Historical Tales: 9—Scandinavian - Charles Morris

The Adventures of Gustavus Vasa

In the parish of Orkesta, in Upland, Sweden, there may be seen the remains of an old tower, now a mere heap of stones, but once the centre of the proud manor-seat of Lindholm. It was a noble and lordly castle, built of red bricks and grey granite, seated on a high hill between two lakes, and commanding a wide prospect over mountain, wood, and water. Here, in the year 1490, was born Gustavus Vasa, the son of Sir Erik and Lady Cecilia Vasa, and destined to win future fame as one of the greatest heroes of Sweden and the liberator of his native land.

At the age of six the boy was sent to be educated at the court of Sten Sture, then the administrator and virtual king of Sweden. Here he was not spoiled by indulgence, his mode of life and his food were alike simple and homely, and he grew up with a cheerful spirit and a strong body, his chief pleasure being that of hunting among the rocks and forests with his companions, all of whom grew to love and admire him.

King Hans, when monarch of Sweden in 1499, on a visit to Sten Sture noticed the boy playing about the hall and was much pleased by his fine and glowing countenance. Patting him on the head, he said:

"You will certainly be a man in your day, if you live to see it."

He afterwards, thinking of the high descent of the boy and that he might grow to be a future foe of Denmark, asked Sten Sture to let him take the lad to Copenhagen and bring him up in his court. The wise Lord Sten quickly fathomed the king's thoughts and answered that the boy was too young to be taken from his parents. He soon after sent him to his father, then in command at Aland.

"The young wolf has slipped out of my net," said King Hans in later years, when he was told of the splendid development of the boy as he grew to manhood.

At the age of twenty-four he left the academy at Upsala, where he had been educated in the arts and sciences, and repaired to the court of Sten Sture the Younger, where he was soon a general favorite, loved for his amiable character and admired for his wit and vivacity. At that time the war by which Christian II. made himself master of Denmark was going on and young Vasa aided by his courage in winning victory on more than one hard-fought field.

In 1518, during a negotiation between Sten Sture and Christian, then in sore straits in his fleet, the latter agreed to go ashore to confer with the Swedish leader if six gentlemen were sent on board his fleet as hostages. This was done, but before the conference took place a favorable change of wind changed the treacherous king's intention and he sailed off for Denmark with his hostages, all of whom were imprisoned and held to secure the neutrality of their relatives in Sweden.

Among these captives was young Gustavus Vasa, who, thus perfidiously taken, was cruelly confined. Finally, at the request of Herr Erik Baner, a distant relative of the Vasas, the young man was set free, Baner binding himself to pay a heavy penalty in money if he permitted him to escape. Thus it was that Vasa found a new home at Kallö Castle, in Jutland, where his deliverer lived, and where he was well treated and given much freedom.

"I shall not cause you to be strictly guarded nor put you in confinement," said good old Baner. "You shall eat at my table and go where you please, if you faithfully promise not to make your escape or journey anywhere without letting me know."

To this the young man bound himself verbally and by writing, and was given liberty by his generous warder to go where he pleased within six miles of Kallö. At first he was always accompanied by an attendant, but as he won the old man's love and confidence he was suffered to go alone.

But he could not forget the perfidy by which he had been made prisoner, and in 1519, when King Christian was preparing a great expedition against Sweden, the boasts of the young Danish nobles of what they proposed to do chafed his proud soul. Day and night his bitterness of spirit grew, and finally, as the time came for the expedition to set sail, he could bear it no longer but resolved to break his parole and escape to his native land.

It was in the summer of 1579 that he set out, having dressed himself in peasant clothing. Starting in the early morning and avoiding the open roads, he made his way by by-paths, and at noon of the following day reached the town of Flensburg, where he fortunately met some Saxon traders driving a herd of cattle from Jutland to Germany. He joined these, and on September 30 reached the free town of Lübeck. Here the authorities gave him permission to remain, with a warrant for his personal safety while in the town.

Meanwhile Sir Erik Baner had been wrathfully seeking him, and appeared in Lübeck shortly after he reached there, complaining of his ingratitude for the good treatment given him, and threatening the senate of Lübeck with Christian's enmity if they should protect one of his foes.

Gustavus boldly answered that he was no lawful prisoner, but a man seized by breaking a solemn compact, and therefore that he had the right to set himself free. As for the six thousand riks-thalers, which Sir Erik had bound himself to pay, he would return them with interest and gratitude when he got home.

