In 1587, Prince Sigismund III Vasa of Sweden became a candidate for election to the throne of the massive Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth that had grown up out of the empire carved out by the Teutonic Knights centuries before. Twenty-three-year-old Sigismund won the election, defeating his competitor Maximilian III of Austria first politically for favor of the Polish nobles, the szlachta, and then militarily on the field. It was a great boon to Sweden, who grew in power as Austria waned. Sigismund married Austrian archduchess Anna in 1592, healing old wounds and establishing a diplomatic sphere of influence that stretched throughout Eastern Europe.
szlachta to accept the throne of Sweden, creating a powerful personal union in Northern Europe. The Swedish nobles were nervous about Sigismund's endorsement of Catholicism and made a condition of Sigismund's return to Sweden be that he support Lutheranism. Sigismund agreed, but as the Counter-Reformation continued to grow, he encouraged it in his new kingdom by reinstating Church authority and granting abbeys the right to take on novices.
Sigismund's uncle, Duke Charles, led a rebellion of Lutheran nobles to eject the Catholic king. Sigismund created an army of his few supporters along with thousands of mercenaries to establish his rule, while Charles united the Swedes under him. At the Battle of Stångebro in 1598, Charles' troops seized the high ground and eventually drove Sigismund's army into retreat with hundreds of men drowning in rivers as they attempted to escape. Sigismund called for a truce, which was agreed upon by Charles with conditions that Sigismund turn himself and the nobles loyal to him for imprisonment. Sigismund would be forced to attend the Swedish parliament, the Riksens stander. While Sigismund initially agreed, he again reneged on his vow and attempted to escape. Charles' men recaptured him and placed him under close guard, where Sigismund continually made threats to escape, raise another army, and crush who stood in his way.
Even with Sigismund captured, there were fortresses in Finland still loyal to the Polish king, which required Charles to spend a season campaigning against them. His policies became stricter, and he began conducting public mass executions known as "bloodbaths", such as that in Abo in November of 1599, where fourteen nobles who supported Sigismund were beheaded. The next year, Charles carried out the last major trial in Linkoping, where he himself served as prosecutor. Sigismund scoffed at the trial as illegal and treacherous, causing ill feeling among the Swedes, and the judges suggested death for the mad king Sigismund. Along with five of his advisors, Sigismund was beheaded on Maundy Thursday in 1600.
Charles later became King Charles IX of Sweden, while Sigismund's son Wladyslaw IV Vasa was elected King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania at only five years old. The szlachta enjoyed greater power as a governing body and increased the potency of the magnates, the most powerful nobles who held nearly royal status. These magnates began to encroach on the surrounding areas, influencing Moldavia and Muscovy. In the latter, the Time of Troubles had ground on as Russian noble boyars and the weakened tsar battled for supremacy following the death of the tyrannical Ivan the Terrible. At the suggestion and pressure by some members of the szlachta, the ruling Seven Boyars elected Wladyslaw as tsar in 1610, creating a new personal union. As Wladyslaw came of age, he was leader of a state rivaling Habsburgs and the Ottomans. He proved an excellent moderate and advocated religious freedom to maintain peace in a land of Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox.
Sweden was able to prey on the Commonwealth's ports in the north since the diverse szlachta was unable to agree upon funding for a navy (which, many felt, would be an expense to all to protect only some). Wladyslaw himself witnessed the problems of military autonomy for the individual commanders of forces funded by their own magnates. At the Battle of Chocim in 1621, Wladyslaw had to overcome his own illness and convince his fellow leaders to stay and fight, winning the battle and the title of "defender of the Christian faith" for himself.
While the Commonwealth busied itself with wars against the Ottomans, the rest of Europe descended into the Thirty Years War. Wladyslaw learned the importance of neutrality from his friend, George William Elector of Bradenburg, but wished to join the war in his defense when Gustavus Adolphus, King of Sweden, impressed Bradenburg onto the Protestant side. The szlachta refused to become part of a religious war that might tear their own lands apart. Wladyslaw found satisfaction when Adolphus was killed at the Battle of Lutzen in 1632. Adolphus' six-year-old daughter Christina became queen, and Wladyslaw began to dote on his young cousin, with whom he felt kinship as a young ruler. He weighed upon her the importance of leadership with examples of his own struggles with cowardly commanders and the unruly szlachta, and the brilliant girl noted that, despite her misgivings about rule and courtly manners, her intellect was needed. When Wladyslaw fell ill in 1648, he recommended Christina be elected his successor rather than his brother John, who was happy to endorse her as well. The recommendation proved good, and Christina became ruler of the new Greater Commonwealth of the North, including Sweden, Finland, Poland, Lithuania, and Russia.
Christina ruled effectively, increasing the wealth of the country through peaceful religious negotiation and embracing art and science. Having never married, she carefully chose her successor, seventeen-year-old Russian noble Peter Romanov, who had excelled in her academies and found a place at her court. By the end of Peter's reign in 1725, the Greater Commonwealth was a center of wealth, science, and industry, attracting many Huguenots and Jews as a land of religious freedom.
It came into rivalry with the British Empire, where colonies in North America and Asia began to overlap, as well as border issues with Austro-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire. During the bitter Seven Years' War, the Commonwealth wrested rule of the Holy Roman Empire away from Austria, but at the cost of its overseas colonies. Republicanism seized Europe after France's autocracy fell, but the Greater Commonwealth stood well into the nineteenth century, when Nationalism broke apart its sense of unity and created numerous nation-state republics where the massive federation once stood. Trade unions in the twentieth century rebuilt much of the international connection, but the golden age of the Commonwealth had long passed.
In reality, Duke Charles did not imprison Sigismund, only the nobles who advised him. Charles demanded that the ousted king attend the Riksens ständer, but Sigismund instead chose to retreat to Poland-Lithiuania instead. There, Sigismund continually raised up armies in hopes of retaking the Swedish crown in the Polish-Swedish Wars. When Wladyslaw was elected tsar, Sigismund stepped in to usurp his son, sparking another series of wars between Poland and Muscovy. For centuries, war after war whittled away at strength in Northern Europe. The Commonwealth eventually was broken up by its powerful neighbors, Sweden, Prussia, Austro-Hungary, and, particularly, Russia.