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At the beginning of the sixteenth century political power in Denmark was vested to a great extent in the hands of the bishops and nobles. It was by these two parties that the king was elected, and so great was their influence that, as a rule, the candidate chosen by their votes was obliged to accept any conditions they cared to impose. The bishops, as in most countries at the time, held enormous estates, granted to their predecessors by the crown or bequeathed by generous benefactors for the maintenance of religion. Unfortunately, with some exceptions, they were not men zealous for religious interests, or capable of understanding that a serious crisis was at hand. In every direction the need of reform was only too apparent, and, as such as work had not been undertaken by those who should have undertaken it, a splendid opportunity was afforded to the men who desired not the welfare of religion but rather the overthrow of the Church.
Christian II. (1513-23) wished to put an end to the supremacy of the bishops and nobles and to assert for himself and his successors absolute control. He was a man of great ability and determination, well acquainted with the tendencies of the age, and not particularly scrupulous about the means by which the success of his policy might be assured. To such a man Luther’s attack on the bishops of Germany seemed to be almost providential. He realised that by embracing the new religious system, which enabled him to seize the wealth of the Church and to concentrate in his own hands full ecclesiastical power, he could rid himself of one of the greatest obstacles to absolutism, and secure for himself and his successors undisputed sway in Denmark. Though his own life was scandalously immoral he determined to become the champion of a religious reformation, and against the wishes of the nobles, clergy, and people he invited a disciple of Luther’s to Copenhagen, and placed at his disposal one of the city’s churches. This step aroused the strongest opposition, but Christian, confident that boldness meant success, adopted stern measures to overcome his opponents. He proclaimed himself the patron of those priests who were willing to disregard their vows of celibacy, issued regulations against the unmarried clergy, and appealed to the people against the bishops and the nobles. As the Archbishop-elect of Lund was unwilling to show himself to be coerced into betraying the interests confided to his charge, the king commanded that he should be put to death.
By these violent methods he had hoped to frighten his subjects into compliance with his wishes, but he was doomed to speedy and complete disappointment. The bishops and barons, though divided on many questions, were at one in their resistance to such despotism, and they had behind them the great body of the people, who had little if any desire for a religious revolution. Christian II. was deposed, and in his place his uncle, Frederick I. (1523-33), became king of Denmark. At his coronation the new monarch pledged himself to defend the Catholic religion and to suppress heresy. Soon, however, motives similar to those that had influenced his predecessor induced him also to lean towards Lutheranism. At first his efforts for the spread of the new teaching were carried out secretly, but once he felt himself secure on the throne, he proclaimed himself publicly a Lutheran (1526) and invited Lutheran preachers to the capital. A Diet was called in 1527 at Odensee to consider the religious controversy that had arisen. In this assembly the king, basing his defence on the ground that though he had pledged himself to protect the Catholic Church he was under no obligation to tolerate abuses, contended that the suppression of abuses and the purifying of religion were the only objects he had at heart in the measures that he had taken. Owing mainly to his own stubbornness and the cowardly and wavering attitude of the bishops, it was agreed by the Diet that till a General Council could be convoked full toleration should be given to the Lutheran preachers, that in the meantime no civil disabilities should be inflicted on supporters of the new religion, that those of the clergy who wished to marry should be allowed to do so, that the archbishop should apply no longer to Rome for his pallium, and finally that the confirmation of the appointment of bishops should be transferred from the Pope to the king.
By these measures, to which the bishops offered only a faint opposition, Denmark was separated practically from the Holy See, and the first step was taken on the road that was to lead to national apostasy. The next important measure was the disputation arranged by the king to take place at Copenhagen in 1529. The very fact that at this meeting no Danish ecclesiastic capable of defending the Catholic faith was to be found, and that it was necessary to have recourse to Germany for champions of orthodoxy, is in itself a sufficient indication of the character of the bishops who then ruled in Denmark, and of the state of learning amongst the Danish clergy of the period. Eck and Cochlaeus were invited to come to Copenhagen, but as they had sufficient work to engage their attention at home, the duty of upholding Catholic doctrine devolved upon Stagefyr, a theologian of Cologne.1 He could not speak Danish, nor would the Lutheran party consent to carry on the conference in Latin. Furthermore, he claimed that the authority of the Fathers and the decrees of previous General Councils should be recognised, but the Lutherans insisted that the Bible was the only source from which Christians should receive their doctrines. In these circumstances, since a disputation was impossible, both parties agreed to submit a full statement of their views in writing to the king and council, who, as might have been anticipated, decided in favour of Lutheranism.
