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Brotherly love in medieval Sweden

463px-Hommage_of_Edward_I_to_Philippe_le_BelIt’s tough being a parent. Even tougher if you were a medieval king, blessed with too many sons. Just look at what happened to poor old England in the aftermath of Edward III, what with him having a number of healthy sons, all of them with their own dynastic ambitions. Maybe things wouldn’t have ended up as pear-shaped as they did had the eldest, Edward the Black Prince, been as healthy and long-lived as his brothers, but as it was… Civil war, people, cousins fighting cousins, tearing the kingdom apart.

VädersolstavlanAs a case in point, let us travel back to the very early fourteenth century and Sweden, at the time not much of a kingdom to squabble about – at least not from a lofty European perspective, but hey, you make do with what you have.

Due to the Swedes being a prideful people, very conscious of their rights and liberties, kingship was still not hereditary at the beginning of the fourteenth century. In fact, it wouldn’t become hereditary for another two centuries or so. In principle, that is, because in practise the Swedish crown had been bandied back and forth between a couple of families, murder leading to usurpation, yet another murder resulting in the crown being snatched back, more murders, more crown-snatching… you get the picture, right? Very much Shakespeare, very exhausting, especially for the people caught in the middle (and all those murdered kings, of course).

Birger_jarl_(Forssén)However, in the late thirteenth century Sweden was gifted with a man of foresight and vision, named Birger Jarl (Jarl is the equivalent to the English word “Earl”, but a Jarl is far more powerful, closer to a royal Marshal) More or less single-handedly, dear Birger brought peace to Sweden (and God to Finland, although his crusades to Sweden’s eastern neighbour were no walk in the park for the poor Finns), and to ensure this hard-won peace would survive his own life, he groomed his son, Valdemar, to be king while he himself was still around to guide him and support him. A relatively successful strategy – as long as Birger remained alive.

No sooner was Birger safely interred, but Valdemar  and his brother Magnus locked horns, and as Magnus was the far more capable of the two, ultimately he won, had Valdemar incarcerated for life (but under relatively comfortable circumstances – Magnus thereby qualifies as a nice dude) and set out to do all that work for which he is remembered as one of our foremost lawmakers. As an aside, Magnus gets a high score when it comes to his laws: in other European countries, women were perceived as chattels, in Sweden they got hereditary rights AND were legally protected when it came to abuse and rape – how innovative!

Magnus had three sons. One would have thought he would have spent a lot of time ensuring his sons grew to love each other so as to avoid the situation he himself had experienced with his older brother. Well, maybe he planned to, but unfortunately, Magnus died young, and by the time his three sons were adults, there was little love lost between them. The eldest, Birger, was the king while his two younger brothers, Erik and Valdemar were “only” dukes – something Erik set out to change by creating his own mini-kingdom in the borderlands between Sweden and Norway.


Tensions increased, tempers were lost. Birger was royally pissed off at Erik for setting himself up as an alternative king – even more so as Erik attracted a much larger following than Birger, being perceived as the better and more capable of the brothers. Birger growled and threatened, did his best to curtail Erik’s powers.Erik smiled and seethed, straining against these royal proclamations that restricted his power, while baby brother Valdemar followed Erik’s lead like an adoring hound.

In 1307, Erik and Valdemar dropped in for a surprise visit at Birger’s palace in Håtuna. The king was somewhat taken aback, but welcomed his brothers and their retinues as well as he could given the short notice. In the middle of the night, Erik and Valdemar snuck into Birger’s bedroom and took the king and his queen prisoner. Birger’s son, however, escaped, carried away by a loyal servant before Erik’s men could grab the little boy.

The king and queen were locked up in Nyköpingshus (Sweden’s most formidable castle at the time), but if Erik hoped that by holding the king captive he had sorted things once and for all he was wrong. Pressure was brought to bear on the young, larger-than-his-boots duke. A lot of pressure, as Erik was a stubborn character (and, apparently, an excellent leader of men. Charismatic, even), but ultimately he agreed to release his brother (on the condition that both he and Valdemar were given huge shares of Sweden, effectively splitting the kingdom into three), the kiss of peace was exchanged and things settled down – for a while.

Duke Erik’s seal

Birger went back to ruling what remained of his kingdom, Erik concentrated his ambitions on winning the hand of the fair Ingeborg, princess of Norway and heiress to the Norwegian throne. Ingeborg’s father blew hot and cold, not entirely sure he approved of a duke that set himself up against his king, but Erik was a good match, and Erik was finally approved as royal son-in-law, marrying little Ingeborg in 1312, when she was about eleven. Baby brother Valdemar was also married to an Ingeborg, also a Norwegian princess (but not the heiress to the crown). Happily ever after, one could hope, the two younger brothers settling down to enjoy life as married men and future fathers.

Remember the saying “revenge is a dish best eaten cold”? Well, dear king Birger would wholeheartedly agree, and for a decade he held his peace, probably choking on bitter bile whenever he saw his brothers, which was as rarely as possible. But in 1317 he somehow managed to convince Erik and Valdemar that bygones were bygones, and invited his brothers to celebrate Christmas with him at Nyköpingshus. Silly idiots, they came. In a reversal of the events ten years earlier at Håtuna, the king served Erik and Valdemar one more delicious dish after the other, and once the brothers were asleep, he had them arrested, struck in irons and thrown into the deepest dungeon of the castle, all the while asking them if they remembered the “fun and games at Håtuna” as well as he did. Obviously not; had they but stopped to think Birger’s invitation through, they might have decided to pass…

Erik and Valdemar being thrown into the dungeon

The reaction to Birger’s imprisonment of his (much more) popular brothers was violent. Birger was taken very much by surprise when the kingdom erupted in anger, and saw no option but to flee the country. But before he did, it is said he took the time to pop by for one last visit to his brothers, by now rather weakened after weeks in the dark with very little food. He bid them goodbye, held up the key to their dungeon, and promised he would throw it in the moat when he left. Which he did.

As per tradition, Erik and Valdemar starved to death in their dungeon, as no one could open the door to give them food. Hmm. Whatever the case, they wrote a will (which still exists), made their peace with God (but not, one assumes, with their brother)  and died. Nine months later their rather decayed corpses were exposed on the walls of Nyköpingshus, this to deter the besieging armies. Didn’t work. If anything, the sight of the dead bodies of their lords enraged the armies further, and very soon afterwards the royal castle fell to the besiegers.

Erik was dead. Valdemar was dead. Birger was in exile and would never return. Birger’s son, Magnus, was imprisoned and subsequently executed – despite being promised his life.  So ended the tragedy of the three Magnusson brothers, preserved for posterity in the “Erikskrönika” (The Chronicle of Erik). And in 1319, a small three-year old boy was elected king of Sweden and Norway, staring with certain trepidation at the nobles that surrounded him. “Hail Magnus Eriksson!” the men shouted, “Hail our new king!”

Magnus Eriksson

Given his father’s importune death of starvation, Magnus had no brothers to make his life hell. Somehow, I don’t think that was much of a comfort, either to little Magnus or to Erik’s formidable widow, Ingeborg. Besides, Magnus Eriksson was destined to have his own personal burr up his royal arse, namely St Birgitta of Sweden, and I seriously suspect there were days when he would have preferred a dozen murderous brother to her. But that, as they say, is another story, dear people, one you can find right here!


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