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Stålhandske, Torsten (1594 - 1644)

commander of Finnish cavalry, soldier

Torsten Stålhandske became well known during the Thirty Years War, when he commanded the 'Hakkapelites', Finnish cavalrymen famed for their wild charges. Regarded as both bold and bullet-proof, Stålhandske became one of the most famous Finnish soldiers of Sweden's great-power era, and in Finnish literature he came to embody the concept of the Hakkapelite.

Torsten Stålhandske's father, Torsten Svensson Stålhandske, came from a peasant family in West Gothland, Sweden. The family had been ennobled in 1565, taking the name 'Steel-gauntlet'. His mother, Katarina Teet, came from an old Finnish knightly family (which believed, however, that it was of Scottish descent), and she brought into the family as her dowry the manor of Hummelsund in Porvoo Parish. When the younger Torsten was four years old, his father fell at the Battle of Stångå, fought between King Sigismund and the leader of the Council of State, Duke Charles. His mother later married again, her new husband (her third) being a Scottish soldier, Major Robert Guthrie. The continuous wars waged in the Swedish Realm at the turn of the 16th and 17th centuries created a great need for mercenary troops, and in Scotland, which entered into a Union of the Crowns with England at this time, there were many idle men ready to seek a living in Protestant Sweden. Evidently thanks to the intervention of his father-in-law, Torsten became a page to the Scottish colonel Patrick Ruthven while still a boy and accompanied him when he visited Scotland to recruit a regiment of new soldiers for service in Sweden.

Thus a military career was a natural choice for Stålhandske. Conventionally, he began at a relatively low rank, as a non-commissioned officer in a Guard regiment, but within two years, doubtless thanks to his connections, he was promoted to ensign in a Finnish infantry regiment named after Colonel Cobron and then stationed in Livonia. War against Poland was once again in progress, and it afforded the 28-year-old Stålhandske plentiful opportunities to distinguish himself. He was promoted to captain in 1625 and the following year to major in Arvid Horn's regiment. In 1627 he was transferred to the Nyland-Tavastland cavalry regiment, where he really made a career for himself. The war in Poland was already drawing to a close when in 1629 he became a lieutenant-colonel under the command of the legendary Åke Tott. During the long war Stålhandske had ample opportunity to become acquainted with the Polish cavalry, which with good reason was considered the best of its time. Instead of cavalry firearms, which had been introduced in Western European countries, the Poles still relied on the lance and sabre, and on the panic produced by a well-timed charge. The Swedish cavalry - including Stålhandske - learned lessons from this, lessons which were soon put to good use in a larger European war.

In 1630 Sweden entered the Thirty Years War, which had already been in progress for over a decade; Gustavus II Adolphus had hastily concluded an armistice with the Poles so that he could play a greater role as patron of the German Protestant princes. Stålhandske evidently took part in the capture of Frankfurt-an-der-Oder at the beginning of the war, and the king rewarded him for his heroism by enfeoffing to him 24 farms in Porvoo Parish. The first important battle of the war took place near Breitenfeld on 7 September 1631. Opposing one another were the Swedish Army, reinforced by troops of the Elector of Saxony, and the Imperial Army under the command of Marshal Tilly. Stålhandske's regiment was placed at the extreme end of the right wing, a position which later became its permanent place in the army's line of battle. The Finnish cavalrymen were called 'Hakkapelites', a name most probably derived from the Finnish command and battle cry "hakkaa päälle" ("up and at 'em"). This command was used to order the cavalry to charge the enemy.

The right wing was opposed on the Imperial side by the renowned Colonel Pappenheim and his cavalry. At the beginning of the battle Pappenheim made many charges against the Hakkapelites but did not succeed in breaking through. The offensive tactics of Western cavalry included several charges in succession, with the use of cavalry pistols to break the opponent's ranks. If this succeeded, there was a storming charge, in which non-firearms, mainly the cavalry's sabres, were employed. Because the firearms of the period were extremely inaccurate, it was necessary in order to achieve at least some effect to get very close to the enemy before firing. When the Swedish cavalry, backed by infantry, had withstood the enemy's charges, it was time for a counterattack, and Pappenheim's exhausted cavalrymen were driven from the field. The enemy's artillery, left almost unprotected, was captured and turned on its former owners. The ponderous Imperial infantry detachments were at that stage already disintegrating, and the battle ended with the almost complete destruction of the army.

In 1632, at the age of 38, Stålhandske was appointed a colonel and the commander of his regiment, holding this position for a decade, right up to his death. His cavalrymen were with Gustavus Adolphus in all his battles in Germany. They distinguished themselves at the River Lech and at Lützen, where they again swept away Pappenheim's cavalry. However, the king fell during the latter battle, and the long triumphant progress of Swedish arms began to draw to a close.

The way in which war was waged in the 17th century often resulted in very heavy losses. Stålhandske's cavalry, originally numbering over a thousand, had been reduced to some five hundred by the time of the Battle of Lützen. The rules of battle also required the commanders and the most senior officers to be present in the front ranks. It is thus not surprising that a number of high-ranking officers on both sides were killed or taken prisoner. The former fate befell both Gustavus Adolphus and his opponent Marshal Tilly. Stålhandske, however, came through his numerous battles almost entirely unscathed. He was wounded in the arm at Hameln in 1633, but not seriously, and he was already back in command when his forces were sent on a campaign to assist Holland. There were claims that, like many other successful commanders, Stålhandske was bullet-proof.

