Nobody ever called Margareta “the lady with the trousers” to her face. One of her contemporaries was fool enough to call her the “King without breeches” – and she made him bitterly regret doing so. And given that this was back in the 14th century when the general order of things was that men ruled and women had babies and shut up, Margareta was an anomaly.
If we start right at the beginning (which, as Julie Andrews sang so beautifully, is such a very good place to start), Margareta was born in 1353, as the youngest daughter to Valdemar Atterdag, famed king of Denmark. Well, to us Swedes, Valdemar is the brute who ransacked the city of Visby and held it to ransom (Visby was part of the Hanseatic league, and Valdemar and the Hanseatic league never had any fond feelings for each other). But according to most others, Valdemar was a capable king – just goes to show that history is often most subjective…
Anyway: tradition has it that Valdemar was dead tired of his wife and was hoping to replace her with something younger and easier on the eyes when an old crone told him that if he took his wife back into his affections, Sweden and Norway would fall under Denmark’s rule. Now, Valdemar was a man who created his own destiny, but he probably felt that an extra boost or two from Fate wasn’t a bad thing – and he salivated at the idea of controlling Norway and Sweden. Said and done; he wooed his wife back and nine month later little Margareta was born.
Margareta was raised as a princess, educated as a king and taught early on that she was expected to marry as her father saw fit. I have no idea how close Valdemar was to his daughter, but maybe it is an indication that he cared for her when he insisted she remain at home with him even after ten-year-old Margareta had married the 23 year old king of Norway and heir to the Swedish throne, Håkan.
Whatever Valdemar’s desires, the young girlwife was dispatched to join her husband relatively soon after her nuptials, and ended up as a very young chatelaine at the very large but also decidedly un-cozy Akershus, the premiere castle of the time in Oslo. Clearly, Margareta was used to higher standards than this draughty place with mended sheets and chipped crockery. So ashamed was Margareta of the interiors and furnishings within the royal Norwegian palace that she never arranged any major parties. However, things were soon to change for the better, starting with the auspicious birth of her son, Olof, in 1370.
Håkan and Margareta seem to have had a happy marriage. He was entranced by his knowledgeable young wife and included her as a matter of course in his discussions about politics. Given that Margareta was the kind of woman one did not put in a corner – unless one toyed with the idea of suicide by proxy – this was a smart move on behalf of Håkan.
However content, the couple were not blessed with more children than the one precious heir, and when Håkan died in 1380, he left a 27 year old widow and a ten year old boy. Little Olof was since some years back king of Denmark – Margareta had seized upon the opportunity offered by her father’s death and outmaneouvered all other claimants, probably with the help of her husband who did some adequate sabre-rattling in the background. (Figuratively speaking: no sabres around in 14th century Scandinavia)
Anyway, upon the death of Håkan, Olof now also became king of Norway, but given his tender age, his mother ruled on his behalf. Margreta thrived in the role of Queen Regent. Not a big fan of bureaucracy, she quickly started merging and streamlining the administration of her – oops, her son’s – kingdoms. While there was the expected grumbling from men who did not relish having a female ruler, it is interesting to note that in general contemporary chronicles express admiration for their “learned and gracious lady queen”.
Possessed of a diplomatic streak very absent in her father, Margareta succeeded in establishing cordial relations with the Hanseatic League, and in general things were relatively peachy-pie in Margareta’s life. Well, with the exception of that irritating usurper in Sweden, Albrekt of Mecklenburg. I mean, everyone knew that Olof’s claim to the Swedish crown was much, much stronger. (It was)
Albrekt became king as a consequence of repeated internal strife in Sweden. After years of seeing their country torn apart between royal brothers, royal fathers and sons, royal what-have-you, the Swedish nobles decided enough was enough and invited Albrekt of Mecklenburg to pop over the Baltic sea and become their king. Sweden at the time subscribed to some sort of restricted democratic ideals in that the king was elected – by a selected few.
Anyway, Albrekt was very pleased to upgrade himself to king, but very quickly the Swedes realised that choosing Albrekt as king was the equivalent of diving from the frying pan straight into the fire. In brief, Albrekt was very unpopular. He was also German, and the Swedes resented him for bringing over boatloads of Germans to fill all the important administrative positions in his new kingdom. As per the monks in Vadstena “The birds of carrion settled themselves over the land, as the Germans ruled our lands with violence”.
While the Swedes grumbled and groaned under the yoke of their German king, Denmark and Norway thrived. Until the day when young, dashing Olof was carried away in a sudden illness, leaving his mother – and his kingdoms – devastated. Without Olof, Margareta’s claim to the thrones was tenuous at best. Plus there was the teensy-weensy little detail that she was getting a bit long in the tooth (at 34!) to marry and beget more children. No marriage, no heirs of her body…. Tsk, tsk. Somehow, Margareta overcame this storm, claiming both thrones in her own name. I guess it is indicative of just how good a job she did that her ascensions were relatively peaceful – her subjects led good, stable lives and knew that this was to a large extent due to their diplomatic and wise queen.
