Understanding Your ...

Ancestors in Specific Locations:
Skåne, Sweden: Major Events in History

Below, I’ve listed a very brief timeline with just a few of the events that I feel most effected the lives of the common people in Skåne from the completion of the Thirty Years’ War until the close of the 1800s. I haven’t attempted to provide a comprehensive history or to describe the events in full, but have only given a short description of Skåne’s part in these events. Some other useful books and websites with more information are included in the Useful Sources and Links for Skåne section.

Sweden Acquires Skåne (1658)

Sweden and Denmark had fought over Skåne for hundreds of years before the Thirty Years’ War. Since the province lay directly between them (sharing a land border with Sweden and lying just across the Sound from Denmark), it made for the natural battleground during their repeated clashes.

The peace treaty ending the Thirty Years’ War in 1648 didn’t change this. In the summer of 1657, Denmark attacked the northern German city of Bremen. King Karl X Gustav of Sweden took his troops and sped to their aid. While there, he sensed a unique opportunity. Only about once in a hundred years does the “Little Belt” between Germany and Denmark freeze over. The winter of 1657-1658 was one of those years. Karl decided to take the risk and lead his forces across to Denmark. A crack in the ice swallowed two squadrons of horses and men, but the rest of the group made it into Denmark. After brief fighting, they continued across the ice to Copenhagen.

Karl’s maneuvers took Danish leaders by surprise. With little choice, the king quickly made peace on Sweden’s terms, ceding Skåne as part of the resulting treaty of Roskilde. Fighting over the province continued for the next fifty years. The transfer, however, turned out to be permanent.

The initial reaction in Skåne was mixed. The nobles on the estates quickly swore their allegiance to the Swedish monarch, hoping to keep their lands by doing so. For the peasants in Skåne, any feelings of ambivalence soon changed to opposition. The Swedes intended for Skåne to really feel a part of Sweden and so decided to do all they could to help the process along – mostly through force and terror. These “Swedification policies” had traumatic consequences for the people of Skåne.

Many peasants resisted and rose up against their Swedish rulers. Their actions brought the wrath of the Swedish army down on them. Marching through the northeastern part of the province, the army killed young men of fighting age, and sometimes indiscriminately killed old people, women, and children. They burned land and destroyed crops. Local people who participated in any resistance against Swedish rule were labeled guerillas and punished harshly. Sometimes, these “guerillas” were pierced through and stuck on poles lining the sides of the roads as warnings to others. Between 1658 and 1720, some estimate that mass executions, starvation, illness, forced emigration, and the movement of refugees into Denmark reduced the population of Skåne by nearly forty percent.

Karl XI, the subsequent Swedish king, did everything he could to isolate Skåne from Denmark, hoping to integrate the province this way. No contact or trade with Denmark was allowed. The king outlawed the native Skånian language. Local church leaders became enforcers of the new ways, requiring peasants to learn Swedish and follow Swedish culture and traditions.

In the midst of internal strife, a new war broke out which came to be known as the Skånian war. The war originally pitted France against Holland and Brandenburg. In 1674, Sweden entered the war on the side of its ally, France. Meanwhile, King Kristian of Denmark decided to take advantage of Sweden’s preoccupation and retake Skåne. He landed his forces there in June of 1676 and announced to the people that he had come to liberate them. Marching up from the south, Kristian penetrated deep into Skåne.

Chaos followed for the next several years. Many of the peasants supported the Danes. The nobles and local ruling class, however, felt more uncertain. Anarchy filled parts of Skåne as the local people took up arms. Some joined Danish companies in fighting, while others became little more than bands of raiding robbers wreaking havoc in their wake. The Swedish army began burning land and slaughtering peasants in response.

The fighting culminated in Lund, in a town only a few parishes northwest of Lisbeth’s hometown. The resulting battle has been called the bloodiest battle in Scandinavian history. By its end, five thousand Danes and three thousand Swedes lay dead on the battlefield. The Swedish army, although fighting with a much smaller force, had been victorious. Yet, the battle was not decisive. The Danish army remained in Skåne. The Swedes determined that they must first conquer the peasants to truly be victorious. Some talked of ethnic cleansing. In the end, the Swedish government “pardoned” people parish by parish who hadn’t participated in the actual fighting and punished those who had.

