Youre here: Home » eDigg Biographies » Biographies G-M » Gustavus Adolphus


» Biography Home

» Biographies A-F

» Biographies G-M

» Biographies N-S

» Biographies T-Z

Gustavus Adolphus

      There is a theory which has much currency nowadays, that the great man, being a product of his century, exerts an influence upon his age which is but vanishing, compared to the influence which the age exerts upon him. The great man is, according to this view, personally of small account, except in so far as the tendencies and ideas which are fermenting in the age find their expression in him. He does not so much shape the events as he is shaped and moulded by them.

      There is scarcely a hero to be found in all the annals of history who is better qualified to refute this theory than the Swedish king, Gustavus Adolphus. It would be futile to assert, of course, that he was an isolated phenomenon, who sprang like Jonah's luxuriant gourd out of the arid sands of the desert. No, he had deep and intricate roots in the past of his race and in the soil of his fatherland. But yet, how far are all the influences which we can trace, from accounting for the forceful energy, the clear-sighted sagacity, and the dominant genius of the man! As far as we can judge at this distance, his personality was the mightiest element that entered into the denouement of that bloody world-drama, the Thirty Years' War. Had he been other than he was, had he been a man of less heroic mould, it would seem that Protestantism must have perished in Central Europe, or been confined, at least, to England and the Scandinavian North. The rights of conscience and individual judgment, for which Luther and his co-reformers had fought so valiantly, would then have succumbed to the power of authority, as embodied in the Papacy and the Catholic League; and Germany, after its mighty effort at release, would have lapsed back into the Middle Ages. To few men the opportunity is offered to exercise such a far-reaching influence upon the history of mankind; but fewer still are those who see its full significance, and seeing it, seize it, and without one look behind march into the storm and stress of world-shaping events.

      Gustavus Adolphus was born December 9, 1594. He was the son of King Charles IX. of Sweden, and the grandson of the renowned Gustavus Vasa. He was a precocious child, and it is told (though it appears rather incredible) that at the age of twelve he spoke Latin, French, German, Dutch, and Italian with great fluency, besides having a superficial acquaintance with Polish and Russian. There can be no doubt, however, that he was well taught, and that he possessed a remarkable facility in acquiring languages. For all that, he was far from being a bookish boy. In riding, fencing, and all chivalrous accomplishments he took a lively interest and exhibited much skill. It was in stormy times that his boyhood fell, Sweden being at that time involved in frequent wars, and his father, in order to train him in the duties of a military commander, took him early into his camp and made him share his campaigns. Many of the famous captains of that day who had fought in the Low Countries and in France, were made welcome at the Swedish court; and the favorite pastime of the young Gustavus was to question them concerning the battles, sieges, and military exploits in which they had been engaged.

Gustavus Adolphus before the battle of Lutzen.

      When Charles IX. died, in 1611, Gustavus, being then seventeen years old, was declared to be of age and succeeded to the throne. There was need of an able and resolute man to cope with the many difficulties which sprang up round about him. In the first place there was one war with Denmark, already raging; the strained relations with Russia and Poland threatened to precipitate two more. Norway, which was then united with Denmark under the same king, was also jealous of Sweden; and the Norwegian peasantry destroyed at Kringelen, in Guldbrandsdal, an army of Scottish mercenaries, under the command of Colonel Sinclair, which was marching to the relief of Gustavus. The Danes had occupied two important Swedish cities, Calmar and Elfsborg, and being determined to utilize their advantages to the full, repelled all overtures for peace. It was of no avail that Gustavus renounced his title of King of the Laplanders, the assumption of which by his father had been one of the causes of the war. Christian IV., of Denmark, continued to push hostilities with unflagging vigor, and several battles were fought with varying fortunes. In 1612, he set sail with a fleet of thirty-six vessels for Stockholm, intending to capture the city. The Swedish fleet, being much inferior in numbers, was forced to retire under shelter of the fortress of Waxholm, which guards the access to the capital. In this dire dilemma, Gustavus strained every nerve to avert the threatened disaster. With a small force, chiefly of Dalecarlians, he marched day and night, and hastened to Waxholm in the hope of surprising the Danish fleet which had been detained by adverse winds. But the enemy, being probably informed of his approach, saw that their opportunity for capturing the capital was gone, and returned again to their own coast. Negotiations were now resumed and peace was concluded in 1613. The Danes were to surrender Calmar immediately and Elfsborg at the end of six years; the Swedes agreeing to pay a war indemnity of one million thalers.

