The History of Sweden Alf Aber professor of History

Agriculture begins

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.

Old fortresses dot the countryside in Sweden. Bohus Fortress, along the previous Swedish-Norwegian border, is impressive in size and fairly well-kept. Construction was started in 1308. The Göta River makes a natural mote around its walls, and the fortress is built on a 40-metre-high cliff. After the border was moved, the fortress was instead used as prison Credits: Emelie Asplund/

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.

Scandinavian mountains: The Scandes, or Scandinavian Mountains, run through the Scandinavian Peninsula. To the north they form the border between Sweden and Norway. Although the mountains are not very high (the highest peak in Sweden is just over 2,100 metres), the combination of a northerly location and moisture from the North Atlantic Ocean translates into dramatic glaciers. Some of the steeper peaks require climbing equipment, while others can be reached on foot. Certain valleys resemble stone quarries, with others full of lush meadows or mountain bogs. The area offers a landscape that is more challenging than one can imagine. But if you follow the trails that run through the valleys you will be safe. Photo Anders Ekholm/Folio/

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.

Ale Stenar : The stones of Ale is a ships barrow from the iron age in Sweden. It is situated on south coast of Skåne in the south of Sweden. It measures 67 meters in length and is made up of 59 large blocks of rock, each weighing around 5 tons. Photo Conny Fridh/

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.


Birka was a thriving marketplace and international harbour in the 700´s and one can still see remnants of those glory days. Birka can today be found on the UNESCO World heritage list. Credits: Ola Ericson/

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.

Uppsala Cathedral is one of the largest Cathedral of Northern Europé and was inaugurated in 1453. The relics of St:Eric is kept in Uppsala Cathedral and both Gustav Vasa and Carl von Linné are buried here. Credits: Mark Harris/

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.

Arial view over Stockholm.: Stockholm city seen from above with all it´s diffrent islands. Skeppsholmen and Kastellholmen to the right and `Gamla stan` to the left. Credits: Ola Ericson/

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.

Abisko national park consists of a low-lying valley framed by mountain ranges in the south and west and the waters of Scandinavia’s largest alpine lake, Torneträsk, in the north. Abisko is easily accessible and has long been a popular starting point for hikers and backpackers. The lime-rich rock is favourable to plant life, and some of the rarest plants of the mountain regions are found here, including the protected Lapp Orchid. With so much grandeur and open space to enjoy, Swedes would be foolish not to take active advantage of it. After all, what better way of enjoying nature? There is something about Swedes and being out in the open, whether to exercise, get some fresh air or explore the countryside. Photo: Katja Kristoferson/Folio/

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.

Visby city wall: The city wall of Visby is a medieval defensive wall surrounding the Swedish town of Visby on the island of Gotland off the coast of southeast Sweden. With 3.4 of the original 3.6 kilometres of wall still standing, it is the best preserved city wall in Scandinavia. Built in two stages during the 13th and 14th century, with one tower from the 12th century, it is the oldest surviving non-religious building in the Nordic countries. During the 18th century, several fortifications were added and some of the towers rebuilt to accommodate cannons. Visby city wall is an important part of Visby World Heritage Site. Photo Emelie Asplund/

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.


The City Wall around Visby is said to have been finished in 1288 and is almost three and half kilometres long. Today there is 27 land towers and nine saddle towers still remaining. The wall was restored in the eighteen hundreds. Visby and its city wall is on the UNESCO world heritage list. Photo:Tuukka Ervasti/


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.

Kalmar castle in Småland. Credits: Emmy Jonsson/Scandinav Bildbyrå/

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.

Early morning Lucia procession in Gustav Vasa church in Stockholm. Lucia is an ancient mythical figure with an abiding role as a bearer of light in the dark Swedish winters. Credits: Ola Ericson/

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.

