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The three brothers – the story of a Portuguese princess and how she was blamed for the sins of her sons

In 1214, Berengaria of Portugal married Valdemar II, king of Denmark. How on earth would a medieval Portuguese princess and a Danish king meet, you might ask, but there was an indirect connection as Valdemar’s sister, Ingeborg, was unfortunate enough to marry Berengaria’s French cousin, Philippe Augustus. This is why Berengaria was in Paris, and while Philippe Augustus took an immediate dislike to his new wife (well, not immediate, but something happened during the wedding night that had Philippe storming out of Ingeborg’s chambers the next morning and insisting he could not—would not!—remain married to this woman. More of that here) Berengaria and Ingeborg seem to have hit it off.

Anyway: Valdemar was looking for a new wife – his first wife, Dagmar, had recently died in childbirth and had left him with only one son, Valdemar the Young. Berengaria came from promising stock: her mother, Dulce, had given birth to eleven children of which eight survived to adulthood. Plus, Berengaria was reputedly quite beautiful, causing Valdemar’s pulse to quicken.

The flag is that reddish blur in the sky…

This Valdemar is often known as the Dannebrog king, because tradition has it that during a fierce battle with the Estonians (who simply refused to bend knee to the Danish king – or embrace Christianity), God sent the Dannebrog down from the sky. The Danebrog is the name of Denmark’s flag, a bright red cross on white. It’s a bit like what happened several centuries earlier when the first Christian Emperor Constantine saw a glowing cross in the sky with the words In Hoc Signo Vinces (“in this sign you will conquer! in Latin – except Constantine saw it in Greek. Details, schmetails) and won! As an aside, the Dannebrog is still Denmark’s flag and is thereby the oldest national flag around.

Our sixteen-year-old princess married her Danish king. He was almost thirty years older than her, a man of the cold (and somewhat uncivilised) north. She was a dainty flower from the south, and soon enough she’d find just how cold and unwelcoming her new home could be. You see, Valdemar’s subjects were not at all taken with their new queen. Where Dagmar had been fair and rosy, mild and pious, Berengaria was—or so the Danes thought—too dark, too exotic. According to ancient folksongs, she was raven-haired, sloe-eyed enchantress, a dangerous alluring female, not at all like the oh, so sweet Dagmar. Plus, of course, there was the fact that, according to the folksongs, the dying Dagmar begged her husband not to wed a foreign princess, as such a marriage would “sink Denmark into bloody strife.”

Everything that went wrong, the Danes blamed Berengaria for. Valdemar hiked the taxes? Berengaria’s fault, because she was such a wastrel. Look at her clothes—strange—at the way she behaved—even stranger—at how badly she spoke Danish! If only Dagmar had lived! This rose without thorns, this paragon among women, so good, so sweet—not like Berengaria who stuck out like a sore thumb among the fair Danes.

I imagine Berengaria was pretty unhappy in this cold and unfriendly country. But at least she could proudly present the Danes with four healthy children: her eldest, Erik was born around 1216, Sofia in 1217, Abel in 1218 and Christopher in 1219. Then, two years later she died in childbirth—just like Dagmar. Berengaria was 23 when she died, and other than her children, she left little trace behind. Well, except for her braid, the hair a deep honey that indicate Berengaria was probably as fair as Dagmar, despite the descriptions in those old folksongs. I guess we must assume she is depicted as dark of eye and hair in the ancient folksongs to contrast her with the oh, so fair and blue-eyed Dagmar, this mild and soft-voiced paragon.

Berengaria’s hair. Photo by Christian Sand

Berengaria purportedly left one other thing behind: a crown, thereby being the first Danish queen known to have worn one.

Now, Berengaria’s life was short and reasonably she did not have the time to leave that much of an imprint on the Danish as she did. I suspect we must look to her sons to understand just why Berengaria has been depicted so negatively. It’s a case of a reversed “the sins of the father”, in this case it being the sins of the sons who burden the poor mother. (Never the father: I assume that’s because good old Valdemar was Danish, so the fault had to be found elsewhere)

So, let us take a closer look at Berengaria’s babies: One would have thought three brothers born so close to each other as Erik, Abel and Christopher would have grown up to be close companions through life. Not so: in fact, like with many princes, the younger brothers resented Erik—especially once their older half-brother, Valdemar Jr, died in a hunting accident, making Erik the heir to the throne. Where Abel and Christopher were mere spares, Erik was crowned together co-king to his father.

Erik Ploughpenny

Erik was only twenty-five when, in 1241, he became sole ruler of Denmark upon the death of Valdemar II. More or less immediately, he ended up in a bitter conflict with his brother Abel, who as Duke of Schleswig, wanted more power, more independence. Erik wasn’t having it: Schleswig might be a Duchy, but he, King Erik, was Abel’s overlord and he best keep that in mind. Things went sideways, but some sort of tentative peace was established in 1244. Erik needed that peace: he was at loggerheads with the church because he insisted on taxing their lands, just as much at loggerheads with his subjects in general as he had implemented higher taxes, more specifically a tax on ploughs (hence his nickname, Ploughpenny).

