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The Crazy King of Sweden

Updated on November 29, 2015
King Eric XIV of Sweden's portrait.
King Eric XIV of Sweden's portrait. | Source

Early Years

Eric XIV was born on December 13th, 1533. His mother died when he was barely two years of age. In 1536, his father, Gustav Vasa, married Margaret Leijonhufvud. Eric now had a stepmother. They remained together until her death in 1551.

There are no records indicating what he thought of his stepmother. However, a detailed account of her life indicated she was calming, intelligent, and deeply devoted to her family. If she treated Eric as one of her own children, then they likely had a strong relationship. She had ten in all, eight of whom survived into adulthood. It was said she was "always pregnant." I have to wonder what effect that had on Eric. Was he forgotten among all of those siblings? Were there any in particular that he was fond of?

Eric's father took a vested interest in Eric's education. One of the more well-known of these two tutors was French Calvinist Dionysius Beurraeus. Eric developed a good relationship with him, and was very successful in foreign languages and mathematics. He was also a strong writer, historian, and familiar with astrology.

When Eric started to appear in public, he was referred to as the "chosen king." So, for much of his life, does it mean he lived privately? If so, we can conclude that perhaps he wasn't around the court enough to truly learn about the politics he'd need as king. He, like another royal King Henry VIII, was shut away by his father and overprotected for much of his youth.

In 1552, just shy of a year after the death of Queen Margaret, Gustav I married Catherine Stenbock. He had to obtain a special dispensation from the Church on account of the close affinity between her and Margaret (Margaret was her aunt). It was granted, on account of the young age of his numerous children, as well as the need for a Queen in the kingdom.

Queen Catherine was said to have a very close relationship with Eric, as she did with almost all of Gustav's children. Eric himself referred to her as "My Dear Stepmother." Like Jane Seymour of England, she made little waves politically and not much is known of her queenship. It was said she accepted the post of queen with "silent dignity."

In 1557, Eric was assigned the fiefdoms of Kalmar, Kronoberg, and Oland. He decided to take up residence in Kalmar.

Eric was not very lucky in love. Against his father's wishes, he entered into marriage negotiations with the future Queen Elizabeth I of England. He pursued her relentlessly for several years (and makes a brief cameo in the film Elizabeth: The Golden Age). Why Elizabeth? And why did he continue to ask after she rejected him repeatedly? Some might have called him a stalker; I think he wasn't confident in himself romantically.

He also made unsuccessful marriage proposals to Mary, Queen of Scots, Renata of Lorraine, Anna of Saxony, and Christine of Hesse. Was Eric a hopeless romantic? Or was he simply very devoted to political and economic advantages that marriage would bring? I can only picture him as a wallflower who lacked social skills despite having strong intellect. That's the only reason I can think of as to why he'd be rejected by so many women.

According to the evidence, Eric had a few relationships early-on, and fathered several children. What became of these children after Eric's rise to king status? As illegitimate children of the Crown, I highly doubt he'd want them in his court. He eventually married a Karin Mansdotter (1550–1612) on July 4, 1568.

His father, Gustav I of Sweden.
His father, Gustav I of Sweden. | Source

The Great Scandal

Eric was present at the wedding between his sister Princess Catherine and Edzard II, Count of East Frisia. The newlyweds were accompanied by Princess Cecilia, another sister, and Johan II of East Frisia. Eric found Princess Cecilia and Johan II engaging in an affair, and turned them both in. As a result, Catherine, Edzard, and Johan were all placed under house arrest. So it begs the question: why would he betray his own family members? Was he simply not very close with them? Or, was there another reason?

Needless to say, the Vadstenabullret, or Great Scandal, ruined King Gustav. His own children were arrested; I can't say that would have been an easy decision for him. He was likely humiliated and infuriated by the entire ordeal, including the scar it would bear on his family's name. His wife, Queen Catherine, acted as mediator between him and his children. She traveled with Cecilia after she returned to the capital, and tried to negotiate the release of Johan and Princess Catherine.

The stress caused King Gustav to fall sick and die. Queen Catherine remained by his side, even ordering that a bed be brought in so she could be closer to her husband. She continued to act as mediator. When he complained that his children weren't there, she answered that they would have been had they not been afraid of his anger.

So, was Eric afraid of his father? What reason or cause would he have to be? In 1560, he had asked Queen Catherine for permission to travel to England to propose to Elizabeth I. Granted, it was not a suitable match in Gustav's eyes and he didn't give permission for it. Would that have been enough to bar him from the deathbed of his own father? What we do know is this: when Gustav died, Eric wasn't there.