During the remainder of his reign, Frederick I. spared no pains to secure the victory for the new teaching in his dominions. The nobles were won over to the king’s views by promises of a share in the partition of ecclesiastical property, and those who wished to stand well with the sovereign were not slow in having recourse to violence as affording proof that their zeal for Lutheranism was sincere. Consequently the Lutheran party found themselves in a majority in the Diet of 1530, and were powerful enough to do as they pleased. In accordance with the example set in Germany and Switzerland attacks were begun on churches, pictures, and statues, but in many places the people were not prepared for such changes, and bitter conflicts took place between the rival parties. In the confusion that resulted the supporters of the deposed king rose in arms against his successful rival, and the country was subjected to the horrors of civil war. Frederick I. found it necessary to abandon the violent propagation of Lutheranism and to offer toleration to the Catholics.
On his death in 1533 the bishops of Denmark protested against the succession of his son Christian III. (1533-51) who was a personal friend of Luther, and who had already introduced Protestantism into his own state of Holstein; but as the nobles, won over by promises of a share in the spoliation of the Church, refused to make common cause with the bishops, their protest was unheeded. Confident that he could rely on the support of the nobles, the king gave secret instructions to his officials that on a certain day named by him all the bishops of Denmark should be arrested and lodged in prison. His orders were carried out to the letter (1536), and so rejoiced was Luther by this step that he hastened to send the king his warmest congratulations. The bishops were offered release on condition that they should resign their Sees and pledge themselves to offer no further opposition to the religious change. To their shame be it said that only one of their number, Ronnow, Bishop of Roskilde, refused to accept liberty on such disgraceful terms, preferring to remain a prisoner until he was released by death (1544). The priests who refused to accept the new religion were driven from their parishes, and several monasteries and convents were suppressed.
To complete the work of reform and to give the Church in Denmark a new constitution Bugenhagen, a disciple of Luther, was invited to the capital (1539). He began by crowning the king according to Lutheran ritual, and by drawing up a form of ecclesiastical government that placed full spiritual power in the hands of the civil ruler. As in Germany, superintendents were appointed in room of the bishops who had resigned. When the work of drawing up the new ecclesiastical organisation had been finished it was submitted to and approved of by the Diet held at Odensee in 1539. In another Diet held in 1546 the Catholic Church in Denmark was completely overthrown, her possessions were confiscated, her clergy were forbidden to remain in the country under penalty of death, and all lay Catholics were declared incapable of holding any office in the state or of transmitting their property to their Catholic heirs. By those measures Catholicism was suppressed, and victory was secured for the Lutheran party.
Norway, which was united with Denmark at this period, was forced into submission to the new creed by the violence of the Danish kings, aided as they were by the greedy nobles anxious to share in the plunder of the Church. Similarly Iceland, which was subject to Denmark, was separated from Rome, though at first the people offered the strongest resistance to the reformers. The execution, however, of their bishop, John Aresen, the example of Denmark and Norway, and the want of capable religious leaders produced their effects, and in the end Iceland was induced to accept the new religion (1551). For a considerable time Catholicism retained its hold on a large percentage of the people both in Norway and Iceland, but the severe measures taken by the government to ensure the complete extirpation of the Catholic hierarchy and priesthood led almost of necessity to the triumph of Lutheranism.