After the king's death, Sweden, exhausted by decades of uninterrupted wars, realised that it had become involved in an exceptionally bloody war which was being waged ever more chaotically and from which the country could no longer extricate itself. Victories and defeats followed one another without any final solution. But Stålhandske's career continued in the ascendant, and in April 1634 he was promoted to major-general. He spent the following years as deputy commander to General Herman Wrangel in Pommerania, which was an important support area for the Swedes in northern Germany. His good luck continued to accompany him. At the Battle of Wittstock in 1636 he played an important role in saving the Swedish main army led by Johan Banér. The fortunes of war had already turned, and Banér's army, which had retreated exhausted to the north, found itself forced to fight against a superior enemy. In desperation, Banér sent his whole left wing to circle far to the rear of the enemy under the command of the Scottish lieutenant-general, King, and Stålhandske. The gamble paid off: at the last moment, when the battle already appeared lost, Stålhandske's cavalry charged the enemy in the flank, again capturing its artillery. The Imperial forces withdrew under cover of darkness, but the booty included 151 standards, of which Stålhandske is said to have taken 35 for himself.

In 1639 Stålhandske was given his first independent command: a 5000-strong force operating in Silesia. However, his style of leadership came in for criticism when Banér accused him of passivity and incompetence and sought to replace him. But the Swedish Chancellor, Axel Oxenstierna, did not find anything lacking in his conduct. For three years Stålhandske was forced to fight against a superior enemy, and there were no opportunities for much aggressive activity. In badly devastated Silesia, as in many other places in Germany, supply problems were severe, and Stålhandske soon acquired a reputation for cruelty. Supply was the military discipline that had lagged behind developments in other fields and which still largely meant plundering the countryside to meet the army's needs.

After Banér's death in 1641, Lennart Torstensson became commander-in-chief of the Swedish forces. He supported Stålhandske, even though he was forced to save the latter's army by marching to his assistance in April 1642. At the 'Battle of Leipzig' (the second battle near Breitenfeld) in October 1642, Stålhandske again led his Hakkapelites with furious energy. The battle ended in a great victory for the Swedes, but Stålhandske himself was seriously wounded. After his recovery he was promoted to cavalry general. He was now 48 years old and had had hardly any time to visit his homeland since his departure for war twenty years earlier.

The war continued, and Stålhandske accompanied Torstensson to Moravia. In September 1643 came the unexpected order to return to the north and make preparations for a surprise attack on the neutral but fairly hostile Denmark. The war was once again widening. In January 1644 Stålhandske effectively decided the outcome of a brief battle at Kolding by charging and defeating the Danish cavalry. But his days were already numbered. Decades in unhealthy military camps finally took their toll. He became seriously ill shortly after the battle, and after six weeks confined to bed he died in April 1644.

Having spent almost his entire adult life on military campaigns, Torsten Stålhandske had had hardly any time for civilian life and the founding of a family. Just before the Danish campaign he concluded an advantageous marriage in 1643 with Kristina, the daughter of his former commander Arvid Horn; but the marriage was short and childless. Stålhandske's body was brought back home, and he was buried in Turku Cathedral in 1645. His massive monument, on which he and his wife are carved in stone, can still be seen - an enduring testimonial to the sculptural artistry of Sweden's great-power era.

Torsten Stålhandske was a typical soldier of the great-power era, as far as both his good and bad points were concerned. He was a particularly able cavalry commander, even though he never had the chance to prove his strategic skills. His personal courage and aggressive way of fighting brought him success on the battlefield and made him a legendary figure, who as commander of the Finnish Hakkapelites embodied the whole concept. His friendships with officers from the British Isles, whose language he could speak, also spread his fame; through these men his exploits gained a prominent place on the pages of the popular contemporary work The Swedish Intelligencers.

On the other hand, Stålhandske has been criticised for his excessive fondness for wine - though such an accusation might justifiably be levelled at almost every commander and soldier of the period. A second charge concerns his methods of acquiring booty. The taking of booty and the outright extortion of various sums of ransom from the defeated was also a part of warfare at the time. Probably the most notable haul that Torsten Stålhandske is known to have made and sent back to his homeland is the library of the Bishop of Århus - 890 volumes - that he pillaged in Denmark; following her late husband's wishes, his widow donated the books to the library of the recently founded Turku Academy, where they constituted the most valuable part of its collections until they were destroyed in the Great Fire of Turku in 1827.

Veli-Matti Syrjö

Translated by Roderick Fletcher


Torsten Stålhandske, born 1594 Hummelsund, Porvoo Parish, died 21.4.1644 Haderslev, Denmark. Parents: Torsten Svens's-son Stålhandske and Carin Ludvig's- daughter Teet. Wife: 1643 - 1644 Kristina Horn, born 1604, died 1673, wife's parents: Governor Arvid Henrik's-son Horn and Ingeborg Ivar's-daughter Stiernkors.

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