Quick Facts

  • It is believed that first residents settled on Riddarholmen in the late 12th century
  • Traditionally, Birger Jarl is considered the founder of Stockholm
  • He founded the city to benefit from the sea trade between the Baltic Sea and Lake Mälaren
  • In the early days, the influence of German residents was strong

Here at Trevl, we talk a lot about individual places you can visit in Stockholm. We often look at their history since the stories behind these places and people who shaped them help us understand why they turned out to be the way they did and why they are considered prominent or valuable. In this post, I take you all the way to the foundation of the Swedish capital and explain when Stockholm was founded, by whom, and why it happened in the first place.

Panorama of Riddarholmen in Stockholm

Riddarholmen as seen from Stadshusparken.

When was Stockholm founded?

To the best of our knowledge, the first inhabitants came to the land belonging to modern Stockholm in the late 12th century. According to a legend, these were former inhabitants of the nearby town called Sigtuna, which exists as a small town north of Stockholm to this day but used to be the dominating trade place in the area during the 1100s. The legend says that Sigtuna was a common target of pirates who would raid the town leaving its residents with no supplies and often no roofs above their heads.

The people of Sigtuna are then said to have loaded all of their valuables on their improvised boats, which were essentially dugout logs, and set afloat on the waters of Lake Mälaren. They decided they would settle wherever the logs would strand, which turned out to be on present-day Riddarholmen – one of the islands forming the historic city centre of Stockholm. As the Swedish word ‘stock’ means ‘log’, this legend would also help to explain the name of the city but the theory shall be taken with caution as there are other possible explanations. However, no source presents a definitive answer to the question of the origins of the name, which therefore remains a mystery.

While this story may or may not be true, we can be certain that Stockholm existed in 1252 when it was first mentioned in a letter written by Birger Jarl who had come to Stockholm to build a stronghold on the border of the Baltic Sea and Lake Mälaren to benefit from sea trade. At this point, Stockholm started getting its urban character.

Brända tomten in Stokholm

Birger Jarl used his relationships with German officers and merchants to strengthen the position of the new town. He allowed these merchants to trade with Stockholm free of customs and permitted them to settle in the town under certain conditions if they wished to do so. New residents were required to use and obey Swedish laws and ‘in everything else be called Swedes.’

The population was growing as everyone whose father had been a naturalised Swede was considered a Swede, too. Soon, the City Council was founded to further develop the city in every way possible. Originally, only half of the members of the council were Swedes while the other half was formed by Germans. This is a clear proof of a strong German influence in the city at that time, which resulted partly from the fact that German officers helped Birger Jarl obtain power and partly from the wealth of the German merchants who settled in Stockholm.

Tyska skolgränd in Stockholm

Tyska skolgränd with the tower of the German Church in the background.

During a relatively short time period, between 1364 and 1389, the city of Stockholm became controlled by Germans who also made German the official language in the city. After this period, the German influence in Stockholm diminished somewhat but remained visible for centuries to come. Even today, you can observe the consequences of the strong German influence in Stockholm’s Old Town (Gamla stan).

The easiest way to notice German legacy in Gamla stan is by paying attention to names of places. On the island, you will find German Church (Tyska kyrkan), ‘German Well Square’ (Tyska brunnsplan), ‘German School Alley’ (Tyska skolgränd), and many others. Moreover, many important historical Swedish figures either had names of clearly German origins or names that were spelt following rules closer to modern German language than Swedish.

Who founded Stockholm?

I have already revealed that Birger Jarl was the person largely responsible for the foundation of Stockholm, but who was he and where did he come from? Birger Jarl is one of the most recognised historical figures in Stockholm together with the likes of Gustav Vasa and, perhaps, Axel Oxenstierna. He used to be the closest man of the king of Götaland until he became the ruler of both Götaland and Svealand in 1251.

The three lands of Sweden
The so-called ‘lands of Sweden’ are parts of modern Sweden that do not have any administrative function. This division had originated before Sweden became a united country. Götaland, Svealand, and Norrland are the three lands that are recognised today but historically you might encounter a fourth one Österland, which was essentially modern-day Finland.

Svealand, which consists of the ‘core’ of present-day Sweden including Stockholm, is the part that was originally considered Sweden. Hence, after annexing other parts, this land gave the name to the entire country. As Stockholm has been the residence of the ruling monarch ever since Birger Jarl, this also explains why Stockholm became the capital of Sweden.

He was responsible for the early fortification of Stockholm as well as the establishment of the long Swedish rule in Finland. The ‘first true king of Sweden’ is prominently commemorated in the Swedish capital even today. Birger Jarls’ street (Birger Jarlsgatan) is one of the longest and most prominent avenues in the city with luxurious boutiques and a few notable businesses residing there. There is also a gold-plated cenotaph of the former king under the tower at Stockholm City Hall.

What was Stockholm like in the early days?

During the 13th and 14th century, Stockholm consisted mostly of wooden houses built around courtyards. As fires were a common issue and the population increased, more and more houses were made of stone and the courtyards were shrinking. The oldest church in the city, Stockholm Cathedral (Storkyrkan), was first mentioned in 1279, a few years before the construction of Riddarholm Church began.

Already at that time, there were many regulations in place dictating how one could and could not build. It was, for example, forbidden to use neighbour’s walls, which is why all houses were separated and there had to be enough space for rain water to flow away, which resulted in roofs leaning toward streets. Buildings were commonly co-owned and rented just like they are today. However, the entire city of Stockholm laid between today’s Österlånggatan and Västerlånggatan. The two streets clearly encompass the most historical part of the city to this day so you can easily explore it for yourself.

The city was surrounded by two customs gates. One at Köpmantorget and the other one near Storkyrkobrinken where merchants were required to pay customs for their goods, which was the original reason behind Birger Jarl’s decision to found a city in the location.

Hopefully, after reading this article, you have a better idea about when and why Stockholm was founded and where you can still study its origins today. In the coming posts, we are going to explore more historical places in central Stockholm but I am also going to show you how you can enjoy the modern perks of the city. Until then, join our growing community of fellow travellers and explorers on Instagram or give us a thumb up on Facebook where we will keep you updated on the latest news from Trevl.

Östman, Anne, 2007. Gamla stan. En stad i staden.
Lindgren, Rune, 1992. Gamla stan Förr och nu.
Ahnlund, Nils, 1953. Stockholms historia förre Gustav Vasa.

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