Everyone knows of the great Vikings that lived in the Scandinavian lands in the first millennium AD. However, not much is known about the great Swedish Empire from the 17th century to the 18th century. These men were as great as their ancestors, defeating army after army in the name of God. Showing no fear, walking into the fire of the Holy Roman Empire/Spanish/Polish troops and emerging from the smoke and hitting the enemy lines. This Lutheran Empire had arisen and had the greatest military and political system of the time. The country brought fear into its enemies and saw itself as a liberator. Liberator of what you may ask? Well they saw Catholicism as a repressive force that put down their brothers and sisters in Europe, they were there to change this. Of course some (or a lot) of their information was clear propaganda, but that didn’t stop King Gustav II, using it to spur his men on.
So where did Sweden come from? Well it formed as a country during the Medieval period, but rose as a separate country after it distanced itself and eventually removed itself from the Kalmar Union in the 16th century. Now this deserves its own blog post, but to put it simply, the Union was meant to help control the Baltic sea but Sweden under Gustav the 1st got fed up with Denmark trying to dominate the Union, therefore it left, causing Denmark and Norway to sign a pact of union soon after. Sweden was now on its own, but that would not stop it!
The Swedish Empire emerged from the ruins of a war-torn Europe in the Thirty years war. The reason why the war itself was fought has often been debated as one of religious, political or economical means. Whatever you think of the war (personally I see it as a political and economic war), the fact that Sweden emerged as the third largest country under the leadership of Gustavus Adolphus and his successors such as Christina, is a great achievement. So why did Sweden do so well in the war? Well the inspiring leadership and great tactics of Gustavus the Great (The only Swedish King to be given the label of Great) ensured that the Swedish army won victory after victory after victory. They seemed to be unstoppable. The men were well treated, unlike traditional armies; the cavalry were treated in the same way as the musketeers, pikeman and artillerymen. They were all taught each other’s tactics and could do each other’s role, therefore the pikemen could fire muskets and the musketeers could ride a horse. In the battle of Brientfield in 1631, the Swedish cavalry captured the guns of the Holy Roman Empire and allies, turned them on the enemy and caused a huge amount of damage. Gustavus also used his men more effectively, shallower lines, so that the artillery damage would not be as great as to those in large formations as that used by the Spanish and Catholic troops.
The Swedish men also had great conviction, they had iron discipline and did not hesitate when been shot at by musket fire, they marched on towards the enemy, they drove fear in the hearts of those who faced them. This is due to many reasons, they had faith that they were doing the lords work, that they were bringing freedom to an area under Catholic tyranny. They also had priests with them in battle who stirred up their hearts. They had great loyalty to their king and to their nation. Therefore the army under Gustavus was probably one of the best armies in Early Modern Europe, it could never be defeated. Even when outnumbered, it seemed that it would still win.
Gustavus Adolphus died in battle in 1632 whilst leading his men in a cavalry charge, his men followed him, and he never hid away from danger, as he was shot a year before by a Polish musketeer and had lost the movement in two of his fingers, but yet continued to fight. With him leading them on for inspiration, the men felt they could not lose. His death did not spark an end to the rise of the Empire however, in fact the Swedish army were full of great generals who followed his great example and led to more victories.
Politically Sweden was also more ‘advanced’ than its Catholic enemies; the King had to listen to a council. Whilst the king raged his wars, the council would look after the country domestically, and in this time period, the council was well run and efficient. Gustavus also ensured greater autonomy for peasants in the conquered lands, and was a reformer.
The Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 granted Sweden land that extended its Empire to great lengths. It gave it voting rights in some of the Holy Roman Empires land, it got the trade that it wanted and it showed itself as the leader of the protestant forces. Sweden’s military dominance would last until the early 18th century where Carlos Rex, or Charles XII, was defeated by Peter the Great, which marked an end to one Empire, and rise to another, perhaps greater one. The Battle, was Poltava, you may see a blog post about this coming up very shortly!
Therefore Sweden’s rise changed Europe; The Lion from the North had won the war for the Protestants and was well-respected. Europe had changed, and it was Sweden that was leading this change, it was Sweden who had shaped Europe, and it was Sweden who was the greatest nation. The men of Sweden have to be admired, the Caroleans were the greatest troop for this time, defeating the Spanish formations with ease, and destroying the Saxon and Polish armies with great swiftness. In England, we know very little of this, it did not in fact us directly, so I guess the attitude is that we don’t need to learn about it. I argue strongly against this, the Swedish domination is one that did affect us. The European landscape had changed; it would have greatly affected British foreign policy. Maybe after I have done my degree and hopefully my MA, I will head off to Sweden, study there and who knows stay there. After all, Sweden’s modern history is amazing!