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Swedish Empire

This is a part of the History of Sweden series. It covers Sweden from 1648 to 1700.

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The Peace of Westphalia See also: Peace of Westphalia

It was the exploits of Axel Oxenstierna and Johan Banér which alone enabled Sweden to obtain even what she did obtain at the great Peace of Westphalia congress in 1648. Her original demands were Silesia, she held most of the fortresses there, Pomerania which had been in her possession for nearly twenty years, and a war indemnity of 20,000,000 Riksdaler. What she actually got was (I) Upper Pomerania[?], with the islands of Rügen and Usedom, and a strip of Lower Pomerania[?] on the right side of the Oder, including the towns of Stettin, Garz[?], Damm[?] and Gollnow[?], and the isle of Wollin, with the right of succession to the rest of Lower Pomerania in the case of the extinction of the Brandenburg Hohenzollerns; (2) the town of Wismar with the districts of Pod[?] and Neukloster[?]; (3) the secularized bishoprics of Bremen and Verden; and (4) 5,000,000 Riksdaler. These German possessions were to be held as fiefs of the empire; and in respect thereof Sweden was to have a vote in the imperial Diet and to “direct” the Lower Saxon Circle[?] alternately with Brandenburg. France and Sweden, moreover, became joint guarantors of the treaty with the Holy Roman Emperor, and were entrusted with the carrying out of its provisions, which was practically effected by the executive congress of Nuremberg in 1650.

Dominions See also: Dominions of Sweden

Sweden’s reward for the exertions and sacrifices of eighteen years was meagre, almost paltry. Her newly won possessions were both small and scattered, though, on the other national hand, she had secured the practical control of the Position of three principal rivers of north Germany - the Oder, the Elbe and the Weser - and reaped the full advantage of the tolls levied on those great commercial arteries. The jealousy of France and the impatience of Queen Christina of Sweden were the chief causes of the inadequacy of her final recompense. Yet, though the immediate gain was small, she had not dissipated her blood and treasure altogether in vain. Her vigorous intervention had saved the cause of religious liberty in Europe; and this remains, for all time, her greatest political achievement. Henceforth till her collapse, seventy years later, she was the recognized leader of Continental Protestantism. A more questionable benefit was her rapid elevation to the rank of an imperial power, an elevation which imposed the duty of remaining a military monarchy, armed cap-à-pie for every possible emergency. Every one recognizes now that the poverty and sparse population of Sweden unfitted her for such a tremendous destiny. But in the middle of the 17th century the incompatibility between her powers and her pretensions was not so obvious. All her neighbours were either decadent or exhausted states; and France, the most powerful of the Western powers, was her firm ally.

Domestic Consolidation For the moment, Sweden held the field. Everything depended upon the policy of the next few years. Very careful statesmanship might mean permanent dominion on the Baltic shore, but there was not much margin, for blundering. Unfortunately the extravagance of Gustavus Adolphus’s two immediate successors, Christina and Charles X, shook the flimsy fabric of his empire to its very base. Christina’s extravagance was financial. At the time of her abdication the state was on the verge of bankruptcy, and the financial difficulty had superinduced a serious political agitation. The mass of the Swedish people was penetrated by a justifiable fear that the external, artificial greatness of their country might, in the long run, be purchased with the loss of their civil and political liberties. In a word, the natural equilibrium of Swedish society was seriously threatened by the preponderance of the nobility; and the people at large looked to the new king to redress the balance. A better arbiter between the various estates than Charles X it would have been difficult to find. It is true that, primarily a soldier, his whole ambition was directed towards military glory; but he was also an unusually sharp-sighted politician. He affected to believe that only by force of arms could Sweden retain the dominion which by force of arms she had won; but he also grasped the fact that there must be no disunion at home if she were to continue powerful abroad. The most pressing question of the day, the so-called “Reduktion”, or restitution of the alienated crown lands, was adjusted provisionally at the Riksdag of the Estates of 1655. The king proposed that the actual noble holders of crown property should either pay an annual sum of 200,000 Riksdaler, to be allowed for out of any further crown lands subsequently falling in to them, or should surrender a fourth of the expectant property itself to the estimated amount of 800,000 Riksdaler. The nobility attempted to escape taxation as cheaply as possible by stipulating that November 6, 1632, the day of Gustavus Adolphus’s death, should be the extreme limit of any restrospective action on the part of the crown in regard to alienated crown property, and that the present subsidy should be regarded as “a perpetual ordinance” unalterably to be observed by all future sovereigns - in other words, that there should be no further restitution of alienated crown property. Against this interpretation of the subsidy bill the already over-taxed lower estates protested so energetically that the Diet had to be suspended. Then the king intervened personally; not to quell the commons, as the senate insisted, but to compel the nobility to give way. He proposed that the whole matter should be thoroughly investigated by a special committee before the meeting of the next Riksdag, and that in the meantime a contribution should be levied on all classes proportionately. This equitable arrangement was accepted by the estates forthwith.

