lace up your battle skis
Or, why you should never give a silly nickname to Sweden's King Gustav I
In this issue of Dirtbags Through the Ages, I invite you to journey with me to the far north of Europe, to a corner of history I have never explored in my life before this week.
(This is to say that if you’re an expert in Swedish history or something, be gentle with me, I’m new here.)
The reason we’re going on this learning journey is that my friend Ann Foster of the Vulgar History podcast (aka the unofficial audio companion to this newsletter) was researching the Swedish monarchy for her own reasons, and she sent me this tantalizing detail that sent me down a rabbit hole:
Obviously, I started reading more about Gustav I of Sweden, hoping desperately that there would be more wild facts to go with this tidbit.
Reader, there were. So let’s go.
Swede Child O’ Mine
To set the scene, Gustav Eriksson was born just northeast of Stockholm in about 1496. That means by the time Gustav was an adult, other European monarchs in power included:
Noted asshole King Henry VIII of England
Noted “guy with a big nose” Francis I of France
Noted “only Holy Roman Emperor I know” Charles V
Noted Not a Nice Guy Ivan the Terrible of Russia (give or take a few years)
If that helps you fill out the general timeline.
I’m absolutely not going to get into the dynastic history of Sweden’s noble families, because I am not as yet getting paid for this newsletter, so the amount of research I’m willing to put in is limited. Suffice to say, Gustav Eriksson was born into a rich and important family that was destined to get even richer and importanter.
Gustav Cow Butt
When Gustav was about 20ish, he and his father got involved in a revolution to win Sweden’s independence from the Kalmar Union, an agreement that unified Sweden, Denmark, and Norway under a single monarch. Gustav was not a fan of the “three countries, one king” setup and tried to get a Swede named Sten Sture instated as the king of Sweden.
It didn’t go well, and Gustav was taken hostage by the king of the Kalmar Union, Christian II. I don’t know much about Christian II, except that he fulfills the requirements of this newsletter by having a royal portrait that is at least 30% hat.
All of Christian II’s other hostages gave up their revolutionary ideals and switched sides to support the Kalmar Union, except for Gustav, who was known for many things but not his ability to compromise. Instead, Gustav disguised himself as a cowherd and escaped from prison concealed amid a herd of bulls, hightailing it back to Sweden.
All well and good for Gustav! Except word got out that he’d been hiding with a bunch of cows, and the Swedes—who apparently were real good at nicknames—started calling him Gustav Cow Butt.
I love this. Gustav did not.
Did he get so angry about being called Gustav Cow Butt that he decided to become King of Sweden just to fuckin’ show em? History does not verify this, but it’s my theory.
Ski Ski Revolution
To be fair, Gustav had other good reasons to be pissed off at this point. By the end of 1520, Christian II had killed Sten Sture, as well as Gustav’s father and two of his uncles, in a historical event evocatively called the “Stockholm Bloodbath.” (Which, yikes.)
So Gustav decided that instead of picking a new revolutionary leader, he should buckle on his big-boy snowshoes and do it himself.
He spent the next while, from 1520 to 1522, cruising about Scandinavia trying to raise an army to overthrow Christian II and instate himself as king of an independent Sweden. It didn’t go particularly well at first, and most of the people he tried to win over immediately tried to kill him.
So he spent a lot of time running away.
Eventually though, those people changed their minds! They decided that the guy they’d just chased toward Norway might actually be a better king than Christian II, and so they strapped on their skis and chased after him.
Like the 16th-century equivalent of that guy chasing you into the parking lot to tell you you left your credit card at Chili’s, except what you forgot is the throne of Sweden.
The army caught up with Gustav at a place called Mora, and once Gustav realized he suddenly had an army, they turned around and warrior-skiied back to Sweden to fight the Kalmar Union.
Apparently the Swedes hold a 56-mile cross-country ski race along this same path every year to commemorate this rare and powerful instance of Battle Skiing. If the modern-day race isn’t as delightfully wacky as this anecdote, I will riot.
The Battle Skiing ended in a series of big-ass battles, negotiations, and various dynastic dramas that, essentially, ended with Gustav Eriksson becoming first regent, and then king of Sweden in 1523.
Tyrant’s Gonna Tyrant
So what happened after that? Sort of a lot. Not much of it very nice.
Not only did Gustav I not like the Kalmar Union, but he also did not like the Catholic Church. He got in a petty fight with Pope Clement VII that eventually led to him breaking from Rome altogether, writing his own Bible, and basically telling the pope to go fuck himself—like three months after Henry VIII did the same thing.
He also had three wives and died (maybe) of an infected leg, which really feels like Gustav I was reading the Sparknotes version of whatever handbook Henry VIII was following, but anyway.
A lot of Gustav’s activities as king involved brutally suppressing rebellions, and most of the sources I consulted ended with a paragraph saying “uhhhhhh not a great guy. Kind of a tyrannical shit, actually.” Although I am delighted by the rumor that he killed a man in 1547 for calling him “King Gustav Cow Butt.”
That’s all for this episode of Allison Quickly Learns About Swedish History, friends. I’m aiming for one more newsletter before the end of 2021, so if you have a request, drop it in the comments!
And as always, thanks a million for sharing this newsletter with your friends. I’m but a lowly historical fiction author writing this newsletter on her lunch break to share her favorite silly anecdotes and remind you all that the paperback of A Tip for the Hangman is out in a few weeks so my publicist doesn’t get mad at me. The fact that I have any readers at all is a delightful surprise.
Be well, and be careful who you call Cow Butt,