Nordic history

This article describes old towns and other remnants in the Nordic countries from the unification of Sweden, Norway and Denmark in the 11th century, to the Industrial Revolution of the mid-19th century.


Nordic countries
Denmark (Faroe Islands, Greenland), Finland (Åland), Iceland, Norway, Sami culture, Sweden
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Nordic history: • Vikings & Old NorseDanish EmpireSwedish EmpireMonarchies

Though Norway, Finland and Iceland became independent countries only during the 20th century, the Nordic countries have, in many ways, been forerunners for the creation of the nation-state. Since AD 930, Iceland has had the oldest surviving national parliament (though there were lengthy times when it was either not in session, suspended or had little say in anything). Denmark has been a sovereign kingdom since the 8th century, and its flag was adopted during the 13th century, as the world's first known national flag that is still in use. Sweden has the world's longest continuous census records, started in the 17th century for conscription to the army, as well as the world's oldest central bank, founded in 1668. The Norwegian Eidsvoll Code of 1814, which is still Norway's constitution, was considered to be one of the most democratic constitutions for its time.


See also: Ice Age traces, Vikings and the Old Norse
Borgund stave church. Wooden churches used to be common in northern Europe, but only a few medieval ones have survived. As some of them were built when paganism was still remembered, they might give a clue about the architecture of Old Norse temples, of which none remain.

The ice covering the Scandinavian peninsula during the Ice Age began to melt away around 10,000 BCE, with human settlement soon to follow. The first written mentions of the Nordic population were made by Roman historians such as Tacitus. The Goths who replaced the Western Roman Empire had supposed Nordic origin. From the 8th to the 11th century, the Norse became notorious during the Viking Age as pirates, mercenaries and colonists across Europe. Most historical sources about them are either written by their adversaries, or oral tradition written down centuries later.

Christianization of the North was a lengthy process which began in the 9th century, with Saint Ansgar the best-known missionary. Around AD 1000 the first Nordic kings were baptized; Harald Bluetooth of Denmark, Saint Olaf of Norway, and Olof Skötkonung of Sweden. While kings and priests enforced Christianity and Latin script, the Viking raids continued until the late 11th century, and pagan beliefs and runes survived as folklore until modern times; see Nordic folk culture.

Middle Ages

See also: Skaraborg history tour

In Nordic historiography, the Middle Ages and Nordic history (superseding Nordic prehistory) are considered to have begun in the mid-11th century, with the establishment of Christianity, the unification of Sweden, Denmark and Norway, and a gradual increase of written records. Most medieval literature is from the 13th century or later, consisting of provincial laws, letters, and chronicles.

The territories that became Finland were pagan, with few Christian churches, and scarce written records, until Swedish kings went on crusades to Christianize and annex what now is Finland in the 12th and 13th centuries. The Swedes clashed with Russian Orthodox missionaries from Novgorod in Karelia, which has since then remained a borderland between Nordic and Slavic culture.

With Christianity and monarchy came masonry architecture, which lasted the test of time better than the wooden buildings typical to the Nordic countries. Among the few surviving wooden medieval buildings are Norway's stave churches.

In 1397, Sweden (which included Finland), Norway and Denmark (which included Iceland) were united under the Kalmar Union. Thereby, all populated territories of the Nordic countries were united under the same crown for a century.

The Hanseatic League controlled much of Nordic overseas trade during the Middle Ages, and German merchants dominated many of the cities.

Early modern age

The Vasa, a Swedish war galleon, sank in the Stockholm harbor in 1628. It can be seen at the Vasa Museum in Djurgården, Stockholm.
In February 1658, Swedish king Charles X Gustav led his army across the ice of the Great Belt, against all odds, and forced the Danes to surrender. In the subsequent Roskilde Treaty, Sweden annexed Scania and other territories.
See also: Early modern Europe, Swedish Empire, Danish Empire

In the 16th century, Sweden broke away from the Kalmar Union. Denmark revoked Norwegian autonomy in 1536. Swedish and Danish kings enforced the Protestant Reformation, breaking up with the Holy See, and confiscating church property. In Nordic historiography, these events mark the end of the Middle Ages, and the event of the Early Modern Age. To this day, Lutheranism remains the state religion in all Nordic countries, though nowadays they are largely secular societies with only a minority of people attending church regularly.

This period was marked by rivalry between the Swedish and Danish empires, as well as external enemies; first the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, later the Russian Empire. Borders have changed many times, mostly through war. Much of the Baltic states and northern Germany came under Swedish and Danish rule.

