So, it is Christmas. Well, not quite, we are still some days away, but all the same, the holiday season is upon us. A season of love and peace, of happy family reunions and the joyful sound of children laughing in the snow. Ha! Sometimes, Christmas is much, much grimmer. Like in the year 1317, up here in Sweden.
Allow me to take you by the hand and drag you back in time with me. There, you see it? The glow of a fire in a central hearth, the reddish light of torches stuck in sconces and on the table a collection of candles. The air smells faintly of wet wool, of salted fish and of beeswax. Beeswax? Oh yes: this is the solar of a rich man and is accordingly illuminated by the most expensive candles around, those made of beeswax rather than tallow. A good thing, let me tell you, as tallow has a somewhat rancid smell to it. The rich man himself is presently lounging in the single armchair, long legs extended towards the fire. Not that it does much to dispel the chill of the room, but our handsome noble is warmly dressed in fur-lined robes. Besides, Duke Erik is used to the climes—after all, this is his time, his home, filled with the best, most luxurious furnishings available.
In Erik’s considered opinion, he’s the best available. He may have been born the second of three brothers, but this was a major screw-up as anyone with half a brain realises it is Erik, not big brother Birger, who has the presence, the courage, the flair, to be king. Not that it really matters all that much: since some years back, Erik rules undisputed in his duchy, his lands corresponding to approximately a third of all of Sweden. Why Erik wields so much power is due to a rather successful venture eleven years ago when Erik, together with his adoring younger brother Valdemar, took Birger hostage and refused to release him until he agreed to their demands. Birger, milksop that he is, finally caved. Erik snorts as he recalls the events at Håtuna. Had it been him, he would never have agreed to the terms imposed on Birger. But then, had it been him, there would have been no need for his brothers to intercede as Erik—as stated above—would have made an excellent, wise and much beloved king. Not like Birger, whom few trust and even fewer like.
Erik twitches at his robes and pours himself some more of the sweetened wine. Ugh. He manages to stop himself from grimacing. He would much rather drink some good honeyed mead, but everyone knows the truly educated prefer wine. He is hoping that with practise his palate will learn to appreciate this French stuff, but after more than twenty years trying, he has his doubts. To cleanse his mouth of the wine, he reaches for a honey wafer just as the door opens and his wife enters.
Every time Erik sees Ingeborg, he puffs up with pride. The only child of the Norwegian king, Ingeborg is not only an impressive dynastic alliance, but she is also intelligent, vivacious and as determined and ambitious as he is. She is half his age, they’ve been married for five years and as she was not quite twelve when she became his wife, he has played a large part in shaping her into the woman she has become. Not only his wife, but also the mother of his two children, the eldest, Magnus Eriksson, heir to the Norwegian throne.
“Why don’t you just order up some mead instead?” she says with a grin as she watches him bite into the wafer. “It’s not as if anyone in your household will tell the world you prefer it to that cat’s piss that goes by the name of French wine.”
“Appearances must be upheld,” he says, beckoning her towards him. He adjusts her veil so that her lovely, fair hair is fully covered and she rolls her eyes, saying it is only them, so what does it matter if her hair is visible? At that precise moment, there’s a knock on the door and in tumbles one of Erik’s servants.
“A messenger, from the king,” he says.
“From Birger?” Erik never calls his brother by anything but his given name.
“Yes, my lord.” The messenger hands him a roll, an unbroken seal dangling from it.
Erik breaks it open. Thanks to Torgils Knutsson, former marshal of the realm and guardian of the three fatherless princes, Erik knows how to read. Not that he feels all that grateful to Torgils for that. In fact, he doesn’t feel any gratitude at all towards Torgils, who obliged him—and Valdemar—to wed his daughters. Not that it helped the old fool: the marriages were annulled and Torgils was arrested, tried for treason and executed ages ago—one of those few moments when Birger and Erik had been in total agreement about what to do and how to do it.
“It is an invitation,” he says. He reads it. “Valdemar has the right of it,” he continues. “Birger wants us to celebrate the beginning of the Christmas season together.”
“In Stockholm?” Ingeborg asks.
“No, in Nyköping.”
Ingeborg’s brows furrow. “In Nyköping? That’s where he has recently rebuilt and fortified the old castle, isn’t it?”
“Yes.” It is also where Valdemar and Erik kept Birger imprisoned all those years ago, A shiver whispers up his spine, but he ignores it. He stands, stoops, and kisses her brow. “Do not fret my pet. I will not ride unaccompanied. I will take two score of my best men with me.”
“Or you stay away,” Ingeborg suggests. “You could say you want to stay here, with me, that I am as yet not fully recovered after the birth of little Eufemia, and…”
He places a finger on her lips. “I will not hide behind your skirts, my lady. Besides, this is Birger we are talking about. He doesn’t have the balls to threaten me, not when I am the most powerful man in the realm.”
And that, dear reader, is where Erik was very, very wrong.
