Reviews A chancellor who also cared for commoners. Power politics with letters as weapons

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds Pages 41-42, Vol 4.2010
Published on on januari 11, 2011

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No other Swede has wielded as much power for as long a time as Axel Oxenstierna. He became a member of the Council of the Realm in 1608, was appointed Lord High Chancellor at New Year’s in 1612, and held that post until his death on August 27, 1654. In present-day terms, this is the equivalent of being Prime Minister, Minister for Foreign Affairs, long-term Minister for Finance, the operations manager for the entire civic administration, and also the person responsible for the State’s commercial enterprises, which dominated the Swedish economy at that time.

Axel Oxenstierna is Sweden’s sole European statesman. Together with Cardinal Richelieu (and later Mazarin), he dominated the anti-Habsburg forces in Europe from the early 1630s until the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 and the execution date in Nuremberg in 1650. His status was on a par with that of Trautmannsdorff in the Empire and Olivares in Spain.

However, there is an important difference. His contemporaries gained their positions on the strength of a ruler’s favor. Oxenstierna was very different in that he had to work to attain his position. He sat on the Swedish Council of the Realm under four different regents (Karl IX, Gustav II Adolf, Christina, and Karl X Gustav); he was compelled to seek the approval of the Estates of the Realm in matters regarding taxes and conscriptions, and not even in the Council of the Realm did he always have the majority on his side.

Over the years the Swedish Chancellor became a European celebrity. Just before his death, Cromwell’s emissary Bulstrode Whitelocke sought him out. Upon Whitelocke’s return to London, the Lord Protector asked him about his impressions of Oxenstierna:

Prot. The Chancellor of the Realm appears to be quite a shrewd man?

Wh. He is the wisest man I have ever met outside of England, and lives up to his reputation in all particulars.

Few statesmen have been so constructive. Many have exercised power in ways that leave little lasting trace, but Oxenstierna’s efforts put their permanent stamp on Swedish society and the State government, and even influenced the development of other countries. He was active in practically every area of civic life; he founded institutions that still exist today, and established standards that have guided their operations ever since.

It is possible to get to know him rather well. Oxenstierna was a formidable writer of letters. Some of them were lost in the fire that destroyed Tre Kronor Castle in 1697, while others have been misappropriated by greedy autograph collectors, but 10,000 outgoing and 30,000 incoming letters have been preserved. The Swedish Academy of Letters, History and Antiquities began publishing the letters in the late 1800s, and had amassed some thirty volumes by the time the publications trailed off in 1977. The Academy and the Swedish National Archives resurrected the project a few years ago, with State Archivist Helmut Backhaus serving as its eminent expert and coordinator.

Axel Oxenstierna had the worst penmanship in Swedish history, which is why the printed edition is needed. I once heard Backhaus say, “Whenever I get a new original letter, I know that I have a tough workweek ahead of me.” Even after the chicken scratches have been deciphered, they are still not entirely easy to read, but anyone who starts to spell out the old Swedish, Latin, and German walks straight into the sorcerer’s workshop.

Because Oxenstierna and his contemporaries traveled a great deal, the letters capture much of the political maneuvering of the time. He communicated what he wanted to have done through letters and writings. The reader can follow the Lord High Chancellor through uncertainties, emergency solutions, and bold initiatives; the information and questions contained in the incoming letters are addressed in the outgoing correspondence, and on a few occasions Oxenstierna even checks himself, turning a harsh draft version into a milder letter.

The original volumes have seen the addition of several important supplementations in recent years. A year or two ago the Latinist Arne Jönsson published Jan Rutgers’s and James Spens’s letters to the Chancellor, with an emphasis on the period around 1620. Rutgers and Spens were among the foreigners with whom Oxenstierna associated in the Swedish Foreign Service. They were charged with keeping the King and the Chancellor informed about the actions in Europe in which Sweden was becoming involved, with the invasion in 1630, during the Thirty Years’ War, being the most important venture.

At that juncture Oxenstierna was already in Prussia, where he had been serving as Governor General in Elbing since 1626. Prussia was at that time under Poland, a country with which Sweden had been at war off and on ever since Prince Karl, later Karl IX, ousted Sigismund in 1598. Eventually the Chancellor set off to find the King, following him on his route down through Germany. When Gustav II Adolf fell in the Battle of Lützen outside Leipzig in 1632, Oxenstierna took over his role as the Swedish Crown’s official legate at the battle site, but he also became the leading figure in the Regency.

Oxenstierna returned from ten years in Germany in 1636. The earlier editions come to a halt there; from that point on Oxenstierna worked in and through the State apparatus that he himself had created, and the tracks he left were fewer and less distinct than those left when he governed through his letters. A few later letters have been published in other contexts, but the bulk of them remain in the archives.

In the new issue, Backhaus has reconsidered some of the principles underlying the earlier efforts. The first editions concentrated on official State activities, and tended away from private correspondence. Backhaus has instead chosen to publish a selection taken from the entire body of correspondence, from major instructions and directives to recommendations for worn-out crofts, New Year’s greetings to other potentates, and orders to the bailiffs on the numerous estates.

Even though Oxenstierna had returned to Sweden, there were still many government actions that had to be managed through correspondence. The Swedish armies remained in Germany almost the entire time, and Oxenstierna writes to Johan Banér, Lennart Torstensson, and other field commanders concerning both the troops and the politics. The negotiations in Osnabrück and Münster began in the 1640s, leading after many twists and turns to the Peace of Westphalia.

Oxenstierna’s tenure as Chancellor had begun with the humiliating Peace of Knäred with Denmark in 1613, when Sweden had to pay 10 casks of gold to redeem Älvsborg Fortress, a sum that was equivalent to the government’s entire income for two years. The military situation gradually changed, and the King and Oxenstierna ultimately considered eliminating Denmark to keep a line of retreat open upon entering the war with Germany.

