Today, we are going to go back in time and have a closer look at one of the most memorable events in the history of Sweden. The events described in this post happened almost five hundred years ago which means that many things worked differently at the time. However, I believe that many lessons which are applicable to today’s life and society can be learned from this story. I encourage you to not only read the entire post carefully but to try and reflect on the events and think about what made them possible in the first place.
The Background Story
In the beginning of the 16th century, Sweden was a part of the union with Denmark and Norway also called the Kalmar Union. This arrangement included essentially all of Scandinavia, Iceland, Greenland and a few other territories. For brevity purposes, I will stick to the details relevant to our story but you can easily find more information about the union if you are interested.
The union was not a particularly harmonious organisation, to say the least. It was ruled by the Danes with the capital in Roskilde and later in Copenhagen and most of the power was centralised there. The Swedes were not happy about the situation and during the 15th century expelled the Danish military forces from their territory (which then included today’s Finland). Throughout the rest of the century, the struggle for power between Sweden and Denmark dominated the union.
Sten Sture the Younger, the Regent of Sweden between 1512 and 1520, was also the leader of the sturepartiet which was an anti-union political party. After he was mortally wounded in a lost battle against King Christian II of Denmark in 1520, Christian obtained control over the entire Sweden except for Stockholm. When the Danish army reached Uppsala, the Swedish authorities agreed to surrender the country to King Christian II on condition that he would give a full amnesty to everyone for their past actions and that Sweden would be ruled in accordance with the Swedish laws and customs.
Sture’s widow, Christina Gyllenstierna who was now leading the sturepartiet, was still resisting, though, and kept protecting Stockholm. Christian II with the Danish fleet arrived near well-protected Stockholm in May 1520. After being unable to conquer the city for months and with the winter approaching, Christian decided to send a delegation led by Hemming Gadh with a proposal for a retreat to the city. Christian once again promised to give full amnesty to all who fought against him and previous Danish kings as well as against the church and clergy. Moreover, he accepted to respect the city privileges. Pretty much everyone agreed that the terms proposed by Christian were more than decent and that the deal was advantageous for Sweden. But was it not too good to be true?
Eventually, the city council and the mayor agreed to the terms and Christian was given the keys to the city on 7 September 1520. He only stayed in Stockholm for a week but even that was enough time for him to show what his promises were worth as he had one of his enemies hanged in Järntorget. After that, the king sailed back to Copenhagen where he stayed until his coronation in Sweden.
Christian Returns to Stockholm
A few weeks later Christian returned to Stockholm just in time for his coronation. On 1 November he had all those who mattered in Stockholm – councils, nobility, bishops, priests and even Christina Gyllenstierna – assembled at Brunkeberg in Norrmalm. The choice of the place was not a coincidence. In 1471 the Battle of Brunkeberg took place in which Sten Sture the Older defeated Christian I, the grandfather of Christian II. During this day, Christian once again repeated his promises of amnesty for all former enemies of the Danish kings.
Coronation, Celebrations and Their End
Christian was crowned King of Sweden on Sunday 4 November in Storkyrkan by Archbishop Gustav Trolle. The same day, celebrations started in the Tre Kronor palace which lasted three days. On Wednesday, 7 November, the gates of the palace were closed and the king’s guests were invited to the big hall where King Christian was waiting. That was when the Archbishop Gustav Trolle read his letter of complaint regarding the humiliations and persecutions he suffered from Sten Sture and his associates.
Things started to change rapidly when Christian stated that it was clear in his opinion that mundane amnesty could not be applied to those who offended the church and clergy. Remember what he promised earlier?
Christina Gyllenstierna pointed out to a document from 1517 in which Trolle was deposed as archbishop. However, Christian had a proof showing that several people were involved in a pact to depose the archbishop who had been fighting against Sture for years. Danish soldiers, who were present in the room, immediately took away all people mentioned as conspirators by King Christian and Gustav Trolle.
On Thursday, 8 November, a council of 14 prelates was formed in a hurry headed by Archbishop Trolle. It delivered death sentences in a fast pace which was obnoxious by all legal means, mundane or otherwise. Afterwards, Christian had the trumpets blow in the city and proclaimed that no one was allowed to leave their home. People who were not present at the celebrations and were sentenced by the council were taken from their homes or workplaces.
The death sentences were executed immediately starting with two anti-union bishops, Mattias and Vincent, who were beheaded in the Big Square (Stortorget). Next, two noblemen were executed followed by the Privy Council, Erik Johansson Vasa – Gustav Vasa’s father, three mayors and fourteen town councillors.
On Friday, 9 November, the killing continued as some were hanged on gallows, some beheaded and a few of Sture’s associates were stoned which was the most humiliating method normally reserved for the worst of criminals. Christian even took the houses of widows of the executed which caused further resentment among the population of the city.
Dead bodies were cut into pieces and loaded on trailers together with barrels containing heads that had been cut off. The loaded trailers were drug by horses on Saturday, 10 November, across the city through Västerlånggatan and Söderport to the bonfires that were lit on a mountain in Södermalm where Katarina Church (Katarina kyrka) is located today. The bonfires could be seen from the entire city and were meant to send a message to everyone who would want to fight against Christian.
As if that was not enough, there are more examples that illustrate Christian’s personality. He had the body of Sten Sture dug up from the grave and burned it on the top of the mountain together with other bodies. The same day, he organised a banquet celebrating the birth of his daughter. Later, even the services of Hemming Gadh who negotiated the keys to Stockholm for Christian were forgotten and he was beheaded. In the beginning of December, Christian left Stockholm and took the country road through Sweden on his way home to Copenhagen as that way he could eradicate Sture’s associates in the entire country. On his way he let a few monks drown in Nydala and had two innocent boys beheaded in Jönköping.
The Aftermath and What Happened Next
In total, 82 people were executed, many of them by mistake, between 7 and 9 November 1520 in Stortorget which should give you a pretty clear idea about why this event has such an important place in Swedish history. Despite (or because of) everything that happened that week in Stockholm, Christian lost the throne in 1523. Already in 1521, the Danish forces were ousted from Sweden thanks to the uprising prepared by Gustav Vasa in Dalarna. On 6 June 1523 Gustav Vasa was elected King Gustav I of Sweden and because of that June 6 became the National Day of Sweden in 1983.
As I suggested in the introduction, there is more to think about in this story than its grossness. Could the events be prevented? Perhaps if the authorities were more suspicious about the proposed deal which might have been too good to be true? Even though people are not executed in Stortorget anymore, a lot of aspects of this story are relevant today as well. That is why I, again, encourage you to think about the events described in this post carefully. Because history is here for us to learn from, not to be repeated.
As always, the next post is coming in a couple of days. I can tell you already today that we are going to learn how to estimate how old buildings are in central Stockholm and especially in the Old Town (Gamla Stan). To have some fun while waiting, you can check out our Instagram where we post new photos daily.
Tjernels, Staffan, 1951. Stockholmsliv hur vi bott, arbetat och roat oss under 100 år.
Glase, Béatrice, Glase, Gösta, 1988. Gamla Stan historia som lever.