In the previous post, I told you the story of Swedish nobility which has resided in the palace at the edge of Stockholm’s Old Town (Gamla Stan) near Riddarholmen islet since 1668. The place I want to introduce you today lies only a few dozen metres from the House of Nobility (Riddarhuset) and is visible from many parts of Sweden’s capital. The building I talk about is also one of the oldest in Stockholm and is known as the Riddarholm Church (Riddarholmskyrkan).
The Riddarholm Church is the only remaining medieval monastic church in Stockholm. It has not been a parish church since the turn of the 19th century and it remains a burial and memorial place where no regular masses are performed until this day. It is, however, open to the public during certain periods of the year.
All Swedish kings since Gustav II Adolf (reigned 1611-1632) until Gustav V (reigned 1907-1950) with the exception of Queen Christina are buried at this church. The tradition started several centuries before the reign of Gustav II Adolf, though. The first king to be buried here was Magnus Ladulås (Also known as Magnus III; reigned 1275-1290) who was then followed by several other kings during the Middle Ages.
The need for a burial dynastic church became apparent during the reign of Birger Jarl’s sons Valdemar and Magnus. Since the dynasty had bigger support in cities than in rural areas it was thought to be easiest to found a friary of one of the mendicant orders which lived in cities. At the time, these were Dominicans and Franciscans. The second wife of Birger Jarl, Mechtild – the stepmother of Valdemar and Magnus – was a daughter of a Franciscan which is partly why Franciscans were chosen over Dominicans to found the friary in Stockholm.
Furthermore, the relationship between the Crown and Franciscans was mutually beneficial and Franciscans were, therefore, allowed to form their friary in Stockholm which was established in 1270. The monastery was responsible for the operation of the church until the Reformation which took place under Gustav Vasa’s reign (1523-1560). (Read more about the origins of Stockholm.)
It is unclear when exactly the church was constructed. According to the available sources, we can be sure that the works started sometime between 1270 when the Franciscan monastery was founded and 1285 which is the year when King Magnus III wrote his testament which suggests that the church was then under construction. Even though today we can consider red-brick churches typical of Sweden that was not the case in the 13th century and this church made entirely of bricks was, therefore, considered very modern at the time.
The looks of the church have been changed several times over the centuries. First, it was enlarged in the mid-15th century. Later, the monastic buildings have been altered beyond recognition after the Reformation in 1527. Final major changes were not entirely voluntary. As it is usually the case with old buildings such as the Riddarholm Church, it caught fire in 1835 and it was burning for days. Eventually, the spire and the roof of the church had to be replaced. The new spire was made of cast iron, though, which was prone to corrosion. This meant it later had to be replaced once again.
The interior of the church hides many interesting artefacts. Right in front of the altar, there are tombs of two medieval kings, Magnus Ladulås and Karl Knutsson who was, interestingly, the king of Sweden three times. The modern kings are buried in multiple burial chapels in the church. Some of the kings rest in monumental sarcophagi such as the one of Karl XIV Johan which is made of pale red granite from Älvdalen, north-west from Stockholm. It took about eight years to complete this sarcophagus and it had to be delivered on sledges. This sarcophagus containing the remains of Karl XIV Johan can be found in the Bernadotte Chapel where, among others, King Oscar II, Queen Sofia or King Gustav V rest.
It is said that the royal funerals during the 17th and the 18th century were particularly theatrical. During these acts of state, the church used to be completely transformed with black hangings and temporary sculptures. The most usual theme in which the funerals were carried out was the immortality of the soul. The interior decorations were often designed by famous contemporary architects such as Nicodemus Tessin the Elder and the Younger which gives us an idea about the diversity of work craftsmen then faced.
Indeed not only royal funerals take place at Riddarholm Church. On the day of a Knight’s funeral, their coat of arms is hung in the church and the Seraphim Bell is tolled in their memory. The church also presents a large collection of achievements and coats of arms of Swedish aristocrats mostly from the 17th century.
A new private burial place for Swedish royals was established around 1920 in Haga Park (Hagaparken) where King Gustav VI Adolf (reigned 1950-1973) and Crown Princess Margareta are buried among others. This means the tradition of burying kings at Riddarholm Church ended after some 340 years during which only one exception to this rule occurred.
I hope you enjoyed this post about the Riddarholm Church despite it being closely related to mortality. Nevertheless, the church itself is a monumental building which you absolutely should not miss when you visit Stockholm and should know a bit about if you live in this beautiful city on the water.
In the next post, I am going to show you more places at and around Riddarholmen which is a place full of monumental historic buildings. Moreover, there are amazing views from the islet and it is also very nice to look at the islet from other islands around the city so I will show you some places from which you can view Riddarholmen in its full glory, too.
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Roelvink, Henrik, 2008. Riddarholmens kyrka och kloster.
Ljungström, Lars, 1999. Riddarholmskyrkan.