Gustav I Vasa Becomes King of Sweden Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Gustav’s election signaled the beginning of a reign that transformed Sweden from a Danish province to a secondary power in Northern Europe. He recast the administration of Sweden under a nearly absolutist native monarch, created the Lutheran-type reformed Swedish Church, successfully put down several internal rebellions, and fine-tuned Sweden’s alliances with foreign states.

Summary of Event

The death-knell of the Kalmar Union, which had united Denmark, Norway, and Sweden since 1389, began on November 8, 1520. The previous January, King Christian II of Denmark had defeated a Swedish army fighting for its independence, and in November his supporters executed eighty-two leading nobles in what has been called the Bloodbath of Stockholm Stockholm, Bloodbath of (1520) . Gustav I Vasa Pyhy, Konrad von Norman, Georg Petri, Olaus Christian II (king of Denmark) Frederick I (king of Denmark and Norway) Pyhy, Konrad von Norman, Georg Petri, Olaus Dacke, Nils Gustav I Vasa

Gustav I Vasa, a major landowner, became leader of the rebel party (protector), directed a peasant army that swept the Danes from most of Sweden, and was declared regent by the Estates in August of 1521. Aid from the German city of Lübeck allowed the insurgents to drive out some of the remaining Danes in the course of 1523. In March, 1523, the Danish nobles and Church leaders deposed Christian, replacing him with Frederick of Holstein-Gottorp (reigned as Frederick I). The Swedish Estates refused to recognize Frederick as the new monarch and elected Gustav by acclamation on June 6, 1523. His formal coronation was postponed until January 12, 1528, but he acted as monarch from the time of his election.

Gustav’s reign of nearly forty years established Sweden as a major power in northern European political life. Under Danish crown control, the roughly 800,000 Swedes had managed their political lives with three traditional institutions: the annual landsting, the local or regional assembly or county council of free landowners and nobles; the Estates meeting in the National Assembly, the Riksdag, which represented the nobles and towns—in theory the Swedish people—at the national level; and the r �d, a kind of privy council, which advised the monarch on Swedish national affairs. Gustav could not afford to eliminate any of these institutions, but he worked to limit the ability of each to interfere with the exercise of his will.

Local affairs came to be managed by Crown-appointed bailiffs. These men proved key in Gustav’s programs of church resource confiscation and in reporting or tempering local dissent. Gustav diluted the power of the Estates, first, by simply not calling them for fifteen years (1529-1544) and, second, by opening them to the clergy in 1544. He did, however, seek their legitimizing approval on truly major national policy matters, such as introducing church reform (the Diet of V �ster �s, 1527, and Riksdag of 1544) and replacing royal elections with the dynastic principle (the arvförening, or succession pact, of January, 1544). The r �d, made up of high clerics and selected noblemen, continued to advise the king, but, increasingly, he looked for assistance to two foreign-born men, Konrad von Pyhy and Georg Norman.

Pyhy, a knight, doctor of laws, and diplomat from Augsburg, became Gustav’s chancellor in 1538. He quickly replaced the few literate royal servants with a skeletal salaried bureaucracy, and he added a nonfeudal council of government to handle routine administrative decisions. Pyhy fell from favor in the summer of 1543 and died in prison in 1553. Many of his reforms disintegrated, but he left Sweden with a rationalized administrative foundation. His place was taken, in effect, by Georg Norman, who had been directing the latter stages of the Swedish Reformation.

In Gustav’s Sweden, an independent Church was a rival for the kind of sweeping power and authority that he sought. Catholicism;Sweden It was the single largest landholder (about one-fifth of arable land), was untaxable, had a claim to steady revenue, and had accumulated great wealth in gold and silver vessels and decorations, from the urban cathedrals to the parish churches. Its reliance on and loyalty to papal Rome also rankled the king-elect. Though popular anticlericalism existed in Sweden prior to the Reformation, the introduction of Lutheran-type reforms beginning in 1523 was almost purely an exercise of Gustav’s will.

His reliance on German merchants and German merchant states such as Lübeck led him to Lutheranism Lutheranism;Sweden , though for reasons of state rather than conscience. He readily accepted Luther’s emphases on obedience to secular authorities and his definition of the church as the gathering of God’s people, not a supranational organization. He introduced Lutheran ministers in the larger cities, where Germans tended to live, and began imposing vernacular liturgies. He harnessed all Swedish printing presses to the cause of Lutheran literature and propaganda. Printing;Lutheranism Wittenberg-trained churchman Olaus Petri (Olof Petersson) developed most of the Lutheran texts in Sweden, including a handbook of the Swedish Church called Een handbock p � � Swensko (1529; The Manual of Olavus Petri, Manual of Olavus Petri, The (Petri) 1529, 1953) and the Lilla katekes Lilla katekes (Petri) (1536), from the “small catechism” of Martin Luther. He also had printed the first Swedish New Testament (1541).

