The story of medieval Christian Scandinavia, after the various regions convert in the 10th and 11th century, is of dynasties in Denmark, Norway and Sweden struggling to establish stable kingdoms – with sometimes the added ambition of bringing the other two into a unified realm.
The earliest recognizable kingdom is that of Hemming in southern Denmark from 811; but the king’s successors fail to hold his territory. Another century passes before the whole of Denmark is united in a single kingdom, under the rule of Harald Bluetooth – who is baptized a Christian in about 960.
In the way of royal converts, he sees this personal event as the conversion of all the Danes (an achievement commemorated in Denmark’s famous Jelling Stone).
Harald’s son Sweyn extends the Danish kingdom to England in 1013, and his grandson Canute rules an empire which includes Denmark, England and even for a while (1030-1035) the kingdom of Norway.
Norway has only a few years previously become a single kingdom. Olaf II, ruling from 1015 to 1030, unites the whole region under one crown. Sweden achieves similar unity rather later; not until the dynasty established by Birger Jarl in the 13th century does the Swedish kingdom have the stature to match Denmark or Norway.
At various times different regions become dominant within this Scandinavian triangle. Valdemar I and his son Valdemar II extend Danish influence along the Baltic coast between 1169 and 1222. From about 1240 Haakon IV gives Norway an expansive period, asserting control over distant Iceland and Greenland. In 1323 Sweden is strong enough to incorporate much of Finland, agreeing a boundary in that year with the Russians of Novgorod.
Meanwhile, incessantly, the rulers of the Scandinavian kingdoms engage in two closely related methods of affecting the balance of power among themselves. They go to war against each other. And they marry each other’s daughters. One such marriage, in 1363, leads at last to the union of the three crowns.
Union of the crowns: AD 1363-1523
Margaret, who unites the three crowns of Scandinavia, is the daughter of Valdemar IV, king of Denmark. In 1363, at the age of ten, she is married to Haakon VI, the 23-year-old king of Norway. Seventeen years later her father and her husband are dead, but she has a young son, Olaf. She secures his acceptance as king of both Denmark and Norway, and rules very effectively in his name.
In 1387 the young king dies. Margaret’s authority is now such that she is accepted in her own right, in 1388, as the ‘sovereign lady and ruler’ of both countries. In that same year she is given the opportunity to add Sweden to her portfolio. The Swedish nobles, accustomed to electing their kings, are discontented with the present incumbent. They enlist Margaret’s help.
Before marching against the present king (Albert of Mecklenburg), Margaret declares her terms. She is to be sovereign lady and ruler of Sweden as of the other kingdoms (the phrase effectively means regent) and the Swedes are to accept her choice of the king to succeed her. With this agreed, she defeats Albert in battle in 1389 and takes control.
Stockholm holds out against her (it is virtually an independent city run by the German merchants of the Hanseatic League). But in 1398, in return for confirmation of the league’s commercial privileges, it too becomes part of her domain. The three Scandinavian countries are now a united regency. And the regent has already selected an infant king, to create a united kingdom.
In 1389 Margaret declares that her 8-year-old great-nephew Eric of Pomerania (grandson of her elder sister) is king of Denmark, Norway and Sweden. The three realms become formally united when he is crowned at Kalmar in 1397. Margaret is officially regent only until Eric is declared of age (in 1401), but she continues to rule in his name – as effectively as ever – until her death in 1412.
In subsequent decades Eric follows the same policies as his great-aunt, but he is unable to hold the union together. Uprisings against him in all three kingdoms lead to his deposition in Denmark and Sweden in 1439, followed by Norway in 1442.
For almost another century there are attempts, sometimes briefly successful, to restore the union of the three realms under a single king. The last such king is Christian II, who rules in Denmark and Norway from 1513. He has to fight for his Swedish crown. After three years of war he takes Stockholm, in 1520, but it proves a brief triumph. He is crowned on November 4. Four days later a massacre in Stockholm prompts the uprising which results in the Vasa dynasty and an independent Sweden.
Christian loses his other two crowns, of Denmark and Norway, in 1523. From now on, although Norway does not achieve independence until 1905, the story of each Scandinavian country is clearly distinct.
Stockholm Bloodbath: AD 1520
The three-year spell on the Swedish throne of the Danish king Christian II is the result of civil war. The victorious side, winning with Danish support, arrange for the coronation of Christian as king of Sweden as soon as they capture Stockholm in November 1520. Four days later, immediately after the coronation festivities, they arrange for the public execution of all their prominent opponents.
The pope, Leo X, has supported Christian II and has excommunicated his rival. The winning faction now accuse their enemies of heresy, for opposing the pope. They hand them over to the civil authorities.
At noon on Thursday November 8 some eighty Swedish prelates, nobles and influential burghers are brought to the main square in Stockholm to be beheaded. First to lay their heads on the block are two bishops. For three days the bodies lie in a pool of their own blood.
The Stockholm Bloodbath becomes one of most bitterly remembered moments in Sweden’s history. But instead of securing the throne for the new king, the massacre has precisely the opposite effect. Among the victims are the father and two uncles of a young noble, Gustav Eriksson – known to history as Gustavus Vasa.
Gustavus I and the Reformation: AD 1520-1527
After the Stockholm Bloodbath in 1520 Gustavus emerges as the leader of the rebels opposing Christian II. He is greatly helped by economic rivalry in the Baltic. Christian has been attempting to make Copenhagen the major trading centre of the region, breaking the stranglehold of Lübeck and the Hanseatic League. To this end he has made an alliance with the Fuggers, encouraging them to extend their banking interests to the Baltic.
It is in the interests of the merchants of Lübeck to give assistance to Gustavus.
The uprising begins in 1521 in Gustavus’ ancestral region, approximating to the modern province of Kopparberg. From here the rebels gradually win more towns and strongholds. By July 1522 Gustavus controls five Swedish provinces. In June 1523 he is elected king of Sweden. Two weeks later he and his army enter Stockholm.
The new king’s position is nevertheless precarious, in a country where prolonged civil war has created many factions. Moreover the Lübeck merchants are impatient for a return on their investment. How to repay them, in a country where only the church is rich? As in England a decade later, economics are intertwined with the Reformation in Sweden.
Gustavus has no religious convictions but a great need of funds. In 1527 he uses Lutheran arguments (plus a threat of abdication) to persuade a diet at Västerås to authorize his appropriation of church property – amounting perhaps to a quarter of all the land in the kingdom.
Gustavus professes the Lutheran faith but he establishes no national Lutheran church in Sweden (only late in his reign does the new religion spread far outside Stockholm). Gustavus stands out among rulers for the cynicism with which he plunders the Catholic church before putting another in its place. Even Henry VIII observes the niceties in this respect by a few days.