By the Union of Kalmar (1397) Sweden, Norway, and Denmark were united under the rule of the King of Denmark. The Union did not, however, bring about peace. The people of Sweden disliked the rule of a foreigner, and more than once they rose in rebellion against Denmark. In the absence of a strong central authority the clergy and nobles became the dominant factors in the state, especially as they took the lead in the national agitations against King Erik and his successors. As in most other countries at the time, the Church was exceedingly wealthy, the bishoprics and abbacies being endowed very generously, but unfortunately, as elsewhere, the progress of religion was not in proportion to the worldly possessions of its ministers. Endowment had destroyed the liberty of election so essential for good administration, with the result that the bishops and other ecclesiastical dignitaries were selected without much regard for their qualifications as spiritual guides. Yet it must be said that in general the administrators of the ecclesiastical property were not hard task-masters when compared with their lay contemporaries, nor was there anything like a strong popular feeling against the Church. Still the immense wealth of the religious institutions, the prevalence of abuses, and the failure of the clergy to instruct the people in the real doctrines of their faith were a constant source of menace to the Church in Sweden, and left it open to a crushing attack by a leader who knew how to win the masses to his side by proclaiming himself the champion of national independence and of religious reform.
In 1515 Sten Sture, the administrator of Sweden, supported by the Bishop of Linkoping as leader of the popular party, made a gallant attempt to rally his countrymen to shake off the Danish yoke. Unfortunately for the success of his undertaking he soon found a dangerous opponent in the person of Gustaf Trolle, Archbishop of Upsala, the nominee and supporter of the King of Denmark. The archbishop threw the whole weight of his influence into the scales of Denmark, and partly owing to his opposition, partly owing to the want of sufficient preparation the national uprising was crushed early in 1520. Christian II. was crowned King of Sweden by the Archbishop of Upsala. He signified his elevation to the throne by a general massacre of his opponents which lasted for two days, and during which many of the best blood of Sweden were put to death (Nov. 1520). The archbishop was rewarded for his services to Denmark by receiving an appointment as region or administrator of Sweden. He and his party made loud boast of their political victory, but had they been gifted with a little prudence and zeal they would have found good reason to regret a triumph that had been secured by committing the Church to the support of a Danish tyrant against the wishes of the majority who favoured national independence. Religion and patriotism were brought into serious conflict, and, given only a capable leader who would know how to conduct his campaign with skill, it was not difficult to foresee the results of such a conflict.
As it happened, such a leader was at hand in the person of Gustaf Eriksson, better known as Gustavus Vasa. His father had been put to death in the massacre of Stockholm, and he himself when a youth had been given as a hostage to the King of Denmark. He made his escape and fled to Lubeck, where he was kindly received, and remained until an opportunity arose for his return to Sweden. He placed himself immediately at the head of the party willing to fight against Denmark, called upon his countrymen to rally to his standard, and in a short time succeeded in driving the Danish forces from Sweden. He was proclaimed administrator of his country in 1521, and two years later a national Diet assembled at Strengnas offered him the crown.
Such an offer was in exact accordance with his own wishes. But he had no intention of becoming king of Sweden merely to remain a tool in the hands of the spiritual and lay lords as the kings of Denmark had remained. Determined in his own mind to make himself absolute ruler of Sweden by crushing the bishops and barons, he recognised that Luther’s teaching, with which he was familiar owing to his stay at Lubeck, held out good hopes for the success of such a project. The warm attachment of the Bishop of Upsala for the Danish faction had weakened the devotion of the people to the Church, and had prepared the way for the change which Gustavus contemplated. Some of the Swedish ecclesiastics, notably the brothers Olaf and Laurence Peterson, both students of Wittenberg, the former a well-known preacher at Stockholm, the latter a professor at Upsala, were strongly Lutheran in their tendencies, and were ready to assist the king. Though in his letters to Rome and in his public pronouncements Gustavus professed himself to be a sincere son of the Church, anxious only to prevent at all costs the spread of Lutheranism in his dominions, he was taking steps secretly to encourage his Lutheran supporters and to rid himself of the bishops and members of the religious orders from whom he feared serious opposition. As was done elsewhere, he arranged for a public disputation at which Olaf Peterson undertook to defend the main principles advocated by Luther, but the results of the controversy were not so satisfactory for his party as he had anticipated.