Sweden assembled wealth from mining and metalworking (where Walloon metallurgists were instrumental). To secure firewood supply for the industry, the king ordered his scientist to find a way to lessen firewood use in houses. The result was the masonry contra-flow stove, which among the rich was built as cocklestoves (kakelugn). The invention had long-going impact, through changed housing and forest use, by time in much of Europe and North America.

Sweden reached the height of its power as the Thirty Years' War ended in 1648, and came to nearly encircle the Baltic Sea. In the 18th century the Nordic countries were rivalled by the rising Russian Empire, which annexed the land around Saint Petersburg, the Baltic States, and later Finland.

Denmark had some small colonies in India (including the Nicobar Islands), West Africa and the Caribbean, with some participation in the Atlantic slave trade. Sweden had Saint-Barthélemy and short-lived colonies in present-day Delaware and West Africa. The only traces of Swedish and Danish rule in these territories are some place names, and some slave forts on the West African coast that were built for the Atlantic slave trade. Greenland and the Faroe Islands continue to be Danish dependencies. The Danish empire came to an end when the Faroes gained full internal self-government in 1948 and Greenland did in 1953.

19th century

Norway celebrates its National Day on May 17 to commemorate the adoption of the 1814 Eidsvoll Code, which remains Norway's constitution. Parade in Stockholm

While Sweden and Denmark tried to stay out of the Napoleonic Wars, Sweden was attacked by Russia in 1808, resulting in Sweden losing its eastern half, Finland, and Denmark was attacked by Britain and joined the French alliance. The Kiel treaty of January 1814 forced Denmark to cede Norway to the Swedish crown, putting an end to its hold on the Scandinavian peninsula. The Norwegians did not like the arrangement and signed the Eidsvoll Code (a new constitution, very radical for its time) on May 17 the same year. During the summer, Sweden invaded Norway and forced it into the personal union as prescribed by the treaty, ending its six months of independence.

Under pressure from Russia and Germany, a Scandinavian Union was proposed during the mid-19th century, but was never realized. From the 1840s to the 1910s, millions of Nordic people emigrated to the United States; as many as a quarter of the population of Norway and Sweden (more than half of some parishes) found new homes across the Atlantic. They left a mark mostly in the Midwestern states and around the Great Lakes, where some aspects of Nordic culture are still celebrated in things like the name of sports teams. A group of Danish settlers made it as far as California, where they would found the town of Solvang, which remains known today for its Danish bakeries.

With the exception of the mining and metalworking in Bergslagen, the Nordic countries were among the last in western Europe to industrialize. In the late 19th century, the Swedish government lifted many guild laws and allowed free enterprise, as well as railway expansion. Sweden and Norway used rivers for hydroelectric power, and electrified rapidly in the early 20th century, with infrastructure projects such as the Norrbotten Megasystem around the railway between Luleå and Narvik.

From the late 19th to the early 20th century, Nordic explorers revealed the last blank spots on the globe. Finland-Swedish geologist Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld led the first expedition through the Northeastern Passage around Russia in 1878–1880, completing the first circumnavigation of Eurasia; returning through the newly opened Suez Canal. Swedish explorer Sven Hedin finished the charting of Central Asia around 1900. Norwegian mariner Roald Amundsen led the first ship through the Northwestern Passage in 1903, and the first expedition to the South Pole in 1911. His countryman Fridtjof Nansen explored the inner parts of Greenland and Siberia, and used his fame for humanitarian efforts in World War I.

Independence and World Wars


Until 1905, Sweden and Denmark were the only sovereign Nordic states. While Finland, Iceland and Norway were subjects under the Russian, Danish and Swedish crown respectively, each of them had a flourishing nationalist movement since the mid-19th century, with the rise of vernacular literature, composers such as Edvard Grieg and Jean Sibelius, romanticist art featuring historical scenes and Norse mythology, and an ambition to preserve the rural folk culture which was displaced by a modern urban lifestyle. The world's first living history museums were Skansen in Stockholm, and Norsk Folkemuseum in Oslo. Norway broke away from Sweden in 1905. As the Russian revolution in 1917 allowed Finland to declare independence, a grim civil war followed.

World War II divided the Nordic countries. Denmark and Norway were seized by the Germans, and Iceland by the Allies. Finland was attacked by the Soviet Union, and fought it first alone in the Winter War, then with Germany in the Continuation War; preferring the term "co-belligerent" instead of "ally". However, Finland switched sides towards the end of the war and expelled the Nazis from Finnish territory in the Lapland War, in return for the Soviets agreeing to respect Finnish sovereignty, at the cost of having to cede part of Karelia to the Soviet Union and being made to promise to remain neutral and not join any military alliances. Sweden was nominally neutral, but made several concessions to Germany; exporting iron and other materials, and allowing German troop transitions to Norway and Finland. In the late stage of the war, Sweden launched rescue operations to continental Europe. Denmark distinguished itself by helping its Jewish population largely escape Nazi persecution through a concerted effort of the Danish resistance and neutral Sweden, which received most of the refugees.

