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Early history

Sweden's human history began around 10, 000 years ago at the end of the last ice age, once the Scandinavian ice sheet had melted. Tribes from central Europe migrated into the south of Sweden, and ancestors of the Sami people hunted reindeer from Siberia into the northern regions.

These nomadic Stone Age hunter-gatherers gradually made more permanent settlements, keeping animals, catching fish and growing crops. A typical relic of this period (3000 BC to 1800 BC) is the gångrift, a dolmen or rectangular passage-tomb covered with capstones, then a mound of earth. Pottery, amber beads and valuable flint tools were buried with the dead. The island of Öland, in southeast Sweden, is a good place to see clusters of Stone Age barrows.

As the climate improved between 1800 BC and 500 BC, Bronze Age cultures blossomed. Their hällristningar (rock carvings) are found in many parts of Sweden - Dalsland and Bohuslän are particularly rich areas. The carvings provide tantalising glimpses of forgotten beliefs, with the sun, hunting scenes and ships being favourite themes. Huge Bronze Age burial mounds, such as Kiviksgraven in Österlen, suggest that powerful chieftains had control over spiritual and temporal matters. Relatively few bronze artefacts are found in Sweden: the metals had to be imported from central Europe in exchange for furs, amber and other northern treasures.

After 500 BC, the Iron Age brought about technological advances, demonstrated by archaeological finds of agricultural tools, graves and primitive furnaces. During this period, the runic alphabet arrived, probably from the Germanic region. It was used to carve inscriptions onto monumental rune stones (there are around 3000 in Sweden) well into medieval times.

By the 7th century AD, the Svea people of the Mälaren valley (just west of Stockholm) had gained supremacy, and their kingdom ('Svea Rike', or Sverige) gave the country of Sweden its name. Birka, founded around 760 on Björkö (an island in Mälaren lake), was a powerful Svea centre for around 200 years. Large numbers of Byzantine and Arab coins have been found there, and stones with runic inscriptions are scattered across the area.

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Vikings & the arrival of Christianity

Scandinavia's greatest impact on world history probably occurred during the Viking Age (around 800 to 1100), when hardy pagan Norsemen set sail for other shores. In Sweden, it's generally thought that population pressures were to blame for the sudden exodus: a polygamous society led to an excess of male heirs and ever-smaller plots of land. Combined with the prospects of military adventure and foreign trade abroad, the result was the Viking phenomenon (the word is derived from vik, meaning 'bay' or 'cove', and is probably a reference to their anchorages during raids).

The Vikings sailed a new type of boat that was fast and highly manoeuvrable but sturdy enough for ocean crossings, with a heavy keel, up to 16 pairs of oars and a large square sail (the Äskekärr Ship, Sweden's only original Viking vessel, is in Göteborg's Stadsmuseum. Initial hit-and-run raids along the European coast - often on monasteries and their terrified monks - were followed by major military expeditions, settlement and trade. The well-travelled Vikings penetrated the Russian heartland and beyond, venturing as far as America, Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul) and Baghdad.

In Sweden, the Vikings generally cremated their dead and their possessions, then buried the remains under a mound. There are also several impressive stone ship settings, made from upright stones arranged in the shape of a ship. If you're interested in Viking culture, Foteviken on the southwestern Falsterbo Peninsula is a 'living' reconstruction of a Viking village.

Early in the 9th century, the missionary St Ansgar established a church at Birka. Sweden's first Christian king, Olof Skötkonung (c 968-1020) is said to have been baptised at St Sigfrid's Well in Husaby in 1008 - the well is now a sort of place of pilgrimage for Swedes - but worship continued in Uppsala's pagan temple until at least 1090. By 1160, King Erik Jedvarsson (Sweden's patron saint, St Erik) had virtually destroyed the last remnants of paganism.

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Rise of the Swedish state

Olof Skötkonung was also the first king to rule over both the Sveas and the Gauts, creating the kernel of the Swedish state. During the 12th and 13th centuries, these united peoples mounted a series of crusades to Finland, Christianising the country and steadily absorbing it into Sweden.

