A brief history of Sweden: A short guide that explains it all
There’s no doubt that Swedish culture is one of the coolest in the world—pun intended—and you don’t have to look far to realise why. But, what can we learn from the unique history of Sweden?
With achingly beautiful scenery, striking ancient artefacts, the quaint and unforgettable Stockholm, and the ‘Fika’ (loose translation: cuppa and a catchup) that they do so well, Sweden is a go-to destination for travellers seeking a dreamy Scandinavian experience.
But culture has to start somewhere. For Sweden, it’s a fascinating story that spans roughly 10,000 years. The history of Sweden is a cobblestone road that twists and turns with nomads that become settlers, farmers that become voyagers, and the breaking of ties to the old ways of Norse paganism.
And that’s just a snippet of the Swedish narrative.
Yep, you could read 100 books with all the many interesting facets that make up Swedish history. But we’ve broken it down to only the most pivotal moments that have relevance to the Swedish cities and culture we know and love today.
Let’s get started with our brief history of Sweden. Or, as they say in Swedish — låt oss börja:
Swedish history begins at the end of the Ice Age
To understand where it all began, you must take yourself back to the end of the last Ice Age. This is where the first budding signs of Swedish history and culture really started.
With the melting of the ice, nomadic Stone Age people slowly began to make their way across the land that is now known as Sweden (or Sverige in Swedish).
It’s believed that the migration mainly consisted of tribes from central Europe who settled in the south of Sweden, and the ancestors of the Sami people who came from Siberia, settling in the north.
Over time, the thousands of islands, lakes, forests and mountains of Sweden became their home.
As far as the history of Sweden goes, some of the best evidence from around this period are the carvings left behind. Etched into rock, the petroglyphs of Sweden are eerily beautiful and a drawcard for visitors trying to understand the ancient Swedish way of life.
Interestingly, many of the carvings depict boats — if only the artists of long ago could predict the way boats would change the lives of the people in the Viking Age to come.
If you want to see a bit of Swedish history in the making for yourself, you might enjoy a visit to Glösa or Tanum, where you can marvel at some pretty cool rock art.
Why rune-stones are everywhere and help tell the history of Sweden
When it comes to historical rock carvings, the Swedish petroglyphs are just the start.
If you’ve visited Sweden, you’ll know that the inscription of runic characters run wild across the countryside. The runic characters are a key part of Sweden’s past and culture, signifying the oldest known existing form of writing in Scandinavia.
Fun fact — according to Scandinavian legend, it was the Norse god Odin who discovered the runes.
The remains of runes cover a wide range of Swedish history, spanning from as far back as the Bronze Age all the way through to the 20th Century. It’s no wonder then that Sweden has more rune-stones (stones carved with runic inscriptions) than any of the other Scandinavian countries.
If you’re keen to see some for yourself, Uppland in East-Central Sweden, is a good starting point. It’s just north of Stockholm and is renowned for its many rune-stones. Probably because the area was central to the development of Sweden through the ages.
Despite their enduring existence throughout history, the runes are most often associated with the Vikings.
Vikings: The explorers and adventurers of Swedish history
You can’t reflect on Swedish history and culture without touching on one of the most famous aspects: the Viking Age.
This part of Sweden’s history roughly took place between the 9th and the 11th centuries and was an exciting time that led to a lot of change.
With Swedish land and resources running out, and the lure of foreign treasures and adventure, Swedish Vikings joined their Scandinavian peers in voyages abroad. They travelled in expertly crafted boats designed specifically for their exploration, allowing them to go further than ever before.
The Swedish Vikings raided and traded in many directions, but one of their famous ventures was when they sailed eastwards, making it as far as Kievan Rus (Russia). This moment in history would have a huge influence on the story and culture of this area.
Looking at the big picture, this era of Swedish history is obviously monumental in that the Vikings introduced Sweden to the rest of the world. They put them on the map, so to speak.
But digging even deeper, its place in the history books is made even more interesting by the shift in religion that took place as a result.
Swedish religion: The old Norse ways and Christianity
Ancient Swedish history reveals a pagan people that were heavily influenced by their belief in the Nordic gods and mythology.
They were superstitious, proud of their customs and loved a good religious ceremony or two, even practicing ritual sacrifice. While much of their belief system is still shrouded in mystery, evidence suggests that the Nordic gods were firmly entrenched in their culture, having been worshipped in Scandinavia for about 300 years before the Viking Age.
As Viking explorers began to settle in foreign lands, missionaries from these places began to arrive in Scandinavia ready to convert the population.
But despite their efforts, it was a slow process, taking hundreds of years. In fact, Sweden gave in to Christianity slower than the rest of Scandinavia.
Saint Ansgar first visited Sweden around 829 to preach Christianity, but it wasn’t until around 1004 when King Olof converted to Christianity that it was made the official religion.