“Gripsholms castle was built by Gustav vasa in the mid 1500’s and has been in the possession of the Royal Court ever since. Today it is a museum open to the public and houses National Collection of Portraits (Statens porträttsamlingar), one of the oldest portrait collection in the world. Credits: Mattias Leppäniemi/

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.

Uppsala University is a comprehensive international research university dedicated to advancing science, scholarship, and higher education. For more than 500 years, Uppsala University has been a distinguished seat of learning with rich opportunities for students and researchers at all levels. Sweden is one of the world’s most innovative and research-intensive nations. Several universities place high in European rankings, and their research has contributed to the global success of Sweden’s many hightech companies. The education system is student-centric and relations between students and teachers are highly informal. Personal initiative and independent thinking are prized. Students are required to take an active role and contribute with opinions and ideas at lectures, seminars and in group discussions. Taking the initiative and questioning old presumptions is rewarding, especially in the long term. Many programs also cooperate closely with the industry, offering students the possibility to mix study and practical work Credits: Cecilia Larsson Lantz/

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.

Domestic conflicts

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.

New wars

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.


Karlskrona harbour: The Swedish coastline is dotted with small and medium-sized towns offering scenic views and cultural attractions. Karlskrona is host to Sweden’s only remaining naval base and the headquarters of the Swedish Coast Guard. It lies in Blekinge province in the south of Sweden. Karlskrona was founded in 1680 to meet the need for a naval base in southern Sweden. The shipbuilding, urban planning and techniques of contruction and defence in Karlskrona attracted great attention in Europe during the eighteenth century. The naval port of Karlskrona was inscribed on the World Heritage List in 1998. Credits: Per Pixel Petersson/

The fall of the great power
Parliament gave Karl XI all power; he was allowed to do as he pleased in Sweden. He allocated some of the confiscated estates to the military. He set up a new system for recruiting the army by which each province or county had to raise and maintain a regiment of 1200 men. Each soldier was given an annual wage and a croft to live in. Special houses were built for the officers. As for the cavalry, the owners of private estates agreed to provide a fully-equipped cavalryman and horse in return for being exempt from paying tax. They were called rusthallare ( armourers), a title they were so proud of that it is often carved on their gravestones. Karl XI’s military system lasted until the late 19th century when it was replaced by general conscription. At Karlskrona the king established a naval base and shipyard. Many warships were built there and the seamen were provided for in the same way as the soldiers. Germany exerted a strong cultural influence on Sweden. German artists like Tessin, Ehrenstrahl and Lemke came to Sweden, and the historian Samuel von Pufendorf became professor at the newly founded University of Lund. Karl XI died in the midst of his unceasing work in 1697 and his fifteen-year-old son Karl XII came to the throne Three years later Sweden was attacked on three fronts by Russia, Poland and
Denmark, who had wrought plans to divide up the Swedish kingdom. Karl XII immediately took up the challenge with his father’s creation, the Caroline army which was the best-armed and best-trained army in Europe at that time. He won a victory at Narva in Estonia in 1700. In a later campaign against Moscow his army was decimated during a terrible winter and suffered defeat at Poltava in Ukraina in 1709, after which it capitulated. The king continued with the remainder of his troops to Turkey, where for five years he carried on diplomatic intrigues. On his return home he set up a new army with which he marched on Norway. On 30 November 1718 he was killed at Fredrikshald. With the death of the king the Swedish Baltic empire collapsed. Russia took Estonia and Livonia and in Germany Sweden kept only part of Pomerania, which remained Swedish until 1815.

The Age of Liberty
After the war was over, Sweden got a new constitution. The Council had 16 members. Its principal member, the President of the Council, was the real ruler of the country. Parliament, which still consisted of four estates that had their discussions in separate halls, appointed their own speakers and wrote their own records, took over the power. The nobility were represented by the head of each family. At important meetings their number could be a thousand or so. The clergy had some 50 members and the 90 burghers represented the 100 towns in Sweden and Finland. Only yeomen farmers and copyholders could be elected to the peasant estate of about 150 members.

