gamla uppsala - history

Uppsala, Gamla Uppsala and the region of Uppland deserve a book. Or couple. Many have been written already. Creating something of similar length might provide you “all” the information, but my attempt on this website was always to write short (or relatively short), condensed texts. So even though this article belongs to the longest ones, I know that it is not complete. Here I present a very general overview of the region in the Middle Ages. Stories about certain events will be tackled in the future. Let’s dig now into some sagas about Uppsala kings, pagan sacrifices and the arrival of Christianity.



We can start in the Stone Age (8700-2000 BC) just in order to say that back then Gamla Uppsala remained under water. The only part sticking out was the top of the ridge, which later became the famous mounds. In the Early Iron Age (500-400 AD) the landscape started to take shapes – arable fields, enclosed pastures, meadows and forests emerged. The area was covered with villages and farms, not distinguished from each other yet.

The origin of Gamla Uppsala is intertwined with the oldest Swedish royal dynasty, the Ynglingar. Our knowledge about them comes from Ynglingatal, written by Norwegian Tjodolf of Kvine in the 10th century. It is a pedigree about 27 generations of the Ynglingar, who ruled in Uppsala and parts of Norway and were present in Denmark due to marrying into a Danish royal family. Three centuries later, in 1219, Icelander Snorri Sturluson came to Sweden and eleven years after that he created Heimskringla. It is a history of the northern kings and the migration of the gods from Asia to Sweden, where they settled in Sigtuna and Uppsala. Heimskringla includes the Ynglinga Saga, which is Snorri’s reproduction of Tjodolf’s Ynglingatal. Because Tjodolf’s existence was never confirmed by any document, therefore we refer to Snorri’s work regarding information about Ynglingar.

Christian Krogh, Snorri Sturluson

Christian Krogh, Snorri Sturluson

According to Snorri, the founding father of Uppsala dynasty was the fertility god Yngve-Frej. There could be no other origin, as according to the medieval provincial codes of law, Uppsala have existed from time immemorial - as the gods. Yngve Frey “built in Uppsala a great temple and there established his principal seat. To it he donated all his revenues, lands and chattels. Such was the origin of Uppala Öd”. Uppsala Öd means king’s estates with royal manor of Uppsala as their centre. In the medieval times, these estates were the king’s main source of revenue and could not be sold or given away.

There have been several theories explaining the origin of the name “Uppsala”. According to Snorri “sal” meant “banqueting hall”. The oldest hall in Uppsala, recorded archeological finds, was emerged already in the 4th or the 5th century. One hall was succeeded after another for the next 700 years. It was used for official gatherings, receptions and sacrificial feasts. Around the same time when the oldest banqueting hall was created, kings mounds in Gamla Uppsala were built. The semi-legendary kings: Aun, his son Egil and Egil’s grandson Adils are said to be buried there. They are mentioned in Ynglinga Saga from the 13th century, Ynglingatal from the 10th century and Beowulf, epic poem known in oral version probably already around the 8th century. Egil’s son Ottar was buried in the mound in Vendel.

Ynglingar were both political and religious leaders. Local chieftains elected a member of the royal dynasty as their king. According to the Uppland Code from 1296, the new king was chosen at Mora Meadow, about 15 kilometres from Uppsala. He was lifted up onto a boulder. Every new king’s name was inscribed on a stone. The election was followed by Eriksgata – a journey through provinces which elected the king. In the early medieval times Eriksgata began and ended in Uppsala.

The power was not inherited and the elected king could have been deprived of it. If he failed to provide his people with welfare, he could have been deposed or killed – like it happened with Domaldi:


It has happened oft ere now,

That foeman's weapon has laid low

The crowned head, where battle plain,

Was miry red with the blood-rain.

But Domald dies by bloody arms,

Raised not by foes in war's alarms

Raised by his Swedish liegemen's hand,

To bring good seasons to the land

Snorri Sturluson, Ynglinga Saga




Gamla Uppsala was the biggest village in the whole Uppland during the Middle Ages. Under the rule of Ynglingar, the population of Gamla Uppsala grew, divided into two parts. The western one, consisting of seven farms, with trade and craft, initially belonged to the king, managed by the king’s bailiff. After the implementation of Christianity, three of the farms were donated to the Church. The eastern part, consisting of twelve farms, belonged to the crown as well, but farmed by the royal tenants. 

