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Why Carl XVI Gustaf isn’t actually Sweden’s 16th King Carl

Sweden's King Carl XVI Gustaf celebrates 50 years on the throne this year. But why is he Carl XVI when there have only actually been ten King Carls?

Why Carl XVI Gustaf isn't actually Sweden's 16th King Carl
Queen Silvia and King Carl XVI Gustav. Or should that be Carl X Gustav? Photo: Mads Claus Rasmussen/Ritzau Scanpix via TT

First, a short background on Swedish royal names.

Carl XVI Gustaf’s name is read Carl den sextonde Gustaf (Carl the sixteenth Gustaf), meaning he’s the sixteenth Carl, and then his second first name is Gustaf. He’s not the first Swedish king to have a double name. The most recent example is his grandfather Gustaf VI Adolf.

Another famous king with a double name is Frenchman Jean-Baptiste Jules Bernadotte, the first member of the Bernadotte house from whom the current line of the Swedish monarchy is descended, who took the name Karl XIV Johan when he succeeded Karl XIII in 1810.

But bizarrely, he was not Sweden’s 14th Karl, and the current king is not the 16th (if we’re being extra pedantic, the current king is the first ever Carl, as all his namesakes before him were Karls with a K, but let’s not make this more complicated than it already is). 

In fact, there never was a Karl I of Sweden, or a second, third, fourth, fifth or sixth for that matter. 

The Local spoke to historian Dick Harrison to clear up the mystery of the missing Karls.

Karl XIV Johan. Credit: Artist unknown, public domain.

“The reason is the inventiveness of Renaissance historians,” Harrison said.

“In the middle ages, no European monarchs, except a few popes, had numbers. People were simply called Edward or Henry or Olof or Johan, they were not called Johan the first, Johan the second, never, they were simply called by their names.”

“But in the 15th and 16th centuries, this began to change,” he explained.

At this time, Harrison said, Swedish kings realised that in order to be modern, like other monarchs in Germany, England, France or Denmark, for example, they should also start using numbers.

“But they didn’t really know how many Eriks, Johans or Karls there had been. The inventiveness of Johannes Magnus changed this.”

Johannes Magnus was Sweden’s last-ever Catholic Archbishop, who lived in exile in Rome after King Gustav Vasa introduced the Protestant Reformation to Sweden in 1527.

He was responsible for the publication of the fantastically named Historia de omnibus Gothorum Sueonumque regibus, or The history of all Geatish and Swedish kings, in 1554.

The book is not only extremely anti-Danish, but also critical of King Gustav Vasa, who was responsible for Magnus’ exile.

“Due to the reformation, he had to live in Rome, and there were hardly any Swedish Catholics in Italy, so he had a lot of free time which he used to write this very big book about the old kings of Sweden,” said Harrison.

In his book, Magnus lists the entire lineage of 143 Swedish monarchs from Magog in 2216 BC – the same Magog listed in the Bible as a grandson of Noah – to Vasa who became king in 1520. 

The only problem with Magnus’ lineage is that the majority of it is either impossible to corroborate or entirely made up – making it difficult to assign any specific number to subsequent kings.

“He invented most of this history himself, because he was a patriot,” Harrison told The Local.

“He had two main goals, that was to glorify Sweden and to make the Catholic world realise that Sweden should be brought back into the fold. So he really tried to make a big glorious history with lots of kings.”

This book was published by his brother, Olaus Magnus, who sent a copy to Gustav Vasa, despite the fact that Vasa was their enemy.

“Gustav at first was delighted, a big book about the glory of Sweden, so he began to read, but quickly became furious because he realised that Johannes Magnus had invented tyrants resembling him and placed them in Swedish history. So he didn’t really want to have anything to do with the book.”

Gustav Vasa. Attributed to David Frumerie (1666). Nationalmuseum, public domain.

However, his sons – Erik and Johan – read it.

“Erik was heir to the throne, Johan was his little brother, and both of them liked it immensely, because it was exactly the kind of Renaissance literature they wanted. This placed Sweden on the historical map.”

When Erik became king of Sweden in 1560, he used Magnus’ book as a source when deciding what to call himself.

“He had found 13 Eriks – some of them were real, some were invented – so he called himself Erik XIV,” said Harrison.

“When his brother dethroned him in 1568, he became Johan III, which was correct because there actually had been two Johans in Sweden before him.”

King Erik XIV. Technically should have been Erik VIII or IX. Photo: Scanpix/TT

A couple of decades later, Erik and Johan’s brother Karl became king, and chose to call himself Karl IX, after finding eight Karls in Magnus’ book.

“Actually, most of those Karls were invented by Magnus, but Karl didn’t care, he wanted a big number. Nine was a good number, because it meant that we had a long history of Karl kings before him,” said Harrison.

“So from that moment, from the publication of Johannes Magnus book, and these three Vasa brothers glorifying intent to make Sweden great in the past, ever since then we’ve had inflated numbers on our Eriks and our Karls. Our Gustavs and our Johans are correct.”

