The Swedish Bloodbath

Even for those who don’t watch Game of Thrones, some of the events in the show, such as the Red Wedding, have entered the general social discourse. People are often shocked at the brutality and cruelty exhibited in some of the show’s well-known scenes. No doubt that these same people would be astonished to find that some of fantasy series’ craziest scenes mirror similar true events in history. One such incident has come to be known as the Stockholm Bloodbath.

The on-again, off-again union of Sweden and Denmark serves as the backdrop for the bloody events that followed. It was the year 1518, the union was on, and many in Sweden were unhappy with Denmark’s control of their country. In anger, the pro-independence Swedish assembly voted to burn the fortress of Sweden’s pro-Danish archbishop, Gustav Tolle.

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They didn’t carry out this arson, but they did throw the archbishop in prison. In retaliation, the pope excommunicated the acting ruler of Sweden in 1520. This was all the excuse that King Kristian II of Denmark needed to invade.

After some early setbacks and near defeats, Kristian agreed to pardon those who had plotted against him, no hard feelings. Weary of fighting, the widow of Sweden’s erstwhile ruler had the keys of Stockholm handed over to Kristian.

On November 4th, 1520, Kristian was crowned in Stockholm by Gustavus Trolle, the much-put-upon archbishop who had earlier been imprisoned. After three days of celebrations, Kristian summoned a large group of Swedish leaders to his palace, ostensibly for a private banquet and conference.

It was at this point that things start to look like a Game of Thrones episode. On the evening of November 8th, as the Swedish nobles were gathered for the meeting, Danish soldiers entered the great hall of the palace and arrested several guests. Later that night, most of the others met the same fate.

The next day, a council under the leadership of Archbishop Trolle, sentenced the imprisoned Swedes to death as heretics. Apparently, it was heresy to have imprisoned the archbishop and opposed the Danish king. Over 60 Swedish nobles, bishops, mayors, and commoners were either beheaded or hanged that day. The bloodbath continued into the next day, and by the end at least 82 people had been executed. The wives of many of these men were also captured and taken as prisoners to Denmark.

If King Kristian thought this move would cement the union of Denmark and Sweden, he was sorely mistaken. It had the opposite effect. Gustav Vasa, a Swedish nobleman whose father had been executed in the bloodbath, was able to rally the people of Sweden for a rebellion that would cause Denmark and Sweden to become permanently separated from each other.

In an instance of true justice that sounds like it belongs in a TV drama, Kristian was even tossed out of Denmark and replaced by his uncle in 1523. He was offered the Norwegian throne, but this angered Denmark and the powerful Hanseatic League, a powerful trade and defensive league of many important merchant towns.

Finally, after an attempt to reclaim his throne, he was arrested and imprisoned in the castles of Sonderborg and Kalundborg for the rest of his life. He died at age 77 in Kalundborg Castle.

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