Tenth in a Series on the Protestant Reformation
Fr. Charles Coppens, S.J.
|Gustav Vasa (1496-1560)|
Few American readers are familiar with the events which brought about the Reformation in Sweden; and yet it is a very interesting chapter in history. There is in it a striking absence of even the pretext of abuses to be reformed. The people generally were pious Catholics, the pastors faithful and devout in the discharge of their sacred duties, the religious, male and female, led lives of fervor and charity, which endeared them to God and man; the bishops in particular gave the good example of every Christian virtue. Sins there were, of course, but few, if any, gross scandals are recorded. Here still more than anywhere else, Lutheranism was imposed upon an unwilling population by a cruel tyrant with the aid of a foreign army.
The tyrant was Gustav Vasa, who had begun his public career as the deliverer of his country from the foreign and unbearable yoke of Christiern II of Denmark. This signal service to his native land gained him the boundless love and confidence of his grateful fellow countrymen. They had bravely flocked to his standard at the time of common oppression, and when the victory was achieved and liberty secured, they enthusiastically offered him and pressed upon his apparent reluctance the Kingly crown of rescued Sweden. This was in 1523.
Before allowing himself to be crowned by the Catholic hierarchy, who would have made him swear fidelity to the Church, he planned and executed a religious revolution as thorough as his civil revolution had been. For during the tyrannous rule of Christiern, he had spent some months in Germany, and he had there become enamored by the Protestant plan, suggested by Luther, of vesting the spiritual power in the temporal ruler, and allowing him to appropriate the riches of the Church. This plan he undertook to adopt for Sweden.
For this purpose, carefully concealed at first, he needed an obsequious parliament and a body of foreign heretical troops.
The troops he could easily hire, and the religious treasures would readily furnish the money to pay them; and circumstances were exceptionally favorable for a total reorganization of the parliament. For in 1521, the Danish monarch Christiern, on occasion of his being crowned as King of Sweden, had invited the leading nobles and bishops to a banquet, and during it made a general butchery of his guests. This "Bloody Bath," as it is called in Swedish history, had left the government disorganized. So Vasa managed to have new senators chosen from among his friends, and he appointed bishops of his own choice; still, even of these bishops some proved to be in time of trial faithful to their sacred trust.
His further plan of action, to make himself spiritual head of the realm and master of all the ecclesiastical property, was skillfully devised and vigorously carried out. The Lutheran doctrine was the means, not the end intended by the monarch. But it was a necessary means, for as long as Sweden remained sound in doctrine, his most violent measures could have no lasting effect. For this purpose, he invited to his court some learned Lutherans, in particular two brothers, Olaus and Lawrence Petri, and, to give them credit with the people, he treated them with the utmost reverence. Olaus was allowed publicly to defend Lutheranism in presence of the diet, and was appointed preacher in the cathedral of Stockholm, while his brother Lawrence was made to teach theology at Uppsala. The former declaimed boldly against "the errors of Popery," the latter instilled the poison of heresy into the young theologians.
Vasa next required the Church to pay his foreign troops out of the revenue of the clergy. He removed an obnaxious bishop, and forced the chapter to depose the archbishop and to choose another, John Magnus by name, whom he selected to fill the vacancy thus created. This was a prelate of gentle character, whom he expected to make his pliant tool. But soon after, finding him unyielding in his fidelity to duty, he publicly mocked and insulted him, and banished him from Sweden. The good man died at last in poverty in a hospital at Rome.
