Gripsholm Castle is Sweden’s answer to Akershus in Norway. Built to protect the western approaches to Stockholm from the threat of Danish or Norwegian incursions, it enjoyed a relatively peaceful history, and even served as the residence of the Swedish monarchy for the better part of two centuries. Other than being torn down and replaced in the 1500s, Gripsholm Castle has weathered the centuries very well. Like Akershus in Norway, Gripsholm has become a national symbol of Sweden. It is one of Sweden’s most important and most visited historic sites outside of Stockholm.
The history of early Sweden closely mirrors that of Norway. The Swedes began consolidating as a large state towards the end of the age of the Vikings. Sweden spent most of the 14th and 15th centuries as part of the Kalmar Union, a coalition of Scandinavian states organized by Denmark to check the growing power of the Hanseatic League. However, towards the end of the 1300s, the Swedes had become disillusioned by Denmark’s growing power, and the two allies frequently quarreled, often militarily. In answer to the threat of Danish-Norse raids on its territory, Sweden constructed the Gripsholm Castle to protect the western approaches to Stockholm.
Unlike Akershus, Gripsholm Castle, which was located far from most enemies, was little troubled by the frequent wars that Sweden was involved in during ensuing centuries. In 1526, Gripsholm was torn down and a new, state-of-the-art castle was built in its place. The new structure was built primarily for military purposes, keeping in mind new gunpowder technology. But it was also now a royal castle, and after its completion became one of the official royal residences of the Swedish monarchy.
During the 17th century Sweden became one of the major powers of Europe and was frequently involved in the continent’s wars. However, thanks to its protected location north of the Baltic Sea and west of the Gulf of Bothnia, the Swedish homeland avoided the worst, if not all, of the ravages of war. It helped that Sweden was almost always on the winning side, especially during the Napoleanic Wars, when it reached the height of its power.
Gripsholm’s heyday came to an end in 1713 when the royal family moved back to Stockholm. Nevertheless, Gripsholm remained a royal possession, and except for a few decades in the 18th century when it was used as a prison, the castle was still maintained as an occasional out-of-town royal residence. The castle was substantially restored towards the end of the 19th century, although it was rarely used by the monarchy after this point.
Although it was largely built at one time, and despite the fact that many of its later additions were torn down, Gripsholm Castle appears like a hodgepodge of oddly joined buildings. The reddish-orange brick of the buildings and towers, along with the green copper domes, add to the strange and unique outer appearance of the castle. In fact, from many exterior angles, Gripsholm appears more like a cathedral than a fortress. There are extensive grounds around the castle, but unlike the highly planned and organized gardens popular throughout Europe at the time of its construction, Gripsholm’s landscaping focuses more on a natural setting, with low grassy hills and random patchworks of trees. The estate includes the Hjorthagen Nature Reserve, home to Gripsholm’s relatively friendly herd of royal deer.
The restoration of the late 1800s returned Gripsholm Castle to its renaissance splendour. This included considerable efforts in the restoration or replacement of much of the original furniture. As a result visitors to the castle may tour portions of the staterooms and the royal apartments and see them as they may have appeared centuries ago. Officially a royal castle, the Swedish monarchy rarely if ever makes use of Gripsholm. A large part of the fortress has been converted to use as a museum, and now houses an extensive exhibit of Swedish artwork and portraits.
Gripsholm Castle is located in Mariefred in central Sweden, approximately 25 miles west of Stockholm. The castle is open daily from mid-May to mid-September from 10:00am-4:00pm. Admission is SK60 for adults and SK30 for children (children under 7 are free). Web: www.kungaset.se (official site).
Most of Sweden’s greatest surviving castles and palaces are possessions of the Swedish monarchy. The Royal Palace in Stockholm is the official residence of the royal family, however Drottningholm Palace is their unofficial actual residence. Rosersburg Palace has one of the best preserved interiors in terms of furnishings and decorations and is considered to be one of the finest to visit. Sweden is also home to a number of other important fortresses, including Bohus Castle near the border of Norway and Kalmar Castle near the southern tip of Sweden.