Svenska. En francais. In italiano In italiano.

The Royal Ship Vasa

'Next to God the welfare of the nation depends on its navy' - Gustav II Adolf.

The Royal Warship Vasa capsized on her maiden voyage in August 1628 and never once fired her guns at the enemy. Raised in 1961 the Vasa is the only well preserved 17th century warship in the world. She has her own museum in Stockholm, Sweden.

I start of by telling about the sons of the 16th century King Gustav Vasa . Gustav Vasa created the modern nation-state Sweden. There is also the story of Gustav II Adolf, grandson of Gustav Vasa.
You may also read about early 17th century Stockholm. Then follows an article about the Vasa, containing various information about the ship, the disaster in 1628 and her raising in 1961. Finally there is the story of the Vasa´s many sculptures and their hidden meaning. There is a lot to be learned from studying the decorations of the Vasa. The many sculptures adorning the ship are expressions of various ideas and beliefs of that age. Facts about the swedish King Gustav II Adolf, King of Sweden at the time of Vasa´s building, are abundant when learning about the sculptures.


Sweden from Erik XIV until the Thirty Years War.
A short description of Stockholm around 1628
The Royal Ship Vasa.
The sculptures of the Vasa.

Take the time to sign my guestbook.

Sign the guestbook.  Read the guestbook.

A few links to other sites about the Vasa:

Dottie Mayol's essay about the Vasa.
An american page about the Royal Ship Vasa.
Visit the Vasa Museum.

I wish to thank my friend Hervé of France for his tremendous work translating this site into french. I also wish to thank Arnaldo Mancini for his fantastic translation of this site to italian.
Last update: july- 2007 italian translation.


Sweden from Erik XIV until The Thirty Years War.

The sons of Gustav Vasa.

Sweden in the late 16th century was a larger country than it is today. Most of what is now Finland was a part of the nation. Parts of modern day southern Sweden belonged to Denmark. Gustav Vasa, founder of the swedish nation-state, died in 1560 and his oldest son Erik XIV ascended the swedish throne. The two other sons of the King, Johan and Karl, were given great areas of land within Sweden. Erik was a typical Renaissance King, highly educated and with many varied interests. He was well acquainted with the learnings of Machiavelli and believed that the swedish Kings had descended from the Goths. This 'gothic myth' originated from swedish archbishop Johannes Magnus' book on swedish history. According to him the swedish Kings could trace their ancestry in a non-broken line all the way back to Noah's grandson Magog.

Erik kept a french/italian court according to contemporary fashion. In foreign policy Erik tried to create a Baltic Empire in which Sweden would be able to control the profitable trade. The german Orden had dissolved and left a vacuum of power in the area. Sweden tried to take advantage of the situation. In 1561 Erik conquered Estonia. Then the 'Nordic Seven Year War' started. Sweden´s main rival in the baltic area, Denmark, was the main opponent. The Swedes were also at war with Poland and the Hanseatic city of Lübeck. The Danes didn´t want a strong swedish presence in the Baltic Sea. Poland´s reason for participating in the war was that the polish King claimed to be the rightful King of Sweden. The tide of the war swept back and forth and towards the end Erik fell mentally ill. Erik´s brothers allied themselves with the Nobility and overthrew the King.

Johan, the Duke of Finland and another of Gustav Vasa´s sons became Sweden´s new King. The year was 1569. Erik and Johan had in the past had serious disagreements when Erik strengthened the power of the Crown at the expense of the Nobility. Peace was made first with Poland and then with Denmark in 1570. The mighty fortress Älvsborg, taken by the Danes was bought back at the cost of 150000 rixdollars. For Lübeck the war meant the end of its and the Hanseatic League´s power.

Erik spent the rest of his life imprisoned and Duke Johan was crowned as King Johan III. The new King made peace with the Danes, as mentioned, in 1570 and was thereafter able to concentrate himself on another of Sweden´s enemies, namely Russia. Ivan the Terrible attacked Sweden 1572 but the Swedes were able to fend them off and keep possession of the newly gained Estonia. Not only that, they took parts of Ingermanland, a historical province, now a part of Russia south of the Gulf of Finland. Johan was a catholic(Sweden was protestant) and attempted to introduce a new liturgical order, the so-called 'Red book'. His wife Katarina Jagellonica was the sister of Sigismund August, King of Poland, a catholic country. Johan´s preference for catholicism led him on collision course with his brother Duke Karl, the third of Gustav Vasa´s sons. Karl was a calvinist.

