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Harald Gustafsson

A STATE THAT FAILED?

On the Union of Kalmar, Especially its Dissolution

This paper gives an overview of the history and historiography of the union between
Denmark, Norway, and Sweden in the late middle ages, the Union of Kalmar, trying to
overcome the national bias of previous research. When seen in a state formation
perspective, the union must be regarded as a serious candidate for statehood. Focusing on
its last decades, it is shown that it was an important mental structure in Scandinavian
political culture much longer than has hitherto been assumed.Its dissolution was not
inevitable and it left a considerable legacy to coming state formation in Northern Europe.

One of the major trends of early modern European history is state formation. But
which were the states? It is difficult to say how many states there where in Europe in
the year 1500, but with an open definition including all territories, lordships and
towns that had some form of control of its ‘foreign policy’ (in itself a doubtful term at
that age), there were slightly above 500 such statelike organizations. After the
Congress of Vienna, in 1815, there were 57 European states.1
This shows that the history of state formation is one of elimination and
delimitation. Almost 90% of the political actors on the European scene of the year
1500 had been eliminated 315 years later, and the survivors can be counted with some
precision. In the year 1500, it is very much a question of definition what should be
regarded as a state, and in many parts of Europe, it is impossible to draw exact state
borders. Free cities and city leagues, noble fiefs and manors with immunities, shared
sovereignty and conflicting dynastic claims make the map messy. After the French
Revolution and the Napoleonic wars, there is a much smaller margin of uncertainty
and the number 57 could be adjusted only with a few up or down. There are a few
cases where one could discuss whether it was one or two states, like Britain and
Hanover or Norway and Sweden, a few others where the sovereignty can be in
question, like Andorra and Montenegro, but they were exceptions. The sovereign,
territorial state had triumphed and was about to develop into the national state, where
not only political but also cultural homogeneity was desired.
One of the state candidates of the year 1500 was the Union of Kalmar. This is the
name posterity has given to the dynastic union of the three Scandinavian crowns,
Denmark, Norway, and Sweden, established in the late 14th century and dissolved in
the early 16th century. Viewed with the hindsight of the historian of state formation,

Scandinavian Journal of History Vol. 31, No. 3/4. September 2006, pp. 205–220
ISSN 0346-8755 print/ISSN 1502-7716 online ß 2006 Taylor & Francis
http://www.tandf.co.uk/journals DOI: 10.1080/03468750600930720
206 SCANDINAVIAN JOURNAL OF HISTORY

it can with some right be described as a state that failed, and historians have usually
told its story in terms of a good intention that soon proved to be impossible to carry
out. Its history, from 1434 or at least from 1448 and onwards, has been written from
the perspective of its dissolution many years later, and that dissolution has been
described as a logical outcome and a fairly clear-cut divorce where the parts that went
into it also came out. This is to do the Union an injustice. Only with a teleological
perspective, where our present national state seems to be the logical outcome of
history, a political structure that existed for at least 130 years can be dismissed as a
failure. It did exist as a state alternative for a considerable amount of time, and its
dissolution was a complicated process, not resulting in a return to pre-union
conditions.
Due to the dominating national perspective, there is really no historiography of
the Union of Kalmar as such. Much has been written on different aspects of the union
period, but as a rule from the perspective of one of the three national states that has
developed out of the medieval Scandinavian kingdoms.2 There is to my knowledge
only one modern work that tries to give an overview of the union period drawing on
research and perspectives from all the three national traditions, and that is Poul
Enemark’s short account from 1979, which is a valuable handbook of the political
history and historiography on the Union.3
According to Enemark, more scandinavianist approaches in the 19th century gave
way to national interpretations, where ‘the most chauvinist excesses’ slowly
disappeared, until the national perspective was overturned by Erik Lönnroth in 1934.4
Lönnroth’s work was epochal and may have overturned overt nationalist
interpretations, at least in scholarly works, but in a more indirect sense, national
perspectives have prevailed – indeed, Lönnroth’s thesis itself had the typical title
‘Sweden and the Union of Kalmar’.5 An important exception is the study of the Danish
historian Aksel E. Christensen, which not only sees the union in a Scandinavian
perspective but also deals extensively with the Norwegian-Swedish union of the 14th
century.6
The most recent work devoted solely to the union, by Lars-Olof Larsson, is in
reality a history of Sweden during the union period, although it in a commendable
way puts Swedish history in a wider perspective.7 The union of course also features in
overviews of national history of the type that are still produced in Denmark and
Norway, but not in Sweden any more.8 Of great value is Esben Albrectsen’s
treatment of the union in the first volume of the history of Denmark-Norway, where
he not only manages to view development both from Danish and Norwegian
perspective and include much on Sweden, but also brings the duchies of Schleswig and
Holstein into the picture.9 Despite those works, it is still a valid observation that the
Union as such rarely have been put in focus, and never in a state formation
perspective.