The realm had no fixed boundaries. The power over certain lands were secured by alliances with local chieftains. In order to confirm them, the king had to provide generous gifts, for example gold rings. The basis of the wealth was fertile soil and cattle, as well as timber, furs and iron and slaves were used as cheap labour to work farms and in trade. The Royal Demesne was the abode of the king, his steward and their families. We know that representatives of all medieval professions lived in the royal estates: carpenters, smiths, boatbuilders, potters, bead makers and many others. However, no traces of goldsmithing has been found yet and that is drawing the attention, cause it was a crucial occupation, especially when we think about the expensive gifts being the base of king’s power.


In accordance with that, a large trading site with workshops for goldsmithing, bronze casting and bead manufacturing was found on the island of Helgö, on the Lake Mälaren. It was at its greatest between the 5th and the 9th century. All mentioned professions were exclusive, therefore they must have been supported by a royal manor. It was a cycle of greatness – the more chieftains were gifted by the kings, the more luxury they could produce and gain more political support. Furthermore, three gold hoards were hidden away on Helgö. One of them consisted of Roman coins, solidi, which were goldsmiths’ principal raw material.

Locating that crucial workshops on an island was not an obstacle back then. Uppland is still rich in water resources, but in the Middle Ages the water level was five meters higher than it is today. Rivers were busy with traffic. Fyrisån and Långhundraleden were Uppsala’s most important water channels, connecting royal estates with Valsgärde and Vendel, future additional burial places.

Ynglingar’s power was not limited to Uppsala and Uppland. They ruled in parts of Norway, mostly in the county of Vestfold, on the western shore of Oslofjord. For example in Borre they created an economic, political and religious centre, similar to the one in Uppsala. The traces of their existence there still can still be found in the mound cemetery. Consisting of 7 large and 21 small one, Borre mound cemetery is the biggest burial mound site in Northern Europe. It’s origin can be traced back to the 7th century.

What was the reason to build the mounds in the first place? Surely they were a sign of strength. As the Norse society became more hierarchical, the struggle for power became more severe. To emphasize the power, Ynglingar built huge burial mounds. The mightiest chieftains, elected kings, deserved an immemorial commemoration. No one could miss the big mounds, in which the kings were buried.

But the way in which a deceased was put in final resting place was connected to traditions, to what was popular at that time. It is an elaborated subject, so to put it simply: most common forms of burial were cremation grave (until the arrival of Christianity), chamber grave with no cremation (3rd – 5th century), great barrow with cremation (from the 5th century until the arrival of Christianity), boat grave with no cremation (from the 6th century until the arrival of Christianity) and coffin graves (after the arrival of Christianity). Combination of the last two forms before coffins arrived are the most splendid burial manner for Scandinavia.

Great barrow was used for the representative of the ruling class. He or she was cremated and put in a barrow or a mound. The bigger it was, the larger the territory was under his or her control. In Uppsala the mounds contain cremation graves – the biggest ones are located in Gamla Uppsala, called the king’s mounds.

Olav Geirstadaalv’s boat, Gokstadskipet, Vikingskipmuseet, Oslo

Olav Geirstadaalv’s boat, Gokstadskipet, Vikingskipmuseet, Oslo

 From the 6th century for half a millennium, the deceased was laid in richly equipped boats, lowered into the earth. The boats were looking like they were ready for the departure. The most famous boat graves around Uppsala are located in Valsgärde, Vendel and Tuna in Badelunda. Only women were buried in the latter and only one representative of each generation could be honoured with a boat burial.

Olav Geirstadaalv, a Norwegian Yngling, was given a boat burial, found in Gokstad, again in Vestfold. He died probably around the year 900 of a „foot ache”, according to the Yngling Saga. He was buried in a large seagoing ship with 32 shields hanging from the railing on each side. Olav was lying on a bed along with at least twelve horses and six dogs and peacocks. The reason for such sumptuousness was that the deceased had to appear as the equal of Odin’s warrior in Valhalla, because, as it’s stated in Ynglinga Saga:


“Odin… decreed by law that all dead men should be burnt… He declared that in this way every man would come to Valhalla with as much wealth as he had with him on the pyre… It was their belief that the higher the smoke rose in the air, the higher would rise the man whose pyre it was; and the more goods that were destroyed with him, the richer he would be”.