In 1587 Johan succeeded in getting his son Sigismund elected King of Poland. Johan himself had tried to become King of Poland but had been unsuccessfull. Johan had a strong personality and there are stories of him hitting furniture with a silver hammer when aggravated. He was interested in theology and architecture. Johan commenced the construction of several important castles in Sweden. Among these were the castles in Uppsala, Kalmar and Vadstena. In 1592 Johan died and Sigismund succeeded to the throne. Duke Karl, the youngest of the three brothers, became Sweden´s Regent. Karl wielded the power and in all but title it was he who was now King of Sweden.

After the coronation Sigismund returned to Poland. Karl allied with the commoners against Sigismund and started a rebellion against him. Karl vanquished Sigismund at Stångebro in 1598. The following year Sigismund was dethroned and Karl then dealt with the Nobles who had lent Sigismund their support. They were executed at the "Bloodbath of Linköping".

Gustav II Adolf becomes King.

Karl was not formally crowned King of Sweden, as Karl IX, until 1607. Karl was a superb administrator and had earlier governed his Duchy as a sovereign nation within the nation. He now set to reform the administration of the country and to stimulate parts of the swedish industy such as the mining industry. Abroad Sweden continued to fight the Poles in order to keep the newly won Baltic provinces. With Karl IX at the rudder, Sweden was becoming a major power in Europe. Karl IX was not King for long, in 1611 he passed away and his 17-year old son Gustav became King, named Gustav II Adolf or Gustavus Adolphus as he is also known. At the time Sweden was at war with both Russia and Poland. Soon after his coronation Denmark joined Sweden´s opponents when their King Kristian IV attacked the Swedes. In Sweden this war is called "The war of Kalmar." The Danes managed to capture several swedish strongholds. Among them was the castle of Kalmar.

Sweden and Denmark had been at each others throats for a long time, fighting over what is now southern Sweden. Finally there was peace in 1613 between Danes and Swedes. Sweden had to pay the astronomical sum of one million rixdollars for the fortress of Älvsborg. There was an armistice with Poland in 1614 and at last, 1617, peace was made with Russia. Sweden won the entire province of Ingermanland and a part of Karelen, a finnish province. Then the war against Poland continued. The Swedes tried to stop polish trade with western Europe. Sweden conquered Riga and large parts of the province Livland, which roughly corresponds with modern-day Latvia. Several prussian cities also fell to the Swedes.

Before the war with Poland, Gustav II Adolf had reformed the swedish army creating smaller more effective units, equipped with light artillery. Obviously this reform helped the Swedes in their wars abroad later on. Read more about this further down this page Regarding the domestic politics in Sweden the state administration was greatly reformed and the power of the Counsel, which balanced the King´s power, was increased. A number of new government offices and tribunals were introduced.

Gustav II Adolf
Gustav II Adolf

Sweden intervenes in The Thirty Years War.

Sweden still had little trade and was not a rich country. In the years ahead this was to change, but in the early 17th century Sweden remained a poor country in the outskirts of Europe. The newly won provinces in the east were vital sources of income for the state and their defence was considered top priority. They were a main consideration when Sweden entered the Thirty Years War. The lure of riches must have influenced the Nobility´s willingness to participate in the war. The Thirty Years War, a terrible war that devestated Germany, had started back in 1618. The antagonists being mainly catholic countries pitted against protestant nations. The reasons for the war were both religious and economical. Sweden was protestant and wanted to protect the northern parts of protestant Germany with its many principalities against the German-Roman Emperor in south Germany.

The Emperor was catholic. Trade policy, the need to protect swedish ports and commerce in general, was however the main reason for Sweden´s intervention. If the Emperor were allowed to take over northern Germany, then swedish interests would be threatened. Emperor Ferdinand had already defeated protestant Denmark. The Emperor´s general Wallenstein who had led the invasion of Denmark had plans to build a fleet of warships in the Baltic Sea. When word of this reached Sweden it made Gustav II Adolf spring into action. He tried to gain allies in northern Germany and made propaganda for himself as 'The Lion from the North'. Gustav Adolf landed with his army in Pomerania 1630. Allied with the Saxons their combined army won a victory over an Imperial army led by Tilly at Breitenfeld 1631.

