In the early modern composite state, recent scholarship on the subject of empires has called attention to a specific form of political rule that offers great potential for comparative research.1 Historians of the early modern era have already done much to identify the defining traits of these dominions.2 As dynastic agglomerations, composite states were formed of at least two territories which, while united under a single monarch, nonetheless tended to retain a high degree of political, judicial, economic and cultural heterogeneity. In this respect, they differed fundamentally from the modern nation states, classically defined by the triad of people, territory and power.
In some cases, the realms forming these territorial conglomerates were geographically dispersed. The most familiar example is probably the Spanish Empire, which had possessions across the European continent as well as its overseas colonies. Early modern Brandenburg-Prussia, with its territories dispersed from the lower Rhine to the Duchy of Prussia, is also a case in point.3 On the other hand, there were composite states whose component parts existed within a single set of borders, with examples including the Swedish Empire, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the United Kingdom or Piedmont-Savoy.
Drawing on two concrete examples, the following discussion aims to bring together the study of early modern composite states on the one hand and empires on the other, thereby demonstrating the potential of trans-regional and trans-national approaches.4 However, we would be well advised not to make anachronistic comparisons between modern empires and early modern structures of dominion.5 The aspects specific to pre-modern rule must always be borne in mind if misleading analogies are to be avoided. Nor should we forsake conceptual precision: not every composite state was an empire. Considering the two concepts side by side is further complicated by the imprecision attending that of "empire", for it has been observed that "empires have come in many shapes and forms, at many places and in many times".6 In an effort to render empires describable, the field of empire studies uses the demarcation against other forms of rule on the one hand and increasingly performative approaches on the other in order to examine techniques of rule and administration and the actors involved in them.7 Yet there is still no consensus how exactly empires ought to be defined.8
By contrast, recent scholarship has identified a range of phenomena that characterised composite states. Traditionally, special attention has been devoted to their inner structure and the tension between centre and periphery. Was there a true centre of power, and is it possible to prove deliberate efforts to orient the individual territorial components towards it in political, economic, confessional, cultural, linguistic or other terms? Or should we not instead assume a practice of political rule whose structure was largely polycentric? The answer to such questions is of considerable importance, not least with respect to the debate on "absolutism" as a form of rule – a debate which has attracted significant new contributions in recent years.9 In contrast to the older historiography, newer research has found that early modern monarchs were fundamentally dependent on the cooperation and consensus of local and regional elites. Any attempts on the part of the ruler to enforce a policy strictly oriented towards his centre of power was likely to meet with resistance – particularly at the periphery. Against this background, there is much to be learnt from an actor-centred perspective that examines the personal ties that existed between centre and periphery or that were purposely created in the course of a policy of clientelism and patronage – created, that is, with a view to generating loyalty, furthering integration and enforcing the ruler's writ even in remote areas of his realm.
A closely related trans-epochal phenomenon is that of rule being delegated.10 The ruler's claim to exercise governmental authority in each territory of his disparate realm posed a problem for many composite states. For in practice, rule from afar turned out to be far more difficult than when the ruler was permanently present in a given place. One means by which this deficit might be supplied was for the ruler to tour his dominions. This instrument posed severe logistical challenges. Another widespread practice was to instal a deputy (under a title such as steward, viceroy or governor-general) to maintain a permanent presence as the monarch's alter ego, thereby ensuring the exercise and supervision of his rule even in his absence. Since, in the early modern era, authority and rule were widely understood in a personalised sense, establishing such deputies as mediators between the centre of power and local elites was a widely used means of compensating for the lack of a permanent presence of the monarch himself.