The Short and Tumultuous Reign

He was crowned Eric XIV of Sweden on September 29th, 1560. Eric's ambitions as king were strong opposed by the Swedish nobility, including his half-brother John III, Duke of Finland. His relationship with a Polish princess made him sympathetic to Poland, and pursue an expansionist policy in modern-day Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. This, of course, lead to conflict between the brothers. In 1563, John was seized and tried for high treason by Eric's command.

In contrast with his father, Eric was not satisfied with simply ruling Sweden. He wanted to expand his influence into the Baltic region and Estonia. As a result, he conflicted with his cousin, Frederick II of Denmark. Indeed, much of Eric XIV's reign was dominated by the Livonian and Scandinavian Seven Years' War, beginning in the year 1563.

So not only was Eric XIV trying to ward off foreign invaders (the Danish), he was battling with his own noblemen. Not a good place to be in, at all.

And indeed, from the start of 1563 onwards, his insanity peaked. His rule was marked by a bloody trail. In 1567, suspicious of high treason, he killed several members of the Sture family. In fact, he himself stabbed Nils Svantesson Sture. This is simply not how kings were expected to behave at this time.

After the murders of the Stures, his half-brother John was imprisoned and Eric's conflict with the nobles escalated. In Fall 1568, the dukes and nobles rebelled. Eric was dethroned, then imprisoned by Duke John, his half-brother (who took power). How devastating for Eric, during an era of Divine Right of Kings. Eric's most trusted counselor was executed shortly after John III ascended to the throne.

Did John III deserve the throne?

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Half-brother of Eric XIV: Duke John, later John III of Sweden.
Half-brother of Eric XIV: Duke John, later John III of Sweden. | Source

Downfall and Legacy

Eric XIV was held prisoner in many different castles in both Sweden and Finland. He died in Örbyhus Castle: according to folklore, his final meal was a lethal bowl of pea soup. A document signed by his brother, John III, gave Eric's guards in his last prison authorization to poison him if anyone tried to release him. His body was later exhumed and modern forensic analysis revealed evidence of lethal arsenic poisoning.

So, therefore, I can only conclude that John murdered his own brother in cold blood. What possible rationale could be given for him to justify this crime? Yes; it's true, King Eric had him arrested. But even so, this is overkill for vengeance. He must have been absolutely afraid for his life.

So, what became of Eric's wife, Karin Hansdotter, and their children? Believe it or not, Karin had had a prior relationship with King John III and had born many children through him as well. King John cared deeply for Karin, even going so far as to provide for her "illegitimate" children with Eric. She remarried and died later on while giving birth. Some of his descendants survived into adulthood, and there are living descendants today. Meaning, there are people alive who are related to "crazy" King Eric XIV. It would be quite extraordinary to meet them!

Analysis of King Eric XIV

So let's consider the evidence that points to insanity or, quite possibly, a severe mental breakdown from stress:

  • He never got to say goodbye to his father.
  • He faced numerous rejections from love interests.
  • He lived privately, away from court, for many of his formative years.
  • His desires to expand Sweden made the nation a target of war. The Danish tried to invade and conquer Sweden.
  • His noble subjects were suspicious of him, and wanted him killed.
  • He murdered those who opposed him by his own hand (sword).
  • He arrested his own brother.
  • Said brother later deposed him and murdered him.

Ultimately, what caused it? I believe it was a combination of pressures from his father and the sheltering of him during his youth. He never really got a chance to experience court and to learn the politics of ruling a kingdom. He needed the support of the nobles to support his claim to the throne. And unfortunately, he clashed with them on far too many issues.

It's a shame, as he was highly intellectual and could have been a great scholar. I guess we'll never know!

So, what do you think of Eric's reign as king? Vote below!

Was Eric XIV a good king?

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    • TrixieShi profile imageAUTHOR

      Diana Strenka 

      2 years ago from North Carolina

      Agreed, grand! And the fact that so many were related. You have to wonder if there is a genetic component.

      Schneider, I agree completely. And it probably didn't help that his dad had so many kids! Probably couldn't attend to him like he needed.

    • profile image

      Howard Schneider 

      2 years ago from Parsippany, New Jersey

      Wonderful piece of history, Diana. I think he was simply overwhelmed by his rule and unprepared. He then went wildly insane. Great Hub.

    • grand old lady profile image

      Mona Sabalones Gonzalez 

      2 years ago from Philippines

      Very interesting and informative article. I have also read about Queen Elizabeth, Nicolas and Alexandra, and Mary Queen of Scots, and it seems to me that being born royal is a bit of a curse, since there is so much intrigue and power mongering, most particularly between relatives who may take your place. Seems like the only one who would think it's a fortunate thing to be royal is Hans Christian Andersen.

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