Charles X had done his best to obviate the effects of the financial extravagance of Christina. It may well be doubted, however whether his own extravagant desire for Charles X a military glory was not equally injurious to his country. In three days he had succeeded in persuading the Swedish estates of the lucrative expediency of his unnecessary and immoral attack on Poland but when he quitted Stockholm for Warsaw, on the July 10, 1654, he little imagined that he had embarked on an adventure which was to contribute far more to his glory than to the advantage of his country. How the Polish War[?] expanded into a general European war; how Charles’s miraculous audacity again and again ravished favours from Fortune and Nature (e.g. the passage of the Belts) when both those great powers combined against him; how, finally, he emerged from all his difficulties triumphant, indeed, but only to die of sheer exhaustion. Immediately after his death, the regency appointed to govern Sweden during the minority of his only son and successor, Charles XI of Sweden, a child four years old, hastened to come to terms with Sweden’s numerous enemies, which now included Russia, Poland, Brandenburg and Denmark.

The Peace of Oliva See also: Polish War[?]

The Peace of Oliva[?] on May 3, 1660, made under 1660. French mediation, put an end to the long feud with Poland and, at the same time, ended the quarrel between Sweden on the one side, and the emperor and the elector of Brandenburg on the other. By this peace, Sweden’s possession of Livonia, and the elector of Brandenburg’s sovereignty over East Prussia, were alike confirmed; and the king of Poland renounced all claim to the Swedish crown. As regards Denmark, the Peace of Oliva signified the desertion of her three principal allies, Poland, Brandenburg and the emperor, and thus compelled her to reopen negotiations with Sweden direct. The differences between the two states were finally adjusted by the peace of Copenhagen, May 27, 1660, Denmark ceding the three Scanian provinces to Sweden but receiving back the Norwegian province of Trondheim and the isle of Bornholm which she had surrendered by the Treaty of Roskilde two years previously. Denmark was also compelled to recognize, practically, the independence of the dukes of Holstein-Gottorp[?]. The Russian War was terminated by the Peace of Kardis[?] on July 2, 1661 confirmatory of the Peace of Stolbova[?], whereby the tsar surrendered to Sweden all his Baltic provinces – Ingria, Estonia and Kexholm[?].

Thus Sweden emerged from the war not only a military power of the first magnitude, but also one of the largest states of Europe, possessing about twice as much territory as modern Sweden. Her area embraced 44,000 square km, a mass of land 18,000 square km larger than the modern German Empire. Yet the Swedish Empire was rather a geographical expression than a state with natural and national boundaries. Modern Sweden is bounded by the Baltic; during the 17th century the Baltic was merely the bond between her various widely dispersed dominions. All the islands in the Baltic, except the Danish group, belonged to Sweden. The estuaries of all the great German rivers[?] (for the Niemen and Vistula are properly Polish rivers) debouched in Swedish territory, within which also lay two-thirds of Lake Ladoga[?] and one-half of Lake Peipus[?]. Stockholm, the capital, lay in the very centre of the empire, whose second greatest city was Riga, on the other side of the sea. Yet this vast empire contained but half the population of modern Sweden - being only 2,500,000, or about 56 souls to the square km. Further, Sweden’s new boundaries were of the most insecure description, inasmuch as they were anti-ethnographical, parting asunder races which naturally went together, and behind which stood powerful neighbours of the same stock ready, at the first opportunity, to reunite them.

