Roman and Mediaeval History, Illlustrated Travel Journals, Mediaeval Literature, Geology


9.8.15
  The Ship that Never Sailed - The Vasa Museum in Stockholm, Part 1

Well, she did sail some 1,300 metres before she sank on her maiden voyage in August 1628, but that doesn't really count. It was bad news for King Gustav II Adolf of Sweden who commissioned the Vasa, and a worse fate for the 30 people who drowned, but it turned out a good thing for historians, since the wreck could be salvaged in 1961 and gives us a fine example of a warship in the early 17th century.

Today, the Vasa is housed in a new museum in Stockholm which I visited in 2012. The light is dim, the timber of the ship darkened in the process of conservation, and photographing - no flash allowed - proved a bit tricky, but I managed to get enough decent shots (with the help of photo editing software) for a blogpost or two.

The Vasa (seen from the bow) in her new home, the Vasa Museum in Stockholm

When Gustav II Adolf of Sweden, scion of the Vasa dynasty, became king in 1611, he inherited no less than three wars: with Denmark, Poland, and Russia, as a result of the Swedish attempts to expand their power in the Baltic Sea. Plus a cousin who wanted his throne. No wonder the young king (born 1594) needed warships.

(left: The stern with the richly decorated raised quarterdeck. The figures had once been brightly painted.)

The dynastic tangle this time involves mostly Sweden, Germany and Poland. Gustav Adolf's grandfather and founder of the dynasty, Gustav Vasa, had married three times and produced a bunch of sons who became king after him in turn. One of these was Johann III who married Katharina Jagiellonka of the ruling house in Poland (1). Their son was Sigismund King of Poland and some time King of Sweden (1592-1599). Another son was Karl Duke of Södermanland, acting regent since 1599 and king since 1604. He was married to Christina of Holstein-Gottorp (a Danish-German house residing in the palace in Schleswig); their son was Gustav Adolf.

Sigismund had been brought up a Catholic and was married to a Hapsburg princess to boot, and the Lutherian Swedish nobility was not keen on having a Catholic king who spent most of his time in Poland anyway. So they told him to go packing - not without fighting a battle first (2) - and Karl became king as Karl IX. When he died in 1611 Gustav Adolf took the throne, aged but seventeen. Sigismund still insisted on his right to the Swedish throne, but he had enough problems in Poland and never posed a real danger for the young king.

The war between Poland and Sweden was about the possession of Livonia (basically what is today Latvia and Estonia). It flamed up several times between 1600 and the Armistice of Altmark in 1629. In that, Sweden gained part of Livonia including the important trade town of Riga with its toll income, and a share in the toll of Gdansk, though the town itself remained in Polish possession.

The so called Ingrian War with Russia - at times a three sided affair with Poland involved as well - about the possession of the trade town Novgorod / Lake Ladoga and southern Finland, ended with a peace treaty and Swedish gain: the Peace of Stolbovo (1617) cut Russia off the Baltic Sea and forced it to trade through harbours mostly controlled by Sweden which got 20,000 rubles in war indeminity as well, and the fortress of Shlisselburg at Lake Ladoga (though Russia kept Novgorod).

The hull seen from the stern

The war with Denmark went less well. Denmark controlled the traffic through the sound between the Baltic and North Sea, and thus the trade routes to England and the Dutch Republic. To avoid their tolls, Karl IX of Sweden tried to establish a northern land route through Lapland to Tromsø to gain access to the North Sea. As a result Denmark, which claimed Lapland as well, declared war and conquered Kalmar in 1611.

When Gustav Adolf ascended the throne, he personally led some raids across the Danish border, but Christian IV of Denmark managed to conquer the fortress of Älvsborg (today Gothenburg), the last Swedish hold in the west. But other countries did not want to see Denmark's power growing too strong, and it was King James I of England who pushed the parties to the negotiation table in Knäred in 1613. Lapland came back under Danish control while Sweden would be fred of the Sound toll, though it had to ransom the important harbours of Kalmar and Älvsborg. No wonder Gustav Adolf was keen on getting money.

Sailing right at you with her impressive bowsprit

But Gustav Adolf was not done with wars. In 1618, a war had started on the continent that would become known as the Thirty Years War. It was about religion as well as politics, a Catholic/Imperial league against a Protestant/anti-Imperial union (3). When the Catholic armies began to push deep into Protestant territories in northern Germany, and the emperor Ferdinand II declared the Edict of Restitution (4), Gustav Adolf was worried not only about those sharing his faith, but also about a possible danger of imperial Hapsburg influence at the Baltic Sea coast. Nor did he like the alliance between Sigismund of Poland and his Hapsburg relations-by-marriage. So Gustav Adolf supported his former enemy and fellow Protestant Christian IV King of Denmark (and Duke of Holstein) who had taken heavy losses agains the imperial generals Wallenstein and Tilly. When Wallenstein laid siege to the important coastal town Stralsund, both Gustav Adolf and Christian sent relief troops by sea and forced Wallenstein to abandon the siege (1628).