Finally, Denmark and Sweden made peace in 1679. Sweden retained Skåne. The status quo returned, which in Skåne meant repression and sporadic fighting.

The Great Northern War (1700-1721)

Karl XII became king of Sweden in 1697 at age fifteen. He immediately began plotting for war, hoping to strengthen his country’s and his own power. Within a few years, he led Sweden into a series of battles that grew into a war lasting until 1721. The war, which left Sweden in a position of unprecedented military and diplomatic weakness, went down in history as the Great Northern War.

Although most of the actual fighting took place elsewhere, the Great Northern War still took a heavy toll on the Swedish peasants. Karl XII had to continually draft men into the army in order to sustain a war of such magnitude and length. Sweden lost ten percent of its population in the fighting. Women ran the farms and raised the children alone in the men’s absence.

The Great Northern War was one of complex motivations, balances of power, and alliances. The war started when Russia, Saxony, and Denmark all moved together against Sweden, hoping to seize some of her possessions. Sweden, at first, lived up to her name of the Lion of North. Karl led troops across the Sound to Denmark. Here, the Danish king sued for peace before Swedish troops could even complete their plans to march on Copenhagen. In the Treaty of Travendal, the Danish agreed to withdraw from the war, a promise they would keep for less than ten years. Then, Karl moved his men east to Livonia where they succeeded in defeating a much larger Russian army. Swedish victories continued as the army invaded Poland and then defeated the Saxons.

The turning point came in 1709 when the Swedes attacked a fort near Poltava, Russia. Here, Karl sustained a foot injury. Without his leadership, confusion sat in among the tired, cold, and hungry soldiers. When a larger Russian force attacked near the border of Turkey, much of the disintegrating Swedish army surrendered. Karl escaped across the river. He spent the next five years trying to persuade the Turks to enter the war against Russia. His efforts were wasted. Meanwhile, the situation continued to worsen.

The war hit close to home for peasants in Skåne in November of 1709. With Sweden distracted by other fighting, the Danish couldn’t resist another attempt to reclaim Skåne. Their invading army again received a mixed reception, although this time the peasants were much less eager to actively assist them. The Danish army lived off the land, consuming the products of the peasants, and inflicting suffering on the people. Karl XII managed to raise another army by hiring mercenaries and drafting more peasants from home. This new army pushed the Danes back, saving Skåne for the time being. But, fighting over the southern province continued as the war raged on.

In 1714, Karl XII decided to return to Sweden for the first time since 1700. He rode 1,350 miles across half of Europe in only fifteen days until he reached his Swedish possessions in northern Germany. Meanwhile, Russia pressed onward in Swedish Finland. Karl had to send another large army to Skåne in 1718 to drive off the Danes, while he led his army into Norway. Norway would be his last military campaign. Here a bullet, either from a Norwegian gun or from an internal Swedish enemy, took his life.

In near collapse, Sweden sued for peace three years later. The country lost some possessions in the resulting Treaty of Nystadt. Skåne, however, remained a part of Sweden. The end of the war brought the end to Denmark’s efforts to reclaim the province. It also brought the end of Sweden’s roll as a Baltic Superpower.

Age of Freedom (or Liberty) 1718-1722

Sweden struggled to recover from its position of weakness following the Great Northern War. Fed up with absolutism, the parliament reached for more power and achieved it. Political parties known as the Hats and Caps competed with each other as they brought the king’s authority under check. The half-century following the close of the war would become known as the Age of Freedom.

Little changed for the peasants, though. Parliament proved just as eager to continue the constant warfare as the kings of the past. In 1741, Sweden entered a war with Russia which led to a quick and humiliating defeat (Hats’ Russian War). Swedish troops again marched into battle in 1757, this time against Prussia (Pomeranian War). Once more, defeat met them swiftly and solidly.

