The Lesser Coat of Arms



The Swedish Empire and the Baltic Nations
By Erik Esvelt

Map: Putzgers, F.W., Historischer Schul-Atlas, Bielefeld, 1929


The 17th Century was a time of significant changes in the Baltic region. A new power had forcefully imposed its rule on the area, and the Baltic lands suffered the ravages of war and all the consequent sufferings it brings. The Swedish Empire, expanded by the Vasa Dynasty, had reached the Daugava River by 1629 with the end of the Livonian War. It had taken since 1561, when Sweden first gained control of northern Estonia with the breakup of the Livonian Confederation, to expand its borders this far, mostly through wars with Russia and Poland. Despite all these efforts, Sweden was to lose power in these territories to Russia in 1710, during the reign of Charles XII. During the eighty years between the Thirty Years' War and the Great Northern War Sweden left a lasting impact on the makeup of the people that were soon to grow into the Estonians and Latvians.

During the time of Swedish rule, several social changes began to take form that became a part of Baltic culture. Christianity in the form of the Lutheran church expanded, bringing greater availability of education, and literature in the vernacular of the peasantry. The Swedish government attempted to make reforms in the quality of lives for the serfs of the land, which were greatly exploited by the mostly foreign nobility, and even achieved some modest advancements. Happenings such as these greatly affected the Latvian and Estonian peoples and this was felt when they were brought under control of Russia in the 18th Century. The peasantry had learned what it was like to live under more humanitarian conditions and they expected to continue with a higher standard of living than the thoroughly oppressive feudalism they experienced before Swedish reform. Education had become important, and they were beginning to realize the use of their own language in literature. These were important tools to sustain these peoples as unique cultures through a long period of Russian rule, and important in recognizing the need to become individual nations.


A Brief Military History of the Swedish Empire

During Sweden's reign of the Vasa Dynasty, this periphery northern Europe country changed from a small, insignificant land of peasants into a major European power. The person given the majority of the credit for this achievement is Gustav II Adolphus.(4) In the 16th century, with the breakup of the Livonian Confederation, several foreign powers saw the chance for acquiring new territories. The territory covered by the Livonian Confederation consisted of land from the approximate middle of present-day Latvia northwards to the Gulf of Finland, and west of Lake Peipsi to the Gulf of Riga, including the Courland Peninsula and the Estonian islands of Saaremaa and Hiiumaa. This area was initially divided up by Swedish, Russian and Danish forces, with Poland ready to try for gains of its own. The Russians initially began driving Sweden out of the area, and Swedish forces were left only in Tallinn by 1576. Sweden was soon able to commit more to the war effort, at a time when Ivan the Terrible's interest in the Baltic was waning, and Sweden controlled northern Estonia and Narva by 1595.

From 1600 to 1629 Sweden and Poland fought sporadically, in the Livonian Wars, with Sweden making consistent territorial advances due to its more advanced weaponry and systems of warfare. These most notably consisted of cannon and musket made of lighter construction, but still being as powerful as any opponents'. Sweden's military was better trained and disciplined, utilizing more efficient methods of constant firepower and interdependence between different units.(4) The Peace of Altmark signed in 1629 ended the Livonian Wars and defined the Baltic area north of the Daugava River as Swedish.(5) During the years just preceeding the Thirty Years' War, Sweden also acquired Ingria from Russia. This completed Sweden's acquisition of its Baltic lands.

Elsewhere during this time, Sweden was called for to assist in Germany against the advance of the Holy Roman Empire in these lands. Gustav II responded to the call to defend other Protestant lands and fought the forces of the Holy Roman Empire until his death in 1632. Axel Oxenstierna, the chancellor during Queen Christina's regency, carried on Gustav's campaign and Sweden continued to fight until the Thirty Years War ended in 1648. The Peace of Westphalia retained territories in the north of Germany and Pomerania for Sweden. Charles X accomplished further territorial gains in his campaign against Denmark. In doing so he acquired for Sweden the provinces of Halland, Blekinge, and Skane, which make up the natural southern border of the Swedish peninsula.(4) Charles X also waged successful war for a brief time in Poland. His invasions dramatically weakened the defense of the Commonwealth, which would soon see its breakup.(1)

