The History of Sweden Alf Aber professor of History
About 6,000 years ago agriculture came to Sweden. A new religion came to the country. The farmers built large stone dolmens for their dead. These graves lay close to the settlements and the people met there for rituals and meals. Later even bigger graves were built with room for several bodies. This religion came from western Europe.
For thousands of years people used tools of stone, wood and clay. Around 1500 BC skilful blacksmiths began to make weapons, ornaments and other objects of bronze. Bronze had to be bought from abroad. The Bronze Age lasted for 1000 years and was a period of chieftains. They raised huge mounds of earth and stone to commemorate themselves and they carved on rocks images of horses, ships, chariots, axes and spears to worship the sun and fertility.
The Iron Age
About 500 BC there was a great change in people’s lives. They learned how to extract iron from the ore that lay on the beds of lakes. They did not have to buy this iron, and soon it was common property. Weapons and tools could be made of iron. There was a lively trade with the Roman Empire. Tacitus tells of the Suiones, the people in Malardalen, who had many men, weapons and ships. Villages were established where people worked together.
The Viking Age
The Viking Age began about 800 AD. The people in the North went on increasingly long expeditions by ship to the west and the east. These journeys were both military expeditions and for trading. The Vikings had long, flat-bottomed ships that were driven by a sail and oars. They could tie up at any place along the coast and make their way up rivers. The southern areas — Skáne, Blekinge, Halland and Bohuslan — belonged to the Danish kingdom and took part in raids on the British Isles and France.
The Sveas and the inhabitants of Gotland travelled to the east. Many of them went as far as Kiev and on to Constantinople, while others followed the Volga to the Arab markets in Baghdad. They traded weapons, furs and prisoners of war, whom they took with them to sell as slaves. From the successful expeditions they brought back glass objects and plenty of Arab silver coins. They founded the first trading station in Sweden on an island which they called Birka.
A Swedish nation forms
The first Christian apostle, Ansgar, came to Birka about 830 AD. The Sveas still believed at that time in other gods — Odin, Thor, Frey and others — who were worshipped at sacrificial ceremonies at Uppsala. Ansgar was allowed to preach to the foreign slaves who had been captured abroad. He also converted a few Sveas, but his missionary work took a long time. Those who had become Christians raised rune stones over their dead.
The Viking Age lasted until the mid-11th century, and during this period a Danish and a Swedish kingdom arose. The Swedish kingdom was a federation of independent provinces which were not united by anything but the king and the sacrificial ceremonies at Uppsala. Fierce battles were fought for the royal crown between provinces that were separated by large areas of wilderness.
Sweden becomes Christian
During the 13th century Christianity was finally victorious and Sweden was incorporated into the Catholic world. Hundreds of churches were built, to begin with of wood, later of stone; many of them are still standing. Sweden was a Baltic kingdom and Finland was a part of it. Stockholm, which was founded now, lay in the middle of the country. It was connected to the North Sea only by a small area at the mouth of the Göta alv.
During the 14th century a number of law rolls were written in the provinces, all of which were based on Christianity: “Christ is foremost in our laws.” Sweden was an electoral state. The people decided which king they wanted to have. At the same time a common national law roll was written which laid down the king’s responsibility to preserve law and order in the country. During this great century St Birgitta also wrote down her revelations. A Birgittine monastery order for monks and nuns was founded at Vadstena. In the 15th century Sweden got its first university at Uppsala.
The Hanseatic League
Sweden’s first towns were established in the 13th century. Gotland also flourished economically at this time, when Visby became one of the richest towns in the Baltic region.
However, Sweden met superior competition from the northern German towns that had joined together in a Hanseatic League. They took over the Baltic and Russian trade and many northern German merchants settled in Swedish towns, in particular Stockholm, where they cornered the trade in Swedish goods.
The Kalmar Union
In 1397 great men and prelates from the Nordic countries gathered for a meeting at Kalmar. They had been summoned by the Danish-Norwegian Queen Margareta, who also ruled over Sweden. Her idea was to unite the Nordic countries in a union with a common government. Her young relative, Erik of Pomerania, was crowned monarch of the kingdoms. It was agreed that peace should always prevail amongst them.
These promises did not last long. King Erik wanted to break the power of the Hanseatic League and entered into a long war with the German towns. In order to get money for this war he was forced to extort taxes from Sweden. A peasant rebellion broke out in 1434, led by a miner named Engelbrekt, a Swedish William Tell, and the nobility joined forces with the peasants. During the rebellion a parliament was called for the first time, which made important decisions. The union was restored several times, for the last time in 1520, when the Danish Union King Christian II executed a hundred or more supporters of independence in a bloodbath in the Great Square in Stockholm, but he too failed.
The Vasa Period
A Swedish nobleman, Gustav Vasa, rallied the Swedish peasants in a rebellion against the Union king.Gustav was elected king in 1523 and made Sweden an independent kingdom. In order to stabilise the country’s wretched finances he seized the large estates of the church and the monasteries. The Catholic church fell and the monasteries were dissolved. A Protestant state church was set up, with the king as its head.
