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Gustavus II Adolphus, Sweden’s legendary ‘Lion of the North,’ was a master tactician, a fearsome frontline fighter and a successful nation builder.

A 15th century prophecy averred that a series of disasters would end only when a golden lion emerged from the north to defeat the eagle of devastation. Sweden’s King Gustavus Adolphus, with his flowing blond hair and unfailing courage, won the title “Lion of the North” among his countrymen, his allies and his enemies.

—Nils Ahnlund, Gustavus Adolphus the Great

A tactical genius and military innovator, Gustavus II Adolphus was a war captain soldiers could follow with pride. He spoke the languages of his men and was a master of their rhetoric. Powerfully built and standing more than 6 feet tall, he was a warrior as well as a general. Gustavus led from the front and earned a formidable reputation in hand-to-hand combat. To his Swedish troops he became a mythic symbol of the country. To fight under Gustavus—a symbol of armed Protestantism—was to fight under a better man than oneself and draw honor from the service. The king presided over a synthesis of economic and administrative development that made Sweden a model of a well-governed and prosperous society. Long after he died in battle in 1632, the memory of Gustavus endured throughout Europe, in popular folklore and in councils of state.

Sweden, a land whose climate challenged habitation let alone development, was not an obvious candidate for grandeur. On Europe’s northern margin, it rose as a nation only in the first quarter of the 16th century, at the price of destroying a Scandinavian confederation that had stood since 1397. The House of Vasa initially gained the Swedish throne by appealing to the new nation’s merchants and lesser gentry. Gustavus I was proclaimed king in 1523, and his greatest success was the introduction of Lutheranism as the state church. Even this was a top-down process, reflecting royal determination to assert control over a fractious peasantry rather than a grassroots spiritual awakening.

This poor and divided land turned to overseas expansion in the second half of the 16th century as a consequence of Denmark’s continued hostility to Sweden’s independence. Denmark, by virtue of its union with Norway, controlled both sides of the sound connecting the Baltic Sea and Atlantic Ocean, making Swedish commerce with Western Europe painfully vulnerable. The eastern end of the Baltic Sea was another matter: There, a still-amorphous Russia and an increasingly overextended Poland struggled for mastery of a littoral slipping from the fading grip of the Teutonic Order. Sweden’s navy, while not a match for its Danish rival, was exponentially superior to anything farther east. As a result Sweden, like Britain in 18th century India, was able to establish and maintain coastal enclaves indefinitely.

Sweden’s Baltic expansion also involved a dynastic marriage with the Catholic ruling house of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The son of that union, Sigismund III Vasa, ruled both realms until his Catholic principles led to his deposition by cousin Charles (Charles IX) in 1599. Sigismund returned to Poland determined to recover the Swedish half of his inheritance. The resulting war strained to the limit a Swedish army that was still a late feudal/early modern compound of peasant levies and hired professionals. Against Catholic Poles and Orthodox Russians, however, Lutheranism stood alongside plunder as a focus of army morale. And since the Swedes usually fought outnumbered, they cultivated ferocity as a force multiplier. Nevertheless, by the century’s turn Sweden had learned it was easier to acquire a sphere of influence than to profit from it.

Faced with these challenges, Charles IX resolved to prepare his son and heir as both a soldier and an administrator. Gustavus, born in 1594, enjoyed a solid, affectionate relationship with a father who provided training in the uncertain and arcane crafts of kingship. The crown prince combined supervised study of the leading classical and contemporary military and political theorists with heavy doses of practical experience. He grew into a tall, well-built, handsome man—an important point in an era when crowned heads were expected to look and act the part. Useful too was Gustavus’ ability to choose and trust subordinates. The most outstanding of these was Axel Oxenstierna, lord high chancellor of Sweden until his death in 1654, a man as remarkable for caution and imperturbability as was Gustavus for spirit and energy.

Gustavus’ relationship with Ox- enstierna still lay in the future in early 1611, when Sweden found itself at war simultaneously with Poland-Lithuania, Russia and Denmark. In the midst of this turmoil Charles died unexpectedly, and Gustavus, not yet 17, assumed the throne. He spent the next decade putting out foreign and domestic fires, in the process demonstrating the proverbial old head on young shoulders: Gustavus negotiated a peace with Denmark, ended hostilities with Russia and ultimately concluded a truce with Poland-Lithuania. On the domestic front he bargained with his noblemen for a charter that affirmed the right of the Estates—Sweden’s tiered diet of noblemen, clergymen, burghers and peasants —and the royal council to approve any new taxes, and allowed free speech to royal councilors. By swearing to maintain Lutheranism as the state religion, Gustavus gained the firm support of a clergy still uncertain of its place in the Swedish system. The young king succeeded, as no predecessor had, in establishing an emotional link between throne and people; Gustavus boasted he could sleep safely at any hearth in Sweden.

