Historical Tales: 9—Scandinavian - Charles Morris

The West Gothland Insurrection

Sweden never had a wiser or more judicious ruler than King Gustavus Vasa, but in that land of turbulent lords and ambitious mischief-makers the noblest and most generous of kings could not reign without secret plotting and rebellious sentiments. So it fell out in Sweden in 1529, after Gustavus had been six years on the throne.

The leader in this movement was one Ture Jönsson, a hoary old conspirator of great influence in West Gothland, where he and his ancestors had long been judges and where he was looked upon by the people as their lord and chief. By a decision of the court he was obliged to restore to the king certain property which he unjustly held, and he vented his feelings bitterly against the heretic and tyrant, as he called him. In fact, he hatched a conspiracy, which spread widely, through his influence, among the nobles of West Gothland.

In Smaland there was much discontent with the teaching of the Lutheran doctrines and an outbreak took place, the king's sister and her husband being taken prisoners by the insurgents. These sent letters to Ture Jönsson in West Gothland, asking him to be their captain, and also wrote to East Gothland, inciting the people to rise and expel their monarch.

Ture Jönsson had three sons, one of them a distinguished soldier in the king's service, while the second was a man high in the king's favor. The old rebel had high hopes of aid from these two, and wrote them letters inciting them to rebellion. But they were not to be drawn from their allegiance, and took the letters with unbroken seals to the king, promising to devote their lives to his cause.

The third son, Herr Göran, dean in Upsala, was of different mold and sentiment. Opposed to the king on religious grounds, he gathered a body of peasant runaways, a hundred in number, and, afraid to stay in his house, he took them to a wood in the neighborhood, felled trees for barricades, and laid up a supply of provisions in his impromptu fort.

From there he proceeded to Bollnäs, gathering more men and growing bolder, and fancying in his small soul that he was the destined leader of a great rebellion. But his valor vanished when a priest of the vicinity, named Erik, a man faithful to the king, called together a body of his parishioners and marched against the would-be insurgent.

Dean Göran was standing at a garret window when he saw these men approaching. At once, with a most unsoldierlike panic, he rushed in terror down stairs and fled through a back door into the forest, without a word to his men of the coming danger. The house was surrounded and the men made prisoners, the king's steward, whom they held captive, being released. Erik spoke to them so severely of their disloyalty that they fell on their knees in prayer and petition, and when he told them that the best way to gain pardon for their act was to seek and deliver their fugitive leader, they gladly undertook the task.

[Illustration] from Historical Tales - Scandinavian by Charles Morris


The scared leader of rebels meanwhile was wandering in anguish and alarm through the wide wood, not knowing what to do. Coming at length to a large forest lake, he entered a little boat that he found and pushed off from land, thinking thus to be in greater safety.

As he thus sat, lost in his unquiet thoughts, some of his late followers reached the lake and saw him. So absorbed was he in his bitter reflections that he failed to see other boats gliding out towards him, and they were close upon him before he perceived them. Then, leaping up in wild fright, he sought in his despair to jump into the water, but before he could do so some of the peasants had rowed up and seized him. In his bitterness of spirit he tore the gold chain from his neck and the rings from his fingers and flung them into the lake, resolved that they should not become the spoil of the king he hated.

But Gustavus was not the man to trouble himself about such small fry of conspirators as this. The dean was taken to Upsala and thence to Stockholm, where he was kept in confinement, though with every comfort, until the rebellion incited by his father was quelled. Then the king, taking into account his brothers' loyalty and his own insignificance, freed him and restored him his property. He could well afford to be lenient to a rebel of his calibre.

If this was all we had to tell, it would not be worth the telling, but the conspiracy in West Gothland went on and led to events of far greater interest. A born plotter, old Jönsson kept at his work, and to prevent any news of what was taking place from reaching the king, a guard of a thousand men was placed to watch the highway and stop all messengers. At the head of this guard was a priest called Nils of Hvalstad, a thorough hater of the king. To him the insurgents sent their letters, to be forwarded to those for whom they were intended. Such was the state of affairs, the designs of the plotters ripening while the king was in this way kept in ignorance of matters of such importance to him.

Now we come to the dramatic means by which the king was advised of the plot. A scout was needed to pass the guards set by the rebels and bring word to Gustavus of what was going on in West Gothland, and for this purpose was chosen a young town-sergeant of Stockholm, so famed for boldness that the people called him Hans Hardy. He had been born in West Gothland and was familiar with the people and the roads of that province and was therefore well adapted for the work. He accomplished it in a manner much better than was expected.

Making his way through forest paths and along little-frequented by-ways, he succeeded in crossing the river that bordered the province and passing the rebel outposts, making his way to his old home, where he spent several weeks with his relations, meanwhile secretly gathering the information needed.

On his return he pursued a different course. Buying a quantity of West Gothland cheese, he went directly towards the ford of the Tiweden and so managed as to let himself fall into the hands of the guard, who brought him to their leader, Nils of Hvalstad.

