Visual History of the World




From Prehistoric to Romanesque  Art
Gothic Art
Renaissance  Art
Baroque and Rococo Art
The Art of Asia
Neoclassicism, Romanticism  Art
Art Styles in 19th century
Art of the 20th century
Artists that Changed the World
Design and Posters
Classical Music
Literature and Philosophy

Visual History of the World
First Empires
The Ancient World
The Middle Ages
The Early Modern Period
The Modern Era
The World Wars and Interwar Period
The Contemporary World

Dictionary of Art and Artists


The Early Modern Period

16th - 18th century


The smooth transition from the Middle Ages to the Modern Age is conventionally fixed on such events as the Reformation and the discovery of the "New World," which brought about the emergence of a new image of man and his world. Humanism, which spread out of Italy, also made an essential contribution to this with its promotion of a critical awareness of Christianity and the Church. The Reformation eventually broke the all-embracing power of the Church. After the Thirty Years' War, the concept of a universal empire was also nullified. The era of the nation-state began, bringing with it the desire to build up political and economic power far beyond Europe. The Americas, Africa, and Asia provided regions of expansion for the Europeans.

Proportions of the Human Figure by Leonardo da Vinci (drawing, ca. 1490)
is a prime example of the new approach of Renaissance
artists and scientists to the anatomy of the human body.



Eastern Europe and Scandinavia



Poland experienced a turbulent period due to its elective and weak monarchy that struggled to maintain its authority in the face of an aristocracy that strove for independence. It was then divided up between the Great Powers in the partitions of Poland. In Hungary and Transylvania the Ottomans and Habsburgs fought for power. Protestant kings in Denmark and Sweden attempted to strengthen central authority and expand their sphere of influence. Sweden rose to become a European power under Gustav II Adolph after 1648, but Russia was able to break Sweden's dominance in the north after the death of Charles XII.


Denmark and Sweden to the 17th Century

The kings in Denmark and Sweden carried out the Reformation, attempted to prevail against the nobility, and became involved in the Thirty Years' War. Sweden was one of main benefactors of the war's peace treaty in 1648.


Traditionally in Denmark and Sweden, the nobility tried to maintain their independence, while the kings sought increased central authority and supported their countries' sea power.

Christian II, king of Denmark and Norway from 1513, brutally established his dominance over Sweden with the "Bloodbath of Stockholm"—the mass execution of his opponents in 1520.

Just three years later, however, he was driven out by the Swedish noble Gustav Erickson, who was elected the new king.

As 2 Gustav I Vasa, he established the modern nation-state of Sweden and introduced the Reformation in 1527.

His successors built upon this foundation in wars of shifting alliances against Denmark, Poland, and the Hanseatic city of Lubeck, which controlled the Baltic Sea trade.

3 King Gustav II Adolph was thus able to gain territories in the Baltic from Russia in 1617 and from Poland in 1629, making Sweden the leading power in the north. In 1630, he intervened in the Thirty Years' War as leader of the Protestant powers. Sweden also acquired land from Denmark in 1645 and was among the winners of the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. gaining the archdiocese of Bremen, the diocese of Verden, and parts of Pomerania.

Gustav II's daughter and successor 4 Christina, for whom Chancellor Axel Oxenstierna was regent until 1644, turned her court into a center of scholars but then abdicated in 1654, converted to Catholicism in 1655, and died in Rome in 1689.

Queen Christina of Sweden by Sebastien Bourdon
Queen Christina of Sweden on Horseback, by Sebastien Bourdon, 1653

see also collection:
 Sebastien Bourdon


Dispute of Queen Cristina Vasa and René Descartes by Nils Forsberg



Christina, Queen of Sweden

Queen Cristina Vasa

queen of Sweden
Swedish Kristina
born Dec. 8, 1626, Stockholm, Swed.
died April 19, 1689, Rome [Italy]

queen of Sweden (1644–54) who stunned all Europe by abdicating her throne. She subsequently attempted, without success, to gain the crowns of Naples and of Poland. One of the wittiest and most learned women of her age, Christina is best remembered for her lavish sponsorship of the arts and her influence on European culture.

Christina was the daughter of King Gustav II Adolf and Maria Eleonora of Brandenburg. After her father died in the Battle of Lützen, Christina, his only heir, became queen-elect before the age of six. By his orders she was educated as a prince, with the learned theologian Johannes Matthiae as her tutor. Five regents headed by the chancellor Axel Oxenstierna governed the country. Her brilliance and strong will were evident even in her childhood. Oxenstierna himself instructed her in politics and first admitted her to council meetings when she was 14.

An assiduous politician, Christina was able to keep the bitter class rivalries that broke out after the Thirty Years’ War from lapsing into civil war but was unable to solve the desperate financial problems caused by the long years of fighting.

Highly cultured and passionately interested in learning, she rose at five in the morning to read and invited eminent foreign writers, musicians, and scholars to her court. The French philosopher René Descartes himself taught her philosophy and died at her court. For her wit and learning, all Europe called her the Minerva of the North; she was, however, extravagant, too free in giving away crown lands, and intent on a luxurious court in a country that could not support it and did not want it. Her reign was, nevertheless, beneficent: it saw the first Swedish newspaper (1645) and the first countrywide school ordinance; science and literature were encouraged, and new privileges were given to the towns; trade, manufactures, and mining also made great strides.

Christina’s abdication after 10 years of rule shocked and confused the Christian world. She pleaded that she was ill and that the burden of ruling was too heavy for a woman. The real reasons, however, are unclear and still disputed. Among those that are often cited are her aversion to marriage, her secret conversion to Roman Catholicism, and her discomfort (after spending most of her life in the company of men) with her own femininity. She chose her cousin Charles X Gustav as her successor, and, when he was crowned on June 6, 1654, the day of her abdication, Christina left Sweden immediately.

Queen Cristina Vasa by Abraham Wuchters

In December 1655 Pope Alexander VII received Christina in splendour at Rome. He was, however, soon disillusioned with his famous convert, who opposed public displays of piety. Although she was far from beautiful (short and pockmarked, with a humped right shoulder), Christina, by her manners and personality, created a sensation in Rome. Missing the activity of ruling, she entered into negotiations with the French chief minister, Cardinal Mazarin, and with the Duke di Modena to seize Naples (then under the Spanish crown), intending to become queen of Naples and to leave the throne to a French prince at her death. This scheme collapsed in 1657, during a visit by Christina to France. While staying at the palace of Fontainebleau, she ordered the summary execution of her equerry, Marchese Gian Rinaldo Monaldeschi, alleging that he had betrayed her plans to the Holy See. Her refusal to give reasons for this action, beyond insisting on her royal authority, shocked the French court, nor did the pope welcome her return to Rome.

The Festivities in Honor of Queen Christina of Sweden in the
Cortilla of Palazzo Barberini, 28 February 1656.
Painting by Filippo Gagliardi and Filippo Lauri.

In spite of this scandal, Christina lived to become one of the most influential figures of her time, the friend of four popes, and a munificent patroness of the arts. Always extravagant, she had financial difficulties most of her life: the revenues due from Sweden came slowly or not at all. She visited Sweden in 1660 and in 1667. On the second journey, while staying in Hamburg, she had Pope Clement IX’s support in an attempt to gain another crown, that of her second cousin John II Casimir Vasa, who had abdicated the throne of Poland; but her failure seemed to please her since this meant that she could return to her beloved Rome. There she had formed a strong friendship with Cardinal Decio Azzolino, a clever, charming, prudent man, leader of a group of cardinals active in church politics. It was generally believed in Rome that he was her lover, a view sustained by her letters, which were decoded in the 19th century. With him, she, too, became active in church politics, insisting for years on the pursuance of the Christian war against the Turks. Pope Innocent XI, who pushed this war to its victorious conclusion, stopped her pension at her own urgent request in order to add it to the war treasury. In 1681, having secured a trustworthy administrator for her lands in Sweden, Christina at last became financially secure.

