Sweden’s rise to the status of a European ‘great power’ in the early modern period can be traced back to a single, decisive victory against an invading Danish army in 1471.
Shortly after midday on 10 October of that year, Danish soldiers encamped on the northern outskirts of Stockholm, the Swedish capital, left their earthworks atop the prominent Brunkeberg ridge to counter-attack the local militia that had staged two unsuccessful assaults on them during the late morning.
The close-quarters fighting raged for half a mile along the western base of the Brunkeberg. Swedish peasant farmers held their ground with spears and polearms as Danish and German men-at-arms hacked and slashed with halberds, battle axes, and two-handed swords. Crossbowmen on both sides added their fire to the bloody work at hand.
At stake was the political, geographic, and economic future of the Swedish kingdom. The Swedes had lived in the shadow of Danish hegemony for more than seven decades since it had joined the other Nordic kingdoms in uniting their crowns at the end of the 14th century. The Swedish people, however, had long since grown weary of the arrangement.
The Kalmar Union
The three Nordic kingdoms of Denmark, Sweden, and Norway combined their crowns in 1397 under a single monarch, Queen Margaret of Denmark. The agreement, known as the Kalmar Union, was intended to consolidate power in order that they could compete with the might of the Holy Roman Empire and the monopolistic tactics of the Hanseatic League.
All three kingdoms had consensual monarchies, whereby an assembly of noblemen voted on eligible candidates of royal blood regardless of whether the aristocrat in question was a native or foreign-born. The Danes were the dominant member of the Union, and administered it from Copenhagen. But after Margaret’s death in 1412, the Swedes became increasingly disillusioned with the arrangement.
One of the principal difficulties with the Union was the centuries-old rivalry between the Danes and Swedes. The agreement contained no requirement compelling the Swedes to participate, so if they opted not to ratify a candidate, they were free to appoint their imperial constable to serve as a regent, or even to elect their own king. Danish monarchs who gained the crown of Sweden invariably alienated the Swedes by assigning Danes or pro-Danish Germans to serve as burghers, sheriffs, and castellans in Sweden. Moreover, the Danes taxed the Swedes heavily and stifled their burgeoning copper and iron-ore mining industry.
Charles VIII’s disjointed reign
In 1448, the Swedes elected nobleman Karl Knutsson as king, and he was crowned Charles VIII of Sweden. His disjointed reign, in which he tried to consolidate royal power, was fraught with difficulty. Charles was deposed twice, and as a result sat on the throne three times. When he was deposed the first time, in 1457, the Swedes gave their crown to the Danish King Christian I, thus giving Christian a legitimate claim to the throne in the event of future disputes.
The Swedes restored Charles to the throne following a successful rebellion in 1464. But his second reign was short-lived because the pro-Union Swedish nobility unseated him again. Engulfed in what was for all intents and purposes a civil war, the trade-oriented members of the nobility put Charles on the throne for a third time in 1467.
Charles VIII ruled until his death in May 1470, at which time he bequeathed the royal demesne to his nephew, Sten Gustafsson Sture, in the hope that he would succeed him. Sten Sture had already proved on two occasions that Christian was no match for him on the field of battle: he had defeated Christian’s Danish army at Harakar in central Sweden in 1464, and three years later he defeated him again near Orsten in southern Sweden.
The Swedish Council of the Realm elected Sture to serve as their regent. But Christian saw Charles VIII’s death as an opportunity to reassert his claim to the throne. When the majority of the Swedes ignored his requests from Copenhagen that he be restored to the Swedish throne, he began assembling an invasion force to land outside Stockholm. The towns of the Hanseatic League, which were eager to control Swedish trade, furnished him with the majority of his ships.
Fortifying the Brunkeberg
Locals living near Stockholm, on Sweden’s east coast, watched in awe as the Danish fleet approached their island capital in mid-August 1471. Seventy-six ships weighed anchor in protected waters between the islands of Kapplingeholm and Vargo, just to the east of the island fortress of Stockholm, known as Gamla stan. On the mainland, directly north of the city, lay the low ridge running north to south known as the Brunkeberg, which was aimed like a dagger at Stockholm.
