In the pretty town of Mariefred on the southern shore of Lake Mälaren, just an hour southwest of Stockholm, sits one of Sweden’s most impressive castles, Gripsholm, constructed during the first half of the 16th century on the site of an earlier 14th-century fortress. Built in red brick with round towers, it has served as both a royal residence and a royal prison, and its well-preserved rooms offer an opportunity to walk through more than four and a half centuries of Swedish history.
History of Gripsholm Castle
Gripsholm’s history began in the late 1370s, when the prominent nobleman Bo Jonsson Grip had a fortress erected on the site. A royal councilor, marshal, and the king’s highest official, he was the dominant political figure of the time and the greatest non-royal landowner in Swedish history, controlling more than a third of the realm, as well as all of Finland.
The site of the castle was first referred to as Gripsholm (Grip’s Island) in 1381. Bo Jonsson Grip died in 1386, and Gripsholm passed through various hands over the course of the following century. Eventually it was donated to the Carthusian order of monks, who established a monastery nearby which they named Pax Mariæ — Peace of Mary, or Mariefred.
Less than three decades later, the monastery was abolished by King Gustav Vasa (Gustav I) during the Reformation, its property claimed by the Swedish state. Gustav Vasa also ordered the demolition of Grip’s original fortress and the construction of a new Renaissance castle for residential and defense purposes. The main castle was completed by 1545, but additions and improvements continued to be made throughout Gustav Vasa’s reign and during the reign of his eldest son Erik XIV, who succeeded to the throne in 1560. A good example of how Gripsholm would have appeared during this period is the Hall of State, which has a painted ceiling and portraits of Gustav Vasa and other European regents of the time.
Erik XIV’s reign was marked by conflict with his half-brother Johan, Duke of Finland, married to the Polish princess Katarina Jagellonica. In 1563, Erik had Johan and Katarina imprisoned in Gripsholm Castle, where they remained for four years. Their two eldest children, Isabella and Sigismund (later King of Sweden and Poland), were born at Gripsholm during this period of captivity.
In 1568 it was Erik’s turn to be imprisoned after alienating the nobility and displaying increasing signs of mental illness. Dethroned by his brother, who became King Johan III, Erik was moved from castle to castle during his captivity, which included 19 months at Gripsholm. He ultimately died in prison at Örbyhus Castle in Uppland, reputedly by order of Johan. (According to historical tradition, Erik was poisoned with arsenic served to him in a bowl of pea soup.)
Gustav Vasa’s youngest son, Duke Karl — who later overthrew his nephew Sigismund and claimed the Swedish throne for himself as Karl IX — also made various modifications to Gripsholm. His bedroom, known as Duke Karl’s Chamber, is considered one of the best examples of a 16th-century interior in Sweden.
During Sweden’s Age of Great Power, Gripsholm was home to the dowager queens Maria Eleonora (the widow of Gustav II Adolf, who was killed in battle in 1632) and Hedvig Eleonora (the widow of Karl X, who died in 1660). Hedvig Eleonora was responsible for significant renovations and additions to the castle. She also had a strong interest in art and added some 200 portraits to Gripsholm’s collection, some of which are on display in her apartments on the ground floor.
Under Gustav III, Gripsholm experienced a new heyday in the late 18th century. Known as the Theater King, Gustav spent extensive time at Gripsholm along with much of his court. Among other modifications he had a royal theater installed in one of the castle’s round towers. Inaugurated in the spring of 1782, it’s considered one of Europe’s best-preserved 18th-century theaters.
Gustav III was assassinated in 1792 — shot at a masquerade ball in Stockholm, he clung to life for nearly two weeks before succumbing to his wounds — and was succeeded by his 13-year-old son, Gustav IV Adolf, whose hostile attitude towards revolutionary and Napoleonic France, combined with an unrealistic belief in his own kingdom’s military strength, drew Sweden into wars it could not win, leading to a military coup that deposed Gustav Adolf in 1809. He and his family spent nine months at Gripsholm under house arrest before going into exile, never to return to Sweden.
During the 19th century Gripsholm came to be viewed as a national monument. In the late 1800s, a somewhat controversial effort was made to restore the castle as much as possible to its Renaissance appearance.
Portraits, Gardens, and More
Gripsholm is famous for its impressive collection of portraits of notable individuals from Gustav Vasa’s time to the present. Over the centuries, various monarchs have added to the collection, which now encompasses about 5,000 portraits from different eras. Of these, more than 800, mostly oil paintings, are on display at Gripsholm.
Gripsholm has been Sweden’s National Portrait Gallery since 1822. In addition to historical portraits, the collection includes portraits of prominent modern Swedes such as actress Greta Garbo, United Nations Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld, film director Ingmar Bergman, opera singer Birgit Nilsson, and musician Benny Andersson (of ABBA fame).
In the park surrounding the castle are gardens and greenhouses that carry on traditions established by past royal inhabitants, including an herb garden and a fruit orchard. Apple juice made from the fruit of the orchard is sold in the castle’s gift shop.
Along the path leading to the castle’s main gate are two runestones with inscriptions dating from the 11th century. One was brought to Gripsholm from Nyköping, where it was found in 1730. The other stone was once covered in tar and used as a threshold stone in Gripsholm’s east tower. Discovered in the 1820s, it was not removed until 1930. Its original location is not known, but it is believed to come from somewhere in the local area.
The Town of Mariefred
It’s a short walk from Gripsholm to the center of Mariefred, which has restaurants and cafés, a pedestrian shopping street, well-preserved 18th- and 19th-century houses, and a 17th-century church on the site of the former Pax Mariæ monastery. Mariefred is also known for its historic steam train, which operates between May and September from the town’s distinctive yellow railway station to Läggesta and Taxinge-Näsby.
There’s also a royal deer park on the outskirts of town, beyond the castle. Approximately 100 deer roam freely in the nature reserve, which covers about 60 hectares (150,000 acres) and has walking trails that wind through rolling terrain amongst ancient oak and linden trees.
Mariefred is located about an hour’s drive from Stockholm. To get there by public transportation, take the SJ (national rail) train to Läggesta and either the public bus or the steam train from Läggesta to Mariefred. Another option during the summer (June to early September) is to arrive by boat on Lake Mälaren. The historic steamship S/S Mariefred departs from Klara Mälarstrand in Stockholm (next to City Hall) and takes three and a half hours to reach Mariefred. Combination tickets are available that include one way on the S/S Mariefred and the other on the steam train and national rail.
For more information:
Gripsholm Castle website (The castle is open April-November; check the website for opening hours. The grounds are open year-round.)
Published 21 February 2019.