Gustavus Adolphus: The King Who Did Battle for an Eternal Kingdom

5 min

Early in the morning of November 6, 1632, a heavy morning mist hung over the fields around Lützen. In the camps of the Swedish army, a psalm of praise could be heard ascending from the cold, hungry men. Joining them in singing was their king, Gustavus Adolphus, “The Lion of the North.” He had risen earlier for private prayer, and now he was joining with his men in public supplication to Almighty God for victory on the field of battle.

Rare are the men of history that are able to rise above their own time and generation and see their own battle in the context of the grand scheme of eternity. The Lion of the North was such a man. Although he himself was a king, his ultimate allegiance was to the King of kings and Lord of lords, and he dedicated himself to advancing the everlasting Kingdom of Jesus Christ.

At the battle of Lützen, the Protestant cause hung in the balance. Over the last several years, a powerful alliance known as the “Catholic League” had threatened to annihilate Protestants in Europe. A catastrophic war known as “The Thirty Years War” was raging on the continent. The war had begun in 1618 when a group of Protestant nobles in Prague had thrown two representatives of the Holy Roman Emperor out of a castle window. Although the two men survived the fall when they landed in a pile of manure, many others in the ensuing war would not survive. It is estimated that the Thirty Years’ War left 8 million Europeans dead.

The Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648) started as a localized civil war in the German states. It was waged for almost twelve long years between Protestant princes as well as other princes who supported the Roman Catholic Hapsburg dynasty. This time period is now recognized as the first phase of the war.

By 1630, the war was going badly for the Protestant princes. Albrecht von Wallenstein, considered the greatest of generals at that time and the commander of the armies of the Catholic League, was sweeping through Protestant territories, leaving a littered path of carnage in his wake. Burned villages, plundered churches, butchered livestock, and murdered women and children marked the path of devastation. At this critical hour, when the future looked very bleak, Protestant nobles in Germany had appealed to the man known to Europe as “The Lion of the North” to come over and help them.

Gustavus Adolphus, the king of Sweden, had come to the throne when he was only sixteen years old. His grandfather, influenced by the disciples of Martin Luther, had embraced the Protestant faith. Now, as a third-generation Protestant, young Gustavus Adolphus had been taught to emulate Godly kings of Israel, such as David, Asa, and Josiah.

When he was younger, nine-year-old Gustavus had accompanied his father on military campaigns against the Danes and the Russians. The young lad became skilled in the art of war, in diplomacy, and in language. In addition to his native Swedish, he spoke Latin, Italian, Dutch, Spanish, Russian, Polish, and German. Above all, Gustavus was intimately familiar with the Bible, and his personal faith was deep and genuine.

When he became king of Sweden at the age of sixteen, he had inherited a war with the Danes in the west and the Russians in the east. He successfully brought both campaigns to a victorious conclusion. Gustavus not only became a respected king, but he was also recognized as a brilliant military commander, even while in his youth. He was the first to master the use of mobile artillery units on the battlefield. He cross-trained his soldiers so that his cavalrymen could service artillery pieces if necessary. He was the first to use paper cartridges, and it was known that his musketeers could load and fire three times faster than their enemies. The king believed that the best defense was an aggressive and overwhelming offensive.

The Lion of the North was a man of imposing size and strength. Tall and muscular, with blond hair and steely-blue eyes, his appearance alone inspired confidence in his friends and instilled fear in his enemies. He married the Godly German princess Marie Elenora, the daughter of the Elector of Brandenburg. She was a loving, faithful wife to the young Swedish king. In the providence of God, their first two children were stillborn, which was a great personal grief to the loving husband and father. But Gustavus Adolphus took the loss with a Christian’s faith in a faithful God. After the two stillbirths, God blessed the royal couple with a daughter, whom the joyous father named Christina, after his own mother.

When the call came from the German princes for military aid, Gustavus Adolphus faced the most important decision of his life. Having just gained a great victory against Poland, he was eager for peace. The king had secured his own dominions, defeated three enemies, ensured Sweden’s economic strength, and opened the Baltic Sea to Swedish shipping. It was an ideal time for him to retire to the domestic comforts of his own castle.

But Gustavus Adolphus believed that the Kingdom of God was at stake in Europe. He rightly feared that if the army of the Catholic League was not defeated, Protestants would be in danger everywhere, and the Christians in Germany, the Netherlands, France, and Eastern Europe might face an inquisition similar to the one that had snuffed out Protestantism in Spain.

Convinced that Almighty God had raised him up to be the defender of truth, Gustavus Adolphus prepared a military expedition to cross the Baltic Sea and fight in the German states. Roman Catholic commanders scoffed at the idea of a Swedish intervention in Europe. They jested that Gustavus Adolphus might be a “snow king” and that he would “melt” as his armies marched south.

They were wrong. The Lion of the North was no snow king! He met the Roman Catholic army at Breitenfeld in September of 1631 and won a decisive victory. He forbade his victorious troops to engage in any marauding. Instead, they were commanded to respect the women and children of the defeated and to honor the name of the Lord.

In April of 1632, at the Battle of Rain, the victorious Swedish army forced the withdrawal of Catholic forces from Bavaria. Unlike many commanders of his day, the Lion of the North led from the front. He especially loved to lead his men in aggressive cavalry charges against enemy formations. On numerous occasions, he was wounded; the king always carried these battle scars as badges of honor.

Now, returning to the opening of this biographical sketch, we continue with the decisive Battle of Lützen. In that battle, Gustavus Adolphus was killed while leading a cavalry charge on the enemy flank. He took a bullet in his left arm before being shot again, this time in the back. His body was eventually found with nine wounds. His death was very mysterious, and some of his men questioned whether the king was assassinated from behind by a traitor.

However, instead of being demoralized by the loss of their king, the Swedish troops were inspired! They rallied and swept the field of the Roman Catholic army, gaining a great, decisive victory at Lützen. This victory paved the way for the eventual defeat of the Catholic League, the collapse of the Holy Roman Empire, and the preservation of Protestantism in Europe.

The Lion of the North died at the young age of thirty-seven. Today, king Gustavus is the only Swedish monarch who carries the added title “the Great.” Numerous churches, towns, universities, and villages bear his name. Gustavus Adolphus realized that he was only a king who served the King of kings. He lived and died to serve and advance the everlasting Kingdom of Jesus Christ.

Sources and Further Reference:
LaCroix, C. A. Gustavus Adolphus. Sand Springs, OK: Grace and Truth Books, 2002.

This article is from our Matters of Life & Death teaching series.

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