"I trust to this," he concluded, "that I am in a free town, on whose word, when once given, I should be able to depend."

This appeal won his case with the senate, and Sir Erik was obliged to return without his ward.

But to make his way to Sweden, then torn and distracted by war, and the seas held by hostile craft, was no easy matter and he was forced to remain eight months in Lübeck while his country was being rapidly subdued by its invaders. They were not idle months, for Gustavus learned much while there of political and industrial economy and the commerce and institutions of the Hanseatic League and its free towns, knowledge which became of much service to him in later years. In the end he succeeded in making his way to Sweden in a small trading vessel, and on the 31st of May, 1520, landed secretly on its shores, with nothing but his sword and his courage to sustain him against an enemy who had, step by step, subjugated nearly the whole land.

[Illustration] from Historical Tales - Scandinavian by Charles Morris


Of the cities, only Stockholm and Calmar remained in the hands of the Swedes, and the latter, in which he had landed, seemed full of cowards and traitors. The place was not safe for a declared patriot, and he left it, making his way up the country. Here he learned with indignation how envy, avarice, and private feuds had induced many Swedes to betray one another to the enemy, and his efforts to exhort the people to unity and resistance proved vain. Most of them were weary of the war, and Christian had won over many of the peasants.

"He is a gracious master to us," they said, "and as long as we obey the king neither salt nor herring will fail us."

When Gustavus sought to win them over to more patriotic views they became angry and threatening, and in the end they assailed him with arrows and lances, so that he was obliged to make his escape. His position, indeed, became so critical that he was forced to disguise himself and proceed through forests and unsettled lands. Finally he reached the manor-house in which resided his sister Margaret and her husband, Sir Joachim Brahe.

They received him with the highest demonstrations of joy, as they had feared that they would never set eyes on him again; but their delight in his presence was turned into consternation when they learned that he was there with the purpose of seeking to foment an insurrection against Christian, who had then made himself complete master of Sweden and was on the point of being crowned king.

Joachim Brahe and his wife were at that time preparing to attend Christian's coronation at Stockholm, and were deeply disturbed by what seemed to them the mad purpose of the young patriot. Joachim offered to do his utmost to reconcile Gustavus to the king, and Margaret threw herself in tears and distress on his neck, beseeching him to desist from an undertaking which she felt sure would bring death to him and ruin to his whole family.

But Gustavus was not to be persuaded, and on the other hand he warned Joachim against trusting himself in Christian's hands, speaking of him as a base wretch whom no one could trust. Joachim proved equally hard to move, and the three soon parted, Joachim and his wife for Stockholm—where death awaited him at the hands of the traitor king—and Gustavus for a place of concealment where he could foment his plans. During this interval he met the old archbishop, Jacob Ulfsson, who earnestly advised him to go to Stockholm and warmly promised to plead his cause with the king. But the fugitive knew Christian far better than the aged churchman and had no idea of putting his head within the wolfs jaws. Little did the good archbishop dream of the terrible tragedy that was even then taking place in Stockholm.

The news of it came to Gustavus in this way. One day while out hunting in the vicinity of his hiding-place, he unexpectedly met the faithful old steward of his brother-in-law Joachim, who was so choked with grief on seeing him that he found it impossible to speak and could answer the young lord's question only with tears and gestures. Finally he succeeded in telling the fearful tale of that bloody day at Stockholm, the death under the executioner's sword of the father and brother-in-law of the horror-stricken listener, the imprisonment of his mother and sisters, and the fact that he would soon become a hunted fugitive, a high price having been set upon his head.

Who can describe the bitter grief of the son and brother at these terrible tidings, the hot wrath of the patriot, the indignation of a true and honest heart! On that fatal day the young fugitive had lost all he loved and cherished and was made a hunted, homeless, and almost penniless outlaw. But his courage did not fail him, he could foresee the indignation of the people at the dastardly act, and he determined to venture liberty and life against the ruthless tyrant.

A series of striking adventures awaited him, which it needed his utmost resolution to endure. He was then concealed at Räfsnäs, one of his paternal estates, but felt it necessary at once to seek a safer refuge, and collecting what gold and silver he could, he set out with a single servant for Dalarna. They had not gone far before they reached the ferry at Kolsund, which he crossed, leaving his man to follow. But the fellow, who had no faith in his master's project, took the opportunity to mount his horse and flee, taking with him the gold and jewels which had been entrusted to his care.