The first king on Magnus’ list whose existence can actually be confirmed is Erik VII who ruled around the mid-900s, who according to Magnus’ artistic licence was the 110th King of Sweden, and the seventh King Erik.

He wasn’t actually referred to as Erik VII at the time, just Erik the Victorius or Erik Segersäll, and its unclear as to whether all the Eriks who followed him actually existed, either. The numeral is a result of counting backwards from Erik XIV in the 1500s.

Karl IX. Credit: Artist unknown/Nationalmuseum/public domain.

The first confirmed King Karl is Karl VII, who ruled in the 1160s.

“Karl VII existed, but he was actually number one,” Harrison said.

Again, he wasn’t known by this name back then either, rather he was Karl Sverkersson. His numeral is based on counting backwards from Karl IX.

Why hasn’t Sweden updated its numbers now that we know they’re not historically accurate?

“Because by tradition, you cannot change the king’s name posthumously, because they used those names themselves. They used them in royal decrees, they signed documents with these numbers, so fiction became reality in political life, and you can’t change that afterwards,” Harrison explained.

“They decided, and we simply have to take it. As a result, in dictionaries, lexica or various history books, we sometimes have parenthesis: ‘actually, he should be called that’.”

“A royal name, when it is used as a royal name, becomes official. And we can’t erase that from our history.”

Changing the names of the Swedish royals to reflect history would also create confusion, Harrison said.

“For example, if we should change the name of our present king, and call him Carl X Gustaf, he would have exactly the same name as a warrior of the 17th century who invaded Poland and wreaked havoc all across northern Europe. That name is already taken by that king. We can’t have two kings with exactly the same name.”

“I think this is quite fun,” he added. “We have a fictitious line of monarchs, and we treat them as if they have existed, although we know that they didn’t.”

Karl X Gustav. Hard to believe that anyone would confuse this king with Sweden’s current king. Attributed to David Klöcker Ehrenstrahl. Nationalmuseum, Licence: (CC BY-SA)

The question of whether to use the wrong numbers for Swedish monarchs or not probably won’t be an issue for a while after Carl XVI Gustaf, as the current heirs to the throne will be the first monarchs with their name: Crown Princess Victoria and her daughter, Estelle.

“I doubt Victoria will have a number,” Harrison said. “But I don’t know, it’s up to her. She can have a number, she can change her name, she can add another name afterwards, that’s the royal prerogative. My guess is that she will simply be called Victoria, she’s a sensible young woman.”

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How to research your Swedish ancestry

If you are a descendant of a Sweden-born person and would like to find out more about them, there are ways to do that.

How to research your Swedish ancestry

A lot of people around the world, in particular North America to where hundreds of thousands of Swedes emigrated in the 18th and 19th century, have Swedish ancestors (turns out Taylor Swift may or may not be among them).

This article will take you through the basic steps of researching your family tree in Sweden.

Let’s concentrate on Sweden’s church books, which are by far your most useful resource. From the 17th century, priests were obliged to keep records on the residents in their parish, the main census bureau at the time, and Swedes do really love keeping records.

The best part is that these have all been digitised and are freely available from the National Archives of Sweden – the bulk of them online, and some even searchable, so you can look through them wherever you are in the world.

There are five main “books” that make up your key sources:

First, household examination records (husförhörslängder). Sweden today is very secular, but a few hundred years ago the Lutheran church was very powerful.

Parish priests between 1686 and the late 19th century used to visit their parishioners to quiz them on their knowledge of the Bible, literacy and knowledge of Luther’s Small Catechism – and mark them on their answers.

These visits were also an opportunity to make any updates to the official population records, so as outdated as they may seem today, as much of a goldmine are they for genealogy researchers.

The other four useful books are: lists of everyone who moved to and from a parish (inflyttnings- och utflyttningslängder), birth and christening records (födelse- och dopböcker), marriage records (lysnings- och vigselböcker), and finally the records of all deaths and funerals (död- och begravningsböcker).

So how do you go about tracking down a Swedish ancestor?

If you already know their name, date of birth or where in Sweden they were last registered as living, that goes a long way. But say you don’t have specific details, what can you then do?

I’m not a genealogy expert, so I will take you through this the way I would go about it.

Let’s try to track down my great, great grandfather on my father’s side.

From left, the article author, her father, great grandfather and grandfather. Photo: Private

You probably, like me, know your grandfather’s name. Chances are you probably also have some idea of roughly where and when they were born, even if you, like me, don’t know the specific year.

(I’m starting with my grandfather, but maybe your first Sweden-born ancestor was one of your great grandparents or even further back – hopefully you’ll find this imperfect example useful anyway)

In my case, I happen to know that my grandfather’s full name was Emil Verner Löfgren and that he was born in the region of Östergötland but spent most of his adult years in Blekinge.

But I don’t know his date of birth or death, which would help me track him down in the church books.

I start by going to the Swedish National Archives’ online search function and simply type in his name.

Helpfully, you can search in English, and in the screenshot below you can see some of the top results that come up: entries from the census, and old shipping rolls.

When I click on his name, I get enough information about him and his family that I can tell that it all adds up and I’ve found the right Emil Löfgren.

