A Brief History of Sweden

By Tim Lambert

Ancient Sweden

The first humans arrived in Sweden by 8,000 BC after the end of the ice age, when warming temperatures first made the country habitable. The first Swedes were stone age hunters and fishermen who lived near the coast. However, after 4,000 BC farming was introduced into Sweden. The farmers used stone tools and weapons. After 2,000 BC they learned to use bronze. The bronze age craftsmen soon became very skilled at making things of bronze. In the bronze age, in Sweden horses and chariots were used and carvings of boats suggest that trade was important.

Then about 500 BC iron was introduced into Sweden. The Iron Age Swedes had contact with the Romans. They sold slaves, furs, and amber to Roman merchants. In return, the Romans sold them Mediterranean luxuries.

Viking Sweden

In the 9th century, the Norwegians and Danes turned to raiding and invading Western Europe. However, the Swedes were more interested in trade. Improvements in ship design made long-distance trade possible. The Swedes crossed the Baltic and traveled along Russian rivers as far as the Byzantine Empire.

The number of merchants and craftsmen increased at that time. However, Sweden was, of course, an overwhelmingly agricultural society. It was divided into three classes. At the bottom were the slaves or thralls. (Slaves were a common item of trade). A slave’s life was, no doubt, horrid. They were made to do all the hardest and most unpleasant work. Above the thralls were the freemen. Their wealth varied greatly and it depended on the amount of land they owned. Some were quite well off and owned slaves. Above them were the jarls or earls.

By the 9th century, Sweden had become one kingdom. However Swedish kings had little power. When a king died his eldest son did not necessarily inherit the throne. It might go to a younger son or even to the dead king’s brother. However, as the centuries passed the king’s power slowly increased.

In the 11th century, Sweden was converted to Christianity. Afterward, it became a part of Western civilization. A missionary called Ansgar went to Sweden in 829 but he had little success in converting the Swedes. However, a Swedish king, Olof Stokonung, became a Christian in 1008. However, it was a long time before all Swedes were converted. Paganism lingered on in Sweden until the end of the 11th century. Nevertheless, by the middle of the 12th century, Sweden had become a firmly Christian country.

In 1157 King Eric led Sweden in a crusade to convert the Finns. (Although whether the crusade was motivated by religion or by politics is debatable). After he died in 1160, Eric became the patron saint of Sweden. In the 13th century, the Swedes conquered Finland. (The church feared that the Finns would be converted to Eastern Orthodox Christianity and so looked with favor upon a Swedish invasion). A second crusade was launched in 1249. The Russians fought the Swedes for control of Finland. However, by 1323 Finland was in Swedish hands. Finland remained a province of Sweden until 1809.

Sweden in the Middle Ages

In 13th century Sweden there were changes in agriculture. Viking farmers had two large fields. Each year one was sown with crops while the other was left fallow. By the 13th century, Swedish farmers had begun using the three-field system. Every year one field was sown with spring crops, one was sown with autumn crops and one was left fallow. As well as improvements in agriculture Swedish trade and commerce prospered. New towns were founded while old ones expanded. Jarl Birger founded the town of Stockholm in about 1252.

Then in 1280, King Magnus granted the upper class exemption from paying taxes in return for military service. However, in most of Europe, the peasants were serfs, halfway between slaves and freemen. Swedish peasants were never reduced to serfdom. King Valdemar 1250-1275 passed laws that applied to all of Sweden (at that time each province had its own laws). The laws improved the rights of women and strengthened the crown. Finally, in 1350 the Swedish king issued a code of laws for the whole country.

Like the rest of Europe Sweden was devastated by the Black Death, which struck in 1349 and probably killed about 1/3 of the population.

Then in 1388, the Swedish nobles rebelled against the King, Albert of Mecklenburg (1363-1389). They called in Margaret the Regent of Norway. In 1389 her army defeated Albert and captured him. She became ruler of Sweden (although Albert’s allies held onto Stockholm until 1398). In 1397 Margaret’s great-nephew Erik was crowned king of Sweden, Norway, and Denmark In Kalmar. The three countries were temporarily united into one kingdom. This was called the Union of Kalmar.