Seeing the act of treachery, Gustavus in all haste recrossed the ferry, and pursued the runaway so hotly that he leaped from his horse in alarm and hid himself in the woods. Recovering the horse and its valuable burden, the fugitive pursued his course, paying no further heed to the treacherous servant.

It was late in November when Gustavus reached Dalarna. He was now completely disguised, having exchanged his ordinary dress for that of a peasant, cutting his hair round, wearing the round hat and short baize jacket of the countrymen, and carrying an axe on his shoulder in the fashion of peasant-lads seeking work. No one would have dreamed of his being the sole heir of the great house of the Vasas.

His first service was with a rich miner named Anders Persson, in whose barn he threshed grain for several days. But his fellow threshers soon saw that he was not accustomed to the work and his general manner did not seem that of a common farm-hand, while one of the women caught the glimpse of a silk collar under his coarse jacket. These suspicious circumstances were told to the miner, who sent for Gustavus and quickly recognized him, for he had often seen him in former days at Upsala.

Anders received him hospitably, but when he heard from him of the Stockholm massacre and his aid was requested in the liberation of the country, he grew alarmed. Fearing to entertain so dangerous a guest, he advised him to go farther north and to change his place of abode frequently.

Accepting this advice, Gustavus set out for Ornäs, but on his way, while crossing a newly frozen stream, the thin ice broke under him and he was plunged into the chilling water. Light and active, he soon got out again, drying his clothes and passing the night at the house of the ferryman.

Reaching Ornäs the next day, he went to the house of a former friend, but who now, unknown to him, had become connected by marriage with the Danes and was devoted to the interests of the new king. It was a critical situation for the friendless fugitive. His treacherous host craftily welcomed him and pretended to approve his purpose, in which he offered to assist him and to seek adherents to his cause among his neighbors.

The guest was conducted to a garret at the top of the house and here, weary from his wanderings and gratified at having found a sympathizing friend, he lay confidingly down and was soon lost in slumber. Meanwhile Arendt, the treacherous host, sought a neighbor, Mans Nilsson, whom he told of the rich prize he had found and asked his aid in capturing him and gaining the high reward offered for him by the king. He was mistaken in his man. Mans hated treachery. But Arendt found others who were less scrupulous and in the early morning returned to his home heading twenty men, collected to aid him in the capture of his unsuspecting guest. To his utter surprise and dismay, on entering the garret to which Gustavus had been led he was nowhere to be found. He had unaccountably disappeared, and search as they could no trace of the fugitive was forthcoming.

There was a woman concerned in this strange escape, which had happened thus. Barbara, Arendt's wife, though Danish in her sympathies, had a warm, romantic interest in Gustavus Vasa, and when she saw her husband, on his return from his visit to Mans Nilsson, drive past the house and in the direction of the house of the Danish steward, she suspected him of treachery and determined to save their too-confiding guest.

Ordering Jacob, one of her men, to harness a sledge with all haste and secrecy and keep it in waiting behind the building, she sought the garret, woke Gustavus, and told him of his peril and of her desire to save him. Not venturing to bring him down into the house, she opened the window, and though it was eighteen feet from the ground, she aided him in his descent with a long towel, such as were then in common use. Gustavus then sprang into the sledge and was driven briskly off.

Arendt, when he learned of how his expected victim had fled, was furiously angry with his wife, and, as we are told, never forgave her and refused ever to set eyes on her again.

This was the most extreme danger that the fugitive patriot ever passed through, and at that interval his hope of freeing his country from the yoke of the foreigner seemed the sheerest madness. But other perils lay before him and only vigilance and good fortune saved him more than once from death or capture. Surrounded by foes and with scarce a friend who dared aid him in the whole district, his final escape seemed impossible.

The friendly Barbara had advised him to seek Herr Jon, the priest of Svärdsjö, and his driver took the road over the frozen Lake Runn, they ascending its banks in the smoke coming down from the Fahun copper mines, and about sunrise reaching a village on the northeast end of the lake. Jacob was unacquainted with the country beyond this point and Gustavus went to a house to inquire the way. As he was on the point of entering he saw within a miner, Nils Haussen, whom he knew to be a Danish partisan and who would have recognized him at sight. Quickly and without being seen, he turned behind the door and went towards another village beyond. Here he met a friendly smelter who agreed to guide him on the way. When they parted Gustavus gave him a silver dagger, saying gratefully:

"If God helps me, seek me, and I will richly repay you for your aid."

As night came on he sought quarters in a road-side cottage, and as he sat before the fire in the evening the good-wife said to him:

"Young man, make me some pudding skewers, since you have nothing else to do."