Establishment of a strong union monarchy


The Union came into being as a conglomerate typical of its time. It was the period when
dynastic combinations created new areas of supreme lordship on the map of Europe,
such as Poland-Lithuania, Burgundy, Castile-Aragon or the Norwegian-Swedish union
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of the 14th century. The drive of a princely family to keep its position and enlarge its
domains was a major force in politics, and an important means was marriage policy.
In 1363, Margrethe (Margareta), the daughter of King Valdemar of Denmark, was
married to King Håkon VI of Norway, son of Magnus Eriksson of Sweden and
Norway. Life could be hard for young girls used as political instruments, but this girl
soon showed herself well able to play the political game.
At her father’s death in 1375, she managed to get her son Olaf (Oluf) accepted as
king in Denmark and herself as regent. In contrast to Denmark, Norway was a
hereditary monarchy, and at the death of his father, the young Olaf in 1380 also
became King of Norway. The boy died, however, in 1387, as the last direct male heir
of the old Scandinavian dynasties. This was a major crisis for the dynasty, but
Margrethe managed to become declared regent of both Norway and Denmark. In
1389, she could add Sweden to her realms after a Swedish rebellion against king
Albrecht. The Union was a fact, although it was not formalized until the coronation in
Kalmar in 1397 of Margrethe’s young relative Erik (former Bugislav of the
Pomeranian princely house) as king of the three kingdoms; it is from this meeting that
it derives its name.
The Swedish 19th century historian E. G. Geijer said about the Union of Kalmar
that it was ‘an accident that looked like a thought’.10 There have been diverging
opinions on the matter as to whether there really was any grand political design
behind the union or if it only was the unintended consequence of political actions and
dynastic ambitions. Erik Lönnroth advanced the idea that it was intended to gather the
resources of Scandinavia in defence against German interests, especially the Hanse.11
Later historians has been more inclined to point at the dynastic ambitions of
Margrethe but also the interests of the high nobility, that had become intermarried
over the borders of the kingdoms and were about to develop into a ‘union
aristocracy’.12
We will never be able to find out exactly what intentions guided the political
elites of the three kingdoms, but it is worth remembering that although they had other
options, they made choices that led to a personal union. The Danes chose Olaf well
knowing that this would bring the Norwegian royal house to the Danish throne, and
the Norwegians accepted Margrethe after the death of Olaf although there did exist a
Norwegian noble family that with some right could claim to be heirs to the throne;13
the Swedish rebel leaders deliberately turned to Margrethe, then already recognized
as reigning queen in Norway and Denmark. It seems thus likely that the leading circles
have seen some advantage in the prospect of a union.
The interest in the question of why the union was established has, however, been
limited compared to the tremendous energy that historians have devoted to two single
documents, the only documents surviving from the coronation meeting in Kalmar.
The question has been if there is a difference in constitutional outlook in the official
letter of coronation, which is a stately, properly sealed text on parchment, and the so-
called letter of union, that only survives in an improperly sealed version on paper.
According to Lönnroth, the coronation letter expressed a political programme of
regimen regale, a monarchical view of how a state should be run that was the position of
the queen, while the union letter expressed regimen politicum, a monarchy limited by
the ancient rights of every realm guarded by the council of each realm, which was
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advanced by the councillors. According to this interpretation, the queen won and the
union letter never became a legal document.14
It is doubtful if the two single documents can bear the burden of this thesis, but
Lönnroth’s general idea of the two constitutional principles has been widely accepted
as a framework for understanding the political strives within the Union during the rest
of its history. What is quite clear is that the monarchic principle triumphed for the
rest of Margrethe’s reign – she died in 1412 – and for a long period under Erik as
well. This has been called the period of union absolutism.

