Nov 062013
Portrait of Gustavus Adolphus in 1932 by Matthäus Merian the Elder (1593 – 1650). Imgage source: Wikipedia

In 1632, the Swedish King Gustavus Adolphus had been successfully fighting the Ebil Catlicks in what would later be known as the Thirty Years War for several years. On 6th Nov, his troops clashed with those of the Catholic League, commanded by Wallenstein, at Lützen in Germany. The Swedes held the field, but during the battle, the King was separated from his troops and surrounded by enemy soldiers and shot.

Carl Wahlbom’s (1810-1858) painting of the Battle of Lützen. The resemblence to the contemporary portrait isn’t striking but then, Wahlbom probably wanted to depict a Hero, not a fat ginger bloke who looks like a distant cousin of Santa Claus’s. Image source: Wikipedia

His death would have a tremendous impact not only on Swedish history, but on 17th century Europe as a whole, and in Sweden we commemorate it by eating cake, but that’s not what we are here to talk about today. No, we are going to talk about Gustavus’ horse.

During the battle of Lützen, Gustavus Adolphus rode a horse generally referred to as Streiff after Johan Streiff von Lauenstein, the man who sold him to the king. As an excellent war horse, Streiff was exchanged for the rather staggering sum of 1000 riksdaler. Now, this will mean nothing to you, but trust me; it was, if not a king’s ransom, still a small fortune in the early 17th century.

Despite his trusty horse, Gustavus Adolphus was, as I said above, shot and killed during the Battle of Lützen. Streiff himself was shot in the neck, but survived the day. He didn’t live for very long afterwards however, and such was the reverence for the dead king, that it was decided that the horse should be stuffed and preserved.

Now, Swedish taxidermists at the time were… A bit unreliable, perhaps? I mean, we’ve all seen the poor lion at Gripsholm, right? Apparently the job on Streiff was botched too because the wooden frame they created for him was too small, meaning they had to cut down the skin to match, effectively making him several sizes smaller than he originally was (luckily, because Gustavus looks like he weighed quite a bit).

What is truly remarkable about the whole thing, though, is that he’s survived the centuries, despite several near mishaps, and is still on display at Livrustkammaren at the Royal Palace in Stockholm.

Streiff as he looks today displayed at Livrustkammaren. Impressive saddle, I have to say. Image: Livrustkammaren (The Royal Armoury) / Göran Schmidt / CC-BY-SA

And that was where I first saw him some 30-odd-years ago.

You see, when I was a small girl, I had, as many small girls do, a sort of horse fetish. I was terrified of them, but nontheless I insisted on petting them, riding on them and reading about them. I also liked tragic stories and heroic deeds. No wonder Streiff caught my interest. I remember gawking at him and nagging my mother for the poster of him they had in the museum shop. Finally my parents caved and got it for my sister and me, and so I spent most of my childhood happily sleeping beneath a picture of a poorly stuffed, very dead, ex-horse.

Therefore, I should like to take today to propose a toast for a brave, beautiful and quite immortal horse, whose memory lives on even if he’s shrunk a bit.

Skål på sig, Streiff!

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