Should you ever be in Sweden, you can still see the remains of King Birger’s castle, Nyköpings Slott. Back then, it was a grand and imposing structure, with a huge, circular central keep. I imagine Erik gives a low whistle at the sight of it while immediately making plans to build something similar for himself.
Birger hastens out to meet his brothers, and for the first time in eleven years there are hugs and kisses and the odd brimming eye at this oh, so happy reunion between the king and his estranged brothers. There are a lot of people about, and at some point the king regretfully informs Erik and Valdemar that although his new castle is big…
”Very big,” Valdemar says, throwing an admiring look at the hall and the tapestries that adorn the wall. This earns him an elbow in the gut from Erik and a pleased smile from Birger before he continues what he was saying, that no matter how big, his castle isn’t big enough to host all his men and Erik’s and Valdemar’s impressive retinues. Instead, Birger says, he’s taken it upon himself to arrange for board and lodging for their men in the town.
Should this have alarm bells going off in Erik’s head? Yes. Did it? No. He’s been totally sucked in by big brother’s effusive greeting, by how overjoyed his sister-in-law, Queen Märta, seems to be at seeing him again. The woman has even clasped him to her bosom—twice! Truth be told, at present Erik regrets not having brought Ingeborg along, but Ingeborg refused to accompany him, saying she had no desire to spend Christmastide anywhere close to Birger. So Ingeborg remains at home with their children and Valdemar’s wife (also named Ingeborg, also from Norway – a case of serious hero worship going on, one would think. Alternatively, every other girl at the time was named Ingeborg, and there does seem to be a surfeit of women so named at the time) Soon enough, Erik will be extremely grateful that neither his wife nor his precious children accompanied him…
Birger is a lavish host. Platters of venison, of swan and boar are set down accompanied by the finest bread, the finest wines and an entire evening of shared memories of reminiscences about a distant boyhood, an uncomplicated time when they were as close as peas in a pod. But that was before. Now, is now, and belatedly Erik is becoming somewhat concerned. Something isn’t right, and why does his head spin so, while Birger, who has been quaffing as much wine as he has, seems remarkably sober?
The evening ends some hours later. Erik and Valdemar are escorted to their rooms and Erik hates admitting that he has never seen a finer room than the one appointed to him. There is even glass in the window—a green, thick glass set in small diamonds that at present lets in no light as it is pitch dark outside. The carved bed is heaped with feather mattresses and quilts, huge plump pillows and linen that smells faintly of lavender and camomile. Erik waves away his manservant and collapses fully dressed on top of the bed. He is drunk, he concludes fuzzily. So drunk…
Some hours later, the door to his room is thrown open.
“Eh?” Erik sits up, blinking blearily. His room fills with men—armed men, levelling crossbows at him. It is strange how quickly fear can clear your brain, Erik reflects. He takes a deep breath and leans towards the closest of the men. “What is this?” he snarls. But he knows, oh yes, he knows, even before he hears Birger chuckle in the doorway.
“Remember Håtuna?” Birger taunts. “Months as your prisoner, obliged to sign away my authority to you.” He takes a step closer. “Did you think I would ever forget? Ever forgive?” He shakes his head. “Revenge is a dish best eaten cold, and now, dear brother, the tables are turned. Prepare yourself for a long time as my reluctant guest.”
“Guest?” Erik splutters.
“Prisoner, then.” Birger nods at his men. “Take him away.”
Four weeks later and Erik is no longer hungry. Not for him or Valdemar the pies, the roasted pigs, the sweetmeats of the Christmas feast. Oh, no: for them it has at most been a heel or two of bread. The chains that fetter his hands rarely clonk as he has little strength left to him. The iron collar round his neck chafes but worse of all is the dark—and Valdemar’s snivelling. It is cold, there are rats, his teeth ache, he stinks and the only escape from this slow death are his daydreams. Of Ingeborg and little Magnus, of his father, of himself as a lad, running side by side with his brother. In his daydreams there is sun and warmth. When he returns to the here and now it is to hard stone, to walls covered in icy damp and the certainty that this is where he will die. Here, in the dark, Duke Erik of Södermanland, the most powerful man in Sweden, will waste away while some floors up his accursed brother is laughing his head off. Erik leans back against the wall and manages a smile. Birger may think he has won, but then Birger doesn’t have a wife like Ingeborg.
“Ingeborg,” he says out loud and is overcome with an unmanly desire to weep. But he doesn’t even have the strength to do so. His head falls back. “Ingeborg,” he whispers. Avenge me, he adds silently. Make him pay.
I hope you, dear readers, experience a substantially better Christmas than the one Erik suffered through in 1317. Not that that is saying much, as it took Erik and his brother some further weeks to die. Only when their supporters chased Birger out of the country were their remains moved out of the dank dungeon to be buried. And Eik was right: his wife Ingeborg proved quite the adversary, resulting in Birger and his wife dying in exile, Birger’s son being executed and Erik’s boy, little Magnus, being crowned king of Sweden and Norway at the age of three.
Should you want to read more about the events surrounding Birger, Erik and Valdemar, pop by to this post.