Christina’s extraordinary taste in the arts has influenced European culture since her time. Her palace, the Riario (now the Corsini, on the Lungara in Rome), contained the greatest collection of paintings of the Venetian school ever assembled, as well as other notable paintings, sculpture, and medallions. It became the meeting place of men of letters and musicians. The Arcadia Academy (Accademia dell’Arcadia) for philosophy and literature, which she founded, still exists in Rome. It was at her instigation that the Tordinona, the first public opera house in Rome, was opened, and it was she who recognized the genius of and sponsored the composer Alessandro Scarlatti, who became her choirmaster, and Arcangelo Corelli, who directed her orchestra. The sculptor and architect Giovanni Bernini, her friend, considered her his saviour when she commissioned the art historian Filippo Baldinucci to write his biography while he was being discredited in 1680. Her enormous collection of books and manuscripts is now in the Vatican library. She was renowned, too, for her militant protection of personal freedoms, for her charities, and as protectress of the Jews in Rome.

Christina died in 1689. Her tomb is in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

Ruth Stephan

Encyclopaedia Britannica


The kings of the House of Palatinate-Zweibruck-en, who inherited Sweden from the Vasas in 1654, continued to develop Sweden's power and influence.
In Denmark the strengthening of the monarch's authority was served by the introduction of the Reformation in Denmark and Norway in 1536, because it placed the church under the control of he head of state.

Christian IV centralized government and in 1625 entered the Thirty Years' War.

In 1645, he was forced to recognize Sweden's hegemony in the Baltic region in the Peace of Bromsebro.

His son, 6 Frederick III, broke the power of the nobility in an alliance with the clergy and middle class in 1660, introduced the hereditary monarchy, and established absolutism by the Roval Law of 1665.

1 Christian II king of Denmark and Norway (1513–23) and of Sweden (1520–23)
2 Gustav I Vasa king of Sweden (1523–60)
3 Gustav II Adolph king of Sweden (1611–32)
4 Queen Christina of Sweden  (1644–54)
5 Christian IV king of Denmark and Norway (1588–1648)
6 Frederick III king of Denmark and Norway (1648–70)



Christian II
Scandinavian king
also spelled Christiern
born July 1, 1481, Nyborg, Den.
died Jan. 25, 1559, Kalundborg

king of Denmark and Norway (1513–23) and of Sweden (1520–23) whose reign marked the end of the Kalmar Union (1397–1523), a political union of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden.

After serving as viceroy in Norway (1502, 1506–12), Christian succeeded his father, John, king of Denmark and Norway, in 1513. He obtained office by agreeing to a royal charter that granted extensive privileges to the nobility, including effective control of the government by the noble-dominated Rigsråd (Council of the Realm). He soon bypassed the Rigsråd, however, and used the chancellery to grant commercial privileges to merchants, overriding the claims of Danish nobles and traders of the Hanseatic League (a north German trading confederation).

In Norway, Christian had taken up with two bourgeois Dutch women: Dyveke, who was his mistress, and her mother, Sigbrit Villoms, his counsellor. After he became king, Sigbrit took charge of the state’s financial affairs; and Christian continued his association with Dyveke even after his marriage (1515) to Elizabeth of Habsburg, sister of the future Holy Roman emperor Charles V. In 1517 Christian accused the governor of Copenhagen Castle of poisoning Dyveke, and thereafter he ignored the Rigsråd and the royal charter. He created an essentially bourgeois government with the burgomaster of Malmö, Hans Mikkelsen, as his special counsellor; and he gave the chancellery control of the provinces with loyal burghers as governors. He also appointed bishops freely.

In 1517 Christian decided to punish Sweden, which had repeatedly rebelled against the Kalmar Union after 1448. He allied with the Swedish Unionist Party headed by Archbishop Gustav Trolle, and after two setbacks (1517–18), he finally defeated the forces of the Swedish regent, Sten Sture the Younger, in 1520; Christian was crowned king of Sweden on Nov. 4, 1520. Four days later he ordered the execution of more than 80 leaders of Sten Sture’s Swedish Nationalist Party after they had been accused of heresy by Gustav Trolle. The massacre (Stockholm Bloodbath) helped incite a Swedish war of liberation against Danish rule, led by Gustav Vasa, a Swedish nobleman. With the aid of leading Swedish magnates and the north German trading centre of Lübeck, Gustav established Swedish independence in 1523. His election (1523) to the Swedish throne as King Gustav I Vasa marked the end of the Kalmar Union.

Christian’s sweeping commercial reforms, his anti-Hanseatic policies, and his defeat in Sweden led the Jutland nobles to revolt (1523) and to appoint his uncle, Frederick, duke of Holstein-Gottorp, as king. Christian was forced to flee to the Netherlands and did not launch a campaign to regain his kingdom until 1531, when he invaded Norway. After giving up the struggle the following year, he was arrested by Danish forces while attempting to negotiate with Frederick. He spent the rest of his life imprisoned in Danish castles at Sønderborg and, after 1549, at Kalundborg.



Gustav I Vasa
king of Sweden
original name Gustav Eriksson Vasa
born May 12, 1496?
died Sept. 29, 1560, Stockholm, Sweden

king of Sweden (1523–60), founder of the Vasa ruling line, who established Swedish sovereignty independent of Denmark.

Early life.
Gustav was the son of a Swedish senator and of a noble family whose members had played a prominent part in the factious aristocratic politics of 15th-century Scandinavia. His family was also connected by marriage with the family of Sture, which had supplied Sweden with three regents. Gustav fought in the army of Sten Sture the Younger against Christian II of Denmark in 1517–18 and was one of the hostages sent by Sten to Christian in 1518 as part of the terms of an armistice. Christian violated the agreement and carried Gustav off to Denmark. In 1519 Gustav fled from his captivity to Lübeck, Ger., where he made friends who were to be of great importance later. On May 31, 1520, he returned to Sweden. Sten Sture had meanwhile died of wounds, and Christian was master of almost all Sweden save Stockholm. In November, by the “Stockholm bloodbath,” Christian removed the most dangerous of his opponents, including Gustav’s father and two of his uncles.

Faced with the alternatives of rebellion or flight, Gustav chose the former. He succeeded in rousing the midland province of Dalarna to resist, purchased by judicious concessions the support of lay and ecclesiastical magnates to whom a union of the three Scandinavian kingdoms under Christian had become unwelcome, and was able (since Sten Sture’s son was a mere boy) to pass as leader of the surviving Sture party. A considerable body of folk legend deals with his real and supposed adventures at this period. For the eviction of the Danes, as he soon found, outside help was necessary; and he obtained it from the rich free city of Lübeck, whose merchants felt themselves threatened by Christian’s aggressive economic policies. This aid enabled Gustav to establish Sweden’s independence and may have been responsible for his election as king (June 6, 1523). In return for it, Lübeck extorted far-reaching commercial privileges, and it was to be one of Gustav’s main concerns to emancipate his country from its dependence on his former backers.

Gustav’s crown continued for some years to be precarious. Christian II had been driven out of Denmark by his uncle, who succeeded him as Frederick I, and a common fear of Christian’s restoration soon drew Frederick and Gustav together, so that despite recurrent periods of tension the threat from Christian, and afterward from his heirs, enforced a measure of harmony between Sweden and Denmark. But Gustav had to face serious internal dangers: from aggrieved members of the old Sture party who resented his favour to some of their former enemies; from the men of Dalarna, who added to this grievance complaints on economic and religious grounds; and from great nobles, who found Gustav a more formidable ruler than they had expected. Indeed, Gustav proved to be a harsh master and an exigent lord; he became known for being suspicious, mendacious, cruel, vengeful, demagogic, and capricious; and, to his enemies, he seemed to have most of the attributes of a tyrant.

