The Female Legacy of Sweden

A writer traces the country’s history through its women, and learns heart-warming tales of indomitable strength and Viking spirit.

This story was first published in National Geographic Traveller. This is an excerpt. Read the full story here.


The legend of the strong, female Viking warrior is an enduring one, despite its debatable real existence. In 2017, scientists in Sweden unearthed a tomb of a woman that hinted at validating the warrior narrative. While there hasn’t been any conclusive evidence of this, surviving and thriving in regions near the Arctic 1,000 years ago is enough evidence of Swedish women’s resilience.

When I visited pre-pandemic Sweden in 2019, perhaps the most formidable way to travel through Sweden’s past and present was through its women, what with Greta Thunberg, a 16-year-old climate crusader rocketing to international fame. The Skarhults Castle in mid-western Skåne isn’t the country’s largest or most opulent, but it was the only one literally rewriting history to include pivotal women who men left out. Built in 1560—some parts dating back to the 1100s—it is one of the best-preserved Swedish Renaissance castles. The castle opened to tourists in 2014, with its gardens and cobbled pathways, and fanciful archways that led to stone stairs.

“We wanted to credit women with the roles they played in Swedish history—which is written by men about men,” says Emma Ehrenberg, tour guide and a student of gender studies. Through centuries, women were credited with only keeping home and children, never for running estates. Alexandra von Schwerin, who is married to the castle’s current owner, Carl Johan von Schwerin, became interested in her predecessors who had taken charge of the castle. She contacted Swedish historians who did extensive research to showcase for the first time, the women of Skarhults. The revelations led to the creation of the ‘Power of Disguise’ exhibition.


A temporary exhibition in Skarhult Castle highlights the short, but impactful, life of firebrand Swedish journalist Ester Blenda. Photo Courtesy: Claes Hall/Skarhult Castle