Gustavus was still a youth of twenty-seven. He was not as tall as we expect men of the north to be, but he had a Viking’s vigor of body, his round face was ruddy with health, and his long yellow beard gave him a dignity befitting his royalty rather than his age. His morals were excellent for a king, and even the Church that he was soon to reject could not impugn his piety. He devoted himself to the tasks of government with an impatient energy that sometimes slipped into violence or tyranny, but the condition of Sweden at his accession almost justified his temper and autocracy. In the chaos of war thousands of peasants had left their farms unsown, miners had abandoned their pits, the cities were devastated with conflict, the currency was debased, the national treasury was bankrupt, the executive brains of the country had been spilled out in the “Bath.” The surviving feudal barons considered Gustavus an upstart, and looked down their noses at his assumption of power. Conspiracies were formed to depose him; he put them down with a strong arm. Finland, which had been part of Sweden, was still in Danish hands, and Sören Norby, the Danish admiral, held the strategic island of Gotland. Lübeck clamored for the repayment of its loans.

The first need of a government is money paid, or promised, to the armed forces that protect it, then to the officials that administer it. But in Vasa’s Sweden taxes cost almost as much to collect as they brought in, for those who alone could pay them were strong enough to resist. Gustavus stooped to the desperate expediency of again debasing the coinage, but the bad coins soon fell to their actual value, and the state’s finances were worse than before. Only one group in Sweden was still rich—the clergy. Gustavus turned to them for aid, thinking it just that the wealth of the Church should alleviate the poverty of the people and the government. In 1523 he wrote to Bishop Hans Brask of Linköping for a donation of 5,000 guilders to the state. The Bishop protested and yielded. To the churches and monasteries of Sweden Vasa sent an urgent request that all money and precious metal not indispensable to the continuance of their services should be remitted to the government as a loan; and he published a list of the amounts he expected from each source. The response was not what he had hoped for, and he began to wonder whether it would not be wise to do as the Lutheran princes of Germany were doing—confiscate the wealth of the Church to the needs of the state. He had not forgotten that most of the higher clergy had opposed the revolution, and had buttressed the rule of Christian II in Sweden.

In 1519 Olaus Petri, son of a Swedish ironmaster, returned from several years of study in Wittenberg. As deacon of the cathedral school at Strängnärs he permitted himself some heresies—that purgatory was a myth, that prayers should be addressed, and confession should be made, only to God, and that the preaching of the Gospel was better than the ritual of the Mass. The writings of Luther began to circulate in Sweden. Brask importuned Vasa to forbid their sale; the King replied that “Luther’s teachings have not been found by impartial judges to be false.” 3 Perhaps he thought it politic to keep a heretic in reserve as a bargaining point with the Church.

Matters grew livelier when Pope Adrian VI refused to confirm his own legate, Johannes Magnus, as Archbishop of Uppsala, and proposed to restore Gustav Trolle, enemy of the revolution. Vasa sent to the Curia a letter that would then (1523) have shocked, and would later have delighted, Henry VIII:

If our Most Holy Father has any care for the peace of our country, we shall be pleased to have him confirm the election of his legate... and we shall comply with the Pope’s wishes as to a reformation of the Church and religion. But if His Holiness, against our honor and the peace of our subjects, sides with the crime-stained partisans of Archbishop Trolle, we shall allow his legate to return to Rome, and shall govern the Church in this country with the authority which we have as king.

Adrian’s death, and the absorption of Clement VII with Luther, Charles V, and Francis I left Vasa free to advance the Swedish Reformation. He appointed Olaus Petri to the church of St. Nicholas at Stockholm; he made Olaus’s brother Laurentius professor of theology at Uppsala, and raised a third reformer, Laurentius Andreae, to be archdeacon of the cathedral. In the chapter house of the cathedral, under the presidency of the King, Olaus Petri defended Lutheranism in debate with Peter Galle (December 27, 1524). Vasa judged Olaus victor, and was not disturbed when Olaus, four months before Luther’s marriage, took a wife (1525). Bishop Brask, however, was shocked by this violation of clerical celibacy, and demanded that the King should place Petri under the ban. Gustavus replied that Olaus should be punished if he had done wrong, but “it would seem surprising if that should be the effect of marriage (a ceremony not forbidden by God), and yet for debauchery, and other sins that are forbidden, one should not fall under the ban.”4Instead of outlawing Petri he commissioned him and his brother to translate the Bible into Swedish. As in many other countries the vernacular version helped to form the national language, and to transform the national religion.

