The Kingdom(s) of Sweden
Royal burial mounds at Gamla Uppsala, Sweden. Photograph by Ben Allport.
For most of the Viking Age, there was no single kingdom of ‘Sweden’: instead, there were a series of petty kingdoms, the most prominent of which were the kingdom of the Svear and the kingdom of the Gautar. The Svear were the inhabitants of eastern central Sweden comprising the modern regions of Uppland and Södermanland (an area historically referred to as Svealand), whereas the Gautar lived in southern Sweden, in Östergötland and Västergötland (collectively called Götaland, and often identified with 'Geatland', the homeland of Beowulf in the Old English poem of the same name).
Throughout early Swedish history, we are left with the impression that Swedish kings had a weaker position in society than those elsewhere in Scandinavia. There is some evidence in written sources to support this. It is implied that magnates wielded a lot of power and were sometimes able to overrule the king. The Life of Anskar describes the activities of the missionary Anskar, who travelled to Birka in Svealand in the mid-ninth century and experienced modest success in converting the local population to Christianity. According to the pattern of the Life, the Swedish kings with whom Anskar interacted were generally receptive to the idea of Christianity (or at least prepared to allow fate rule on the topic, as in the second mission when the Swedish king cast lots to determine if missionaries would be allowed in. It was amongst their nobles that Anskar encountered resistance. Nearly two centuries later, Svear king Olaf Skotkonung may even have been exiled from Svealand by his nobles, retreating to rule Götaland.
Nevertheless, we have to be careful about making comparisons with Norway or Denmark based on the nature of the evidence that is available. After all, there is plenty of evidence, particularly from Norway, that suggests that the power of kings could be limited. For example, Hakon the Good was unable to convert the people of Trøndelag to Christianity and had to yield to their threats of physical violence. Jarl Hákon, Olaf Tryggvason and Olaf Haraldsson were all brought down by their own subjects.
Because we know less about Sweden than about Norway, stories of weak kings unable to assert their will make up a larger proportion of what we do know and so have been allowed to define our perspective more. Furthermore, it took longer for Sweden to have a stable monarchy than Denmark or Norway, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that kings there were any weaker. This idea stems from a nationalistic view of history which views the formation of a stable kingdom as the natural endpoint to an evolutionary process. By this logic, if it took longer for the kingdom of Sweden to become established, its kings must have been ‘weaker’. Increasingly, scholarship is moving away from the tendency to define political processes by their end results (this is sometimes referred to as ‘teleology’) and most scholars are prepared to accept that the creation of a single Swedish kingdom was no more likely than, say the formation of separate kingdoms of the Svear and Gautar: the way things eventually turned out was circumstantial.
Early Viking Age Sweden
Almost all the information we have about the kings of ninth-century Sweden comes from the Life of Anskar and is pretty sparing in its details. At the time of Anskar’s first mission in 829 the king of the Svear was known as Bjorn. According to the Life, Bjorn had himself requested that the missionaries be sent to Birka. Anskar returned to Sweden in 852 and met King Olaf of the Svear. The Life of Anskar also refers to two kings in the interrim: Erik and Anund. Anund was driven from the kingdom shortly before Anskar’s visit and lived in exile among the Danes.
Late Viking Age Sweden
Following Anskar’s mission, there is a century in which we know next to nothing about events in Sweden. Things begin to come into focus again in the late tenth century. Even so, there only a handful of Swedish kings that we know anything about, all of whom reigned in the last century of the Viking Age.
Erik the Victorious
Adam of Bremen tells us that in the 970s, Uppsala was ruled by an individual named Erik the Victorious, whose brother Olaf ruled in Birka. Erik gained control of Birka after Olaf died, sending Olaf’s son Björn into exile. Both Adam and Thietmar of Merseburg report that Erik married a Polish princess, Swietoslava, in 983 or 984. This resulted in a political alliance that allowed the Svear and the Poles to jointly attack Sven Forkbeard. However, Erik may have later been killed in battle by Sven in 994 or 995, following which Sven married Swietoslava and Erik’s son Olaf Skotkonung succeeded to the throne.