By the time of King Erik Jedvarsson (the patron saint of Sweden) in 1160, paganism had well and truly been forced out in favour of Christianity.
Despite the fall of paganism, many people in current day Sweden are proud of their Norse pagan roots. The stories of Thor, Odin and the rest of the gods are still popular today.
If you’ve been lucky enough to visit in June, you’ll also know that Midsummer is one of the coolest and most popular festivals of the Swedish calendar. While Christianity tried to take credit for this day of celebration, it’s actually got pagan origins, so their love for rituals has never truly died out.
Where Sweden got its name
The two main tribes of original Sweden were the Swedes (Svear in Swedish) from Svealand and the Geats (Götar in Swedish) from Götaland.
Most scholars agree that their eventual unification under one king is a defining moment in Swedish history. The exact details of how this partnership came about are a bit sketchy and it depends who you ask, but it likely occurred somewhere around the 12th Century.
This new unified Sweden went from strength to strength, even eventually taking Finland under their rule — something that would last for over five centuries.
Before long, Stockholm was founded.
The charming Swedish city that we know today would go on to experience a flourishing time of growth, as well as plague, conflict and bloodshed.
A brief history of Sweden’s breathtaking capital city: Stockholm
A visit to Stockholm today will reveal a cosmopolitan city that is built on a series of islands.
The waterways have been uniquely melded into the everyday lives of the Swedes who live there, with a city connected by bridges, quaint little alleyways and bustling bike paths.
It’s renowned for its stunning architecture, and the way the traditional meets the modern.
But back in 1252 it was just a town, built by the Swedish ruler Birger Jarl. Although it didn’t officially become Sweden’s capital city until 1436, it was a thriving hub, especially with the trading partnership set up with German merchants who traded and settled in the city.
A notable time in Stockholm’s history were the years of the Kalmar Union, a period when the kingdoms of Sweden, Norway and Denmark united under one royal rule. As is the result in times of power, corruption and inequality, this was ultimately not a happy union for Sweden.
They were turbulent times and Stockholm saw much conflict and bloodshed, such as the mass execution of Swedish nobles, people and clergy by the Danish King Christian II. This would go down in history as the Stockholm Bloodbath.
After further fighting and rebellion from Sweden, the union was dissolved in 1523 and the reign of the Vasa kings began.
If you visit Stockholm and want to explore the original parts of the city, you’d best find your way to Gamla Stan (Old Town), which officially includes Stads Island, Helgeands Island and Riddar Island. Many buildings here are from the Middle Ages and it gives you a chance to take a walk through Swedish history, as everything has been so carefully preserved.
Another reason why Stockholm has been fortunate enough to retain much of its rich heritage could be the neutrality of Sweden during the World Wars, keeping it safe from warfare.
Swedish Empire: Back when they were a military superpower
While current-day Sweden is known for its harmonious approach to life, it was for a time feared for its status as a mighty military power.
Around the 17th Century, Sweden fought and won against Denmark, Poland and Russia.
Under King Gustavus Adolphus, the Swedish armies were trained and resourced for warfare in a way that rivalled the other kingdoms of the time. In fact, during the Thirty Years War, Swedish troops won many victories in battle.
With strategic leadership and unstoppable military power, they became a controlling force in the Baltic region and were even seen as an equal to the likes of the German Holy Roman Empire.
But this position of power only lasted so long.
The Great Northern War which took place from 1700 to 1721 saw Russia finally defeat Sweden and was a defining moment in the loss of their superpower status.
Sweden lost much territory, including Finland which it had ruled over for centuries. While they would later gain Norway, this was a short union and they broke off again in 1905.
Sweden’s role in the World Wars
While the armies of Sweden were once very busy, having spent centuries defending and conquering, the Sweden of modern history is admired for its peaceful nature.
In fact, Sweden has been at peace since 1814, choosing to remain neutral during World War I, World War II and the Cold War. Considering the pressure they faced from all sides during this chaotic time of history, this is a great achievement and shows their fortitude as a people.
This commitment to peace and harmony runs deep in the Swedes of today. They’ve been heavily involved in the peacekeeping initiatives of the United Nations. And in fact, Sweden is considered to be among one of the safest places in the world to visit.
Their harmonious approach to life is also evident in the everyday warmth, humbleness and friendliness of their people.
Swedish culture and identity run deep
Even though Sweden joined the European Union in 1995, they remain true to their heritage and stand proud in their unique Swedish identity.
This was obvious when in 2003 the Swedes voted against the adoption of the Euro, deciding to keep their traditional currency the Krona.
Their firm stance on remaining neutral during the World Wars is another example of their confidence in who they are as a people. Perhaps gained from the many years of cultural moulding and the constant outside pressures from neighbouring countries throughout Sweden’s history.
It’s no surprise then that Sweden has raised generations of accomplished thinkers, artists, musicians, designers, inventors and business people.
