In one of Sweden’s oldest churches, the pride of place is held by a grave containing three bodies: that of Birger Jarl, the man who more or less hammered Sweden together, that of one of his sons, a.k.a. Erik Good-for-Nothing, and that of his second wife, Mechtild of Holstein. The tomb is decorated with a carved stone slab depicting the buried peeps. Interestingly enough, it is Mechtild’s likeness that takes up most of the space. Why? Because she was of much higher rank than Birger Jarl. She may have been a woman in a man’s world, but her contemporaries had no problem placing her at the top of the status pyramid. After all, Mechtild was a crowned queen, and for all that Birger Jarl was the effective ruler of Sweden for 20 years, he never became its king. (Two of his sons did. Another story.)
If we start at the beginning, Mechtild was born somewhere around 1220 in Holstein, her father being the count of Holstein. In 1237, she married Abel, a prince of Denmark who was also the Duke of Schleswig. Now Abel was not entirely happy being a mere duke. He wanted to be king, but his older brother Erik showed no signs of giving up breath any time soon. Add to this the fact that Erik was determined to expand his power base, reluctant to tolerate a too independent duke within his kingdom and it’s sort of obvious the two brothers didn’t exactly get along.
Anyway: while Abel was unhappy with his brother and more or less constantly fighting with him, his wife did her duty and gave him children, the two eldest being healthy sons. Probably made Abel crow with glee, seeing as Erik’s wife had so far “only” given him surviving daughters, the two sons having died young. In essence, all Abel had to do was wait, because unless Erik had a legitimate son, the Danish crown would pass to Abel upon Erik’s death.
But waiting was hard, especially when Erik subjected Abel’s duchy to repeated raids. On one occasion, Erik’s attack obliged Abel’s little daughter, Sofia, to flee for her life in the dark winter night clad in only her linen shift. Abel gnashed his teeth and promised revenge.
What Mechtild thought of all this we don’t know. But I’m guessing she cheered her husband on when he defended her brother’s patrimony against the grasping Erik and I suppose the fact that Erik wanted to control Holstein himself put him far, far down on Mechtild’s list of “dudes I like”.
In 1250, Erik travelled to Estonia to sort out some issues. On the way home, he decided to pay an intimidating visit to Mechtild’s brother, the young count of Holstein. When he heard of this, Abel offered Erik to stay at his home in Gottorp.
According to the legend, what happened next was that Abel rather cryptically reminded Erik of the instance when little Sofia was forced to run barefoot through the woods to escape his men. Erik supposedly replied that he was rich enough to buy Sofia a new pair of shoes. Abel smirked. Moments later, a large party of noblemen entered the hall and grabbed hold of Erik. To be exact, there were twenty-four men, but whether they were required to hold Erik or whether they were there to hold the king’s men at bay is a bit fuzzy.
Where Mechtild was in all this, we don’t know. Was she watching from a shadowy corner as the king was bound and gagged and dragged out of her home? Did she hurry over to hubby and grab hold of his tunic while whispering “Is this wise?” Did she pump her fist in a “YES!” gesture? Or maybe she was more focused on the fate of her eldest son, at the time twelve or so, who was being held hostage by the archbishop of Cologne.
Erik was dragged onto a boat. When he recognised some of the voices around him, he realised he’d not be seeing the end of the night alive. Somehow, he managed to convey to his abductors that he wanted to be shriven before they did whatever they intended to do to him. “Fair enough,” the rascals said and arranged for a priest to talk to the bound king. Once the priest was done, Erik was rowed out on the Schlei and beheaded, his body and head thrown overboard.
Abel always maintained he had nothing to do with this. Nothing at all. Nope, not him. He and the twenty-four noblemen swore an oath to that effect and Abel could thereby claim the Danish throne. He and Mechtild were crowned in Roskilde in 1250 and for a while there the future looked quite rosy. Except for all the grumblings along the line that the new king was “Abel by name but Cain by deeds”.
A year or so later, Abel was killed while putting down an uprising of rebellious peasants. Everyone saw this as a sign of divine justice. Prior to his funeral, his body was kept at Schleswig cathedral, but the monks woke to horrendous sounds and swore the dead king’s ghost was up and about at night, pacing back and forth like a caged bear in the confines of the cathedral.
This was not good. The monks therefore decided to haul the body over to Gottorp and bury it in unhallowed ground. For good measure, they also staked him to stop him from rising as an undead to plague the region. Didn’t help, as for a long time afterwards people claimed to have seen the dead king astride a white horse riding through the forest with a pack of glowing hounds.
With Abel gone, Mechtild’s situation was precarious, especially as her eldest son was still in Cologne. Abel’s younger brother, Kristoffer, claimed the throne and Mechtild did what many women in a precarious situation did: she entered a convent.