The heydays of the councils


The Engelbrekt rising of 1434 is often seen as the beginning of the end of the Union.15
The direct reason of the revolt in Sweden was discontent with the consequences of
King Erik’s ambitious foreign policy: high taxes on the peasantry and constraints on
the iron export. But this supposed ‘foreign policy’ actually dealt with what from the
point of view of the union monarchs was a cornerstone of their power: the duchy of
Schleswig (Slesvig, Sønderjylland) and the county of Holstein (Holsten). The
originally Danish fief of Schleswig came in 1386 in hereditary possession of the house
of the counts of Holstein. For both Margrethe and Erik, the struggle to keep an
effective overlordship of Schleswig was a major political goal, pursued sometimes by
negotiations, sometimes by war. Into this conflict was also mixed the economic
interests of the dominating town of the Baltic Hanse, Lübeck, which often came in
conflict with the union monarchs, while it was a major interest of the iron-exporting
peasantry of central Sweden and the trading town of Stockholm to keep good relations
with Lübeck. Into the Swedish rising was also mixed the dissatisfaction of the Swedish
nobility with Erik’s policy of placing his own loyal men, rather then Swedish nobles,
as castle commanders.
The rising ultimately led to the disposal of Erik in all the three realms around
1440. The Union was re-established under king Christoffer in 1442, but now as a
pure personal union were each council ruled its kingdom in accordance with the
regimen politicum ideal. At Christoffer’s unexpected death in 1448, the Union,
according to the traditional narrative, broke down and never recovered. The Swedes
elected the Swedish nobleman Karl Knutsson king, while the Danes and Norwegians
kept together under the spire of King Christian I. Denmark and Norway came even
closer together with the Bergen agreement of 1450, stating an eternal union between
the two equal and independent kingdoms governed by regimen politicum principles.
The double election started a period of conflicts and wars within the Union that
was to last for the rest of its existence. In older national historiography, these wars
were seen as wars between Denmark and Sweden, while it is now general agreement
that they rather are to be interpreted as internal wars between conflicting elements
within the Swedish elite, sometimes using the (Denmark-based) Union king as an
additional resource. For some turbulent years, Karl and Christian reigned in
intermittent periods in Sweden; Karl is still holding the Swedish record of returning
kingship with three periods (1448–1457, 1464, and 1467–1470). For most of the
period 1470–1520, Sweden was ruled by the council and a regent. The regents, of the
noble families of Sture and Natt och Dag but collectively known as the Stures, were
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sometimes opposed to both the council and the union king; King Hans was, however,
acknowledged as king in 1497–1501 and his son Christian recognized as his future
successor.
There are some important tendencies in the seemingly anarchic politics of the late
union years. The dualism between crown and council strengthened in the long run the
idea of abstract statehood in all the three realms. In Sweden, the council of the realm
upheld statehood during the interregna, and constructed for instance a new seal,
showing the Swedish patron Saint Erik instead of the seal of the king; late medieval
Sweden has been characterized as an aristocratic republic.16 In Denmark and Norway,
this development partly took place in each kingdom, with the increasing importance
of the council, but also on a union level. A new agreement in Halmstad in 1483, as
Hans ascended to the throne, confirmed the close relations between the two
kingdoms. As King Hans advanced his positions, there were signs of growing unrest
among the Norwegian peasantry and some noblemen in the 1490s, and some
Norwegians started a rising together with the Swedes in 1501. But this was practically
the only violent confrontation between Norwegians and the union king and in the long
run, it strengthened the king’s authority in Norway. In Schleswig and Holstein, the
union monarchs were successful and could in 1460 be recognized as rulers in both
provinces, which from now on should be ‘eternally united’ to each other. Holstein
was in 1474 elevated to the position of a duchy and the provinces are usually referred
to as ‘the Duchies’ in Danish historiography.
In the later years of the Union, the struggles took on a new character. Poul
Enemark has accepted Lönnroth’s thesis about the two political programmes for the
period up to 1448, but remarks that for the later period, constitutionalism or not does
not seem to be a dividing line between the fractions fighting for power, and that the
Sture regents often persuaded a more monarchical policy than their royal
adversaries.17 Larsson underlines that after 1501, the fights were less of Swedish
civil wars and more of direct confrontation between Denmark and Sweden.18 I have
myself suggested that the struggle for princely power was brought to a new level of
ambition and hardness after 1512–1513, when Sten Sture the younger became regent
in Sweden and Christian II king in Denmark and Norway.19
Christian had acted as viceroy in Norway in the name of his father and had
reached a more or less absolute position in Norway. He embarked on the same policy
in Denmark and had the ambition of bringing Sweden under his direct rule, too.
Paying little respect to traditional status groups, using non-noble advisors, promoting
burgher interests and hiring foreign mercenaries, Christian represented the new type
of prince now emerging in Europe. To some degree the same can be said about the
Sten Sture the younger, although his resources were more limited. The clash between
their ambitions became fierce; in the spring of 1520, Christian stood as victor in
Sweden while Sten was dead from his wounds after a decisive battle. The Union
seemed fully re-established.
It would, however, be wrong to say that the Union actually only existed for the
short intervals when the union monarchs held real power in Sweden. Although
the ‘union absolutism’ of Margrethe and Erik never was reached again, and although
the union kings normally could not function in their Swedish realm, the Union was
still a given part of the political framework, also in Sweden. The actions of the
regents, the council and the church leaders during these turbulent years can only be
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understood with relation to a political universe where not only the kingdom, but also
the union of the three kingdoms were established factors in the political culture. In
1509, a Swedish delegation made peace with king Hans in Copenhagen. The peace
treaty stated three alternatives for the Swedes: they should let king Hans rule the
country, or they should accept his son Christian as ruling king, or they should pay a
yearly tribute to the king.20 All three alternatives, thus, accepted in principle the
Union and the claims of the Danish-Norwegian royal house.
This agreement was not accepted by the regent and his followers in Sweden, but a
majority within the council was prepared to stand for it. When the council, after
some pressure, in 1512 accepted Sten Sture the younger as regent, it also issued a
document stating that it was intending to uphold the Copenhagen peace.21 This
document is a so-called letter of swearing together (sammansvärjningsbrev), committing
the signers to stand together and defend the decision, if necessary with violence. It is a
strong sign of a will of important members of the Swedish political elite to uphold the
Union.
Such acts have often been dismissed as mere tactics from nationalist historians,
and Gottfrid Carlsson once concluded that ‘after […] 1471, there did hardly exist any
Swedish union party in the sense that the reestablishment of the union was it’s actual
goal. […] the acceptance of the union king was in fact only a last way out, used in
pressed situations’.22 In my opinion, this is quite misleading; it is in fact very hard to
find any group or individual in Sweden in the late union years that did not in principle
acknowledge the Union as a given fact. The disagreement was about how political
power should be distributed within it, not if it was to continue or not.
It is, however, quite possible that Sten Sture the younger in the long perspective
envisaged himself on the Swedish throne, but many others did not. And one throne
did not have to exclude another. In a very interesting letter from 1513, the leading
Swedish nobleman Ture Jönsson (Tre Rosor) informs Sten Sture about the death of
king Hans. He says that it is now Sweden’s turn to decide who will be the new union
king, ‘as you will find in the treaty if you will let it be overseen’ – ‘God let now […]
these three realms be ruled by a man born in this realm and not always by Danish
men’.23 It is a surprising statement since there did not exist any treaty stating that the
king should be elected by one country in turn.24 It seems natural to understand ‘if you
will let it be overseen’ as a hint to the possibility of falsifying a version of some of the
older agreements, and it can hardly be any other Swede that Ture Jönsson thought of
as new union king than Sten Sture the younger himself. This shows that a union under
Swedish leadership was one possible alternative to the Swedish political elite and also
that the Union as such was recognized as a framework also by leading men within the
circle around Sten Sture, although they did not accept the terms of the Copenhagen
peace. The Union was still in 1513 no ‘last way out’.

