A while ago, I covered the history of Swedish nobility since their medieval beginnings until their demise at the beginning of the new millennium. In the post, I also mentioned that the House of Nobility, which was the organisation responsible for all things noble, resided at a temporary location in Stockholm’s Gamla Stan until they moved to their new palace. Now is the time to find out more about the palace itself.
The House of Nobility (Riddarhuset), also known as the House of Knights, is one of the noblest and most prominent buildings in the entire Swedish capital. Today, it is the place where documents of Swedish nobility are archived. It is also open to the public and parts of the property are rented out to private companies. However, as it is usually the case, things were not always this simple so let’s find out how the House of Nobility has become what it is today.
Fifteen years after the organisation was established, in 1641, the French architect Simon de la Vallée designed a Renaissance 3-floor palace with two courtyards, one on the northern and one on the southern side. At the time, the land on which the palace was meant to be built was a fruit and spices farm. This gives us an idea about how different cities were about 400 years ago. Just try to imagine a fruit farm in Gamla Stan, or any other major city’s historical centre for that matter, today.
Not only were Simon de la Vallée’s plans not executed but he himself was killed shortly after the construction works started. After his death, the construction struggled for the following five years until the project was assigned to another architect who was not really an architect at all. The person I am talking about was Heinrich Wilhelm, a German stonecutter, who removed the back (northern) backyard from the plans and changed some of the façade decorations. Otherwise, the works continued according to the original plans drawn in 1641.
The main walls of the palace built out of bricks and sandstone pilasters were completed in 1650 but Wilhelm was not lucky enough the see the completed palace either as he passed away two years later why the construction was still ongoing.
Next person to continue the work was Joost Vingboons from the Netherlands who added the fruit and flower decorations visible under the windows on the upper floor. These motives were very popular in the 17th century and there is a total of 28 of them on the façade all around the palace. If you pay closer attention to these decorative elements you will discover various types of fruits and flowers including melons, apples, pears, grapes, sunflowers and roses.
If you expected that three architects were enough, I am afraid you were mistaken. Vingboons got fired after only three years and was replaced by Jean de la Vallée, a son of Simon de la Vallée. He was responsible for the completion of the palace. Before it was finished, he was able to add the round windows just below the roof to the design.
Finally, in 1657, the House of Nobility was ready for the nobility to move in but the inauguration did not take place until 1668. The living area of the completed palace was approximately 1700 square metres but an astonishing part of it, around 450 square metres, was taken by the main staircase.
A great variety of materials were used in the construction of the palace. Most of them were supplied from different parts of Sweden and even directly from Stockholm. To imagine the importance of this building, consider that the House of Nobility acquired a couple of cargo ships during this period only to be able to transport the materials to the construction site. Interestingly, some of the supplies were bought directly from noblemen themselves.
It is true that the exterior of the palace is heavily decorated which makes it stand out from the crowd, perhaps even more so today that a few centuries ago. One thing that is still quite easy to notice, though, is the presence of an unusually large amount of statues. Only the roof holds eight statues and six decorated chimneys. It might just be the most decorated roof I have ever seen.
The six statues that are above the entrances, three in the front and three in the back, were designed by the German artist Heinrich Lichtenberg. The other two, on western and eastern ends, were made by Frenchman Jean Baptiste Dieussart.
Then there are the two statues that are impossible to miss. The statue of Gustav Vasa in front of the main entrance which is said to be the first public statue in Sweden and the one of Axel Oxenstierna on the other side of the building. The former is significantly older than the latter and originally used to stand in the middle of the square in front of the palace but was later moved closer to the building in 1916 to free space for the traffic.
Perhaps the most symbolic of the decorations are the Latin inscriptions visible on all four sides of the House of Nobility and in several other places. Above the main entrance, you can read, ‘CONSILIO ATQVE SAPIENTIA CLARIS MAIORVM EXEMPLIS ANIMIS ET FELICIBVS ARMIS,’ which roughly translated means, ‘Through wits and wisdom, through courage and victories, following the ancestors’ shining example.’
Both door portals, neither of which is original today, display the phrase ‘PALATIVM ORDINIS EQVESTRIS,’ which translates to English as, ‘Knighthood’s Palace.’
Even though the plans for the construction of wings were abandoned in 1762 you will find two wings in the backyard of the House of Nobility. The original plans supported by both the first and the last architect responsible for the building were not executed because of their financial unfeasibility. At the time when they were meant to be built, the nobility has still not recovered from the costs of the war against Denmark and the tough reduction imposed by King Karl XI. The present-day wings were eventually built in 1870 at the place of former stables following the original design created by Jean de la Vallée.
They are currently used as offices for private companies so if you would like to work in an environment surrounded by aristocratic history, one day the offices can be yours. Or perhaps you can send your CV to one of the companies that already reside there, it is up to you.
Well, now you know a lot about the functioning of Swedish nobility as well as their residence. In case you have not read the earlier post yet, I suggest you do it right now. Do not forget you can always go to visit the palace in person to see everything you read about here. Once you are there, you can find many other attractions nearby in our app Trevl for Android. You are very welcome to check our Instagram account so that you do not miss any beautiful places we plan to show you there.
Ellehag, Claes, Hamilton, Anna, Hammarshiöld, Hans, Åberg, Alf, 1999. Riddarhuset.