The story of Christianity in Sweden bridges the ages, from late antiquity to the high medieval period, helping to forge a group of petty fiefdoms into a medieval nation. 

Like its Scandinavian neighbors, Christian missionaries had come to Sweden since at least the 6th century to spread the "good news" and proselytize what they saw as the "heathen pagan masses." 

It has been argued that the spread of Christianity in Scandinavia often went hand in hand with the growing centralization and control of power by Viking rulers throughout the early medieval period. 

The medieval kingdoms of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden were certainly assisted, though not created, by the new Christian faith that had spread like a spiritual wildfire amongst the locals since the beginnings of the early medieval period. 

Yet, to speak of the nonstop advance of Christianity into Viking societies in Sweden would be historically inaccurate. 

Though it is true that Christianity grew in influence and support over the early medieval period, unlike its Scandinavian neighbors, Sweden still housed a huge population that, by the turn of the 11th century, still believed in the old pagan gods and adhered to the Old Norse religion

This was the milieu in which Olof Skötkonung, often credited as Sweden's first historically verified king, reigned. 

Though not the most impressive or powerful of Sweden's monarchs, his reign was important as it marked a paradigm shift in Swedish history – he ensured Christianity established such a foothold in the kingdom that its influence would only grow. 

In his extensive chronicles, written only a few decades after Olof Skötkonung’s reign, Adam of Bremen, a German monk, provided detailed accounts of the broader political landscape of early medieval Scandinavia. Illustration: The Viking Herald

A Christian and Viking ruler 

Like most early medieval rulers of Scandinavia, we are indebted to the works of chroniclers like Adam of Bremen

This medieval German monk wrote only a few decades after the reign of Swedish King Olof Skötkonung ended in 1022. 

Adam of Bremen is said to have visited the court of Danish King Sweyn II (r. 1047–1076), who gave him access to a wealth of information, which he used in his impressive work Gesta Hammaburgensis ecclesiae pontificum

In it, he provides a broad overview of all Scandinavian rulers up to his contemporary times, including Olof Skötkonung. All history lovers, and especially history writers, are indebted to his impressive tome. 

We have no record of when Olof was born, but we know, thanks to our German monk friend, that he ascended to the throne around 995. 

His father was the Swedish king, the brilliantly named Eric the Victorious, who was said to have founded the town of Sigtuna, Sweden's first economic and cultural entrepôt and an important Viking trading town

Olof was said to be a restless youth who went on a Viking expedition to "Wendland" (in what is now Germany). 

However, upon gaining the throne, he delved into regional politics, allying with Danish King Sweyn Forkbeard against Norwegian King Olaf Trygvasson

This led to the Battle of Svolder, in which the latter threw himself into the sea when he realized the battle was lost. 

Some 15 years later, he would also wage war against another Norwegian king, Olaf II Haraldson

Yet Olof is most remembered as being, according to Adam of Bremen, the first Swedish king to be baptized by the missionary (and later saint) Sigfrid in Husaby, Sweden. 

A church was constructed there, but modern historians have viewed this account as historically unreliable. 

What is true, however, is that Skötkonung was the first Christian king of Sweden, marking a high point for this new religion in the Swedish lands. 

But why did Skötkonung turn his back on his ancestors and the Old Norse religion? What was to be gained from becoming a good Christian king? 

At Stockholm City Hall, there is a statue of Olof Skötkonung created by Ansgar Almquist in the 1920s, honoring the king who played a vital role in the Christianization of Sweden. Photo: Holger.Ellgaard (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Royal patronage, power, and exchange 

Whilst Skötkonung may have been the first Christian king of Sweden, he was certainly not the last. 

Conversion to Christianity was often supported or even initiated by rulers seeking to consolidate their power or enhance their prestige. 

Kings and chieftains who converted to Christianity gained political advantages, such as alliances with other Christian rulers or access to trade networks. 

This was certainly the case as Skötkonung launched himself into foreign politics, hoping to tap into the larger network of Christian monarchs for national and regional support. 

It should also be noted that a king was, throughout the medieval period, anointed by the Christian God to rule. A king was anointed and crowned in a sacred ceremony that highlighted his importance. 

Compare this to the previous Viking era, where Sweden's weight as a regional power was only truly felt in the early modern period. 

In the early medieval period, however, it had to form trade, cultural, and religious alliances with nearby neighbors, who were often Christian. 

These exchanges frequently brought Swedes into contact with Christians and Christians into contact with Swedish society, helping to facilitate the spread of Christianity. 

Husaby Church, originally built of wood in the early 11th century and later reconstructed as a stone church in the 12th century, is believed to be where Olof Skötkonung was baptized. Photo: Can Burcin Sahin / LCProBild (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Syncretism of cultural and religious beliefs 

Whilst Skötkonung ensured that Christianity would establish a foothold among Sweden's ruling elite, there was, to borrow a phrase, some "serious blowback." 

According to later chronicles, Skötkonung attempted to destroy the great pagan temple at Uppsala but was stopped when a significant number of his subjects objected. 

The Old Norse religion died a long and slow death in Sweden. 

This was, in part, due to the fact that many pagan beliefs, rituals, and traditions were gradually assimilated into the new Christian religion, making the new religion more palatable to the local Swedes. 

Elements of paganism were also intertwined with folk beliefs and superstitions that were gradually assimilated into Christian practice. 

Folk tales and legends involving supernatural beings like elves or trolls were adapted to include Christian themes, with Christian morals and values embedded in the narrative. 

This aided the Swedish population in reconciling their pagan heritage with their newfound Christian faith. This synthesis of cultural and religious beliefs helped to ease the conversion process for early medieval Swedes. 

The ruins of St. Olof's Church in Sigtuna, one of Sweden's oldest stone churches from the 12th century, are linked to the cult of Norwegian Saint King Olaf II, who visited Sigtuna in the early 11th century. Photo: Arild Vågen (CC BY-SA 3.0)

A centuries-long process 

Although Olof Skötkonung's reign is considered a turning point in Swedish history, with a Christian king holding sway over large parts of the country, the Christianization of Sweden took centuries. 

Later medieval accounts state that elements of the Old Norse religion were still being adhered to well into the 13th and even 14th centuries. 

Unlike its Scandinavian neighbors, Christianity took longer to gain total dominance over Swedish Viking societies. 

The efforts of rulers like Skötkonung, who sought to use Christianity for power, prestige, politics, and profit from the 11th century onwards, ensured that it would never wane in influence or spread throughout Sweden's medieval period. 

If this article piqued your interest in Sweden's Viking history, STOEX can scratch your historical itch. 

They offer small daily tours from Stockholm that take in the bucolic Swedish countryside and visit places with significant Viking history, such as the town of Sigtuna

All their tours provide transport to and from Stockholm, and on their Viking History Extended tour, you will be able to wander the charming streets of Sigtuna while hearing about its rich Viking history. 

For more information on one of Sweden's current folk traditions that can be traced back to its pagan past, visit National Geographic here

This branded article was produced in collaboration with STOEX, a partner of The Viking Herald. You can find out more about their Viking and history tours - and book one - here.

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