The need to pay his debts to Lübeck and to strengthen the royal authority forced Gustav to impose heavy taxes, and it was essentially with a view to tapping the Roman Catholic church’s wealth that he embarked on the measures that led to the Reformation in Sweden. The Diet at Västerås in 1527 put the church’s property at his mercy. Gustav had few theological interests or preferences, but he resented the presence in Sweden of any authority that challenged his own, and he had some sympathy with the idea of religious services in Swedish, for he was an indifferent Latinist himself. The move toward Lutheranism, however, was both accelerated and retarded by purely political considerations. Sweden did not become irrevocably a Lutheran country until 1544 at the earliest, and it was a long time before Protestantism was popular outside Stockholm.

The last great revolt of the reign, in 1542–43, had a strong anti-Protestant strain. Gustav’s vain attempts to become a member of the Schmalkaldic League, formed by the German Protestants, were dictated by a desire to provide himself with allies rather than by religious convictions. In foreign policy, indeed, he inclined always to caution and a husbanding of resources. If he intervened in the so-called Count’s War between pretenders to the Danish crown (1534–36), it was because he saw at last a chance of liberating Sweden from Lübeck’s tutelage, and his only other adventure was the later war with Muscovy (1555–57).

Gustav’s greatest achievement was the creation of a strong monarchy. He based his power on a massive agglomeration of crown and family lands, acquired for the most part by confiscation from the church, which put him beyond the rivalry of any other noble house. The supervision and exploitation of these lands was his personal concern, and with it went an infinite solicitude for the least detail of fiscal policy. In the 1540s, owing to a lack of trained Swedes, he imported German administrators. This was a brief episode, but their work had a lasting effect in Sweden. It enabled Gustav to maintain his personal supervision and to combine it with high efficiency.

As the political heir of a faction, he found it expedient to bribe his nobility with church lands, and he was successful in many policies that the Stures had only attempted. In 1544, for instance, he induced the Diet to declare the monarchy hereditary rather than elective. He summoned the estates frequently in the uncertain years at the beginning of his reign, though less often thereafter, and his use of them to endorse his policies undoubtedly aided their development as an effective parliamentary body. On the other hand, he reduced to a position of relative insignificance the aristocratic council of state, which had played the leading part in the constitutional struggles of the preceding century.

Gustav was a harsh sovereign whose suspiciousness, irritability, and violence drove a succession of faithful servants into embittered exile. Nevertheless he was one of the great rulers of his age, being both shrewd and tireless in his concern for his country. He made Sweden an independent state and gave his country, for the first time in a century, nearly 40 years of stable and intelligent government. He ensured the triumph of Lutheranism, established the first truly national standing army of modern times, and founded the Swedish navy. With his first wife, Catherine of Saxe-Lauenberg, he had one son, who succeeded him as Erik XIV.




Gustav II Adolf
king of Sweden
Latin Gustavus Adolphus
born Dec. 9, 1594, Stockholm, Swed.
died Nov. 6, 1632, Lützen, Saxony [now in Germany]

king of Sweden (1611–32) who laid the foundations of the modern Swedish state and made it a major European power.

Early years of reign
Gustav was the eldest son of Charles IX and his second wife, Christina of Holstein. He was still some weeks short of his 17th birthday when he succeeded his father in 1611, and it was only in exchange for important constitutional concessions that the Swedish Estates (the Riksdag, or Assembly) permitted him to assume full control of the government. He found himself in an extraordinarily difficult position. Charles IX had usurped the throne, having ejected his nephew Sigismund III Vasa (who was also king of Poland) in 1599, and the resulting dynastic quarrel involved Sweden and Poland in a war that continued intermittently for 60 years. Until 1629 Gustav had always to reckon with the danger of a legitimist invasion from Poland and the attempted restoration of the elder Vasa line. Charles had also begun a war in Russia in an attempt to put forward his younger son, Charles Philip, for the vacant Russian throne and then, when his armies were deeply committed in Russia, had rashly provoked war with Denmark. Not only had Charles placed Sweden in a calamitous situation internationally but he had left behind him a legacy of domestic troubles. His usurpation of the throne had meant not only the expulsion of a Roman Catholic sovereign whose rule seemed to threaten Sweden’s Lutheranism but also the defeat of the aristocratic constitutionalism of the Council of State, and it had been followed by the execution of five leading members of the high aristocracy. Charles’s rule had been arbitrary and violent; his religious views (he was suspected of leaning toward Calvinism) had involved him in an incessant struggle with the Lutheran church. At his death the country was exhausted by constant warfare, the monarchy was generally unpopular, and the accession of a new king seemed to offer the opportunity to extort from the crown guarantees against a recurrence of misgovernment.

Resolution of foreign wars
Thus, in 1611 Gustav had three foreign wars and a major constitutional crisis upon his hands. As the war with Denmark was as good as lost, he set about to end it on the best possible terms. By the Peace of Knäred (1613) Sweden was forced to leave its only North Sea port, Älvsborg, in Danish hands as security for the payment of an enormous war indemnity. That indemnity entailed crushing taxation and, even with the aid of last-minute loans by the Dutch, was not paid off until 1619. The war left bitter hatred behind it, and Gustav never forgot that Denmark was the national enemy and might be expected to take advantage of any Swedish weakness. Meanwhile, the war with Poland remained largely in abeyance, although in 1617 Gustav sent an abortive expedition to seize the fortification of Dünamünde outside Riga (in present-day Latvia). The main danger, however, seemed to be Sigismund’s attempts to pursue his claims by fifth-column activities in Sweden and propaganda in Europe.

The war in Russia was much more serious, and it was here that Gustav, in a succession of difficult and indecisive campaigns, learned the rudiments of warfare. It dragged on until ended by the Peace of Stolbova in 1617, by which time it had clearly changed its character. Charles IX had intervened in Russia to prevent the Poles from placing their own candidate on the Russian throne; the election of the Russian Michael Romanov in 1613 had ended that danger, and Gustav continued the struggle with the deliberate intention of annexing as much of Russian territory as possible. He feared Russia’s military and naval potential; he feared that once the country’s position was stabilized, a new tsar might try to make Russia a Baltic maritime power. He was determined, therefore, to exploit Russia’s momentary weakness to cut it off from direct maritime contact with the West and to channel Russian trade through Swedish middlemen, thus enriching his impoverished exchequer with tolls and duties. In this last respect the outcome proved disappointing, but politically and strategically Stolbova was a treaty of European importance. By annexing Ingria and Kexholm, Sweden came to possess a continuous belt of territory connecting Finland with the Swedish province of Estonia. It thus cut Russia off entirely from the Baltic, thrust it back toward Asia, and postponed its emergence as a major European power until the time of Peter the Great.

Resolution of internal problems
Meanwhile, the internal tensions that Gustav Adolf had inherited had been largely resolved. The charter that the Estates extorted from Gustav when he became king in 1611 might well have entailed the virtual subjection of the monarchy to the council and the high aristocracy. This, however, did not happen; for the man who had drawn the charter, the chancellor Axel Oxenstierna, became, in fact, the king’s closest collaborator and remained so for the whole of the reign—a great historic partnership in which the temperaments and gifts of each supplemented those of the other. The king observed the spirit of the charter. The aristocracy found in Gustav a king favourable to their interests. He enlisted the nobility in the service of the state and thus provided them with numerous economic benefits. It was one of the healthiest features of Swedish society during this period that the nobility served the state, prepared to sacrifice even its privileges in the interests of the country. Thus the long-standing constitutional struggle between crown and aristocracy was suspended during his reign, largely because of the personality of the sovereign and the unique collaboration between himself and Oxenstierna. In this improved climate it was possible to undertake measures of sweeping reform.