Royal power disintegrated over succession squabbles in the 13th century. The medieval statesman Birger Jarl (1210-66) rose to fill the gap, acting as prince regent for 16 years, and founding the city of Stockholm in 1252.

King Magnus Ladulås (1240-90) introduced a form of feudalism in 1280, but managed to avoid its worst excesses. In fact, the aristocracy were held in check by the king, who forbade them from living off the peasantry when moving from estate to estate.

Magnus' eldest son Birger (1280-1321) assumed power in 1302. After long feuds with his younger brothers, he tricked them into coming to Nyköping castle, where he threw them into the dungeon and starved them to death. After this fratricidal act, the nobility drove Birger into exile. They then chose their own king of Sweden, the infant grandson of King Haakon V of Norway. When Haakon died without leaving a male heir, the kingdoms of Norway and Sweden were united (1319).

The increasingly wealthy church began to show its might in the 13th and 14th centuries, commissioning monumental buildings such as the domkyrka (cathedral) in Linköping (founded 1250), and Scandinavia's largest Gothic cathedral in Uppsala (founded 1285).

However, in 1350 the rise of state and church endured a horrific setback, when the Black Death swept through the country, carrying off around a third of the Swedish population. In the wake of the horror, St Birgitta (1303-73) reinvigorated the church with her visions and revelations, and founded a nunnery and cathedral in Vadstena, which became Sweden's most important pilgrimage site.

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Hanseatic League & the Union of Kalmar

A strange phenomenon of the time was the German-run Hanseatic League, a group of well-organised merchants who established walled trading towns in Germany and along the Baltic coast. In Sweden, they built Visby and maintained a strong presence in the young city of Stockholm. Their rapid growth caused great concern around the Baltic in the 14th century: an allied Scandinavian front was vital. Negotiated by the Danish regent Margrethe, the Union of Kalmar (1397) united Denmark, Norway and Sweden under one crown.

Erik of Pomerania, Margrethe's nephew, held that crown until 1439. High taxation to fund wars against the Hanseatic League made him deeply unpopular and he was eventually deposed. His replacement was short-lived and succession struggles began again: two powerful Swedish families, the unionist Oxenstiernas and the nationalist Stures, fought for supremacy.

Out of the chaos, Sten Sture the Elder (1440-1503) eventually emerged as 'Guardian of Sweden' in 1470, going on to fight and defeat an army of unionist Danes at the Battle of Brunkenberg (1471) in Stockholm.

The failing Union's death-blow came in 1520: Christian II of Denmark invaded Sweden and killed the regent Sten Sture the Younger (1493-1520). After granting a full amnesty to Sture's followers, Christian went back on his word: 82 of them were arrested, tried and massacred in Stockholm's main square, Stortorget in Gamla Stan, which 'ran with rivers of blood'.

The brutal 'Stockholm Bloodbath' sparked off a major rebellion under the leadership of the young nobleman Gustav Ericsson Vasa (1496-1560). It was a revolution that almost never happened: having failed to raise enough support, Gustav was fleeing for the Norwegian border when two exhausted skiers caught him up to tell him that the people had changed their minds. This legendary ski journey is celebrated every year in the Vasaloppet race between Sälen and Mora.

In 1523, Sweden seceded from the union and installed Gustav as the first Vasa king: he was crowned on 6 June, now the country's national day.

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Vasa dynasty

Gustav I ruled for 37 years, leaving behind a powerful, centralised nation-state. He introduced the Reformation to Sweden (principally as a fundraising exercise): ecclesiastical property became the king's, and the Lutheran Protestant Church was placed under the crown's direct control.

After Gustav Vasa's death in 1560, bitter rivalry broke out among his sons. His eldest child, Erik XIV (1533-77), held the throne for eight years in a state of increasing paranoia. After committing a trio of injudicious murders at Uppsala Slott, Erik was deposed by his half-brother Johan III (1537-92) and poisoned with pea soup at Örbyhus Slott. During the brothers' reigns, the Danes tried and failed to reassert sovereignty over Sweden in the Seven Years War (1563-70).