For some years there, Mechtild spend most of her energy defending the birth-right of her sons. Although the Danish crown had been taken from him, her eldest, Valdemar, was confirmed as Duke of Schleswig. He died in 1257 and Kristoffer tried to stop Mechtild’s second son, yet another Erik, from inheriting the duchy. This did not go down well, Kristoffer had to flee his opponents, took shelter with the bishop of Ribe who purportedly poisoned the king. All in all, Denmark during the late 13th century seems to have been an excessively exciting place…
Meanwhile in Sweden, Birger Jarl was consolidating his power over the country. Approximately at the same time as Mechtild wed Abel, he married princess Ingeborg, sister to the Swedish king Erik (I know, I know! Where medieval Spain is chockfull of Alfonsos, medieval Scandinavia just has an endless number of Eriks ) The marriage was fruitful, resulting in eight surviving children, albeit some would die as young adults. The son with whom Birger and Mechtild share a tomb was no more than twenty-five years of age or so, and based on the studies of his bones he suffered from some sort of debilitating disease, hence his nickname “Good-for-nothing”.
In 1254, Ingeborg died. Birger Jarl may have been in no hurry to remarry, but he was not yet fifty and by all accounts a vigorous man, so it is likely he was soon considering potential new wives. As he already had heirs a-plenty, he did not need to marry a fertile woman, but to further shore up his position he needed to marry a woman of some status. Which is why he was not averse to the idea of marrying Mechtild. She, on the other hand, sat in her convent and felt somewhat beleaguered. She needed help to defend her surviving son’s patrimony, and Birger Jarl was powerful enough to help her with that.
Not, as we can see, a union based on sweaty palms, lust and thumping hearts, but in 1261 Birger and Mechtild were wed. Mechtild waved bye-bye to the nuns and embraced secular life again. I imagine she had her hands full with managing Birger’s household and his three youngest children, plus, of course, she was expected to lend lustre to state events by being adequately queenly.
Whether this was a happy marriage, I have no idea. I imagine both Birger and Mechtild were old enough to be pragmatic and value the respective benefits each brought to the other. Whatever the case, in 1266 Birger Jarl died and was interred in the abbey church of Varnhem.
Varnhem was a Cistercian abbey, founded by French monks who’d been sent north in the middle of the twelfth century. I’m not sure being chosen for this potentially dangerous expedition into the wilds of Sweden was considered a winning ticket, but spreading the word of God was worth the risk and so our French brethren made the long trip from la Belle France to the Swedish boonies. Their destination was not entirely uncivilised. In fact, Varnhem was built on a site very close to one of the earliest known Christian burial sites in Sweden. Here, people had been worshiping the White Christ since the mid eighth century or so.
When Birger Jarl died, Varnhem was the place to be buried in, several kings already safely interred under the floor. Birger had also been a major benefactor of the abbey which is probably why he was buried in front of the lay altar towards the western end of the church.
With Birger dead, Mechtild decided to leave Sweden. As she was actively disliked in Denmark she moved to Kiel where she would remain for the coming decades or so. In between ferociously defending her sons’ birth right to Shleswig (The three brothers succeeded each other, none of them leaving a male heir) she also worked closely with her brothers to secure Holstein’s independence. As all her sons predeceased her, she claimed Schleswig in her own name and gifted it to her brothers – and so Holstein and Schleswig became Schleswig-Holstein, a part of the world the Danes and the Holsteiners would fight bitterly over for centuries to come. If anything, this made her even more unpopular in Denmark. Not that she cared – she had no inclination to spend time in Denmark.
In 1288, Mechtild died in Kiel. Her body was then transported all the way back to Varnhem in Sweden where she was interred beside her second husband and her stepson. And there she lies to this day, despite several attempts to move her and Birger to Stockholm. After all, the man who united Sweden and founded Stockholm shouldn’t be stuck in an obscure grave in an old abbey church… (Birger, obviously, was of another opinion)
Just to verify things, the grave was opened in 2001 or so. The remains were of a woman in her sixties, a man in his fifties and a much, much younger man unrelated to the female but closely related to the older male. A DNA analysis had the experts concluding that the older man was, in fact, Birger Jarl. And on a closer inspection of his cranium, the bone-experts were delighted to discover Birger did, in fact, have a cleft chin – just like the stone head adorning one of the pillars in the church!
Beyond her tomb, Mechtild has left little trace in history. But once she lived, by all accounts a determined lady who fought for the rights of her sons and her brothers. Not at all a shrinking violet, IMO, more of a lioness defending her own.
1 thought on “Mother, queen, widow – meet the lady from Holstein”
nice article. blessings