Iceland was bloodlessly occupied by Britain and later by the United States, with foreign soldiers coming to outnumber the adult male Icelanders; today, many citizens have British or American ancestry. In 1944, Iceland voted for independence, restoring its millennial republican tradition.

Postwar history


During the Cold War, Norway, Denmark and Iceland joined NATO, while Sweden and Finland maintained different levels of non-alignment. Finnish President Urho Kekkonen served for 25 years, and was best known for his appeasement policy towards the Soviet Union. The Soviet influence coined the generic term Finlandization, described by cartoonist Kari Suomalainen as "bowing to the East without mooning the West". Nordic cooperation developed, with the Nordic Council, a passport union and a common labour market introduced in the 1950s. This allowed Finland to domestically maintain a Western-style democracy and market economy, while also having somewhat cordial relations with the Soviet Union on its border. The young Finnish nation became a forerunner in modern architecture; see Functionalist architecture in Finland.

While all Nordic countries remained democratic market economies integrated with the Western world, "Scandinavian socialism" and the welfare state reached its apex in the 1980s; while many public services have been privatized since then, taxes in these countries are still among the world's highest. Education and healthcare are free or heavily subsidized. Norway became one of the richest countries in the world (and one of the most expensive for visitors) when large quantities of oil were discovered off its coast, the revenues of which are not used directly, but invested in a state held fund. The Nordic countries would also become bastions of progressive politics, and regularly rank among the highest in gender equality, with the world's highest proportions of women in senior leadership positions, as well as very generous maternity and paternity leave.

Iceland famously fought three separate "cod wars" against the United Kingdom. These basically consisted of Iceland unilaterally declaring ever larger territorial waters off limits to foreign fishery and then enforcing it with its coast guard. Although Iceland has no military and only a token police force under arms, the small island nation faced down the mighty Royal Navy and won.

While Denmark, Sweden and Finland joined the European Union, Finland is the only Nordic country to have adopted the euro. EU accession is a political "third rail" in Norway and goes across all other ideological divides and as such coalition agreements usually include a clause not to discuss the issue. Iceland has historically been EU-sceptical, mostly due to fisheries (which are hugely important for the small island nation) and while this looked to be changing in the course of the financial crisis, EU accession is not planned as of 2024. That said, all Nordic countries (but not Greenland) are part of EEA and the Schengen Area, and citizens of all EU countries have the right of abode in all Nordic countries and vice-versa.

The Sami people have lived in the north since time immemorial, but their land was annexed by the Nordic kingdoms, and they had to wait to the late 20th century to be recognized as a nation, with representation in the Nordic Council. Other now recognised minorities include the Roma people and the Jews. Finland got Jewish and Tatar immigrants through the Russian Empire. While the Nordic countries have always had some migration between them, and immigration of experts from certain European countries was instrumental for the industrialisation, large-scale immigration from other parts of the world came after World War II. Sweden, Norway and Denmark have immigrant communities from Africa and Asia. Immigration to Finland was uncommon until the 1990s.

In the wake of Russia's invasion of Ukraine in 2022, Finland and Sweden abandoned their long-standing traditions of military neutrality and joined NATO.


Map of Nordic history

Nordic old towns were largely untouched by the World Wars, except parts of Finland and some towns in Norway. As in many other countries in Europe, many city centres were redeveloped in the post-war period.

This list focuses on cities and settlements that have been largely preserved since at least the late 19th century, or places of great historical importance.



Denmark was unified in the 10th century, and is among the world's oldest independent countries. Furthermore the ruling house on the Danish throne is one of the oldest reigning houses in existence. The Danish Empire included Norway and Iceland for many centuries, as well as territories around the Baltic Sea.

  • 1 Copenhagen. The capital.
  • 2 Roskilde. Hosts a cathedral recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Remembered for the 1658 Roskilde treaty, where Denmark lost its territory in present-day Sweden, including Scania.
  • 3 Helsingör. The Kronborg castle is the setting of Shakespeare's Hamlet, but the city's real-life history is interesting as well. Together with Helsingborg they guard the Öresund; the main inlet to the Baltic Sea, which gave Denmark an important role in commerce.
  • 4 The Medieval Center (Middelaldercentret), Ved Hamborgskoven 2, Sundby Lolland (Nykøbing Falster), +45 5486 1934, fax: +45 5486 1934, .



