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Gustav II Adolf (19 December 1594 – 6 November 1632, O.S.), widely known in English by the Latinized name Gustavus Adolphus and variously in historical writings sometimes as simply just Gustavus, or Gustavus the Great, or Gustav Adolf the Great, ( , from the special distinction passed by the Swedishmarker Parliament in 1634), was founder of the Swedish Empire (or Stormaktstiden "the era of great power") at the beginning of what is widely regarded as the Golden Age of Sweden.

In the era, which was characterized by nearly endless warfare, he led his armies as King of Sweden—from 1611, as a seventeen year old, until his death in battle while leading a charge during 1632 in the bloody Thirty Years' war—as Sweden rose from the status as a mere regional power and run-of-the-mill kingdom to one of the great powers of Europe and a model of early modern era government. Sweden expanded to become the third biggest nation in Europe after Russia and Spain within only a few years during his reign. Some have called him the "father of modern warfare", or the first great modern general. Under his tutelage, Sweden and the Protestant cause developed a host of good generals, Lennart Torstenson for example who won the second battle of Breitenfeld, who continued to expand the empire's strength and influence long after his death in battle.

He was known by the epithets "The Golden King" and "The Lion of the North" by neighboring sovereigns. Gustavus Adolphus is today commemorated by city squares in Stockholmmarker, Gothenburgmarker, Malmömarker and Sundsvallmarker. Gustavus Adolphus Collegemarker, a Lutheran college in St. Peter, Minnesotamarker, is also named for the Swedish king.


Gustavus Adolphus was born in Stockholmmarker as the oldest son of Duke Charles of the Vasa dynasty and his second wife, Christina of Holstein-Gottorp. At the time the King of Sweden was Gustavus Adolphus' cousin Sigismund. The staunch Protestant Duke Charles forced the Catholic King to let go of the throne of Sweden in 1599, a part of the preliminary religious strife before the Thirty Years' War, and reigned as regent before taking the throne as Charles IX of Sweden in 1604. Upon his father's death in , a seventeen year-old Gustavus inherited the throne as well as an ongoing succession of occasionally belligerent dynastic disputes with his Polish cousin. Sigismund III wanted to regain the throne of Sweden and tried to force Gustavus Adolphus to renounce the title.

In a round of this dynastic dispute, Gustavus invaded Livonia when he was , beginning the Polish-Swedish War . He intervened on behalf of the Lutherans in Germany, who opened the gates to their cities to him. His reign became famous from his actions a few years later when on June 1630 he landed in Germany, continuing Sweden's involvement in the ongoing Thirty Years' War. Gustavus intervened on the anti-Imperial side, which at the time was losing to the Holy Roman Empire and its Catholic allies; the Swedish forces would quickly reverse that situation.

Gustavus was married to Maria Eleonora of Brandenburg, the daughter of John Sigismund, Elector of Brandenburg, and chose the Prussian city of Elbingmarker as the base for his operations in Germanymarker. He died in the Battle of Lützenmarker in 1632. His early death was a great loss to the Lutheran side. This resulted in large parts of Germany and other countries, which for a large part had become Lutheran, to be returned to Catholicism (via Counter-Reformation). His involvement in the Thirty Years' War gave rise to the old prophecy that he was the incarnation of "the Lion of the North", or as it is called in German "Der Löwe von Mitternacht" (Literally: "The Lion of Midnight").

Legacy as a general

Gustavus Adolphus was known as an able military commander. His innovative tactical integration of infantry, cavalry, artillery and logistics earned him the title of the "Father of Modern Warfare". Future commanders who studied and admired Gustav II Adolf include Napoleon I of France and Carl von Clausewitz. His advancements in military science made Sweden the dominant Baltic power for the next one hundred years (see Swedish Empire). He is also the only Swedish monarch to be styled "the Great". This decision was made by the Swedish Estates of the Realm, when they convened in 1633. Thus, by their decision he is officially, to this day, to be called Gustaf Adolf the Great (Gustavus Adolphus Magnus).

Gustavus Adolphus was the main figure responsible for the success of Sweden during the Thirty Years' War and led his nation to great prestige. As a general, Gustavus Adolphus is famous for employing mobile artillery on the battlefield, as well as very aggressive tactics, where attack was stressed over defense, and mobility and cavalry initiative were emphasized.