However, Erik alienated the Swedes by giving Danes and Germans important positions. He also fought a war against Holstein. As a result, the Hanseatic League (an alliance of Baltic trading towns) stopped Sweden from importing salt and stopped Swedish iron exports. In 1434 the Swedish peasants and miners rebelled. In 1439 Erik was deposed. In 1440 he was replaced by his nephew Christopher. However, in 1448 the Swedish nobles chose one of themselves, Karl Knutsson, as king and Sweden separated from Denmark and Norway. From 1470 to 1520 regents ruled Sweden. In 1506 the regent Svante Nilsson Sture began a war with Denmark which lasted until 1513.

Sweden in the 16th Century

Then in 1517, a power struggle between regent Sture the Younger and the archbishop of Uppsala broke into civil war. In 1517 Sture captured the archbishop, Gustav Trolle, and his castle. Trolle was imprisoned. However, in 1520, the Danes intervened and Sture was killed. His widow carried on the fight. She and her followers held Stockholm until September 1520. On 4 November Christian II was crowned. The king then arrested his enemies in Stockholm. Trolle tried them for heresy because they had ignored the authority of the church. Afterward, 82 people were executed in the bloodbath of Stockholm. Executions were also carried out in other parts of Sweden.

However, his policy backfired. In 1521 Swedes rebelled. Gustavus Vasa led them. Trolle was forced to flee and Gustavus became king of Sweden in 1523. At that point, the Union of Kalmar ended completely and Sweden became an independent country.

In the early 16th century, the Reformation reached Sweden. In 1526 the New Testament was translated into Swedish. The whole Bible was translated in 1541. In 1536 Gustavus allowed the church to adopt certain Lutheran practices such as the marriage of the clergy. Gradually Sweden turned from being a Catholic country into a Protestant one. Finally, in 1593 the Swedish church adopted the Confession of Augsburg (a statement of Protestant doctrine).

Things did not go smoothly for Gustavus. In 1542 there was a rebellion in Sweden, which he crushed. Slowly Gustavus increased his grip. In 1544 Gustavus made the Swedish crown hereditary. He decreed that his eldest son would succeed him as king.

Gustavus died in 1560. His successor Eric XIV tried to build an empire in Estonia. In 1561 the Swedes took Tallinn and part of Estonia. However, the Danes also had ambitions in this area and the two countries went to war in 1563.

In 1563 Eric’s brother John led a rebellion. In January 1569 he became King John III. He ended the war with Denmark in 1570. In 1587 John’s son Sigismund was elected king of Poland. In 1592 he became king of Sweden. However, Sigismund was a Roman Catholic and was therefore unpopular. He was deposed in 1599. Afterward, Duke Charles who called himself the administrator of the realm ruled Sweden. However, in 1604 he became King Charles IX.

Sweden in the 17th Century

In 1611-1613 Sweden and Denmark fought another war. Meanwhile, Charles IX died in 1661 and was replaced by a regent. In 1613 Gustavus II Adolphus became king of Sweden. He was known as the lion of the north Although the war with Denmark ended in 1613 Sweden was also at war with Russia and Poland. The war with Russia ended in 1617 but the war with Poland dragged on until 1629. At its end, Sweden gained Riga and part of Latvia.

On 10 August 1628, the king’s ship The Vasa sunk near Stockholm on its maiden voyage. It lay on the seabed for 133 years before it was recovered in 1961.

Gustavus Adolphus had a gift for organization. He created an efficient administration. He also created a standing army, which had some of the best artillery in the world.

In 1630 he decided to intervene in the Thirty Years War, which was being fought in Germany. Adolphus joined the war partly to help his fellow Protestants but also to increase the wealth and power of Sweden. In 1631 he won a great victory at Breitenfeldt. However, in 1632 he was killed at the Battle of Lutzen. After the king’s death the chancellor, Alex Oxesnstein continued the war. It finally ended in 1648.