Two recently deposed bishops, Knut and Sunnanwader, true Catholics - else he would not have discarded them - were accused of stirring up a revolt of the faithful. The King appeared himself as principal accuser, and, of course, they were condemned. We will let a Lutheran historian of Sweden, Anders Fryxell, describe the scene of their execution; it is a specimen page of the record of cruelty which disgraced the reign of Vasa, even according to so devoted a patriot and pronounced a Lutheran. He writes:
The seditionaries were forced to make a degrading entry into Stockholm, riding backwards on two half-starved horses, dressed in ragged palls, Master Knut wearing a bark mitre on his head, Peter Sunnanwader a crown of straw and a wooden sword by his side. Crowds of people in disguise followed them, mocking and teasing the unfortunates. The procession passed through some of the principle streets of the town, and stopped at last on the great square, where they were led to the whipping post, and made to drink with the executioner, hooted at and derided by the mob all the while. Shortly after this ungenerous treatment, they were both conducted to the place of execution, beheaded and impaled; Peter Sunnanwader in Uppsala, 18th of February, 1527, and Master Knut three days later in Stockholm. The fame of these proceedings spread like wild fire through the kingdom. Gustav had ordered the ignominious procession through Stockholm in order to decrease the reverence of the people for their bishops, but it was interpreted as an ungenerous victor's mockery over the vanquished, and the execution itself excited still greater displeasure. Such an attempt against such men was extraordinary, nay, unheard of. The priests represented the criminals as the fallen defenders of clerical freedom; the friends of the Stures as innocent victims of their devotion to the family, and the Roman Catholics as martyrs to the true faith, sacrificed by the hand of a heretic and godless King.
The foreign mercenaries were the chief means by which Vasa was enabled to accomplish his wicked designs. He played them off on all occasions, whether to cajole his people, and especially the clergy, out of their money, or to threaten them into servile compliance with his will. The same Lutheran historian, Fryxell, writes:
At the meeting held at Wastena in 1521, it was determined that the foreign cavalry should be quartered in the cloister; at the meeting of Stockholm (1525), that the tithes of that year should be employed to pay off the foreign soldiery. The priests opposed it, but the King clearly proved that these expenses were necessary, and the nobility, citizens and peasants, glad at not having to pay themselves, were well satisfied that the priests should do it. This bait Gustav often employed to get the people on his side against the prelates of Rome.
At last, in 1527, the King convened a diet at Westeras, at which he struck the final blow. He caused the Lutherans and Catholics to discuss the Reformation doctrines before himself and the whole assembly, terrorizing the Catholic champions and putting them designedly at a disadvantage. Before the meeting began, the bishops held a secret session in the cathedral, and there pledged themselves to one another to stand firmly by the ancient faith and union with the Holy See; but they were so overawed by the dangers awaiting them that they buried the parchment recording their agreement under a stone, whence it was not produced till in later years.
At the diet, the law was reluctantly passed which the tyrant dictated, abolishing the Catholic religion, and establishing Lutheranism in its stead, and confiscating to the King all the ecclesiastical property. Again, Fryxell says:
The diet of Westeras did not last long; scarcely eight days passed ere it was closed; but never at any diet has more been executed; never have any resolutions brought about a more complete change. The whole tremendous power of Popery in all its members was crushed. Deprived of their riches, their priviliges, their great consideration, they (the clergy) were open to the continued and often unjust exactions of the crown and the nobility, to the attacks of the Lutheran priests, and left without power to protect themselves from the encroachments of enemies on every side. The crown of Sweden, which before had been utterly impoverished and unable to pay half its expenses, became rich at once.
The King now appointed the Protestant Lawrence Petri to be archbishop of Uppsala; by wily promises that the Pope would sanction the appointment, he induced four bishops, his former appointees, to perform the consecration. Bishop Spalding makes the following important statement on this subject:
The consecration having been duly performed by bishops having undoubtedly the episcopal character themselves, though uncanonical and unlawful, was certainly valid; and thus the present Swedish Lutheran bishops, unless the rite of consecration has since been materially altered, are invested with the episcopal character; though, being severed from the communion of the Church, they have not canonical jurisdiction or any lawful authority whatever.
Soon after the consecration of the archbishop, he was publically married in his cathedral. Then, as Fryxell says, "a general murmur was heard; the ignorant populace threatened to kill the foreign heretic and the apostate King." Innovation after innovation was introduced; the people could stand it no longer; unsurrections arose, were repressed, and sprung up again. But the foreign troops were well armed and well disciplined; and the skillfull tyrant forced the rebels after each rising to deliver their leaders into his hands; and so new combinations to shake off the yoke of the foreign religion became impossible. Gradually, violent opposition subsided, the faithful clergy and the soundest layment died off, and the Reformation remained in undisputed possession.