Gustav III and the Russo-Swedish War (1788-1790)

From the time he ascended to the throne, King Gustav III craved more power. When the quarreling political parties of the time, the Caps and Hats, attempted to further limit the influence of the king, Gustav decided to take action. On August 19, 1772, he pulled off a bloodless coup which concentrated power in his own hands.

Once in power, Gustav longed for a war to give more power to Sweden and more glory to himself. Specifically, Gustav wanted war with Russia, who was constantly working to undermine Sweden’s position and alliances. When war broke out between Russia and Turkey, Gustav sensed an opportunity. However, according to the constitution, Gustav couldn’t begin a war without the support of the government. So, Gustav used a little creativity. In June of 1788, Gustav instructed Swedish soldiers in Finland to dress up like Cossacks and attack a Finnish position. The Russian troops counterattacked the Swedes, leading Gustav to declare war – due to Russian aggression, of course.

The war took some unexpected turns. Members of the noble class, who already despised Gustav, took advantage of the situation to plot with Russia to overthrow him. Denmark-Norway (joined together as one country at the time) invaded Sweden from the west. Gustav went from town to town calling upon the peasants to defend their country.

Despite mismanagement, the war ended successfully for Gustav. In 1790, Catherine of Russia sued for peace. But, peace in Sweden was short-lived. The hatred of the nobles led to Gustav’s assassination on March 16, 1792.

Napoleon’s Effect on Skåne (1808-1815)

Tumult brewed in France, sending waves across all of Europe. As countries joined France’s Continental System one by one, Sweden clung to an alliance with England against Napoleon. In 1805, Sweden launched a brief, but disastrous attack against France in Pommerania, Sweden’s foothold in Germany. Then, in February of 1808, Russia struck Sweden in Finland (then part of Sweden), using Sweden’s support of England as an excuse. More likely, Russia was simply taking advantage of an opportunity to incorporate Finland into Russia.

The resulting war was one of the biggest disasters in Swedish history. Gustav IV, who had taken his father’s position as king, proved to be incompetent. Defeat in Finland came quickly. The troops, of which Nils may have been a part, suffered more from the conditions than the fighting. Poor planning, limited supplies, and inadequate training caused thousands of soldiers to die of cold, hunger, and unsanitary conditions.

By the beginning of 1809, Russian troops descended on Sweden. Russia’s allies, Denmark-Norway and France, became involved. Sensing impending collapse, a Swedish general, with support from much of the army, walked into the king’s room in Stockholm and arrested Gustav on March 13, 1809. On Christmas Eve of that year, Gustav IV left Sweden forever.

A temporary government tried to salvage the situation as best as possible, making peace with everyone involved. In the end, Sweden had no choice but to cede over a third of its territory and join the Continental System supported by Napoleon. The humiliation and sense of despair reached from the leaders in Stockholm to the peasants in the villages.

Over the next months and years, Sweden struggled to find solid footing again. In a matter of two weeks, the drafting committee put together a new constitution that lasted, with a few revisions, until 1970. Choosing a ruler proved to be a difficult task. After considerable maneuvering and mind changing, the temporary government settled on a most unusual candidate -- Jean Baptiste Jules Bernadotte, a French general. The royal family adopted Bernadotte, who assumed the more Swedish-sounding name of Karl Johann.

When Napoleon’s troops began to weaken, England and its allies saw their chance. Soon the war pulled in nearly all of Europe. Sweden entered against the French. Although Nils was a middle-aged man by that time, he may have still followed Karl Johann as he led Swedish troops into his former homeland of France.

At last, the coalition forces defeated France. Denmark had joined the war on the side of the French and now had to pay. Sweden walked away with the kingdom of Norway. Previously a part of Denmark, Norway now became incorporated into Sweden (although in name only), a condition that remained until 1905.

Peace in Skåne (1814)

One of the most important dates in Sweden’s military history didn’t mark a battle or a war. Instead, it marked peace. In 1814, Sweden settled into a long period of peace – in fact, the longest continuous period of peace for any country in European history. In part, Sweden just didn’t have the strength or resources to wage war anymore.