Gustav Vasa transformed Sweden into a hereditary monarchy with his sons as his closest successors. The great riches from the church enabled him to modernise the country’s administration. He built strong castles all over Sweden as defence and administrative centres. Many of these Vasa castles, for example Uppsala, Kalmar, Gripsholm and Abo, are still in use as official buildings. For many people the king was a tyrant, but from a purely national point of view his almost 40-year-long reign was an unbroken success.
Agriculture and mining
During the 16th century 800,000 people lived in Sweden and 200,000 in Finland. Only five per cent of them lived in towns and the same number worked in the iron mines of Bergslagen. The rest were peasant farmers and farm workers. The country was on the whole selfsufficient. The major imports were hops, spices, clothing and salt.
Stockholm had a population of 10,000, a third of whom worked for the Crown as craftsmen, government officials and soldiers. Germans, Dutchmen and Scots were important groups in the town.
Sweden was still a Baltic state. In fierce competition with Denmark Gustav Vasa’s son, Erik XIV, acquired Estonia, but then the country went to war against Denmark and Russia and the war continued when Gustav Vasa’s grandson, Gustav II Adolph (Gustavus Adolphus) ascended the throne. He was then only 17 years old.
Sweden becomes a great power
Seldom has a king been crowned in worse circumstances than Gustavus Adolphus. The long war had stretched the country’s resources to the uttermost. When he became king he was also forced to grant the nobility great privileges. They were given sole access to the highest offices in the kingdom, and these posts were to be permanent and well paid. Axel Oxenstierna, the leading nobleman, became Chancellor.
The king was impulsive and full of great ideas, while Oxenstierna was levelheaded and cautious. It turned out that they complemented each other, working well together in all matters. The domestic administration was modernised. The University of Uppsala was given the task of training civil servants and Sweden got its first bureaucrats who were loyal to their superiors.
The king kept in close contact with his people. His policies were supported in parliament, where the peasant farmers had their own estate alongside the nobility, the clergy and the burghers.
A land at war
The army was recruited mainly from the peasantry. An armaments industry was started. Dutch merchants and imported Walloon blacksmiths did great work in the iron industry. Swedish canons became an important export. Many towns were founded, including Göteborg on the Kattegat, which managed the iron-bar trade with the Netherlands.
Parallel with these reforms the king worked hard to create a Swedish Baltic empire. Livland (Livonia) was conquered in a war against Poland. In 1630 the king decided to intervene in the Thirty Years War in Germany. Together with France he won several great victories but was killed on 6 Novemeber 1632 at the battle of Lutzen in Germany. Gustavus Adolphus’ generals continued to wage war until it ended in 1648. By the peace treaty Sweden gained the major part of Pomerania and other areas on the Baltic and the North Sea. Many foreign officers who had served in the army settled in Sweden. Stockholm was rebuilt as a modern centre for the great new power. The nobility built magnificent palaces both in the capital and out in the country. They also built their own assembly hall, Riddarhuset (the House of the Nobility) in Stockholm.
When Gustavus Adolphus died, his only child, his daughter Kristina, was only five years old. Axel Oxenstierna led a regency of noblemen. Much of the money for paying the troops had been raised by the state by letting or selling its estates to the nobility. The consequence was that by the middle of the 17th century 600 noble families possessed 72 per cent of Sweden’s land, and only 28 per cent still belonged to the state or to yeomen farmers. Almost everything that Gustavus Adolphus had taken from the church was now owned by the nobility.
The nobility used to live in the villages hut they had now moved out to their estates where they built stately palaces and manor houses. Never before had such buildings been seen before in Sweden: Tidö, Lackö and Skokloster to name but three. Many of them are still standing as monuments to Sweden’s period as a great military power. The nobility used not only their own workforce but forced many peasants to do daywork on their estates. The peasants protested at the 1650 parliament session about these unlawful acts.
Kristina, who had now come of age, used this discontent in parliament to make her cousin Karl Gustav heir to the throne. This very intelligent and learned woman had become a Catholic in secret, and after a few years she abdicated and retired to Rome, where she is buried in St Peter’s. Karl X Gustav did not have time to deal with the great social issues as he was faced with fighting Poland and Denmark. After he had crossed the ice on the Great Belt in 1658, he forced Denmark to accept the peace treaty of Roskilde. Sweden gained Skáne, Halland, Blekinge and Bohuslan, thereby determining its permanent borders to the west and south. His son Karl XI was the king who settled the problem of the nobility. Many of their estates were confiscated by act of parliament, becoming Crown property. This sequestration meant that the state increased its land-holding to 35 per cent and the yeomen farmers to 32 per cent while the nobility retained only 33 per cent. The peasants saved their independence and the state gained financial stability.