British Officers in Seventeenth-Century Sweden

By Ailes, Mary Elizabeth | Scandinavian Studies, Summer 1999 | Go to article overview

British Officers in Seventeenth-Century Sweden


Ailes, Mary Elizabeth, Scandinavian Studies


British Officers in Seventeenth-Century Sweden

THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY HAS BEEN characterized as a period of state building throughout Europe. Many monarchs expanded and centralized government bureaucracies, developed more sophisticated tax systems, and enlarged militaries thus leading to a modernization of their states' apparatuses. In northern and eastern Europe, this process often coincided with the immigration of skilled foreigners into these regions. Lacking the population or resource base to revamp completely their societies, many northern rulers turned to foreigners to supply the necessary skills and manpower to modernize their states and societies. During the early modern period, monarchs of such diverse kingdoms as Denmark, Prussia, Sweden, and Russia encouraged skilled foreigners to immigrate to their territories to ply their trades for the benefit of their new countries.

Sweden provides an interesting and perhaps lesser known example of a kingdom that relied heavily on foreigners to promote the process of state centralization. Similar to policies instituted in Russia during the eighteenth century under Peter the Great, Swedish monarchs during the seventeenth century actively encouraged the immigration of merchants, skilled workers, and military technicians to aid in the development and growth of the Swedish empire. Perhaps, the largest group of immigrants to seventeenth-century Sweden consisted of soldiers. From the 1560S until the 1720s, the Swedish crown was involved in almost constant warfare with its neighbors around the Baltic. This century of war led to the development of a large empire encompassing parts of the eastern and southern shores of the Baltic. Maintaining and continuing the growth of such an empire proved to be a difficult task, in part, because the kingdom lacked a large population that could fill the ranks of the army or provide troops to garrison newly conquered territory.(1) To correct this problem, the Swedish crown hired mercenaries from throughout Europe. One of the largest recruiting areas was the British Isles, where the Swedish crown hired tens of thousands of soldiers. Most of these men never developed a permanent connection to the Swedish realm either dying during military service or returning to their homeland when their enlistment ended. A minority of the officers and their families, however, remained permanently in Swedish service and settled in the Swedish empire.

British mercenaries in Swedish service have been the focus of many studies. Previous works addressed recruitment in the British Isles, military campaigns in which the soldiers participated, and the great military heroes who emerged from this group.(2) Additionally, many historians have pointed out that a number of British mercenaries settled in Sweden, were ennobled by the Swedish crown, and came to be important members of Swedish society. None of the studies, however, has produced an in-depth analysis of the experiences of British military immigrants in Sweden or of the factors that regulated their success in taking advantage of the opportunities available to them. These opportunities to achieve wealth and status were unique for this era. Unlike many other northern European states, where foreigners were prohibited from progressing to the highest ranks in the society, immigrants who gave valuable service to the Swedish crown were showered with titles of nobility and land grants. The degree to which individuals were able to enjoy these advantages differed greatly, however. Among all of the different immigrant groups in seventeenth-century Sweden, soldiers probably experienced more chances to enjoy the benefits available to foreigners. Unlike foreign merchants or skilled workers who tended to live in tight-knit groups, soldiers were scattered throughout the realm. Additionally, as their original regiments were decimated through battle wounds and disease, foreign soldiers began to serve in units containing individuals of many different nationalities. …

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