Disinheriting the Saints: Confiscations and the Redistribution of Church Assets in Reformation Sweden

Postat den 15th June, 2022, 12:59 av Terese Zachrisson

Terese Zachrisson, University of Gothenburg

The ‘Linköping Treasure’. Photo: Lennart Karlsson, Historiska museet/SHM (CC BY).

The cult of the saints was largely maintained — and initiated — by means from the laity. The amount of preserved wills and letters of donations benefitting saints’ altars, chapels, prebends and guilds attest to the enormous popularity of the cult of the saints in late medieval Sweden and Finland. By making a donation in honour of a saint, an individual could not only form a deeper personal connection to a particular saint, but also hope to shorten their own or their loved ones’ time in purgatory. But the wealth and abundance of guilds, prebends and altar foundations also attracted criticism, and the cult of the saints was to be one of the major sources of discord in sixteenth-century theological debate. 

While the great Humanist Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466–1536) never left the fold of the Church, he was a staunch critic of what he believed to be the ignorant excesses of ‘popular’ religious expression. Using satire, he criticised many aspects of the cult of the saints, such as pilgrimage and relics. Martin Luther (1483–1546) maintained that the saints were to be respected and that their virtues and deeds should inspire Christians to piety and obedience to God. But praying for the saints’ intercession was useless according to Luther – the Blessed Virgin had no more power to aid an individual than anyone else (Kreitzer 2019, 445–449). Other reformers, like Huldrych Zwingli (1484–1531) and John Calvin (1509–1564) went even further, stating that turning to the saints was not only useless, but also idolatrous. Their renunciation of the saints led to the widespread destruction of shrines, altars and images in the parts of Europe where this more radical view became influential (Heal 2016, 601).

The Swedish Reformers followed the path taken by Luther. They never encouraged iconoclasm or outright banned all aspects of saints’ cults. Nevertheless, they efficiently disrupted the economic foundation of the cults and cut the cords to their cultural and ideological engine at an early stage. At the Riksdag held in Västerås from June 16–18, 1527, an event that has traditionally marked the launch of the Reformation in Sweden, the nobility were granted the right to reclaim all estates donated to the Church since 1454 (Gustaf I:s reg. 4, 226–240). A few months later, King Gustavus I in part revoked this right, when he claimed the rights to the revenues from land donated to the Church for the Crown itself. All in all, this led to a major redistribution of church assets, and greatly impacted the Church’s ability to maintain chapels and altars dedicated to the saints (Bjarne Larsson 2012, 20f). In 1544 the Riksdag, once again assembling in Västerås, took further steps towards disrupting the cult of the saints: all guilds, pilgrimages and prayers to the saints were now outlawed (Sv. riksdagsakter 1, 390).

The assets once belonging to the saints were frequently redistributed among those loyal to the king.  In a letter from 1530, the king granted the income from St. Gertrude’s Prebend  in Skara Cathedral to his own scribe, Måns Månsson (Gustaf I:s reg. 7, 100). In 1546, he gave a plot of land in Nyköping previously owned by St Barbara’s guild to Birgitta, the royal nurserymaid and the Queen’s confidante (Gustaf I:s reg. 18, 25).

Of all the ecclesiastical institutions, the mendicant orders were hit the hardest by the Diet of Västerås. Not only could their donated assets be suddenly revoked, their freedom to preach and collect alms for their upkeep was also greatly restricted by the decrees (Bjarne Larsson 2012, 17). These mendicant orders — most notably the Dominicans and the Franciscans – had up until 1527 been a fairly popular choice for people that wished to honour the saints by making a donation. For instance, in 1520, the noblewoman Anna Eriksdotter (Bielke) made up her will, and for the sake of her soul and the soul of her late husband, she donated a significant part to various religious institutions. Among the recipients was the image of St Anne in the Kalmar Blackfriars’ Church, that was to be given the gilded beads of a rosary (SDHK 38307 & SDHK 38325). 

In 1505, Merchant Ingevald Torstensson and his daughter Birgitta donated the rent revenues from a townhouse to the Stockholm Greyfriars. The condition for this particular donation was that the friars were to celebrate masses in their side chapel dedicated to St Erasmus ‘in perpetuity’ for the benefit of Ingevald’s and Birgitta’s deceased family members (SDHK 35010). The Stockholm Greyfriars had been dissolved already by August 1527, when the Poor Clares moved in to their premises on Gråmunkeholmen (Berntson 2003, 102). The perpetual requiem masses that Ingevald and Birgitta had paid for were thus only celebrated for 22 years. In 1527, Ingevald Torstensson was long dead, but his daughter Birgitta was alive and by then one of the wealthiest and most influential women in Stockholm. She was one of those donors that chose to exercise the new right to reclaim what they had previously donated to the Church. At the same occasion, she also reclaimed a house previously given to St Nicholas’ Guild (Sthlm tb 1524–1529, 153). Whether Birgitta did this because she understood that these institutions were already doomed, or because she had genuinely adopted a new Lutheran understanding of monasticism, purgatory and the intersession of the saints, we may never know.

