Vasa or Wasa[lower-alpha 1] (Swedish pronunciation: [²vɑːsa] (listen)) is a Swedishwarship built between 1626 and 1628. The ship sank after sailing roughly 1,300 m (1,400 yd) into her maiden voyage on 10 August 1628. She fell into obscurity after most of her valuable bronzecannon were salvaged in the 17th century, until she was located again in the late 1950s in a busy shipping area in Stockholm harbour. The ship was salvaged with a largely intact hull in 1961. She was housed in a temporary museum called Wasavarvet (“The Vasa Shipyard”) until 1988 and then moved permanently to the Vasa Museum in the Royal National City Park in Stockholm. The ship is one of Sweden’s most popular tourist attractions and has been seen by over 35 million visitors since 1961. Since her recovery, Vasa has become a widely recognised symbol of the Swedish Empire.
The ship was built on the orders of the King of Sweden Gustavus Adolphus as part of the military expansion he initiated in a war with Poland-Lithuania (1621–1629). She was constructed at the navy yard in Stockholm under a contract with private entrepreneurs in 1626–1627 and armed primarily with bronze cannons cast in Stockholm specifically for the ship. Richly decorated as a symbol of the king’s ambitions for Sweden and himself, upon completion she was one of the most powerfully armed vessels in the world. However, Vasa was dangerously unstable, with too much weight in the upper structure of the hull. Despite this lack of stability, she was ordered to sea and foundered only a few minutes after encountering a wind stronger than a breeze.
The order to sail was the result of a combination of factors. The king, who was leading the army in Poland at the time of her maiden voyage, was impatient to see her take up her station as flagship of the reserve squadron at Älvsnabben in the Stockholm Archipelago. At the same time the king’s subordinates lacked the political courage to openly discuss the ship’s problems or to have the maiden voyage postponed. An inquiry was organised by the Swedish Privy Council to find those responsible for the disaster, but in the end no one was punished.
During the 1961 recovery, thousands of artifacts and the remains of at least 15 people were found in and around Vasa‘s hull by marine archaeologists. Among the many items found were clothing, weapons, cannons, tools, coins, cutlery, food, drink and six of the ten sails. The artifacts and the ship herself have provided scholars with invaluable insights into details of naval warfare, shipbuilding techniques and everyday life in early 17th-century Sweden. Today Vasa is the world’s best preserved 17th century ship and the most visited museum in Scandinavia. The wreck of Vasa continually undergoes monitoring and further research on how to preserve her.
During the 17th century, Sweden went from being a sparsely populated, poor, and peripheral northern European kingdom of little influence to one of the major powers in continental politics. Between 1611 and 1718 it was the dominant power in the Baltic, eventually gaining territory that encompassed the Baltic on all sides. This rise to prominence in international affairs and increase in military prowess, called stormaktstiden (“age of greatness” or “great power period”), was made possible by a succession of able monarchs and the establishment of a powerful centralised government, supporting a highly efficient military organization. Swedish historians have described this as one of the more extreme examples of an early modern state using almost all of its available resources to wage war; the small northern kingdom transformed itself into a fiscal-military state and one of the most militarised states in history.
Gustavus Adolphus (1594–1632) has been considered one of the most successful Swedish kings in terms of success in warfare. When Vasa was built, he had been in power for more than a decade. Sweden was embroiled in a war with Poland-Lithuania, and looked apprehensively at the development of the Thirty Years’ War in present-day Germany. The war had been raging since 1618 and from a Protestant perspective it was not successful. The king’s plans for a Polish campaign and for securing Sweden’s interests required a strong naval presence in the Baltic.
The navy suffered several severe setbacks during the 1620s. In 1625, a squadron cruising in the Bay of Riga was caught in a storm and ten ships ran aground and were wrecked. In the Battle of Oliwa in 1627, a Swedish squadron was outmaneuvered and defeated by a Polish force and two large ships were lost. Tigern (“The Tiger”), which was the Swedish admiral’s flagship, was captured by the Poles, and Solen (“The Sun”) was blown up by her own crew when it was boarded and nearly captured. In 1628, three more large ships were lost in less than a month. Admiral Klas Fleming‘s flagship Kristina was wrecked in a storm in the Gulf of Danzig, Riksnyckeln (“Key of the Realm”) ran aground at Viksten in the southern archipelago of Stockholm and Vasa foundered on her maiden voyage.
Gustavus Adolphus was engaged in naval warfare on several fronts, which further exacerbated the difficulties of the navy. In addition to battling the Polish navy, the Swedes were indirectly threatened by Imperial forces that had invaded Jutland. The Swedish king had little sympathy for the Danish king, Christian IV, and Denmark and Sweden had been bitter enemies for well over a century. However, Sweden feared a Catholic conquest of Copenhagen and Zealand. This would have granted the Catholic powers control over the strategic passages between the Baltic Sea and the North Sea, which would be disastrous for Swedish interests.
Until the early 17th century, the Swedish navy was composed primarily of small to medium-sized ships with a single gundeck, normally armed with 12-pounder and smaller cannons; these ships were cheaper than larger ships and were well-suited for escort and patrol. They also suited the prevailing tactical thinking within the navy, which emphasised boarding as the decisive moment in a naval battle rather than gunnery. The king, who was a keen artillerist, saw the potential of ships as gun platforms, and large, heavily armed ships made a more dramatic statement in the political theater of naval power. Beginning with Vasa, he ordered a series of ships with two full gundecks, outfitted with much heavier guns.
Five such ships were built after Vasa: Äpplet (“The apple” [lower-alpha 2]), Kronan (“The crown”), Scepter (“Sceptre”) and Göta Ark (“Ark of Gothenburg”), before the Privy Council cancelled the orders for the others after the king’s death in 1632. These ships, especially Kronan and Scepter, were much more successful and served as flagships in the Swedish navy until the 1660s. The second of the so-called regalskepp (usually translated as “royal ships”),Äpplet was built simultaneously with Vasa. The only significant difference between the design of Vasa and her sister ship was an increase in width of about a metre (3.1 ft).