During the Age of Liberty Sweden had real parliamentarianism for the very first time. A majority in three estates was necessary for every decision. Some of the power lay in the committees, the most important of which was the secret committee, which managed foreign affairs, defence and state finances. The peasants were excluded from this committee. Two parties, the Hats and the Caps, alternated in power in parliament.
The Hats supported industry and sought support from France to get revenge on Russia. The Caps supported agriculture and turned to England. The parliamentary sessions were long and many members ol parliament were given financial support by foreign ambassadors. The king was completely powerless and when he refused to sign the Council’s decisions, a royal stamp was used.
The Enlightenment 
This was the era of the enlightenment. Opinions were debated in journals and newspapers, which now began to be published. The world-famous botanist Carl von Linné (Linnaeus) helped to establish the Academy of Sciences in 1739. The country enjoyed a period of prosperity. Iron was Sweden’s main export; in the mid-18th century there were 366 ironworks in the country. The buildings of these mill towns, with their manor house, church and blacksmiths’ cottages in rows along the main street, are still standing today in many places. The textile industry also flourished. A Swedish East India Company was founded in 1731 and during the 18th century it undertook many sea expeditions between Göteborg and India. Botanists and geographers accompanied the ships to study China.
The Gustavian Era 
In 1771 the young Gustav III ascended the throne. He was imaginative, interested in the theatre and ambitious, and in the following year he carried out a bloodless revolution. All opposition collapsed and parliament accepted a new constitution, which meant that the king would govern the country. The Council’s influence was reduced and parliament, too, saw its power decline. Freedom of the press was restricted. Important reforms were carried through, including a monetary reform that benefited everyone. Sweden introduced a silver standard and the riksdaler became the principal coin. The commoner estates advanced their positions.
Culture flourishes 
Culture was supported by a burgher middleclass. The king wanted to create a Swedish theatre tradition. He also introduced a national uniform for civil servants that was inspired by peasant dress. In 1786 the king founded the Swedish Academy, whose main task was to establish a national language. Inspired by the royal taste, Swedish art and literature flourished. Johan Tobias Sergei created famous sculptures and Carl Mikael Bellman sang the praise of Stockholm’s town and people. During an unsuccessful war against Russia the king carried out a new revolution in 1789 that gave him absolute power. Three years later he was assassinated by fanatical opponents at a Masked Ball in the Opera House. During the Napoleonic Wars Sweden experienced severe setbacks. Finland was torn away from the kingdom, becoming a Russian principality. In the same year, 1809, Gustav Ill’s son, Gustav IV Adolf was deposed and driven into exile.
Karl XTV Johan and Liberalism 
A new constitution was adopted by parliament in 1809, creating a balance of power between the different institutions of the state. Legislative power was shared by the king and parliament; taxation was the right of parliament alone. Judiciary power was held by judges who could not be dismissed. A special parliamentary ombudsman was appointed to safeguard the interests of citizens against the bureaucracy. For more than 160 years this constitution formed the basis of Swedish government. One of Napoleon’s famous marshals, Bernadotte, was appointed heir to the throne and became King Karl XIV Johan, founding the present royal house. Thanks to him a union was established between Sweden and Norway which lasted until 1905, when it was peacefully dissolved. Sweden’s strategic position was then so changed that neutrality became the natural policy for Swedish foreign affairs.
Agriculture is reformed 
Times were good with rising grain prices in Western Europe, and to benefit from them the state radically reorganised the agricultural system. The old villages were dissolved and replaced by isolated farms that could utilise the land better. I his reform was so successful that with a normal harvest Sweden was able to support its rapidly growing population. The peasant farmers took the opportunity to buy their farms. The middle class looked after literature and research. It was scholars like Esais Tegnér and Erik Gustaf Geijer that set the tone in literature. Jöns Jakob Berzelius was one of the world’s leading chemists and Per Elenrik Ling created a gymnastics system that was adopted all over the world.