Christian had no intention of conducting a formal siege of Stockholm, for it was impossible to bring his ships close enough to the town, owing to the large protective wall that the Swedes had constructed in the channel leading in to Sweden from the east. In addition, fortified drawbridges on the north and south sides of the city made a landward assault impractical. Three Crowns Castle, an imposing medieval fortification on the site occupied by the Royal Palace today, anchored the north-eastern corner of Stockholm island.
Once the Danish host had landed, Christian issued orders for his 3,000 Danish regulars and feudal levies and 3,000 German mercenaries to begin constructing a fortified encampment on the Brunkeberg. The invaders felled trees on the ridge to construct a wooden palisade to thwart an attack from any direction. They excavated dirt for earthen ramparts behind the palisade, and cut openings at regular intervals in the palisade for their artillery.
While negotiations between Christian and Swedish officials continued, 1,000 pro-Union Swedish troops joined the Danish and German troops in their field fortifications. Meanwhile, the 2,500 soldiers of the Stockholm garrison commanded by Knut Posse made no attempt to interfere with the Danish landing or the fortifying of the Brunkeberg.
Mobilising a peasant army
Christian tried again to persuade the Swedes to restore their crown to him. The Swedish Council of the Realm had no intention of giving in to Christian’s demands. Sten Sture sought to stall him long enough to raise a field army to drive out the invaders. He persuaded Christian to agree to a truce whereby neither side would take offensive action before 1 October.
Sten Sture set out in early September for southern Sweden to recruit troops. At around the same time, Nils Sture, his cousin, who headed the Council of the Realm, went to central Sweden to recruit miners working in the province of Dalecarlia, as well as peasants from the region.
When Christian realised that he could not obtain the Swedish crown by threat of force alone, he took steps to prepare for battle with a Swedish army that would attempt to relieve Stockholm. But the Danish king made the classic error of dividing his forces in the face of the enemy in order to cover various contingencies.
He sent a corps to occupy St Klara’s Priory, which was situated west of the Brunkeberg. He did this to block the route by which he expected Sten Sture to return with a relief army. Christian also detached two divisions: one to block the north bridge into Stockholm, so that the Swedish garrison could not join the pending battle by land, and another to guard the road that led from the Brunkeberg to the Danish fleet’s anchorage.Sweden’s militia
Sweden’s King Magnus IV had outlawed slavery in 1335 in the few provinces of the country in which it was still practised, thus eliminating the last vestiges of hereditary enslavement. The lower-class working population of Sweden consisted of free farmers, miners, and hunters and fishermen, who lived in small communities. The lower strata of society also included burghers, which included merchants, artisans, tradesmen, and innkeepers. The king or regent could call on provincial assemblies to muster troops for the defence of the kingdom.
Although heavy cavalry dominated the battlefields of Europe throughout the Middle Ages, infantry became increasingly important in some regions in the second half of the 13th century. Small kingdoms, principalities, and independent republics fielded infantry armies to defend their lands against the traditional feudal armies of their larger neighbours. In this respect, the Swedish militia can be compared most closely to the rural populations of Scotland and the Swiss cantons.
In the late 13th and early 14th century, Scottish and Swiss armies had won pitched battles against their powerful neighbours. The Scots triumphed over the English at Stirling Bridge (1297) and Bannockburn (1314), while the Swiss defeated the Austrian Habsburgs at Morgarten (1315) and a Habsburg-Burgundian army at Laupen (1339). For foot soldiers drawn from the lower classes to succeed in battle against mounted knights, they had to be well led, well armed, and well articulated. They also needed to be well disciplined and highly motivated against their foe.
Sweden’s militia was organised by region. Indeed, its troops were some of the first in Europe to be organised in that manner. At Brunkeberg, the Swedish militia compensated for its lack of extensive military training through its knowledge of the terrain, large numbers, and patriotism. Even though they lacked the kind of lifelong training that men-at-arms from feudal societies possessed, these farmers, miners, and townspeople had gained experience in recent decades as a result of intermittent civil war and small wars with Denmark.