Gustavus, like most rulers, considered any measure moral that strengthened his country or his throne. He saw to it that bishops pliable to his plans should be promoted to Swedish sees. He found irresistible reasons for appropriating, gradatim, monastic lands; and as he shared the spoils with the nobles, he explained that he was merely returning to laymen what their ancestors had been wheedled into giving to the Church. Pope Clement VII complained that Swedish priests married, gave communion in bread and wine, neglected the sacrament of extreme unction, and altered the ritual of the Mass; and he appealed to the King to remain faithful to the Church. But Gustavus had gone too far to come back; orthodoxy would have ruined his treasury. At the Diet of Vesteres (1527) he openly declared for the Reformation.

It was an historic meeting in both its constitution and its results. Four bishops, four canons, fifteen members of the Riksraad, 129 nobles, thirty-two burgesses, fourteen deputies of the miners, 104 representatives of the peasantry—this was one of the broadest-based national assemblies of the sixteenth century. The King’s chancellor laid a revolutionary proposal before the Diet: the state, he said, was so impoverished that it could not function for the good of the people; the Swedish Church was so rich that it could transfermuch of its wealth to the government and yet have enough left to fulfill all its tasks. Bishop Brask, fighting to the last for his own ideals and realty, declared that the Pope had commanded the clergy to defend their property. The Diet voted in favor of obeying the Pope. Gustavus, staking everything on one throw, announced that if this was the sentiment of the Diet and the nation he would resign and leave Sweden. For three days the assembly debated. The burghers and the deputies of the peasants came over to the side of the King; the nobles had good cause for moving in the same direction; finally the Diet, convinced that Vasa was more valuable to Sweden than any pope, agreed to the royal wishes. In the Recess or conclusions of Vesteres the monasteries were made fiefs of the King, though the monks were allowed to use them; all property granted by nobles to the Church since 1454 was to be returned to the donors’ heirs; the bishops were to surrender their castles to the Crown; no bishop was to seek papal confirmation; the clergy were to yield to the state all income not needed for their services; auricular confession was ended, and all sermons were to be based exclusively on the Bible. In Sweden, even more decisively than elsewhere, the Reformation was the nationalization of religion, the triumph of the state over the Church.

Vasa survived this crisis for thirty-three years, and remained to the end a forceful but beneficent autocrat. He was convinced that only a centralized authority could reorganize Sweden into order and prosperity, that in so complex a task he could not stop at every step to consult a deliberative assembly. Under his encouragement and regulation the mines of the north poured their iron into the sinews of Sweden; industry expanded; commercial treaties with England, France, Denmark, and Russia found markets for Swedish goods, brought into Sweden the products of a dozen lands, and gave new refinement and confidence to a civilization that before him had been arrested in rural and illiterate simplicity. Sweden flourished now as never before.

Gustavus engaged in several wars, suppressed four rebellions, and took in succession three wives. The first bore him the future Eric XIV; the second gave him five sons and five daughters; the third, who was sixteen when he, fifty-six, married her, outlived him by sixty years. He induced the Rigsraad to accept his sons as heirs to the throne, and to establish hereditary succession in the male line as a rule for Swedish royalty. Sweden forgave his dictatorship, because it understood that order is the parent, not the child, of liberty. When he died (September 29, 1560), after a reign of thirty-seven years, he was buried in Uppsala Cathedral with fond and lavish ceremony. He had not given his people the personal freedom for which they seem so peculiarly fitted, but he had given them collective freedom from foreign domination in religion or government; and he had created the conditions under which his nation could mature in economy, literature, and art. He was the father of modern Sweden.

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