Another characteristic feature of larger composite states is an unmistakable tendency to pursue claims to universal rule and to justify them by means of an imperial ideology.11 The most notable example is the guiding concept of monarchia universalis, which attained considerable political importance in the age of Emperor Charles V (1500–1558) in particular and which was instrumentalised to justify or refute claims to universal rule.12 The extraordinary duration of the Thirty Years' War, for instance, has been explained in terms of the incompatible claims to universal rule on the part of the main competing powers, Habsburg, France and Sweden.13
A related question which was discussed even at the time concerns whether and to what degree composite states, by reason of their spatial conditions, were at greater risk of finding themselves at conflict with neighbouring powers.14 Since they often entailed the creation of powerful military apparatuses to secure them, did not the large spatial expanse of extended and dispersed complexes of rule promote warfare – all the more so because neighbours tended to view such military build-up as a threat? A well-known example of this dynamic is France's geographical situation between the House of Austria's possessions in the Iberian Peninsula to the south, its holdings in the Low Countries to the north, and the Holy Roman Empire, under a Habsburg emperor, to the east. Resentment of this so-called "Habsburg embrace" in 1700 has long been adduced to explain French policy in the early modern era.15 Much can also be learnt from the tightly interwoven contemporary discourses concerning he political and military demands posed by such dispersed holdings: was territorial integration by means of expansion the goal, or ought the foremost concern to be the preservation of the status quo?16
In this context the question of large empires and their supposed pacifying effects has to be considered. Of particular importance here is the traditional guiding principle of a universal peace (pax universalis or pax generalis) and the notions associated with it: hegemony or balance, universalism or particularism, hierarchy or equal status.17 These ideals of monarchia universalis and pax generalis were and remain of essential importance in attempts at legitimising large empires.18 The accurate dictum whereby "empires were made and unmade by words as well as deeds"19 can also be applied to the "composite" monarchies of the early modern age. Justifying and legitimising their own actions was everyday business in composite states and was an established part of their self-presentation and their communicative strategies as pursued through printed propaganda.20
Moreover, to reach an adequate understanding of the emergence, maintenance and decline of composite states and empires, it is important to analyse the integrative power of royal symbols, symbolic acts and performative elements.21 Particularly those techniques of rule aiming at centralisation, standardisation and integration made deliberate use of visible signs and communicative acts in order to create trans-territorial connections.
The Holy Roman Empire is not infrequently mentioned in discussions of early modern composite states.22 Yet the concept scarcely does justice to the empire's unique constitutional structure, which was defined by the "basic constellation of the coexistence of and correlation between the majestas personalis of the emperor and the majestas realis of the empire".23 These two poles existed in a state of mutual dependence and restriction. The emperor's power was restricted by the "partial legal autonomy" of the territorial lords no less than by the commitment to consensual cooperation on which the imperial constitution was founded. Both enjoyed supra-national validity, a fact which increased the scope for action on the part of the imperial estates while also imposing limits on what they could do.24
This study will take a closer look at two composite states which hitherto have not been adequately compared: the early modern empires of Sweden and Spain.25 To compare them seems both legitimate and worthwhile, since both were among the great powers of the 17th century whose competing claims to dominance contributed to the exceptionally high density of conflict witnessed by that era.26 Unlike Spain, however, empire scholars have so far largely ignored Sweden. Moreover, both powers are widely held to have seen their position among 18th-century states decline.27 Both were unable to maintain their great power status, and both composite states thus offer striking illustrations of the triadic narrative of the rise, decline and fall of empires.28 Another similarity can be found in the fact that in the early modern age, both Sweden and Spain harked back to their Gothic heritage as a means of articulating and legitimating their far-reaching claims to dominance.29
The Swedish Composite State in the Early Modern Era
The development of the Swedish composite state began in 1561, when the city of Reval (modern Tallinn) placed itself under the protection of the Swedish Crown. Sweden's territorial growth peaked in 1681, when its king inherited the County Palatine of Zweibrücken. This marked both the high and the end point of Swedish expansion.30 Swedish historians refer to the period between 1611 and 1718/21 as the stormaktstiden or "Age of Greatness", thereby creating a conceptual link with empire studies. This was also the period when Sweden tried to establish colonies in Lapland as well as overseas, in Africa and North America.31 Sweden's "imperial experience" ended with the death of Charles XII (1682–1718).32 The Great Northern War (1700–1721) is considered the decisive watershed, at the end of which Sweden lost much of the territory it had gained since 1561. Sweden's 120-year ascent was thus followed by a rapid fall.33
The causes of Sweden's rise are manifold, with historians often describing it as an "empire of necessity".34 By the reign of Charles IX (1550–1611), Swedish expansion was following a political programme that can be seen reflected in the constitutional debates of the time. For instance, in his proposal for a basic law (regeringsform) defining the rights and responsibilities of the ruler, his subjects and the political institutions, Charles IX took care to stipulate that the king of Sweden should travel to receive homage in Livonia. This was at a time when Livonia was not yet part of the Swedish composite state and Swedish rule in Estonia not yet firmly established. This draft law is read as an expression of Sweden's claim to dominance in the Baltic,35 a claim for which Charles IX had recourse to "Gothicism".