Two usurpers and a provisional partition


Important changes in the political landscape of Scandinavia took place in 1520–1523.
After Christian II’s coronation as king of Sweden in 1520, he let some 80 real or
potential enemies be beheaded, despite proclaimed amnesty, in the so-called
bloodbath of Stockholm. The bloodbath is the single most discussed event in the
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history of the Union of Kalmar, mostly from the aspects of who initiated it, what its
legal foundation was and whether it was a planned act or something that developed
out of the situation.25 The results, however, are quite clear. The Swedish political
elite was diminished, but among the survivors, there must have been a certain nervous
ambivalence concerning Christian II, to put it mildly. In the winter of 1520–1521,
several rebellions started, and the one centred in the mining and agrarian districts of
Dalarna, led by the young nobleman Gustav Eriksson (Vasa), soon was a serious
military threat to the new regime in Sweden. Although some of the noble and church
leaders for a while remained loyal to the union king, most of them went over to the
rebels as the tide turned. On the 6 June 1523, Gustav was elected king of Sweden,
and this is usually taken to mean the definite end of the Union of Kalmar, and of the
Middle Ages as well.
This is, however, to ascribe too much importance to the Swedish rebellion. What
really made Christian’s position impossible was his threatened position in Denmark
and in Schleswig-Holstein. For Christian II, the Duchies were as important as the
three kingdoms, and he devoted much energy to trying to keep his uncle and co-duke
Frederik in a subordinate position. At the same time, his policy of promoting burgher
interests within his realms at the cost of the Hanseatic merchants led him into conflict
with Lübeck. Lübeck was in fact the main sponsor of the Swedish rebellion, which
probably had been impossible without financial and material aid from the mighty
trading town.
The Danish nobility felt set aside by Christian and had all reason to feel concerns
after he had shown in Stockholm how far he was prepared to go when meeting
resistance. In early 1523, Lübeck, duke Frederik and the nobility of Jutland joined
hands and marched against Christian. Christian, who at the moment could not finance
any more mercenary troops, fled from Copenhagen to the Netherlands. Frederik was
recognized as sole duke in the Duchies and king of Denmark. This Danish rebellion
meant more for the breakdown of the union than the Swedish, but it still did not
mean a clear and neat divorce of Sweden from Denmark–Norway.
There was in fact a very complicated situation with three kings recognized in
different parts of the union territory and unclear borders between them. Gustav tried
to get hold of as much of the union territory as possible when Christian II was gone.
He let his troops march into both Denmark and Norway and offered the Danes in the
eastern provinces as well as all Norwegians to unite with him. A lasting result was
Gustav’s occupation of Danish Blekinge and Norwegian Viken (present central and
northern Bohuslän). He also wanted Gotland, which had been ruled from Denmark
since the 14th century, to come back to the Swedish crown, but Gotland was
controlled by Christian II’s last faithful commander in Denmark, Søren Norby, who
rejected propositions from Gustav as well as from Frederik. Gustav wanted later to
see himself, and is still seen in traditional Swedish historiography, as the liberator of
Sweden, but at this stage, he was prepared to liberate anything he could get hold of.
‘What one can get now in great haste is possible to keep’, he wrote in May 1523.26
Norway was the most uncertain part of the union territory. There was no
rebellion against Christian II in Norway, so the Norwegians found suddenly
themselves in a position were they still formally acknowledged Christian as their king
when the Danes and Swedes had elected new kings. This opened up a race for
Norway. As already mentioned, Gustav proposed the Norwegians to join him, had
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secret contacts with leading Norwegians, and more persistently tried to bring the
Norwegian province of Jämtland under his rule. Frederik wanted to be recognized as
hereditary king of Norway, but the Norwegian council, who had been set aside under
Christian’s rule, now saw its chance and insisted that Norway now was an elective
monarchy. It was to last one year, till the summer of 1524, before the Norwegian
council officially deposed Christian and recognized Frederik I as king of Norway. In
return, they got a letter of accession to the throne (handfästning) in which Frederik had
to acknowledge the central position of the council.
In the same summer of 1524, the two usurpers Gustav and Frederik met in
Malmö. This meeting marks an official but provisional division of the old union. There
was clearly now a king of Denmark and Norway and a king of Sweden that mutually
recognized each other. Gustav accepted the handing back of Blekinge, the question of
Viken should be decided by arbitration while an agreement about Gotland was
reached under mediation of Lübeck. The peace was, however, fragile. Gotland was
actually played over in the hands of Frederik, to Gustav’s great disappointment.
Gustav did in fact not accept arbitration and kept Viken. The relation between the
two usurpers was very bad for the coming years.
During the 1520s, the two states both developed in the direction of princely
control and centralization. Both kings were sympathetic to the Lutheran movement,
possibly for religious reasons but not least as a means of getting control over the
church and its rich spiritual and material resources. Gustav took a decisive step in
1527, when he in fact took full control of the church. Frederik acted more carefully
but in fact achieved much of the same in Denmark and in the Duchies. Gustav faced
several oppositional movements and rebellions but in the long run, this strengthened
centralized control of the country.

