Thursday, 2 August 2012

What to see: The funerary regalia of Gustaf I, Johan III and their queens, Uppsala

The Swedes have a penchant for opening the graves of their monarchs, a practice which is perhaps ethically debatable, but has, on the other hand, provided much of interest for scientist, historians and art historians, including the chance to see the regalia with which past kings and queens were buried.
The largest collection is to be found in the treasury of Uppsala Cathedral, housed in one of the great church’s towers, where one may view the regalia from the graves of King Gustaf I and his three wives as well as King Johan III and his two wives.
Before his death in 1560, King Gustaf I (in recent years popularly but unhistorically known as “Gustaf Vasa”) had chosen the Chapel of Our Lady behind the high altar in Uppsala Cathedral as the place of his burial. His coffin was taken there together with those of his first two wives, Catharina (of Saxe-Lauenburg) and Margareta (Leijonhufvud), who died in 1535 and 1551 respectively and had until then rested in the Cathedral of Stockholm. Atop the coffins were life-size wax effigies, each wearing royal regalia which were buried with the king and queens.
King Gustaf’s crown is of gilt silver and very simple. For his coronation the following year, Gustaf’s eldest son, Erik XIV, ordered a sumptuous new crown (which remains the royal crown of Sweden), which, together with the funerary crowns of his parents and stepmother, marks the introduction of arched crowns in Sweden as opposed to the older open crowns. However, these three crowns, and in particular that of the King, look like the crown ring and the arches do not really belong together. The two queens’ crowns are made by the Stockholm goldsmith Hans Rosenfelt, while the maker of Gustaf I’s crown is unknown. Rosenfelt also made the three identical sceptres of gilt silver for King Gustaf, Queen Catharina and Queen Margareta. The three crowns may be seen in the first photo, while the second shows the sceptres.
Gustaf I’s third wife, Queen Catharina (Stenbock), outlived him by 61 years and it was consequently only in 1621, by which all his sons were dead and Sweden was well into the reign of his grandson Gustaf II Adolf, the last male of the Swedish Vasa dynasty, that she was buried in Uppsala Cathedral. From her grave one has removed a small and unfortunately rather damaged crown of pearls held together by silver thread (third photo), which the long-lived queen may well have worn during her lifetime (one is almost reminded of the small diamond crown made for Queen Victoria of Britain in 1870).
The funerary regalia of Gustaf I’s second son, the art-loving King Johan III, who died in 1592, and his wives are more elaborate than those of the previous generations. King Johan’s funerary crown is of pure gold and set with real emerald and almandines, a sort of garnets, while his sceptre and orb are both of gold set with almandines. The funerary crown of his first wife, Catharina Jagellonica, is also of gold and set with sapphires, pearls and almandines, but, rather economically, undecorated on those parts of the crown which would not be visible when the crown was worn by a dead body lying in a coffin. These two crowns are pictured in the fourth photo, while the fifth shows the sceptres of Johan III and his two wives as well as the King’s orb.
Queen Catherina’s sceptre is one of the most unusual items among the funerary regalia and was probably used by her already during her lifetime. It is made of agate and ebony wood and has a handle of gold set with turquoises and almandines. On its top are a large amethyst and a somewhat smaller sapphire, while an amethyst is also found at the bottom of the sceptre. The regalia of Johan III’s second wife, Queen Gunilla (Bielke), are much simpler, comprising a crown (sixth photo), a sceptre and an orb, all of them of undecorated gilt silver.
There are also two swords among the Vasa regalia, one made in Germany around 1540 which belonged to Gustaf I and has an engraving of Adam and Eve in gilt silver on its scabbard (seventh photo), and a simpler one which belonged to Johan III.
It seems the Vasa graves in Uppsala Cathedral were rarely left in peace, and that visitors were allowed to view not only the tombs, but the coffins and even the remains themselves. The coffins were opened on a number of occasions and in 1856 the funerary regalia of Johan III and his wives were permanently removed to be put on display in the Cathedral. Later the regalia of Gustaf I and his wives have also been removed from the coffins and now form part of the collections to be seen in the Cathedral’s treasury.
Today the funerary regalia of Queen Maria Eleonora, the widow of Gustaf II Adolf, are apparently the only ones left in their grave, while those of other kings and queens may be seen in cathedrals and museums. The tradition of burying Swedish kings and queens with regalia came to an end with King Carl XI and his wife Ulrika Eleonora the Elder, who decreed that no such regalia should be made for them.
The only piece of funerary regalia subsequently made is the crown made for the funeral of Dowager Queen Lovisa Ulrika in 1782, but this was not buried with her and remains in use for the funerals of Swedish kings and queens, most recently the funeral of King Gustaf VI Adolf in 1973.


  1. King Gustaf I (in recent years popularly but unhistorically known as “Gustaf Vasa”)

    How was he known during his lifetime? Gustaf Eriksson before his accession and King Gustaf afterwards? Incidentally, I recall reading that it was after his accession that Swedish nobles began to identify themselves with surnames; was this due to any influence of his?

    1. Yes, he was known as "Gustaf Eriksson", "King Gustaf" and, of course, "the King". Until about a century ago he was usually known as "Gustaf I", but then people took to calling him "Gustaf Vasa". The King himself never used the surname "Vasa", so it cannot possibly have been due to any influence from him that noble families eventually began to use names derived from their arms.


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