Johan III (John III) was king of Sweden from 1568 to 1592. Lars Ericson has written one of the few book-length biographies about this divisive monarch, ”Johan III”, only available in Swedish.
Johan III was the middle son of Gustav Vasa, who took power in Sweden in 1521. Johan became king in 1568 after a protracted power struggle against Erik XIV, Gustav Vasa´s oldest son, who had become king of Sweden at Gustav´s death in 1560. When Erik went literally insane and started murdering real or perceived enemies of state (sometimes in person), the nobility rebelled against him and installed Johan in his place. It was probably a bad choice – Johan was married to Polish princess Katarina Jagellonica, who was (of course) a Catholic. So was Johan´s and Katarina´s son, Sigismund, who moreover became Polish king in 1587. Sigismund was also the heir apparent to the Swedish throne.
Why was this a problem? For starters, Gustav Vasa supported the Reformation, becoming the first Protestant (Lutheran) ruler of Sweden, and broke the power of the Catholic Church in his domains. The Vasa dynasty in general was also Lutheran, but Johan III turned out to have strong pro-Catholic leanings. Thus, he tended to support ”the wrong side” both on the international playing field and at home. Domestically, Catholicism was – rightly or wrongly – associated with both aristocratic and plebeian opposition to a strong monarchy represented by the Vasa kings. While Johan III by all accounts liked to concentrate all effective power to himself, Sigismund was more obviously in league with the high nobility – first, in Poland, later also in Sweden. This created conflicts with Parliament (where the lower nobility, the commoners and the Lutheran clergy were all represented). Johan III thus turned out to be a highly divisive ruler. He is, probably rightly, seen as wanting to roll back the Reformation in Sweden, perhaps even setting the stage for wholesale re-Catholization. As already noted, in 1592 his Catholic son Sigismund did become king of Sweden, while simultaneously also continuing as king of Catholic Poland, a highly anomalous situation solved in 1599 after a brief war in which Karl IX (Charles IX) took power. The Calvinizing Lutheran Karl IX was a son of Gustav Vasa (just like Erik XIV and Johan III) and hence Sigismund´s uncle. Karl IX, supported by Parliament, secured Sweden as a Protestant nation.
After reading Ericson´s book, I have to conclude that Johan III wasn´t a particularly good king. His plans to turn Sweden into a great power in northern Europe were clearly premature, both his wars and large-scale building projects led to inflation and huge deficits, and his secretive dealings with Jesuits and papal legates were borderline treasonous. Most of his diplomatic forays abroad seems to have been failures. That being said, he wasn´t incompetent. Rather, I get the impression of a highly educated man and grand visionary with too few resources to back up his plans. Had he been Spanish or British king…who knows? Perhaps he was also too impatient to ever realize his mistakes? In the end, I don´t really mind – many of Johan III´s visions strike me as placing the maverick Vasa king on the wrong side of history.
On one point, Johan was ”like everyone else”. He saw Russia as Sweden´s main enemy. What makes him unique is the way in which he planned to fight the Russians. Johan wanted a strategic pact with the Catholic Habsburgs, including the powerful Spanish Empire, and an even closer dynastic alliance with Poland. To seal the projected Swedish-Polish-Habsburg alliance against Russia, Johan attempted to undo the Protestant Reformation in Sweden. He was also willing to stab the anti-Spanish Protestant rebellion in the Netherlands in the back. I assume Johan saw Catholic Poland as a more firm anti-Russian ally, on both political and religious grounds, than the constantly scheming British and German Protestants – not to mention Protestant Denmark, which alongside Russia was Sweden´s constant enemy and hence rather a natural Russian *ally* than adversary. By de facto uniting Sweden and Catholic Poland, Johan presumably wanted to create a grand power bloc (Poland´s territory was substantially larger at this point than today) from the Baltic to the Black Sea to which the Spanish Empire (and the Pope) simply ”couldn´t say no”. This would make Sweden part of a global anti-Russian superpower, rather than one of many bickering Protestant states in the northern corner of Europe. A grand vision, indeed, but one that was probably doomed to failure from the start. The continental and global Habsburgs weren´t *that* interested in Johan´s parochial Drang Nach the White Sea. Personally, I consider the Reformation to be historically progressive, so the idea of a Swedish monarch actually joining Spain in the Netherlands strike me as appalling.
Interestingly, Johan´s pro-Catholic sympathies were by all accounts honestly held. Johan III was something as peculiar as a lay theologian who was also king. He had studied both the works of the Church Fathers and those of contemporary theologians, and often argued in person with the recalcitrant Lutheran clergymen in Sweden. He also had theological conversations with Jesuits, and was apparently worried about their claim that the Swedish Church lacked apostolic succession. Jesuit envoy Possevino would much later claim that the king had actually converted to the Roman Catholic faith in secret! In public, Johan III ”only” called for a reconciliation between the Lutheran and Catholic Churches based on the teachings of the Church Fathers, but even this was too much for the Lutherans, who regarded Johan´s proposed changes to the liturgy (”the Red Book”) as essentially Catholic. The idea of interpreting Scripture through the Church Fathers was also rejected as too close to the Catholic position – the Lutherans rather argued that the Church Fathers should be judged according to Scripture.
There is little doubt that Johan did go much further than, say, regular High Church Anglicans. He gave the Jesuits permission to open a school in Stockholm, and many of the students converted to the Catholic Church. The whole thing was very hush-hush, the Jesuits never openly identifying themselves as such. In his royal propaganda, Johan III identified himself strongly with medieval martyr-king Erik the holy, regarded by the Catholics as the patron-saint of Sweden, and de facto restarted the veneration of him. The golden casket (or reliquary) made at Johan´s orders for St Erik´s remains is still prominently placed at the Uppsala cathedral. Apparently, it was dedicated by a purely Catholic ritual. Somewhat ironically, the ”irenic” attempts by Johan to reconcile Lutherans and Catholics on a Catholicizing basis may in the end have been too little for the Roman Church, which had entered its confessionalist, Tridentine and Counter-Reformation phase. Obviously, in such a religio-political climate, the room for manoeuvre for people like the maverick Vasa king quickly diminished. The same was true of Sigismund, who after Johan III´s death became something as strange as a Catholic king ruling a country where Parliament had outlawed Catholicism!
In the end, this made Johan III a parenthesis in Swedish history, albeit admittedly one of the more interesting ones…