After this Gustav II Adolf became the leader of the protestants resisting the Emperor. The war had previously gone the Emperor´s way but now the tide had turned. Gustav II Adolf marched south toward the main lands of the Emperor. A year later he was killed in the battle of Lützen. The Swedes were halted.

An important reason for the swedish victories was the King's new fighting formations known as 'brigades'. They were smaller and more dynamic than the earlier large box-shaped formations known as 'tercios'. The problem with this 'spanish' technique, the tercio, was that the soldiers in the middle of the boxes were unable to contribute to the battle, the musketeers in the center couldn't fire their guns. The tercio was intended to 'grind the enemy asunder'. Using the brigade formation, all the musketeers could fire at the same time. After they had fired their rounds the pikesmen advanced and attacked, retreating when the musketeers had reloaded their arms. The brigades also employed light artillery. The flanks were protected by light cavalry armed with swords. The enemy cavalry opposing them were heavily armoured and therefore much slower on the battlefield.

Sweden had now established itself as a major power in Europe. After the King´s death the Emperor managed to gain some ground. France, indirectly Sweden´s ally in the war, having helped the protestants financially, now sent military forces to help the protestants. In the end, the Emperor was forced to sign a peace treaty. The year was 1648. France and Sweden were now major powers. Germany had suffered greatly during the war and was devestated. Germany remained a country of many independent principalities. Sweden won new strips of land along the coast of northern Germany, where important ports with a flourishing trade were located. Many Nobles won great riches during the war and built castles back home. This is why so many castles were built in Sweden during this time. Back in Sweden, Kristina, Gustav Adolf´s only child was just six years old when her father died and a Regency led by the famous Axel Oxenstierna had to govern the country.

A short description of Stockholm around 1628.

When Vasa was launched in 1628 Sweden was a poor country. This was evident in the capital, Stockholm. The city was not exactly a rich and bustling metropolis. The population only amounted to ten thousand. During autumn and spring a fair number of sailors and soldiers lived in the city and the population would rise to about twice the normal. Stockholm was a dangerous city to live in, mortality was very high and fires frequently raged. The central part of Stockholm was Gamla Stan, the "Old Town". It was called Stadsholmen in those days. This was where the city´s trade was conducted. Naturally, many traders lived in that area. Germans made up a large portion of the traders.

Here is a map of Stockholm from 1640.

The Royal Castle seen today in Stockholm had not yet been built, the old castle Tre Kronor, "Three Crowns", lay precisely where the new castle is located in Old Town. Tre Kronor burned down in 1697.

Tre Kronor from the south
Tre Kronor - painting from 1661

A model of Tre Kronor which shows the entire castle from the south.

Tollgates were located at the northern and southern end of Stadsholmen. The tiny island just west of Old Town, Riddarholmen, was then called Gråmunkeholmen, meaning "small island of the Grey Monks". An abbey had earlier been in function there, that´s the reason for the name. Within the walls of the old abbey was now the first orphanage in Stockholm. What is now called Skeppsholmen(meaning "islet of ships"), a small island east of Old Town, was then known as Lustholmen. The royal kitchen garden was to be found here. The large island south of Old Town, Södermalm, was sparsely populated by townsmen and still quite rural.

North of the Old Town lies Norrmalm where there used to be a high ridge. On both sides of the ridge were wooden houses. This area was called Norre Förstaden, it was a suburb, an independant city actually. The swedish war industry occupied most of this area. Located just south of Norrmalm was the island Blasieholmen. It was then called Käpplingeholmen, or Skeppsholmen("islet of ships"). This island is now a part of Norrmalm and is no longer an island. This island is famous for being the location of Stockholm´s Royal Shipyard. The Vasa was built there.

Back to the top

Next page

This "The History Ring" site is owned by
Johan Avard.

Want to join the The History Ring?

Graphics created by Stilicho

[Skip Prev] [>Prev] [Next] [Skip Next] [Random] [Next 5] [List Sites]