      The war with Russia, which Gustavus had inherited from his father, had of late been in a state of suspension. The Swedes had occupied a large amount of Russian territory, in which were several strong fortresses. In the confusion which reigned as to the succession, after the extinction of the ancient house of Rurik, there was a capital chance of fishing in troubled waters. A strong party in Russia desired to elect a Swedish prince as sovereign, and actually sent an embassy to Stockholm to offer the throne to Charles Philip, a younger brother of Gustavus. But the king did not favor this plan. For four years he continued the war and secured important advantages. But what was more valuable than territorial gains, he acquired a wide experience in strategy and the conduct of campaigns, a habit of dealing promptly with large questions, and a sharpened judgment of men. In February, 1617, the treaty of peace was signed, Russia ceding to Sweden a large territory on the east of the Baltic. Gustavus was now in a position to prosecute with greater energy the war with Poland. Sigismund III., of Poland, was the only son of King John III., of Sweden, and was, therefore, as a scion of the ancient royal house, the legitimate heir to the Swedish throne. But in the first place he was a Catholic; and in the second place, the house of Vasa, had by force of arms and with the support of the people, successfully asserted its right to the crown which Gustavus I. had won.

      After repeated extensions of the armistice which by common consent prevailed, the King of Sweden resumed hostilities in July, 1621; and the war raged with varying success until September, 1629, when another armistice was concluded for six years. The chief result of this exhausting warfare was the stipulation which was agreed to, that liberty of conscience should be granted to Protestants and Catholics, and that the commerce between Poland and Sweden was declared free.

      The renown of these wars, two of which had been brought to a triumphant issue, spread far over Europe; and the Protestant princes of Germany became aware that there was a great military captain of their own faith in the Scandinavian North. They were at that time sorely oppressed, the success of the imperial arms, under Tilly and Wallenstein, seeming to threaten the very existence of the Reformed Faith. The Emperor Ferdinand II. was carrying everything with a high hand after the defeat of King Christian IV. of Denmark, who, with more courage than success, had undertaken to champion the Protestant cause. It was in this desperate strait that all eyes turned toward the young King of Sweden. An appeal was sent to him for aid, in the name of their common religion; and Gustavus, after a brief hesitation, accepted the call. He had long watched with deep concern the war of devastation by which Wallenstein and the scarcely less terrible Tilly were seeking to destroy the fruits of the Reformation; and it is said that he had a clear presentiment that sooner or later he would be drawn into the struggle. Leaving his domestic affairs in the hands of his friend, the Chancellor Oxenstiern, he embarked in June, 1630, with a force of but fifteen thousand men, for Germany, and landed on midsummer day on the island of Usedom, on the coast of Pomerania.

      The Emperor Ferdinand professed to be much amused when he heard that Gustavus Adolphus had invaded his dominions.

      "So we have got another kingling on our hands," he exclaimed mockingly. He was far from foreseeing what trouble he was to have for eighteen years to come, in getting that kingling and his troops off his hands.

      Gustavus was the first to step upon the German soil, at the disembarkation; and in the sight of all his army he fell upon his knees and prayed for the blessing of God upon the vast enterprise which had been confided to him. As he arose from his prayer, he seized a spade and began instantly the work upon the intrenchments of the camp.

      If his troops were few in number, it is not to be denied that they were excellent in quality. Many were hardened veterans from the king's earlier campaigns; among his recently acquired mercenaries there was a Scotch brigade, from which he drew many of his best officers. We hear much during the following years, of Hepburn, Seaton, Leslie, Mackay, and Monroe, whose names betray their Caledonian origin. You would have supposed now that the Protestant princes, having secured the aid of Gustavus, would have made haste to identify themselves with his cause and to reinforce him with money and troops. But, strange to relate, no sooner had he landed than they began to grow afraid of him and to ask themselves whether they might not after all, be able to make more tolerable terms with the emperor by the sacrifice of their religion, than with this foreign invader, who, if he was victorious, might dictate his own terms. Had they not, in other words, jumped from the frying-pan into the fire?

      The two princes who had hitherto been the most prominent champions of Protestantism in Germany (though both half-hearted and pusillanimous shufflers) were Gustavus's brother-in-law, the Elector of Brandenburg, and the Elector of Saxony. They were now doing their best to wriggle out of their obligations, and by a shameful neutrality avert the emperor's displeasure. But they had reckoned without their host if they supposed that Gustavus would lend himself to such a scheme. The reply which he gave to Herr von Wilmerstorff, who had been sent to him by the Elector to urge an armistice, was refreshingly plain, while the argument which accompanied it was completely unanswerable. When nevertheless the Elector continued to resort to shilly-shallying and all sorts of ambiguous tactics, Gustavus lost his patience, marched his army to the gates of Berlin, and compelled him to make his choice of party once, for all. The treaty of alliance was then signed, on the Elector's part reluctantly and with a heavy heart; for these two brothers-in-law were so vastly different, that it was scarcely to be expected that they would be congenial. Gustavus, though he was not without personal ambition, was fired with noble zeal for the Protestant cause, and believed it worthy of any sacrifice, however great; while the Elector was only bent on saving his own precious skin and extricating himself with the least possible damage from the dangerous situation in which he had been caught.

