The bloodied shirts of a dead king
They found him in the aftermath of the Battle of Lützen, 382 years ago today. His looted body was naked except for the three knee length linen shirts he had worn as protection against the cold. What little hair he had left was stuck to his skull, covered in blood and gore. There, in the mud, lay Sweden’s hope, its most renowned warrior king. The man who had led the Protestant forces to repeated victories in the Thirty Years’ War, who had ridden with his army back and forth across the war-plagued Europe, would never again sit astride his favourite horse, Streiff. King Gustav II Adolf was dead, leaving a nation in shock. Who now to lead Sweden to future glory? Who to captain the victorious Swedish troops in Europe?
The king had been thoroughly killed. A bullet had punctured his lung, he had toppled from his saddle and been dragged along by his temperamental horse, deeper into the ongoing melee. Someone had stabbed at him with a sword. Several someones actually. And as a coup-de-grace, he’d been shot through the head before his killers plundered him. It was probably a question of unknown identity: the Austrian emperor would have preferred to capture the Swedish king, this constant thorn up his backside, and use him as a bargaining chip – after all, even without their king the Swedes carried the day at Lützen.
At the time of his death, Gustav II Adolf was a month or so short of thirty-eight, and had been king for more than twenty years – a capable king, possessed of an excellent education, a sharp intellect and a defined vision of what he wanted Sweden to become. He definitely had no intention of allowing his realm to linger in the backwaters of Europe, no Gustav II Adolf intended to make his mark on the world, and if this required that he literally take Sweden by the scruff of its neck and drag it into the future, so be it.
Gustav Adolf became king upon the death of his father, Karl IX, the last remaining son of the “Father of the Swedish nation”, Gustav Vasa. Hmm. Not so sure Gustav Vasa was the father of our nation, but he did oversee a number of important changes, foremost among these the Reformation and the implementation of a hereditary kingdom. Prior to Gustav Vasa, Swedish kings were elected. After Gustav Vasa, they were born to the throne.
Gustav Vasa was married several times and left a bevy of children behind when he died, among which were four sons. One of these suffered from recurring bouts of insanity and was generally kept well away from the centre of things by his siblings. The eldest, Erik, became king but was deposed some years later by the second eldest, Johan, who in turn claimed the throne, supported by baby brother Karl. Erik died nine years later, supposedly through the consumption of poisoned pea-soup. His brothers, it seemed, preferred to make sure Erik was well and truly dead.(For my post on Erik, please visit here)
Johan lived a long time – a very, very long time as per Karl. Even worse, Johan married Katarina Jagellonica of Poland and had a son by her, Sigismund, so by the time Johan died there was an adult male heir ready to claim the Swedish crown. Fortunately for Karl, Sigismund came with the severe disadvantage of being a papist – in the decades after the Reformation the Swedes had embraced their new religion with a fervour bordering on fanaticism. Karl called for rebellion to defend the true faith, and while most of the nobility stood to the side, uncomfortable with challenging the rightful king, the people of Sweden placed themselves on Karl’s side. After some years of strife, Karl was formally elected regent and some years later became king. Those who had opposed him paid a very high price – Karl was not a man to believe in leniency towards your enemies.
Gustav Adolf was born in 1594, and his entire childhood was impacted by his father’s determined bid for the crown. It would seem Karl was an engaged parent – if with a somewhat creative approach to hair styling – ensuring his son was given the best possible education. In this, Karl was aided by his formidable wife, Kristina of Holstein-Gottorp, to whom he entrusted not only his heir but also his kingdom when he was called away. (It is an ironic little detail that Kristina was originally intended as Sigismund’s wife, but instead she ended up married to his uncle, a man more than twenty years her senior). When Karl died in 1611, his wife was given a prominent role in the council that was to rule Sweden until the young king came of age.
Gustav Adolf did not inherit a secure throne. What his father had conquered by force, had spent his twilight years defending by force, others now wanted to wrest from the boy-king Gustav Adolf by force. At war with Denmark, Poland and Russia, Sweden’s defences were spread pitifully thin, and the Danish king, Christian IV, saw the demise of Karl IX as an open invitation to expand his area of influence.
In December of 1611, some weeks after his seventeenth birthday, Gustav II Adolf was considered old enough to handle his own affairs and took over the royal powers from the council. A bright-eyed teenager surveyed the kingdom he had inherited and found it severely lacking. Not only had he inherited a kingdom at war on three fronts, but he was also the king of an embarrassingly backward nation. Time for reform, he decided, and turned to the man who was to be his most trusted and loyal advisor throughout his life, Axel Oxenstierna. Where the king had vision, Axel had the capacity of converting vision to strategies and ensure they were implemented.
Over a number of years, these two set about re-organising the structure of government in Sweden, they founded the first national bank in the world, built new towns, ensured better roads, revamped the educational system and created a more efficient tax system. (Not so sure this won the king any standing ovations ). Oh, and while they were at it, the young king succeeded in forcing the Danish king to sue for peace, thereby establishing himself as a power to be reckoned with when it came to war.