Screenshot: Swedish National Archives

Now, I got lucky. Emil spent a few years at sea in his youth, so he’s listed in the shipping rolls. They helpfully tell me his exact date of birth and his parents’ names, so I’ve already come a long way just by doing a quick online search.

In case you’re not as lucky, let’s pretend for the sake of this article that I only found him in the census. That tells me at least two crucial details: his year of birth and where he was born.

Screenshot: Swedish National Archives

It’s time now to abandon the online search and get digging through the church books, which conveniently are also online, but require you to search them manually. If you didn’t find your ancestor in the online search, you’ll have to go straight to the church books.

I want to find out Emil’s exact date of birth, so I go to the church archives on the National Archives’ homepage and search for Karlshamn.

I now get a long list of all the available church records from Karlshamn, but in this case I want the parish register from 1930 (församlingsbok – before 1895-ish known as the house examination book) where the above information tells me I can find Emil.

Helpfully, it also tells me exactly on which page of the parish register to look, so I track down the book and turn to page 2624.

Screenshot: Swedish National Archives

The screenshot above tells me Emil’s name (Verner is here spelled with a W – you may find spelling variations of the same person’s name, especially if your ancestor changed their name from, say, Karl/Carl to Charles), his profession, his exact date of birth, place of birth, that he’s been vaccinated against the smallpox, date of marriage and where he last appeared in the church books (under inflyttad eller överförd).

The last bit is helpful if I want to trace every step of Emil’s life, as it tells me that his previous entry was on page 3720 in the previous edition of the parish register from Karlshamn (where it says “G.b.” – meaning gamla boken, “old book”). But that’s not what I want to do right now.

Instead, I want to know the name of his father. I know that he was born on September 9th, 1884, in Ringarum.

Let’s go to the church books of Ringarum…

I now instead look for the birth and christening records (födelse- och dopböcker) from the year 1884. Because I have his date of birth, it’s relatively easy to flick through the pages and find him (note that births are listed in a rough, but not always exact, order). Even if you only have the year of birth, you may still find them this way, but it will take you longer as you’ll have to go through the whole year. 

Screenshot: Swedish National Archives

So the above screenshot tells me when Emil was born, christened, and the names of his parents: Adolf Werner Löfgren Gåse (they’ve included his professional title at the time, a boatsman, båtsman, in the Swedish Navy) and Emma Charlotta Eriksdotter.

It also tells me where they were living at the time (a croft called Gåstorp) and, supremely helpfully, exactly what page to find them on in the house examination records (page 163), so that’s our next stop.

And just like that, I have Adolf’s date and parish of birth (Mogata, September 8th, 1858 – see the screenshot below), as well as the year he married (May 22nd, 1884, which mathematically skilled readers will note was, er, not more than nine months before Emil was born).

On the right, you also see his and his wife’s marks from the house examination sessions, i.e. their reading abilities and how well they know their Bible and Luther.

Screenshot: Swedish National Archives

If I were to take a closer look at Adolf’s life, it would tell me that after he retired as a boatsman, he worked as a shoemaker. His parents died when he was very young, so he was sold at a “child auction” – a way of boarding out orphans and poor children in 19th century Sweden.

At these auctions, the child was handed over to the lowest bidder – whoever was willing to provide for the child for the least money from the authorities. The foster parent was compensated by the state with an amount equal to the bid in return for providing the child with housing, food and education. How good a home they provided varied hugely and in some cases it was a way of acquiring cheap child labour.

But what I want to find out for the purpose of this article is the name of Adolf’s father, so I just repeat some of the steps above.

I now search for the church records for Mogata parish, and use Adolf’s date of birth to find him in the birth records.

The priest’s handwriting is getting harder and harder to read, but I can still make out the names of Adolf’s parents (föräldrar). His father was shoemaker Erik Johan Löfgren and mother Sofia Ulrika Nilsdotter. Also listed are his godparents (faddrar).

Screenshot: Swedish National Archives

So there you go. I’ve now found what I set out to: the name of my great, great grandfather. 

If I were to go even further back, I would probably notice that Erik Johan was the first man in the family to hold the surname Löfgren.

Most Swedes before or around this time used patronymics. This is where surnames such as Andersson and Svensson come from; they originally literally meant “son of Anders” and “son of Svensson”, so every new son got his surname after his father. This changed in the 18th or early 19th century, when people either took a new name (like Löfgren) or started passing their old -son name to the next generation.

You’ll notice that for example Erik Johan’s wife held the surname Nilsdotter. This is because her father’s name was Nils.

I’ve now taken you through the easiest and cheapest way of tracing your Swedish ancestry. But you may hit stumbling blocks along the way. For example, it’s not uncommon for children a few hundred years ago to have been born out of wedlock with no official father listed.

There are plenty of other free and paid-for sites that could help you. Some of these are the Swedish genealogy forum Rötter, subscription sites such as Ancestry, My Heritage and the database Sveriges dödbok (literally: Sweden’s death book, searchable records of deaths and burials, which a lot of genealogy researchers swear by), and various Facebook groups (search for släktforskning – family research).