Erik Wasa (1533-1577) was a man of contradictions; he was both humble and haughty, and urbane and well read, but also barbaric.
As a youth Eric had been a talented young man and a true Renaissance Prince.
He and his half brothers had received a typical Renaissance education, including geography, history and political thought1.
Eric had aesthetic, cultural and astrological interests, played the lute and even wrote some compositions of his own.
He was skilled in several languages and military science had his special interest.
Still, he seemed more adept at abstract thought than at practical politics.
Eric was born on December 13, 1533, at the Royal Castle in Stockholm as the eldest son of Gustav I Wasa (1496-1560, to the right) from his first, unhappy marriage to Catherine of Saxe-Lauenburg (1513-1535), who died before Eric's second birthday. His father took as his second wife the Swedish Margaretha Leijonhufvud (1516-1551). Born as a Swedish noble, Gustav Wasa had assumed the leadership in the struggle for Swedish independence. He was crowned King in 1523. Gustav was a man of immense ability and shrewdness, but there were some dark patches in his personality, suggesting traits of mental instability. If roused, Gustav's temper was so violent that in his rages he acted like a madman. Once, when his daughter Cecile (1540-1627) made him angry, he clutched her hair and tore it out by the roots. A goldsmith, who had taken a day off without permission, was so mangled by the King that he died
Eric acted as Regent in the period 1555-1556 during Gustav's Russian campaign. In 1557, Gustav Wasa made his eldest son a duke and granted him some provinces with Kalmar as residence. Eric surrounded himself with a group of gifted, well-educated young men from simple backgrounds. Together they adopted a decadent lifestyle. Eric liked good food and drink, art and music, and splendid clothes and display. He was handsome and well-built, approx. 179 cm. tall. He was also an excellent rider, swimmer and dancer, but, since his youth, he drank to excess. Gustav Wasa hated the company his eldest son kept, and once described them as a "group of toads".
On September 29, 1560, Eric succeeded his father as King of Sweden. He desperately wanted to be a great King, too, and developed a grandiose conception of his position. He had the rooms of the medieval Royal castle decorated
Eric had sought to enhance his reputation as a King by securing a grand marriage. For years, he had been competing for the hand of England's "Virgin Queen" Elizabeth I Tudor (1533-1603). He sent her love letters in Latin and dispatched his uncouth half-brother John to her court to press his suit. According to Sitwell, John "scattered silver like a shower of falling stars in the London streets, and told the crowds that whereas he scattered silver, his brother would scatter gold". Elizabeth managed to keep Eric dangling for years without any real intention of marrying him, but even refusals could not deter Eric from his wooing. Once Eric became obsessed with an idea he would not readily give it up
Meanwhile, Eric and his friends indulged in the orgies, which were customary at Renaissance courts. He had fathered Virginia (1559-1633) and Constantia (1560-1649)3 by his mistress Agda Persdotter, until he fell in love with young and beautiful Karin Månsdotter (1550-1612, to the left). Karin was the daughter of a soldier or jailer. In 1566, she gave birth to a daughter Sigrid. Eric married Karin secretly on July 13, 1567. After the birth of their son Gustav, he married her publicly on July 4, 1568, and had her crowned the next day. The aristocrats were offended that Eric preferred a commoner to one of their relatives and his insecurity led Eric to suspect that people were laughing at him for his choice of bride.
It was Eric's ambition to make Sweden a dominant power in the Baltic area. During his reign, the "Nordic Seven Year's War" was fought against both Denmark and Poland, which resulted in much brutality against the civilian population. Occasionally, Eric assumed military command, but he spent most of the war in the company of his private circle of advisers and friends at one of his castles.
In 1562, his half-brother John (1537-1592, to the right), defied Eric by marrying the Polish Princess Catherine Jagiellona (1526-1583) and invading Livonia. John was imprisoned and feared for his life. Especially, since Eric had always resented his father's appointment of John as a semi-autonomous Prince. John's loyal servants were executed, but eventually John was released4 and he and Eric fell at each other's feet in tears.