The persistence of the union


It would, however, be wrong, for two reasons, to say that the union of the three
realms now was only history and that the two states of Denmark–Norway and Sweden
had definitely taken shape. One is the position of Norway. Although Frederik had
been recognized Norwegian king in 1524, his position here was considerably weaker
than in Denmark or in the Duchies. Step-by-step he advanced his positions, taking
over the most important castles one-by-one and placing loyal Danish men in them.
But in the north, the archbishop of Trondheim, Olav Engelbrektsson, had a strong
position, and he was a fierce opponent to all Lutheran tendencies. In Norwegian
national historiography, he used to be seen as a national hero, fighting against Danish
oppression, but it now is generally agreed that the catholic church was his first and
foremost loyalty.
The fact that a prince had a weaker control of one of his countries than the others
was by no means unusual to 16th century Europe. What made it alarming was the
relation to Sweden. Different groups and individuals in Norway had contact with
Sweden and Swedish oppositionals were from time to time protected in Norway. The
close relations between the kingdoms from the union years thus continued, and it was
not easy to see what was domestic and what foreign policy. Contrary to the belief of
nationalist Norwegian historians, there was no general will on behalf of the Danish
THE UNION OF KALMAR 213

elite to oppress Norway.27 In fact, the Danish council tried as long as possible to stay
out of Norwegian business and leave it to the king. It was only when it was on the
brink of leading to an open conflict with Sweden that the council started to take the
Norwegian problem seriously and supported the king’s Norwegian policy.
The second reason why it would be wrong to forget the union is that there still
existed a union king, Christian II, crowned in all the three realms and very eager
indeed to come back to his kingdoms. It was above all the well-grounded fear of
Christian’s return that brought the new regimes in Denmark and Sweden together
despite their mutual suspicion. And he did come back. In October 1531 he landed in
Norway with a fleet, carrying German mercenaries. This has received little attention
from historians, but it was a severe crisis that very well could have led to other
political and territorial outcomes.
Christian soon was recognized as king by most of the Norwegian political elite.
The important exception was the commanders of the three most important castles,
Bohus, Akershus and Bergenhus, all of them Danish noblemen loyal to king Frederik.
But most of Norway was in Christian’s hands and during the winter of 1531–1532,
there once again existed three independent kingdoms in Scandinavia. Christian’s
ambition was surely to use Norway as a springboard for retaking also Denmark and
the Duchies, while Sweden seems to have come at the bottom of his priority list. He
had, however, to march through Swedish-occupied Viken and took the Swedish
stronghold there with ease. Next, he faced the strong castle of Bohus. He probably
had lost his siege artillery when his invasion navy had been hit by a storm on the way
to Norway, and this proved decisive. He could not take Bohus and Danish and
Swedish troops joined hands in the border region. It is illuminative that Gustav did
not share the relaxed attitude of later historians; to him, the return of Christian was
an immediate threat of re-establishing the union, which would have resulted in
unemployment for Gustav himself. He cooperated without hesitation with the Danes,
despite all former disagreements.
There where in fact many options for state-building open at this time. The threat of
a re-established union was real enough to produce action, although there does not seem
to have been any support for Christian among any important groups in Sweden. It is
more likely that he could have come in possession of Denmark and/or the Duchies, or
parts of them, had he been military successful. If the castle commanders in Norway had
not been loyal to king Frederik, but he had anyway been blocked by Danish and Swedish
troops, he would probably have been able to function as king of a separate Norway for
some time, although it is unlikely that Norway would have been able to uphold it’s
independence for long. In the end, when Danish and Lübeck troops had arrived in
Norway, he negotiated with the commissionaires of king Frederik and wanted to receive
at least some castles and fiefs in Norway or Denmark, which he had good reason to
believe that Frederik was inclined to offer. But the result was that the Danish regime
broke given safe-conduct and imprisoned Christian at Sønderborg castle in Schleswig.