At long last, Oxenstierna pursued his plans in earnest. During the winter and spring of 1643 he coaxed his colleagues in the Council of the Realm to resolve to attack Sweden’s neighbor to the south. On May 24 the Chancellor wrote to Field Marshall Lennart Torstensson, ordering him to shake off the imperial troops and move from Germany into Holstein and Jutland. The only problem: where was Torstensson? Oxenstierna’s messengers searched for months before they finally located the Swedish army and were able to turn over the pages of documents; first the propaganda justifying the attack, and then practical suggestions for how to confound the enemy.

Then France and the naval powers entered the picture. The French wanted Sweden to concentrate on the war in Germany, while England and the Netherlands saw an opportunity to ease the harsh Danish customs tariffs in Öresund. Axel Oxenstierna went down to the negotiations in Brömsebro in Southern Sweden and forced the Danes to relinquish Halland for 30 years. After the peace had been concluded, a highly pleased Oxenstierna wrote of how the Queen had made him the Count of Södermöre; one of Europe’s most powerful statesmen had long been a mere baron.

On occasion the reader lands right in the middle of the power politics of the 1600s. Many of Oxenstierna’s efforts at domestic reform were codified in the regeringsform of 1634, Sweden’s first constitution. Oxenstierna claimed that the draft version had been reviewed by the King, who had wanted only a few minor changes. Right up until the 300th anniversary, some historians questioned just how complicit the fallen Gustav II Adolf had actually been. They were inclined to view the constitution rather as Oxenstierna’s attempt to assert the influence of the noble oligarchy at the expense of the power of the Crown, pointing to the heavy representation of the extended Oxenstierna family in the Council of the Realm and the five-man government.

I have wondered for a number of years whether such theories are not overly conspiratorial. Axel Oxenstierna had a cousin named Gabriel Bengtsson who, in 1634, was appointed Lord High Treasurer, the equivalent of the modern Minister for Finance. Even early on there was reason to suspect that Axel was not particularly pleased with the choice. Although the cousin bore the Oxenstierna name, he often voted with the opposition in the Council of the Realm. The Lord High Chancellor’s skepticism is borne out in the new edition. Gabriel writes to his cousin Axel asking for advice: Queen Christina has offered him the position of Governor General in Riga. The Chancellor devotes several pages to convincing his cousin to accept the position, citing as the most laughable reason Gabriel’s recurrent headaches at his position.

His private letters reveal Oxenstierna to be rather a wise and, on occasion, kind master. He asks the City of Enköping to arrange for a hospital bed for an aged Karin in Enögla, who had been disowned by her husband and children, and he arranges care for a schoolteacher in Jäder parish. In 1651, during the famine years, he tells his bailiff to go easy on collecting the grain taxes, “so that you don’t tear the bread from out of their mouths”, although, on the other hand, the bailiff is also to make sure to collect even more beef and pork, as the crop failure affected only grains. In the fall of 1646, Axel’s daughter told him that the dairymaids were underpaid. Her father then wrote to Bailiff Peder Andersson, asking him to review their wages, “so that they won’t leave their positions because of this”. But he also looks out for his own interests: when the compensation for the Peace of Westphalia is to be divided, he writes numerous letters to secure his share of the proceeds.

He was troubled by gout as early as the 1620s. In his old age he suffered from shingles, broken bones, blood clots, and eye problems, but, even just a few weeks before his death in August of 1654, he wrote letter after letter. When Magnus Gabriel De la Gardie falls out of favor with Christina in the spring of 1653, everyone involved writes to Axel, and the wary Chancellor copies the Queen’s letter before forwarding it to her successor and Magnus’s brother-in-law, Margrave Karl (X) Gustav.

The reader can revel in the Chancellor’s use of language. Power had to be rooted among the commoners even back then; pithy expressions pertaining to peasant matters find their way into the letters. He complains of the defections of allies, but does not feel that they “should […] spin silk” either. When the time comes to fulfill the conditions of the Peace of Westphalia, he grunts like a second Reagan, saying that negotiations without weapons are like “a bell without a clapper”.

Unfortunately, I myself can only struggle through the Latin, but those with a better mastery of that language can attest that the enjoyment to be derived from his correspondence with statesmen and scholars outside of Sweden is equally great.

Helmut Backhaus concludes his foreword with a brief, modest proposal. He had to leave out the letters to Axel’s wife, Anna Bååt, and to his sons, Johan and Erik, “which, however, would be well worth collecting in a separate volume”. Yes, absolutely: his letters to his idler son, Johan, offer glowing instruction in timeless statecraft. ≈

  • by Gunnar Wetterberg

    Head of research at Saco, The Swedish Confederation of Professional Associations. Author of a biography of Axel Oxenstierna. Holds an honorary doctorate from Lund University.

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Rikskanslern Axel Oxenstiernas skrifter och brevväxling Avd. 2. Bd 13 Brev från Jacob Spens och Jan Rutgers Utgivna av Arne Jönsson [Lord High Chancellor Axel Oxenstierna’s writings and correspondence II:13 Letters from Jacob Spens and Jan Rutgers Published by Arne Jönsson] Royal Swedish Academy of Letters, History and Antiquities (2007) 643 pages Rikskanslern Axel Oxenstiernas skrifter och brevväxling Avd. 1. Bd 16 Brev 1636–1654 Del 1–2 Utgivna av Helmut Backhaus [Lord High Chancellor Axel Oxenstierna’s writings and correspondence I:16 Letters 1636–1654 Parts 1–2. Published by Helmut Backhaus] Royal Swedish Academy of Letters, History and Antiquities/Swedish National Archives (2009) 883 pages.