HISTORY OF SWEDEN
Days of Old
Fourteen thousand years ago, Sweden was still covered by a thick ice cap.
As the ice retreated, people moved in.
Ale’s stones pictured here are from the Iron Age – before Vikings, war-hungry kings, peace and the race into modernity.
War, Peace and Progress
From 8,000 BC to 6,000 BC, Sweden as a whole became populated by people who lived by hunting, gathering and fishing, and who used simple stone tools. Dwelling places and graves dating from the Stone Age, lasting until about 1,800 BC, are found today in increasing numbers. The Bronze Age was marked in the Nordic region – especially in Denmark but also in Sweden – by a high level of culture, shown by the artifacts found in graves. After 500 BC, such artifacts become increasingly rare as iron came into more general use. During the early Iron Age, the population of Sweden became settled, and agriculture came to form the basis of the economy and society.
Vikings and Early Christians
The Viking Age (800–1050 AD) was characterised by a significant expansion of activity, in Sweden’s case largely toward the east. Many Viking expeditions set off from Sweden to both plunder and trade along the Baltic coast and the rivers that stretched deep into present-day Russia. The Vikings traveled as far as the Black and Caspian Seas, where they developed trading links with the Byzantine Empire and the Arab kingdoms. Christianity first reached Sweden with a mission led by Ansgar, who visited in the 9th century, but the country was not converted to Christianity until the 11th century.
Founding of the Kingdom
The various provinces of Sweden were absorbed around 1000 AD into a single unit, but the crown began to gain significant influence only during the late 13th century. In 1280 King Magnus Ladulås (1275–90) issued a statute authorising the establishment of a nobility and the organisation of society on the feudal model.
The Hanseatic Period
Trade grew during the 14th century, especially with the German towns grouped under the leadership of Lübeck. By the mid-16th century, this group, known as the Hanseatic League, dominated Swedish trade, and many towns were founded as a result of lively commercial activity. However, the Black Death, which reached Sweden in 1350, led to a long period of economic and population decline.
Photo: Swedish National Museum
On the church green in Mora in 1520, Gustav Vasa urged residents of the town to take up arms and help free Sweden from Danish occupation.
The Kalmar Union
In 1389, the crowns of Denmark, Norway and Sweden were united under the rule of the Danish Queen Margareta. In 1397, the Kalmar Union was formed, with the three Scandinavian countries under a single monarch. However, the union (1397–1523) was scarred by internal conflicts that culminated in the ‘Stockholm Bloodbath’ in 1520, when 80 Swedish nobles were executed at the instigation of the Danish union king, Kristian II. The act provoked a rebellion, which in 1521 led to the deposition of Kristian II and the seizure of power by a Swedish nobleman, Gustav Vasa, who was elected king of Sweden in 1523.
The Vasa Period
The foundations of the Swedish state were laid during the reign of Gustav Vasa (1523–60). The church was nationalized, its estates confiscated by the crown, and the Protestant Reformation was introduced. Power was concentrated in the hands of the king and hereditary monarchy came into force in 1544.
The Swedish Empire
Since the dissolution of the Kalmar Union, Swedish foreign policy had been aimed at gaining dominion over the Baltic Sea, leading to repeated wars with Denmark from the 1560s onward. After Sweden intervened in 1630 with great success in the Thirty Years’ War on the side of the German Protestants, and Gustav II Adolf became one of Europe’s most powerful monarchs, Sweden defeated Denmark in the two wars of 1643–45 and 1657–58. Finland, provinces in northern Germany and the present-day Baltic republics also belonged to Sweden, and after the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 and the Peace of Roskilde with Denmark in 1658, Sweden was a great power in northern Europe. The country even founded a short-lived colony in what is now Delaware in North America. However, Sweden had a largely agrarian economy and lacked the resources to maintain its position as a great power in the long run.
After its defeat in the Great Northern War (1700–21) against the combined forces of Denmark, Poland and Russia, Sweden lost most of its provinces on the other side of the Baltic Sea and was reduced essentially to the same frontiers as present-day Sweden and Finland. During the Napoleonic Wars, Sweden surrendered Finland to Russia. As compensation, the French marshal Jean Baptiste Bernadotte, who had been elected heir to the Swedish throne in 1810, succeeded in obtaining Norway, which was forced into a union with Sweden in 1814. This union was peacefully dissolved in 1905 after many internal disputes.
Famous Swedish Monarchs
Gustav II Adolf (1611–1632)
By intervening in the Thirty Years’ War, Gustav II Adolf came to assume great political importance, and internationally is the best known of Sweden’s kings. Under his rule, Sweden became a leading military power. Gustav II Adolf was killed in 1632 at the Battle of Lützen.
Excepting the short caretaker government of Queen Ulrika Eleonora 1719–20, Kristina is the only female monarch of the modern Swedish kingdom. She succeeded Gustav II Adolf in 1632, just before her sixth birthday, and ruled for 22 years. Kristina abdicated in 1654, converting to Catholicism and settling in Rome, and was succeeded by her cousin, Karl Gustav. When he died in 1660, she traveled to Sweden in the hope of reclaiming the throne. Her claim was rejected by parliament, however, and Kristina returned to Rome.
Gustav III (1771–1792)
Usually called the Theatre King, Gustav III was a keen patron of the arts, and founded the first opera in Stockholm in 1782, the Swedish Academy and the Royal Academy of Music. His reign was not popular with the high nobility, however, and opposition culminated in a conspiracy in 1792, when he was shot at a masked ball held at the opera. He died shortly after.
18th/19th Century Sweden
After the death of the warrior king Karl XII in 1718 and Sweden’s defeat in the Great Northern War, the Swedish parliament (Riksdag) and council were strong enough to introduce a new constitution that abolished royal absolutism and put power in the hands of parliament.
Eighteenth-century Sweden was characterized by rapid cultural development, partly through close contact with France. Overseas trade was hard hit by the Napoleonic Wars, which led to general stagnation and economic crisis in Sweden during the early 19th century. In the late 19th century, 90 per cent of the people still earned their livelihoods from agriculture.
One consequence was emigration, mainly to North America. From the mid-19th century to 1930, about 1.5 million Swedes emigrated, out of a population of 3.5 million in 1850 and slightly more than 6 million in 1930.
Industry did not begin to grow until the 1890s, although it then developed rapidly between 1900 and 1930 and transformed Sweden into one of Europe’s leading industrial nations after World War II.
Reference: The Swedish Society, history of Sweden