Blood of Independence, the Stockholm Bloodbath and the War of Liberation

“Cut!” Shouted someone from the crowd of people in the distance.

I turned my eye in the direction to find out what the commotion was about. A small group of East Asians stood outside the beautiful cafes of Stortorget. They weren’t regular tourists though, some people were holding on to bags, others with folded scripts in their hands.

I walked a little closer to listen to them speak, they were speaking in Cantonese so I reckon they are a TV show from either Hong Kong or Guangzhou. My tour group was curious and the children peered forward to take a look.

The actors were standing in front of the iconic colourful houses of the central square in Gamla Stan,

adjacent to the imposing Nobel Museum on one side, and cafes all around.

This is the Stortorget of Gamla Stan today, a must see on the tourist doorstop made famous in pictures of Stockholm and a favoured spot for the obligatory fika when in Sweden. Some guides go as far as to say you haven’t been to Stockholm if you haven’t seen Gamla Stan and to be fair, its should definitely be on your list.

But there is more to Gamla Stan and Stortorget that merely a photo opportunity, a much darker story hides underneath the cobbled stones and relaxed vibe hides a past that is haunts the city square annually.

But this story starts a few hundred years before that fateful events of 8 November 1520. The Germanic Hanseatic League based in Lubeck was strong and powerful and stretched throughout the Baltic Sea deep into Scandanavia and all the way to London.

Gdansk, a former major city in the Hanseatic League

The league was so strong that it was able to found cities and create guilds to protect its own people and was able to fund its own soldiers. It established important trading posts throughout Scandanavia (Bergen, Visby, Copenhagen) including in Stockholm.

To counter the influence of the traders from the league, the aristocracy in Scandanavia decided to form the Kalmar Union. Margaret of Denmark, married Haakon of Norway, Sweden and Scania and birthed a son Olof. Olof died young and another noblemen Erik was adopted. Erik later become the King of Norway and was then elected King of Denmark and Sweden respectively being coronated in Kalmar in 1397 and bringing all three countries under the same monarch in a Personal Union.

The German Church in Gamla Stan, a remnant from when the Hanseatic League was trading heavily in Stockholm and many Germanic traders were present in the city

The union was never one wanted by the people’s of the region but by the aristocrats, to add insult to injury, Denmark was to become the dominant force in the Union something the Swedes and Norwegians bristled at. While the first twomonarchs were accepted with little question (Margaret and Eric of Pomerania), things changed when the Danish deposed of Erik and crowned a new monarch Charles. Just because the Danes wanted someone new, did not mean that the Swedes and Norwegians agreed. To counter the power of the Danish, the Swedes and Norwegians would appoint their own regents in opposition to the one from Denmark.

There was a significant conflict between the pro-Unionist and the pro-Independence factions led by the Archbishop of Uppsala Gustavus Trolle and and Sten Sture the Younger respectively. Their problems were personal. Gustavus Trolle’s father Eric, was the elected regent of Sweden in 1512 after the death of Svante Sture. However Eric never took office as he was deposed by Svante’s son Sten Sture the Younger.

The old Sture household in Tureholm Palace in Trosa

The private dispute turned public and Sten Sture the Younger accused Archbishop Trolle of sealing a pact with the Danish King Christian II, which caused the bishop to be removed and placed in house arrest in his home. The accusation was probably not completely bogus as the Danish king Christian II led forces to attempt to lift the seige on Archbishop Trolle three times. He first attempted to do so in 1515 but failed. A second attempt was made but failed again in 1518 foiled again by Sten Sture the Younger. He returned to Denmark and raised an army with French, German and Scottish mercenaries to reattack Sweden and quell the ruling regents and take back power for himself in Sweden.

Christian launched his third attempt at taking back control of Sweden in 1520. This time he won, and Sten Sture the Younger was killed in the Battle of Bogesund leaving his army in tatters.