Map of boat graves, Gamla Uppsala Museum

Map of boat graves, Gamla Uppsala Museum

Aun, Egil and Adils, kings buried in the mounds in Gamla Uppsala, were not put there in boats. They were buried in accordance with the earlier manner, when the boats were not present yet. The next generations of Ynglingar, after the 6th century, were given the boat burials with rich grave goods, but no longer in Gamla Uppsala, but in Valsgärde.

The boat burial was not limited to Scandinavia. An Anglo-Saxon king ruling at the turn of the 6th and 7th century, Raedwald, was buried in a boat at Sutton Hoo in England. The same goldsmith was responsible for his grave goods and those found in Valsgärde.




The burial traditions went through changes just before Viking Age, so when Vikings started to spread all over Europe, the time has come for Gamla Uppsala. Farms and farmsteads were abandoned, possible due to climate change the population density fluctuated. Gamla Uppsala was loosing its political significance, although remained the main cult site. Its great competitor was the market town of Birka, built in the 8th century. It was just a beginning of the turbulences.  

In Skåne two runic stones are standing still, mentioning a bloody battle of Fyrisvall. It took place in the 980s on the plain, which today is part of Uppsala. Danish chieftain Styrbjörn the Strong and Erik, king of Uppland, were fighting for the throne of Sweden. On the runic stones we read about Erik: „He did not flee at Uppsala”. According to Olav Tryggveson’s Saga, Erik defeated Styrbjörn and earned the epithet of segersäll (victorious).

Olaf Skötkonung, c. 1030

Olaf Skötkonung, c. 1030

The same Erik founded the town of Sigtuna. It was located closer to the Lake Mälaren than Uppsala, therefore was helping the monarchy to gain more control over that region. Sigtuna was methodically laid out, with clear property boundaries, narrow lanes and streets. Sigtuna took over Birka’s role as a trading centre and Gamla Uppsala’s significance as a religious heart of the Svea.

Around 995, Erik’s son, Olof Skötkonung, set up a royal mint in Sigtuna. On the coins he is called King of the Svea or King of Sigtuna. This is the oldest written evidence in Swedish of a King assuming the royal title. The silver coinage comes partly from bullion and foreign coins. For Christian missionaries there was no doubt to which city they should go to and start preaching. First Christian missionaries, Ansgar and Unne, began their work in Scandinavia already in the 9th century. Erik Victorious was baptized, but relapsed into heathendom. Olof went through this Christian ritual as well in Västergötland in 1008. Sigtuna, the royal town, was more attractive and important for missionaries than Uppsala, even though Olof established an Episcopal see not there, but in Skara.


However, the process of Christianisation took time and it was not so easy to erase the importance of Gamla Uppsala for the pagan beliefs. Ultimately, it was a place where every nine year a great midwinter sacrifice was held. At least according to popular beliefs and sources written by historians who have never been there, like German bishop Thietmar of Merseburg, who deplored this custom.  

Beside the great midwinter sacrifice, Gamla Uppsala was also a place of annual religious feats. The ceremonies, led by the king, were performed in the hall or at cairns, graves and mounds. Animals were sacrificed. Selected parts of them were hung up in the trees or in the sacred graves and offered to the gods. At burial mounds offerings were made to the ancestors. Meat from the sacrificial animals was eaten during sacrificial meals in the king’s hall.

Another historian, despising Scandinavian pagan customs without ever travelling to Sweden, was Adam of Bremen. He was a German church historian, who wrote in the 1070s Gesta Hammaburgensis ecclesiae pontificum, in which he mentioned the pagan sacrificed, made to the heathen gods. 


If plague or famine threatens, sacrifice are made to Thor’s statue.

If war is imminent, to Odin,

If a wedding is to be celebrated, to Freyr.


These people have a famous temple called Uppsala, situated not far from the city of Sigtuna. In this temple, which is decorated entirely with gold, people worship the images of three gods. It is customary also to solemnize in Uppsala, at nine-year interval, a general feast of all the provinces of Sweden. The sacrifice is of this nature: of every living creature that is male nine (heads) are sacrificed, the blood of which is offered to appease the gods… The bodies are hung in a grove near the temple… dogs and horses and also people…

Uppsala Temple according to Adam of Bremen, drawing from Olaus Magnus’s  Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus,  1555

Uppsala Temple according to Adam of Bremen, drawing from Olaus Magnus’s Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus, 1555


The human sacrifices were never confirmed by historians. Surely, Gamla Uppsala was a cult centre and place-names indicate the existence of sacrificial groves. Gatherings and offerings made with animals could have happened, however the existence of a heathen temple is unlikely. The latest researches suggest that Adam might have confused “pagan temple” with royal banqueting hall.

