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Crusading in Finland – or how to use God as an excuse

Henry II and Thomas

Back in the good old days, any Christian king worth his name would at least consider going on a Crusade. For some, it was mostly lip-service. As an example, I seriously doubt Henry II of England had any desire to gallop off to the Holy Land, given just how much he had on his plate back home: rebellious sons and a disgruntled wife required his immediate attention, and if we’re going to be quite honest, he probably only agreed to take the cross so as to keep the Pope happy after the whole Thomas Becket scandal.

For others, riding off on a crusade was an endeavour undertaken to
a) spread the word of God
b) cover themselves with glory
c) become rich. Quite often, b and c were sort of mutually exclusive, as demonstrated by the tragedy that went by the name of the Fourth Crusade. The “valiant and pious” Crusaders chose to pillage Constantinople rather than to ride to the rescue of the Holy Land, and while this may have resulted in nice piles of booty, it definitely did their reputation no favours.
Others saw it as a military adventure – crusaders such as Richard Lionheart would fall in that category.
Most Crusaders made for the Holy Land, albeit that they were now and then distracted elsewhere (like in the Fourth Crusade, and we can blame the Venetians for that. They wanted to gain control over the trade in the Mediterranean, and the best way to do so was to crush Constantinople). In Spain, there was no need to ride off all the way to Palestine to do the crusading thing: with the infidel Moors camped in their backyard, generations of Spanish kings did their crusading at home.
And then, of course, we have the Swedish Crusaders, who felt the Holy land was very, very far away, and so decided it was time to bring the Christian faith to the wild and savage Finns. Not that the Finns at the time were all that much more savage and wild than the Swedes. Nor were they heathen – but in difference to the Swedes, the Finnish early contact with the Christian religion came from the east, so their take on Christianity was influenced by Greek Orthodox beliefs. Not good, as per the Pope, which was probably why he gave his blessing to the various Swedish crusades into Finland.
From a Swedish perspective. Finland offered two things: a buffer versus the growing powers further to the east (the future Russia was still a long way off, but Novgorod was a pain in the butt), and ample opportunity to increase its wealth. But for a crowned king to just ride off on a general pillaging expedition was not the done thing, which was why it was convenient to label the activity as being a crusade. The Finns, of course, never quite agreed with this description.
St Henry

The first Swedish Crusade was headed by St Erik. Truth be told, we don’t know if this expedition ever took place. Instead, one can suspect the future generations created the story of St Erik riding to baptise the heathen Finns so as to motivate the next Crusade, and the first complete description of this adventure first appears in the early 14th century. However, as per the chronicles, in the 1150s St Erik set of to save Finland from itself. He was supposedly accompanied by a future fellow saint, St Henry. This Henry was an English clergyman who accompanied Cardinal Nicholas Breakspeare to the far north. I imagine just how delighted he was by all this, because at the time, Sweden was only rudimentarily Christian, Henry’s countryman St Sigfrid having done his best to baptise as many as he could.
Things didn’t exactly get better when Henry was asked to accompany the Swedish king east there to salvage Finnish souls. The Finnish souls in question had been safely within the fold of a Christian church for like two centuries, but as it was the wrong Christian church, that didn’t count – or at least that was St Erik’s argument, and Henry agreed, being a loyal subject not only to the king, but also to the pope.
Off they went. After a relatively short stay, Erik returned home, there to meet his untimely death and become a saint. As per legend, Henry stayed on in Finland, aspiring to be a good shepherd to this very new flock. The flock wasn’t entirely thrilled…
Come winter, Henry was obliged to travel by horse and sleigh, using the ice-covered lakes as convenient highways between the few populated places that existed. One night, he came to a farm and asked the farmer’s wife to give him room and board for the night. She did as asked, but she was no big fan of this new bishop or his new faith, and when her husband returned the next day, she told him the bishop had forced himself inside and stolen victuals and beer. Enraged, her husband Lalli set of in pursuit of the bishop, who, I imagine, was whistling a chirpy little tune as his horse made good progress across the ice.
Lalli killing Henry