Danish defeat See also: Northern War

Moreover, the commanding political influence which Sweden had now won was considerably neutralized by her loss of moral prestige. On Charles X’s accession in 1655, Sweden’s neighbours, though suspicious and uneasy, were at least not adversaries, and might have been converted into allies of the new great power who, if she had mulcted them of territory, had, anyhow, compensated them for the loss with the by no means contemptible doisceur of religious liberty. At Charles X’s death, five years later, we find Sweden, herself bled to exhaustion point, surrounded by a broad belt of desolated territory and regarded with ineradicable hatred by every adjacent state. To sink in five years from the position of the champion of Protestantism to that of the common enemy of every Protestant power was a degradation not to be compensated by any amount of military glory. Charles’s subsequent endeavour, in stress of circumstances, to gain a friend by dividing his Polish conquests with the aspiring elector of Brandenburg was a reversal of his original policy and only resulted in the establishment on the southern confines of Sweden of a new rival almost as dangerous as Denmark, her ancient rival in the west. In 1660, after five years of incessant warfare, Sweden had at length obtained peace and with it the opportunity of organizing and developing her newly won empire. Unfortunately, the regency which was to govern her during the next fifteen years was unequal to the difficulties of a situation which might have taxed the resources of the wisest statesmen. Unity and vigour were scarcely to be expected from a many-headed administration composed of men of mediocre talent whose contrary opinions speedily gave rise to contending factions. There was the high-aristocratic party with a leaning towards martial adventure headed by Magnus de la Gardie, and the party of peace and economy whose ablest representative was the liberal and energetic Johan Gyllenstierna[?]. After a severe struggle, de la Gardie’s party prevailed; and its triumph was marked by that general decline of personal and political morality, which has given to this regency its unenviable notoriety. Sloth and carelessness speedily invaded every branch of the administration, destroying all discipline and leading to a general neglect of business. Another characteristic of the de la Gardie government was its gross corruption, which made Sweden the obsequious hireling of that foreign power which had the longest purse. This shameful “subsidy policy” dates from the Treaty of Fontainebleau[?], 1661, by a secret paragraph of which Sweden, in exchange for a considerable sum of money, undertook to support the French candidate on the first vacancy of the Polish throne. The complications ensuing from Louis XIV of France.’s designs on the Spanish Netherlands[?] led to a bid for the Swedish alliance, both from the French king and his adversaries. After much hesitation on the part of the Swedish government, the anti-French faction prevailed; and in April 1668 Sweden acceded to the Triple Alliance, which finally checkmated the French king by bringing about the Peace of Aix-la-Chapelle[?]. For the next four years Sweden remained true to the principles of the Triple Alliance; but, in 1672, Louis XIV succeeded in isolating the Dutch Republic and regaining his ancient ally, Sweden. By the Treaty of Stockholm[?] on April 14, 1672 Sweden became, for the next ten years, a “mercenarius Galliae,” in return for 400,000 crowns per annum in peace and 600,000 in war-time, to attack, with 16,000 men, any German princes who might be disposed to assist the Netherlands.

The Scanian War See also: Scanian War[?]

In 1674 Louis XIV peremptorily called upon Sweden to fulfil her obligations by invading Brandenburg. In the course of May 1675 a Swedish army advanced into the Mark, but on June 18 was defeated at Fehrbellin[?], and hastily retreated to Demmin. The Fehrbellin affair was a mere skirmish[?], the actual casualties amounting to less than 600 men, but it rudely divested Sweden of her nimbus of invincibility and was the signal for a general attack upon her, known as the Scanian War[?].

In the course of the next three years her empire seemed to be crumbling away everywhere. In 1675 Pomerania and the bishopric of Bremen were overrun by the Brandenburgers, Austrians and Danes. In December 1677 the elector of Brandenburg captured Stettin. Stralsund fell on October 15, 1678. Greifswald, Sweden’s last possession on the Continent, was lost on November 5. A defensive alliance with Sohieski[?] August 4, 1677 was rendered inoperative by the annihilation of Sweden’s sea-power; the Battle of Öland[?], June 17, 1676; Battle of Fehmarn[?], June 1677 and the difficulties of the Polish king. Two accidents at this crisis alone saved Sweden from ruin - the splendid courage of the young king who, resolutely and successfully, kept the Danish invaders at bay, and the diplomatic activity of Louis XIV. In March 1677 a peace congress began its sessions at Nijmwegen; and in the beginning of April 1678 the French king dictated the terms of a general pacification. One of his chief conditions was the complete restitution of Sweden. A strong Sweden was necessary to the accomplishment of his plans. He suggested, however, that Sweden should rid herself of her enemies by making some “small cession” to them. This Charles XI. refused to do, whereupon Louis took it upon himself to conclude peace on Sweden’s account without consulting the wishes of the Swedish king. By this Treaty of Nijmwegen[?], on February 7 and of St. Germain[?], on June 29, 1679. Sweden virtually received full restitution of her German territory. On September 2 by the Peace of Fontainebleau confirmed by the subsequent Peace of Lund[?], on October 4, 1679, Denmark was also forced to retrocede her conquests. It is certain that Sweden herself could never have extorted such favourable terms, yet the insufferable tutelage of France on this occasion inspired Charles XI with a personal dislike of the mighty ruler of France and contributed to reverse the traditional diplomacy of Sweden by giving it a strong anti-French bias.

