Gustavus Adolphus, the Lion from the North

By Michael Fredholm von Essen

When in July 1630, King Gustavus Adolphus and the Swedish field army landed at Peenemünde in northern Germany, they were greeted as the saviours of the beleaguered German Protestants. Gustavus Adolphus himself was immortalised as the Lion from the North. Soon, his supporters built a personality cult around his person. The process, which got underway already in his lifetime, continued, even more so, after his death. However, there is no doubt that Gustavus Adolphus was a truly charismatic ruler. Many contemporary eyewitnesses have given evidence that he was well liked, even admired, by most of those who met him, whether nobles or commoners. There were reasons for this. Highly educated in both the sciences and humanities, Gustavus Adolphus was also well versed in several languages. In addition to Swedish, German, and probably some Finnish (the three predominant languages of the Swedish kingdom), he spoke Latin, Italian, French, and Dutch. He understood Spanish, English, and Scots, and knew some Polish and Russian. He was trained in philosophy and jurisprudence. But even more, Gustavus Adolphus was likeable. He was friendly, co-operative, and would listen to opinions and advice. He had a sense of humour, made jokes, and enjoyed social events such as banquets and dances.

Yet, all these positive characteristics were not what made him a charismatic leader of men. To learn what drove Gustavus Adolphus as a commander, we must turn to his own writings, which seems never before to have been translated into English. In the uncompleted book On the Duties of Soldiers, Gustavus Adolphus explains what he expected of his commanders. We can assume that this also described what he expected of himself. Gustavus Adolphus listed the characteristics of a good commander as ‘virtue, knowledge, caution, authority, and luck’. He wanted leaders who in clear conscience could tell their men that ‘I want you to follow not only my instructions and orders but also my example’. To avoid empty words, Gustavus Adolphus succinctly defined what he meant by a commander’s virtue: ‘I demand of him virtue in the form of honesty in his daily life, vigour and industriousness in his duties, bravery in danger, diligence in his work, and speed in fulfilment’. But, Gustavus Adolphus reminded the reader, knowledge of military science was required, too. This could be acquired in two ways, he explained, either through study or experience. He held study the safer method, since it enabled the student to gain knowledge through the fortune and misfortune of others, instead of having to live through all these risks himself. Besides, modern science was required to plan camps and build fortifications.

Gustavus Adolphus lived as he taught. In war, he led from the front, sharing the labours and risks of his men. During the siege of Riga in 1621 and again at the landing in Germany in 1630, Gustavus Adolphus himself, spade in hand, took part in the physical labour to erect field fortifications.

Gustavus Adolphus inherited the Swedish throne in 1611, at age 16. Earlier in the same year, the Danes invaded Sweden in what became known as the Kalmar War. Soon Gustavus Adolphus had to shoulder military command. At the same time, Sweden was also still at war with the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The reason was dynastic. Polish King Sigismund was Gustavus Adolphus’s cousin and, moreover, represented the elder line of the Swedish royal house of Vasa. Sigismund still laid claim to the Swedish throne. Moreover, in the very same year, war also broke out with Muscovy, with which Sweden shared a common border in the northeast. When Gustavus Adolphus landed in Germany 19 years later, he already had a record as a successful commander in the north and east. The question was, how would he fare against the powerful Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation, as its full name went, and Spain, the other powerful Habsburg possession, with its global empire?

Is there anything new to be said about Gustavus Adolphus and the Swedish army in the Thirty Years’ War? There is indeed a wealth of contemporary information already published in books such as The Swedish Intelligencer, The Swedish Discipline, and Colonel Robert Monro’s regimental history Monro, His Expedition with the Worthy Scots Regiment. In other European languages, there is Le soldat svedois, a contemporary history of the war compiled by Friedrich Spanheim the Elder, which was published in French, Italian, and German. In German, we also have Bogislaff Philip von Chemnitz’s Königlichen Schwedischen in Teutschland geführten Kriegs, which was the official Swedish history of the war, and the multi-volume Theatrum Europaeum, a chronicle of events in Europe in the period 1618-1718 by the publisher Merian in Frankfurt-am-Main, which provides numerous details and illustrations. There are also two military manuals in German which describe the Swedish model of war: Lorentz von Troupitzen’s Kriegs Kunst and Wendelin Schildknecht’s Harmonia in fortalitiis construendis, defendendis & oppugnandis, both of which describe the doctrine introduced by Gustavus Adolphus. Having said this, sources such as The Swedish Intelligencer, Le soldat svedois, and Theatrum Europaeum are compilations of newsletters and propaganda, for which reason they cannot always be taken at face value. Even Monro, who was an officer in the Swedish army, and Chemnitz, who was the official Swedish historian, used such materials to describe events of which they had no personal knowledge. Their information must accordingly be assessed with care when used as sources. As for the prints of battles in the Theatrum Europaeum, due to artistic license they were regarded as unreliable sources even by contemporaries.

A key modern reference work to the wars of Gustavus Adolphus is the multi-volume Sveriges krig 1611-1632 by the Swedish General Staff, published in Swedish in 1936-1939. This work contains many valuable archive documents relating to the Swedish army under Gustavus Adolphus and is reliable in its use of official records including orders of battle, casualty lists, and logistical inventories. However, its conclusions on tactics and strategy cannot always be taken for granted due to bias in favour of Gustavus Adolphus and extrapolation from developments which took place much later. For instance, the prominent military historian Hans Delbrück greatly influenced the historians of the Swedish General Staff, and a major thread in Delbrück’s work was the choice between strategies of annihilation and attrition. Delbrück argued that a strategy of annihilation stands in opposition to a strategy of attrition. Since prevalent Swedish military thinking in the first half of the twentieth century considered the strategy of annihilation as superior, the General Staff authors wanted to show that Gustavus Adolphus must have followed such a strategy – which he generally did not.

It is far more interesting to analyse the organisational model and tactical doctrine which Gustavus Adolphus actually introduced, since it strongly influenced the western way of warfare. The Swedish model of warfare was copied by most west and north European militaries, including Sweden’s opponents. Muscovy based its entire set of new formation regiments on the Swedish pattern. Moreover, the Swedish model laid the foundation for subsequent improvements in British infantry and French cavalry tactics. In addition, the Swedish regimental artillery was copied by many countries, including France, the Holy Roman Empire, and Muscovy. Swedish historians seldom looked into the broader developments, and most researchers elsewhere did not take the earlier wars of Gustavus Adolphus into account, since their focus lay on the short period from 1630 to 1632. In short, despite centuries of research, much remains to be learned about Gustavus Adolphus and the Swedish army in the Thirty Years’ War. This is why I set out to write The Lion from the North: The Swedish Army during the Thirty Years War, now published by Helion. You can buy Volume One now here.

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