Monday, October 17, 2011

Riddarholmen--The Knights' Island

Just west of Gamla Stan is Riddarholmen, a small island whose name translates to The Knights’ Island.  This island is a little time capsule of Swedish history—many of the important events in Swedish history directly affected and shaped the built environment on this island.

King Magnus Ladulås founded a Franciscan Monastery on the island in 1270, granting the monastery the entire island and providing funds for the construction of a large church.  As far as history can tell, the only string attached to this considerable gift was Ladulås’ request to be buried in the church.  This request was significant for the history of Stockholm, because previous rulers had been buried in the city of Uppsala.  Uppsala had always been the favored and popular city; by requesting to be buried in the new town of Stockholm, Ladulås was effectively removing royal favor from Uppsala and bestowing it upon Stockholm instead. 

Nothing remains of the monastery except for the church (map 1).  In 1521, Gustav Vasa was crowned king of Sweden for his efforts of freeing Sweden from the yoke of Denmark and the Kalmar Union.  These wars plunged Gustav into debt, mostly to the Germans who had financed and even fought in the battles.  Meanwhile, Gustav was also bickering with Rome over the confirmation of the new archbishop of Sweden.  Gustav unsuccessfully requested a Swedish-leaning archbishop to replace the Danish-loyal archbishop that had been deposed during the wars with the Danes.  To gain control over the church in Sweden and to enable repayment of his loans, Gustav eventually seized control of church tithes and properties (then 21% of farmland in Sweden).  With these new resources, Gustav was able to repay his German debts. 

At first, the monks were allowed to stay in the Riddarholmen monastery, but eventually, as the king and country became more and more Lutheran, the king asked them to leave.  The monastery functioned as a hospital, then as a college.  Later in the 17th century, the crown gave land on Riddarholmen to favored families of the higher nobility who built Renaissance and Baroque palaces on the island.   
The Wrangleska Palace (map 3) was refinished several times.  On the left is an etching of it in the 1660's, on the left, its current state.
These palaces merged with the fortification wall and towers that Gustav had built around the island in the 1500’s.  Although it is now flanked by 17th century palaces, Birger Jarl Tower (2) is still a prominent landmark on the Stockholm skyline.
Left: 16th century tower incorporated into Wrangleska Palace.  Right: Birger Jarl Tower
If you look at a plan of the island, these palaces are seemingly haphazardly placed.  There is no overriding order or grid.  However, upon a closer inspection, it is apparent that most of the palaces feature interior courtyards that open toward the church and public square (4) around the church.  Additionally, each of the palaces are also angled to have views out over the water from at least one wing.

In the eighteenth century, Sweden swung from an enlightened parliamentary system to an absolute monarchy.  King Gustav III quarreled with the nobles and in 1772, led a coup d'état to seize power from the parliament.  In the process of breaking from the nobles, Gustav III seized the Riddarholmen palaces for use as state administration buildings.  Currently, these palaces still house Sweden’s supreme courts.

Through all of these changes, the Riddarholm Church remained the burial place for Sweden’s royal families.  The simple but large brick gothic church gradually mutated as each new royal family built an adjoining burial chapel in the latest architectural style.  Today, if you look at a plan of the church, you can hardly tell that it is a church at all because of all the chapel projections.  The spire was destroyed by lightning in 1835 and was rebuilt in cast iron—today, this lacy spire is a landmark visible throughout downtown Stockholm. 

The church’s congregation was dissolved in 1807, meaning that the church is no longer used for regular services but only for royal funerals.  Nearly every Swedish royal from King Magnus Ladulås in 1290 until King Gustaf V in 1950 is interred in the church.  One of the most scandalous exceptions is Queen Christina who converted to Catholicism, abdicated the throne, and fled to Rome in 1654.  Upon her death, she was buried in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.  The most recent royals are buried on a tiny island in Haga Park.

As you walk through Riddarholm Church, you are surrounded by dead royals.  You walk upon their gravestones which pave the church floor.  They are inserted into the gothic walls enclosing you.  They are stacked in medieval coffins in the crypt below you.  They are displayed in chapels flanking you.  Sweden doesn’t celebrate Halloween, but if it did, Riddarholm Church would be the place to go.     


  1. Thanks for a new post that is teaching me so much about Stockholm that I didn't know :-) I laughed when I read your library card set-up, work it girlfriend! Kram, Emma

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