The first decade of the reign, therefore, saw the creation of the Supreme Court (1614) and the establishment of the Treasury and the Chancery as permanent administrative boards (1618), and by the end of the reign an Admiralty and a War Office had been created—each presided over by one of the great officers of state. The Form of Government of 1634 summed up these reforms in a general statute giving Sweden a central administration more modern and efficient than that of any other European country. Stockholm became a true capital with a permanent population of civil servants, the most important of whom were noblemen. And in the 1620s a thorough reform professionalized local government and placed it securely under the control of the crown. The Council of State became, for the first time, a permanent organ of government able to assume charge of affairs while the king was fighting overseas. An ordinance of 1617 fixed the number of estates in the Riksdag at four (nobles, clergy, burghers, and peasants) and regulated its procedures on a basis that lasted until 1866. Both council and Riksdag were identified with the king’s policies, not least because of Gustav’s brilliant gift for expounding them: his speeches reveal him as a master of debate and an orator of extraordinary eloquence and force. And the decisions were always his, though they were usually arrived at after intimate consultation with Axel Oxenstierna. Gustav’s creation of the Gymnasia in the 1620s gave Sweden, for the first time, an effective provision for secondary education; his splendid munificence to the University of Uppsala gave it the financial security that was essential to its development; and his foundation of the University of Tartu provided the first centre for higher learning in the Baltic provinces. During Gustav’s reign many town charters were granted, among them that of Göteborg (1619). He also promoted the Swedish economy through immigration and the infusion of foreign capital. Immigrants, such as Dutchman Louis de Geer, who founded the Swedish arms industry, came from Belgium, the Netherlands, England, and Germany and made important contributions to the economy . During the 17th century Swedish cannons enjoyed an excellent reputation and were sold to the Dutch, British, and French armies.

In 1620 he married Maria Eleonora of Brandenburg. In 1621, taking advantage of a Turkish attack upon Poland, Gustav renewed the war with Sigismund. His capture of Riga was followed by a gradual conquest of Livonia (present-day northern Latvia and southern Estonia). His object was to compel Sigismund to renounce his claims to Sweden, and he hoped to gain his end by the economic pressure that would result from Poland’s loss of access to its main export routes to western Europe. It was in pursuit of this policy that, in 1626, he transferred the seat of war to Prussia: a stranglehold on the Vistula River, he hoped, would bring Poland to its knees. But already he was concerned with the larger question of the danger to German Protestantism entailed by the victorious campaigns of the Habsburg commanders, Johann Tserclaes von Tilly and Albrecht von Wallenstein. He saw his Polish campaigns as one aspect of the general struggle of Protestantism against the Counter-Reformation: if Sigismund were restored to the Swedish throne, the re-Catholicization of Scandinavia would follow soon after, the Habsburgs and their allies would be able to close the passage into the Baltic to Dutch shipping, and the United Netherlands might then be unable to continue their struggle against Spain.

Thus, the fate of Europe was bound up with what happened in Livonia or Prussia. Protestant Europe was slow to appreciate the connection, but as the Protestant cause plunged to disaster in Germany, its leaders increasingly turned their eyes to Gustav as a possible saviour. But before he was prepared to commit himself to any Protestant league and undertake a military campaign in Germany, Gustav required adequate assurance of support. The disastrous defeat (1626) of Christian IV of Denmark, who had intervened in Germany without such an assurance, justified his caution, but it also made Swedish intervention inevitable. The Habsburg forces’ occupation of the German Baltic shore and their plans for a Habsburg-Polish navy seemed to pose a direct threat of invasion. In this emergency, Gustav and Christian joined forces to send an expedition to Stralsund, the last remaining Protestant bastion in Pomerania, which arrived just in time to prevent its capture by Wallenstein (1628). From this moment, full-scale involvement in the German war became simply a question of time. The Polish war was resolved in 1629 by the Truce of Altmark, and Gustav was at last free to turn his attention to Germany. In June 1630 the Swedish expeditionary force landed at Peenemünde.

Entrance into the Thirty Years’ War
The motives prompting his intervention have long been a subject of historical controversy. An older generation of historians saw him, as his contemporaries did, simply as the Protestant Hero, the “Lion of the North”; later, he was viewed as having been moved by purely political considerations; and in recent days he has been characterized as an economic imperialist who sought to remedy Sweden’s poverty by seizing control of the whole Baltic coastline, and thus to monopolize trade between Russia and western Europe. It is also possible that he sought security from dangers which seemed to threaten the Swedish state and the Swedish church; that he considered his actions essentially defensive; and that he had no precise long-range plans, either economic or political, when he landed on German soil.

He had, however, an army of unusual quality, fighting in a style new to Germany, and he combined tactical innovations with a grander concept of strategy than Europe had seen for many years. By reducing the size of the tactical unit, by opposing a flexible linear formation to the cumbrous massive formations of his opponents, by solving (at least for his time) the perennial problem of combining infantry and cavalry, missile weapons and shock, and, lastly, by producing the first easily maneuverable light artillery, he completed the transformation of the art of war begun by the Dutch commander Maurice of Nassau, prince of Orange, earlier in the century. The vastness of his operations in Germany initiated a permanent increase in the size of European armies. The whole process had profound social effects on the history of Europe.

Gustav landed in Germany without allies. Whatever the feelings of the Protestant populations, the Protestant princes resented Swedish interference, and the refusal of George William of Brandenburg to cooperate with the Swedes thwarted Gustav’s attempts to save Magdeburg from capture and sack at the hands of Tilly’s armies. In September John George of Saxony, provoked by violations of his neutrality, formally allied himself with Sweden. In September 1631, at Breitenfeld, the Swedish-Saxon forces shattered Tilly’s army in a battle that was a landmark in the art of war and a turning point in the history of Germany. In the ensuing months Gustav swept triumphantly through central Germany, systematically consolidating his base areas as he advanced; by Christmas he had established himself at Mainz. It seemed that the fate of Germany lay in his hands.

These developments forced Gustav to reassess the limited and vague plans with which he had embarked on the expedition. In 1630 he had defined his aims as security and indemnity, the indemnity to be a cash payment to cover his war expenses, the security to be provided by a permanent Swedish alliance with Pomerania. By the close of 1631, with most of northern and central Germany under his control and the liberation of the southern German Protestant states already in prospect, his plans had broadened. He had always insisted that the German Protestant princes must work for their own salvation, and he saw the best hope for their future preservation in the creation of a comprehensive, permanent Corpus Evangelicorum (or Protestant league). His experience of the feckless and selfish German princes convinced him that such a league could be effective only if it were organized and directed by himself, and military necessity in any case demanded a unified command that could not be directed by anyone other than himself. Security, then, was to be achieved by a Protestant league of which he would be patron, military director, and political head. For indemnity he no longer claimed monetary compensation but large territorial cessions, particularly, the transference of Pomerania to Sweden. Thus, the old security had become the new indemnity. Many Germans feared, and some Swedish diplomats now believed, that a final settlement must probably entail the deposition of the German emperor Ferdinand II and the election of Gustav as emperor in his place. It was a solution he must certainly have contemplated, but there is no firm evidence of his attitude; probably he considered it only as a last resort. Certainly it would have alienated those German allies who had no wish to exchange a Habsburg domination for a Swedish one. They already resented Gustav’s dictatorial methods as well as the Swedish army’s practice of making war support war. A Swedish administration was being organized in the occupied areas; Gustav rewarded his generals and supporters by conferring the conquered lands on them; in some of the treaties he concluded with German princes there was more than a hint that he regarded them as his feudal inferiors. In October 1632 he did, indeed, lay the basis for a league of Protestant princes; but it was confined mainly to southern Germany, where the peril from a Catholic reaction was greatest, and the two greatest Protestant states—Saxony and Brandenburg—never became part of it.