In the 1830s Liberalism was a rallying call for the Swedish middle class. Mill owners, businessmen and journalists attacked the civil service, wanting to abolish all state controls that obstructed competition. They also wanted to change the composition of parliament so that it represented the new middle-class society. The mouthpiece of Liberalism was the newspaper Aftonbladet. An important reform was carried out in 1842, when a compulsory elementary school was introduced. There was to be an elementary school in every municipality.
Emigration and industrialisation 
A proletariat class that had no farms of their own grew up in the Swedish countryside. In 1850 40 per cent of the population belonged to this poverty-stricken class. A solution to this social problem was emigration to North America. Between 1850 and 1920 more than one million Swedes emigrated, spreading out all over the Middle West. Many of them settled in towns and Chicago became the great Swedish centre. In the 1870s Sweden began to be industrialised. Railways and steamboats improved transportation and banks were established that lent money to industry. The first lactories were in the textile industry, but Norrland became the land of the future with its vast forests and waterfalls. Timber exports soon began to predominate. All the small ironworks in Bergslagen disappeared and production was concentrated in a few large plants. An engineering industry blossomed up, based on Swedish inventions: ballbearings, the Primus stove, separators and AGA lighthouses. Water power was used to generate electricity, which quickly became a source of energy for industry. The state itself became a power producer alongside municipal and private companies. Prom the 1870s onwards a steady stream of farm workers and office clerks entered the new industries. By 1930 there were more than 300,000 industrial workers.
The great popular movements 
The 19th century meant the dissolution of old structures and a journey into the unknown in all fields. From these feelings of uncertainty and hope there developed the great Swedish popular movements. The earliest of them was the low-church revivalist movement which attacked the persecution of nonconformists by the state church and fought for a religious life outside the church. Freedom of religion was allowed in 1858. Small mission houses were founded alongside the state church, which gradually found new forms for its activities. An ecumenical movement sprang up under the inspiring leadership of Archbishop Nathan Söderblom.
The next popular movement was the teetotaller movement, which aimed at stopping drinking but also fought for social equality and wider education. The teetotaller movement became an important pressure group in parliament and a good school for future politicians. A state company now has the sole right to sell wine, spirits and strong beer.
The workers get organised
The third great popular movement was the trade union movement. The first unions were established in the 1870s as an expression of the workers’ discontentment with their harsh conditions. The People’s Palaces that were built in almost every town are monuments to the cultural activities of this movement. When Social Democracy came to Sweden in the 19th century, it became the political creed of the workers’ movement. The farmers and the office workers also began to organise themselves. The sports movement that grew up in the new groups created by industry was also an important social factor.

The victory of Parliamentari-anism 
In 1865 the medieval parliament of four estates was abolished and replaced by a bicameral parliament. The first chamber represented the upper social classes, while the second chamber was more for the common people. The result of the parliamentary election was a disappointment for many people, who had hoped that the middle class would dominate parliament. Instead it was the farmers who won and they found themselves in constant conflict with the industrialists and higher civil servants who dominated the first chamber. At the turn of the century the conflict between town and country became a conflict between the right-wing and left-wing parties. The radical writers, led by August Strindberg, played an important role by questioning the forms of the traditional political and social debate. An election reform became necessary. This was carried out during the last year of the First World War, in 1918, when universal suffrage was introduced for elections to the second chamber and the municipal councils. This reform gave the vote to 54 per cent of the population. In the following year the eight-hour working day was introduced.
The welfare state 
After the First World War there were great social changes and increased movement between the social classes. The old agrarian society became an industrial one with a high standard of living and better living conditions for everyone. A series of reforms helped to change society. During and after the Second World War Swedes became more aware of the world outside its frontiers. Sweden took in large numbers of refugees from various countries. Swedish civil and military personnel have worked for a large number of United Nations peacekeeping missions. In 1995 Sweden joined the European Union.