- Kungsträdgården was born as a kitchen garden for The Royal Palace in the Middle Ages
- It was turned into a French-style decorative garden in the 17th century
- The garden was not accessible to the public before the 1700s
- The place grew into a social hub around the mid-19th century
Stockholm’s Old Town (Gamla stan) is without a doubt an amazing historical place to visit. The island where it resides is also quite small, though, and so, there was not enough space for everything that there should be in a city as important as Stockholm. That is the reason why you will need to get outside of the borders of the historical city centre of the Swedish capital to visit Kungsträdgården (‘The King’s Garden’).
Although the garden does not reside on the same island, it is still very close to The Royal Palace and therefore, worthy of its name. The garden has had many different faces over the centuries of its existence and its popularity among various social groups varied over time too, which makes its story much more interesting.
The garden, originating as a kitchen garden belonging to The Royal Palace already in the Middle Ages, has been in its place throughout the modern history of Stockholm. During the 17th century, it was turned into a decorative garden in French style to match the increasingly popular gardens surrounding royal estates in continental Europe and England. However, despite all the new trees, hedges, flowers, and walking paths, it still appeared as a rural garden to foreigners. A noble Englishman described the garden in the 1650s as a poorly maintained one surrounded by timber.
At the time, there were few flowers, mostly tulips, and tree alleys on both sides of the park consisted of elms. Only a few prettier, fruit trees decorated the park here and there. The promenades could only be enjoyed by the upper class as the general public was not allowed in the enclosed garden accessible through a single gate from Arsenalsgatan.
The Makalös Palace, literally translated as the ‘Incomparable’ Palace, was one of the most splendid buildings in Stockholm standing by the garden on Kungsträdgårdsgatan. Only a handful of buildings such as The Royal Palace and the House of Nobility could be compared to this heavily decorated, monumental palace built in 1642. While you can often meet it in historical documentaries and literature, it is, unfortunately, not possible to visit it as it burned down completely in 1825. Before that, it had been owned by several members of De la Gardie dynasty who had it built and even the Crown itself.
This has changed, however, during the Age of Liberty (1718 – 1772) when The King’s Garden became a greatly appreciated public space. In 1762, an orangery had been built on the northern side of the garden, which was turned into the so-called Vauxhall ten years later. This venue created following the example of similar ones, especially in London, became a beloved place where balls, concerts and other social gatherings used to take place.
Even King Gustav III, during whose reign the garden was refreshed and changed significantly, enjoyed Vauxhall. In December 1791, right after the king returned from a trip to Germany, he organised a party at Vauxhall when the building’s exterior was decorated with roughly 700 candles and 5,000 lamps and torches. Around 6,000 attendees could also enjoy the garden illuminated with some 6,000 additional torches and lamps.
The public was lucky that they got to enjoy the exquisite garden at least for a while. In the early 19th century, Kungsträdgården was not in its best shape and things were about to get worse. It is said that during the reign of Karl XIII and consequently Charles XIV John (Karl XIV Johan), the garden was essentially destroyed. Lawns were removed and so were flowers. Moreover, many trees were chopped down and all that was left was a large area covered in sand.
In the 1820s, the Karl XIII’s square (Karl XIII:s torg) was born around the statue of Karl XIII which stands in the middle of the park to this day. This decision was not warmly welcomed by the public. Not many people thought that the king deserved to have a publicly displayed statue when none of his equally-named predecessors, who are generally considered historical figures of greater importance, had received one. Because of the location on which the statue stands, it was always in the way of sledges of children from Norrmalm who used to play in the garden. It was also the children who came up with a nickname for the king who became known as ‘The Gardener.’
A story from the mid-19th century about children enjoying the winter in the garden describes the clear differences between social classes that still existed at the time. A boy, the author of the story, tells how a girl, about six or seven years old, approached him with her gilded sledge while he was sitting on his wooden one. What turned out to be a daughter of a nobleman and high state official, also reproached the boy that she was no girl but a lady.
Life returned at its greatest to Kungsträdgården in the latter half of the 1800s. During the era when people commonly referred to the place as ‘The Square’ (Torget), it was popular among all social classes. One could meet his neighbours, actors, nobles as well as the Royals in the garden in the 1870s. It not only became the place where literally everyone could be seen but also where everyone wanted to be seen. Those who already were and those who still wished to be important would go to the garden to meet King Karl XV during his afternoon promenade.
Moreover, the place grew into a fashion hub where people would show off their best new styles and where it was unheard of to show up untidy. To a further delight of the citizens, the Karl XII’s square (Karl XII:s torg) with a statue of Karl XII was unveiled in the southern part of Kungsträdgården and the Molin’s Fountain was placed in the garden’s centre five years later.
The interest in the garden fell in the following century and many have tried to tackle this issue since. First proposals for a major reconstruction of The King’s Garden appeared in the 1930s but similar ones continued to show up well into the 1950s. Some of these ideas were rather bizarre and none of them has ever been realised. To give you an idea about what future various architects imagined for the place, these are a few of the proposals.
The one from the 1930s suggested turning the garden into a square by removing all trees and grass and allowing traffic to pass through instead. This would supposedly resemble the area around the Arc de Triomphe de l’Étoile in Paris which forms the middle of a large roundabout. Others advised demolishing the park completely and stretching the nearby bay all the way to Norrmalmstorg, building a lake with swans or some 40 singing fountains that would be usable as ice-skating rinks in winter. Even a proposal to build a heliport at Karl XII’s square (Karl XII:s torg) existed.
While none of the above plans has really been realised, Kungsträdgården still changes its face. In the present day, there are popular alleys formed by cherry trees on the northern side of the garden, little squares around both large statues and another one surrounding Molin’s Fountain as well as many benches, sidewalks, and kiosks beloved just as much by locals as by visitors. In winter, there is even an ice-skating rink around Karl XIII or as we now know him, ‘The Gardener.’
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Wästberg, Per, 1986. Kungsträdgården.