The outlier of the Nordic nations, Finnish language and folklore are Finno-Ugric, tracing its roots to the Urals, and culturally linked with Karelia, much of which is in Russia. Beginning in the 12th century, Swedish kings step by step conquered and christened Finland, and installed a Swedish-speaking clerical and noble elite. To what extent there had been earlier Swedish immigration is debated, but regardless, the vast majority of Swedish-speaking Finns have been fishermen and farmers living by the coasts. Finland was annexed by Russia in 1809 as a Grand Duchy, keeping its Swedish laws, religion (Russia was Orthodox) and language. While the nationalist movement thrived during the 19th century, with the Swedish-speaking educated class in a key position, Finland became independent only with the Russian Revolution in 1917. Finland is still bilingual by constitution.

  • 5 Turku (Åbo). Finland's oldest city and first capital, founded by Swedes in the 13th century, and a stronghold for the Swedish-speaking minority. The castle hosts a historic museum. Luostarinmäki, a neighbourhood of the 18th century, is preserved as an open-air museum. Forum Marinum has the 19th-century barque Sigyn and many newer vessels.
  • 6 Bomarsund on Åland has ruins of a mighty 19th century fortress, destroyed in the Crimean War.
  • Helsinki, as capital, hosts the historic museum of Finland. Suomenlinna (Sveaborg) is a large 18th-century fortress on the islands off its shore.
  • Porvoo (Borgå) got its city rights in 1380. Its medieval layout can be seen in the wooden old town, with buildings from the 18th and 19th century.
  • Rauma (Raumo) got city rights in 1442, having had a Franciscan monastery before that. It is foremost known for its dialect, its seafaring traditions and its wooden old town, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
  • Savonlinna (Nyslott) has the world's northernmost medieval stone castle, Olavinlinna (Olofsborg), built at the Kalmar Union border to the Novgorod realm. The castle, by sounds of the Saimaa archipelago, hosts a yearly opera festival.
  • Siida in Inari hosts a museum on the Sámi, including an open-air museum.



Iceland was settled by Norsemen during the 9th century, and later became a subject of Norway, and later Denmark. The United Kingdom seized Iceland bloodlessly during World War II, and it declared independence from Denmark in 1944.

While Iceland hardly has any monumental architecture, Medieval turf houses and stone churches can be found. The country's heritage is expressed through literature and handicraft. Iceland prides itself as having the oldest parliamentary body – Alþing – which was however not in session for part of the 19th century and transformed its role from judicative to legislative several times.

  • 7 Reykjavík. Iceland's oldest settlement and by far the biggest city in Iceland.


  • 8 Oslo. Though founded as early as 1048, Oslo's history as a seat of national government is rather short. It became the capital around 1300; in 1348, Norway became the subject of Denmark. A fire devastated Oslo in 1624; the rebuilt city was renamed Christiania (not to be confused with the similarly-named neighbourhood in Copenhagen) after King Christian IV of Denmark; the original name Oslo was restored after Norwegian independence. Norway was ceded to Sweden in 1814, and became independent in 1905.
  • 9 Trondheim. Dominated by the Gothic Nidaros Cathedral. From 1152 until the Protestant Reformation, Trondheim (or Nidaros as it was called) was the seat of the Archbishop of Norway (present-day Norway plus Iceland, Orkney and Shetland).
  • 10 Vardø. At the border to Russia, this town has the world's northernmost fortress.



Sweden was a subject of Denmark during the Late Middle Ages, but broke away in the 1520s under the rule of Gustav Vasa, who brought Sweden through the Protestant Reformation. Sweden defeated the Danes in several wars during the 16th and 17th century, annexing the peninsular provinces one by one, and has remained the dominant Nordic nation since then. Its best known ruler, Gustav II Adolf, also known by his latinized name Gustavus Adolphus, intervened in the Thirty Years War on the protestant side and came to be known as a "martyr" of sorts, dying in battle in 1632 at only 37 years of age. His legacy was a strong Sweden with possessions far into what is now Germany and for almost a century, Sweden became a major power on the European stage.