A celebration of Sweden’s thriving way of life
Over the last 150 years, Swedish people have shown a flair for ingenuity through various trades and industries. From the creativity of the arts to the imagination of science and entrepreneurship, there have been countless Swedes over many decades who have left their mark on the world.
Sweden has given the world IKEA, Spotify, Ericsson, H&M, Electrolux and Volvo. They’ve graced our screens and radios, with the likes of ABBA, José González, Greta Garbo and many more.
Individuals such as Alfred Noble have even changed the world with their inventions and knowledge.screens and radios, with the likes of ABBA, José González, Greta Garbo and many more.
Individuals such as Alfred Noble have even changed the world with their inventions and knowledge.
The Sweden we know and love today
Every history is a journey and what a trip it’s been during the history of Sweden.
Today they stand at about 10 million people, with a territory that spans 1,572 kilometres from north to south. Despite the urban development and population growth that’s taken place over the years, the Swedes are still a people very much tied to the natural wonders that make up the land.
63% of the country is still forest, they use 54% renewable energy and they boast 30 national parks. In fact, much of their tourism is built off the outdoor enthusiasts who flock to the country to experience their breathtaking coastlines, mountains, lakes and hiking trails.
They still have a monarchy, because some traditions run deep, and a parliamentary democracy, but more importantly they have a society that values one another. They’re a proud but humble nation that enjoy a rich cultural heritage that includes various groups including the Sami, Jews, Roma, Swedish Finns and Tornedalers.
The Swedes have earmarked a certain Scandinavian way of life that is celebrated for its balance. In fact, there is a Swedish word that sums it up perfectly: Lagom.
It’s a bit hard to define, but the philosophy behind this word roughly translates to ‘just right’ and you can see it in the Swedish culture of contentment in who they are and what they have. They don’t ask for too much, they don’t settle for too little. They believe in balance, harmony and sharing.
If the culmination of 10,000 years of Swedish history is lagom, that’s not a bad achievement at all.
Q & A — Facts about current-day Sweden
Find some quick answers to the most commonly asked questions about the history of Sweden and present-day Sweden:
Where is Sweden located?
Sweden sits on the Scandinavian Peninsula in Northern Europe. It shares a border with Finland and Norway, and has a bridge that connects it to Denmark.
How big is Sweden?
At 450,295 square kilometres, Sweden is the largest Scandinavian country. In fact, it’s one of the largest countries in Europe (by land size) which is why you can experience such different climates depending on whether you’re in the North or the South.
What is the capital of Sweden?
Stockholm is the capital of Sweden.
How many people live in Sweden?
Roughly 10 million. The vast majority live in the cities and urban areas.
What language is spoken in Sweden?
The official language of Sweden is Swedish (no surprise there) but interestingly it was only made official in 2009.
There are a few other important languages that are also recognised, which include Finnish, Sami, Romani, Yiddish and Meänkieli.
If you’re travelling there you might also notice that many people can speak English pretty well too — but it’s still best that you make an effort to learn some key phrases of the local language.
What is the main religion in Sweden?
The Church of Sweden is Evangelical Lutheran, with roughly 58 per cent of the population identifying as members. But despite the large following, the Church of Sweden has been separated from the state since 2000. So they technically don’t have an official religion.
Other popular and growing Swedish religions include the Free Churches, Islam, the Catholic Church, Judaism, and a number of Eastern Orthodox churches.
It’s worth noting however that Sweden isn’t a country that is majorly influenced by religion. In fact, research suggests that less than one in five Swedes are religious at all.
What is the Swedish currency?
The Swedish Krona.
What does the Swedish flag look like?
It’s got a blue background with a golden/yellow Scandinavian cross (also known as a Nordic cross). The Scandinavian cross is found on most of the flags of the region.
What is Sweden known for?
Historically it’s most commonly associated with the Vikings that lived and sailed in the area during the 9th to the 11th centuries. In modern day, Swedish culture is famous for a myriad of things, including its vast nature and wilderness, the charm and allure of Stockholm, a globally thriving music scene, huge brands like IKEA and Volvo, and so much more.
When was Sweden founded?
Sweden formed the Kalmar Union with Denmark and Norway in 1397 but broke off and elected their own Swedish king in 1523.
In fact, the Swedes celebrate their National Day on 6 June every year in honour of the crowning of King Gustav Vasa. It also marks the historic moment that Sweden adopted a new constitution in 1809.
Is it expensive to live in Sweden?
It really depends on what you’re comparing the cost of living to, but generally speaking, most tourists consider it relatively expensive.
If you’re working there, you’d also know that Swedes pay high taxes — but this is what helps fund their generous healthcare, education and welfare systems, so in return you get a high quality of life.
Stockholm, which is the largest of the Swedish cities, is obviously the most expensive place to live.
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