The Rapier of Gustav Vasa, King of Sweden
An article by Björn Hellqvist
There are many swords connected with known historical personalities, and as such they always attract a bit more interest. Finding out more about the men behind them and the times when they were used is often very rewarding. One of those swords is a rapier once owned by King Gustav of Sweden.
King Gustav Vasa of Sweden
Gustav, who was already held hostage in Denmark, fled to Lübeck in Germany but returned to Sweden when the king promised to show leniency towards the rebelling nobles. The king called to a meeting with the rebels, but Gustav chose to stay home. That was fortunate for him, as the king rounded up the nobles, bishops and burghers at the banquet and had them beheaded in the Great Square in Stockholm. Gustav's father, brother-in-law and uncles were murdered, together with about 75 other men in a mass execution known as "the Blood-bath of Stockholm".
The Vasa lands were confiscated, and Gustav's mother, grandmother and aunts were imprisoned. He knew that he had everything to gain and nothing to lose, so he started sowing the seeds of rebellion. The Danes pursued him, but he managed to evade them in a series of adventures. He succeeded in rousing the people, and did also receive backing from the Hanseatic League, which wanted the Danish king weakened. Soon he had a sizeable army, and in 1521 he was elected Regent of Sweden. His forces attacked the Danes in several engagements, and step by step, the Swedes managed to oust the hated Danes. In 1523, at the age of 27, Gustavus was elected King of Sweden. He set about reforming the country, using methods inspired by rulers like Henry VII and Henry VIII of England and Maximilian I of Germany, as well as contemporaries like Machavelli. Autocratic, cunning and with a frightful temper, he shaped the foundation for modern Sweden. When he died in 1560, Sweden had been transformed from a weak, poor, Catholic country to a Renaissance state with a Protestant church. He was a hard ruler, but ranks among the heroes of Swedish history.
The Use of Rapiers in Sweden
The word "värja" was used in medieval Swedish to denote "defence, weapon, protective weapon". In modern Swedish, "värja" and "rapir" (rapier) are synonymous. So, the word was used in a pretty broad sense, before it was applied on rapiers proper in the first half of the 17th century. Rapiers as such were usually referred to as "degen", "stossdegen" or "korde", the words being imported from German. The first textual evidence of the use of the word in Swedish is a reference to a rapier ("rapper") in an import document from 1546. One of the earliest Swedish references to what probably was a rapier proper is found in an inventory from 1543, where the nobleman Konrad von Pyhy has a "stoideghen" (stossdegen) listed, but there are also references to "korde" as early as 1524. The art of fencing was known; there's a reference in Olaus Magnus' monumental "Historia de gentibus septentrionalibus" ("History of the Nordic Peoples", Rome 1555) that the young Swedish nobles:
"Like the Northmen of old pursued athletic exercises in general, intended to maintain and strenghten their vigour, they also learned from fencing masters through diligent training the skills to deal and avoid swordcuts. And some of them were so skilled in the noble art of fencing, that they could unerringly hit their opponent's eyebrow. If someone cowardly flinched from such a blow, he was banished from court and lost his soldier's pay."
The Making of the Rapier
It is most likely that the blade was made in either Germany or in Arboga, and that a cutler made the hilt according to the latest fashion. The cutler could have lived in Germany, but I tend to favour the idea that a local cutler, perhaps of German origin, made the hilt in either Arboga or Stockholm. Perhaps it was presented to the King as one of the first swords to leave the Arboga smithies? King Gustav was fashion-conscious, so it is very possible that he ordered the sword just to keep up with other European rulers. The sword was probably never used in combat; in the 1550s, the King was ailing, and relied on his captains to take care of the fighting. It seems like the sword was of the right length for him, though. The King was about 5' 10" tall, an inch or so over average height in those days, so the sword was just about the right size for him.
After the death of King Gustav, the rapier had a few adventures. It became part of the Small Armoury, a collection of personal arms. Later, on the initiative of King Gustavus II Adolphus in the early 17th century, the collection became the The Royal Armoury Stockholm in 1654, and thus the oldest museum in the world. In 1697, the Royal Castle in Stockholm was destroyed by a fire. The rapier appears to have been tossed from a window in order to save it; one of the quillon finials was lost. For almost 450 years, it has been part of the collection, but at present it is kept in storage, making the odd apperance in travelling or temporary exhibitions. The sword was part of an exhibition touring the United States and England in 1988-89.
Measurements and Specifications:
The scholar A.V.B. Norman classifies this hilt form as a Type 43. The style first appeared in the second quarter of the 16th century. This would be the Northern or "German" variant, with a socket extending from the cross to cover the throat of the scabbard and the bases of the side rings. Also, the quillon shape is characteristic of the German style swords. This term is generally applied to swords of this style produced mostly north of the Alps, not necessarily in Germany proper.
Handling the Sword
After donning white cotton gloves, I was allowed to handle this piece of Swedish history. Despite the seemingly hefty weight, it wasn't slow or clumsy, but the gilt silver socket felt a bit in the way. The sword felt well-balanced and easy to handle, and I have no doubt that it would perform very well in combat.
I've handled the sword on two separate occasions, and I must say it was a treat to hold something that once belonged to one of our most significant kings. It is somewhat puzzling that this piece isn't on permanent display, but then several other pieces once carried by King Gustav can be seen instead. It is gratifying that Arms & Armor has chosen to make an accurate reproduction of this sword, as it is interesting not just because it once belonged to a king, but because it is a beautiful weapon, combining form and function to a perfect whole.
About the Author
Björn Hellqvist is a Swedish optometrist with an interest in historical European swords.
Thanks to Mr. Nils Drejholt, First keeper at the The Royal Armoury Stockholm, for letting me handle the original sword. Thanks are also due to J. Mark Bertrand, Craig Johnson and Michael "Tinker" Pearce for information and insights during the preparation of this article.
Sources and Bibliography
Royal Armoury inventory entry for item 13502
Alm, Josef: Blanka vapen och skyddsvapen (Stockholm 1932)
Cope, Anne (ed): Swords and Hilt Weapons (London 1989)
Granlund, John (ed.): Kulturhistoriskt lexikon för nordisk medeltid, vol. XX (Malmö 1976)
Göransson, Göte: Gustav Vasa och hans folk (Höganäs 1984)
Hellquist, Elof: Svensk etymologisk ordbok (Lund 1939)
Larsson, Lars-Olof: Gustav Vasa – landsfader eller tyrann? (Stockholm 2002)
Magnus, Olaus: Historia de gentibus septentrionalibus (Rome 1555, translated in 1906-25, paperback edition Stockholm 2001)
Meyerson, Åke: Vapenindustrierna i Arboga (Stockholm 1939)
Nordström, Lena: White Arms of the Royal Armoury (Stockholm 1984)
Norman, A.V.B.: The Rapier and Small-Sword 1460-1820 (Edinburgh 1980)
Seitz, Heribert: Svärd blir värja, Fornvännen vol. 5 (Stockholm 1945)
Seitz, Heribert: Svärdet och värjan som armévapen (Stockholm 1955)
Södervall, K.F.: Svenska medeltids-språket (1900-18)
Photographer: Björn Hellqvist