THE piety of the people had by 1500 made the Church the economic master of Scandinavia. In Denmark half the soil was owned by the Church, and was tilled by tenants verging on serfdom.1 Copenhagen itself was an ecclesiastical fief. Clergy and nobility were exempt from land taxes: the nobles because they served at their own expense in war, the clergy because they organized worship, morals, education, and charity. The universities at Copenhagen and Uppsala were of course in ecclesiastical hands. The Church required a tenth, annually, of all nonecclesiastical produce or income; it exacted a small fee for every building raised, every child born, every couple married, every corpse interred; it claimed a day of gratis labor from every peasant yearly; and no one could inherit property without making a contribution to the Church as the probate court of wills.2 These imposts were defended as financing the ministrations of the Church, but complaints rose that too much of the proceeds went to maintain bishops in regal splendor. The merchants of Denmark, harassed by Hanseatic dominance in the North and Baltic seas, chafed at the additional competition of nobles and clergy who directly exported, often in their own ships, the surplus product of their estates. In Scandinavia, as elsewhere, nobles hankered after ecclesiastical lands. And there, as elsewhere, nationalism conflicted with the supernational Church.
In all three countries the Church supported the Scandinavian Union of Calmar, which Christian I of Denmark had renewed (1457). But in Sweden a National party of burghers and peasants rejected the Union as in effect a Danish supremacy, and proclaimed Sten Sture the Younger regent of an independent nation (1512). Archbishop Gustav Trolle of Uppsala—then the capital of Sweden—defended the Union; Sten Sture the Younger deposed him; Pope Leo X ordered him reinstated; Sture refused; Leo interdicted religious services in Sweden, and commissioned Christian II of Denmark to invade Sweden and punish the Regent. Christian’s first attempt failed; he had to sign a truce; but he carried back with him to Copenhagen (January 18, 1520) several hostages as pledges for Swedish adherence to the truce; one of these hostages was Gustavus Vasa. In a second expedition Christian won a decisive victory, and Sture died of wounds received in battle. His widow improvised an army, which held Stockholm for five months against Danish siege; finally she surrendered on the promise, by Christian’s general, of a general amnesty. On November 4 Christian was crowned King of Sweden by the restored and triumphant Trolle.
On November 7 the leading Swedes who had supported Sture were summoned to the presence of the King in the citadel of Stockholm. A representative of Trolle accused them of major crimes in having deposed the Archbishop and having destroyed his castle, and he called upon the King to revenge these wrongs. Despite the amnesty seventy leading Swedes were condemned to death. On November 8 they were beheaded in the Grand Square; on November 9 several others were arrested and executed; some spectators who expressed sympathy were added to the slaughter; and the property of the dead was confiscated to the King. All Sweden cried out with horror. The Union of Calmar, men said, was drowned in this “Stockholm Bath of Blood,” and the Church suffered severely in public esteem for having initiated the massacre. Christian had thought to make his rule secure by destroying the brains of the National party. In reality he had cleared a way to the throne for the young hostage who was to make Sweden free.
His name was Gustavus Eriksson, but posterity called him also Vasa, from the bundle (Swedish vasa, Latin fascis) of sticks that appeared in his family’s coat of arms. At thirteen he was sent to study at Uppsala; at twenty he was called to the court of Sture the Younger, who had married a half-sister of Gustavus’s mother; and there he received further instruction from the prime minister, Bishop Hemming Gad. In 1519 he escaped from surveillance in Denmark, made his way to Lübeck, persuaded its senate (always hostile to Denmark) to lend him money and a ship, and regained his native shores (May 31, 1520). For months he wandered in disguise, or hid in obscure villages. In November news reached him that nearly a hundred Swedish patriots, including his father, had been slaughtered in Stockholm. He mounted the swiftest horse he could find, and rode north to his own province of Dalecarlia, resolved to organize there, from the hardy yeomanry, the beginnings of an army that might free Sweden from the Danes.
His life was now an epic worthy of Homeric song. Traveling icy roads, he sought rest at the home of a former schoolmate. This friend gave him every hospitality, and then went off to notify the pro-Danish police that the escaped hostage could now be caught; but the wife warned Gustavus to flee. Riding onward twenty miles, he found asylum with a priest, who hid him for a week. Moving thirty miles farther, he tried to rouse the town of Rättvik to revolt; but its people had not yet heard, and would not believe, the story of the Bath of Blood. Vasa rode over frozen meadows twenty-five miles north to Mora, and again pleaded for a revolutionary uprising, but the peasants listened in skeptical apathy. Friendless and for a moment hopeless, Gustavus turned his horse to the west, resigned to seeking asylum in Norway. Before he reached the frontier a messenger from Mora overtook him, and begged him to come back, pledging that now he would be heard with a spirit as hot as his own. The peasants had at last heard of the horror in Stockholm; moreover, it was rumored that the King was planning to journey through Sweden, and had ordered gallows to be set up in every major town. New taxes were to be imposed upon a people already struggling for life against the greed of masters and the tyranny of the elements. When Gustavus spoke again to the citizens of Mora they gave him a bodyguard of sixteen highlanders, and vowed to arm themselves, discipline themselves, and follow wherever he led them against the Danes.
They knew no weapons yet but bows and arrows and axes. Vasa taught them to make javelins and pikes with iron heads. He trained them with all the ardor of a youth inspired by love of country and power. So inspired, they captured Vesteres, then Uppsala; once more Archbishop Trolle fled. Patiently, resolutely, the growing army won province after province from the Danish garrisons. Christian II could not come to lead his forces in person, for in his own country he was confronted by civil strife, but his navy repeatedly raided Swedish shores. Gustavus dispatched emissaries to Lübeck to ask for ships of war. For a large promised sum the merchant city equipped ten vessels, which diverted the energies of the Danish fleet. On June 7, 1523, the victorious revolutionaries, in a new Riksraad, named their leader King Gustavus I; on June 20 Stockholm surrendered to him, and thereafter Vasa made it his capital. Meanwhile Christian II had been deposed in Denmark, and Frederick I, his successor, renounced all Danish claims to sovereignty over Sweden. The Union of Calmar (1397–1523) came to an end; the Vasa dynasty began.