Last phase of Gustav’s campaign
The prospect of success depended upon the outcome of the campaign of 1632, which was designed to cripple Bavaria as a preliminary to the conquest of Vienna in 1633. Up to a point, it was highly successful. The brilliant crossing of the Lech River in Bavaria, in the face of Tilly’s armies, opened the way to the occupation of Munich. In this crisis, Wallenstein, whom the emperor had dismissed from his service in 1630, was recalled to lead the imperial armies. His threat to Nürnberg forced Gustav to leave Bavaria in order to relieve the city. His attack on Wallenstein’s entrenchments on the Alte Veste—an operation that probably no other contemporary commander would have attempted—was unsuccessful, and for the next few weeks there followed a tense war of maneuver that ended when Gustav fell upon Wallenstein’s army at Lützen (Nov. 6, 1632) as it was dispersing to winter quarters. Morning mist robbed Gustav of the advantage of surprise and gave Wallenstein time to reunite his forces. The fight raged fiercely all day, but when night fell the Swedes had won an important victory. It was, however, dearly bought, for while leading a cavalry charge Gustav became separated from his men and perished in the melee.

His death came at a moment when it had already begun to appear that the victory he believed to be essential to the stability of Germany and the security of Sweden might be more difficult to achieve than he had imagined. But he had lived long enough to deflect the course of German history. His intervention in the Thirty Years’ War, at a moment when the armies of the Habsburg emperor and the German princes of the Catholic League controlled almost the whole of Germany, ensured the survival of German Protestantism against the onslaughts of the Counter-Reformation. The consequences, for Germany and for Europe, extended far beyond the religious field. By supporting the German princes against the emperor, Gustav Adolf defeated the attempts of the Habsburgs to make their imperial authority a reality and thus played a part in delaying the emergence of a united Germany until the 19th century. As a military commander, he was responsible for military innovations that marked an epoch in the history of the art of war. But from the point of view of his own country, these achievements were less significant than his domestic labours—his extraordinarily wide-ranging creative work in the fields of administrative organization, economic development, and education.

Michael Roberts



Christian IV
Scandinavian king

born April 12, 1577, Frederiksborg Castle, Hillerød, Den.
died Feb. 28, 1648, Copenhagen

king of Denmark and Norway (1588–1648), who led two unsuccessful wars against Sweden and brought disaster upon his country by leading it into the Thirty Years’ War. He energetically promoted trade and shipping, left a national heritage of fine buildings, and won repute as a plucky, hard-drinking man of grim wit and great resource.

Christian, the son of Frederick II of Denmark and Sophia of Mecklenburg, succeeded to the throne on the death of his father in 1588, but until his coronation in 1596 his country was governed by a regency of four members of the Rigsråd, the Council of the Realm, who also supervised his education. He was brought up as a Lutheran and studied Latin, French, Italian, and German as well as mathematics, navigation, drawing, military command, fencing, and dancing.

In 1597 he married Anna Catherine of Brandenburg, mother of his son and successor, Frederick III. She died in 1612, and three years later Christian married Kirsten Munk, a young Danish noblewoman, who remained his wife—bearing him 12 children—until 1630, when she committed adultery with a German count and was banished from the court.

After his coronation Christian succeeded in limiting the powers of the Rigsråd. He kept the most important offices vacant and surrounded himself with an entourage of aristocratic young officers and German officials drawn mainly from his dukedom of Holstein. The Rigsråd was opposed to a war against Sweden, but Christian threatened to declare war in his capacity as duke of Schleswig-Holstein, thus forcing the Rigsråd to sanction plans for a war (1611–13), with the aim of once more uniting Sweden with Denmark. Although Christian won the war, his victory remained essentially inconclusive.

After the war Christian centred his efforts on the economic development of his kingdom; he founded new towns, particularly ports to strengthen defenses, enlarged the royal shipyards, and built beautiful buildings and castles in and around Copenhagen. When the Protestant cause in northern Germany was endangered, in 1624, Christian entered the Thirty Years’ War, again in opposition to his councillors. His aims were to protect Danish interests in northern Germany, to stop the Swedish king from playing a role in European politics, and to take up the legacy of his father and grandfather as the leading member of the Lutheran Church and its defender against expanding Catholicism. In 1625 he began operations against the Catholic League in Germany led by Tilly, the Bavarian commander in chief, who defeated him at Lutter am Barenberge on Aug. 17, 1626. Tilly’s and Wallenstein’s troops next invaded and plundered Jutland, thus forcing Christian to form an alliance with the Swedish king Gustavus II Adolphus against the Catholics. After the Swedish-Danish army and fleet had forced Wallenstein to raise the siege of Stralsund, however, Christian severed the alliance and concluded a separate peace with the Holy Roman emperor at Lübeck in May 1629. Though Christian’s prestige and even his faith in himself as a great captain were diminished, he had not lost any lands. After the war he continued to try to impede Swedish progress in northern Germany and to maintain his rights in the Baltic and the North Sea. He repeatedly raised the shipping tolls through The Sound into the Baltic in order to augment his income independently of the Rigsrad, but he thus alienated his old allies, the sea powers of England and the Netherlands. With the help of the Netherlands, Sweden attacked Denmark in December 1643; and, by the end of January 1644, Jutland was in their possession. Christian led the defense personally, blockading the Swedish ships for a time, and lost an eye in the naval battle of Kolberger Heide. Although this battle was inconclusive, the Danish fleet was later annihilated by the combined navies of Sweden and Holland, and Christian was compelled to conclude a humiliating peace in August 1645 that cost him possessions in the Baltic, Norway, and Scania. Throughout his reign the Rigsråd and the nobility had opposed his warlike policies and the ensuing strain on finances, and after this defeat even Christian’s sons-in-law turned against him, forcing him to accept the increased power of the nobility. Though he died a bitter and broken man, Christian IV had ruled his kingdom for more than 50 years and is remembered as one of the most popular of Danish kings.

Christian IV was inclined to occupy himself with every minor detail of his administration while losing sight of the larger problems. Not only did he personally lay down the lines of Denmark’s mercantilistic policy, he even established the import duties; he started state-subsidized and privileged trading companies and manufacturies—all of them with no marked success—and insisted on auditing their accounts personally. He founded a new academy for young noblemen, provided funds for the students at the university and built them a new college, personally examined the knowledge of Latin and the religious orthodoxy of the clergymen due for promotion, made designs for new types of guns and tested them himself, inspected the contents of the new arsenals, acted as a judge even in minor cases, and tried out the new ships of his navy. Christian was a great builder and founder of cities. He founded the towns of Kristiania (now Oslo) and Kristiansand in Norway; Kristianstad and Kristianopel in what is now Sweden; Christianshavn in Denmark; and Glückstadt (which was to compete with Hamburg) in Holstein. Evidence of his unremitting industry are his more than 3,000 handwritten letters still preserved, written in an imaginative and vivid Danish prose and teeming with orders and questions on all subjects from the eternal laws of God to the brewing of stronger beer.

Jens Engberg



Frederick III
king of Denmark and Norway

born March 18, 1609, Haderslev, Den.
died Feb. 9, 1670, Copenhagen

king of Denmark and Norway (1648–70) whose reign saw the establishment of an absolute monarchy, maintained in Denmark until 1848.

In his youth Frederick served successively as bishop coadjutor (i.e., assistant bishop with the right of succession) of the German dioceses of Bremen, Verden, and Halberstadt. He commanded Danish forces in Schleswig-Holstein during Denmark’s disastrous war with Sweden (1643–45) and succeeded to the throne shortly after the death (1648) of his father, Christian IV, agreeing to a charter that reduced the royal prerogatives.