Over in Sweden, things were deteriorating at a surprising speed. the Swedes were utterly fed up with their imported king, and some disgruntled noblemen and bishops contacted Margareta, begging her to come to their aid. She gladly complied, needing some sort of distraction to cope with her grief.
Albrekt seems to have been somewhat dense. Not only did he fail to pick up on his subjects’ growing disenchantment with him, but he also made fun of Margareta whenever he could, jeeringly referring to her as – yup – “the king without breeches”. When he decided to show his contempt for this weak female ruler by sending her a whetstone, accompanied by a note in which he recommended that she use his gift to sharpen her needles and revert to that most feminine of pastimes, embroidery, very few found this amusing, Margareta least of all. Which is probably one of the reasons why she so enthusiastically took up the cause of claiming Sweden as her own.
In 1388, Margareta and the Swedish noblemen pledged to her initiated their rebellion. In 1389, Albrekt and his army was defeated at the battle of Åsle, and Albrekt was taken prisoner. Margareta had him dressed in motley, with a fool’s cap decorated with a six metre point that dragged behind him as he moved (and bells; I bet she’d added bells to the motley and the point, so that the humiliated king tinkled as he walked towards her). With her usual expediency, Margareta had Albrekt tried and imprisoned. Six years later, she released him to return to Mecklenburg and his somewhat lowlier life as a duke, rather than a king.
By 1390, Margareta had achieved what no other regent had managed before: the union of the Scandinavian crowns. Suddenly, the power balance in the Baltic region keeled over in Margareta’s favour, and the representatives of the Hanseatic League had cause for concern – after all, royals have long memories, and Margareta was very aware of just how much the League had plagued her father. She never openly challenged the League – she simply undermined it, bit by bit, paving the way to a future without the League.
Instead, Margareta turned her impressive skills and energy to governing her new lands. Somewhat autocratic, she chose to do most of the ruling herself, dispensing with such unnecessaries as councils and advisors. Not that she sat in solitude and governed, but she was no fan of group decisions – Margareta preferred to have the last word herself.
One issue that kept on popping up was the question of her heir, and while Margareta may have found it difficult to formally replace her beloved – but very dead – Olof with another son, she did precisely that, adopting her sister’s teenage grandson, Boguslav. Obviously, a Scandinavian king had to have a Scandinavian name, and so the boy was renamed Erik, and in 1397 this pimply youth was formally invested with the crowns of Norway, Sweden and Denmark. Not that anyone doubted who would do the actual ruling; she stood beaming behind the boy throughout the ceremony.
The last fifteen years of her life, Margareta was recognised as one of Europe’s most powerful people. So impressed were her contemporaries by this magnificent woman, that they offered one potential marital prize after the other for her consideration. Not for her, but for young Erik. After some thought, Margareta chose Philippa of England as Erik’s consort, and in 1406 the little English princess arrived in Copenhagen to wed a man who was formally the most powerful regent in Northern Europe, albeit that all major decisions were taken by the person in skirts at his side.
In 1412, Margareta Valdemarsdotter died of the plague. After some uncharacteristic dithering as to where she should be buried, the bishop of Roskilde took possession of her remains and interred her in Roskilde’s Cathedral, where she still lies. Like any other high-born and wealthy person of her time, Margareta left plenty of money and lands to the church in return for eternal masses for her soul. After the Reformation, masses were out, but to this day a special bell is rung twice a day to commemorate the woman who for more than two decades ruled Sweden, Denmark ad Norway as one.
And as to that whetstone Albrekt sent Margaret back in 1388, it still exists, part of the loot victorious Swedish soldiers carried with them back to Sweden when they sacked Roskilde in 1658. I find it amusing that she kept it. Maybe it reminded her of the existence she was meant for, that of wife and mother, hovering in the background of her successful men. Or maybe the stone made her grin, recalling the sight of the humbled Albrekt in his motley.
“To find a woman like Margareta, a man must scour the world. The wisdom she showed when she, a mere woman, united Sweden, Norway and Denmark, stands unsurpassed throughout the ages.” So writes the Karlskrönika, a medieval chronicle about Margareta. Somehow, I thinks she would have been quite displeased with the “mere woman” part, but as stated already in the beginning,whether she liked it or not, Margareta was an anomaly. She wielded enormous powers in a world generally dominated by men. But it came at a price; had not her husband and then her son died, Margareta would never have become the architect of the Scandinavian union. I think there were days when she felt the price was too high.