Closeup of the quarterdeck with its ornaments; in the middle the arms of House Vasa

The rest of the story is well known. In July 1630, Gustav Adolf landed with an army of 13,000 men on the Usedom peninsula and swept through Germany, defeated general Tilly at Breitenfeld, and continued all the way to Munich with an ever increasing army. The emperor Ferdinand II of Hapsburg was obliged to recall Wallenstein whom he had sent into early retirement just a few months before. Wallenstein forced the Swedish-Protestant army to battle at Lützen where King Gustav Adolf, leading his men in person as usual, fell to the bullets of some mercenaries on November 6, 1632. His chancellor Axel Oxenstierna acted as regent for the king's daughter (5). Sweden continued to be involved in the war on German soil which would last another sixteen years until 1648.

Upper deck with parts of the rigging

One ship that would not join in the relief of Stralsund was the unfortunate Vasa. It was a bright Sunday with little wind on August 10, 1628. The Vasa had been rigged, ballast, cannons and ammunition stored, and some 150 crew members were onboard. Three hundred soldiers were supposed to join later. All gunports (she carried 64 cannons on two gun decks) had been opened.

After the ship had been warped into the waters of the Slussen, four of her ten sails were set. Onlookers ringed the quays and shorelines, a salute was fired, and the Vasa set off for her maiden voyage. But when she reached the lee of the Södermalm Cliffs, a sudden down drought, common in these waters, caught her and she heeled to port. She had been prone to instability to begin with, so she rose but slowly. A second gust made her heel again and now the lower gunports caught water. The Vasa sank after having sailed but 1300 metres. Most of the people onboard could save themselves by swimming or clinging to the rigging that was still over the waterline. But 30 unlucky ones inside the ship died; 16 of their skeletons would be found more than 300 years later.

Seen from the bow, with the forecastle deck to the left

The Vasa was one of four ships King Gustav Adolf had commissioned in 1625. He chose the Dutch master shipwright Henrik Hybertsson and his brother Arendt de Groot, who was responsible for the financial part. Henrik was an experienced shipwright and had already worked for Karl IX of Sweden, but he had never built a ship with two gun decks before. At that time, there were no plans and drawings; a shipwright used proportions, rules of thumbs, and his own experience. Unfortunately, Henrik Hybertsson became ill and died in spring 1627. His assistant Hein Jakobsson and his widow Margareta took over.

In January 1628, Gustav Adolf visited the wharf at Skeppsgården. Obviously, no one was aware of any problems with the ship's stability at that point.

Model of the Skeppsgården wharf

Material for the ship came from a number of places: timber - more than a thousand oak trees - from Sweden and Poland (6), iron from Sweden, sail cloth from Holland, tar from Finland, hemp from Latvia. The cannons were cast in Stockholm. They would cost more money than the hundreds of painted and gilded wooden sculptures created in the workshop of Mårten Redtmer that adorned the ship.

A model of the ship with the original colours (zoomed in)

The Vasa was an impressive ship. Her length - including the bowsprit - was 69 metres, the height of the quarterdeck 19,5 metres, the height from keel to the top of the main mast 52 metres. The ship was only 11,7 metres wide at maximum point, though, and the hold for the ballast stones was rather shallow according to Dutch habit. The ten sails would make for 1275 square metres. The gun decks were supported by half a metres thick beams that added to the weight above the water line.

The bowsprit with a lion decoration

Sea warfare was about to change and cannons became more important. For the centuries before, the aim was to enter an enemy's ship and capture her in hand-to-hand combat; more or less a land battle at sea. This is why there were still 300 soldiers to go with the Vasa, though some of them may have been artillery specialists. There were also stands for musketeers and mounted crossbows on the high decks which would be more useful at closer range.

In the time to come, ships would pass each other and fire with cannons, trying to sink the enemy's ships.

48 of the Vasa's cannons were 24pounders, the rest somewhat smaller. There is some discussion whether they were indeed intended as weapons or more as a means to intimidate an enemy.