In 1655 the Swedish king Charles X Gustav went to war with Poland, and in 1657 Frederick launched an invasion of Sweden. His plans for regaining the Danish territories lost in 1645 were shattered when Charles suddenly seized the Danish province of Jutland and invaded the Danish island of Zealand. Shortly afterward Frederick signed the Treaty of Roskilde (Feb. 26, 1658), by which Denmark ceded to Sweden the provinces of Skåne, Blekinge, and Halland, the island of Bornholm, and the Norwegian province of Trondheim.

Within six months Charles again invaded Denmark. The tide of the war turned in favour of Denmark when the inhabitants of Copenhagen resisted a Swedish siege. Assisted by a Dutch squadron, the Danish fleet was then able to drive the Swedes away from The Sound (Øresund), and by the Treaty of Copenhagen (1660) Denmark recovered Bornholm and Trondheim.

Frederick called a meeting of the Estates in September 1660 to meet the debts incurred in the war. The clergy and the townsmen forced the Rigsråd (Council of the Realm) and nobility to give up their fiscal privileges, to negotiate with the King for a new constitution, and to recognize Frederick as hereditary sovereign, nullifying his royal charter. In January 1661 the government issued a decree conferring absolute power on the king. The new constitution was signed in November 1665, but the King’s Law, or Kongeloven, written by Peder Schumacher, later Count Griffenfeld, confirming the king’s absolute authority, was not made public until 1709.

With the aid of his adviser Hannibal Sehested, Frederick introduced sweeping reforms of the state administration. These included a reorganization of the government into five departments, or “colleges,” with policy recommendations being made by the Privy Council, the members of which were usually selected from the heads of the colleges. The bourgeoisie gained greatly in power, buying the major part of the royal estates and, for the first time, holding important government positions.

Encyclopaedia Britannica



Northern Europe in the 18th Century

Charles XII once again made Sweden the predominant power in northeast Europe, but with his death, all that was gained was lost again. Enlightened absolutism could only be hesitantly implemented in Denmark and Sweden.


7 Charles X Gustav of the house Palatinate-Zweibrucken, who inherited the Swedish throne from his cousin Christina of Vasa in 1654, extended Swedish possessions in wars against Poland and Denmark—which was forced to relinquish all of southern Sweden, including Skane and Halland, by the Treaty of Roskilde in 1658.

Although his son 8 Charles XI lost Pomerania to Brandenburg, he did finally break the power of the Swedish aristocracy by seizing the crown estates and establishing absolutist rule.

7 Charles X Gustav

8 Charles XI




Charles X Gustav
king of Sweden

born Nov. 8, 1622, Nyköping Castle, Sweden
died Feb. 13, 1660, Göteborg

king of Sweden who conducted the First Northern War (1655–60) against a coalition eventually embracing Poland, Russia, Brandenburg, the Netherlands, and Denmark. His aim was to establish a unified northern state.

In 1642 Charles, the son of John Casimir and Charles IX’s eldest daughter, Catharine, joined the Swedish armies in Germany under Lennart Torstenson and returned to Sweden in 1645, a few years before the end of the Thirty Years’ War. Although he failed in his efforts to marry the Swedish queen Christina, then still a minor, she secured his appointment as commander of the Swedish forces in Germany (1648), over the opposition of the leading nobles, and the following year named him to succeed her; he was crowned in 1654.

Charles X’s first task was to restore the public finances, greatly weakened during Christina’s reign. In the Riksdag (Parliament) of 1655 he imposed the Reduction, by which the nobles were obliged to return to the crown certain endowed lands and either to pay an annual fee or to surrender one-quarter of the crown lands they had acquired since 1633. These financial measures were not seriously enforced.

In 1655 Charles turned his attention to war against Poland. Although he was ostensibly defending himself against a Polish claim to the Swedish throne, Charles X’s real motivations for war were to check a potential Russian threat in Poland and to strengthen Sweden’s control of the Baltic region. His initial decisive victories in Poland (1655–56) forced the Polish king John Casimir to flee, but they drew Russia and the Holy Roman Empire into the war; they were soon joined by Charles X’s former ally the elector of Brandenburg, as well as by Denmark and the Netherlands. With his Polish campaign stalled, Charles boldly attacked Denmark (1657), quickly conquering the province of Jutland and threatening Sjælland. By the Treaty of Roskilde (1658), Denmark ceded all its holdings in southern Sweden, the county of Trondheim in Norway, and the island of Bornholm. The treaty was seen by the Swedes as a move toward control of The Sound (Öresund), The Sound toll, and trade in the Baltic region.

After failing to obtain English or French aid for an invasion of Brandenburg, Charles again attacked Denmark (1658), hoping to counter the growing Danish-Dutch alliance by conquering Denmark and forming a unified Scandinavian state. When the Danes resisted, repelling an attack on Copenhagen in February 1659, a Riksdag was called in Göteborg in 1660 to deal with the military situation. Charles died while the Riksdag was in session. That same year the island of Bornholm and the county of Trondheim were returned to Denmark.

Encyclopaedia Britannica



Charles XI
king of Sweden

born Nov. 24, 1655, Stockholm
died April 5, 1697, Stockholm

king of Sweden who expanded royal power at the expense of the higher nobility and the lower estates, establishing an absolutist monarchy that ended only with the death of Charles XII in 1718.

Charles, the only son of Charles X Gustav and Hedvig Eleonora of Holstein-Gottorp, was only five years old when he succeeded his father in 1660. A regency was established under which the higher nobility gained control of the government and blocked the repossession of alienated crown lands. Although Charles came of age in 1672, the regents continued to control foreign policy; they drew Sweden into the Dutch War of 1672–78 at the behest of King Louis XIV of France, with whom they had signed a treaty of alliance. Charles assumed control of the armies and the administration after the Swedish defeat at Fehrbellin by the forces of the electorate of Brandenburg in 1675, which encouraged Denmark to invade its former province of Skåne in Sweden.

Charles XI’s defeat of the Danes in 1678 led to the Treaty of Lund (1679), by which Denmark gave up its claim to Skåne. The alliance of the two nations in opposition to Dutch commercial influence in the Baltic was sealed by Charles XI’s marriage to Ulrika Eleonora (1680), sister of King Christian V of Denmark. By the treaties of Nijmegen (1678–79), which marked the end of the Dutch War, Sweden was able to keep nearly all of its German possessions.

Charles and his new advisers then determined to keep Sweden free from foreign subsidy treaties. The Riksdag (parliament) of 1680 renewed in full force the repossession of alienated crown lands, and by the end of Charles XI’s reign the crown had increased its holdings in Sweden–Finland from less than 1 percent to more than 30 percent of all lands. The repossession of royal lands in the trans-Baltic provinces accounted for more than half of the increase in the King’s income. The enlarged state income allowed the establishment of a fixed budget that paid for 25,000 hired troops, as well as of a civil administration that also had control over churches and schools, a national army of 40,000 men, and a new navy to compete with Denmark’s. In 1693 Charles was granted unrestricted power by the estates to implement and safeguard his reforms.

In foreign affairs Charles and his principal advisers saw a balance of power among France, the Holy Roman Empire, the Netherlands, and England as the best protection for Swedish interests. Sweden concluded a treaty with the Dutch (1681) against Louis XIV. Charles also felt threatened by the personal union of England and the United Provinces begun under William III in 1688, and he maintained Sweden’s virtual neutrality during the War of the Grand Alliance (1689–97).

Although Denmark and Sweden cooperated during the war to protect their merchant shipping, Charles nearly provoked war with Denmark in 1689 when he supported the claims of the duke of Holstein-Gottorp in Schleswig-Holstein. Shortly before his death Charles arranged for the continuation of his dynastic ties with the House of Holstein-Gottorp and served, though he had little effective power, in his cherished role of mediator at the Treaty of Rijswijk (1697), which concluded the War of the Grand Alliance.