Members of the Swedish peasant militia wore iron helmets and either a breastplate or a gambeson (padded defensive jacket) for protection in battle. They fought with spears, halberds, and other types of pole weapons, as well as with bows and crossbows. One-tenth of the Swedish field army at Brunkeberg consisted of knights and men-at-arms, and the other nine-tenths were militia. The ratio of spearmen and halberdiers to archers and crossbowmen in the ranks of the field army was 2:1. The composition of the Swedish garrison, however, was of a more professional nature, and much like the Danish forces at Brunkeberg in that it included knights, hand-gunners, and artillerymen.
A clever trap
Sten Sture and his cousin Nils united their forces a few miles north of Stockholm on 9 October. That night they marched their 9,500 men towards Stockholm and deployed on the plain west of the ridge. When the Danes awoke, they found the Swedes arrayed for battle.
Sten Sture had devised a plan to crush the Danes by attacking them from two directions at once. He sent Nils with 2,000 Dalecarlians on a wide flanking march to the north, telling him to swing far enough around the northern end of the Brunkeberg to avoid detection by the Danes. Nils’ destination was the Ladugardslandet, an area of pasture where Stockholm residents grazed their cattle. From there, Nils would lead the Dalecarlians west to attack the Danes on the Brunkeberg.
Sten Sture also sent instructions to Knut Posse to attack the Danes from the south. To do this, the garrison commander would have to ferry his troops by small craft across the narrow strait between Stockholm and the mainland. Once ashore, Posse was to lead his men in an attack from the south against the Danish troops holding St Klara’s Priory. In this way, Sten Sture hoped not only to attack the Danish forces on the Brunkeberg from two sides at once, but also to do the same to the troops holding the priory.
The Swedish attack
The Swedish cannon opened fire on the Danish troops atop the ridge at 10am. The artillery inflicted some initial casualties on the Danes, who were tightly packed into their earthworks. The Danish guns on the ridge responded, but inflicted few casualties on the Swedes.
After the cannonade, Sten Sture sent his right wing into action against St Klara’s Priory. Swedish spearmen and halberdiers charged the Danish troops stationed around the priory. Danish cannon deployed on the grounds of the priory roared into life, and hand-gunners and crossbowmen alike poured a withering fire into the advancing Swedish troops. The Swedes fell back in disorder, but soon regrouped as the Danes did not follow them.
Sten Sture then sent his entire line, except for some of the troops opposite the priory, into action against the Danes on the Brunkeberg. The Swedish militia men advanced cautiously uphill, for they were reluctant to charge into the teeth of the Danish cannon, handgun, and crossbow fire. Sten Sture rode back and forth along his lines shouting words of encouragement. The Swedes recoiled in the face of the Danish cannon and missile fire. Since greater numbers were involved, the Swedish losses in the second attack were greater than those in the first. The Danes and Germans felt a keen sense of satisfaction because they believed the Swedish militia to be vastly inferior to them.
Sten Sture was not discouraged by the two failed assaults, however, for he could more easily replace his losses than Christian could. Moreover, he knew that the pending assaults by Nils Sture and Knut Posse were likely to throw the Danes off balance.
From his vantage point on the ridge, Christian discerned weaknesses in the Danish position at the priory. Fearing that it might be overrun, and believing that the Swedes were on the verge of defeat as a result of their two failed attacks, he decided to counter-attack. He had faith in his troops, and he believed they would be able to deliver a knockout blow to the enemy forces.
Leaving a token force behind to hold the earthworks atop the ridge, Christian led the cream of the Danish army down the west slope of the ridge. By that time, the Swedes had advanced their front line to the base of the hill, and close-quarters fighting raged along the rocky clearings and open woods there.
The Danish troops fought with considerable ardour, for they believed that they would soon taste victory. Initially, the Danes gained an advantage as their men were equipped with more modern weapons and better armoured. But the Swedes sought to make the overconfident Danes pay a heavy price for abandoning their superb defensive position. The fighting see-sawed back and forth as each side tried to gain a telling advantage over their foe. Although better armoured and armed than the Swedish militia, the Danes and Germans could make no headway against their opponents.