In Poland, Sigismund sniffed and vowed to reclaim what was his. Most of Gustav Adolf’s extensive kin on his father’s side agreed with Sigismund, considering Gustav Adolf a par venue, an upstart with no right whatsoever to the Swedish throne. After all, should Sigismund not be acceptable due to his religion, Gustav Adolf had another cousin who stood closer to the throne than he did, namely old king Johan’s youngest son, also named Johan. This youth, however, found it wise to abstain from his claims to the throne, but all in all, Gustav Adolf felt anything but secure – which was probably why he expended so much effort on always looking and acting the part of a king.
One way of vindicating his claim to the throne was by creating a personal myth around himself. To create a personal myth in the early seventeenth century, a young king needed to show valour, bleed a little, if you will. Gustav Adolf most certainly did that, being always very much at the head of his armed forces. And so as to really bring home to his subjects just how much he was risking for their sake, Gustav Adolf decided that his bloodied clothes were to be conserved and exhibited to the people, tangible mementos of his bravery. (This is why even today we can gawk at the shirts he wore when he died, peer at the embalming sheets in which his body was wrapped, and study the various suits of clothes he’d worn when he was shot in one skirmish or the other.)
All of this exposure to linen splotched with royal blood worked. The Swedish people embraced their young warrior king, cheering him on as he won victory after victory against the Poles and the forces of the Holy Roman Emperor.
Being a king bent on establishing his family’s undisputable right to the throne came with certain costs. In Gustav Adolf’s case, this meant he had to give up the woman he’d loved passionately throughout his teenage years and instead look for a wife among the established ruling house of Europe. Which is how he ended up with Maria Eleonora – a most beautiful woman, to be sure, but also a teensy, weensy bit eccentric, clinging like a weed to her husband. (For more about Maria Eleonora, read my post about her)
When he rode off to war, Maria Eleonora wept and grieved, when he came back home, she wept and rejoiced, only to weep yet again when he set off on a new campaign. Having grown up with a strong and capable mother, this must have been something of a trial for Gustav Adolf, but he was initially very fond of his wife, and maybe her dramatic scenes massaged his male ego – besides, Maria Eleonora probably looked very fetching while on her knees begging him not to leave her…
Maria Eleonora failed in giving her husband a male heir. Four children, and all they had to show for it was a hirsute, sallow daughter, the future Queen Kristina. Gustav Adolf loved his daughter, recognising some of his own brilliant intellect in the little girl who was destined to be his heir. Maria Eleonora, on the other hand, showed little affection for her daughter and there are indications she actively hurt the child, which is why Gustav Adolf made arrangements for the girl to live with his elder sister.
In 1630, Gustav Adolf set foot on German soil, intent on shoring up the crumbling Protestant faction in the ongoing bloody conflict with the Holy Roman Emperor. The emperor had every intention of eradicating Protestantism, and at present he was very much on top of things, with one Protestant state after the other succumbing to the emperor’s armies. By the 1630’s, continental Europe was ten years into the extended war known as the Thirty Years’ War, with religion being the excuse used by both sides in what was essentially a political power struggle. Enter Gustav Adolf, defender of the Protestant faith. Weeelll… Enter Gustav Adolf, eager for glory and recognition by his European peers, is probably more correct.
Whatever his motivations, Gustav Adolf was an experienced and renowned battle commander, sending a much needed injection of hope into the despairing Protestants. With him came an impressive array of Swedish troops, trained to fight “the new way”, i.e. Gustav Adolf deployed his troops so as to utilise speed and flexibility rather than sheer numbers. Under Gustav Adolf’s tutelage, Swedish cavalry advanced in wedge formation at full gallop rather than at a stately trot, and with a pistol in one hand, a sword in the other, these horsed troops had their opponents quaking with fear. His infantry was never more than three lines deep, making it easy for the men to break and reform. An excellent utilisation of artillery caused chaos among the enemy lines – and provided the back-up needed by the infantry to advance.
A brilliant general, Gustav Adolf carved a swathe through Germany, receiving a hero’s welcome from the beleaguered Protestant nations. (Interestingly enough, the Swedish war effort was financed by Catholic France via Cardinal Richelieu, who saw in the Swedish king an excellent way of curtailing the powerful Austrian Hapsburgs.) At the battle of Breitenfeld, the emperor’s troops were thoroughly defeated, and Gustav Adolf set his sights on Vienna, intent on bringing the emperor to the negotiating table. It was not to be. Instead, the Lion of the North was destined to hit the dust on the very cold morning of November 6, 1632, at the Battle of Lützen.
He left behind a child queen and a devastated wife – so devastated, in fact, that she slept with his heart beside her for years, insisting that the cloth the heart had been wrapped in while embalming the body be given to her to carry on her person (and let us hope she never succumbed to the desire to blow her nose in it…) He also left behind an ably governed nation, a country that could boast a legal and institutional structure as advanced – if not more – than most of its neighbours. The empire Gustav Adolf won on the battlefields in Poland and Germany was to prove as ephemeral as the fog that draped the battlefield the day he died, but to this day he remains our warrior king, the only Swedish king to have been honoured by the title “the Great”.
P.S. Should you ever make it to Stockholm, I recommend that you visit The Royal Armoury (Livrustkammaren) if nothing else because of the magnificent collection of clothes from the 17th century and onward – including Gustav Adolf’s bloodied shirts.