The rebel priest charged the seeming peasant roundly with being a spy, but the cunning fellow pretended to be very simple and bucolic, saying that it had been four years since he had been in Upland and he now wanted to go there and sell his cheese.

Nils was not so easily to be hoodwinked, but bade his men take the supposed spy to the sergeant's house at Hofwa, where four men were set over him as guards. The pretended simpleton seemed well-enough pleased, eating and drinking freely, talking cheerfully of country affairs with his guards, and spending his money freely, so that the sergeant grew to like the jovial country lad.

After a few days, however, Hans pretended to be sick, sighing and groaning as if in severe pain. Finally he took to his bed and seemed in such a sad state that they all pitied the poor cheese monger and his guards often left him for hours alone, thinking his sickness was all the security that was needed.

Hans Hardy had a purpose in this. He had discovered that Nils kept a box in a dark corner of the room and imagined that it might contain something of importance to him in his mission. In fact he had thrown himself in his hands for the purpose of fathoming his plots. One day, while left alone, he got up and examined the box, and to his joy found in it a number of letters from the chief conspirators, containing full evidence of their complication. Having read enough of them to gain an idea of their character, he put them back, shut the box, and pushed it again into its dark corner.

Then he took to his bed once more and when his guards returned they found him moaning more sorely than before and seeming in such sad case that they thought him at the point of death. Pitying the poor fellow, they deemed it idle to watch him and went contentedly to their beds. The next morning, when they rose, the sick man had vanished and with him the box and its contents. Hans had got off with the precious burden into the forest, with whose paths he was thoroughly familiar, leaving his late guards his cheese for consolation.

He reached Stockholm in safety with his budget of letters and took them to the king, who rewarded him liberally for his valuable service and bade him to keep it secret. This he did, and it was long before any one knew where Hans Hardy had been or what had become of the lost letters. King Gustavus kept his counsel and bided his time.

Meanwhile the work of the conspirators went on, they going so far as to nominate a new king, their choice falling upon Mans Bryntesson, Ture Jönsson's brother-in-law, a handsome and eloquent young man, far more suitable in person than in mind for a king. He was soft, irresolute, and somewhat foolish, and when treated with royal honors by the conspirators, he began holding court with princely pomp, borrowing money from his friends for this purpose when his own was exhausted.

Having gone so far with his plans, Ture called a convention of the people of the province to meet on Larfva Heath, saying that he had matters of the highest importance to lay before them. Here was a great plain, where the Gothlanders for ages had held their public meetings, and where Ture's summons brought together a goodly number.

With the insurgent lords around him, and proud of his power and authority, Sir Ture now addressed the peasants, in full confidence of their support. His principal charge against the king was that he had accepted the Lutheran doctrines and wished to introduce a new faith into the country to the ruin of the common people.

"Now," he continued, "I have always understood that the good West Gothlanders have no mind to become Lutherans, but prefer to retain the old faith which their fathers and forefathers have had before them. If you will from this day renounce King Gustavus I will give you a mild and gracious sovereign, who will preserve for you your good old customs."

Bishop Magnus followed with a brief address, after which Sir Ture, convinced from the intent silence of the peasants that they were with him, said:

"Let him who gives his consent to take a new king stretch up his hands."

To his consternation not a hand was lifted, while a threatening murmur was heard among the peasants. Neither the lords nor the bishop knew what to make of this. They had gone on with their plots without a dream that the people would not be with them. As for the newly chosen king, who had been eagerly waiting to receive their homage, he fell back white and trembling. At length two young peasants stood forth to speak for the people, one of them loudly declaring:

"We have nothing to charge against King Gustavus, but owe him deep gratitude for having freed us from the cruel and tyrannical rule of King Christian, and kept the land in law and right as well as in peace and quiet. What you, good sirs, say of the new faith, we peasants can neither judge nor understand; perhaps it may not be so bad as fame reports. Change of rulers generally costs the peasants and the land dear, and we might by these means draw upon ourselves and our children long disquiet and disorder. It seems, therefore, best for us to remain in the faith and allegiance which we have sworn and promised to our lawful lord and master Gustaf Eriksson."

These words had evidently the full approval of the people, to judge from their upstretched hands and their loud acclamations, and at once the courage of the conspirators fell to the ground. What to say or to do they knew not. They had foolishly gone forward with their plots without consulting the people and now found themselves in a sore dilemma. Instead of coming to their aid, as they had expected, there was reason to fear that the peasants would seize them and hand them over to the king. In his utter dismay Ture Jönsson faltered out:

"My very good friends, I only wished by this trial to test your fidelity. None of the lords have a thought of deserting the king. A fortnight hence we hope to meet you here again, to consult further on our mutual interests."