Gothicism "created, in a positive reimagining of a negative image of Goths and the Gothic, a self-understanding as a people descended from heroes and warriors".36 This current of ideas emerged in different parts of Europe in the early 16th century. It found particular resonance in Sweden, where it coincided with the country's secession from the Kalmar Union, the personal union of the three Nordic kingdoms of Denmark, Norway and Sweden which lasted from 1397 to 1521. Gothicism offered the young Vasa dynasty a tradition within which to situate itself, thereby conferring legitimacy upon its rule.37
Under Charles IX and his son Gustavus Adolphus (1594–1632), Gothicism displayed its full propagandistic effect as a political programme. For instance, Charles IX, before departing for the Baltic, had his address to the estates at the riksdag (diet) of 1603 drafted by Johan Skytte (1577–1645), who went on to become chancellor of the University of Uppsala and one of the foremost exponents of Gothicism in Sweden. Skytte's work, together with that of other Gothicist historiographers such as Johannes Messenius (1579–1636), contributed to "positioning Sweden as the dominant power in the Baltic".38
Gustavus Adolphus continued both this policy and the communication strategy accompanying it. As part of the festivities accompanying his coronation in 1617, he delivered a speech at the tournament that was steeped in the spirit of Gothicism. In the guise of Berik, the mythic king of the Goths, and with reference to Berik's conquests in Estonia, Courland, Prussia and the Wendish lands, Gustavus Adolphus formulated the precedent to be followed in his own reign while underscoring Swedish claims in the Baltic.39
Yet this should not be mistaken for the proclamation of an aggressive and expansionist programme. In fact, Gustavus Adolphus justified his foreign policy in defensive terms – including the struggles with Poland in the Baltic and his intervention in the Thirty Years' War. This too was consistent with his cultivation of a Gothicist image, again with reference to the legendary Berik.
Accordingly, the king's ambition "att lägga kust till kust" (to add coast to coast), thereby making the Baltic Sweden's inland sea, should not be taken as a programme set in stone.40 Only gradually does a conscious plan emerge from the actions of Gustavus Adolphus. The key was to seize any opportunity – occasion is the word found in the sources – for making territorial gains and thereby ensuring the outward security of Swedish rule in the Baltic.41 The (territorial) demands made by Sweden during the Westphalian peace negotiations (1643–1649) with a view to obtaining "guarantees" and "satisfaction" form a direct continuation of this programme by the means of realpolitik. As a result, Sweden acquired Western Pomerania as well as the duchies of Bremen and Verden, giving the Swedish crown control of the estuaries of the Oder, Elbe and Weser as well as the southern Baltic seaboard. This put Sweden in a position to control trade in the Baltic and access to the North Sea trade.42
Towards the end of the Thirty Years' War, Sweden reached the limits of its (economic) power. To consolidate state finances, the riksdag of 1655 ordered a reduktion, meaning the reacquisition of former crown lands granted to the nobility. Although this measure was not fully implemented, another – the "Great Reduction" – was enacted in 1680 at the behest of Charles XI (1655–1697). These measures, which continued to be tightened until 1686, were implemented throughout the Swedish composite state.43 Yet even these drastic steps were not enough substantially to relieve the economic strain on Sweden. The Great Northern War brought further financial pressure, causing the military to be overstretched and ultimately ushering in the end of Sweden's great power status.
In Baltic German historiography, which was dominant in Estonia and Livonia well into the 20th century, the "Great Reduction" is the decisive event in assessing Swedish rule. The Swedish era or Schwedenzeit is seen as a period of decline and contrasted as such with the region's subsequent flowering under Russian rule.44 By contrast, the historiography of Sweden's German provinces, on the other hand, to this day gives overwhelmingly positive appraisals of Swedish rule. The popular adage Unter den drei Kronen, lässt es sich gut wohnen ("Life is good under the three crowns") is only one aspect of a diverse culture of popular memory. This divergence in memories of the Schwedenzeit is striking indeed and serve as a stimulus for enquiring into how (early modern) empires are remembered in popular memory. What these divergent memories also testify to, however, is the differing incorporation of the formerly Swedish provinces and their elites into the Swedish composite state and hence different relationships between centre and periphery.
