Giving Shape to ‘Dynasty’ in Later Sixteenth Century Sweden

In 1597 Duke Karl ordered the governor at one of his main residences to provide barrels of grain for the secretary and genealogist Erik Jöransson Tegel and the engraver Hieronymus Nützel.1 This patronage funded the work that resulted in the Arbor Genealogica, an elaborate family tree printed in 1598. The family tree represented the duke as a central figure, placed at the bottom and centre of the trunk surrounded by his living and deceased spouses. The illustrious past was depicted in the foliage through coats of arms and name plates of ancestors stretching back to the twelfth century. The etching also suggested the brilliant future of the ducal house. Beneath Duke Karl, roots adorned with the names of the duke’s children were depicted, and nourished the proliferating tree.

Various copies are kept at Uppsala University Library, for example in the collection Palmskiöldska samlingen, vol. 34. Image source:

In the late 1590s, the political situation in Sweden was precarious. Duke Karl was the uncle of the absent King Sigismund I, who reigned over the Swedish Realm from his throne in Poland. At home, the relations between Duke Karl and royal councillors were strained. Shortly before Karl issued his instruction to ensure the completion of the Arbor Genealogica, he summoned a meeting of the estates of the realm without royal permission. His aim was to gain recognition for the full exercise of royal authority in his capacity as regent. As tensions intensified, a civil war ensued and Karl sought military control over the realm by ousting governors loyal to the king.2

The genealogic representation and legitimation of Duke Karl, as well as its political context, actualises questions explored in my ongoing research project on dukeship and dynasty formation in Sweden: What did it mean to be a duke in sixteenth- and early-seventeenth-century Sweden? What did it mean to be the ruler of a principality but also part of the royal family? How did these positions affect dynasty formation processes and the meaning of dynasty?

The Arbor Genealogica is entirely concerned with a ducal house and its lineage. It is telling that the elaborate family tree completely omits references to King Sigismund or his father, King Johan III. The engraving positions Duke Karl as the head of a house, and when read in context this position could legitimate his claim to rule and head the state in the absence of his nephew.

The artifact reminds us that dynasty is best conceived of as a category of analysis, not a category of practice. In recent years scholars have increasingly turned to a critical conception of dynasty. Instead of a descriptive term, dynasty serves as an analytical concept to study community-formation processes, practices of inclusion and exclusion, power relations within and between houses, and the establishment of norms and concepts of order.3 The meaning of dynasty, and who were counted as members of a ruling community, depended on context.

The Arbor Genealogica also demonstrates the significance of courts in dynasty formation processes. The production and representation of genealogic knowledge were crucial in making ‘dynasty’ visible and structuring relations between supposed members and non-members. Through court patronage genealogies were compiled, adorned, and printed. The secretary Erik Jöransson Tegel, who enjoyed the patronage of Duke Karl, authored several genealogies in the 1590s and early 1600s. One of his genealogies from 1598 traced the descent of Swedish, Danish, and Polish rulers from early biblical times to the present. In this genealogy, Sigismund was listed at the bottom-left of the page as the king of Sweden and in the bottom-right as king in Poland. Duke Karl was also included on the left as the ‘ruling hereditary prince’ of the realm. It is worth noting that whilst Karl is listed with his spouses and their children, Sigismund’s wife and children are only recorded at the bottom-right.4 This arrangement suggests that Erik Jöransson Tegel relegated the future of Sigismund’s lineage to the Polish realm, whereas he projected the government of Sweden to Karl’s lineage, though not in a royal capacity but as hereditary princes and regents.

Uppsala University Library, Palmskiöldska samlingen, vol. 34.

Though united through a common descent, there was a differentiation between princely and royal houses. Courts formed integral parts of making these houses visible as courtiers compiled genealogies dedicated to the heads of various houses. Hence, the courts were crucial in the cultivation of the idea of separate, but linked, houses, and in the assertion and legitimation of a house. In the civil war that ensued between Duke Karl and Sigismund, the duke relied on the support and military management of his courtiers and loyal servants.

From the 1570s, with a basis in his court and principality, Duke Karl built a princely house and positioned himself as its head, as a Hausvater and Landesvater. In relation to the Swedish kings, first Karl’s brother Johan III and then his nephew Sigismund I, this would cause disturbances as duke and kings fought over their respective prerogatives. But Sigismund’s defeat in the civil war and subsequent return to Poland did not mean that Duke Karl abandoned a strong identification as a hereditary prince and head of a ducal house. Only gradually did his princely house transform into a royal house. Karl assumed the royal title in 1603 and in 1604 the estates of the realm proclaimed a new Succession Pact after Sigismund’s half-brother Duke Johan renounced his claims to the throne and contended himself to be a hereditary prince and duke with a principality. To speak of a dynasty as a Kollketivsingulat tends to neglect these tensions and practices of identification, categorisation, differentiation, inclusion, and exclusion.5

As the Arbor Genealogica demonstrates, ‘dynasty’ was a highly malleable and context-dependent concept, and courts were integral parts of shaping this concept. R. J. W. Evans once posited that a court is a dynasty viewed as an institution.6 But just as there were princely and royal courts, there were also princely and royal houses that intersected in processes of dynasty formation.

By Alexander Isacsson, Örebro University, Sweden.

Alexander is a PhD student in History at Örebro University. His ongoing research project explores the intersection of dukeship and dynasty in Sweden, 1560–1622. By writing an institutional biography of dukeship, he explores how ducal identification, categorisation, and legitimation affected and operated in relation to dynasty formation processes.



(1) Riksarkivet (The Swedish National Archives), Hertig Karls registratur, vol. 25, fol. 83 – 7 March 1597, letter to the governor of Nyköping Castle.

(2) For a general description of the political situation in Sweden in this period, see Michael Roberts, The Early Vasas: A History of Sweden 1523–1611 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1968).

(3) See, for example, Liesbeth Geevers & Mirella Marini (eds.), Dynastic Identity in Early Modern Europe: Rulers, Aristocrats and the Formation of Identities (Farnham: Ashgate, 2015); Michael Hecht, ‘The Production of Genealogical Knowledge and the Invention of Princely “Dynasties”’, in Jost Eickmeyer, Markus Friedrich & Volker Bauer (eds.), Genealogical Knowledge in the Making: Tools, Practices, and Evidence in Early Modern Europe (Berlin: Oldenbourg, 2019), pp. 145–168; Harald Gustafsson, ‘Dynasty Formation: The Danish Oldenburgs 1536 – 1699’, Historisk tidskrift, 120(2) (2020), 345–405.

(4) Uppsala universitetsbibliotek (Uppsala University Library), Palmskiöldska samlingen, vol. 34.

(5) For a similar critique, see Andreas Pečar, ‘Bruderzwist im Hause Mecklenburg. Herzog Ulrich (1554–1603) als Prototyp innerfamiliärer Herrschaftskonkurrenz?’, Mecklenburgische Jahrbücher 123 (2008), 77-103.

(6) Robert John Weston Evans, ‘The Austrian Habsburgs: The Dynasty as a Political Institituion’ in Arthur Geoffrey Dickens (ed.), The Courts of Europe: Politics, Patronage and Royalty (London: Thames and Hudson, 1977), p. 121.

OpenEdition suggests that you cite this post as follows:
courtstudies (September 28, 2022). Giving Shape to ‘Dynasty’ in Later Sixteenth Century Sweden. The Court Observer. Retrieved July 17, 2024 from

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