In the opinion of Adam of Bremen, people of Gamla Uppsala were in great need of missionaries. The first attempt of abolition of pagan cult happened in the 1085 by king Inge the Elder, a Christian. Initially he was driven away from the ting by a hail of stones. Blot-Sven, a pagan, was proclaimed king in his place. Shortly after this, he was murdered by Inge and his people. The Christian king burnt the cult centre down. Gamla Uppsala lost its significance completely for couple of decades.

Magnus I (1120s-1132) decided to transfer the bishopric from Sigtuna to Uppsala. In the 1140s Siward was appointed to be the first known bishop of Uppsala. He did not stay here long. He was expelled “through the ruthless onslaught of the heathen” or he became a victim of an ecclesiastical and political power struggle. On August 2nd 1164 Uppsala, therefore Sweden, got its first Archbishop, the monk named Stefan and became independent from Archbishopric Hamburg-Bremen. Sweden became an autonomous ecclesiastical province with Uppsala as its centre. New bishoprics emerged in Linköping, Strängnäs and Västerås. The first mentioned city was a serious competitor to Uppsala regarding the choice of archbishopric, as it already had a modern cathedral. So how come Uppsala?

It might have been a good strategic move by replacing a famous pagan centre with Christian archbishopric. It had a meaning in both religious and political sense. As long as pagan beliefs dominated, kings were also religious leaders. Christian Church wanted to be the one appointing the kings and emperors, so entangling the place where kings of all Svea were chosen was a good place to start. Furthermore, Gamla Uppsala was gaining more economic importance back in the middle 12th century, when it became the gateway to the mining district of Bergslagen. Last but not least, the royal dynasty had in Gamla Uppsala their lands, which they could donate to the archbishop. Finally, at the Royal Demesne a consecrated cemetery already existed.

In the first half of the 13th century the church in Gamla Uppsala was destroyed by fire. It’s been only 100 years after its consecration and it has been ravaged by fire twice already. The relocation plans were laid out already at the beginning of the 13th century. The pope decided that the see should be moved from there a little south, to a place called Östra Aros. The decision was made in 1271. Östra Aros was located next to a river Fyrisån with a growing trading area on its east bank, growing already at the end of the 12th century. In addition to that, Gamla Uppsala’s harbour was already located in Östra Aros. Along with a see, new kind of settlement was introduced in Östra Aros: around the new cathedral there was space prepared for the archbishop’s palace, a seminar, a hospital (House of the Holy Spirit) and a residence for the men of the church. There was only one condition regarding the transfer: the name Uppsala had to stay with archbishop see. Therefore, Östra Aros became Uppsala. The official transfer took place in January 1273 (even though the construction of the cathedral just started and will last until the 16th century), when the relics of Saint Erik were translated, together with the remains of bishops buried in the old cathedral.


Uppsala can be seen from Gamla Uppsala - castle and cathedral are clearly visible

Uppsala can be seen from Gamla Uppsala - castle and cathedral are clearly visible

Next to the cathedral in Uppsala an Archbishop’s House was erected. The same combination existed in Gamla Uppala. Here, the bishop’s house was located north of the church. It was constructed by wood and bricks, with a stone wall basement in the western part of the house.  Few finds were made during the excavation in the summer of 2015. Among them were a bone, with elegant braid ornamentation, and a rune bone with the inscription ulrR. They were found nearby the stove. Under the floor, a piece of enamelled Venetian glass was found. A large amount of slaughter waste was found in the basement. The bones have been dated to the end of the 13th century, which indicates that the house was abandoned not long after the move of the cathedral to modern Uppsala in the 1270s. By leaving the waste in the basement, the people avoided the stench from the rotting bones. The archaeological traces demonstrate a very unhygienic site; the bones have been gnawed on by rats. A very unusual silver coin, dated to 1280-90, was found on top of the basement.