Gustavus laughingly replied that he would be glad to do so if he only knew how. This adventure has an interesting resemblance to that of King Alfred, when, hidden from the Danes in the swine-herd's hut, he let the good woman's cakes burn on the fire.

Reaching the parsonage of Herr Jon on the following day, he first went to the barn and helped the laborers to thresh, at the same time asking them what side their master took. Learning that he was no friend of the Danes, he made himself known to him and was graciously received, staying with him for three days.

But this place soon became unsafe. One day Herr Jon's housekeeper entered a room where Gustavus was washing, the priest standing by, towel in hand.

"Why are you holding the towel for this common fellow?" she asked.

"That is none of your affairs," said the priest.

But fearing that the woman would talk, he thought it best for his guest to seek a safer retreat, and sent him to Swen Elfsson, gamekeeper for the crown, who lived not far away.

Meanwhile the Danish steward, who had been told by the treacherous Arendt of the character of his guest, had his agents out in search of the fugitive and some of them entered the cottage of the gamekeeper. At that moment the good-wife was about putting her bread in the fire, and Gustavus was standing by the hearth in his peasant's dress, warming himself. The men who entered inquired for the fugitive, but before answering the woman raised her bread shovel and struck Gustavus hastily on the back, exclaiming:

"What are you doing here gaping at strangers? Have you never seen a man before? Pack yourself off to the barn and go on with your threshing."

Never dreaming that the man who had been so angrily treated by a peasant's wife could be the young lord they sought, the steward's messengers left the house to continue their search elsewhere.

But the incident warned the gamekeeper that his guest was not safe anywhere in that vicinity, and to get him away unobserved he hid him in a large load of hay and drove off towards the forest. On the way some of the Danish scouts were met, and these, having some suspicion of Swen, began poking their lances through the hay. One of these wounded Gustavus in the leg, but he lay silent and motionless and the scouts soon went their way.

But the cut on the concealed man's leg bled so freely that blood soon began to run from the cart and tinge the snow. Seeing this, Swen, fearing that the trail of blood might betray him, opened his knife and thrust it into the leg of his horse, so that if any one should perceive the blood stains he could assign this as their cause.

He finally delivered his charge to the care of some loyal gamekeepers on the edge of the forest; but these, not considering their houses safe as hiding-places, took him into the forest, where he lay hidden for three days under a great fallen fir tree, they bringing him food and drink. Finding even this place insecure, he went deeper into the woods and sought shelter under a lofty fir tree which stood on a hill in the midst of a marsh. The place has ever since been called "The King's Height."

Finally the effort of the Danish agents to find him relaxed and his faithful friends conducted him through the vast forests to Rättwik's Church, at the eastern end of the great Lake Silja.

His perils were yet by no means at an end. He spoke of his purpose at this place to an assembly of the peasants and was pleased to find that they listened to him with willing ears. Having thus sown his first seed in favorable soil, he proceeded to Mora on the northern end of the lake, where the priest received him in a friendly manner. But he was being sought by the Danes in that district and the priest did not dare to hide him in his own house, but committed him to the care of a peasant named Tomte Mattes. As the search was becoming active he was concealed in a vaulted cellar, reached by a trap-door in the floor.

He had not been long there when the Danish scouts, who were searching the whole district, reached the peasant's house, where they found his wife in the midst of her brewing of Christmas ale. As they entered, the shrewd woman turned a great tub over the trap-door, so that they did not perceive it, and thus for the third time the future king of Sweden owed his liberty and life to a woman's wit.

Shortly after that, at one of the Christmas festivals, as the men of Mora were leaving the church, Gustavus called them to him where he stood on a low mound beside the churchyard and addressed them in earnest tones, while they gazed with deep sympathy on the manly form of the young noble of whose sufferings and those of his family they were well aware.

He spoke of the risk to his life that he ran in venturing to speak to them at all, but said that his unhappy country was dearer to him than life. He pointed out the persecution which Sweden had formerly endured from Danish kings, and of how they had robbed the country of its wealth.

"The same times and the same misfortunes have now returned," he said. "Our land swims, so to say, in our own blood. Many hundred Swedish men have been made to suffer a disgraceful and unmerited death. Our bishops and senators have been cruelly murdered. I myself have lost father and brother-in-law," he continued, his eyes streaming with tears, "and the blood of all these martyrs cries for redress and retribution on the tyrant."

