Swedish history – from the Ice Age to the present day

Last updated: 20 8 2018

Image Boken om Sverige
This material is from the book About Sweden.

The prehistoric period

The prehistoric period was a very long time ago. Fifteen thousand years ago, the whole of Sweden was covered in ice. This period is called the ice age. Three thousand years later, the ice had disappeared from southern Sweden and plants, animals and people arrived. The people lived by hunting, fishing and gathering edible plants.

About 6,000 years ago, the people living in Sweden began learning how to farm plants and animals. They began using tools made of stone and wood. That's why this period is called the Stone Age.

About 3,500 years ago, the people in Sweden began making things from metal and bronze. This period is called the Bronze Age. People in Europe now began to buy and sell things.

About 2,500 years ago, the people in Sweden began making things from iron. This period is called the Iron Age.

The picture shows a boat built in the way boats were built during the Viking Age. Photos: Colourbox

The Viking Age

The period from the 9th century to the middle of the 11th century is called the Viking Age. The Vikings were skilled boat builders and skilled navigators. The waged war and traded with many other countries. The Vikings took power in many countries in northern Europe.

The Middle Ages

In Swedish history, the Middle Ages run from about 1000 CE to the end of the 1520s.

Before Christianity arrived in Sweden, people believed in many gods. The most well-known of these are Odin, Thor and Freyja. This is called Norse religion.

The arrival of Christianity in Sweden changed society. Sweden got its first Christian king, Olof Skötkonung, in around 1000 CE. A lot happened in the 13th century. Agriculture and trade became more organised. New cities were built. Sweden was divided up into provinces called landskap. Each province had its own laws. At first there were only oral laws that were not written down. The first written laws appeared in the 13th century.

The Swedish parliament, the Riksdag, which determines the country's laws, developed during the middle ages. The Riksdag was divided up into four parts, called "estates": the nobility, the clergy, the burghers and the peasantry. The nobility were a group of people who had inherited power and rights.

The clergy had gained a great deal of power over the population and owned 20 per cent of Sweden's best land. The burghers controlled trade and manufacturing in the cities. The wealthy farmers controlled life in the countryside. The peasants lived on the land where they grew crops and reared animals.

Historical buildings. Photo: Colourbox

Nordic union

In the latter stages of the Middle Ages, Denmark, Norway and Sweden fought over who would have power in the Nordic countries. In 1397, the Nordic countries signed an agreement that is usually called the Kalmar Union. The Kalmar Union joined all three into one country.

Period as a great power

Significant events took place around the world in the 16th century. Columbus travelled to America. Gutenberg invented the printing press. The Pope, who leads the Catholic Church from Rome, lost control of a large part of his church.

Many people in Sweden were unhappy with how the Union was governed by the Danish king. The Stockholm Bloodbath, when the Danish king beheaded 100 nobles in Stockholm, is a famous incident from this period. This incident led to a Swedish rebellion. Gustav Vasa assembles a Swedish army and took power from the Danish king. He then became King of Sweden on 6 June 1523. There was peace in Sweden and the king successfully unified the country. Sweden's national day is therefore 6 June.

The church was changed while Gustav Vasa was king. The German priest Martin Luther had a major influence on the Swedish Church. Martin Luther has many new ideas about how the church should be. The Swedish Church, having been Catholic, now became protestant. The Church was forced to give up land and had to pay taxes to the increasingly powerful state. At the same time, the Riksdag also gained more power.

From the middle of the 16th century until the beginning of the 18th century, Sweden was involved in many wars in the Baltic region. The Baltic Sea provided important trade routes, and the wars were about control of the Baltic. Sweden also became involved in a religious war that lasted thirty years, from 1618 to 1648. Sweden warred with Denmark, Russia, Poland and Germany, and took control of large parts of the Baltic. In the middle of the 17th century, Sweden also occupied parts of northern Germany and Poland, thus becoming one of the major powers in Europe.

As well as Sweden itself as it is today, Finland, Estonia, Latvia and parts of Russia and Germany also belonged to Sweden. Sweden's King Charles XII was later forced to give up the land outside of what is now Sweden as he lost several wars. In 1721, Sweden was at peace again and the country's period as a great power over the Baltic had come to an end.

The big castle kitchen at Läckö Castle. The kitchen is from the 17th century. Photo: Lennart Haglund

The Age of Liberty, the Enlightenment and revolutions

The end of Sweden's period as a great power and the death of the king ushered in a new form of government. Power was distributed in society and this became the start of a period of greater liberty, which is why it is called the Age of Liberty. Ultimate power was exercised by the Riksdag's four estates: the nobility, the clergy, the burghers and the peasantry. Each estate has a vote on issues concerning new laws and taxes. The new Swedish Riksdag was not democratically elected, but for its day, it had a unique breadth.

In the Age of Liberty, Sweden focused on improving the country's economy by investing in scientific research. By learning about natural resources, Sweden would become self-sufficient and would not have to import. Consequently, a scientific academy was started in 1740.

The 18th century was also the beginning of a period known as the Enlightenment. The economies of many countries in Europe improved at this time. There were many significant changes in Europe in the 18th century, including the population becoming increasingly literate and questioning the power of the church and the nobility in society. Economic and social improvement, combined with the ideas of the Enlightenment, contributed to reforms and revolutions sweeping the old order in Europe and America. The most well-known revolution in this period was the French Revolution in 1789.

In 1771, Gustav III became King of Sweden. When different political parties began fighting against each other, he carried out a coup in 1772. He tried to take more power so that he could govern the country himself. That was the end of the Age of Liberty. This was heavily criticised and Gustav III was shot dead at a masked ball in 1792.

Sweden in the 19th century

Gustav IV Adolf was King of Sweden between 1796 and 1809. During his reign, Sweden was at war with Russia. Gustav IV Adolf lost the war and Sweden was forced to surrender Finland to Russia. There has been peace in Sweden since 1815. Dissatisfaction with Gustav IV Adolf's rule and his unsuccessful military policy led to him being forced to abdicate in favour of his uncle Charles XIII. At the same time, the Riksdag drew up a constitution comprised of four fundamental laws, including an instrument of government that reduced the power of the king. The four fundamental laws of 1809 were:

  • The Instrument of Government with rules on how the Swedish State is to be organised.
  • The Act of Succession, which dictates how the throne is inherited.
  • The Freedom of the Press Act, which protects freedom of expression in printed form.
  • The Riksdag Act, which determined that the Riksdag would contain the four estates the nobility, the clergy, the burghers and the peasantry.

Charles XIII had no children who could inherit the throne. The king, therefore adopted the Frenchman Jean Baptiste Bernadotte so that he would become the King of Sweden. Jean Baptiste Bernadotte formed a union between Sweden and Norway that lasted for almost 100 years. The Riksdag's four estates (nobility, clergy, burghers and peasants) were abolished in 1865. The Riksdag was instead divided into two departments, called chambers.

The population of Sweden grew over the course of the 19th century. At the beginning of the century, the country was home to 2.4 million people and in 1900 there were 5.1 million people living in Sweden. This increase led to many being forced to look for work away from where they lived. Many moved from the countryside to the cities and many emigrated to America. Between 1865 and 1914, almost one million Swedish people moved to America.

Falun Copper Mine, a World Heritage Site. Photo: Colourbox


The industrial revolution arrived in the Nordic countries later than in many other European countries. By the middle of the 19th century, the majority of Swedes lived on the land. Sweden began building railways in the 1860s. Thanks to the railways, Sweden was able to sell wood and iron to other countries. Major industries were built up and work became faster thanks to the new machines.