Around this time another peace also descended on Skåne. This one was an internal peace, the end to the struggle of the people against the Swedish authority, and the acceptance of Skåne as a province of Sweden. Ironically though, a final act of violence preceded this peace.

Throughout the last half of the 1700s, the underlying tension between the people of Skåne and the Swedish government continued, occasionally bubbling up. Emotions finally boiled over on June 15, 1811 in the village of Klågerup. At the Klågerup castle, one thousand peasants gathered to protest the cruelty of the noble living there as well as the fact that new troops had just been called up to attack Norway. The military was summoned to drive away the mob. By the time the skirmish ended, military forces had killed at least twenty-nine (and some accounts claim many more) peasants.

This represented the last major internal fighting in Skåne. As time passed, the peasants of Skåne became more integrated, gained more rights, and perhaps even more significantly, gave up hope of independence.

Enskifte – the Enclosure Movement (mid 1700s to mid 1800s)

The enskifte, or enclosure, movement brought drastic change in the very fabric of rural life throughout much of Sweden, wiping out village centers, and moving peasants away from one another.

By the mid 1700s, it had become obvious that the frequent land divisions caused by inheritance practices had produced a system of incredible inefficiency. Many peasants owned over one hundred separate pieces of land, some as small as one square foot. With every passing generation, peasants divided the land into more and smaller holdings in order to pass land on to all of their male children. Despite the high quality of the land, productivity remained scarcely above what it had been in the Middle Ages.

The leaders of Sweden began taking steps to rectify the situation. The first attempt was the Storskifte Act of 1757. Under this law, at the request of only one landowner, the process of land consolidation could begin. A surveyor held a series of meetings with the village landowners. Here, they sought to find a redistribution plan to which all could agree. In the end, the 1757 Act produced limited results. Although many strips were consolidated, landed peasants still often retained twelve to fifteen separate pieces of land, and sometimes much more.

The ineffectiveness of the Storskifte Act showed some of the inherent difficulties in finding a solution to the land problem. Soil quality and distance to the village center varied slightly from one piece of land to the next. This made it difficult for landowners to agree on which land was of equal value in order to conduct fair exchanges and consolidations. It would take something more far-reaching than the Storskifte Act to bring about effective change.

One of the most important steps toward a nationwide solution took place only a few miles from where my ancestors lived. The man behind it was Baron Rutger Maclean, the wealthy estate owner of Svaneholm. His lands included three thousand hectares, which made up much of four villages. McClean had grown frustrated with the low productivity on his land and the impossibility of finding people to work the land far from the village centers. So, in 1783, he took a drastic step.

With the help of a surveyor, McClean re-divided all the land under his jurisdiction. Each plot became a rectangular shaped farm of about sixteen hectares. He enacted other changes also, replacing the corvée system (in which tenant farmers had to work a certain number of days for the landlord) with cash payments and introducing mandatory crop rotations policies. But, the change in land distribution made the biggest impact.

The peasants on McClean’s land didn’t exactly greet the policy changes with open arms. First, they viewed the land assignments as unfair. Perhaps more importantly, the new system disrupted an entire way of life. Long narrow strips had allowed peasants to live near one another in small villages, which formed tight-knit social supports for the people. The obliteration of the strip-fields also meant the obliteration of the village. Most of the houses in the village center were torn down (a few of the newer and sturdier homes were allowed to stay standing). All of the peasant families had to move to their new rectangular plot of land and rebuild their homes, far away from one another.

In addition, the expense incurred by moving imposed an economic hardship on most peasants. Besides the cost of the new home itself, the time and energy required to rebuild cut drastically into the time they could spend working their land. Later as the changes spread, the government provided some financial relocation support. However for most peasants, the support proved inadequate.

Peasants resisted with all the energy and power they had. Those who could move, did so. Others complained bitterly. A number of Maclean’s tenants revoked their contracts. Some had to be forcibly relocated to the new farms. A few even committed suicide. However, in the end, the reformations went forward. And the result was astounding. Within a decade, Maclean reported significant increases in production.