Replica of part of a cannon deck in the musem

The first hints at bad stability came when Captain Söfring Hansson showed the vice admiral Klas Fleming who acted as contact to the king, that thirty men running to and fro on the upper deck could make the ship sway so badly she'd capsize at the quay. The admiral was overheard to have said he wished the king was there. But he did not act upon his suspicions and neither did Captain Hansson. The Swedish fleet had lost several ships to a storm in autumn 1625, and the pressure to replace them was great (7). King Gustav Adolf sent letters from Prussia where he fought the Polish, urging to get the ship ready to sail, and obviously no one dared to delay any further.

Upper deck with rigging
(From this angle you can see how slender the ship is compared to its height.)

Of course, King Gustav Adolf was furious when news of the disaster reached him, and demanded that the guilty ones should be punished. An inquest before a tribunal of members of the privy council and admiralty was set up. Captain Hansson swore that the ballast had been properly stowed, the cannons fixed, the crew sober (which was confirmed by the surviving crew members), and blamed the disaster on the shipwright (8). Vice Admiral Fleming said he was no sailor but responsible for the soldiers and did not understand the true measure of the problem, though his remark about wishing the king to have seen the test performed by the captain was repeated by witnesses during the trial. Shipwright Hein Jakobbson, who had taken over from Henrik Hybertsson, said that he had followed the plans of his master, even widened the ship some 40 cm, but that was all he could do to improve her stability. And the king had approved the plans of his master. In the end, no one was found guilty and the blame was laid on the dead Hybertsson. His widow had to sell her shares the wharf due to financial troubles.

(The next post will be about the salvage of the ship.)

The new Vasa Museum,
the masts standing out above the building show their original height

Footnotes
1) I'll leave it to Kasia to sort out the Polish geneaologies. :-)
2) Stångebro, 1598.
3) The whole matter is too complicated to cover here. The fault lines were not always along religion; for example Catholic France under Richelieu supported the Protestant confederation because it did not want the Spanish-Austrian Hapsburg dynasty to gain even more power, and the Calvinists and Lutherans were at odds more than once.
4) The Edict of Restitution from 1629 restored all lands and possessions secularized after 1555 (Peace of Augsburg that gave the princes the right to decide on the religion in their territories) to the Catholic Church, which would have meant a vast gain in land and power for the Catholic Church. Several archbishoprics and about 500 monasteries had to be returned.
5) Gustav Adolf was married to Maria Eleonora of Brandenburg. Their daughter Christina, born 1626, would become Queen of Sweden (1632-1645); she was the last of the Vasa dynasty.
6) Since Sweden was at war with Poland at the time, the timber was traded via Amsterdam.
7) The king then asked for two medium sized ships to be built first, but at the time the timber for the Vasa had already been cut and prepared, so Hybertsson continued with her construction.
8) Though the captain should have kept the lower gunports locked since he knew how unstable the Vasa was. That obviously was never addressed. It also would likely have led to problems later when the lower gunports were opened at some point.

Literature
Fred Hocker, Vasa. Stockholm, 2011
 
Comments:
I've never heard of this ship - how magnificent it is! I've just returned from Italy, and I saw the brass remains of 2 ships that belonged to Caligula in a museum. It makes you wonder what else has survived beneath the ocean beds and deep lakes.
 
A great pitty that you have no means of sharing this post on other blogs.
Regards, Keith.
http://woodsrunnersdiary.blogspot.com.au/
 
Magnificent! No other word comes to mind :-) Perhaps except for "a marvel to behold" :-)
 
Thank you Anerje and Kasia. Yes, the ship is impressive.

Keith, you're welcome to share the link to my blog or this post on other sites, like Twitter or Google+. I don't use the link widget because I stick to a classic template I can edit myself. The new half automatic templates with widgets only create messes.
 
I hadn't heard of the either - thank you for the post. The story is a bit reminiscent of the Mary Rose in the previous century, which sank in the Solent apparently after water came in through open gun ports. I wonder if ship design took a while to adjust to cannon.
 
Sounds like, Carla. And obviously the English and the Dutch (where the main engineer of the Vasa came from) didn't exchange notes about the gun port problem.
 
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The Lost Fort is a blog based on my travels in Germany, the UK and other places, with essays on Roman and Mediaeval history illustrated with lots of photos of old castles, cathedrals, Roman remains, and beautiful landscapes. You may also find the odd essay about geology or Mediaeval literature.

All texts (except comments by guests) and photos (if no other copyright is noted) on this blog are copyright of Gabriele Campbell.

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Location: Germany

I'm a blogger from Germany with a MA in Literature and History which doesn't pay my bills, so I use it to research blogposts instead. I'm interested in everything Roman and Mediaeval, avid reader and sometimes writer, opera enthusiast, traveller with a liking for foreign languages and odd rocks, photographer, and tea aficionado. And an old-fashioned blogger who hasn't yet gotten an Instagram account. :-)


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