Gustav's youngest son, Karl IX (1550-1611), finally had a chance at the throne in 1607, but was unsuccessful militarily and ruled for a mere four years. He was succeeded by his 17-year-old son. Despite his youth, Gustav II Adolf (1594-1632) proved to be a military genius, recapturing southern parts of the country from Denmark and consolidating Sweden's control over the eastern Baltic (the copper mine at Falun financed many of his campaigns). A devout Lutheran, Gustav II supported the German Protestants during the Thirty Years War (1618-48). He invaded Catholic Poland and defeated his cousin King Sigismund III, later meeting his own end in battle in 1632.

Gustav II's daughter, Kristina, was still a child in 1632, and her regent continued her father's warlike policies. In 1654, Kristina abdicated in favour of Karl X Gustav, ending the Vasa dynasty.

For an incredible glimpse into this period, track down Sweden's 17th-century royal warship Vasa (commissioned by Gustav II in 1625), now in Stockholm's Vasamuseet.

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Peak & decline of the Swedish empire

The zenith and collapse of the Swedish empire happened remarkably quickly. During the harsh winter of 1657, Swedish troops invaded Denmark across the frozen Kattegatt, a strait between Sweden and Denmark, and the last remaining parts of southern Sweden still in Danish hands were handed over at the Peace of Roskilde. Bohuslän, Härjedalen and Jämtland were seized from Norway, and the empire reached its maximum size when Sweden established a short-lived American colony in what is now Delaware.

The end of the 17th century saw a developing period of enlightenment in Sweden; Olof Rudbeck achieved widespread fame for his medical work, which included the discovery of the lymphatic system.

Inheritor of this huge and increasingly sophisticated country was King Karl XII (1681-1718). Karl XII was an overenthusiastic military adventurer who spent almost all of his reign at war: he managed to lose Latvia, Estonia and Poland, and the Swedish coast sustained damaging attacks from Russia. Karl XII also fought the Great Nordic War against Norway throughout the early 18th century. A winter siege of Trondheim took its toll on his battle-weary army, and Karl XII was mysteriously shot dead while inspecting his troops - a single event that sealed the fate of Sweden's military might.

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Liberalisation of Sweden

During the next 50 years, parliament's power increased and the monarchs became little more than heads of state. Despite the country's decline, intellectual enlightenment streaked ahead and Sweden produced some celebrated writers, philosophers and scientists, including Anders Celsius, whose temperature scale bears his name; Carl Scheele, the discoverer of chlorine; and Carl von Linné (Linnaeus), the great botanist who developed theories about plant reproduction.

Gustav III (1746-92) curtailed parliamentary powers and reintroduced absolute rule in 1789. He was a popular and cultivated king who inaugurated the Royal Opera House in Stockholm (1782), and opened the Swedish Academy of Literature (1786), now known for awarding the annual Nobel Prize for literature. His foreign policy was less auspicious and he was considered exceptionally lucky to lead Sweden intact through a two-year war with Russia (1788-90). Enemies in the aristocracy conspired against the king, hiring an assassin to shoot him at a masked ball in 1792.

Gustav IV Adolf (1778-1837), Gustav III's son, assumed the throne and got drawn into the Napoleonic Wars, permanently losing Finland (one-third of Sweden's territory) to Russia. Gustav IV was forced to abdicate, and his uncle Karl XIII took the Swedish throne under a new constitution that ended unrestricted royal power.

Out of the blue, Napoleon's marshal Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte (1763-1844) was invited by a nobleman, Baron Mörner, to succeed the childless Karl XIII to the Swedish throne. The rest of the nobility adjusted to the idea and Bernadotte took up the offer, along with the name Karl Johan. Karl Johan judiciously changed sides in the war, and led Sweden, allied with Britain, Prussia and Russia, against France and Denmark.