      With the same promptness with which he had brought his brother-in-law of Brandenburg to terms, Gustavus forced the hand of the Elector of Saxony, who now overcame his scruples and sent him the needed reinforcements. An imperial army of forty thousand men, under the command of an Italian adventurer named Torquato Conti, had been sent against him, immediately on his landing in Pomerania, but no battle had been fought, and beyond laying waste the country the Imperialists had so far accomplished nothing. The emperor, who had predicted that "the Snow-king would melt under the rays of the Imperial sun," became alarmed at his successes and selected Tilly to stay his southward advance. This able and experienced general promptly assumed the command of the forces of the Catholic League, and in order to strike terror into the hearts of the Protestant princes, sacked and pillaged the city of Magdeburg in Lower Saxony, giving it over without restraint to devastation and ruin by the brutal soldiery. The horrors which were here enacted beggar description, and leave a hideous stain upon the page of history. Tilly himself, in announcing his success to the emperor, wrote: "Since the destruction of Troy and Jerusalem never has such a siege been seen."

      Gustavus had, indeed, come too late to relieve Magdeburg, but the report of the unspeakable atrocities which that unhappy city had witnessed, fired his generous heart with wrath and an eager determination to punish a general so devoid of humanity. And the opportunity was soon to present itself. Advancing rapidly into Saxony, he met Tilly on the plains of Breitenfeld, near Leipsic, September 7, 1631; and not only defeated him, but utterly annihilated his army, scattering it like dust before the storm. He was now, until a new army could be raised, master of all Germany. Nothing apparently could have hindered him from marching on Vienna and dictating to the emperor his own terms of peace. It has been and is yet a matter of speculation, why Gustavus did not relentlessly follow up the results of this great victory, instead of going into winter quarters and affording Ferdinand and the discomfited princes of the League a chance of recovering from their utter demoralization. The answer is, no doubt, that he did not feel himself strong enough to lay siege to Vienna, without covering his rear and securing his base of supplies. He had always, like the good general he was, been careful to keep open a possible line of retreat. For the moment he was indeed irresistible. At Merseburg two thousand Imperialists were cut to pieces. Cities opened their gates to receive him. The Protestant population, in their ecstacy at his victories, were ready to worship him as a demigod. Proceeding southward to Nuremberg and Munich, he was met again by Tilly at the river Lech, where a brief battle was fought; Gustavus was again victorious and Tilly lost his life. This feat of crossing the Lech in the face of a hostile force is by military experts regarded as the greatest strategic feat of Gustavus.

      In the meanwhile the emperor had not been idle. There was but one man whose name was potent enough to summon an army adequate for so perilous a situation; and that man was Albrecht von Wallenstein. He was himself, too, fully aware of his preciousness and the terms which he exacted of Ferdinand were hard, not to say extortionate. Ferdinand II., however, had no choice but to accept them. It was not long before Gustavus became aware that Wallenstein, with an army which seemed to have risen out of the ground, was moving in his rear, resolved, apparently, to cut him off from his communication with Sweden. He had no alternative then but to return northward to face this new enemy. On the field of Lutzen in Saxony they met November 6, 1632. A thick mist covered the battle-field, and both armies tarried with the attack in the hope that it would lift. Toward noon, however, Gustavus made a brief address to his soldiers and knelt in prayer before them, whereupon all sang Luther's hymn, "Our God he is a fortress strong." Then the signal was given for the attack. The army of Gustavus, including his German allies, numbered from twenty to twenty-five thousand, and the Imperialists about thirty thousand. The king, who suffered from an imperfectly healed wound which he had received in the Polish war, found it painful to wear a cuirass; and on the morning of the day of Lutzen refused to put it on. "God is my armor," he said, and mounted his horse.

      It was this sublime confidence in divine Providence which led him perhaps to expose himself overmuch. He led the attack in person. Before the battle was far advanced, a report reached him that his left wing was wavering. With prompt resolution he started across the field, but, mistaking the direction in the fog, found himself in the midst of a detachment of imperial cuirassiers. A pistol shot pierced his arm; but he still pressed on. Growing faint from pain and loss of blood, he turned to one of the German princes who accompanied him and said: "Cousin, lead me out of this tumult; for I am hurt."

      But scarcely had he spoken, when a second shot hit him between the shoulders and he fell from his horse, dead.

      The rumor instantly spread through the Swedish army that the king had been taken prisoner. The troops rushed like an avalanche upon the Imperialists, who wavered and gave way. In the end the victory was claimed by both sides, the advantage remaining however with the Swedes.

      Gustavus Adolphus was a man of handsome appearance, tall of stature, and of most impressive presence. He was hot-tempered; but at the same time kindly, generous, and affable. He possessed all the qualities required of a military leader, and has justly been accounted one of the world's greatest generals. He was thirty-eight years old at the time of his death. Having no son, he was succeeded on the Swedish throne by his daughter Christina.

Privacy Policy
Copyright © 1999-2008 All rights reserved.