This week, 501 years ago, between November 7 and 10, 1520, about one hundred people were executed in the town square in Stockholm, Sweden, in what became known as the Stockholm Bloodbath.
A few days earlier, on November 4, 1520, King Christian II of Denmark, was crowned king of Sweden in Stockholm Cathedral. He was the last king to head the Kalmar Union, which united modern Denmark, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, and Finland into one realm.
In keeping with tradition, the incoming king had granted amnesty to all his adversaries for fighting against him during the preceding war, and the party held in the king’s honor was reportedly a merry festival. However, after celebrating for three days, on the fourth day, Archbishop Gustav Trolle presented the King with an accusation which alleged that several of the pardoned nobles were kättare (heretics). This is important as the crime of kättare superseded the pardon they had all received earlier in the week. The law identified that kättare was one of the most heinous crimes and punishable by death.
The allegations mainly centered around the demolition of Trolle’s home (fort) Almare-Stäket in 1518. Because Trolle was archbishop at the time of the demolition, the act was considered a crime against the Catholic church. Reportedly, the king’s guests at the festival were locked into the Swedish castle as the church representatives, including Trolle and the Danish bishop Jens Andersen Beldenak, held their inquisitory trial, finding that the accused were “obviously guilty.”
The list of perpetrators was long, and reportedly even the late state councillor Sten Sture, the Younger, the leader who had died fighting against Christian II, was removed from his grave to be burned with the other “heretics.” His widow, Kristina Gyllenstierna, was also sentenced to death but was pardoned and sent to Denmark where she lived in captivity until 1524 when she was free to return to Sweden.
Two bishops, Mattias of Strängnäs and Vincent of Skara, were the first to be killed on November 8, 1520. The total number of clergy and nobility members reportedly executed varies in different accounts, but historians agree that between 60 and 120 people were killed during the three-day event. According to one report by the chief executioner Jürgen Homut, 82 people were executed. As later retold by Olaus Magnus, the bodies were left in the town square until November 10, 1520, when they were removed and burned nearby. People convicted as kättare could not be buried in church cemeteries, which was considered holy ground.
Following the mass killing, Christian II became known among Swedes as Kistian Tyrann (Christian the Tyrant), which rhymes in Swedish. Swedish history books until recently stated that he was also known as Christian den gode (Christian the Good) among Danes for his social reforms in Denmark. However, although his reforms were welcomed in Denmark, no proof has been presented that he was ever actually nicknamed “the good one.” A derogatory poem featuring Christian the Tyrant was also used in Swedish schools to assist students with memorizing the order of the rulers, starting with Trolle, followed by Kristian Tyrann, and ending with Gustav Vasa.
The mass killing of political opponents by Christian II marked the beginning of the end of the Kalmar Union, and sparked the start of the freedom wars led by Gustav Vasa, who unified Sweden on June 6, 1523. Gustav Vasa was also the king who initiated the reformation in Sweden. The crime of heresy remained on the books however, and was used against persons performing witchcraft.
The story of the Stockholm Bloodbath marks one of the most important events in Swedish history and continues to fascinate the Swedes. In 2018, the National Library bought a copy of the Gesta Danorum that included handwritten notes about the bloodbath penned by Olaus Magnus, an eyewitness to the massacre. He later summarized his account of the events in Historia om de nordiska folken (History of the Nordic People). The events were also described by Olaus Petri in En swensk Cröenika, which is available electronically on the website of the National Library of Sweden.
The Library of Congress holds several works describing the Stockholm Bloodbath, including:
- Niels Skyum-Nielsen, Blodbadet i Stockholm og dets juridiske maskering (1964)
- Poul Enemark, Fra Kalmarbrev til Stockholms blodbad : den nordiske trestatsunions epoke 1397-1521 (1979)
- Gert Nordström, Stockholms blodbad : ett drama från 1520 i bild och text (1979)
- Ulf Sundberg, Stockholms blodbad (2005)
- Janus Møller Jensen, Magt, menneske og myte : Christian 2. og kætterprocesserne i Stockholm, (2016)
- David Lindén, Stockholms blodbad (2020)
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