On this date in 1600, five former supporters of King Sigismund were beheaded at Linköping, as Sweden broke free of Poland and of Catholicism.
Sigismund was Sweden’s legitimate heir; he was also a characteristic product of dynastic intermarriage whose loyalties were splintered between fiefdoms. But most crucially of all, he had been raised Catholic in a realm turning decisively towards Protestantism.
Born of a Polish-Italian mother, he had secured the Polish-Lithuanian throne by election in 1589; when succession added suzerainty of Sweden, his realm was a personal union stretching across central Europe from the Arctic Circle to the Black Sea.
Which looked better on paper than it would work in practice.
The persecutory stage of the Catholic counter-reformation had been in full throat this past half-century, and the accession of a Catholic prince raised a Scandinavian alarm.
Busy governing Poland, Sigismund left his Protestant uncle Duke Charles to administer Sweden; within five years, civil war had erupted between the two and in short order the victorious soon-to-be King Charles IX had occasion to make example of the nobles who had backed Sigismund’s cause.
Charles himself would be a transitional figure in Sweden, but what a transition: his victory made possible the the subsequent scintillating reign of his son, Gustavus Adolphus — the able commander who would raise Sweden into a true European power.*
There would be an interesting coda in that reign to this day’s doings. Gustavus’ greatest general, Johan Banér, was the son of one of those put to death in Linköping. In another time, between other men, that one fellow’s father had seen the other fellow’s butchered might have put a blood feud between them. But as young men — the king was just 18 months his senior — they formed a permanent friendship, upon which they founded the military collaboration that shook northern Europe.
“My dad beheaded your dad”
* Among Gustavus Adolphus’ numerous exploits was war with his father’s old rival — that is, with his cousin Sigismund — in the 1620s. Foreign relations between Sweden and Poland had turned understandably frosty, with Sigismund spending the rest of his long life eyeballing the lost crown.