animosities between the Scandinavian countries that the leaders could use to stir up the masses. The rivalries between the two kingdoms were the single greatest force determining their relations in the seventeenth century.

The surprise Danish invasion from Skåne and Norway found Karl IX in sickbed. He had to gather whatever forces he could locally since most of the Swedish army was fighting in Russia and Livonia. While the king prepared to move to relieve the besieged Kalmar Castle he put his son Gustav Adolf—not yet 17 years old—in command of the forces in East Gotland.

Kristian IV had made good preparations before the attack, even concluding an alliance with Poland and Russia. The heavily fortified city of Kalmar was key to the defense of southeastern Sweden, and in August Kristian sailed into Kalmar. The Danes stormed and captured the town but were not able to take Kalmar Castle.

Gustav Adolf was not content to sit in East Gotland, and on his own initiative he assembled a small militia force and crossed to the island of Öland where the Danes had left only a small force. As a consequence, the Danish garrison, unprepared when the Swedes under Gustav Adolf appeared, withdrew to Borgholm Castle but was soon compelled to surrender.

The Swedish commander of Kalmar Castle surrendered despite the approach of a relieving force under Karl IX. Kristian I V, seeing that the Swedes had been able to assemble a militia army, realized that his earlier hopes of an unopposed march through southeastern Sweden had been frustrated. With winter approaching, Kristian left a garrison to hold Kalmar and withdrew the rest of his army to prepare for the 1612 campaign.

Gustav Adolf had returned from Öland and planned additional offensive action. He led his small force into the Danish province of Skåne—apparently only intending a quick raid. However, the Danish commander of the border fortress of Christianopol became nervous and sent an urgent message to Kristian requesting reinforcement by about 500 cavalry. The message never reached its destination because it was intercepted by the Swedes. Gustav Adolf saw an opportunity and grabbed it. He dressed a force of his militia to look like Danish cavalry and approached the fort after dark. The Danes, believing it was the force they had requested, opened the gates and after a short fight the fortress was captured, ending the war’s first season with a success for the Swedes.

King Karl IX died a few weeks after the 1611 campaign came to a close. Swedish law required that a king had to be 24 years old before taking full control of the government. Gustav Adolf was not yet 17 so that a Regency Council, composed of his mother, Gustav’s first cousin Duke John of East Gotland, and six nobles from the Council of Ministers, was therefore appointed. However, within two months the Riksdag amended the succession law, allowing Gustav to become king at the age of 17. Eight days after his birthday he became king of Sweden.

Gustav’s first act in January 1612 was to appoint Axel Oxenstierna, age 28, as chancellor. It was a wise choice and Oxenstierna remained at Gustav’s side until the king’s death in battle. Thereafter, Axel took over the direction of affairs in Germany while also serving as guardian for Gustav’s underage daughter Kristina. Oxenstierna’s calm demeanor was a perfect match for a king who could be both impetuous and high strung.

Along with the crown, Gustav Adolf inherited three ongoing wars: against Denmark; against Poland; and against Russia. The opponents all enjoyed a considerable superiority over Sweden in power and it was obvious that he had to prioritize his efforts. He decided correctly that the war against Denmark was the most dangerous to Swedish interests and he gave that conflict the highest priority. He was eager to bring that conflict to an acceptable solution as quickly as possible.


Denmark began the 1612 campaign with the distinct advantages of having captured the cities of Kalmar and Älvsborg, the latter being Sweden’s only outlet to the west. King Kristian IV may also have thought that he had another advantage: a young and inexperienced king on the Swedish throne. These real or perceived advantages may explain why he declined an offer of mediation by King James I of England.

Gustav, rather than trying to recover the two lost cities in protracted siege operations, decided to take the war into Danish territory. He made his bold decision to invade Skåne against the advice of most of his advisers. His immediate objective was the town of Helsingborg, and here he displayed two weaknesses that were to repeat themselves several times in his campaigns in Poland and Germany: failure to acquire adequate intelligence about enemy movements and to take adequate security measures. Before reaching their objective, the Swedes were surprised by a sudden Danish attack. The result was an obvious Swedish defeat forcing Gustav to make a quick withdrawal. After this sharp setback, Gustav decided to try his luck against Norway.

No significant gains were made there either, but in a pattern that was to repeat itself often, the king’s recklessness in leading from the front almost cost him his life. In a cavalry skirmish on a frozen lake, his horse fell through the ice. Since he was wearing body armor, he was rescued only with great difficulty. Gallantly leading from the front is a great troop motivator and something that Gustav Adolf repeatedly practiced. In so doing, however, he put his whole command in danger of becoming leaderless and thus losing battles—as happened during both the Polish and German campaigns. A leader’s place in battle is where he can best control the action directed at winning and saving lives. Only when all resources have been committed in a set course of action and where the outcome hangs in the balance should a leader become personally involved so as to tip the scale in his favor.

While Gustav was campaigning in Norway, King Kristian IV prepared a bold stroke against Stockholm, the Swedish capital. To deceive Gustav as to his intention he made it appear that he was preparing for action against the fortress of Jönköping near the Norwegian frontier. This was a very believable feint as it would have placed the Danish army on Gustav’s line of communication to Sweden. Kristian was hoping that by moving against Gustav’s rear he could prevent him from interfering with the main operation against Stockholm.

It was a brilliant strategic move on the part of Kristian but its execution was not that spectacular. Gustav, as Kristian had hoped, moved to protect Jön köping while the main Danish force of 8,000 men, loaded on 30 ships, sailed against Stockholm without interference from the badly outnumbered Swedish navy. Kristian disembarked his troops successfully at a location only 19 kilometers from the capital.

When the news of the Danish threat to the capital reached him, Gustav quickly assembled a small force of 1,200 mercenaries and undertook a grueling forced march of circa 400 kilometers to the capital, accomplishing this task in less than a week. When he arrived in Stockholm, Kristian had advanced only 10 kilometers from his landing site and no significant encounters occurred. After Gustav’s arrival, Kristian simply returned to Denmark.

This inconclusive two-year war was coming to an end without either side scoring any spectacular gains. The Swedes had overrun the two Norwegian provinces of Jämtland and Härjedalen but had not crossed the watershed, and most importantly, Gustav’s hopes of driving the Danes out of southern Sweden had not come to fruition; in fact the capture of the two cities of Kalmar and Älvsborg had increased Danish holdings and robbed Sweden of her only outlet to the west. Both sides were therefore ready to call it quits and they accepted an offer by England and Holland, eager to maintain a balance of power in the north, to mediate a peace treaty. This mediation led to the signing of the Treaty of Knärad on 19 January 1613.

The terms of this treaty were more advantageous to Denmark than Sweden. Gustav Adolf had to renounce his father’s policy of seeking an outlet to the sea in northern Norway and even to return the two conquered provinces to Norway. All of Sweden’s attention was devoted to reclaiming the lands around the mouth of the Göta River which provided the only outlet to the west. The treaty returned Kalmar and Älvsborg to Sweden but at a very heavy cost—1,000,000 riks-dollars to be paid in three installments, and the first installment had to take place before a Danish withdrawal. This was a steep price to pay for a relatively poor nation also involved in two other wars, but assurance of financial assistance from Holland cemented the deal. In fact, Holland was so eager to preserve a balance of power in the north that she concluded an alliance with Sweden in 1614. This also demonstrates that both Holland and England considered Denmark-Norway the preeminent power.

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