In 1697, at the age of fifteen, Charles XII assumed a throne made very strong by his father, Charles XI. Charles XII quickly proved his tenacity for war in his defeat of the invading Russian troops at Narva. He mistakenly led an unsuccessful advance into Russia, however, and lost a major battle to the Russian tsar, Peter the Great, at Poltova in 1709. Given this opportunity, the Russians advanced into the Baltic provinces, capturing Tallinn in 1710 and effectively ending Swedish rule in these territories. After several years of imprisonment by the Turks, Charles XII returned to Sweden which had lost Finland in addition to it's Baltic provinces to Russia, and also had its German provinces overrun by enemies. After a few years of diversionary warfare which successfully deflected further losses, Charles XII was killed while leading an invasion into Norway. Swedish expansionism died with Charles XII, and the only cross-Baltic territory Sweden retained was a small part of Pomerania and Bohuslen.(4)


The Economy of the Baltic Provinces under Sweden

The Baltic Provinces became extremely important to Sweden economically during the age of Swedish Empire. During years of poor harvest, the surplus of produce in the Baltics made up for any shortages and avoided any need for Sweden to import food. This was important to Sweden economically and strategically, as it avoided any dependencies on any potentially hostile nations. The many port cities and especially Riga brought Sweden a sizeable income from Baltic trade. These cities were also valuable as trade connections to Russia and the East.(6b)

The ability to sustain such militarily active monarchs as Sweden had during the 17th and early 18th centuries is due to the system of self-sustaining expansion that Gustavus Adolphus developed during the Thirty Years War. Through tolls and "contributions" taken from new territories, he was able to pay for the majority of the war expenses. Another important factor was Sweden's extensive use of mercenary forces. This not only left manpower at home to sustain the economy, but also helped alleviate the civil discontentment that usually stems from using all the young men in one or more generations in overseas warfare.(6a)

The time of the Swedish Empire in the Baltics marked a time of decreased urban growth. While the Baltic was still important for trade, the growing use of other trade routes and the new trade policies of the Muscovite State lessened the importance that the Baltic trade cities held during the time of the Livonian Confederation. As mentioned above, the new role of the Baltics was as a granary for the Swedish Empire.(5) Within the cities, particularly Riga, being by far the largest city, labor was dominated by the guilds. These guilds were predominantly German, while some were Latvian or ecumenical in nature. A complex system of guilds controlled the labor population in the Riga, and was usually selective towards only having Germans in the higher and more favorable positions.(7)


Baltic Society

The life for both the peasantry and the nobility changed considerably with the coming of Swedish rule. The social system in the Baltic provinces was a purely feudal system formed with the first German conquest of the lands begun in the 12th century.(6a) The feudal system, explained briefly, consisted of a two class system of nobles and peasants. The peasants provided all labor and military needs of the noble for little pay. In this case, the Germans who had arrived as conquerors in the 12th century comprised the nobility and the peasants were made up of indigenous peoples. The indigenous people consisted of Livs, Selonians, Letgallians and Estonians. Sweden never established a system of feudalism itself, and therefore had a negative view of it in the Baltic territories. Initially, the nobility found themselves in good position at the close of the Livonian Wars that placed the Baltic provinces of the Estland and Livland under Swedish rule. The nobility in Estland formed a corporation that received a considerable amount of autonomous rule from Sweden, which wanted to appease the inhabitants, especially the tax-paying ones of their new land. The nobility enjoyed its privileges most during the reign of Queen Christina, who did not take much interest in her Baltic territories.(5)

During the reign of Charles X Sweden began a reduktion policy, which reduced noble estates, converting land to crown land. This brought more income to the crown, which was needed not only to maintain the various territories from hostile neighbors, but also to fund the expansionist policies of the empire during this time. This was initially done on the Swedish mainland. During the rule of Charles XI in the 1680's, this policy was expanded and used throughout most of the Swedish empire. This had a major impact in Estland and Livland, bringing a much larger income to the crown and also changing the life of the peasantry significantly.(4) The peasants living on the lands that became crown property directly or were rented out as such were under direct maintenance of Swedish labor laws. These had a considerably more humanitarian slant than the rules as declared by an autonomous nobility, which usually included severe methods of over-working the labor and inflicting corporal punishment for many offences. While the Swedish government was attempting to curb the abusive system of feudalism leftover from the Livonian Confederation, it was much easier to do when the land was directly under Swedish control. Charles XI even went so far as to ask for the end of serfdom in the Baltic provinces, but this went up against too strong of an opposition to come into being.(5)