The Count’s War and the final separation


The new order in the North had survived it’s most severe crisis, but soon all order
was turned upside down as the death of King Frederik in 1533 trigged off the
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complicated series of conflicts known as the Count’s War. This is often seen as a
Danish civil war, ending with the victory of Christian III in 1536, but it also involved
conflicts between catholics and Lutherans, between more or less radical Lutherans,
between peasants and lords, and between Lübeck and the northern states, also mixed
with rebellion in Finland, fights between different groups in Norway, the
establishment of a Danish Lutheran state church, and finally a reorganization of
Danish-Norwegian relations.
From our point of view, it is important to state that the Count’s War once again
actualized the Union as a state alternative. The side of the radical Lutherans and
Lübeck, headed by count Christopher, had as its official goal the liberation of
Christian II. Once again, King Gustav in Sweden did not share later historians’ view
that there was no real danger of a return of Christian. In fact, Sweden immediately
became involved as Gustav’s commander in eastern Finland started a rebellion at the
same time as the war started in Denmark. Gustav soon crushed the rising. As the
count’s troops went over to Skåne, Gustav let Swedish troops enter Skåne. This he
had done also in 1523, but this time the military thrust was not followed by any offer
to join the Swedish crown; instead, the population was told to keep loyal to the old
king’s son, Duke Christian, which in the meantime had been recognized in Jutland as
King Christian III. During the rest of the war, Gustav showed an amazingly
consequent loyalty to Christian III. Once again, the threat of the return of the
legitimate king drove two usurpers together.
The Duchies were soon won for Christian III, and with the union agreement of
1533 they and Denmark had been bound together tighter than before. As Christian
gradually got the upper hand in Denmark, Norway once again became a problem.
Gustav still had an interest in Norway, and was on the brink of receiving southeast
Norway as pawn for a huge loan to Christian III, but in the end, no pawn was given
and Gustav seems finally to have been content with the borders as they had become.
But for Christian III, Norway was a major problem. Repeatedly during the 1520s, the
ability of the Norwegian elite to act independently as representatives of the
Norwegian realm had brought security problems to his father, and at Christian II’s
return in 1531, Norway had actually attacked Denmark. In the situation of 1536,
when Christian III had full power in Denmark and was able to carry through his
moderate model of Lutheran reformation, Norway and its strongly catholic
archbishop Olav Engelbrektsson was the last serious threat to his political and
religious goals.
The result was the Norway paragraph in the letter of accession to the throne
(handfästning) that Christian III accepted in 1536; there, it was stated that the realm of
Norway from now on should be ‘a part of the Danish Realm and under the Crown of
Denmark in eternity’.28 The important part of this was not that Norway should be
fully integrated in Denmark, as historians of the nationalist era were inclined to
believe, but that the possibilities for groups and individuals to act with the Norwegian
kingdom as platform, independently of the king and the Danish elite, was to be
eliminated once and for all. This was also carried through in 1537, when Olav
Engelbrektsson gave up and fled the country, which now was under the control of
Christian III. No new archbishop was named, the Lutheran reformation was carried
through, the Norwegian council of the realm was never more summoned and from
THE UNION OF KALMAR 215

now on, the Danish council spoke in the name of also the Norwegian realm. Norway
still existed as a kingdom, but subordinate to the Danish realm.
After the final solution of the Norwegian problem, it is reasonable to say that the
Union of Kalmar had definitely given place to two new, relatively centralized,
Lutheran princely states, Sweden and Denmark–Norway(-Schleswig-Holstein), which
would dominate Northern Europe for three centuries. Lübeck and the loose
federation of Hanseatic towns on the Baltic shore never recovered politically from the
defeat in the Count’s War; the future belonged to the territorial states. This new
order was sealed when Denmark-Norway and Sweden in 1541 signed the treaty of
Brömsebro, which stipulated peace and cooperation between the two crowns and the
three kingdoms.

Political culture and identities


The long process that led to the creation of these two states shows that there were
many turning points where events could have taken another direction. There was
nothing inevitable in the way the Union broke up. In political and territorial sense,
there were other state alternatives. But the events also show that there were
differences between the three realms in terms of political culture. Each of them had
developed a set of institutions and practices in the course of several hundred years and
continued to do so also during the union period. As the union monarchy usually was
based in Denmark, the kings tended sometimes to judge Norway and especially
Sweden after Danish circumstances. One important difference was the considerably
stronger position of local peasant elites in Sweden, and one reason for the failure of
Christian II’s short reign in Sweden was probably that he misjudged the importance of
communicating with local elites.29 Norway was in another way also more
decentralized, with a strong tradition of local noblemen and church leaders to act
on their own.
It has been argued above that the Union was a generally accepted framework for
politics, but it must be remembered that the realms were so to an even higher degree.
There are many signs of an identity as Swedes, Norwegians, and Danes, especially
among the elites but in all probability also to some extent among broader groups in
society. Traditions, honour, law, and history were important arguments and such
arguments usually had a connection with the realm. It was ‘the Law of Saint Olaf’ that
the Norwegians wanted the kings to maintain, ‘the honour of this good old realm’ was
invoked, and Gustav never got tired of reminding his subject that history had taught
that foreign ruler never had brought any good to the Swedes.
It is interesting to note that a historiography knitted to the realm flourished in
Sweden and Denmark in the late union period. After several Swedish chronicles with
strong anti-Danish tendency, the Danes answered in the same vein. This patriotism
was centred on the level of the kingdom; the union kings never tried to sponsor any
‘union chronicle’ or foster in any other sense a union patriotism. This sort of identity,
which was widespread in medieval Europe, could be called ‘regnalism’, since it was
built around the Christian idea of a people with a realm (regnum).30 But it did not
necessitate that such a people/realm should be a state in our modern sense. The
Norwegians continued to be regarded as Norwegians living in a separate realm
216 SCANDINAVIAN JOURNAL OF HISTORY