Among other innovations, he installed an early form of combined arms in his formations, where the cavalry could attack from the safety of an infantry line reinforced by cannon, and retire again within to regroup after their foray. He adopted much shallower infantry formations than were common in the pike and shot armies of the era, with formations typically fighting in 5 or 6 ranks, occasionally supported at some distance by another such formation—the gaps being the provinces of the artillery and cavalry as noted above. His artillery were themselves different—he would not let himself be hindered by cumbersome heavy cannon, but instead over a course of experimentation settled on smaller, more maneuverable weapons, in effect fielding the first light field artillery in history in any significant ratios.

These were grouped in batteries supporting his more linearly deployed formations, replacing the cumbersome and unmaneuverable traditional deep squares (such as the Spanish Tercios that were up to 50 ranks deep) used in other pike and shot armies of the day. In consequence, his forces could redeploy and reconfigure extremely rapidly, confounding his enemies.

His armies were very well trained for the day, so that his musketeers were widely known for their firing accuracy and reload speed: three times faster than any contemporary rivals. Carl von Clausewitz and Napoleon Bonaparte considered him one of the greatest generals of all time; a sentiment agreed with by Patton and others. He was also renowned for the consistency of purpose and the amity of his troops—no one part of his armies was considered better or received preferred treatment, as was common in other armies where the cavalry were the elite, followed by the artillery, and both disdained the lowly infantry. In Gustavus' army the units were extensively cross trained. Both cavalry and infantry could service the artillery, as his heavy cavalry did when turning captured artillery on the opposing Catholic Tercios at First Breitenfeldmarker. Pikemen could shoot—if not as accurately as those designated musketeers—so a valuable firearm could be kept in the firing line. His infantrymen and gunners were taught to ride, if needed. Napoleon thought highly of the achievement, and copied the tactics.

Military commander

Gustavus Adolphus inherited three wars from his father when he ascended the throne: Against Denmark, which had attacked Sweden earlier in 1611, against Russia, due to Sweden having tried to take advantage of the Russian Time of Troubles, and against Poland, due to King Charles' having deposed King Sigismund III.

The war against Denmark was concluded in 1613 with a peace that did not cost Sweden any territory, but it was forced to pay a heavy indemnity to Denmark. The war against Russia ended in 1617 with the victorious the Peace of Stolbova, which excluded Russia from the Baltic Sea. The final inherited war, the war against Poland, ended in 1629 with the Armastice of Altmark which transferred the large province Livonia to Sweden. At that time, Gustavus Adolphus' focus had moved on to the Protestants' troubled situation in war-torn Germany.

In his first military action when a new king, he attacked eastern Denmark (now southern Sweden) and let his soldiers plunder towns and villages as was customary in contemporary warfare, but later strictly prohibited in his campaigns. His memory in Scania has been negative because of that, though Denmark including Scania was Protestant at the time and the King's anti-Catholic policy was one of the reasons that led him across the Baltic Sea.

When Gustavus Adolphus began his push into northern Germanymarker in June-July 1630, he had just 4,000 troops. But he was soon able to consolidate the Protestant position in the north, using reinforcements from Sweden and money supplied by France. Meanwhile, a Catholic army under Tilly was laying waste to Saxonymarker. Gustavus Adolphus met Tilly's army and crushed it at the First Battle of Breitenfeldmarker in September 1631, in spite of the collapse of his Saxon allies. He then marched clear across Germany, establishing his winter quarters near The Rine, making plans for the invasion of the rest of the Holy Roman Empire.

In March 1632, Gustavus Adolphus invaded Bavariamarker, a staunch ally of the Emperor. He forced the withdrawal of his Catholic opponents at the Battle of Rain. This would mark the high point of the campaign. In the summer of that year, he sought a political solution that would preserve the existing structure of states in Germany, while guaranteeing the security of its Protestants. But achieving these objectives depended on his continued success on the battlefield.

Gustavus is reported to have entered battle without wearing any armor, proclaiming, "The Lord God, is my armor!" It is more likely that he simply wore a leather cuirass rather than going into battle wearing no battle protection whatsoever. In 1627, near Dirschau in Prussia, a Polish soldier shot him in the muscles above his shoulders. He survived, but the doctors could not remove the bullet, so from that point on he could not wear an iron armor. Also two fingers of his right hand were paralyzed (see, for example, Tauno Kuosa, "Everyman's Finnish History II: Hundred Warlike Years" / Jokamiehen Suomen historia II. Sata sotaista vuotta. Helsinki: Werner Söderström Publishing Ltd., 1963).