Gustavus now threw off the mask of hypocrisy, and came forward boldly as the champion of the new religion. He removed those bishops who were most outspoken in their opposition, banished the Dominicans who stood loyal to Rome, and tried to force the clergy to accept the change. Anxious to enrich his treasury by confiscating the wealth of the Church he scattered broadcast Luther’s pamphlet on the confiscation of ecclesiastical property, and engaged the professors of the University of Upsala to use their efforts to defend and popularise the views it contained. A commission was appointed to make an inventory of the goods of the bishops and religious institutions and to induce the monasteries to make a voluntary surrender of their property. By means of threats and promises the commissioners secured compliance with the wishes of the king in some districts, though in others, as for example in Upsala, the arrival of the commission led to scenes of the greatest violence and commotion. More severe measures were necessary to overawe the people, and Gustavus was not a man to hesitate at anything likely to promote the success of his plans. Bishop Jakobson and some of the clergy were arrested, and after having been treated with every species of indignity were put to death (1527).
In this year, 1527, a national Diet was held at Vesteras principally for the discussion of the religious difficulties that had arisen. Both parties, the supporters of the old and of the new, mustered their forces for a final conflict. Gustavus took the side of the so-called reformers, and proposed the measures which he maintained were required both in the interests of religion and of the public weal. The Catholic party were slightly in the majority and refused to assent to these proposals. Gustavus, though disappointed at the result, did not despair. He announced to the Diet that in view of its refusal to agree to his terms he could undertake no longer the government and defence of the country. A measure such as this, calculated to lead to anarchy and possibly to a new subjugation of the country by Denmark, was regarded by both sides as a national disaster, and secured for the king the support of the waverers. The masses of the people were alarmed lest their opposition might lead to the restoration of Danish tyranny, while the support of the nobles was secured by the publication of a decree authorising them to resume possession of all property handed over by their ancestors to religious institutions for the last eighty years. The remainder of the possessions of the Church were appropriated for the royal treasury. The king now issued a proclamation in favour of the new religion, insisted on the adoption of a liturgy in the vulgar tongue, and abolished clerical celibacy. At the National Assembly of Orebro (1529) the Catholic religion was abolished in favour of Lutheranism, and two years later Laurence Peterson was appointed first Lutheran Archbishop of Upsala.
Though the Lutheran teaching had been accepted, great care was taken not to shock the people by any violent change. Episcopal government of the Church was retained; most of the Catholic ritual in regard to the sacraments and the Mass was adopted in the new liturgy, and even in some cases the pictures and statues were not removed from the churches. But the revolution that Gustavus had most at heart was fully accomplished. The authority of the Pope had been overthrown, and in his place the king had been accepted as the head of the Swedish Church. Nor did the Lutheran bishops find themselves in the enjoyment of greater liberty and respect as a result of their treason to the Church. Gustavus warned them that they must not carry themselves like lords, and if they would attempt to wield the sword he would know how to deal with them in a summary manner. Resenting such dictation and tyranny they began to attack Gustavus in their sermons and to organise plots for the overthrow of his government. The conspiracy was discovered (1540). Olaf and Laurence Peterson, the two prominent leaders of the reforming party, were condemned to death, but were reprieved on the payment of a large fine. Laurence was, however, removed from his position as Archbishop of Upsala. In the Diet of Vesteras in 1544 the crown of Sweden was declared to be hereditary, and was vested in the family and heirs of Gustavus. Thus the well-considered policy of Gustavus was crowned with success. By means of the Lutheran revolt he had changed the whole constitution of the country, had made himself absolute master of Sweden, and had secured the succession to the throne for his own family.
But he had not broken the power of his opponents so completely as to bring peace to his country, nor, if credence be given to the proclamations in which he bewailed the increase of evil under the plea of evangelical freedom, did the reformed religion tend to the elevation of public morals. On his death in 1560 he was succeeded by his son Erik XIV. (1560-9). Hardly had the new king been proclaimed than the principle of private judgment introduced by the reformers began to produce its natural results. Calvinism, which was so opposed to Lutheranism both in doctrine and in church government, found its way into Sweden, and attracted the favourable notice of the king. Regardless for the time being of the Catholic Church, which to all appearances was dead in Sweden, the two parties, Lutherans and Calvinists, struggled for supremacy. Erik was won over to the side of the Calvinists, and measures were taken to overcome the Lutherans by force, but the king had neither the capacity nor the energy of his father. The plan miscarried; the Calvinists were defeated (1568), and Erik was deposed and imprisoned.