Christianity and Education

Christianity was spreading quicker in the Baltic provinces than it had in the Livonian Confederation. An important influence that the church brought with it was the higher value placed on education. The Jesuits were responsible for founding schools beginning in the late 16th century, while they were having a brief success in the area promoting the Counter-Reformation. Jesuits as well as Protestants were responsible for beginning to use the vernacular languages of the area in writing and teaching.(7) Printing presses began to appear in the 1630's, allowing a Latvian translation of the Bible to be completed by 1694, followed by an Estonian translation in 1739. This was invaluable for standardizing and spreading the written languages of the Baltic peoples, and made it possible to teach in the vernacular. In 1632 Gustavus Adolphus upgraded a gymnasium into a university in Tartu, although this schooling was reserved for the German peoples of the nobility. The founding of elementary education in Estonia dates from the 1680's and is largely due to the work of Bengt Forselius, who was personally responsible for establishing several schools.(5)

The nobles of northern Estonia had originally ceded themselves to Sweden in the 16th century and joined Sweden in its acceptance of Protestantism. With the expansion in Swedish control the conversion to Protestantism was required of the nobles, as the crown was attempting to establish organization through the national church. In this way, Protestantism eclipsed Catholicism, and also remnants of Pagan practices still being practiced by the peasant population.(7)


Lasting Effects of Swedish Rule

The effects of Swedish rule were felt long into the time of the new rule under Russia. Initially, the Baltic provinces needed to recover from the ravages that war consistently brings with it: famine, plague and poverty being the highlights. This was true when Sweden first acquired these territories during the wars with Russia and Poland during the first three decades of the 17th century.

The next blow came more specifically to the peasant class of the Baltics. Faced with labor shortages, the nobility of the land convinced the new governing powers to not only return the system of feudalism to pre-Swedish conditions, but also further it. Thus the humanitarian reforms brought about by the Swedish rulers, most prominently Charles XI, were quickly repealed.(7) Notably, laws were passed specifically designed to reverse any changes made by the reduction acts made under Charles XI. Included in the Treaty of Nystad which officially signed the Baltic provinces over to Russia was an article that reestablished the German nobility's "full enjoyment of privileges, customs, and prerogatives" (Art. 9). A Commission of Restoration was setup specifically to restore the land to the nobles taken away by Sweden's reduktion policy.(2) Another change seen in the peasantry is their impression of their relationship with their ruler. During the Swedish rule, peasants made frequent use of their power of direct monarchical access when making complaints against nobility or otherwise trying to better their existence. This view of a more personal relationship with a ruler unjustifiably got transferred to the Russian tsar Peter the Great and subsequent rulers. Peasants even held the belief that joining the Russian Orthodox church would gain them special treatment, while this was actually not the case in the slightest.(4)

A well-organized, effective system of education had emerged during the time of Swedish rule, but this was virtually wiped out during the Great Northern War. Although re-establishment had been mandated by the new Russian government, it did not recover until the 1760's during the reign of Catherine II.(5)

Another aspect of having large overseas territories was on Sweden's maritime abilities. With the large number of other hostile countries in Europe at the time, most and times all of Sweden's naval forces were committed to the defense of these Baltic possessions. This left a meager number of vessels for the possibility of colonial expansion to the west. This fact marks Sweden as not having become a full-fledged European power in the way that Spain, Portugal, France, Great Britain and others had the ability to support European war ventures and maintain sizeable colonial ventures.(3)

A less direct, but certainly present effect of having been under Swedish rule is the Baltic claim of close ties with the Scandinavian nations. This has held true for the whole of the 20th century. It was an important issue during the pre-World War II years, and is also prevalent today, as the Baltic Nations are trying to associate themselves more with European society and the Union than to their former Soviet Union neighbors to the East.



1.       "After the Deluge: Poland-Lithuania and the Second Northern War 1655-1660" by Robert Frost. Copyright 1993, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

2.       "The Baltic Nations Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania" by F.W. Pick. Copyright 1945, Boreas Publishing Co. Ltd., London.

3.      "A History of Colonial Expansion" by Charles deLannoy. Copyright 1938 by George E. Brinton and H. Clay Reed.

4.      "A History of Scandinavia" by T. K. Derry. Copyright 1979, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, MN

5.      "Estonia and the Estonians" by Toivo Raun. Copyright 1991, Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University.

6.      "Sweden's Age of Greatness 1632 1718" edited by Michael Roberts. Copyright 1973, St. Martin's Press, Inc., New York, NY.

7.      "The Experience of Empire: Sweden as a Great Power" by Sven Lundkvist

8.       "The Swedish Economy and Sweden's Role as a Great Power 1632 - 1697" by Sven-Erik Astrom.

9.       "The Latvians A Short History" by Andrejs Plakans. Copyright 1995 by the Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University.



Originally published at