also after 1537, and it is telling that a Norwegian patriotic historiography was
developed around the middle of the century, sponsored by the Danish-dominated
authorities.31
Even if the existence of regnal identities did not mean that several regnal units
could not be joined into one state, it did mean that there was a certain advantage for
those players in the political game that chose to operate at the regnal level. When
Gustav Vasa wrote in 1523 that it was now possible to keep what one was able to grab
after the defeat of Christian II, this was perhaps a bit too optimistic. It proved in the
long run to be more of a burden than an asset to occupy Norwegian Viken, since the
Norwegian elite never ceased to demand to get it back. The people in Skåne and
Jämtland could not be persuaded that they really were Swedes. State formation was a
puzzle but the old realms were important parts in that puzzle.
Even if the established political units were tough structures in the political
culture, it was not impossible to change them. The two states that came out of the
Union were not identical with the ones that entered it. Gotland did not go back to
Sweden. Bornholm came through a complicated political game to be partly alienated
from the Danish crown by passing to Lübeck as a pawn for a period of 50 years.
Norway was reduced from a union partner to a province, albeit with the status of
kingdom, under the Danish crown. And the situation in the south was completely
changed as compared to late 14th century, with a union now established between the
duchies of Schleswig and Holstein as well as between the united duchies and
Denmark.
The states of Sweden and Denmark–Norway(-Schleswig-Holstein), although
building on the old realms and duchies, were new states, also in their internal
organization. The regimes of Christian III and Gustav, representing alliances of
princely and noble power, had a considerably steadier grip of their domains than there
forerunners in pre-union times, and this is to a large extent a consequence of
developments during the union period. An abstract stateness was strengthened both
by the regimen regale and the regimen politicum programmes, and, more important, by
the logic of the development of the struggle for power itself. Christian II made the
last, grandiose attempt to realize the new, more centralized state at union level, but
his failure paved the way for its realization in the new successor states.

The failure and success of the Union of Kalmar


Was, then, the Union of Kalmar a state that failed? Compared to other dynastically
created states or ‘state-like organizations’ of its time, it was neither extremely short-
lived nor did it leave less of a legacy then many others. The Burgundy of the 15th
century was an important player in central European politics for a few generations and
left an important legacy in uniting the provinces of the Netherlands, thus forming a
base both for the Habsburg empire and later for the new great power of the United
Provinces. The Union of Kalmar lasted even longer and its two successor states were
to dominate Northern Europe during almost 300 years. The Castilian-Aragonese
union and the Polish-Lithuanian one lasted longer but hardly due to any structural
factors determining them to long life and the Kalmar Union to a shorter. Other
combinations left considerably less marks on the map of Europe, such as the lands and
THE UNION OF KALMAR 217

titles gathered by the Luxembourg dynasty in the 14th century – although they
included such important parts as the Bohemian and the Imperial crowns –, the
Hungarian-Polish personal union in the 1370s or the Polish-Swedish in the 1590s. In
the long perspective, the union of the three Scandinavian kingdoms seems to be one of
the more important dynastic combinations in European history.
As a state alternative, the Union of Kalmar ‘failed’ in the sense that it did not
survive into the early modern period as one state. But within it, a state formation
process had taken place. The open question in the beginning of the 16th century was
within what borders that process would continue. In a certain sense, that was a
question of minor importance. The political borders in Europe of that time were
indeed, as stated in the introduction to this article, vague and political entities difficult
to identify. It was no anomaly in the Europe of the late middle ages that it is doubtful
whether the Nordic area consisted of one, two or three states (or four, counting the
Duchies). The radical consequences for ordinary people of belonging to one state or
the other was something for the future. The actual borders in the North from the
1530s and onwards were rather the unexpected consequences of the struggle for
power than any act of ‘liberation’ or a consequence of ‘loss of independence’. In that
sense, it was of limited interest for most people that the Union ‘failed’ and in what
parts it fell apart.
From the point of view of traditional historiography, guided, consciously or
unconsciously, by a nationalist interpretation of history, the Union must be seen as a
failure since there appears no Union of Kalmar as a national state on today’s map. It is
not one of the survivors of the 500 competitors of the year 1500. The same national
bias explains why its history has almost never been written, and when attempted,
usually from a perspective of one of the forerunners of today’s national states – from
Danish, Norwegian or Swedish perspective. But it has never been written from a
Schleswig-Holstein perspective. Although the chance was certainly there in the 19th
century, Schleswig-Holstein did not develop into a modern state, and its great
importance in the complicated processes of Nordic politics in the late middle ages is
almost forgotten.
It is of course a banal truth that our present conditions determine how we
perceive history, but if history is a scholarly activity and not only a postmodern play
with words, we must believe that it is possible to arrive at a more well-argued
understanding of the past than the traditional national narratives. I have in this article
argued for a state formation perspective of the Union of Kalmar, especially its
dissolution, a perspective where it does not seem as only a failure but as a political and
mental structure that had an important impact although it did not develop into a
national state.