His younger brother John succeeded to the throne under the title John III. He was a man of considerable ability, and was by no means satisfied with the new religion. His marriage with Catharine, sister of Sigismund, King of Poland, herself a devoted Catholic, who stipulated for liberty to practice her religion, helped to make him more favourable to a Catholic revival. He set himself to study the Scriptures and writings of the Holy Fathers under the guidance of Catharine’s chaplains, and convinced himself that he should return to the Catholic Church and endeavour to rescue his country from the condition of heresy into which it had fallen. He allowed the monks and nuns who were still in Sweden to form communities again, and endeavoured to win over the clergy by a series of ordinances couched in a Catholic tone which he issued for their guidance. In 1571 he induced the Archbishop of Upsala to publish a number of regulations known as the Agenda, which both in ritual and doctrine indicated a return to Rome, and he employed some Jesuit missionaries to explain the misrepresentations of Catholic doctrine indulged in by the Lutheran and Calvinist leaders. His greatest difficulty in bringing about a reunion was the presence of Lutheran bishops, but fortunately for him many of them were old men whose places were soon vacant by death, to whose Sees he appointed those upon whom he could rely for support. When he thought the time was ripe he summoned a National Synod in 1574, where he delivered an address deploring the sad condition to which religious dissensions had reduced the country. He pointed out that such a state of affairs had been brought about by the Reformation and could be remedied only by a return to the Church. The address received from the clergy a much more favourable reception than he had anticipated. As the Archbishopric of Upsala was vacant, he secured the election of an archbishop, who have his adhesion to seventeen articles of faith wholly satisfactory to Catholics, and who allowed himself to be consecrated according to the Catholic ritual. He promised also to use his influence to secure the adhesion of the other bishops. In 1576 the king issued a new liturgy, The Red Book of Sweden, which was adopted by the Diet in 1577, and accepted by a large body of the clergy. Its principal was the king’s brother, Karl, Duke of Suthermanland, who for political reasons had constituted himself head of the Lutheran party, and who refused to agree with the Roman tendencies of the king on the ground that they were opposed to the last wishes of Gustavus and to the laws of Sweden. A disputation was arranged to take place at Upsala, where the Belgian Jesuit, Laurence Nicolai, vindicated triumphantly against his Lutheran opponents the Catholic teaching on the Church and the Mass. Copies of the celebrated catechism of the Blessed Peter Canisius were circulated throughout Sweden, and made an excellent impression on the people.
Encouraged by these hopeful signs, the king despatched an embassy to Rome to arrange for the reconciliation of Sweden to the Church. The royal commissioners were instructed to request, that owing to the peculiar circumstances of the country, permission should be given for Communion under both kinds, for the celebration of the Mass in the Swedish language, and for the abrogation of the law of celibacy at least in regard to the clergy who were already married. Gregory XIII., deeply moved by the king’s offer of a reunion, sent the Jesuit, Anthony Possevin, as his legate to discuss the terms. John set an example himself by abjuring publicly his errors and by announcing his submission to the Church (1578).
A commission was appointed at Rome to discuss the concessions which the king demanded, and unfortunately the decision was regarded in Sweden as unfavourable. A warm controversy, fomented and encouraged by the enemies of reunion, broke out between the opponents and supporters of the new liturgy. Duke Karl, who had now become the hope of the Lutheran party, did everything he could to stir up strife, while at the same time Rome refused to accept the terms proposed by the king. Indignant at what he considered the unreasonable attitude of the Roman authorities, John began to lose his enthusiasm for his religious policy, and after the death of his wife who was unwavering in her devotion to her religion, there was no longer much hope that Sweden was to be won from heresy (1584). The king married another who was strongly Lutheran in her sympathies, and who used her influence over him to secure the expulsion of the Jesuits. Though John III. took no further steps to bring about reunion he could not be induced to withdraw the liturgy, the use of which he insisted upon till his death in 1592.