Charles XI See also: Charles XI of Sweden

The remainder of the reign of Charles XI is remarkable for a revolution, which converted the government of Sweden into Charles XI a semi-absolute monarchy. The king emerged from and the war convinced that if Sweden were to retain her Swedish position as a great power she must radically reform constitute - her whole economical system, and, above all, circumscribe the predominant and mischievous influence of an aristocracy which thought far more of its privileges than of its public duties. He felt that he could now draw upon the confidence and liberality of the lower orders to an unlimited extent, and he proceeded to do so. The Riksdag which assembled in Stockholm in October 1680 begins a new era of Swedish history. On the motion of the Estate of Peasants[?], which had a long memory for aristocratic abuses, the question of the recovery of the alienated crown lands was brought before the Riksdag, and, despite the stubborn opposition of the magnates, a resolution of the Diet directed that all countships[?], baronies[?], domains[?], manors[?] and other estates producing an annual rent of more than a certain amount per annum should revert to the Crown. The same Riksdag decided that the king was not bound by any particular constitution, but only by law and the statutes. Nay, they added that he was not even obliged to consult the Privy Council, but was to be regarded as a sovereign lord, responsible to God alone for his actions, and requiring no intermediary between himself and his people. The Privy Council thereupon acquiesced in its own humiliation by meekly accepting a royal brief changing its official title from Riksråd (council of state) to Kungligt råd (royal council) - a visible sign that the councillors were no longer the king’s colleagues but his servants.

Thus Sweden, as well as Denmark, had become an absolute monarchy, but with this important difference, that the right of the Swedish people, in parliament assembled, to be consulted on all important matters was recognized and acted upon. The Riksdag, completely overshadowed by the throne, was during the reign of Charles XI of Sweden to do little more than register the royal decrees; but nevertheless it continued to exist as an essential part of the machinery of government. Moreover, this transfer of authority was a voluntary act. The people, knowing the king to be their best friend, trusted him implicitly and cooperated with him cheerfully. The Riksdag of 1682 proposed a fresh Reduction, and declared that the whole question of how far the king was empowered by the law of the land to bestow fiefs, or, in case of urgent national distress, take them back again, was exclusively his majesty’s affair. In other words, it made the king the disposer of his subjects’ temporal property. Presently this new principle of autocracy was extended to the king’s legislative authority also, for, on December 9, 1682, all four estates, by virtue of a common declaration, not only confirmed him in the possession of the legislative powers enjoyed by his predecessors, but even conceded to him the right of interpreting and amending the common law.

The recovery of the alienated crown lands occupied Charles XI for the rest of his life. It was conducted by a commission which was ultimately converted into a permanent department of state. It acted on the principle that the titles of all private landed estate might be called in question, inasmuch as at some time or other it must have belonged to the Crown; and the burden of proof of ownership was held not to lie with the Crown which made the claim, but with the actual owner of the property. The amount of revenue accruing to the Crown from the whole “Reduktion” it is impossible to estimate even approximately; but by these means, combined with the most careful management and the most rigid economy, Charles XI contrived to reduce the national debt by three quarters.

These operations represent only a part of Charles XI’s gigantic activity. Here we have only space sufficient to glance at his reorganization of the national armaments. Charles XI re-established on a; broader basis the reorganization of the “indelningsverk” introduced by Charles IX- a system of military tenure whereby the national forces were bound to the soil. Thus there was the rust hail tenure, under which the tenants, instead of paying rent, were obliged to equip and maintain a cavalry soldier and horse, while the knekthållare supplied duly equipped foot soldiers. These including soldiers were provided with holdings on which they lived in times of peace. Formerly, ordinary conscription had existed alongside this indelning, or distribution system; but it had proved inadequate as well as highly unpopular; and in 1682 Charles XI came to an agreement with the peasantry whereby an extended distribution system was to be substituted for general conscription. The Swedish Royal Navy, of even more importance to Sweden if she were to maintain the dominion of the Baltic, was entirely remodelled; and, the recent war having demonstrated the unsuitability of Stockholm as a naval station, the construction of a new arsenal on a gigantic scale was simultaneously begun at Karlskrona. After a seventeen years’ struggle against all manner of financial difficulties, the twofold enterprise was completed. At the death of Charles XI Sweden could boast of a fleet of forty-three three-deckers, manned by 11,000 men and armed with 2,648 guns, and one of the finest arsenals in the world.

See also: List of Swedish monarchs, Realm of Sweden, History of Finland, History of Denmark, History of Poland


Rise of Sweden as a Great Power
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Sweden and the Great Northern War

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