The arrival of the Stockholm garrison
Christian had correctly deduced that the Danish troops defending the priory faced grave danger. But the danger came from the arrival of the Swedish garrison, not from any real defect in their position.
Small boats began ferrying Swedes from Stockholm to the mainland shortly after midday. Unlike Sten Sture, who had remained at a safe distance behind the front line, Knut Posse led his troops in their attack on the priory. Exposed at the front of the Swedish formation advancing from the south, he was struck in the thigh by an enemy crossbow bolt. When Knut fell to the ground, a Danish soldier inflicted a mortal wound by cleaving through his helmet with a battle axe.
Since the grounds of the priory were relatively level, and hence better-suited for mounted operations, some of the Danish knights had remained on horseback. Swedish peasants used their pole weapons to haul these knights from their horses, and then bludgeoned them to death.
When Sten Sture observed that the Danes at the priory were under attack from the south, he directed some of his troops to renew their assault on the Danish regulars and German mercenaries defending the priory. Attacked simultaneously in the front and rear, the Danish position at the priory soon became untenable.
Panic grips the Danes
It had taken the Dalecarlians the entire morning to reach the Ladugardslandet, and the Danes had not detected their movement. After a brief rest, Nils Sture led them in their attack on the Brunkeberg.
The Dalecarlians swept up the east slope of the ridge and overran the small number of Danish troops they found in the earthworks. Nils Sture reformed them again, and they swept down the west slope where they attacked the enemy from behind. The fresh Swedish troops took the Danes completely by surprise. The Danish battle line quickly dissolved. Attacked from both front and rear, the Danes and Germans quickly lost spirit.
As his army’s position north of Stockholm continued to erode, Christian led his bodyguards forward in a bid to stave off the growing disaster, and to buy time for his troops to conduct a fighting withdrawal to the Danish fleet. Christian was struck in the face by a projectile that knocked out some of his teeth and left him badly stunned. His bodyguards carried him to safety to prevent his capture.
Marshal Klas Ronnow, Christian’s second-in-command, took charge of the Danish army. However, Swedish pressure was so great that the disorganised troops were unable to form a rearguard. They simply fled east in a desperate attempt to board their ships. The Swedes chased them and captured a large number of prisoners, one of whom was Ronnow.
The Danes had to cross a narrow bridge on to the island of Kapplingeholm in order to reach their ships. Although some made it across, the bridge eventually collapsed under the weight of the panicked troops streaming over it. Some of the Danish troops, weighed down by their armour, drowned while trying to swim to the ships. Once the Danish captains had boarded the survivors, they set sail for Copenhagen.
The Swedish casualties are not recorded, but their losses were light and probably amounted to around 1,500 killed and wounded. The Danes lost 1,200 killed or wounded, 900 drowned, and 900 captured.
The Swedish separatist army had succeeded in winning a decisive victory that ensured Sten Sture would remain as their regent for the next 26 years. Christian continued to rule Denmark and Norway, but not Sweden, until his death in 1481.
Sten Sture’s victory at Brunkeberg edged the Swedes closer to independence from Denmark, although the Kalmar Union was not officially disbanded until 1537. Warfare between Sweden and Denmark, however, was far from over. The two Nordic countries would wage war against each other intermittently for the next 250 years. •
William E Welsh is the editor of a quarterly military history journal in the United States. He holds degrees in History and English. Although he writes about nearly all eras of military history, the medieval period is his favourite topic.
C Jorgensen, ‘Brunkeberg 1471’ in Battles of the Medieval World 1000-1500 (Metro Books, 2006), pp.208-215.
D Lindholm and D Nicolle, Medieval Scandinavian Armies (2): 1300-1500 (Osprey Publishing, 2003).
V Schmidtchen, ‘Battle of Brunkeberg’ in The Oxford Encyclopedia of Medieval Warfare and Military Technology, ed. C J Rogers (Oxford University Press, 2010), vol. 1, pp.259-260.