His son Sigismund III. should have succeeded. He was an ardent Catholic as his mother had been, but as he had been elected King of Poland (1586) he was absent from Sweden when the throne became vacant by the death of his father. Duke Karl and his friends did not fail to take advantage of his absence. When the Synod met the senators demanded that Sigismund should accept the Augsburg Confession as a condition for his election to the throne. To this Sigismund sent the only reply that a good Catholic and an honest man could send, namely, a blunt refusal. His uncle, Duke Karl, the acting regent of Sweden, took steps to seduce the Swedish people from their allegiance to their lawful king, and to prepare the way for his own accession. He proclaimed himself the protector of Lutheranism and endeavoured to win over the bishops to his side. In a national Assembly held at Upsala (The “Upsala-mote” 1593) after a very violent address from the regent against the Catholic Church, the bishops confessed that they had blundered in accepting the liturgy of John III., and the Assembly declared itself strongly in favour of the Augsburg Confession.
When, therefore, Sigismund returned to claim the throne he found that Lutheranism was entrenched safely once more, and that even the most moderate of the bishops appointed by his father must be reckoned with as opponents. The clergy united with Duke Karl in stirring up the people against him. In these conditions he was forced to abandon his projects of reform, and to entrust his uncle with the administration of Sweden when he himself was obliged to return to Poland. While Sigismund was engaged in Poland, the regent conducted a most skilful campaign, nominally on behalf of Protestantism, but in reality to secure the deposition of Sigismund and his own election to the throne. In the Diet of Suderkoping (1595) Sigismund was condemned for having bestowed appointments on Catholics and for having tolerated the Catholic religion in his kingdom of Sweden, and it was ordered that all who professed the doctrines of Rome should abandon their errors within six months under pain of expulsion from the country. The Archbishop of Upsala made a visitation of the churches, during which he ordered that all those who absented themselves from the Lutheran service should be flogged in his presence, that the pictures, statues, and reliquaries should be destroyed, and that the liturgy introduced by John III. should be abolished. The greatest violence was used towards the supporters of King Sigismund, most of whom were either Catholic or at least favourably inclined towards Catholicism.
Enraged by a decree that no edict of the king should have any binding force unless confirmed by the Swedish Diet, and driven to desperation by the tyranny and oppression of the regent, some of Sigismund’s followers raised the standard on behalf of their king, and Sigismund returned to Sweden with an army of five thousand men. He found himself opposed by the forces of the regent against whom he was at first successful, but in his treatment of his uncle and his rebel followers he showed himself far too forgiving. In return for his kindness, having strengthened themselves by a large army they forced him to submit to the decision of a national Assembly to be held at Jonkoping (1599). At this meeting Duke Karl accused the king of endeavouring to plunge Sweden once more into the errors from which it had been rescued by the reformers. In May of the same year a resolution was passed declaring that the king had forfeited the allegiance of his subjects unless he yielded to their demands, and more especially unless he handed over his son and heir to be reared by the regent as a Protestant. Many of his supporters, including nine members of the Council of State, were put to death. Finally in 1604 Sigismund was formally deposed, and the crown was bestowed on his uncle, Duke Karl, who became king under the title of Charles IX. Protestantism had triumphed at last in Sweden, but even its strongest supporters would hardly like to maintain that the issue was decided on religious grounds, or that the means adopted by Charles IX. to secure the victory were worthy of the apostle of a new religion.
Chapter II Section (c) Footnote
1 A Franciscan. He was the author of the Confutatio Lutheranismi Danici, edited and published 1902.
Chapter II Section (c) Bibliography
See bibliography, chap. ii. (a). Karup, Geschichte der Katholischen Kirche in Danemark, 1863. Munter, Kirchengeschichte von Danemark und Norwegen, 1823. Theiner-Cohen, La Suede et la Saint-Siege sous les rois Jean III., Sigismond III., et Charles IX., 1842. Butler, The Reformation in Sweden, 1884. De Flaux, La Suede au XVIme siecle, 1861. Englestoft, Reformantes et Catholici tempore, quo sacra emendata sunt, in Dania concertantes, 1836. Schmitt, Die Verteidigung der Kathol. Kirche in Danemark gegen die Religionsneuerung im 16en Jahr, 1899. Confutatio Lutheranismi Danici, etc. (written 1530, ed. 1902).
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Created November 13, 2000; revised November 19, 2000.