Monday will be the 374th anniversary of his death (aged just 37) on the battlefield in Lützen in Germany during the Thirty Years War. He is the only Swedish King to have been honoured with the title “The Great” (“Den Stora”) and the anniversary of his death is an official Swedish flag day.
Gustav II Adolf is widely regarded as having laid down much of the apparatus of the modern Swedish state, including the postal service and newspapers as well as founding universities and building key transport links. He was also a much admired strategic general, apparently one of Napolean Bonaparte’s heroes, and led many successful campaigns as part of the anti-Hapsburg alliance.
On the day of his death, he was riding an unfamiliar horse and struggling with his vision – partly because of the mist and smoke from the gunpowder, but also because he needed glasses and could not wear them in battle. During the battle, he and a handful of loyal followers rode deep into the enemy’s midst and became separated from the rest of their troops.
After sustaining a shot to the arm, Gustav II Adolf fell from his horse and was found by a group of Croatian cavalrymen. They tried to take him prisoner but were unable to lift him, so instead they shot him in the head and ran a sword through his breast.
News of his death took a month to reach Stockholm. After his body was returned to the capital, his widow retained his body (and, for a while, just his heart) for over a year. The remains, including the heart, are now kept in Stockholm’s Riddarholmskyrkan, and his armour can be seen at the Livrustkammaren in the Royal Palace.
During his reign Gustav II Adolf founded a number of towns, among them the modern Gothenburg, and he is particularly celebrated in Sweden’s second city. There had been previous attempts to build a strategic settlement in the area, but these had resulted only in losing it to the Danes and watching it go up in smoke.
Legend has it that in 1621 Gustav II Adolf stood on the hill which now looks down over Ullevi and pointed below him, saying, “Där skall staden ligga” (“There shall the city lie”). These words have since become an important part of Gothenburg’s history – the resulting city, built largely by Dutch workers appointed by the King, remained Swedish and grew increasingly important over the following centuries.
Gothenburg leaders began discussing the idea of a monument to commemorate their founder as early as 1832, but efforts to honour the King proved almost as complex and troubled as his life had been. By 1845 the city had raised enough money to commission a statue of Gustav II Adolf, which was built in Italy but only completed two years later than expected. Finally ready to be shipped to Sweden, the monument suffered another setback when the ship carrying it to Gothenburg sank off the coast of Heligoland.
Although the statue was recovered and offered for sale to Gothenburg, the price demanded by the islanders was too high and another statue was commissioned. It was not installed until 1854, when it was placed in Stora Torget (now renamed Gustav Adolfs Torg). The statue depicts the King pointing towards the city and is now one of Gothenburg’s most famous landmarks.
In today’s Gothenburg, most residents remember their heroic founder by eating him in cake form. In the 1880s, a bakery located at what is now the Dubliners pub on the corner of Östrahamngatan and Kungsgatan, created a special form of cake which came to be known as Gustav Adolfsbakelse. The cakes depicted a silhouette of the king, now usually rendered in chocolate or marzipan, and the tradition for Gothenburg bakeries to sell these on the 6th of November continues today.