Besides these events, Erik is known for being the likely founder of the royal town of Sigtuna, which superseded the nearby trading site of Birka. Sigtuna incorporated Christian cemeteries from the beginning and it is possible that Erik was a Christian, as Swietoslava is likely to have been and as Olaf Skotkonung definitely was.
Olaf Skotkonung is regarded as the first king to rule both the kingdom of the Svear and the kingdom of the Gautar, although it is not clear if he ruled both at the same time. Olaf’s nickname means ‘tribute king’ and it is thought that he ascended to the throne as a vassal of his new stepfather, Sven Forkbeard. Certainly he maintained close ties with Sven throughout the first part of his reign. In 999, he joined forces with Sven to defeat King Olaf Tryggvason at the Battle of Svolder. Following this, Olaf gained overlordship of parts of Norway. According to the sagas, Olaf had a rocky relationship with King Olaf Haraldsson of Norway after the latter returned to Scandinavia in 1015. Olaf Skotkonung had designs on ruling Norway, which nearly brought the two kingdoms into open conflict. Olaf promised his daughter Ingigerd in marriage to his Norwegian counterpart and then married her to Yaroslav of Kiev instead. In return, Olaf Haraldsson eloped with Olaf’s daughter Astrid.
An eleventh-century grave at Husaby in Sweden, alleged to be that of Olaf Skotkonung. Image sourced from Wikimedia Commons.
Olaf converted to Christianity, although it is unclear if this happened before his accession or at some point in his reign. In around 1019 Olaf seems to have been exiled from the Kingdom of Svealand, becoming king of Götaland instead. According to Adam of Bremen, the pagan nobles of Svealand resisted Olaf’s efforts to convert the kingdom, but the relocation is presented as the result of negotiation. Snorri, on the other hand, omits this religious justification and says that there was an uprising against Olaf’s oppressive rule. Either way, Olaf’s relocation to Götaland is implied by the foundation of Sweden’s first bishopric in that region, at Skara. Olaf was later able to regain control of Svealand as a co-ruler with his son Anund Jakob and may therefore have ruled both areas. He minted coinage at Sigtuna throughout his reign; early coins simply call him the king of Sigtuna, but later coins call him the king of the Swedes.
For more on Olaf Skotkonung, see his entry on the Norse King Case Studies page.
The circumstances which marked the beginning of Anund Jakob’s reign are somewhat uncertain. As the son of Olaf Skotkonung and Astrid, both of whom were Christian, Anund Jakob was raised as a Christian (and indeed according to Snorri was initially Christened solely as 'Jakob', a biblical name). As noted above, Olaf Skotkonung was at one point exiled from Svealand and according to Snorri was replaced there by Anund Jakob, with the Svear assembly moving to add the more Swedish-sounding Anund to his name. As Adam’s account has Olaf driven out of Svealand by his anti-Christian chieftains, it seems less likely that they would replace him with his Christian son. If Snorri’s account is to be believed, Olaf Skotkonung was able to negotiate a settlement with the Svear chieftains and was allowed to return on the condition that he co-ruled with Anund Jakob. Whether this was the case or not, Anund Jakob became sole ruler following Olaf Skotkonung’s death in around 1022. Whether his kingdom included Götaland is uncertain. During his early reign, at least, some parts of southern Sweden may have been controlled by the Danish King Knut, whom Anund Jakob fought against at the Battle of Holy River.
Anund Jakob was praised by Adam for overseeing the spread of Christianity in Sweden, although it would be a long time before the entire kingdom was converted. Anund Jakob was also known for his economic reforms, minting coinage in Sigtuna until the late stages of his reign.
A coin of Anund Jakob, bearing the inscription ANUND REX on the obverse. Image sourced from Wikimedia Commons.