Meanwhile, the Swedes and the Danes fought another war in 1643-45. Then in 1655 King Charles X Gustavus invaded Poland and conquered most of the country. In 1657 the Danes went to war against Sweden. At first, the Swedes had some success. However, in August 1658 tried unsuccessfully to capture Copenhagen. He died in February 1660 and the war with Denmark ended in May 1660. By then Sweden was the dominant power in northern Europe.

In the late 17th century Sweden became an absolute monarchy. It is sometimes called the Caroline absolutism. Sweden and Denmark fought another war in 1672-79. The wars pushed Sweden into debt. In the 1680s land that the crown had given or sold to the nobles was taken back by the king. Then, in 1693, the Riksdag made the Declaration of Sovereignty which recognized the king’s right to rule as he wished. In 1697 Charles XII became king of Sweden.

Sweden in the 18th Century

In 1700 Denmark, Poland and Russia attacked Sweden. The ensuing war became known as the Great Northern War. Charles XII led an army to Zealand in Denmark. As a result the Danes quickly capitulated. Afterward, the Swedes crushed the Russians at the Battle of Narva in Estonia. From 1702 to 1706 Charles fought the Poles.

However, in 1707 Sweden invaded Russia with disastrous results. In 1708 he marched into Ukraine. On 28 June 1709, Charles attacked the Russians at Poltava and was routed. His army was captured but he fled to Moldavia (then part of the Turkish Empire). In 1710 the Russians captured Tallinn (Estonia), Riga (Latvia), and Viipuri (Finland) from the Swedes. The Danes also attacked Sweden but they were severely defeated at Helsingborg in 1710 and Gadebusch in 1712. Charles then attacked Norway. In November 1718 he was killed while besieging the fortress at Fredriksten. In 1720 Sweden made peace with Denmark. Then in 1721, by the treaty of Nystad, Sweden was forced to give up the Baltic provinces and part of Finland to Russia. For Sweden, the age of greatness was over.

However, the age of greatness in Sweden was also the age of absolutism. After the king’s death in 1718 royal power was curtailed and the age of freedom began. Queen Ulrika replaced him. However, the Riksdag drew up a new constitution. The Queen abdicated rather than accept it. Her husband replaced her, Prince Frederick of Hessen, who became Frederick I. He was forced to accept constitutional laws, which severely restricted his power. Sweden enjoyed a measure of liberty and two political parties emerged, the Nightcaps and the Hats.

During the early and mid-18th century, Sweden prospered. The number of peasants who owned their land greatly increased. Sweden exported vast amounts of iron and tar. The population grew from 1.5 million in 1721 to almost 1.8 million in the middle of the century. (The first Swedish census was held in 1749 and showed the country had a population of 1,764,724). In 1739 the Swedish Academy of Sciences was founded and in 1755 the New Testament was translated into Lapp.

However, in the 1760s the situation deteriorated. Wars with Russia in 1741-43 and Prussia in 1757-62 proved to be extremely expensive for Sweden and they led to inflation and a financial crisis. Sweden also suffered a series of bad harvests and near famine. In the middle of the crisis, in 1772, the king staged a coup and regained his power. The age of freedom ended. In the ensuing years, a new currency was issued to end inflation.

Then in 1788, King Gustav III went to war with Russia, hoping a successful war would increase his popularity. However, the war ended in 1791 with neither side making material gains. In 1792 the king was shot by a former officer of the Royal Guards.

Sweden in the 19th Century

In February 1808 the Russians invaded Finland and they quickly overran it. The king, Gustav IV, was deposed in March 1809 and a new constitution was introduced. Charles XIII was elected king but he was unfit to rule and a man named Charles August was elected Crown Prince. In September peace was made with Russia and Finland was lost forever. n Charles August died in 1810.

