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Chancellor Axel Oxenstierna

Portrait of Axel Oxenstierna

Axel Oxenstierna participated in Sweden’s government for over 40 years, and was the virtual ruler of the country during the time of the Congress of Westphalia (while Queen Christina was still in her minority or had just come of age). He possessed experience, prudence, and a strong will, and earned praises from leaders around Europe. Cardinal Mazarin once said of him that, if all the leaders of Europe were in a ship, they would put Oxenstierna in charge as pilot.

Oxenstierna undertook his first diplomatic mission in 1606, and gained fame for negotiating an end to the Kalmar War with Denmark in 1613. He became a close confidant of young King Gustavus Adolphus and increasingly became the king’s second in command. When Gustavus was killed in battle in 1632, Oxenstierna took over direction of Sweden’s war effort. He arranged the Heilbronn League with German princes, and then, following the disastrous defeat at the Battle of Nördlingen, negotiated to extend the French subsidy. His decision to maintain the French alliance, rather than make a separate peace with the Emperor on favourable terms, was crucial to the eventual creation of the Congress of Westphalia.

Oxenstierna’s position during the negotiations was complicated by Queen Christina’s coming of age in 1644, and gradual assertion of authority thereafter. He was aided not only by strong support in the royal council, but also by the fact that his own son, Johan Oxenstierna, was the head of the Swedish delegation in Osnabrück. Nevertheless, Swedish policy sometimes seemed to vacillate as either Christina or Oxenstierna asserted himself.

Axel Oxenstierna avenged the defeat to Denmark at the beginning of his career by organizing the so-called Torstensson War, in which Swedish general Lennart Torstensson launched a suprise attack into Jutland, in 1643. This made it impossible for Denmark to continue as mediator in Osnabrück, where it would almost certainly have opposed Sweden’s plan to annex Pomerania, as well as producing major territorial gains for Sweden and freeing Swedish shipping from the onerous Sound Dues (charged for shipping through the Danish-controlled Øresund strait).