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5-03-2015, 06:59

The early Vasas

The Swedish army was born of the struggle against the Danes, which in the 1520s became a national fight for independence, successful with the crowning of Gustavus Vasa in 1523.

The Swedish infantry of these wars were drawn from the peasantry, who from early times were obliged to possess ‘folk-weapons’ for national defence, and who showed themselves tough adversaries even for professional soldiers, as at the battle of Brunkenberg in 1471, where they were able to mount a successful assault on a strong position even after two bloody repulses. Their arms were mainly crossbows and assorted pole-weapons.

Cavalry were provided by the nobility, whose obligations in this respect were regularised by Gustavus Vasa; the horsemen provided were half heavy (full-armoured lancers) and half light. Gustavus also supplemented the infantry with mercenaries, but found Swedes cheaper to hire than foreigners, and thus like his successors tended to rely on an army of his own subjects, giving the Swedish forces already their distinctive ‘national’ stamp in what was generally an age of mercenary forces.

Under him, and his successor Erik XIV, a system developed whereby the infantry were largely drafted, one man in ten from the peasantry aged 15 to 44 having to serve on a semi-permanent basis. Noble cavalry were supplemented by volunteers (farmsteads supplying man and horse escaping both draft and land-tax). Unlike infantry, who were billeted or kept in garrisons, cavalry seem to have gone home in time of peace. The system did not work entirely satisfactorily until Gustavus Adolphus’ time, and ambitious plans, such as those of Erik or Gustavus Adolphus, still called for the employment of mercenaries also.

Swedish 16th Century infantry were organised in a ‘Fanika’ (ensign or company), which could be of varying composition and size, as these examples from Gustavus Vasa’s time show:

These are largely of missilemen, and Gustavus Vasa, who tried to increase the use of pikes, which he introduced to Swedish service, met a great deal of resistance, the soldiers preferring missile weapons; Erik XIV had the same problem.

Erik was an extravagant and unbalanced monarch, and was quickly deposed (1568). However, he not only once more involved Sweden in external war, but also showed himself one of the first 16th Century military reformers to try to apply the principles of classical military writers to the new conditions of war. He attempted to standardise the infantry Fanika at about 500 men, with the composition shown. 12 formed a regiment, but in battle they were drawn up spaced out in two lines as shown, with two of the five ‘quarters’ of each Fanika detached as a ‘forlorn hope’ or screen; a disposition to some extent anticipating Maurice of Nassau’s battalions.

Equipment was supposed to be standardised also, with pikemen wearing helmet, gorget, corselet and armour for the arms, the shot having helmets and long or short arquebusses. The cavalry ‘Fana’ (cornet) was standardised at 300 men (in five ‘quarters’, of which one formed a reserve). The heavy cavalry retained three-quarter armour but were equipped with two pistols, the lighter ones having arquebusses; both were formed in near-square formation, 15 ranks deep, and employed caracole tactics.

Probably these plans had limited success in practice. Certainly the effects were temporary, Erik’s successor John III again allowing the proportion of shot to rise at the expense of pikes; infantry companies fell to about 300 men, and the composition of a 2,000 man infantry force of 1573 is probably fairly typical — 45 per cent pikes, six per cent halberds, 38 per cent arquebusses and 11 per cent crossbows (the latter evidently a favourite weapon, since it was retained so late by the Swedes. Gustavus Vasa had increased crossbow production, and by this time most were of steel). By the 1590s, the musket began to replace the arquebus, but pikes were still relatively in short supply, and war against the Poles, in open terrain, at the end of the century showed this up and forced the Swedish musketeers to protect themselves against the cavalry with sharpened stakes, later formalised as ‘swine-feathers’ (known elsewhere as ‘Swedish feathers’).