Swedish Army 1618-1721


Swedish troops Great Northern War


Gustavus Adolphus after Breitenfeld (1631)

For nearly 30 years, the Swedish Army was the “new model army” of European warfare, from its advent under the great captain Gustavus Adolphus (1594-1632) through the end of the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648). In standards of drill and recruitment, it was nearly unmatched by the mid-point of the 17th century, except perhaps by the Parliamentary New Model Army that was a direct imitator. In the use of field artillery and the revival of the cavalry charge, the Swedish Army had changed the face of battle. However, while resource-poor and underpopulated Sweden maintained a “förläning” system of rural recruitment that allowed it to sustain a small native force, it could never sustain a large army for long. It was thus forced to rely heavily on mercenaries. Even in the great, early battles of the Swedish phase of the Thirty Years’ War, at Breitenfeld (1631) and Lützen (1632), Swedish nationals composed no more than one-fifth of the “Swedish Army” commanded by Gustavus Adolphus. Mercenaries were paid from the proceeds of conquest, as Sweden was simply too poor to pay them from its own resources. This pattern of making war pay for itself (“bellum se ipse alet”) had emerged quickly during the great German war in the form of French subsidies, promised and paid before Swedish boots touched German soil. Even so, the Swedish Army maintained a highly aggressive tradition of fighting bequeathed to it by Gustavus Adolphus, though learned originally from the Poles. In particular, it remained reliant on aggressive cavalry charges with sabers drawn. This tactic proved especially effective, even when the Swedes were badly outgunned and outnumbered, as they were at the extraordinarily sanguine field at Lund (December 4/14, 1676).

The traditional Swedish recruitment system was known as “Gårdetal,” under which levies were raised from homesteads rather than by a strict head count of male peasants. This system was replaced by “Bondetal” (from “Bonde,” or peasant), wherein peasant levies were assessed by head count and not homestead. The overall system was known as “Utskrivning” (“Registration”). As with the Army of its rival and ofttime enemy Denmark, Swedish soldiers were assigned to farms according to “allotments” (“Indelningswerk”), where they lived and worked as tenant farmers in peacetime. This kept a ready reserve in place while shrewdly displacing the costs of military upkeep from the cash-poor crown to the productive countryside.

Again paralleling the draft system in Denmark, if Sweden were attacked its kings could call up levies by exercising the “Uppbåd,” a constitutional right to raise emergency levies of one man out of every five. This royal right was strictly defensive, and could not be used to raise troops for aggressive wars beyond the agreed borders of Sweden. Besides peasant infantry, the nobility traditionally provided cavalry under the “Rustjianst,” a feudal military obligation to knightly service. If a noble wished to avoid personal riding service to the crown, he was required to pay for the upkeep and arming of a substitute. Much of this traditional system was changed by Gustavus Adolphus, who introduced the first national conscription in Europe-though it still exempted nobles. The wars of the mid-17th century strained and broke even his model system, however, exacerbating financial troubles and social cleavages within the kingdom.

The Swedish military was facing a financial crisis already by 1650. Shifts in land ownership in favor of the nobles were placing an ever-greater burden on the förläning leaseholds. Also, recruitment and taxation alike were falling more heavily onto “tax and crown” peasants and town burghers, as more and more peasants became tax-exempt under their new noble masters. In 1655, an emergency measure taxed noble-peasants for three years and restored one-quarter of alienated land to the crown. But this half-measure still meant that it was better, from a financial point of view, for Sweden to make war than remain at peace. Thus, Sweden once more sought to “make war pay for itself” at the start of the Second Northern War (1655-1660), which was initiated by Karl X. This time there were no French subsidies for a war of naked Swedish aggression. Hard exaction of ransoms and ongoing contributions from conquered German and Polish towns and rural estates were, at first, an adequate substitute.

The Swedish Army that invaded Poland in 1655 comprised 14,000 cavalry (40%), 1,250 dragoons, and 20,000 infantry. Follow-on Swedish reinforcements and local recruitment of mercenaries focused on replenishing the cavalry squadrons, as befit a war in the flat country of Poland and Ukraine. During the war, an additional 14,000 cavalry and 3,200 dragoons were added, but just 6,000 infantry. Casualties were so high, however, that the flow of recruits quickly proved inadequate. A crisis developed when recruitment within Poland also fell away sharply with the revival of Polish military spirit and fortunes during 1656. The short-term answer was to raise conscription levels within Sweden and Finland to unprecedented quotas per household. As conscription accelerated, more landless peasants-those who lived outside the protection of noble estates and were not themselves yeoman farmers-were swept into the Army to make war for the king. This was the price paid by ordinary Swedes for the “Stormakstid” earlier launched by Gustavus Adolphus, for it was the great Gustav who began a process of alienating crown lands to the nobility. That practice now ensured that Swedish recruits were of poor quality and could not be properly equipped from domestic revenues.