  • 11 Stockholm. Sweden's capital since the 13th century. As Finland and Estonia were parts of Sweden, and Lappland was not fully integrated, Stockholm was a natural centre of Sweden. For an indoor tour of Swedish history, visit the Museum of Medieval Stockholm, the Historical Museum, the Vasa Museum (dedicated mostly to the eponymous ship), the Nordic Museum, and Skansen.
    • 1 Vaxholm Fortress (Vaxholms fästning) (Vaxholm, Stockholm archipelago). A fortress which has guarded Stockholm's harbour since the 16th century, and famously resisted an attack by the Russian Empire in 1719. Over the centuries, an extensive coastal defense system was built across the archipelago, with Vaxholm as its headquarters. The fortress was also used as a prison. Some scenes of a 1970 Pippi Longstocking film was shot here. Since 2003, the fortress is a museum.
    • 2 Vasa Museum (Vasamuseet), Galärvarvsvägen 14 (Stockholm/Djurgården). This museum displays the Vasa, an original warship built for the Thirty Years War which sank in Stockholm Harbour on its maiden voyage in 1628, during the heyday of Swedish Empire. Salvaged in 1961, the ship is almost wholly preserved, and is the only one of its kind and quality in the world. A must-see, especially since it is uncertain whether current methods of preservation will be able to maintain her condition in years to come. There are adequate lifts to enable travellers with motion disabilities to see all levels of the ship. The museum contains several side exhibitions: full-scale models of the people whose bodies were found in the ship hulk, as well as wooden sculptures, the world's oldest preserved sail, and other salvaged objects.
Skansen contains heritage buildings from all around Sweden.
    • 3 Skansen, Main entrance from Djurgårdsvägen (Stockholm/Djurgården). Founded in 1891, Skansen is the world's oldest open-air museum, containing a zoological garden specializing in Nordic fauna, such as moose, reindeer, bear, wolf, lynx and wolverine. It features over 150 historic buildings from previous centuries, from all parts of Sweden. Guides in historic costumes further enhance this attraction, and demonstrate domestic crafts such as weaving, spinning, and glass blowing.
    • 4 Nordiska Museet, Djurgårdsvägen 6-16 (Stockholm/Djurgården). The Nordic Museum A museum of cultural history from 1520 to our days, having celebrated its own 100-year anniversary, in an impressive cathedral-like building on Djurgården. Exhibitions focus on Swedish handicraft, customs and traditions.
    • Stockholm history tour, a walk through the major events in Stockholm's history, from the Viking Age to present day
  • 12 Uppsala. Seat of the Swedish archbishop, and Scandinavia's first university.
  • 13 Sigtuna. Sweden's capital before the 13th century.
  • 14 Skara. Among the oldest cities in northern Europe, founded in AD 990 and the seat of Sweden's first bishop. A cathedral which was built from AD 1000 and onwards.
  • 15 Kalmar. The Kalmar Union, founded in 1397, has been the only permanent union of the Nordic countries, though there was some attempts to revive the union during the 19th century.
  • 16 Vadstena. Home of Saint Bridget of Sweden.
  • Dalarna: While Dalabergslagen in the south-east contained much of Sweden's mining industry, the area around Lake Siljan is considered the archetype of Swedish folk culture. The province also has a rebellious tradition; several peasant uprisings against the central government have begun in Dalarna.
    • 17 Falun. The copper mine has not only brought revenue to the Swedish government; it has also created two by-products, which have become Swedish icons. Falu Rödfärg is the red paint that covers most countryside houses in Sweden. Falukorv, a sausage originally made from the mine's draft oxen, is a staple food across Sweden.
    • 18 Mora. Gustav Eriksson Vasa, who became the first king of independent Sweden, got the first support for his uprising against Danish king Kristian II here. His quest through Dalarna is commemorated through the annual Vasaloppet ski race.



Gotland was mostly independent, briefly under Danish and Teutonic rule, until it was integrated into Sweden in 1645.



Sweden's southern provinces (Scania, Halland, Blekinge and Bohuslän) were annexed during the 17th century. Especially in Scania, the Danish heritage is still ubiquitous.

  • 20 Lund. Famous for its cathedral and university.



Just like the Finns, the Estonians are a Finno-Ugric people which was Christianized during the Northern Crusades. The coast was partially colonized by Denmark, Sweden and the Teutonic Order. It was conquered by the Russian Empire, but became independent during the Russian revolution, before being conquered by the Soviet Union during World War II. Estonia only regained its independence after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Due to their shared history as part of the Soviet Union, Estonia is commonly grouped with Latvia and Lithuania as one of the Baltic States, but many Estonians feel a kinship with the Finns and see their country as more Nordic than Baltic.

  • 21 Tallinn. Held by Denmark and Sweden for most of its history. The very name of the city means "Danish town" in Estonian.

See also

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