The men of Dalarna, he said, had long been noted for their courage when their land was in danger. They were renowned for this in history, and all Sweden looked upon them as the firmest defenders of its liberties.

"I will willingly join with you for our land's deliverance," he concluded, "and spare neither my blood nor my sword, for these are all the tyrant has left me to use in your cause."

Many of the Dalmen heard him with cries of vengeance, but the most of them stood in doubt. They did not know Gustavus personally and had heard that Christian was cruel only to the great, but was kind and generous to the peasantry. They could not yet make up their minds what to do, and begged him to seek safer quarters for himself, since he was being everywhere diligently sought by his pursuers.

In fact, his peril continued extreme and for some days he was forced to lie hidden under Morkarlely Bridge, near Mora Church, though it was in the dead of a Swedish winter. He was able at length to resume his journey, but it was with an almost despairing heart, for he could see no hope either for himself or for his country. His led way over mountains and through desolate valleys, his nights being spent in wayside sheds which had been built for the shelter of travellers. On he went, through forests filled with snow and along the side of mountain torrents, and finally came within view of the lofty mountains beyond which lay the sister kingdom of Norway.

Never had patriot more reason to be disheartened than the unhappy and hunted fugitive, never had the hope of liberating an oppressed country seemed darker, and the fugitive would have been justified in abandoning his native land and seeking a refuge in the bleak hills of Norway. Yet the adage has often held good that it is the darkest hour before the dawn of day, and so it was to prove in his case. While he waited in that desolate quarter to which he had been driven, events were shaping themselves in his favor and the first rising took place against the Danes.

The stirring speech of the young noble at Mora Church had not been made in vain. Many of those who heard it had been strongly taken by his manliness and his powerful language, and, strangely, the most deeply impressed of all was Rasmas Jute, a Dane who had served the Stures and was now settled in Dalarna.

Hearing that a Danish steward had come to that quarter to seek the fugitive and was now at the house of the sergeant of Mora parish, he armed himself and his servants and fell on the steward unawares, the first to take arms for Gustavus being thus a man of Danish birth. Soon afterwards a troop of Danish horsemen, a full hundred in number, was seen marching over the frozen surface of Lake Silja. So numerous a body of soldiers was unusual in those parts, and suspecting that they were in search of Gustavus, and might do something to their own injury, the peasants began ringing the church bells, the usual summons to arms.

The wind carried the sound far to the northward, and on hearing the warning peal the peasantry seized their arms and bodies of them were soon visible hasting down the hills towards Mora. The Danish troopers, on seeing this multitude of armed men, shut themselves in the priest's house. Here they were attacked by the furious Dalmen, who broke open the doors and rushed in. The terrified Danes now fled to the church and took refuge in its steeple, whither they were quickly followed. Only by dejected appeals and a promise not to injure Gustavus Vasa did they succeed in escaping from the tower, and the Dalmen, thinking that some of them might remain concealed in the narrow spire, shot their arrows at it from every side. For more than a hundred years after some of these arrows remained sticking in the old wooden spire.

Dalarna being looked upon as a centre of Swedish patriotism, a number of the persecuted noblemen took refuge there, and those confirmed all that Gustavus had told the people. And when Lars Olssen, an old warrior well known to them, arrived and told them of the gallows which Christian had erected, of the new taxes he had laid on the peasantry, and of the report that he had threatened to cut a hand and a foot off each peasant, with other tales true and false, they were deeply stirred. When Lars learned that Gustavus had been there and what had passed, he reproached them for their folly in not supporting him.

"Good men," he said, "I know that gentleman well, and tell you that if yourselves and all the people of the country are not to be oppressed and even exterminated Gustavus Vasa is the only one who has sense and knowledge enough to lead us and lay hand to so great a work."

While they were talking another fugitive came from the forest, who confirmed all that Lars had said and gave them a full account of the blood-bath at Stockholm and of how the body of Sten Sture, their beloved leader, had been torn from the grave and dishonored.

These stories filled their hearers with horror, terror, and fury; war and bloody retribution was their only cry; their hearts were filled with remorse that they had let Gustavus, their country's chief hope, depart unaided. Two of them, the fleetest snow-skaters of the region, were chosen to follow him and bring him back, and off they went through the forests, following his track, and at length finding him at Sälen, the last village in that section, and immediately at the foot of the lofty Norwegian mountains. A few words sufficed to tell him of the great change of feeling that had taken place, and with heart-felt joy Gustavus accompanied them back, to begin at length the great work of freeing his native land.