Sweden’s system of making foreigners pay for its wars aroused deep animosity among those who were forced to pay heavy contributions, stirring resentments in occupied areas that only made the political and diplomatic resolution of conflicts more difficult. The contributions system broke down quickly in Poland and soon enough in Ducal Prussia, with complete collapse of the system from 1658. Sweden, a classic war state, could not sustain its garrisons or conquests from foreign sources and was thrown back upon its own meager resources. Taxes within Sweden soared to levels not seen since the 1620s. It was against this backdrop that Sweden made a hasty peace immediately after the unexpected death of Karl X in 1660, and spent much of the next decade desperately seeking foreign subsidies that did not also require it to make military commitments. It finally achieved a modest success in this regard in 1672, when Louis XIV agreed to pay for 16,000 Swedish troops stationed in north Germany at the outset of the Dutch War (1672-1678). That number was raised to 22,000 by September 1674. But the underlying military system was still unrepaired and unsustainable, facts that became impossible to hide during the Scanian War (1674-1679). With large garrisons totaling 12,000 men hunkered down in Bremen, Pomerania, and Wismar, the Swedish Army that invaded Brandenburg at the end of 1674 numbered just 13,000. Defeated at Fehrbellin (June 18/28, 1675) and pushed from its last toehold on German soil by November 1678, the Swedish Army did not even manage to evacuate most of its troops back to Sweden. However, it fought exceptionally well at Lund (December 4/14, 1676) and in defense of the homeland in the last years of the war, under the able leadership of Karl XI.

Years of solid reform and peace in the latter part of the reign of Karl XI left the Swedish Army in excellent condition by 1700. The process began in 1680 when the Riksdag introduced radical reforms in the wake of the Scanian War, as the assembly reinforced the monarchy at the expense of the aristocracy, but in favor of the other Estates. The key reform was a sharp reduction (“reduktion”) in the amount of alienated crown lands, with fully 75% of formerly alienated lands returned to the crown. This swelled royal revenues and greatly increased the number of peasants available for conscription. The reforms of 1680 thereby laid a sound basis for the exceptional military resurrection that occurred in the 1690s, which was made evident in the first years of the new century. However, reform also made possible the reckless and unrestrained warlordism of Karl XII by legally enhancing the position of the monarchy vis-a-vis the nobility. More land “reduktion” was decreed in 1682, and additional taxes were laid upon the nobility by a powerful monarch who seemed to be approaching the ideal of absolutism that was then being trumpeted by the best minds of the Age. In fact, the Swedish monarchy was more representative than the absolutism of its own rhetoric, and that of the Riksdag, indicated. In sum, a new service nobility effectively displaced the old hereditary elite in Sweden through a progressively negotiated social and fiscal revolution that focused on the monarchy, but did not make it absolute. Soldiers were now well cared for on special farms. Most had a cottage of their own, were well and promptly paid, and expected to serve only to age 40. They might even remain in their homes after that if they had married and produced a son to take their place in the Army. As hard a bargain as that seems to modern minds, it was an avenue of social advancement and personal security not open to the peasants of most other countries in this period.

By 1697, the date of Karl XI’s premature death, the Swedish Army fielded 25,000 foreign mercenaries in its overseas garrisons and had a standing native force of 11,000 cavalry and 30,000 infantry. Together, these troops formed one of the finest, best-trained, and most cohesive and professional armies in the world-though it must be remembered even within this context that Swedish soldiers in 1700 were still mostly part-time warriors who had never seen a daís combat, and who spent most waking hours working on farms. Under the pressures of war, by 1708 Sweden had swelled the ranks of its armed forces to 110,000 men, or 10% of the military-age male population. Unlike the French Army, which was built to make aggressive war, the Swedish Army had become more like the Dutch Army by 1700. It was an instrument of deterrence and defense-albeit of an extended empire-whose main purpose was to deter war so as to preserve a peace from which Sweden greatly benefited. Unfortunately, all of the advantages and advances carefully accrued by Karl XI were thrown away by his son, Karl XII, in the snows and fields of Ukraine during the disastrous Great Northern War (1700-1721). Whereas Karl XI generally made war to secure prosperity and peace, Karl XII was adamant in his refusal ever to consider peace, even when he had already lost the war.

Suggested Reading: Robert I. Frost, The Northern Wars, 1558-1721 (2000).

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