In 1629, Gustav II Adolph, otherwise known as the ‘Lion of the North’, instructed his Privy Council to prepare a burial crypt on the south side of the church which dominated the Riddarholmen (‘Knight’s Islet’). However, it was not until the king was mortally wounded when leading the Protestant forces during the Thirty Year’s War (1618-1648) to victory at the Battle of Lützen, on 16th November 1632, that construction of the Gustavian chapel began.
This chapel was completed by 1634 and, until 1950, nearly all succeeding monarchs, and many of the nobility, of Sweden have been buried in a proliferating number of burial chapels adorned with elaborate tombstones and heavy marble sarcophagi. Only Christina, Gustav II Adolph’s daughter, is not buried within the church. Instead, she can be found in the burial vaults of the Vatican after abdicating in 1654 and later, scandalously, converting to Catholicism.
Yet, although it was not until 1630s, following the commands of Gustav II Adolph, that the Riddarholmskyrkan (‘church on the knight’s islet’) became the official burial place of Sweden’s rulers, this house of prayer first became interwined with the ambitions and affections of Sweden’s kings many centuries beforehand.
The church itself, was founded in around 1270 as a Franciscan Friary and is the sole survivor of Stockholm’s monastic churches. The Franciscan Order, which can trace its origins to St Francis of Assisi (d. 1226), had rapidly spread across Europe, fuelled by the charisma of its founder, and reached Sweden in the 1220s (around the same time as England). As a mendicant movement, its adherents rejected wealth and sought to live a life of simplicity and poverty.
Surprisingly then, the church on the Riddarholmen is remarkably sophisticated being built in brick (highly unusual for Sweden) with elaborate gilded vaulting over the main body of the church. This first building was probably completed by around 1300 and consisted of a nave, chancel and north aisle. Other monastic buildings existed to the south including a cloister which provided access to a library, dormitory and refectory.
Yet, the extravagent nature of the first Riddarholmen church can be explained by the patronage of the community’s first significant benefactor, King Magnus Birgersson (also known as Magnus Ladulås). Magnus declared his intention to be buried there in 1285, as recorded in a document known as his Testament, and showered the community with gifts.
Growth and Consolidation
Later medieval monarchs were also buried here and their partronage made possible considerable improvements to the church buildings including, in around the middle of the fifteenth-century, the construction of a south aisle. This aisle, narrower than the north, had previously been the south cloister walk, the openings of which can still be seen as arches imbedded in the church walls.
Up until the late medieval period, the community was also a centre of intellectual life and it was within its walls that Sweden’s first printed book was produced in 1483.
Reformation and Missing Monarchs
However, in 1527, King Gustav Vasa began the Swedish Reformation, transforming the kingdom into the beginnings of a Lutheran state. In this new regime, there was no place for the Franciscans who left Riddarholmen. Had it not been for the concerns of Swedish kings to preserve the burial ground of their forebears, the Riddarholmskyrkan would have faced the same ignoble fate as Sweden’s other monastic institutions.
In 1574, Johan III, who expended great effort to save the church from demise, commissioned Lucas van der Werdt, a Dutch sculptor, to create splendid new tombs for Magnus Birgersson and Karl Knutsson, another medieval king buried at Riddarholmskyrkan. Both tombs can still be seen in the chancel and retain remnants of their original paint.
Nonetheless, Lucas van der Werdt relied on imagination rather than a portrait of both kings. Hence, the carved effigies that stare lifelessly towards the chancel ceiling today are more a reflection of sixteenth-century perceptions of what medieval kings were deemed to look like rather than accurate representations of either King Magnus or King Karl.
‘…the exact location of Magnus, among the bricks and stones of Riddarholmskyrkan, remains unknown’.
In 2011, researchers from Stockholm University had the rare opportunity to open the grave of King Magnus. Yet, within was found not the bones of a thirteenth-century monarch but rather the remains of a family from the fifteenth- or sixteenth-centuries. Accordingly, the exact location of Magnus, among the bricks and stones of Riddarholmskyrkan, remains unknown.
Goats, Monks and Knights
Although the church of Riddarholmen itself, under the protection of Swedish kings, remained unscathed, the Swedish Reformation transformed the islet on which it rests. Soon after the final bricks had been laid on the original Riddarholmskyrkan, an early Swedish source, known dramaticallly as the Erikskrönikan in Swedish, describes the island as a Kidaskär. This literally means ‘kid skerry’, denoting a place where goat herds graze.
But, through the Middle Ages, this name was replaced with the ‘Grey Brother’s Islet’, a reference to the grey habit of the Franciscans. This name succeeded Munckholmen, meaning ‘Monk’s Islet’. Indeed, it was not until the early seventeenth-century that the name Riddarholmen appeared.
This was a result of the shift of the island’s use from grounds of a friary to the playground of the aristocracy. During the early seventeenth-century, the painted facades and soaring towers of townhouses appeared on the skyline of Riddarholmen, competing with the older spire of Riddarholmskyrkan.
The most impressive of these townhouses, which still stands, is the Wrangel Palace, built for Count Carl Gustaf Wrangel (d. 1676), another hero of the Thirty Years War who also constructed numerous other castles and palaces across the lands of Sweden. However, the Wrangel family were not to be the only occupants of this gilded complex for, in 1697, the royal palace of Stockholm, the famous Castle of Three Crowns, burned down in a devestating fire. Consequently, Wrangel Palace, now known as the Kungshuset (King’s House), became the official residence of Swedish rulers.
Today, the islet of Riddarholmen is remarkably quiet in comparison to the rest of the Gamla Stan (Old Town) of Stockholm. In 1754, the current residence of Swedish monarchs was completed and the royal family moved out. Further, in 1807, the parish of Riddarholmskyrkan was dissolved and the church is now purely a burial site. Yet, after the death of Gustaf V in 1950, Swedish monarchs have preferred an alternative burial site at Haga.
But the story of Riddarholmskyrkan, Sweden’s Westminister Abbey, continues and across the waters of Lake Mälaren, which separate the islet from the rest of Stockholm, the towers and spires of the many burial chapels provide lasting testament to the past deeds and ambitions of Sweden’s royal and noble elite.
Find Out More
If you would like to know more, the website of the Royal Palaces contains some useful articles and videos on the history of Riddarholmskyrkan and more detail on its many royal tombs (https://www.kungligaslotten.se/english/royal-palaces-and-sites/the-riddarholmen-church.html)
*All pictures are my own*
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