Administrative reform and social stability were for Gustavus means to the wider ends of state security and state aggrandizement. He began overhauling his army by systematizing a domestic conscription system: Each group of 10 able-bodied males from an estate or grouping of farms had to provide one soldier per year, who was paid in still-scarce cash only in wartime. In peacetime the soldier received farm shares in return for his labor. As conscripts were usually stationed in their home districts, and farmers were allowed to deduct soldiers’ shares from rent or taxes, the system worked as long as the “10 percent rule” was maintained.

The system nevertheless strained Sweden’s subsistence economy. Nor could conscription provide enough men to meet the demands of a long-term or large-scale war. The king’s solution was to hire mercenaries, often attracted to Swedish service by the prospects of profit and promotion in the service of a ruler who paid in cash and rewarded performance. Most were German, though there was a significant leavening of men from the British Isles, especially Scots. Gustavus took pains to supervise the training of their junior officers in what was becoming a new way of war.

By the end of the 16th century European battlefields were becoming increasingly gridlocked. Gunpowder weapons had checked maneuverability, but firepower was as yet not sufficient to decide events by itself. The result was to force decision-making into the strategic sphere. Princes and generals sought to win wars by maneuver and attrition—wearing down an enemy by exhausting or destroying his resources. The accompanying problem was the risk of exhausting one’s own capacities instead. Gustavus Adolphus focused on improving the tactical performance of his armies, not as an end in itself, but as a means of achieving his strategic goal of making Sweden a great power.

Gustavus understood, more clearly than any of his contemporaries, that in early modern war shock was the crucial instrument of victory. He understood as well that shock was an element of both fire and movement. His infantry’s basic tactical formation was the brigade, organized in three squadrons, each around 500 men. While exact proportions varied, about two-thirds of the men in a squadron carried matchlock muskets. The rest were pikemen, trained to maneuver with the musketeers.

To improve his infantry’s firepower, Gustavus sought to develop cannon light enough to accompany the brigades directly. Eventually, an infantry squadron included a couple of iron 3-pounder cannon, light enough to be drawn by a single horse or a few men and able to fire eight rounds to the musketeers’ six. The heavier Swedish guns were organized into permanent batteries, enabling previously unknown concentrations of fire against selected targets. Gustavus’ cavalry, by contrast, discarded most of its armor, emphasized the sword over the then-fashionable pistol and was trained to charge at a gallop or a fast trot. What they sacrificed in mass they made up in speed and ferocity. In particular the unnerving war cry of Gustavus’ Finnish cavalry troopers, “Hakkaa päälle!” (“Hack on them!”), meant cold steel and no quarter.

Gustavus’ preferred tactics involved deploying his infantry in relatively extended multiple lines, each of three or four brigades. Cavalry supported by musketeers and artillery formed the army’s wings. The infantry advanced to close quarters, covered by the 3-pounders’ canister, fired one or two salvos, then charged with pikes and musket butts. The cavalry checked or drove back the enemy horse and exploited opportunities created by the other arms. A Swedish army was flexible, able to shift from offense to defense and defense to counterattack. It relied on tight coordination and discipline to throw enemies off balance.

Sweden’s restructured army saw its first extended service against Poland-Lithuania in 1621. Gustavus’ initial aim was to secure Sweden against invasion by occupying the southern shore of the Baltic. The capture of the Livonian port of Riga in September was a harbinger of the future. The fortress that had defied Swedish efforts for years fell to Gustavus in a matter of weeks. By 1626 Livonia (present-day Latvia) as far as the Dvina River was in Swedish hands. That spring a Swedish army landed at Pillau in Pomerania— farther west than any Swedish troops had previously penetrated. By autumn the entire Vistula watershed was under Swedish control, and Swedish firepower and mobility were teaching the Poles expensive tactical lessons.

In 1627 Gustavus took his amphibious warfare show to Danzig (present-day Gda´nsk), defeating the Poles at Dirschau but at the price of a serious neck wound—another harbinger for the future. The next two years featured small-scale campaigning in a region that at the best of times was barely self-supporting. Both sides became correspondingly drawn toward the larger conflict to the west—the Thirty Years’ War, fought mainly between Catholics and Protestants in the Holy Roman Empire.

