History Files

Please help the History Files

Contributed: 84

Target: 400

Totals slider

The History Files still needs your help. As a non-profit site, it is only able to support such a vast and ever-growing collection of information with your help, and this year your help is needed more than ever. Please make a donation so that we can continue to provide highly detailed historical research on a fully secure site. Your help really is appreciated.



Northern Europe

Battleship Vasa

by Richard Collins, 30 July 2007. Updated 8 July 2017

King Gustav II Adolphus was the Swedish equivalent of England's Henry VIII.

There were many parallels between the two kings. Both were larger than life figures who changed the course of their country's histories. Famous daughters succeeded them. Elizabeth, the English virgin queen, would repulse the Spanish Armada. Christina, the Swedish virgin queen, who spoke seven languages and employed René Descartes as her tutor, would abdicate, run away to Rome and become a Catholic.

Appropriately for a monarch whose greatest campaigns were in the bedroom trying to acquire a male heir, Henry died of syphilis. Gustavus' demise, too, was appropriate; his bravery was his undoing.

Gustavus (reigned 1611-1632) led his army from the front during the First Polish-Swedish War and the Thirty Years War, and ever the military historian, Napoleon Bonaparte regarded him as one of the greatest military commanders ever to have lived. Leading a cavalry charge on the field of Lützen, he died in a battle which he won.

But there is another parallel between the two giants; their flagships suffered similar fates. The pride of Henry's navy, the Mary Rose, sank in the Solent in 1545, during an encounter with the French. Gustavus' magnificent Vasa also went to the bottom, but ignominiously. Centuries later, both ships would be resurrected. The Mary Rose, lifted from the seabed in 1982, is on show at Portsmouth. The Vasa, raised in 1962, can be seen in a marvellous museum in Stockholm.

Great ships were formidable weapons; they were also propaganda statements which were designed to intimidate potential enemies. Gustavus, the 'Lion of the North' and the 'father of modern warfare' needed a vessel to match his growing status and, in 1624, he commissioned Dutch ship-builder Henrik Hybersson to construct a new warship.

Named after Gustavus' grandfather, Gustav Vasa, this would be the largest and most expensive warship built in Sweden up to that time. Sixty-nine metres long, she could deploy 1,275m squared of sail and carried sixty-four guns. On 10 August 1628, the Vasa, with its magnificent painted carvings and colourful flags, set sail from the quayside beneath the Royal Palace in Stockholm. The families of the crew were allowed on board for the ship's maiden voyage into the archipelago. The winds were light. Yet, twenty minutes later and 1.3km from the shore, the Vasa capsized. About fifty people, and the ship's cat, drowned.

The Vasa
Intended as the precursor to a brand new breed of warship, the Vasa went down in 1628, was recovered in 1961, and now sits in the Vasa Museum

Gustavus, away in Prussia and eagerly awaiting the arrival of his new ship, returned to Stockholm. An inquiry was established. The ship's captain and officers claimed that there had been no errors in seamanship. It being a Sunday, drunkenness among the crew was ruled out.

The Vasa had capsized because it was top-heavy, a second gun deck having been incorporated into its design. The deck, however, was listed in the original specification; the ship-builders had faithfully carried out the king's instructions. Nobody could be blamed. God and the king were infallible; no criticism could be made of them. The inquiry ceased and its report was never published.

So was the king to blame? Gustavus did not suffer fools gladly and he was crossed at your peril. Perhaps his shipbuilders could not pluck up the courage to tell him that the second gun-deck would render the ship unstable?

The Vasa's sojourn, thirty metres down off Beckholmen, ended on 24 April 1961 when the old ship, with six cables slung under her, was drawn slowly to the surface.

Such was its state of preservation that the hull floated, once the pumps had emptied it. The waters of the Baltic are so low in salt that the great enemy of timber vessels, the tiny clam teredo or 'ship worm', can't live there. Oxygen-free mud is an excellent preservative; twenty-five skeletons were recovered.


Additional information

Ulf Tennfors



Text copyright © Examiner Publications (Cork) Limited. Reproduction is made on a 'fair dealing' basis for the purpose of disseminating relevant information to a specific audience. No breach of copyright is intended or inferred.