A Troublesome Catholic Swede
I knew there was quite considerable opposition to the Reformation in England—particularly in the North and South-west—but I had always assumed that the religious changes in Scandinavia were achieved with little trouble.
However, I’ve recently been studying Warren Carroll’s six-volume history of Christendom, and I’ve just reached his account of the turbulent mid-16th century in Sweden. I’ve been reading how the unpleasant and absolutist King Gustavus Vasa replaced every Catholic bishop with a Lutheran, and outlawed the Mass.
Enter a yeoman (a sort of squire) by the name of Nils Dacke, in the heavily-forested southern province of Småland. This doughty individual rose in revolt, at the head of three thousand peasants armed with home-made crossbows. As he put it: “It was an intolerable presumption that the king should interpose his meddling not only between a man and his market, but between a man and his God.” King Gustavus sent German mercenaries against them, armed with long pikes. These weapons proved almost useless in the thick forests, and the Germans were virtually annihilated by swarms of arrows which pierced their armour when fired from a distance of 100 yards. The king was forced to make a truce with Dacke, but on the very day he signed it Gustavus wrote to a crony that he had no intention of keeping it.
But in the meantime Dacke set up his headquarters in Kronborg castle, from where he ruled Småland and much of the rest of southern Sweden for several months. He restored the Latin Mass and brought back 16 refugee priests to minister to the faithful.
Then a Lutheran Danish army came to the aid of Gustavus, defeating the Swedish peasants on the ice of the frozen Lake Hjorten. Dacke, shot through both thighs, was carried from the battle. Within two months he had recovered sufficiently to resume his command, but the royal army, now greatly reinforced, pressed him hard. Eventually he was betrayed near the Danish border. Refusing to surrender, he fought on until he was overpowered and killed, much to the regret of King Gustavus, who wanted to take him alive, so that he could be put to torture.
Catholicism hardly exists in Sweden today, but Nils Dacke is not completely forgotten by his countrymen. During the 1950s he was honoured with a statue put up near Lake Hjorten, with a battle axe in one hand and a crossbow in the other. This was quite a controversial move, as King Gustavus Vasa was the founder of Sweden’s ruling dynasty, and is regarded as the architect of national unity. I imagine that today, with the worldwide fashion among left-wing students for toppling the statues of people whose ideas they regard as politically incorrect, there will be growing pressure to get rid of this memorial to a brave Swedish Catholic rebel.
It also occurs to me that the story of Nils Dacke would make a wonderful film. It is a pity that the great Swedish director Ingmar Bergman, who seems to have had a sneaking respect for Catholicism, never thought of tackling it.
Another thought: I wonder if Pope Francis has ever heard of Nils Dacke; and if so, what he thinks of him?