On account of the distance from the ruling centre in Stockholm and their potentially perilous marginal position, the Baltic and German provinces of the Swedish crown were treated as "special administrative units".45 They were considered governorates-general, each headed by a governor-general, and constituted "the outermost zone of Swedish territorial administration".46 Between the centre (Stockholm) and the periphery, the län situated in Sweden and Finland formed something of an inner circle.47 This administrative structure reflects the expansionist programme of Gustavus Adolphus and his chancellor, Axel Oxenstierna (1583–1654), which aimed to secure Swedish rule by territorial gains.
The distance between the centre of power and parts forming the Swedish composite state can also be discerned in access to political decision-making processes. The regeringsform or constitution drafted by Oxenstierna in 1634 limited representation to members of the estates born in Sweden and Finland.48 This meant that members of the estates in the Baltic and in the subsequently acquired German provinces were excluded from the political process. However, the German territories, though under Swedish rule, remained part of the Holy Roman Empire49 and as such had opportunities for political involvement outside the framework of the Swedish composite state. The Swedish crown, moreover, sent representatives to the Imperial diet, thereby adding to the ties between these two early modern polities. The Holy Roman Empire's policies and constitution became matters of concern for the Swedish crown, which in turn tried to discuss matters of (foreign) policy within the framework of the Holy Roman Empire's constitution and its institutions.50
No less restrictive were constitutional regulations governing appointments to the Swedish riksråd or Council of the Realm, whose members must likewise be born in Sweden or Finland.51 This was a deliberate attempt to protect the noble families hitherto dominant in the riksråd and thus in key positions of political influence from the promotion of new elites. In particular, it was a backlash against attempts made by Charles IX in the early 17th century to give the Estonian nobility access to the riksråd as a means of broadening his legitimacy in that country.52
This makes it all the more surprising to find that, where the judiciary was concerned, the distance between the Baltic provinces and the ruling centre was virtually eliminated by their incorporation into the legal system on an equal footing. The third of four supreme courts was installed in Dorpat in 1630 – after the Svea hovrätt (Swedish Court of Appeal) in Stockholm (1614) and the court of appeal (hovrätt) for Finland in Åbo (1623), and before the Göta hovrätt in Jönköping (1634).53 A similar observation might be made with respect to ecclesiastical administration. Particularly (but, as the following section will show, by no means exclusively) in the sphere of Church policy, a comparison with Spain suggests itself – not least because early modern Sweden has been referred to as "the Protestant Spain".54
The Rise and Fall of the Spanish Composite State
The Spanish composite state is undoubtedly the instance par excellence of this specific form of early modern polity and as such has been particularly well researched.55 King Philip IV (1605–1665), on whose reign this section will focus, ruled over an impressive array of territories. Yet even contemporaries struggled to find an adequate term for this extraordinary accumulation of dominions, and modern scholarship continues to use a variety of terms, including España(s), nación española, monarquía hispánica, corona católica etc.56
Contemporary observers also participated in lively debates on the structural problems resulting from the extraordinary expanse of this "composite" monarchy.57 In his Idea de un príncipe político Cristiano (1640), a book of instruction for the Christian prince (or "mirror for princes"), the Spanish writer and diplomat Diego de Saavedra Fajardo (1584–1648) dealt at length with the rise and fall of great empires.58 In his book Idea de un príncipe político cristiano, which was soon translated into several languages, Saveeda concluded that the fate of empires obeyed the cyclical law of nature, being doomed either to rise or to fall ("O subir o bajar").59
There was a widespread awareness within the Spanish monarchy in the mid-17th century that the hegemony that had been fought for and won in the 16th century was eroding and that the empire had gone into decline.60 Indeed, the word declinación was frequently used to express this sense of crisis. Of particular interest within the present context is that fact that contemporary commentators in Spain thought they had identified a direct connection between the large number and extent of territories making up the Spanish composite state on the one hand and the increasing number of wars in which Spain was involved (and which gave rise to a sense of crisis) on the other.61 From this observation, Saavedra deduced the necessity of following a largely defensive foreign policy and rejected overly ambitious expansionism.62
Cautionary voices began to be raised even in the late 16th century, warning that size presented a liability for extensive monarchies.63 Additional difficulties were to be expected if the countries situated between the empire's component parts were hostile or competing states.64 Such problems were also discussed outside Spain. Cardinal Richelieu (1585–1642), for instance, chief minister of France, considered the distances separating Spain's possessions to be among the few reasons why Spain had not yet fulfilled its ambition of creating a universal monarchy.65 The French king, by contrast, ruled over a self-contained realm, which was far easier to secure, as the Spanish scholar Baltasar Alamos de Barrientos (1555–1640) observed in 1598.66 His compatriot, the Jesuit writer and philosopher Baltasar Gracián (1601–1658), came to a similar conclusion. In El Politico (1640), Gracián argued that France had natural borders – coasts, rivers and mountains – that made it easier to defend than the Spanish empire.67 The monarchies of France and Spain were frequently contrasted in this way within a closely connected European discourse.