Like Henry VIII in England, Gustav dispossessed the church of most of its landed property (appropriating much of it as his own), revenues, and even church plate (six and a half tons of silver alone), and declared himself Supreme Defender of the reformed church. Nevertheless, he failed to adopt any official statement of ecclesiastical reorganization, or Church Ordinance. Rather, he left the relationship of church and state officially ambiguous, allowing for himself as much flexibility as possible.

By 1560, the entire beneficed clergy of Sweden was evangelical. Resistance by most bishops was light, as they feared for their positions, but several uprisings seeking Gustav’s overthrow signaled widespread popular discontent. He crushed these uprisings brutally as a warning to others.

Between 1525 and 1534, Sweden saw five major popular rebellions. In the early days, the issue was that of high taxation, Taxation;Sweden primarily, but dissatisfaction with religious policy fuelled later uprisings. The most serious revolt was the Dacke Rebellion in Sm �land (1542) Dacke Rebellion (1542) . Several small northern European states supported this rebellion, forcing Gustav to negotiate with its leader, Nils Dacke, in December. Gustav defeated the rebels on March 20, 1543, and Dacke was slain a short time later. The rebellion, although not a complete success, nevertheless caused Gustav to rethink his harsh ruling style, which he modified for the remainder of his reign.

Internationally, Sweden was a minor player, lacking developed industries and markets; what did exist was largely in German hands in the 1520’. Lübeck’s defeat by Denmark and Sweden (1534-1536) loosened the German grip on the Swedish economy and extinguished Sweden’s debt to the Hanseatic city. Denied a place in the Protestant Schmalkaldic League, Sweden navigated carefully during the Habsburg and Valois struggles.

In September of 1541, Sweden signed the Treaty of Brömsebro, Brömsebro, Treaty of (1541) a fifty-year defensive pact with Denmark, and in the following July arranged an alliance with France. Gustav also created Sweden’s first navy and Europe’s first standing national army, as a hedge against rebellion and foreign attack. He sought to monopolize the movement of Russian goods westward by waging war in 1554, but the attempt failed. He did, however, bolster Sweden’s economy by acting as its biggest capitalist, investing in bar-iron forges, steel production, arms manufacturing, and cloth making.


Sweden had experienced periods of independence (1448-1457, 1464-1465, and 1467-1470, but the establishment of the Vasa Dynasty Vasa Dynasty ensured Swedish autonomy. Gustav himself was a complex figure who ruled Sweden as an absolutist who brooked no opposition. He was a Machiavellian king who ruled like a stern father, dictating all aspects of national life from church to commerce to court manners.

His dim view of his subjects prompted much of his interference, but it also directed his state-building in a way that ensured national autonomy under a powerful monarch with no major sources of internal dissent or opposition.

His alignment with the Lutheran movement kept him on the winning side of northern European political struggles and gave him legitimate control over the Swedish Church. His reign, however controversial, was vital for establishing and maintaining Swedish independence and power in the sixteenth century and beyond.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kirby, David. Northern Europe in the Early Modern Period: The Baltic World, 1492-1772. New York: Longman, 1990. A concise source that places Swedish history under the Vasas in the context of the history of the Baltic region.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Moberg, Vilhelm. A History of the Swedish People: From Renaissance to Revolution. Translated by Paul Britten Austin. New York: Dorset Press, 1989. In his chapter on Gustav “the tyrant,” Moberg emphasizes the absolutist tendencies of Gustav’s reign and their adverse impact on common Swedes.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ozment, Stephen B. Protestants: The Birth of a Revolution. New York: Doubleday, 1992. The best up-to-date interpretation of the Reformation and the religious wars of the period.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Petri, Olavus. The Manual of Olavus Petri, 1529. Edited by Eric E. Yelverton. London: S. P. C. K., for the Church Historical Society, 1953. A translation of Petri’s handbook of the Swedish Church.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Roberts, Michael. The Early Vasas: A History of Sweden, 1523-1611. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986. Presents a detailed, balanced, scholarly, and altogether positive view of Gustav’s reign.

Oct. 31, 1517: Luther Posts His Ninety-five Theses

Feb. 27, 1531: Formation of the Schmalkaldic League

Mar., 1536: Calvin Publishes Institutes of the Christian Religion

Sept. 25, 1555: Peace of Augsburg

Categories: History