After Napoleon's defeat, Sweden forced Denmark to swap Norway for Swedish Pomerania (1814). The Norwegians objected, defiantly choosing king and constitution, and Swedish troops occupied most of the country. This forced union with Norway was Sweden's last military action.

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Industry arrived late in Sweden (during the second half of the 19th century), but when it did come, it transformed the country from one of Western Europe's poorest to one of its richest.

The Göta Canal opened in 1832, providing a valuable transport link between the east and west coasts, and development accelerated when the main railway across Sweden was completed in 1862. Significant Swedish inventions, including dynamite (Alfred Nobel) and the safety match (patented by Johan Edvard Lundstrom), were carefully exploited by government and industrialists; coupled with efficient steel-making and timber exports, they added to a growing economy and the rise of the new middle class.

However, when small-scale peasant farms were replaced with larger concerns, there was widespread discontent in the countryside, exacerbated by famine. Some agricultural workers joined the population drift from rural areas to towns. Others abandoned Sweden altogether: around one million people (an astonishing quarter of the population!) emigrated over just a few decades, mainly to America.

The transformation to an industrial society brought with it trade unions and the Social Democratic Labour Party (Social Democrats for short), founded in 1889 to support workers. The party grew quickly and obtained parliamentary representation in 1896 when Hjalmar Branting was elected.

In 1905, King Oscar II (1829-1907) was forced to recognise Norwegian independence and the two countries went their separate ways.

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World wars & the welfare state

Sweden declared itself neutral in 1912, and remained so throughout the bloodshed of WWI.

In the interwar period, a Social Democrat-Liberal coalition government took control (1921). Reforms followed quickly, including an eight-hour working day and suffrage for all adults aged over 23.

Swedish neutrality during WWII was somewhat ambiguous: allowing German troops to march through to occupy Norway certainly tarnished Sweden's image. On the other hand, Sweden was a haven for refugees from Finland, Norway, Denmark and the Baltic states; downed allied aircrew who escaped the Gestapo; and many thousands of Jews who escaped persecution and death.

After the war and throughout the 1950s and '60s the Social Democrats continued with the creation of folkhemmet, the welfare state. The standard of living for ordinary Swedes rose rapidly and real poverty was virtually eradicated.

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Modern Sweden

After a confident few decades, the late 20th century saw some unpleasant surprises for Sweden, as economic pressures clouded Sweden's social goals and various sacks of dirty laundry fell out of the cupboard.

In 1986, Prime Minister Olof Palme (1927-86) was assassinated as he walked home from the cinema. The murder and bungled police inquiry shook ordinary Swedes' confidence in their country, institutions and leaders. The killing remains unsolved, but it seems most likely that external destabilisation lay behind this appalling act. Afterwards, the fortunes of the Social Democrats took a turn for the worse as various scandals came to light, including illegal arms trading in the Middle East by the Bofors company.

By late 1992, during the world recession, the country's budgetary problems culminated in frenzied speculation against the Swedish krona. In November of that year the central bank Sveriges Riksbank was forced to abandon fixed exchange rates and let the krona float freely. The currency immediately devalued by 20%, interest rates shot up by a world-record-breaking 500% and unemployment flew to 14%; the government fought back with tax hikes, punishing cuts to the welfare budget and the scrapping of previously relaxed immigration rules.

With both economy and national confidence severely shaken, Swedes narrowly voted in favour of joining the European Union (EU), effective from 1 January 1995. Since then, there have been further major reforms and the economy has improved considerably, with falling unemployment and inflation.

Another shocking political murder, of Foreign Minister Anna Lindh (1957-2003), again rocked Sweden to the core. Far-right involvement was suspected - Lindh was a vocal supporter of the euro, and an outspoken critic of both the war in Iraq and Italy's Silvio Berlusconi - but it appears that her attacker had psychiatric problems. Lindh's death occurred just before the Swedish referendum on whether to adopt the single European currency, but didn't affect the eventual outcome: a 'No' vote.

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