A decisive cause of the manifest erosion of the Spanish empire were conflicts between the Castilian centre and the periphery. These conflicts were observed throughout Europe and were much discussed by contemporary writers. Much quoted in this context is a secret memorandum, dated 25 December 1624, by Gaspar de Guzmán y Pimentel, Rivera y Velasco de Tovar, Count-Duke of Olivares (1587–1645).68 Olivares, for many years an influential favourite at the Spanish court, clearly recognised that the survival of the Spanish empire depended crucially on sparing Castile, which had to bear the brunt of the ongoing wars, any further financial and military burdens. It was time, Olivares argued, for the other territories of the Spanish crown to contribute their fair share. The best-known measure to that effect was the ultimately doomed unión de armas (union of arms), which was to raise money for wars by ensuring the equal taxation of the crown's non-Castilian lands.69 It was virtually inevitable that Olivares' plan would meet fierce resistance. In the 1640s Catalonia, Portugal, Naples and Sicily were shaken by revolts that were to have serious long-term consequences.70 What was more, in the Peace of Münster (30 January 1648), the king of Spain was forced to recognise the independence of the Dutch Republic, which had seceded from the Spanish Netherlands. Against the backdrop of this challenge to the integrity of the Spanish monarchy, it may understood why Gaspar de Bracamonte y Guzmán, Count of Peñaranda (1595–1676), who led the Spanish delegation, should have called the Congress of Westphalia a council of heretics, a nest of serpents and a tragedy.71
The extent to which the European discourse on the nature of the Spanish monarchy was interwoven with general reflections on the rise and fall of great empires is reflected in the aforementioned example of Gothicism. Both Spain and Sweden drew on Gothic ideas, and both not only instrumentalised their shared Gothic heritage for purposes of propaganda and to justify a particular ideology of rule, but made a point of stressing it in diplomatic practice to win support for shared political goals. French deputies at the Congress of Westphalia even observed that a natural friendship existed between Swedes and Spaniards.72 Moreover, in Saavedra, the Spanish delegation had among its members a specialist in Gothic history. The Congress coincided with the publication of his Corona Gótica, Castellana y Austríaca, which strongly emphasised the Gothic heritage shared by Spain and Sweden – a point Saavedra also raised in negotiations with the Swedish delegation.73 To find diplomatic negotiations entangled in such a manner with processes of cultural transfer suggests fruitful avenues for further research.
Over the course of the early modern era, the Swedish and Spanish composite states experienced developments that seem illustrative of the classical scheme of the rise, decline and fall of empires. The rise to regional, European and (in the case of Spain) global dominance is followed by periods of stagnation and decline, leading by the 18th century to a marked loss of political importance. A great deal of scholarship continues to follow this master narrative when it comes to identifying long-term structures and processes in the early modern histories of Sweden and Spain.
In this context, the present examination of Sweden and Spain has sought to highlight several aspects. Comparative approaches to the study of composite states and empires are important in light of the necessity of challenging the teleological assumptions (homogenisation, centralisation, integration etc.) underpinning much of the older historiography – and all the more so because a transnational approach serves to sharpen our view of typical and distinctive features. It also testifies to the appeal of drawing on case studies that would seem superficially to have little in common and are drawn from different cultural and linguistic spheres. The case of Swedish-Spanish Gothicism, for instance, casts light on previously little-known reciprocal processes of interaction, transfer and reception not restricted to a particular nation state, region or religious confession. Comparative studies of this kind a particularly suitable for bringing both the commonalities and differences between early modern composite states and empires into sharper focus than has hitherto been the case.