Prisoners at Gripsholm

For several hundred years, Gripsholm Castle was used as a prison. Three kings, an archbishop and countless common thieves have all been imprisoned here. Some of these prisoners left traces that can still be seen to this day.

The first person to be imprisoned at Gripsholm was Johan (III). His older brother, King Erik XIV, suspected him of being allied with Catholic Poland. In 1563, Erik had his brother convicted of high treason. It is still possible to see the approximate conditions in which Johan was imprisoned to this day, as the room is one of Sweden's best preserved 16th century interiors.

King Johan III and Katarina Jagellonica

The prison was quite luxurious by the standards of the time. There are several windows, and the room is adorned with beautiful paintings. There is even a 16th century toilet behind an opening in the wall.

The room is now known as Duke Karl's Chamber, and Johan and his wife Katarina Jagellonica lived here for four years. Two children were born here: Isabella, who died at the age of just two, and Sigismund, who went on to become king. Johan and his family had their own cooks, servants and books. A wide variety of fruit and vegetables grew in the castle's garden, so they enjoyed a varied diet.

King Erik XIV

However, their peace of mind was another matter entirely. Bizarrely, the Russian Czar Ivan the Terrible demanded Katarina as his wife in exchange for peace. At the same time, Johan and Katarina were aware that Erik was suffering from mental health problems. In May 1567, the king murdered another high-status prisoner, Nils Sture, while in a state of emotional disturbance. When Erik married Karin Månsdotter – the daughter of a soldier – in 1568, the nobility revolted; the Riksdag decided in 1569 that Erik should be held "in custody, but in proper and princely conditions".

"In custody, but in proper and princely conditions"

Between November 1571 and June 1573, Erik was probably held in the same room where he had kept his brother prisoner. However, Erik was not the last captive to be held here. Carl Fredrik Pechlin, one of King Gustav III's opponents, was also imprisoned in this room for a time.

A county jail in the 18th century

Between 1720 and 1770, the castle was used as a county jail. The four cellar vaults housed thieves and robbers, some of whom left graffiti on the walls. This part of the castle may look downright inhospitable, but conditions might not have been too bad. The temperature down here never falls below eight degrees Celsius, and the prisoners were always given food. In fact, they had a longer average life expectancy than the rest of the population. Nor is there any evidence to suggest that prisoners were tortured at Gripsholm.

Prisoners during the time of King Karl IX

During the time of King Karl IX, officers who had neglected their duties were held in the Griptornet tower on the floor above. This example of 17th century graffiti can be seen on the walls:

"In the year 1600, on the third of April, we were imprisoned here. Believe in God in all things. We have been imprisoned for our faith. And suffered for our sins. We will be liberated from here on…"

It is signed by two Finnish officers, Arffwedh Ericksånn and Axell Korck. There is no date for their release. Perhaps they were never released...

An archbishop is also said to have been held captive at Gripsholm. Abraham Angermannus was a ruthless man who instigated several witch trials. Eventually even the tough King Karl IX had had enough, and in 1599 Angermannus was imprisoned at Gripsholm.

Not everyone who was held at the castle against their will was a regular prisoner. Maria Eleonora, Queen Kristina's unbalanced mother, was held here to prevent her from leaving the country. However, this was not a case of strict incarceration. For example, she was allowed to build a covered rose walk – which she used to make her escape on 22 July 1640.

King Gustav IV Adolf and the 1809 coup d'état

King Gustav IV Adolf, the deposed son of King Gustav III, was also imprisoned at Gripsholm following the 1809 coup d'état. He was brought here by sledge on 24 March, and was kept under close supervision in the Council Room and in his father's bedchamber. The royal family usually celebrated Christmas at Gripsholm. Here, the festivities included theatrical performances, concerts and dances. Now, everything was cold and silent.

"They want me to forget this is a prison."

Gustav Adolf liked to stay in bed in the mornings and eat his breakfast, usually a cup of coffee and a couple of meat sandwiches. Outwardly, he suffered no hardship. Mentally, conditions were less than satisfactory. Every effort was made to disconcert the sensitive king. At night, cannonballs were rolled on the floor above, and it was not until his abdication papers had been signed in June that Fredrika and their five children were allowed to come to Gripsholm. They were finally able to return to something like normal family life. They were sometimes allowed to receive visits from friends, and when the sun shone the family could walk in the walled garden. "They want me to forget this is a prison," Queen Fredrika is said to have confided to a companion as she walked up to the castle between flowers and flags.

Gustav Adolf and Fredrika appear to have been very happy to be reunited. In December 1809, the former royal family was expelled from the kingdom.

Top image: The room at Gripsholm Castle where Johan and Katarina were held prisoners for four years. Today, it is known as Duke Karl's Chamber, and is one of Sweden's best examples of a room from the time of the House of Vasa. Photo: Kate Gabor/

Traces of prisoners can still be seen at Gripsholm Castle. Photo: Lisa Raihle Rehbäck/

Katerina Jagellonica and Johan (III) were imprisoned at Gripsholm Castle for four years. Portrait, originally by Lucas Cranach, c. 1560.

The guards' walkway outside the room where King Erik XIV is said to have been imprisoned. Photo: Kate Gabor/

King Erik XIV, who had his brother Johan (III) imprisoned, was held captive himself at Gripsholm. Portrait of Domenicus Verwilt, c. 1560. Photo: Nationalmuseum

Another king was incarcerated at Gripsholm, King Gustav IV Adolf. Copy of Per Krafft the Younger's painting. Photo: Alexis Daflos/

'The jewels are inspected at Gripsholm Castle.' After the coup d'état of 1809, King Gustav IV Adolf was taken to Gripsholm. His property was confiscated, and he was then deported. Contemporary caricature sketch by Per Otto Adelborg.

Duke Karl's Chamber Gripsholm Castle virtual tour

Duke Karl's Chamber in 360°. Click on the image to start the tour.


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