The Death of Sten Sture the Younger by Carl Gustaf Hellqvist (Source)

Christian II’s forces marched on to Uppsala and later to Stockholm, stubborn but resistant Sten Sture’s widow Kristina led a brave resistance in the walls surrounding what is today Gamla Stan. They held out for four months before the tide turned in her favour, Christian’s forces were running out of supplies and Autumn had arrived meaning the days were getting shorter and colder. Smelling victory, Kristina negotiated a ceasefire and peace with Christian with terms extremely favourable to her. Granting that, Christian was given the keys to Stockholm and he left for Denmark to return in winter for his coronation.

This was when things changed. Christian II was coronated by Gustavus Trolle in the Storkykan in Gamla Stan on 4th November 1520 and promised to the rule the Kingdom of Sweden through the appointment of native-born Swedes as his regents.

The Storkyrkan, the site of Christian II’s coronation

A feast was held over three days in the city and all the nobles from Sweden were invited to attend. Three days of merry making wore even the most intransigent and suspicious Swedish people down. The whole city of Stockholm was drunk on merry making.

Then on the end of the third day the nobles were called to a private conference at the former Tre Kronor Castle. While still happy and talking, armed Danish guard arrived and ceased a substantial number of noblemen. These were all people on Gustavus Trolle’s list of proscribed individuals who were part of Sten Sture the Younger’s pro-Indepence gang. 82 individuals most capable of standing up (including two other Catholic bishops) were sentenced to death for heresy and Kristina, who previously led the fierce resistance was taken as a hostage to Denmark. Sten Sture’s body, it is alleged, was dug up and burnt.

The 82 white tiles around the building in red (below) are thought to be the way to commemorate the victims of the massacre.

All 82 people were beheaded at the Stortorget by drunk executioners who reused their blades with every new head. The blood of 82 potential enemies was left to flow through the streets of Gamla Stan, the stench a visceral lesson to the Stockholmers against daring to rebel against Christian.

Imagine the stories each brick could tell

The blood that flowed from this street was however also the same blood that gave birth to a new country. While the majority of elites in Swedish society were exterminated by Christian, a wild stalk remained outside. Gustav Vasa, was a young nobleman and the son of one of the victims Erik Johansson Vasa. Angered by what he heard, he (the lone major noble left who had the clout to begin a rebellion) traveled to the province of Dalarna to rally the locals to fight against Christian II again.

A painting of Gustav Vasa addressing the Dalecarlians in Mora by Johan Gustav Sandberg (Source)

He had to however find a way to begin war. It was then a rule that Catholic kingdoms could not attack each other. It so happened that around that time, the Catholic world was facing a huge backlash from the northern Germanic countries due to  nailing of Luther’s 95 thesis. Some German princes had already taken the opportunity to throw off the shackles of Catholicism.

And Gustav Vasa did the same. He adopted the new protestant religion both in rebellion of the influence from Rome and also to allow him to attack the Danish.

Within three years, the soldiers of Gustav Vasa won back every major city in Sweden and marched in triumphant into Stockholm.

Gustav Vasa enters Stockholm by Carl Larsson (Source)

This time, Gustav Vasa’s Swedish soldiers won and he entered triumphant into Stockholm as the king who had slain the evil demon, he propagandised himself as the Knight George who saved the dame Stockholm from the paws of the evil dragon of Christian II.

Gustav Vasa continued on pushed further west, conquering Malmo and Helsingborg, both originally Danish cities. Malmo and Helsingborg were right at the doorstep of Copenhagen and Christian sued for peace. The treaty of Malmo was signed in 1524 and Denmark-Norway formally acknowledged Sweden as an independent state.

The blood of the 82 victims at Stortorget nourished the revitalisation of a rebellion and set Sweden on a path to independence, with Gustav Vasa the first King of Sweden. Those 82 souls are said to still be trapped in Stortorget and relive their horror every year on 9th and 10th November when the stone streets of Stortorget are said to turn red from the blood of the victims, adding to the horror stories that the old Gamla Stan is replete with.

This time however, one based on historical fact.



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