Once Lalli caught up with Henry, he killed him. Earlier versions say he used a sword. Later versions go with an axe, but this is probably because Finnish people fell in love with St Olof – and he died by axe. Once the bishop was dead, Lalli helped himself to his belongings, among them his cap (some would say it was a mitre. Seems unpractical to me, to travel about with one of those stuck on your head). He put on the cap, returned home, but when he took off the cap his scalp tore off and he subsequently died a terrible (and justified) death. Finland had its first martyr. (Henry, not Lalli, in case you were confused)
It took some time for the Swedes to come back. Internal turmoil and civil war kept them busy at home, and I dare say no one in Finland missed them. But in the 13th century, Birger Jarl, ruler (if not king) of Sweden, decided it was time to drop by for a new visit. Birger Jarl is a pivotal figure in Swedish history, one of the first to start forging a national identity. For him, controlling Finland was a way of controlling the Baltic Sea, and whoever controlled the Baltic Sea sat on potentially enormous wealth, as any trade conducted this far north relied on travelling by the sea. Also, bringing Finland under Swedish control would make it easier to handle the Hanseatic League – not that those wily German merchants were ever easy to handle.
Royal 19 B.XV, f.37Yet again, a bellicose intention was shrouded in the banners of faith. (Has happened repeatedly, hasn’t it?) The stories of St Erik and St Henry were dusted off and presented as gospel truth, and to further increase the enthusiasm of those willing to join the crusade, Birger Jarl promised generous grants of land – in Finland. As per the legends, Birger Jarl was in Finland when the Swedish king died, which means he was in the late 1240s. As per the odd comment in surviving records, he went to Finland in the 1230s, to quell a rebellion. Whatever the case, there is very little recorded from the Crusade as such. This is because most of the time, it was all pretty boring, our crusading Swedes riding through unpopulated wilderness, and only rarely coming upon villages to forcibly convert to the Catholic faith. Those who refused to convert ended up dead. Those who agreed, ended up baptised – and much poorer, as the Swedes helped themselves to booty as they went.
From a strategic perspective, Birger Jarl’s intrusion into Finland was a success. He pushed the border of Swedish-controlled land even further east, lay the foundations for a defensive fort at Tavastehus, and rewarded his eager companions with large estates in Finland, thereby ensuring they’d be interested in defending what was now theirs. To the east, the rulers of Novgorod and Kiev were less than pleased. Birger Jarl now controlled all of the Baltic Sea down to the Gulf of Finland, albeit that the eastern and southern shores of the gulf remained outside of Swedish control.
One of Birger’s sons, Magnus. He locked up big brother and took the crown for himself

Anyway: Birger Jarl did his conquering thing and then, as per those legends mentioned above, he hurried back to Sweden as the king had died without an heir, and Birger had every intention of seeing his own son, Valdemar, crowned king. In this the wily old fox succeeded – a capable and determined man, Birger mostly succeeded at everything he set out to do. In fact, his most obvious failure only became apparent after his death, when his sons plunged Sweden back into civil war and general unrest, a situation that would continue well into the 14th century.
Not that the people in Finland gave a rat’s arse as to what happened in Sweden. I’m guessing they were delighted by the fact that political events in Ruotsi (Finnish for Swedish. Please note just how similar this word is to Russia) kept the Swedes busy at home. Another delighted party were the rulers in Novgorod. With Sweden busy elsewhere, they quietly moved their positions forward, aiming to retake the land Birger Jarl had conquered some decades earlier.
After like three decades of unrest, Sweden had an underage king named Birger. He, in turn, had a regent named Torkel Knutsson. He also had two brothers, Valdemar and Erik, who would over time give Birger substantial grief – but at this point in time, this was in the future. Let’s just say that these three brothers developed a very infected relationship, ending with the two younger being locked up and left to starve to death. Nice.
Torkel had his finger in every royal pie around, including the raising of the three princes. So when Novgorod attacked Finland, it fell on Torkel to prepare and lead the retaliating expedition, which he did with immense success – at least from a narrow Swedish perspective. The Novgorodians were beaten back, the border of Swedish-controlled Finland was moved even further east, into Karelia, and just to really make it clear who was in control, Torkel founded the city (and castle) of Viborg, situated deep in the Gulf of Finland. Viborg would remain Swedish until 1710, when Tsar Peter crushed the Swedes in the Great Nordic War.

While successful in Finland, Torkel wasn’t as lucky back home. Those three brothers were already locking horns with each other, and repeatedly Torkel had to mediate. Throughout, Torkel was unfailingly loyal to King Birger, but I guess he had a tendency to preach – and to rule Sweden as if he was king, not Birger. Did not go down well with the young, hot-tempered king. So, at some point the three royal brothers decided it would serve them best to get rid of Torkel, and in a surprising show of unity, they arranged for him to be captured and struck in chains. In 1306, Torkel was executed on trumped of charges of treachery.
So where does all this leave us regarding those crusades to bring the light of God to the heathen Finns? Other than fragmentary evidence of Swedish knights making for Finland in the 13th century, the first cohesive description of these crusades is to be found in the Erik Chronicle (Sweden’s oldest surviving Chronicle, estimated to have been written in 1320 or thereabouts.) By then, these purported crusades had become building blocks in a complicated political story, that had as its purpose to strengthen royal authority in Sweden. Therefore, I think it is wise to take the notion of “Crusades” with a huge pinch of salt, and instead recognise these marauding expeditions for what they were, namely an invasion of Finland.
Finland would remain Swedish until the beginning of the 19th century, when instead it became a Grand-Duchy in Tsarist Russia. Not necessarily a better thing for the Finns, who would have to wait until the early 20th century before they finally became independent. But to this day, a large minority in Finland has Swedish as its mother tongue, descendants of those ancient Swedes who came, saw, conquered – and settled in the land of a thousand lakes and endless forests.

5 thoughts on “Crusading in Finland – or how to use God as an excuse”

  1. Henry II never went on Crusade. He wasn’t born yet during the 1st. During the 2nd he was a boy, and wasn’t even 16 yet (Beckett was murdered when Henry II was an adult and King of England) , and by the third, he was dead and his son Richard the Lion Heart was leading that crusade.

  2. Pingback: Death by Viking – a painful way to achieve sainthood | ANNA BELFRAGE

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