A donation was a major spiritual investment, not unlike modern-day life insurances. The revenue from donated lands was to cover the upkeep for clerics to perform requiems and vigils for the donor. This  ‘liturgical annuity’ was expected to continue for all eternity, or in some cases for as long as the ecclesiastical institution, for instance a monastery, was in operation. The sudden disruption of this system must have stirred up many emotions among believers. In practice, it must have been as if all of the insurances that you or your parents had paid for, or your retirement savings, were suddenly rendered useless! Not everyone would have been as level-headed as Birgitta Ingevaldsdotter in this scenario. 

As the donation made by Anna Eriksdotter shows, not only land or monetary means were given to the saints, but all manner of goods and votive offerings. Gifts that were made of precious metals were often confiscated by the Crown in the first half of the 16th century. In 1541 for instance, a golden heart on a string was confiscated from Skara Cathedral. The heart had been hanging ‘on the head of St Brynolf’ and was likely a votive offering placed on the sculpture of the saint (Källström 1939, 241).

These confiscations claimed countless objects from the reliquaries, altars and images of the saints. Further examples are the crown belonging to an image of St Olaf, taken from Stora Tuna Church in Dalarna in 1533, and the 76 gilded ornaments from the Virgin’s cloak, taken from Rimito Parish Church in Southwest Finland in 1558 (Källström 1939, 258, 321). That people reacted strongly to these confiscations is evident. The confiscations were explicitly stated to be one of the grievances behind the uprisings the king faced during his reign, though less violent means of protest were likely more common (Berntson 2010, 230–231). A spectacular example of a more peaceful protest is the so-called Linköping Treasure discovered in 1676: a collection of gilded reliquaries, a chalice and a paten that someone had buried in a field, likely in order to save them from being taken by the King’s men (Lahti 2019, 228f). 

While we today may mourn the loss of countless artefacts that undoubtedly would have enhanced our knowledge of medieval religious life, these confiscations and land distributions in themselves actually provide valuable insights, not only into their own time period, but into previous eras as well. Frequently, short notes in inventories and royal correspondence are the only preserved sources in which these prebends, guilds, altars and embellishments of saints’ sculptures are ever mentioned. 



Martin Berntson, Klostren och reformationen: Upplösningen av kloster och konvent i Sverige 1523–1596, Skellefteå 2003.

Martin Berntson, Mässan och armborstet: Uppror och reformation i Sverige 1525–1544, Skellefteå 2010.

Gabriela Bjarne Larsson, “Skärseld, mässor och döda själar 1527”,  in Eva-Marie Letzter (ed.), Auktoritet i förvandling:Omförhandling av fromhet, lojalitet och makt i reformationens Sverige, Uppsala 2012.

Bridget Heal, ”Visual and Material Culture” in Ulinka Rublack (ed.), in Ulinka Rublack (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of the Protestant Reformations, Oxford 2016.

Konung Gustaf den förstes registratur 4:1527, Stockholm 1868.

Konung Gustaf den förstes registratur 7:1530–1531, Stockholm 1877.

Konung Gustaf den förstes registratur. 18:1546–1547, Stockholm 1900.

Olle Källström, Medeltida kyrksilver från Sverige och Finland förlorat genom Gustav Vasas konfiskationer, Uppsala 1939.

Beth Kreitzer, “Mary in Luther and the Lutheran Reformation”, in Chris Maunder (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Mary, Oxford 2019.

SDHK 35010 (RAp 1505)

SDHK 38307 (RAp Kalmar 1520)

SDHK 38325 (RAp Kalmar 1520)

Sofia Lahti, Silver Arms and Silk Heads: Medieval Reliquaries in the Nordic Countries, Åbo 2019.

Stockholms stads tänkebok under Vasatiden I. 1524–1529, Stockholm 1908.

Svenska riksdagsakter jämte andra handlingar som höra till statsförfattningens historia under tidehvarfvet 1521-1718, Band 1 (1521-1544), Stockholm 1887.

Det här inlägget postades den June 15th, 2022, 12:59 och fylls under Donations lived religion Reformation

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