One of Napoleon’s Marshals, Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte was elected the new Crown Prince. He took the name, Charles John. In April 1812 Charles John formed an alliance with Russia against Napoleon. In 1813 Sweden joined the war against France. At the end of the year, Charles John turned on Denmark. At that time the Danish king ruled Norway and Charles John wished to make it his own. In this, he succeeded. In January 1814 the Danes surrendered Norway to Sweden.

King Charles XIII died in 1818 and Crown Prince Charles John became the new king. By then the population of Sweden was about 2 1/2 million. It rose to 3 1/2 million by 1850. Part of the reason for the increase was the reform of agriculture. In the early 19th century farmland in Sweden was enclosed. In 1800 most land was farmed using the ‘open field’ system. The land was divided into small strips and each farmer owned several strips scattered around the village. In the early 19th century the land was ‘enclosed’, that is it was divided up so each farmer got a single block of land in one place. Enclosure allowed Swedish agriculture to become more efficient. The rise in population was despite large-scale emigration. Many Swedes emigrated to the USA in the 19th century.

In the early 19th century Sweden was an overwhelmingly agricultural country. However, in 1846 trade was deregulated. Until then it was controlled by organizations called guilds. In that year they lost their powers. Meanwhile, in 1842 universal primary education was introduced in Sweden. The first railway in Sweden was built in 1856.

Oscar I became king of Sweden in 1844. In 1865 he agreed to constitutional reform. In 1867 the old Riksdag, which was divided into four estates, nobility, clergy, burghers, and peasants, was replaced by a parliament with two houses.

In the late 19th century and early 20th century, Sweden was transformed by the industrial revolution. Production of iron and steel boomed. The Swedish engineering industry also flourished. Swedish industry was helped by the introduction of hydroelectricity at the end of the 19th century.

Sweden in the 20th Century

In 1905 Norway became independent from Sweden. Sweden remained neutral during the First World War and in 1921 universal suffrage was introduced. The 1920s were relatively prosperous for Sweden. However, in the early 1930s, Sweden suffered during the depression. Unemployment rose to 24.9%.

However, in 1932 the Social Democrats formed a coalition with the Agrarian Party. They took steps to help agriculture and also created public works to reduce unemployment. By 1939 the Swedish economy had largely recovered although unemployment was still very high at 17.

Sweden again remained neutral during the Second World War. Sweden had maintained a policy of neutrality since 1814 and this policy had served the country well. Nevertheless, in the late 1930s, the Swedish government increased military spending in case of an attack.

In the late 1940s and 1950s, a strong welfare state was created in Sweden. Reforms included more generous old-age pensions, child allowances, and health insurance. In 1974 a new constitution was introduced and the minimum age for voting was reduced to 18. The 1950s and 1960s were years of prosperity for Sweden and there was full employment.

However, the Swedish economy suffered a downturn in the mid-1970s Unemployment was high in the 1990s (It reached 9.9% in 1996) but in the early years of the 21st century, it fell.

In the late 20th century the Swedish economy changed greatly and service industries became much more important. Manufacturing industry declined in importance so did agriculture. Today Sweden is a rich country and its people have a high standard of living. However, Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme was assassinated on 28 February 1986. This crime shocked the country.

Then in 1991 Sweden formally applied to join the EU. Sweden joined the EU on 1 January 1995.

Sweden in the 21st Century

In 2006 a center-right coalition narrowly won an election. The new government, led by Fredrik Reinfeldt, promised to reform Sweden’s expensive welfare state. In 2009 like the rest of the world Sweden suffered a recession and unemployment rose to a high level. However, Sweden soon recovered. Unemployment fell to 6.6% in 2017.

A view of Stockholm

Today Sweden is a prosperous country. In 2024 the population of Sweden was 10.4 million.

In space, the first Swedish satellite, Viking was launched in 1986. The first Swedish astronaut was Christer Fuglesang in 2006.

Sweden joined NATO in 2024.

Last revised 2024