Notes
1 My own estimates. With a more narrow definition, it is possible to get down to
around 120 but hardly lower in 1500. According to Tilly, Coercion, Capital, and
European States, 42, there were in 1500 between 80 and 500 statelike organizations;
he sees 200 as the most realistic estimate for the number of what reasonably could
be called states.
218 SCANDINAVIAN JOURNAL OF HISTORY

2 Outside Scandinavia proper, today’s Finland was a part of Sweden of the union
period, but did not exist as a political unit, and Iceland was a Norwegian
dependency but under strong English influence at the time and did not play any
independent role in union politics. It is thus with some right that it hardly exists
any treatments of the union from Finnish or Icelandic perspectives.
3 Enemark, Fra Kalmarbrev til Stockholms blodbad.
4 Enemark, Fra Kalmarbrev til Stockholms blodbad, 149.
5 Lönnroth, Sverige och Kalmarunionen.
6 Christensen, Kalmarunionen og nordisk politik.
7 Larsson, Kalmarunionens tid.
8 See especially Hørby and Venge, Danmarks historie. Bind 2. Tiden 1340–1648;
Dahlerup, Gyldendal og Politikens Danmarks historie. Bind 6.; Wittendorff, Gyldendal
og Politikens Danmarks historie. Bind 7; Bjørkvik, Aschehougs Norgeshistorie. Bind 4;
Moseng et al., Norsk historie I.
9 Albrectsen, Danmark-Norge 1380–1814. Fællesskabet bliver til. For overviews of the
state of research, see the works cited above, especially Enemark, Fra Kalmarbrev til
Stockholms blodbad. In English see Roberts, The Early Vasas, 1–24, and the
introductory parts of Kirby, Northern Europe in the Early Modern Period.
10 Quoted from Albrectsen, Danmark-Norge 1380–1814. Fællesskabet bliver til, 93.
11 Lönnroht, Sverige och Kalmarunionen.
12 Larsson, Kalmarunionens tid, 108–109, 456.
13 This deliberate act of the Norwegian elite is stressed by Albrectsen, Danmark-Norge
1380–1814. Fællesskabet bliver til, 87–90.
14 The debate is summarised in Enemark, Fra Kalmarbrev til Stockholms blodbad, 19–23,
and Albrectsen, Danmark-Norge 1380–1814. Fællesskabet bliver til, 98–103. The
most thorough modern treatment is Christensen, Kalmarunionen og nordisk politik,
147–163.
15 According to Reinholdsson, Uppror eller resningar?, 65, the term ‘union era’ should
not be used after 1434, since there was in fact no union any more. As this article
bear witness of, I have a different opinion.
16 Schück, ‘‘Sweden as an Aristocratic Republic’’.
17 Enemark, Fra Kalmarbrev til Stockholms blodbad, 150.
18 Larsson, Kalmarunionens tid, 391.
19 Gustafsson, Gamla riken, nya stater. The rest of this article can be seen as a
presentation in English of some of my results from this study.
20 Rydberg (ed.), Sveriges traktater med främmande magter III, no. 574.
21 Rydberg (ed.), Sveriges traktater med främmande magter III, no. 580 a and b.
22 Carlsson, ‘‘Sten Sture den yngre’’, 92.
23 The letter is published in Allen, De tre nordiske Rigers Historie vol. 2, 584–585.
24 The idea that each country should in turn choose the union king has seldom been
observed by the historians; see, however, Jørgensen, ‘‘Kopiebogen B9 og det
turvise kongevalg’’. According to Jørgensen, Ture Jönsson’s letter is the first time
the idea occurs.
25 Recent overviews of the state of research in Albrectsen, Danmark-Norge 1380–
1814. Fællesskabet bliver til, 295–299, Larsson, Kalmarunionens tid, 439–448,
Hamre, Norsk politisk historie 1513–1537, 122–129.
26 Almquist (ed.), Konung Gustaf den förstes registratur vol. I, 56–57.
27 I have discussed the fallacies of this national interpretation more closely in my
Gamla riken, nya stater, 95–97.
THE UNION OF KALMAR 219

28 This is a very much discussed document in Danish and Norwegian history. A good
account of the discussion is given in Ladewig Petersen, ‘‘Norgesparagrafen i
Christian III’s håndfæsting 1536’’, 393–395, and Hamre, Norsk politisk historie
1513–1537, 603–609. See also Rian, ‘‘Why Did Norway Survive as a Kingdom?’’.
My own valuation in Gustafsson, Gamla riken, nya stater, 248–255.
29 Shown in Gustafsson, Gamla riken, nya stater, 68–69.
30 The term from Reynolds, Kingdoms and communities in Western Europe.
31 Gustafsson, Gamla riken, nya stater, 275–320, on the identity questions in the late
union period.

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Harald Gustafsson Professor of History, Lund University, Sweden. He has mostly


worked with early modern Nordic history, often in terms of political culture, interaction,
state formation, and identities. Publications include Mellan kung och allmoge (‘Between
king and commoners’, 1985), Politcal Interaction in the Old Regime (1994), Nordens historia
(‘A history of the Nordic countries’, 1997), and Gamla riken, nya stater (‘Old realms, new
states’, 2000). Address: Department of History, Lund University, PO Box 2074, S-220 02
Lund, Sweden. [email: Harald.Gustafsson@hist.lu.se]