By the 1790s, nearby large landholders began enacting similar changes. Many were impressed by the jump in production on Maclean’s lands. Others were inspired by the very condition that caused the peasants’ distress -- the destruction of the village. In the closing years of the eighteenth century, social unrest was spreading throughout Europe and into Sweden. Poor harvests intensified the situation. At the end of 1799, riots filled the streets in Malmö and Ystad. Large landowners grew nervous. The land reforms offered the perfect way to thin out population centers, minimizing the likelihood of peasants banding together. In other words, more than just a land reform, enskifte worked as a mechanism of social control.

The forced rearrangements didn’t reach the rest of Skåne until several years later. In 1803, King Gustavus IV passed the Enskifte Decree, intending to begin the consolidation of peasant landholdings into one solid piece. The king stated that the primary motivation was the need for improved productivity and efficiency on the land. However, many believed the king had acted to protect the “public safety.” Estate owners expressed their support of the “divide and conquer” philosophy.

Similarly to storskifte, the enskifte process began at the request of one or more village resident. After a landowner submitted a request, a surveyor appraised the land in the village and then divided it into (preferably square-shaped) plots. Peasants then drew lots to assign the plots.

Once again, the law was met with great resistance. Throughout much of Sweden, little progress occurred until the even more radical laga skifte reforms went through in 1827. However, in Malmöhus County (located in Skåne), it was enskifte that rearranged the lives of the villagers. In most villages, at least one landowning peasant was willing to initiate the process. Often, the process had support than from few others than the one initiator though. The mayor of Malmö recorded that the enskifte decree descended like “an enemy bomb” on the peasants in the area. A number of people immigrated to Denmark. Surveyors went about their jobs with loaded pistols for self-protection.

Because the enskifte process was individually begun, in each village it followed a different timeline. Changes occurred in some villages near the beginning of the 1800s, while not in others for twenty years later.

Emigration (19th century)

Records show only ninety-four people emigrating from combined Sweden and Norway in the entire decade of the 1820s. In the 1830s, that number barely reached one thousand.

But as with religion, the stage was being set. Conditions in Sweden in the early nineteenth century began making emigration to America look more attractive. While land in Sweden was becoming a difficult-to-come-by commodity, rumors spread about miles of open land available for free in America. The enskifte movement and other government actions such as forced military service also frustrated many of the peasants, accentuating their lack of freedoms. Finally, the great weakening of social links brought on by the break-up of the village caused people to feel fewer ties to their homes.

Similarly, the emigration movement began gaining strength in the 1840s. Still, emigration from Sweden and Norway combined for the entire decade still reached only less than fourteen thousand. Those who did emigrate came from backgrounds similar to the Nilsson family. They were small farmers from the middle and lower-middle class. Wealthy peasants had no reason to leave, and the poorest of the laborers couldn’t afford to do so. People generally emigrated in families, or even larger groups during this period.

Emigrants from Skåne weren’t nearly as numerous as from some of the middle and northern Swedish provinces where population density was greater and land quality was poor.

By the 1850s, the emigration movement in Sweden was gaining momentum, although it was still only a shadow of what it would become. About twenty-one thousand Swedes and Norwegians emigrated during that decade. Throughout the next several decades, these numbers continued to grow. Emigration reached its peak in the 1880s when just under four hundred thousand people left from Sweden alone.

In absolute terms, emigration from other larger European countries such as Germany dwarfed Swedish emigration. However, in comparison to the population of Sweden, the numbers were astounding. In the 1880s, for example, seven percent of the population of Sweden emigrated, mostly to America. Overall, one million Swedes emigrated to the U.S between 1830 and 1930. By 1910, one in five Swedes lived in America.

Emigration came to be a very real choice. Everybody knew someone who was leaving. And yet still, immigration must have seemed like almost an unimaginable option. Previous to this sweeping emigration movement, most peasants hadn’t even traveled far outside of their parish boundaries. Travel for leisure was basically unheard of among the common people. Even when people moved, they settled within a small radius of their original location.