Delaware’s Swedish History: Exploring the First State’s European Roots

Names like Kalmar Nyckel, Christina River and others are common-knowledge parts of Delaware’s history, but these and more are all linked by their Swedish heritage.

They once dictated their nation’s religion, led armies into battle, and plotted against each other. These were the royals of yesteryear. Today, they are more likely to have university degrees, spend time volunteering for humanitarian causes in under-developed countries and pursue vocations apart from their official duties. But, since 1974 in Sweden, monarchs have had no governing authority.

Sweden has been ruled by kings and queens for more than 1,000 years. The present King Carl XVI Gustaf, who was crowned in 1973, is the latest in a succession of more than 60 monarchs.

Delawareans should be familiar with an earlier one: Queen Christina. She is the reason we have we have the Christina River, Christina school district, and even the hamlet of Christiana, whose name is a muddled version of “Christina.” An early name for Wilmington was “Christinahamn,” which means “Christina harbor.”

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Christina was 12 when the Kalmar Nyckel sailed up the Delaware River in 1638 with the first Swedes. However, her fame rests less on the founding of Delaware than on her abdicating the throne 16 years later. 

Some of her relatives were less fortunate. Gustav III, for example, a great patron of the arts, an outstanding public speaker and an accomplished playwright—perhaps the greatest Swedish playwright before Strindberg—was assassinated at a masked ball in 1792 at the opera house he built. He was the third Swedish monarch to die of gunshot wounds in less than two centuries. His son, Gustav IV Adolf, was deposed in 1809 in favor of his uncle Karl, who was then succeeded by a general in Napoleon’s army.

Modern scribes have labeled Christina “madcap,” “eccentric,” or, simply, “an unusual character.” The cruelest critics of her day said she was a man.

Most agree that she was an intelligent, athletic (something women were not supposed to be) and popular monarch who brought peace to Sweden after Europe’s Thirty Years’ War and enlivened her court with artists and scholars from the continent. She spoke nine languages, was greeting foreign dignitaries at her court with regal aplomb before she was 10, and as a young woman, could hold her own in discourses with French philosopher and mathematician René Descartes, who called her “a queen in the realm of mind as well as government.”

It’s said that Christina’s councillors wept when she removed her crown in 1654. The law forbade anyone but a Lutheran to rule Sweden, and she had chosen to convert to Catholicism.

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The queen’s flight to Rome was romanticized in the 1974 film “The Abdication.” True, dressed as a man she fled incognito through Protestant lands on her way to Rome and was greeted by the pope himself. And, there was a smitten cardinal. But, the fact is that Christina, who is buried in St. Peter’s Basilica, made her Vatican residence a gathering place for the literati and glitterati of her time and, as far as we know, remained above emotional entanglements. Aside from her plan to raise a private army to invade Sweden when her royal pension was interrupted, she stayed out of politics, too.

Ironically, it was Christina’s father, King Gustav II Adolf, “Gustav the Great,” who had fought to defend the Lutheran faith by keeping the Catholic Counter-Reformation from engulfing Europe and reaching Scandinavia. Under him, Sweden modernized and advanced economically and culturally. He died at the age of 38 in a victorious battle far from home when Christina was only six. Nearsighted, he mistakenly rode into a detachment of enemy cavalry.

Gustav II wanted Sweden to have a colony in the New World. His image, not Christina’s, is on the monument at the rocks overlooking the Christina River in Wilmington.

He was descended from the Vasas, a noble family that freed Sweden from oppressive Danish rule in 1523. A turning point in that 16th-century struggle is commemorated each year by a grueling 90-kilometer cross-country ski race, the Vasaloppet (Vasa race). The current king, who is an avid outdoorsman, has competed three times in the race, most recently in 1997 at the age of 41. It’s since become a trendy international event.

Christina’s successors for the next half century fought to retain or regain Sweden’s territories amid shifting political alliances and royal successions. Karl XII, who was crowned in 1697, was a hero to the English for his courageous but futile stand against Russian Czar Peter the Great. Voltaire hailed him as “perhaps the most extraordinary man ever born.”

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Besides winning wars and making peace, one of the most important functions of past monarchs was to produce a legitimate heir. Until 1980—that’s when new laws of succession took effect—it meant a son. If the current king had been born a generation later, he would not be reigning, since he has four older sisters.

His son, Carl Philip, born crown prince like his father in 1979, was “demoted” the following year by the law that elevated the infant’s sister Victoria, born in 1977, ahead of him in the line of succession. He’s now third behind Victoria’s daughter Princess Estelle, born in 2012.

Besides gender and religion, class used to be an obstacle to the throne. For generations, royals married royals, sometimes first cousins. Today, King Carl can count among his relations virtually all the current reigning monarchs of Europe.

Until the 1970s in Sweden, marriage to a commoner meant loss of title and the right to inherit the throne. For that reason, Prince Bertil, the King’s late uncle, who attended the dedication of the monument at Wilmington’s Fort Christina Park in 1938, postponed his marriage to a non-royal until 1976, when he was 64. The change also allowed King Carl to marry German-born Silvia Sommerlath, now Queen Silvia.

Their daughter, Crown Princess Victoria, married a commoner, now Prince Daniel. And her younger sister, Princess Madeleine, recently announced her engagement to a British-American banker whom she met while working in New York for the World Childhood Foundation.