Encyclopaedia Britannica


9 Charles XII

Denmark, Russia, and Poland allied against his son 9 Charles XII, who succeeded him in 1699, to regain lost territories from Sweden, but the king invaded Denmark and forced it to accept peace, and then in 1700, leading his troops, destroyed the Russian army at Narva.

In 1702 Charles XII expelled Augustus the Strong of Saxony and Poland out of Livonia, then in 1702 out of Poland as well, and in 1706 he invaded Saxony. In 1709, however, he suffered a crushing defeat against Czar Peter the Great on the plains of Poltava and was forced to flee to Turkey; he finally fell in Norway in November 1718. The Great Northern War, begun in 1700, was finally concluded at the Treaty of Nystad in 1721. Sweden was forced to turn over its possessions in the Baltic and southwest Finland to Russia.

11 Charles XII of Sweden conquers the Russian fortress of Narva in a crushing defeat
of the Russians, copper engraving, ca. 1700


Charles XII
king of Sweden

born June 17, 1682, Stockholm
died Nov. 30, 1718, Fredrikshald, Nor.

king of Sweden (1697–1718), an absolute monarch who defended his country for 18 years during the Great Northern War and promoted significant domestic reforms. He launched a disastrous invasion of Russia (1707–09), resulting in the complete collapse of the Swedish armies and the loss of Sweden’s status as a great power. He was, however, also a ruler of the early Enlightenment era, promoting domestic reforms of significance.

Early life
Prince Charles was the second child and eldest (and only surviving) son of Charles XI of Sweden and Ulrika Eleonora of Denmark. His early childhood was happy and secure, but the close family circle was broken by his mother’s death in 1693. Charles XI’s chief consolation was a close companionship with his heir, and from this time onward Prince Charles accompanied his father on travels of inspection and on all kinds of official occasions. After his father’s death in April 1697, Charles XII had to take on the burden of absolute kingship—he was the first and only Swedish king born to absolutism—when he was barely 15 years old. Charles XI had stipulated a regency, but the regents proved anxious to obtain the new king’s concurrence in all decisions, and the Riksdag called in November 1697 declared him of age.

Charles XII had been carefully prepared for his task by excellent tutors and governors. He was, however, exceptionally strong willed and gave repeated proof of his obstinate adherence to those standards he accepted from the religious and moral teaching of his family and his governors. In adolescence a personal program for toughening physique—in particular, his intrepid horsemanship and his predilection for risks—worried the old and staid among the courtiers. He had been open and confiding; but on succeeding to the crown he assumed a noncommittal behaviour in public, though in private he was much influenced by the instructions that his father had left for his political guidance and by the counsel of his father’s advisers.

After negotiations for Charles’s marriage to a Danish cousin, the daughter of Christian V, were begun on Denmark’s initiative, Charles’s advisers held back until the outcome of Danish negotiations with other powers was known. These negotiations led in fact to a coalition between Denmark, Saxony, and Russia that, by attacking Sweden in the spring of 1700, began the Great Northern War. The speedy success hoped for by the three allied powers did not materialize, and rumours of rebellion by the Swedish nobility against the absolutist monarchy, in case of war, proved false.

Military leadership, 1700–09
The early campaigns—the descent on Zealand (August 1700), which forced Denmark out of the war; the Battle of Narva (November 1700), which drove the Russians away from the Swedish trans-Baltic provinces; and the crossing of the Western Dvina River (1701), which scattered the troops of Augustus II (elector of Saxony and king of Poland)—were all planned and directed by the officers whom Charles had inherited from his father; but the King, while developing his military skill, gave valuable help in fostering morale by his courage, his religiously coloured optimism, and his faith in the cause of Sweden as the victim of a concerted attack.

Charles’s responsibility in planning and executing armed operations constantly increased, so that from 1702 he became the superior of most of his officers. Also from 1702 he began to take a greater part in political decisions, his senior advisers having died or retired through ill health. Most significant of these personal decisions was that to fight Augustus II in Poland and to transform Poland from a divided country, where Augustus had both partisans and opponents, into an ally and a base for the final campaign against Russia. This transformation was to be accomplished by dethroning Augustus and substituting a Polish-born king willing to cooperate with the Swedes. By the time this program had been brought to success and Stanisław Leszczyński elected king of Poland—Augustus being forced to accept the settlement by a Swedish invasion of Saxony in September 1706—Charles XII had matured both as a general and as a statesman.

Charles was not unmindful of Sweden’s role in central and western Europe; his support of the Silesian Protestants against the Catholic Habsburg emperor was firmly based on the Swedish guarantee of the Peace of Westphalia, and he continued that policy of the “balancing role” between the great coalitions of the west to which Swedish rulers and statesmen since 1660 had aspired in the hope of achieving prestige and territory by armed mediation in suitable circumstances. His first necessity in 1706, however, was to secure Sweden’s position in relation to Russia, which, under Peter I the Great, had from 1703 onward made good use of Charles XII’s campaigns in Poland to train its army and undertake a piecemeal conquest of the Swedish east Baltic provinces. Charles’s troops left Saxony to invade Russia in the late autumn of 1707. They won the Battle of Hołowczyn in July 1708, but Russian scorched-earth tactics forced Charles to abandon his route to Moscow and turn instead into the Ukraine. Thereafter, the Russians interfered successfully with the Swedes’ communications, and by the summer of 1709 Charles XII had no choice between accepting battle with the Russians or withdrawing once more into Poland. Though wounded in the foot and unable to lead the army in person, Charles chose battle and attacked the Russian fortified camp at Poltava on July 8 (June 27, old style; June 28, Swedish style). The attack failed, and three days later the bulk of the Swedish Army surrendered to the Russians at Perevolochna. Charles was by then already on his way to Turkish-held territory, where he hoped to find allies.

Charles XII and Mazepa at the Dnieper River after the Poltava
by Gustaf Cederstrom


Years in Turkey, 1709–14
Turkey’s desire to reconquer Azov from Peter the Great augured well for its cooperation with Charles XII, but—in spite of four Turkish declarations of war against Russia—as the army expected from Sweden never arrived, the Swedish king was unable to pursue his plans vigorously.

He became the object of Turkish intrigues and in February 1713 had to fight a regular battle, the kalabalik of Bender (modern Bendery, Moldova), to avoid a plot to deliver him into the hands of Augustus of Saxony, now restored in Poland. The closing of the Turko-Habsburg frontier due to the plague, and the determination of the anti-French alliance in the War of the Spanish Succession to prevent Sweden from using its bases in Germany to attack its enemies further circumscribed Charles XII’s freedom of action in these years. The Swedish council, virtually in charge of affairs at home during his absence, was preoccupied with threats to Sweden from Denmark.

The administrative and financial reforms that Charles promulgated from Turkey in order to distribute the burden of the war effort fairly and to increase both resources and efficiency were largely sabotaged and were put into effect only after his return to Swedish Pomerania in November 1714 (having ridden incognito through Habsburg and German lands in 14 days and nights).

The funeral transport of Charles XII by Gustaf Cederstrom

Decline of Swedish power
For more than a year, Charles fought a delaying action in Pomerania to keep Swedish troops on German soil as long as possible, attempting to restore the prestige of Swedish arms, to keep the war away from Sweden itself, and to prepare his diplomatic offensive for splitting the coalition, augmented after 1714 by Hanover and Prussia. A subsidy treaty with France, intrigues with the Jacobites (the adherents of the exiled branch of the Stuart monarchs) to threaten the Elector of Hanover in his position as king of England, and separate negotiations with the enemies averted the danger to Sweden once Charles, in December 1715, had been forced to leave Stralsund and Wismar.

