Founded to keep the trade routes between Lake Mälaren and the Baltic open, the first mention of Stockholm came from an Icelandic saga that made note of the existence of a barrier across a waterway, which it called Stocksundet. Thus, the island forming this barrier was named “Stockholm” (literally, “log island”).
Stockholm History: The Bloodbath and King Gustav I
Stockholm rose to prominence during the era of the German Hanseatic League, when it became a major Hanseatic trading town after the downfall of Visby. During the 15th and 16th centuries, the Danes repeatedly tried to invade the city, culminating in the infamous “Stockholm Bloodbath,” in which the Danish King Christian II invited Stockholm nobles to a banquet, locked the doors, and had them arrested and executed in Stora Torget in Gamla Stan.
One young noble who managed to escape the execution was Gustav Vasa (aka Gustav I), who ultimately ousted the Danes and was crowned King of Sweden in Strängnäs on June 6, 1523. Gustav was infamous for forcibly introducing Protestantism to Sweden, but he was also significant in that he and his successors ushered in an ascendant era in Swedish history that saw it become—for more than a century between 1611 and 1721—the dominant power in Northern Europe. At the height of its prominence, Sweden controlled all of Finland and parts of Norway, Denmark and northern Germany, and Stockholm flourished at the centre of this powerful empire.
Advances during this time were not only militaristic; Stockholm also became a centre for art and culture, notably during the reign of Christina, Queen of Sweden—a friend and correspondent with many of the major Enlightenment scientists of the day. (Descartes spent the final few months of his life as a guest of the queen in the Royal Palace in Stockholm.)
A Golden Age of Culture
Another Golden Age of culture flourished in the late 18th century under the reign of Gustav III, who brought French and Italian influences to the art and architecture of the country, and most notably to the city. It was at the Stockholm Opera House that Gustav was famously murdered during a masked ball (an event that later inspired a Verdi opera).
Today, Stockholm remains a major cultural centre, most famously as host of the Nobel Prize ceremonies: every December 10 (the anniversary of Nobel’s death), prizes are awarded in physics, chemistry, literature, medicine, and economics. The Nobel Peace Prize is awarded in Oslo, a testament to the fact that Sweden and Norway were under the same crown during Nobel’s lifetime.