Sweden: King Gustavus II Goofed

Travel Tuesday

Destination: Stockholm, Sweden, The Vasa Museum

VasaPeople entering the enormous, dimly lighted room in Stockholm, stare in awe at the relic of the past looming above them. The towering wooden ship in the center of the building floats in air, rather than in the cold Baltic Sea that was meant to be its home nearly four hundred years ago.

The Vasa Ship Museum in Stockholm, Sweden cradles a sailing ship first launched in 1628. Now, she stands in her custom-built home as though she emerged from a time capsule, which in a way, she did.

The King Needs a Ship

The first King Gustavus had liberated Sweden from Denmark and his grandson, King Gustavus II (Adolphus), intended that this ship would overpower all Sweden’s enemies.

Gustavus II came to the throne in 1611, at the age of 17 and defeated the Danes once again, then waged war on Russia and Poland. But to complete his triumphs, he needed to build a navy. In the early seventeenth century, Sweden had lost twelve ships in quick succession. People began to think the country was jinxed.

Bad omens continued. The King changed orders midway through the construction of the Vasa. The ship designer became too ill to directly oversee the job, and then he died. His successor had no written record of what had gone before. The King was breathing down his neck to finish this job in half the normal time and load the ship with more guns than it could bear. The  ship must be ready to sail to Poland in mid-summer of 1628.

Lagging behind the King’s desired launch date by a month, the shipbuilders finally finished the job in August. Proud of their new assignment, the crewmembers invited their wives and children to ride as far as the islands outside the bay where soldiers would board the ship.

The Launch

On a glorious summer day, as gold ornaments flashed in the sunlight,  and flags and banners waved, small boats towed the great ship from her mooring near the castle, fired a farewell salute, and hundreds of people on the banks watched as she set sail.

Within minutes, a gust of wind dropped over the inland hills and the ship listed. The gun ports, still open from the farewell salute, filled with water. The Vasa slowly disappeared beneath 110 feet of water. She had traveled only 1400 yards.

Although small boats in the harbor picked up most of the 150 people on board, about one-third, among them some women and children,  lay buried with the  ship in the cold waters under Stockholm’s bay for more than 300 years.

A Board of Inquiry showed no malfeasance by the captain or the shipbuilders, and the investigation quietly ended. After all, who could accuse the King? His changes in length of the ship, which meant some patchwork in the hull, his increase of numbers of heavy weapons installed on an unheard of two gun decks, his insistence on speed of construction, all contributed to the tragedy.

The Museum

The Swedish Vasa is the only totally recovered seventeenth century sailing ship in the world. Most of the guns were salvaged in 1664, but complete recovery proved too difficult until 1961.

Granted, what visitors to the Vasa Museum see today has been patched together, polished and painted. But miraculously reborn after 333 years, only 5% of the museum ship Vasa has been replaced. 95% of the original ship survives.

At the Stockholm museum, movies in several languages paint the background of wars and sailing ships, tell the story of her building, her death and her recovery. Details of sailors lives are displayed—trunks of clothing, cooking utensils, mugs for ale, even a backgammon game.

But all the fascinating details pale beside the looming ship,with its towering rigging and colorful decorations. The Vasa’s ropes are coiled, sails folded, everlastingly ready for a battle that she will never join. Now it can be said.In a classic case of management meddling, the King sunk his own ship.

Have you been to Stockholm?  What was your favorite place to visit?

Here’s a nifty blog entry about the Vasa Museum, with great pictures, at Travel Wonders.

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About Vera Marie Badertscher

A freelance writer who loves to travel. When she is not traveling she is reading about travel. When she is not reading or traveling, she is sharing with the readers of A Traveler's Library, or recreating her family's past at Ancestors In Aprons . She has written for Reel Life With Jane, Life is a Trip and other websites. Also co-author of a biography, Quincy Tahoma, The Life and Legacy of a Navajo Artist. Contact Vera Marie by e-mail.

13 thoughts on “Sweden: King Gustavus II Goofed

  1. This is one of the best laid out museums I’ve been to. And the fact that it comes with such a great story and lasted less than one hour helps its cause. The patience to refloat and prepare this ship for display is a testament to great planning. If you want even more about the Vasa and its story, I also wrote a blog entry some time back at http://www.travel-wonders.com/2009/03/seventeenth-century-titanic-stockholm.html which hopefully complements the fine writing in this post.
    .-= Mark H hopes you will read blog ..Drink around the World: Almdudler (Austria) =-.

  2. Great description of the Vasa! Other suggestions of what to see in Stockholm: the old city, Drottingholm with one of the oldest theaters in Europe, the National Art Museum, the Naval Museum, the royal castle ….
    .-= Sven hopes you will read blog ..A few things =-.

  3. I visited the Vasa the first time I was in Stockholm, which was 20 years before I met my Swedish husband. My Swedish host felt it was one of the more important sites for tourists to see. I actually found the Viking ships in an Oslo museum more interesting, but perhaps that’s because of my fascination with Viking times ….
    .-= Alexandra hopes you will read blog ..Of Sandwiches and Recession … =-.

  4. I lived in Stockholm for two years as a kid and visited many times afterwards. I’ve been to the Vasa Museum twice I think. As a kid, I loved the IMAX theatre Cosmonova and Technorama.

  5. I was in Stockholm attending a wedding a few years back and did some of the usual sights (i.e Royal Palace, etc.) but missed the Vasa Museum. I didn’t know about it but now that I do would love to visit next time I’m there.

    1. When I went to the Vasa ship museum, it seemed to be just one more sight in Stockholm to check off–Crown jewels, Old Town, etc. etc. But that ship and its haunting story has stayed with me. The restoration of the ship is a story as fascinating as the origin. Definitely a do-not-miss. And by the way, Stockholm holds many charming surprises, if you have never been there.

  6. Amazing history!! I have never been to Stockholm- but if I were to go- I would definitely want to view this ship. What a reminder to all of us not to rush ahead with our self made plans- this will surely sink us in the end!

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