From 1713 onward Charles had realized that sacrifice of territory would be necessary but was set on retaining Sweden’s great power status either by ceding land for money for a given number of years only, not in perpetuity, or by allowing outright cession only as the price for guaranteed and considerable military help. He argued that any satisfactory peace on these lines could only be gained if military action backed up the diplomatic effort; to some extent, therefore, all negotiations, and especially those with the Russians at Åland throughout the year 1718, were designed to gain time. By the autumn of 1718, Charles XII had collected an army of 60,000 men, but his strategic plan was never fully unfolded, for at the siege of Fredrikshald (Halden), at an early stage in the invasion of Norway, he exposed himself to fire from the fortress and was fatally shot through the head. Rumours that he had been killed by someone from his own side began to circulate shortly after his death. The debate on this question continues.

Ragnhild Marie Hatton

Charles XII was not the simple and uneducated soldier-king he has often been made out to be. His intellectual pursuits were many and varied. He became increasingly occupied with new ideas in administration, and many of his administrative reforms were far ahead of their time. He demanded considerable sacrifices of those classes in Sweden who were lukewarm about the war effort once the years of bad fortune set in after 1709.

In military matters Charles was a skilled tactician. He had a good eye for choosing a battleground and insisted on personal leadership in battle. His strategic talent, however, has been criticized, especially his decision to wage war in Poland for such a long time and his Russian campaigns in 1707–09.

Charles XII is one of the most controversial and most written about figures in Swedish history. In 1731 Voltaire published his Histoire de Charles XII, which contains two views that have since predominated in analyses of the king: admiration for his personal qualities and criticism of his political strategy. Charles XII also played an important role as a national and conservative symbol in 19th- and early 20th-century Sweden, though he has been considered a war monger by radicals.

Ragnhild Marie Hatton
Sven Nordlund

Encyclopaedia Britannica

Domestically, marriages and the inheritance ofsucceeding reigns by the German houses of Hessen-Kassel and Holstein-Gottorp weakened royal power in Sweden.
10 Gustav III Vasa restored the absolute power of the king in 1772 through a coup d'etat and abolished aristocratic privileges in 1789.


10 Gustav III

Gustav III
king of Sweden

born Jan. 24, 1746, Stockholm, Swed.
died March 29, 1792, Stockholm

king of Sweden (1771–92), who reasserted the royal power over the Riksdag (parliament).

Gustav, the eldest son of King Adolf Fredrik, was an intelligent and cultured advocate of the Enlightenment. In 1766 he married Sofia Magdalena, daughter of King Frederick V of Denmark. Gustav succeeded in 1771 to a Swedish throne that had been weak since it was subordinated to the Riksdag in 1720. The new king began his reign with futile efforts to mediate between the contending factions of the Riksdag. But in August 1772 he seized effective power of the government and established a new constitution which, replacing that of 1720, increased the crown’s powers at the expense of the Riksdag. In the following years Gustav III introduced a number of enlightened reforms: torture as an instrument of legal investigation was abolished; freedom of the press was granted; the poor law was amended; religious toleration was accorded; free trade was promoted; the navy was strengthened; and in 1777 a comprehensive currency reform was carried out.
The Riksdag Gustav III convened in 1778 proved tractable, but his reforms eventually aroused dissatisfaction among the nobility. The Riksdag of 1786 rejected most of Gustav’s reforming policies. The king’s amiability and efficient rule were not enough to satisfy his critics, so he turned from the frustrations of domestic affairs to an aggressive foreign policy. Taking advantage of Russia’s war with Turkey, he declared war on Russia in 1788, but treasonous activity by the Anjala League, a group of Swedish officers on the Finnish front, along with Denmark’s entry into the war on the side of Russia, worsened his situation. In response, Gustav appealed to the three lower estates (clergy, burghers, peasants) of the Riksdag and in 1789 established a new constitution that augmented the royal authority. He was able to avoid complete disaster in the Russo-Swedish War by his brilliant naval victory at Svensksund (July 1790), and he ended the war with a peace treaty the following month.
By 1791 Gustav III aimed at forming a league of European monarchs to oppose the developing French Revolution. But the Swedish nobility remained implacably opposed to him, and an aristocratic conspiracy succeeded when Gustav was shot by Captain Jacob Johan Anckarström while attending the Stockholm opera house on March 16, 1792; the king died two weeks later. Gustav had actively promoted the Swedish economy, and his economic ideas and policies were greatly influenced by mercantilism. Many industries were founded to diminish imports and encourage exports. In the 1770s Jewish immigrants were invited to settle and start businesses in Sweden in order to stimulate entrepreneurship and commerce. Charming and imaginative, Gustav also proved a vigorous patron of the arts. He founded the Swedish Academy (1786) and greatly encouraged the theatre in Sweden. He himself wrote plays, and in 1786 he collaborated with Johan Kellgren on the opera Gustaf Wasa. For his cultural activity no less than his political achievements, his reign is known as the Gustavian, or Swedish, Enlightenment.

Encyclopaedia Britannica

His was a splendid court, and he founded the Swedish Academy in 1786, but he was murdered in March 1792 by a conspiracy of nobles during a masked ball. His son Gustav IV Adolph waged unsuccessful wars against Napoleon and was deposed by his officers in 1809.

Denmark's inflexible absolutism prevented necessary reforms. Two chief ministers, Johann Hartwig Graf Bernstorff and his nephew Andreas Peter Graf Bernstorff, tried to govern in the spirit of enlightened absolutism.

In 1771—1772, the physician of the mentally ill King 11 Christian VII and lover of the 12 Queen Caroline Mathilde, 13 John Frederick of Struensee, intervened in politics with radical reforms, including the abolition of torture and censorship, but he was overthrown early in 1772 and executed.


11 Christian VII

12 Queen Caroline Mathilde (1751 – 1775)

Queen of Denmark and Norway from
1766 to 1772 and a member of the
British Royal Family.


Murder of Gustav III in the
Stockholm opera house

Christian VII Scandinavian king
born Jan. 29, 1749, Copenhagen
died March 13, 1808, Rendsburg, Schleswig

Mentally incompetent king of Denmark and Norway; his reign saw the brief domination of the kingdom by Count Johann Friedrich Struensee.

The son of Frederick V, Christian VII came to the throne in 1766. His mental instability has been attributed to a brutal childhood governor and to morally corrupt court pages. After his 1766 marriage to Caroline Matilda, the daughter of Frederick, prince of Wales, he gave himself up to debauchery.

Christian came under the influence of Struensee when the latter was appointed to accompany him on a 1768–69 European tour. In 1769 Struensee was named court physician and in 1770 a count and privy cabinet minister. Also in 1770, Struensee became the Queen’s lover, for which he was arrested in 1772 on the King’s order and executed. Christian’s other advisers and, after 1784, Crown Prince Frederick then held power.




13 John Frederick of Struensee

Struensee is led away to his
execution, quill lithography,
19th century

Johann Friedrich, count von Struensee

born Aug. 5, 1737, Halle, Prussia [Germany]
died April 28, 1772, Copenhagen, Den.

German physician and statesman who, through his control over the weak-minded King Christian VII, wielded absolute power in Denmark in 1770–72.

Struensee became town physician of Altona (then in Denmark, now in Germany) in the 1760s. Through acquaintance with certain Danish courtiers, he was named to accompany the mentally unstable Christian VII on a European tour (1768–69), a post that led to Struensee’s appointment as court physician in 1769. Dominating the king, he became the lover of Queen Caroline Matilda in 1770. He was soon able to abolish the council of state and the office of statholder (governor) of Norway in 1770. In June 1771 he had the king name him privy Cabinet minister, and in July he was made a count. From March 1771 until January 1772 Struensee introduced a number of reforms, including freedom of the press, reduction of peasant labour service, a unitary judiciary, and reform of Copenhagen’s municipal government. Having alienated many officials, however, he was the victim of a conspiracy in January 1772, when he was arrested and tortured to death for his liaison with the queen.

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