In 1246, the conflict between the brothers exploded yet again when Erik decided to teach the counts of Holstein a lesson by invading their land. Problem was, brother Abel was married to the daughter of the count and had the wardship over his wife’s two young brothers—the future counts. Abel wasn’t having it, that Erik tried to impose his writ so close to Abel’s powerbase and he managed to force Erik to retreat. In retribution, Abel led his men to pillage the heartlands of Denmark, further souring the relationship. Erik was furious. He assembled his men and in 1247 he conquered Abel’s castle Arreskoug plus took baby brother Christopher (who’d joined Abel’s cause together with their illegitimate brother Canute) captive.

This time, a peace treaty was brokered by sister Sofia whereby the younger brothers had to recognise Erik as their overlord and king.  Phew, Erik may have thought, but if he’d hoped to chill, he had another think coming as no sooner was one crisis averted but the peasants in Scania rebelled. None of Erik’s brothers came to his aid, and once the rebellion had been adequately quenched, Erik sailed to Estonia to sort out things there. On his way back, he was invited by Duke Abel to stay with him at Gottorp,  and the tired king accepted.

The king whiled away the evening gambling. Come night, a group of men broke led by Abel’s chamberlain, Lage Gudmundsen entered the hall and grabbed hold of the king. None of Abel’s other men interceded, and the screaming king was dragged down to the river where he was thrown into a boat. Some time later, he was dead, his headless body thrown into the water to be found by a group of Dominican monks the next day.

Abel, of course, immediately told everyone he had nothing—nada,niente—to do with this horrible, horrible deed. Together with twenty-four other noblemen he swore on everything holy that he was innocent of fratricide. Not that the Danes were that gullible: “Abel by name, Cain by his deeds,” they said, but Abel was crowned king anyway.

A year or so later, Abel was killed by a rebelling peasant.
“God’s justice,” people muttered, and it is said that as Abel’s body lay in Schleswig’s cathedral waiting for burial, the monks heard strange noises at night. So frightened were they by this they hauled Abel’s body out of the church and dumped him into a hastily dug grave on un-consecrated ground. To really make sure Abel’s restless ghost would not disturb them, they rammed a stake through his heart (!!!! Abel the vampire…) Turns out, it didn’t help, as there were several occasions when people would report they’d seen a man with a black face riding his ghost steed through the woods, accompanied by glowing hounds. Not that people were all that surprised y Abel’s evil character: after all, he was the son of dark and dangerous Berengaria!

At the time of his death, Abel had a half-grown son, Valdemar, but as the boy was being held hostage by a bishop, he was passed over and instead Christopher became king. Abel’s wife was none too happy about all this, and some while later she would marry Abel’s sworn enemy, Birger Jarl—effectively the ruler of Sweden—to have him help her protect her son’s interests. (More of that here!)

Anyway: Valdemar II was dead, his son Valdemar the Younger was dead, Erik Ploughpenny was dead and Abel was dead. Time for Christopher to come into his own. The first thing he did was initiate a campaign to have brother Erik canonised, while loudly proclaiming that Abel had in fact murdered his saintly brother. Seeing as Christopher was not exactly on the best of terms with Erik—he sided with Abel—this is rather hypocritical.
“Perhaps,” Christopher may have said, “but I must think of my son.” You see, if Abel was considered guilty of murder, then his sons could never become kings of Denmark.

Obviously, Abel’s sons weren’t exactly thrilled, but they were too young to be a threat so Christopher could concentrate on other things—like filling his coffers by reinforcing Erik’s ideas that the Church should pay tax on their assets. This the church did not like, and just like his brothers, Christopher was soon struggling with unrest. His subjects protested against increased taxes, his nephews required careful handling, but most of all, Christopher had a major, major problem with Jacob Erlandsen, archbishop of Lund.

The Archbishop was a firm friend of Abel and was therefore not exactly enthusiastic about canonising Erik. Plus, he protested loudly when Christopher demanded tax from the Church, He urged the peasants not to pay Christopher’s taxes and when the king protested, he simply excommunicated him. When he refused to recognise Christopher’s son, Erik, as prince of Denmark and rightful heir, Christopher had had it. He had the archbishop arrested, paraded him through the streets dressed in a fool’s cap and then threw the humiliated archbishop into prison. Not Christopher’s smartest move…

Once he’d locked up the archbishop, Christopher rode off to try and stop Abel’s younger son from succeeding his recently deceased brother as duke of Schleswig. Did not work out well for Christopher, who at one point fled to Ribe where he stayed with the local bishop. There, he took communion from the hands of a local abbot. Some hours later, he was dead. Struck down by God, said some members of the church. Murdered! Poisoned! exclaimed others. Whatever the case, Christopher was hastily buried and his young son became the next king as Erik V.

Berengaria – fictional depiction. And we know the hair is wrong!

Berengaria died in 1221. Christopher took his last breaths in 1259. “At last,” the Danes may have said. “May these days of unrest end with evil Berengaria’s youngest son!” Rather unfair on poor Berengaria, who died far too young to have been any major influence on her sons—or did amything evil that we know of. IMO, if anyone is to blame for how inept and greedy Erik, Abel and Christopher were, it should be their daddy.

Those years of fratricide and political machinations, of the Church at loggerheads with the king, of peasants protesting taxes, well all of it led to songs. Many, many songs, where the suffering Danes remembered with nostalgia the good years, the years when King Valdemar ruled with his fair and sweet Dagmar. The years before the foreign witch arrived, that dark-haired and sloe-eyed temptress Berengaria—except, of course, that she was as blonde as Dagmar was!

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