The Stockholm Castle fire of 1697


The Castle’s burning!

At about 2 pm on Friday 7th May 1697, a fierce fire broke out at the royal castle in Stockholm.

Charles XI had died just over a month earlier and his body was still in the castle. It was removed by some of the guards when the fire broke out and transferred to the stables on the island of Helgeandsholmen. The Queen Dowager, the King and the princesses were also evacuated to the island. The fire spread very quickly to both the north and east wings of the castle. The keep tower, known as Three Crowns (Tre Kronor), caught fire, causing eight guns and a big church bell to plunge right down into the Queen’s wine cellar. The spire and its three golden crowns vanished in the flames. The floor beams were in poor condition and dry as tinder, and one eye witness records that in only half an hour the whole castle was ablaze. The offices of state were hastily emptied. Axel Wachtmeister, President of the War Office, took command of the rescue operations. Afterwards, he was accused of caning the labourers to hurry them along. The wherry women rowed the War Office records along Norrström to the ordnance yard on Ladugårdslandet (on the site of what is now the Army Museum). The contents of Riksarkivet (now the Swedish National Archives) were transferred to the royal riding school on Helgeandsholmen (where the Riksdag building now stands).

Heavy losses

Not everything could be saved, however. Roughly one-third of the records was lost, including a large part of the medieval charters and all the letters received from field commanders during the Thirty Years War.

The Antiquities Archive was more fortunate. A short time earlier, it had been transferred from Uppsala to the building which housed Riksarkivet. Johan Peringskiöld, Secretary to the Antiquities Archive, was able to rescue his papers.

The fire in the Royal Library

The Royal Library suffered very badly. Located four floors up in the northeastern corner, it was isolated by an iron door from the adjoining part of the new building. A few guards remained by the door as long as possible. Meanwhile the librarian, Johann Jacob Jaches, directed the salvage operations. A large number of books were carried out in piles, but the stairway soon became smoke-filled, whereupon people started throwing books out of the windows, down onto the bankside. Many of them were ‘sorely damaged and torn, the pages of some being damaged and defaced’, according to the report later presented by Johan Peringskiöld and his brother, Gustaf Peringer Lilieblad, King’s Censor and subsequently Royal Librarian. The Devil’s Bible was rescued from the flames by throwing it out of a window, whereupon the leaves fluttered away and are still missing today, and the tome itself apparently injured a bystander who was underneath it – at least, if we are to believe Johann Erichsons, vicar of the German Church in Stockholm, whose narrative was published in Hamburgische Beyträge fifty years later. The manuscript’s binding was also said to be badly damaged. The catalogues compiled by librarian Jaches before the fire and a year after it indicate that three-quarters of the 24,500 or so printed works and 1,100 of the 1,400 manuscripts perished in the flames. Some accused Jaches of negligence in the salvaging of the library, but the value of his efforts became clear when it became known how rapidly the fire had spread. The books were taken first to the royal stables on Helgeandsholmen, and later to Stockholm Cathedral (Storkyrkan). Eventually they were transported to the house of Count Lillie (on the site of the present Royal Swedish Opera), where they were piled up on the floor. There they stayed until 1714. Johan Peringskiöld and Gustaf Peringer Lilieblad were able to confirm the extent of the book losses in a new inventory made in 1702.

The offices of state housed on the west side of the castle got off relatively lightly. Some of the royal family’s precious possessions, works of art and silver were saved, but one or two things were pilfered in the course of the salvage activities.

A castle court was convened quickly on 10th May to ascertain the cause of the fire. It transpired that neither the chief firewatcher, Sven Lindberg, nor his two subordinates, who were meant to be guarding the attic over the Hall of State, had been at their posts. By the time the fire was discovered it had already gained too firm a hold. The actual cause could not be ascertained. One suspicion was that old rubbish up in the attic had been ignited by the smoke from a fire in the chief firewatcher’s room, passing through a cracked chimney. The chief firewatcher and one of his assistants were sentenced to death for dereliction of duty, and the other assistant sentenced to run the gauntlet five times. The King commuted the death sentences to seven passages of the gauntlet for each of them, followed by six years’ hard labour at Marstrand Fortress. The chief firewatcher died soon after running the gauntlet.



Three Crowns Castle

The royal castle of Stockholm, at this time a maze of buildings, was built over different periods, whereby it had been successively transformed and enlarged. The oldest part was the medieval fortress in the southwest, which was begun in the thirteenth century, and later came to incorporate a building with the Hall of State on the upper storey. The opening of the Riksdag (diet, parliament) usually took place there. An adjacent square courtyard was occupied by a round tower, the keep, which had been rebuilt several times, and since the reign of Johan III had been surmounted by three gilded crowns. Facing north was an outer bailey known as ‘the Great Courtyard’, the northern enfilade of which had been rebuilt in the reign of Johan III. A low attic storey was constructed, linking together the towers in the east and west corners. Known as ‘the Green Passage’ from the colour of its walls, it was fitted with open bookshelves for the King’s library.

The west enfilade of the castle was also rebuilt. The royal apartments were on the top storey, the royal chancery and Chamber, including the Chamber Archives, on the ground floor, joined later by the Svea Court of Appeal.

The east side was given a makeover during Queen Christina’s reign. New premises were provided there for the royal chancery and for the newly established War Office and national archives (Riksarkivet). At first the library was accommodated in the southeastern part, but later it transferred to the Green Passage as additional space was needed, for example, for the large collection of books that arrived from Prague in 1649. Some years later, in 1664, the library was moved again, this time into four newly furnished rooms in the northeast corner.

The north enfilade was rebuilt as late as 1690.