The Swedish Empire

The little known story of Sweden's military empire.

Based on information from my Swedish friend.

The period when Sweden reached the peak of its military, cultural and economic power in Europe began when Gustav II Adolf was crowned king in 1611, and ended with the demise of Karl XII and the end of his reign in 1718. The Swedish king Gustav Vasa also pushed and mobilised Sweden to support warlike activity which was a large contributing factor.

Factors that contributed to Sweden's rise to eminence:

  • Tax reforms: This was partly to pay off Lubeck debt and strengthened Sweden’s economy by giving the government more money to dispose of as they saw fit.
  • Building factories: scaling up Sweden's industrial might and ensuring efficiency to mass produce goods on a far larger scale at a much lower cost.
  • Reforming the army: Sweden’s army consisted of hired soldiers making it very expensive so instead he created a national army making soldiers out of young men.
  • Supplying the army with resources from conquered land: the objective was to supply the army with food and supplies from the farmers of occupied lands - lowering the upkeep cost of maintaining and mobilising a large military.
  • Fundamentally altering how a new King was crowned: Gustav Vasa created a constitution stating that according to law the throne was to be inherited from father to the oldest son.
  • Silver: Large deposits of silver were found, extracted and refined together with other natural resources.
  • Increased exports of iron and copper which boosted the Swedish economy.
  • Population growth: giving the army more soldiers, the factories more workers, and maintaining optimum peasant population numbers. With Sweden’s new found wealth they could all be supported.
  • Tax reduction for farmers in exchange for armed men.
  • Becoming protestants: during the Reformation much of the Church's funds went to the State and the church was now subordinate to the State.
  • Dividing Sweden into a series of easily governed provinces; the kingdom was now far easier to control and gather taxes from.
  • Also nobles now had a clearly defined area to control making it easier for the king to gather information and resources as required.
  • All villages were required to contribute a certain number of soldiers annually.
  • Universities: tertiary education was developed during this time giving Sweden its first universities - contributing to engineers, boat builders, strategists among others.

Factors which contributed to the end of the Swedish empire:

When Karl XII inherited the throne in the late 1600s the occupied countries made a push to reclaim their territories previously lost in battle, and so began the Great Northern War. The kings father Karl XI had left behind a well organised army; the Swedish military consisted of well-trained soldiers. Denmark quickly pulled out of the war after signing a peace treaty (the peace of Traventhal) and Sweden won a victory against Russia at Narva. Karl XII decided to successfully invade Poland. Drunk on his victories the Swedish king made the daring decision to attack Russia. He had calculated the size of the Russian army and their resources but did not account for the size and climate of the country. As the Swedish marched through Russia the Russians adopted a scorched earth policy; all residents in the area left their homes, setting the area alight leaving no resources or shelter for the Swedish army. Constant attacks from the Cossacks Russian peasants and warriors had the army suffering great losses at this fragile stage; when the Russian winter came it hit the Swedish army hard. Soon Russia had amassed a large, well fed force. Karl XII's attempt to occupy Russia ended with the Swedish army retreating from battle, while the Russians maintained control of their homeland. Sweden suffered a loss of more than 300 officers and 6600 soldiers - nearly 2800 soldiers was now prisoners of Tsar Peter I. The Swedish prisoners were put to work constructing the Russian city of St. Petersburg.

Karl XII and his remaining force of about 1500 veterans marched south to the Ottoman Empire (tody’s Moldavia). A skilled diplomat, Karl XII convinced the Ottoman empire to enter an alliance against Russia. It was a clever tactic and increased Sweden’s chances of success remarkably. Two superpowers could now attack the enemy from several flanks and together they had the resources to defeat the ever growing and increasingly powerful Russia.

Karl XII stayed abroad until 1714 - when he was forced to return home due to domestic trouble in his homeland. He returned home with half of the soldiers he had left with. Back in Sweden Karl XII decided to attack Norway but failed due to unexpectedly strong Norwegian resistance. When Karl was shot in Fredrikshald in 1718 Sweden's short reign as the mightiest military in Europe was over. The war fund was distributed to the remaining army, who returned to Sweden. When Karl passed away the empire became too large to defend with Sweden's available resources and capabilities; Sweden has a geographical disadvantage with huge boundaries which are hard to defend. To ensure peace the Swedes gave up almost all the territory they had gained in the last hundred years. Only Bohuslän, Halland, Skåne, Blekinge and some parts of Pomerania remained Swedish.

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