Slowly, Eric's mind was becoming unhinged and he showed signs of schizophrenia in his alternating moods of violent frenzy and abject repentance. Two guards were sentenced to death for 'annoying the King'. If someone smiled or whispered in his presence, Eric believed that he was ridiculed. A sudden movement or an unfortunate gesture would trigger his latent violence. Like his father, he could suddenly fly into a violent rage. Whispering, clearing one's throat or coughing at inappropriate moments were seen as obvious signs of plotting. With his sword drawn, Eric stalked restlessly through the corridors of the Royal castle looking for someone to find fault with. Smartly dressed pages and servants were put to the sword, as they were "obviously intent on seducing the ladies of court".
Still, there was no immediate attempt to depose Eric, when, in 1567, Eric ordered the arrest of a number of aristocrats and condemned them to death. He especially feared the Sture family, because members of that family had ruled the country as administrators in the period 1470-1520. Nils Sture and his father, Svante Sture, were therefore imprisoned in Uppsala Castle on the charges of treason. On May 24, 1567 Eric announced that he was going to seek reconciliation with the Stures. He visited the castle and went straight to the cell where Nils Sture was kept and, without saying a word, stabbed him to death. Eric ran out of the castle, told the guards to kill all the prisoners, mounted his horse and rode into the woods nearby, seeking to escape imagined attackers. While the guards were obeying his orders and killed the other prisoners, Eric's beloved former tutor followed him into the woods in a vain attempt to calm him down
During Eric's illness, a Council of the Realm took over the government and tried to restore calm. After six months, Eric (to the right) felt better and resumed power. He immediately reinstated his favourite Göran Persson. The favourite was feared and hated and many regared him as an evil influence, although he often tried to restrain the unstable King. In periods, when Eric was confused, his reliance on his wife and favourite was complete, and the nobility resented to be ruled by these "social upstarts".
In September 1568, his half-brothers, John and Karl, captured Stockholm and Eric surrendered to them. John was subsequently proclaimed King John III. Early 1569, Eric was brought to trail for his misdeeds, but he strongly resisted the suggestion that he had ruled tyrannically. Nevertheless, he was formally deposed and imprisoned with his young wife and children. Their other sons, Henrik and Arnold, were born in captivity, where Eric translated Johannes Magnus's imaginary history of the Goths into Swedish. Later Eric was separated from his wife and children and moved from castle to castle, because various plots against the new King made him fearful of his elder brother. Eric was kept in conditions of increasing harshness and eventually seemed to have relapsed into total madness. He was not the only madman in the family; his half brother Magnus of Ostergotland (1542-1595) had been an insane schizophrenic since his youth.
After a couple of years, King John received a formal sanction from the more influential members of the Riksdag to take his elder brother's life, should he be threatened by further rebellions. On February 26, 1577, at Örbyhus Castle in Uppland, Eric died in agony, probably poisoned with arsenic mixed in his pea soup5. A public announcement stated that he had died "after a long illness". He was buried in Västerås Catherdral. Eric's widow, Karin Månsdotter, was granted lands and an income enabling her and her children to live in comfort. She survived her husband by 35 years. Their only surviving son, Gustav (1568-1607), inherited his father's mental defects and died childless.
Copyright © 1997-2006 by J.N.W. Bos. All rights reserved.
1 Eric read Machiavelli's "Il Principe".
2 Other possible brides were Renata of Lorraine and Kristina of Hesse.
3 Illegitimate children of the Wasa Kings were usually recognized as members of the family and were often brought up together with any legitimate children, and married into the nobility. Eric's illigitimate daughter Constance married Henrik Frankelin. According to Quilliet, she became insane, too.
4 John and his wife had spent 4 years as prisoners in Gripsholm Castle.
5 An examination of Eric's remains in 1958 confirmed that the probable cause of his death was arsenic poisoning.