Though in June 1628 a Swedish task force relieved the besieged Baltic port of Stralsund, Gustavus was becoming aware of his current strategy’s limits. Poland was too big and amorphous to be defeated by the blitzkrieg-style operations at which the Swedish army now excelled. The Baltic coastal area was unable to support large-scale war for any length of time; even in the well-disciplined Swedish army looting and brigandage were becoming problems. As much to the point, Habsburg power was moving dangerously close to a Swedish sphere of influence that was too new to be considered stable. Increasingly, Gustavus turned his thoughts toward intervention in a war that had reached, if not his strategic doorstep, at least his front yard. The Protestants of northern Germany were appealing to him as a deliverer from an imperial hand that grew heavier as opposition waned. The stinging defeat of Denmark by the army of Albrecht von Wallenstein in 1629 was the final step in opening a window of opportunity that would have tempted a far more cautious man than Gustavus Adolphus. In June 1630 he landed in Pomerania at the head of some 13,000 men.

Contemporaries and historians made much of the religious aspects of Swedish intervention, but geopolitics as much as piety shaped the king’s decision. Intervention in Germany provided a chance to establish a network of allies and clients as buffers against both Polish and Habsburg hostility. The German princes, however, were wary of committing themselves to the kind of war the Swedish king had a reputation for fighting. Not until August 1631 did Gustavus feel strong enough, and consider his base secure enough, to advance south. Even then the Swedish king understood he was on trial, expected to deliver a major victory before he could look for systematic support from his Protestant coreligionists.

Seeking a fight, he found it on September 17 near the Saxon town of Breitenfeld. Gustavus fielded 24,000 men, the pick of his own forces, and 18,000 Saxons haphazardly recruited, trained and armed, against a veteran imperial army of about 32,000. The Saxons fled the field at the first shock. The Swedes rallied to protect their suddenly exposed left flank, shot to pieces successive imperial charges, then mounted a series of counterattacks that broke the enemy flanks and the imperial army. At the cost of only 3,500 Swedish casualties, he accounted for as many as 20,000 imperial soldiers and provided a battlefield seminar in the use of firepower and flexibility.

Gustavus followed up his victory by taking the war to the empire’s heartland, driving southwest to the Rhine, picking up recruits and subsidies as he went. In 1632 the king planned to raise more than 200,000 men, organized in no fewer than seven armies, for a coordinated campaign against the Holy Roman Empire and its Catholic supporters. He came nowhere near those numbers—not least because his own German allies were reluctant to see this northern stranger become too strong. As a result Gustavus began the campaigning season of 1632 once again seeking a decisive battle. After a frustrating prelude of skirmishes and sieges, costing men, supplies and time he could ill afford to lose, the Swedish king thrust into Saxony once more, in pursuit of an imperial army whose commander, Wallenstein, was by now no less anxious for battle than Gustavus.

The armies that met at Lützen on November 16 numbered about 20,000 men each. The imperialists had learned something from past experience. Their tactical organizations were more flexible and their firepower greater than at Breitenfeld. The Swedish army, for its part, was worn from campaigning and casualties, its regiments not quite what they had been a year earlier. Add to that the fog that enveloped the field in the engagement’s crucial hours, and Lützen’s results were in good part consequences of chance. The Swedes eked out a victory, but at the price of a third of their force —and of their king, who on this day led one charge too many and was shot from his saddle by Austrian cuirassiers.

Gustavus’ death did not prompt Sweden’s withdrawal from the Thirty Years’ War. It did, however, shatter the spine of the Protestant alliance. The next 16 years of broken-backed fighting left Sweden in possession of enough German territory to make it a Western European power and secure its Baltic hegemony. These successes were achieved, however, at a financial cost that forced the increased sale of crown lands and the exponential growth of taxation. Both policies eroded the royal authority Gustavus had so assiduously cultivated. Both encouraged the continuation of an aggressive foreign policy in an effort to recoup losses. In 1654, only six years after the Peace of Westphalia ended the Thirty Years’ War, Gustavus’ successor Charles X Gustav began a new round of conflicts with Denmark and Poland-Lithuania. The resulting “imperial overstretch” brought Sweden to the edge of collapse within a century, clearing the stage for younger powers—first Russia, then Prussia.

Whether Gustavus would have followed other, more prudent courses had he survived remains unanswerable. What is certain is that his achievements set a stamp upon his state and his age. They established matrices that shaped the behavior of successors: Peter of Russia and Frederick of Prussia both achieved and merited the cognomen “great.” King of Sweden from 1611 to 1632, Gustavus II Adolphus embodies the importance of individual character, personality, ability and will in shaping history.


For further reading Dennis Showalter recommends Gustavus Adolphus and the Rise of Sweden and the two-volume Gustavus Adolphus: A History of Sweden, 1611–1632, both by Michael Roberts.

Originally published in the January 2013 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.