Back in the 1700s, a marriage proposal could mean the difference between war and peace. At 18, Gustav IV Adolf was sent to Russia in hopes of cementing a liaison with the granddaughter of Catherine the Great.

Gustav backed out and married a German royal, which nearly started a war with Russia. Eventually Gustav was forced to resign. His uncle Duke Karl succeeded him.

But Karl was childless, so a suitable heir was selected. The first choice, a Danish prince, died of a heart attack; the second, Eugène de Beauharnais, Napoleon’s stepson, declined; the third choice, Napoleon’s general Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte, accepted.

On several occasions, Napoleon had considered having his underling, the “malcontent” Bernadotte, shot. Luckily for Sweden, he changed his mind. As for Bernadotte, he felt cheated out of the leadership of France and held a grudge against the Emperor. Bernadotte was married to Napoleon’s former sweetheart, Désirée Clary, whose sister Julie Clary was the wife of Napoleon’s brother Joseph, so, in a way, it was a family feud.

For whatever reason, Napoleon gave his blessing to Sweden’s choice, and history has proved that it was a good one. Unable to adjust to the harsh winters and misunderstood by the Swedish court, Queen Désirée longed for Paris. Neither she nor her husband mastered the Swedish language, but, crowned King Karl XIV Johan in 1818, the former French general laid the foundation for Sweden’s foreign policy of neutrality and reformed the state finances. Today, King Carl is the seventh king in the Bernadotte dynasty.

The Contemporaries

So what do contemporary royals do? “They are P.R. people for Sweden,” explains Kajsa Haracz of the New Sweden Alliance, a consortium of groups participating in the anniversary celebration of Wilmington’s Swedish roots. “Their job is a lot of P.R. and economic development.”

It involves traveling, meeting people, making speeches, giving out awards—the most prestigious being the Nobel prizes—and cutting ribbons at openings. Prince Bertil used to jokingly refer to himself as a traveling salesman for Sweden Ltd.
And royalty support their favorite causes. The athletic Bertil served as chair of Sweden’s Olympic Committee. King Carl has been chairman of the Swedish branch of the World Wide Fund for Nature (known as the World Wildlife Fund in the United States) since 1988, and being a former Cub Scout and Boy Scout, he has served as honorary chair of the World Scout Foundation since 1977. Queen Silvia advocates for children and the disabled.

King Carl’s grandfather, Gustaf VI Adolf, nurtured a lifelong interest in archaeology and before he was king participated in expeditions in the Mediterranean region. He was an authority on ancient Swedish monuments as well as Chinese ceramics. Queen Victoria of Sweden, Carl’s great grandmother, was a pioneer amateur photographer in the late 1800s.

As the official head of state, the monarch opens Parliament, leads various government councils, welcomes foreign diplomats to Sweden, and holds supreme rank in all branches of the military. The government funds the family’s official activities and maintains the royal residences. Like all Swedish citizens, royals pay taxes and can vote, though traditionally none have exercised this right.

“It’s not like here. There are many [political] parties in Sweden,” explains Haracz, who is Swedish-American. The king, she says, represents all the Swedish people, not just those of a particular party.

The royal couple’s three children have their own interests, but also share in official duties. They are well-educated —“well-rounded,” says Haracz. All are multi-lingual. Both Prince Carl Philip and Crown Princess Victoria attended schools in the United States.

The prince was at Kent School in Connecticut and at the Rhode Island School of Design, and later served an internship at the National Geographic Society in Washington, D.C. He attained the rank of lieutenant in the Royal Navy and has a degree in agriculture and rural management.

Victoria studied at Yale and worked in Swedish diplomatic, trade and humanitarian missions abroad. In addition to learning about the workings of government and studying conflict resolution and international peace-building, the future queen has had basic military training and served internships in cultural institutions.

Princess Madeleine studied law, architecture and design and pursued graduate studies in organization and leadership in preparation for international humanitarian work.

Royals in Sweden are “accessible,” notes Haracz. As a result, unlike their British counterparts, they are not hounded by the public. They are treated more like average citizens. The queen has admitted to shopping at IKEA, and the king enjoys showing off his vintage Volvo at rallies. They take walks in the public parks surrounding some of the royal residences.

The children attended public schools early in their life and are at ease mingling with people. Of course, all have security details. For the king and queen, who lead an active lifestyle, this includes personnel who can jog and ride horseback.

In the summer, Crown Princess Victoria’s birthday party is held in a park on one of the royal estates. Anyone can attend. “People give her flowers. Some people go every year,” says Haracz. They are thrilled when the princess recognizes them. “The family are all very well-liked.”

As goodwill ambassadors, the royal family travels all over the world and has been to the United States on both official and personal business numerous times. Last year, Victoria’s husband, Prince Daniel, visited Wilmington, one of three stops on his first official trip to the United States.

The king and queen will be familiar faces at the 375th anniversary of the founding of New Sweden. They were here in 1988 for the 350th anniversary. The queen was  charming and gracious; the king, more reserved, as befits a monarch. Visitors came from out of town just to see the royal couple. Some had Swedish roots, but most did not.

We don’t have to speak Swedish or have had ancestors on the Kalmar Nyckel to celebrate with royalty again in 2013. As Delawareans, we share a heritage that is unique among the 13 original Colonies, the only one founded by Sweden, and for that we can thank a Swedish warrior king and his daughter in whose name the land was claimed.

For more about the Royal Family, click here

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