The nobility, then and now

The history of the nobility is part of the story of Sweden and therefore quite extensive. For anyone wanting to learn more about the history of the Swedish nobility, plenty of literature is available. Below, we highlight some characteristic features of their history over the centuries.

The medieval nobility

Ever since the Viking Age, the nobility and its early counterpart have played a pivotal role in Swedish history. During the Viking Age, there were local noble families who had sworn allegiance to a king or equivalent. Some of our oldest members of the nobility possibly descend from these ancient families. The first people considered noble in Sweden, frälset, can be viewed as a continuation of this system – those bound by a relationship of fealty and service of sorts to the state’s foremost representative, the king. Frälse, meaning “freed” or “saved”, refers to the condition of being exempt from burdens imposed by the Crown or the people themselves who were exempt from most forms of taxation.

From the mid-1500s onwards, this word became synonymous with “nobility”. Worldly salvation (as opposed to the spiritual salvation of the church) is defined for the first time in 1280 in the Alsnö Charter, issued by King Magnus Ladulås. Among those exempted from taxation were men who were prepared to serve the king by providing mounted cavalry or foot soldiers, called rusttjänst in Swedish. Through mustering of both men and materiel, an inspection took place to assess whether this service was adequately provided. Anyone without the financial means to perform this service for the king lost his tax-exempt status and had to start paying taxes again. Granting this status thus offered the king a way to finance the military.

In the latter part of the 14th century, so-called patents of nobility began to be issued. In 1420, for the first time in Sweden, patents of nobility and letters patent were issued with the granting of hereditary tax exemption and a special family coat of arms.

The 16th century: An act of royal grace, and the titled nobility

During the 16th century, ennoblement transitioned from being an agreement between the Crown and the individual “freed” nobleman to an act of royal grace. This is manifested in King John III’s privileges of nobility from 1569, through which noble status formally became hereditary. Since the time of the Alsnö Charter, the nobility had two classes, knights and armed squires. On the occasion of Erik XIV’s coronation in 1561, and following a continental trend, the Swedish dignities of count and baron with accompanying territorial fiefdoms were established for the first time.

Svante Sture was made count of Hörningsholm, Per Brahe count of Visingsborg and Gustav Johansson Tre Rosor count of Haga. The first nine barons were Sten Eriksson Leijonhufvud of Grävsnäs, Gustav Olofsson Stenbock of Torpa, Gabriel Krister Oxenstierna of Mörby, Birger Nilsson Grip of Winäs, Lars Ivarsson Fleming of Nynäs, Karl Holgersson Gera of Björkvik and Jöran Holgersson Gera of Ållonö, Klas Kristersson Horn of Åminne and Erik Gustafsson Stenbock of Öresten.

The 17th century: An economic golden age

Through the agency of Gustav II Adolf and Chancellor Axel Oxenstierna, the Swedish nobility gained a permanent organisation to carry out the work of parliament. In 1625, the first estate of the realm decided to construct a building as a headquarters for the nobility, and in 1626 the first decree of the House of Nobility was issued.

In the Riddarhus Decree, three classes of nobility were set out: the Class of Lords (counts and barons), the Class of Knights (descendants of privy councillors and commanders of the royal orders) and the Class of Esquires (other, untitled nobles). Voting at the House of Nobility took place by class, which gave the highest ranking nobility – the lord and knight classes – an advantage over the esquire class. The position of the estate was strengthened through noble privileges that were issued in 1612 and 1617, which gave a monopoly to the highest offices of the realm.

The Swedish Empire’s Age of Greatness, particularly in the 17th century, can be considered the golden age of the nobility. A handful of families held enormous influence, building magnificent castles and owning a large part of Sweden’s land. Although the nobility wielded great economic power through their lineage, it cannot be said that this aristocracy was representative of the nobility as a whole. Many noble families were landed gentry living in relatively poor conditions. With the reduction imposed by Charles XI at the end of the 17th century, the economic power of the nobility drastically diminished.

The 18th century: The political heyday of booms and busts

In 1723, privileges for the nobility ceased to be issued in Sweden. The number of noblemen had become inflated under some rulers, which in 1762 prompted the knights and nobility themselves to decide to refuse the induction of newly ennobled families to the House of Nobility until the number of families had fallen to 800. Ten years later, this was reversed with the overthrow of Gustav III in a coup d’état. The parliament of 1789 brought a major change to the privileges of the nobility. The highest offices were made accessible even to commoners, and the prohibition on commoners acquiring land owned by the nobility was abolished.

The 19th century: Limitations and a new form of representation for the nobility

Paragraph 37 of the 1809 Instrument of Government placed restrictions on the nobility. From now on, the nobility included only the nobleman himself (or the person elevated to another dignity), and after him the eldest male heir in the line of direct descendants. These noble families are known as “Paragraph 37” families. In the Swedish Peerage Book, all members of the Paragraph 37 families are listed though only one person at a time is noble. The peerage book includes them all because they could potentially be elevated to noble status. In 1865/66, a new form of representation was adopted. All four estates (nobility, clergy, burghers, yeomen/certain freeholders) voted in favour of dissolving the Parliament of the Estates and introducing a bicameral parliament. A new Riddarhus Decree was issued in 1866 by King Charles XV and was valid more or less until 2003. Following a government bill 2002/03:34, certain amendments were made to the decree.

The 20th century: A new constitution puts an end to ennoblement

Sweden’s new constitution from 1975 brought an end to the monarch’s right to grant noble titles. The last person to be ennobled was the explorer Sven Hedin, who was knighted in 1902 by Oscar II.

Swedish nobility in the 2000s: One one-thousandth of the Swedish population

The introduced nobility in Sweden consists of about 28,000 members of 657 families. The 2022 Swedish Peerage Book lists 46 countly, 131 baronial and 480 untitled noble families. Almost half of all family members are registered in the greater Stockholm area, while about 25 percent live abroad, dispersed across the world. People from the nobility can be found from north to south and across a variety of professions.

The right to confer nobility no longer exists

The right of the sovereign to ennoble people came to an end in 1974. No new people can thus be ennobled in Sweden. However, from time to time, families or branches that were previously considered extinct are discovered. The Ehrenfelt family is one that only a few years ago was reintroduced in the Swedish Peerage Book with living progeny, a result of active research on the part of our genealogy department. About one noble lineage each year becomes completely extinct.

No political role but need for continued organisation

Since 2003, the Knighthood and Nobility have no status under public law and are no longer covered by the Swedish Code of Statutes. On the other hand, the nobility have certain common assets and thus need to continue to have an organisational structure, despite the fact that they no longer have a political role to play. These assets include the House of Nobility palace and foundations for providing scholarships and financial assistance.

The business of the organisation is run via the assembly of nobles, which is held every three years. The Riddarhus Decree regulates the activities of the Knighthood and Nobility.