This ended the meeting on Larfva Heath. The peasants returned to their homes and the lords in dismay sought their castles. The bottom had suddenly dropped out from the rebellion and the conspirators were in a perilous position. War against the king was impossible, and in haste they sent a message to Nils of Hvalstad ordering him to break up the camp on the Tiweden and bidding him to come to them without delay.

When he came they asked him what he had done with the letters which had been put in his care. Not daring to tell that they had been stolen, he said that he had burnt them on hearing of the result of the Larfva meeting. Another custodian of letters was also sent for and asked the same question. He had really sent his letters to the king, but he produced a budget of papers which he now threw into the fire, telling them that they might be at rest about these perilous papers, which could now never appear against them.

Somewhat relieved in their minds by this act, Mans Bryntesson, Ture Bjelke, and Nils Winge, three of the leading conspirators, decided to remain at home. To become wandering outlaws was too bitter a fate; they had not spoken at Larfva Heath, their letters were burnt, there was no evidence against them. But as for Ture Jönsson and Bishop Magnus, they had put themselves openly on record. The pretence that the meeting had been called to test the loyalty of the people would have no weight with a man like King Gustavus. To remain would be to risk their lives, and collecting their money and valuables they made all haste to set foot on Danish territory, Ture Jönsson finally to meet a tragical death in the invasion of Norway by the deposed King Christian, as described in the preceding tale.

The embers of the rebellion were easily extinguished and the nation returned to its peaceful and satisfied condition, the officers of the king holding meetings with the malcontents and promising full pardon to those who would confess and renounce their disloyal acts. This offer of pardon was accepted by nearly the whole of the conspirators, the only ones who held out being Mans Bryntesson, the mock king, Nils Winge, and Ture Bjelke. Trusting to their letters having been destroyed they wrote to the king, saying that, as they felt entirely guiltless, they could not plead guilt and implore pardon, and thus put themselves under suspicion. They begged him to appoint a meeting at which their conduct could be investigated. This he agreed to, the 17th of June being fixed as the date.

When the time came the three lords appeared before the appointed tribunal and were exhorted to confess their share in Ture Jönsson's rebellion. Mans Bryntesson answered for the three, boldly declaring:

"We did not venture to set ourselves against Ture Jönsson on account of his great influence in the province; we often heard him speak disrespectfully of the king, but we bore with him in this for the sake of amusement, attributing it to his old age and childishness. But it can never be shown that we bore any share in his treason."

"What will you venture that this cannot be proved against you?" asked the king.

"Our neck to the sword and our bodies to the wheel, as the law exacts," they confidently replied.

"Take care," said one of the counsellors. "Do not venture so much. Perhaps you may yet be found guilty."

They replied by a haughty "No," and insisted on their innocence. Gustavus then spoke again, his gaze now stern and threatening:

"Choose one of these two. Either to confess yourselves guilty and accept pardon, or to be tried and condemned according to law."

"We choose to be judged according to the law," they replied; "and if we be found partakers in this rebellion we will willingly suffer and pay for it, as may be adjudged against us."

These words, and the stern dignity of the king, impressed all in the hall. Complete silence reigned and all eyes were fixed on his face. He gave a signal to his servants and two boxes were carried in. These were opened and a number of letters were produced. The king asked the culprits if they recognized these letters. This they stoutly denied. Then a number of them were read aloud and complete proof of their complicity in the rebellion was shown, the judges recognizing the hand and seal of the defendants.

Pale and thunderstruck, they listened tremblingly to the reading of the fatal letters; then fell upon their knees, weeping and imploring mercy. Their repentance came too late. The king bade the council to examine into the matter at once and pronounce sentence. This was that the three criminals should suffer the fate which they had declared themselves ready to bear; they were condemned as traitors and sentenced to loss of life and estate.

The trembling culprits were taken to a room above the school-house, locked in and a strong guard set before the door. Here they were left to the contemplation of their coming fate. Despairingly they looked around for some means of escape, and a shade of hope returned when they fancied they had discovered one. There were no bars to their window, but it was far above the ground. But beneath it stood a pear tree, so near the building that they thought they might leap into its branches and climb down its trunk to the ground.

Waiting until night had fallen, they prepared to make the effort, Mans Bryntesson being the first to try. He missed the tree and fell to the ground, breaking his leg in the fall. The others, seeing his ill fortune, did not venture to follow. In great pain he crept from the garden into an adjoining field. Here his strength gave out and he lay hidden in the half-grown rye.

Missed the next morning, his trail through the grass was easily followed and he was found and carried back to prison. Soon after the prisoners were taken to Stockholm, where Mans Bryntesson and Nils Winge were beheaded and their bodies exposed on the wheel. Their estates, however, were restored to their widows and children. The third, Ture Bjelke, being less guilty, was pardoned, but was obliged to pay heavy penalties for his treasonable acts. And thus, with the death of these two criminals and the exile of two others, ended the West Gothland insurrection.