Gustavus Adolphus was killed at the Battle of Lützenmarker, when, at a crucial point in the battle, he became separated from his troops while leading a cavalry charge into a dense smog of mist and gunpowder smoke. After his death, his wife initially kept his body, and later his heart, in the castle of Nyköping for over a year. His remains (including his heart) now rest in Riddarholmskyrkanmarker in Stockholm.

In February 1633, following the death of the king, the Swedish Riksdag of the Estates decided that his name would be styled Gustav Adolf the Great (or Gustaf Adolf den Store in Swedish). No such honor has been bestowed on any other Swedish monarch before or since.

The crown of Sweden was inherited in the Vasa family, and from Charles IX's time excluded those Vasa princes who had been traitors or descended from deposed monarchs. Gustavus Adolphus' younger brother had died ten years before, and therefore there were only the King's daughter left as a female heir. Maria Eleonora and the king's ministers took over the government on behalf of Gustavus Adolphus' underage daughter Christina upon her father's death. He left one other known child, his illegitimate son Gustav, Count of Vasaborg.

Alternative views

The German Socialist Franz Mehring (1846–1919) wrote a biography of Gustavus Adolphus with a Marxist perspective on the actions of the Swedish king during the Thirty Years' War. In it, he makes a case that the war was fought over economics and trade rather than religion.

In his book "Ofredsår" ("Years of Warfare"), the Swedish historian and author Peter Englund argues that there was probably no single all-important reason for the king's decision to go to war. Instead, it was likely a combination of religious, security, as well as economic considerations.


Gustav II Adolf's success in making Sweden one of the top nations in Europe, and perhaps the most important nation in the Thirty Years' War along with France and Spain , was not only due to military brilliance but large changes in the Swedish system of government. For example, he introduced the first Parish registrations, so the central government could keep track on the population across the kingdom.


  • July 1626. Gustavus Adolphus and his army disembark at Pillaumarker, Prussia, during the Polish–Swedish War .
  • 18 August 1627. The King is seriously wounded in the battle of Dirschau (Tczewmarker).
  • June 1629 his troops meet up with imperial troops under Hans Georg von Arnim-Boitzenburg, who used to serve under Gustav Adolph, and is ordered by emperor Ferdinand to aid Sigismund III.
  • May 1630 and 6 July Gustav Adolph lands in Germanymarker.
  • September 1631. At the Battle of Breitenfeldmarker, Gustavus Adolphus decisively defeats the Catholic forces led by Tilly, even after the allied Protestant Saxon army had been routed and fled with the baggage train.
  • April 1632. At the Battle of Lech, Gustavus Adolphus defeats Tilly once more, and in the battle Tilly sustains a fatal wound.
  • May 1632. Munich yields to the Swedish army.
  • September 1632. Gustavus Adolphus attacks the stronghold of Alte Vestemarker, which is under the command of Wallenstein, but is repulsed, marking the first defeat in the Thirty Years' War of the previously invincible Swedes. This leads to defection of some mercenary elements in the Protestant army.
  • November 1632. At the Battle of Lützenmarker, Gustavus Adolphus is killed in battle, but the Swedes win the fight thanks to Bernhard of Saxe-Weimar, who assumes command and defeats Wallenstein. The Swedish war effort was kept up by generals Gustav Horn, Johan Banér, Lennart Torstenson and chancellor Axel Oxenstierna until the Peace of Westphalia.

A history of Gustavus Adolphus' wars was written by Johann Philipp Abelin.

Gustavus Adolphus Day is celebrated in Sweden each year on 6 November. On this day only, a special pastry with a chocolate or marzipan medallion of the king, is sold. The day is also an official flag day in the Swedish calendar. In Finlandmarker, the day is celebrated as svenska dagen or ruotsalaisuuden päivä, "Swedishness Day", and is a customary flag day. In Estoniamarker, the day is known as Gustav Adolfi päev. In all three countries, 6 November is the name day for Gustav Adolf, one of the few exceptional name days in the year.

In fiction

  • Bertolt Brecht's play Mother Courage and Her Children mentions Gustavus Adolphus several times in the earlier scenes during which the characters are traveling with the Protestant Army. The Cook lampoons the "Hero King" by pointing out that first he sought to liberate Poland from the Germans, then sought liberate Germany from the Germans, and made a profit on the deal. His insufficient reverence for the king also introduces that, unlike Mother Courage and the Chaplain, the Cook is a Dutchman not a Swede.


Gustavus Adolphus's ancestors in three generations

See also


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