In this post, we look at the functioning of Swedish nobility throughout the centuries. I tell you when and how it all started, how the things have changed – sometimes for better, sometimes for worse – what life of the typical nobleman was like and even what your chances are of becoming a member of Swedish nobility today.
The nobility has existed in Sweden in one way or another already in the Middle Ages. It was not before Erik XIV’s coronation in 1561, though, that the nobility was officially introduced and divided into two classes according to the continental tradition – Counts and Barons. Most importantly, the nobility became hereditary a few years later. For centuries to come, the noble status was hereditary for all family members.
In the late 16th century noble families started separating themselves from the peasants and used to build manors at good meadowlands outside villages. Smaller farmers were required to pay a fixed yearly rent for their properties to the nobles. The rent used to be paid in various currencies ranging from cereals, to meat, to cheese, to firewood, to money.
During this period the number of nobles was small. It is estimated that they formed between 0.1% and 0.3% of the total population of the country. Their lives did not differ that much from other classes’ either. The land they owned consumed most of their incomes and while they had a plenty of food on their tables it is unlikely they were able to afford many luxuries.
Swedish nobility received further privileges in the early 17th century when they were, among other things, given a monopoly on national offices which made it impossible for non-nobles to sit at important positions at the state level. Consequently, in 1626 the House of Knights (Riddarhuset), alternatively the House of Nobility, was established and the nobility was formally divided into three classes. The Class of Lords, the Class of Knights and the Class of Esquires.
The current head of the state was the only person able to ennoble new members. Therefore, it was entirely at their discretion to choose who would be ennobled. Having good relationships with the king never hurt. People with diverse backgrounds were being introduced to the House of Nobility including members of the army and the navy, merchants or figures from the national administration.
It was common for people to request the reigning monarch to be ennobled who then decided if their request was legitimate of not. Swedish nationality was not a requirement but potential foreign nobles had to nationalise before they were eligible for the introduction to the House. Today, it is unclear what this process of nationalisation involved.
Even after someone has been ennobled by the king they had to request an official introduction to the House of Nobility in order to become legitimate members. Significant financial expenses were connected to this process.
The 17th century is considered the most prosperous era of Sweden which is proved by a large number of monumental palaces built in the nation’s capital, Stockholm, during this period. Sweden’s involvement in the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) was one of the leading forces of the country’s increasing political and economic power. Consequently, the number of noble families increased between 1633 and 1654 from 239 to 767. The growth of Swedish nobility was so significant that it had to be limited about a century later in 1762 when it was decided that no new families would be ennobled until the total number of noble families in Sweden lowers to 800.
Good times for the nobles did not last too long, though. Thanks to their privileges, the nobles owned more and more land but were not required to pay taxes which meant a significant loss of revenue for the Crown within just a few decades. This combined with great military expenses meant that the state was forced to look for new sources of income which resulted in an unpopular decision.
In 1683 the Parliament introduced the so-called reduction which essentially meant that the king had the right to seize any properties that at some point in the past belonged to the Crown. The reduction resulted in many noblemen losing significant portions of their fortunes. (Read how the reduction affected Axel Wachtmeister then living in today’s Fersen Palace.)
From 17th century nobleman’s life
Count Magnus Gabriel De la Gardie was a Swedish nobleman who served at several important national offices over the year. His Stockholm residence was the Makalös Palace near Kungsträdgården which he later lost together with most of his fortune as he was one of the men most negatively affected by the reduction. His daily schedule was preserved in historic sources which describe it as rather busy.
Here is a look at the typical day of a Swedish nobleman at the end of the 17th century:
- 8:00 – breakfast in the daily chamber
- Time to “address public and private affairs”
- 30 minutes of exercise in the ball hall
- Prayer in the audience hall and a walk in the garden
- 11:00 – lunch
- 3 hours of studies and conversation
- 18:00 dinner
- New studies until 22:00
Early on during the Age of Liberty (1718-1772) Swedish nobility received further privileges. As it later turned out, this was the last time their privileges have been enhanced. The separation of the three classes of nobility was abolished which made all noblemen equal in the eyes of the law. Some argue that the nobility was, in fact, leading the country during the Age of Liberty thanks to the enhanced rights of the Parliament and limited power of the Crown.
King Gustav III who was crowned in 1772 was not satisfied with the situation, though. Therefore, he took the power to his hands, once again, while reducing the influence of the Parliament. This decision was likely one of those that eventually got him killed twenty years later.
The privileges of the nobility have been being reduced ever since. In 1789 they lost the monopoly on national offices and twenty years later it was decided that only the eldest male heir would be inheriting the noble status from then on.
Practically all the remaining political privileges of the nobility were abolished in 1866. Since then the House of Nobility continued its operations as an organisation recognised by the state but its members had virtually no benefits other than higher social status. The king’s right to ennoble people remained in validity but was rarely used.
The last introduced nobleman was Sven Hedin in 1902 ennobled by Oscar II. The mentioned right of the king expired in January 1975, though, which means no entity with the right to ennoble new members exists anymore. Also that you missed your chance.
The House of Nobility itself continues its existence as a private organisation with no ties to the government since 2003. The Riddarhuset Palace with coats of arms of all noble families on its walls is now also open to the public.
In the next post, I am going to tell you the story of one of the oldest buildings in Stockholm which is located near Riddarhuset Palace and is also closely related to the royals. Right now you can find a plenty of other beautiful places to see in Stockholm in Trevl for Android. Remember that we post new images on our Instagram every day so check that out, too.
Ellehag, Claes, Hamilton, Anna, Hammarshiöld, Hans, Åberg, Alf, 1999. Riddarhuset.