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Ms Ironbeard, King Hans and the failure of a royal marriage

Sometimes, I start out by researching one person and end up fascinated by another. In this particular case, I wanted to know more about Hans II, King of Denmark and Norway (“And Sweden!” he adds, but as he was only king here for like three years, I see that as more of a parenthesis)

This 15th century Danish king was a man much taken with embracing the modernities of his time, and the reason I looked him up at all is because his famous ship, Gribshunden, has (relatively) recently been subject to a marine archaeology excavation.

So, there I was reading up about Hans, but very quickly I found myself distracted by his wife. Kristina of Saxony. And some years further down the line, a new woman enters Hans’ life, namely Edle (or Edele) Jernskaegg. Now, Jernskaegg means “iron beard”, and I am hoping for Edle’s sake that her surname was something she’d inherited from her father rather than a descriptive adjective. Seeing as the lady in question was considered both beautiful and witty, I imagine she wasn’t bearded. Or maybe she was, rising above her facial hair to entrance and woo. She deffo managed to seduce the king, but I am getting ahead of myself.

Hans, as depicted 1530

Let us start things off with Hans. Born in 1455 he became King of Denmark and Norway in 1481 and 1483 respectively.  A decade or so previously, all the Scandinavian countries had been part of the Kalmar Union and ruled by one king (or queen. After all, the first ruler of the Kalmar Union was Margareta of Denmark, also known as “The king without trousers”)

Sweden broke free of the Kalmar Union  in 1471 after the forces led by Hans’ father, Christian I, suffered an ignominious defeat at Brunkeberg.  The opposition in Sweden against the Kalmar Union was more driven by power politics and finances than any genuine patriotism—Swedish nobles fought on both sides—but I am guessing it was humiliating for my Swedish ancestors to be ruled by a Dane. After all, our two countries had been at war more or less forever.

Now Hans very much wanted to include Sweden in his kingdom. The Swedes not so much, and most of Hans’ reign was defined by constant skirmishes with the stubborn Swedes. It was during one of those skirmishes that his famous ship Gribshunden went down. Hans was on his way to show the Swedes just how mighty the Danish navy was when Gribshunden caught fire and sank.

When he wasn’t planning Scandinavian dominion, Hans was busy bringing the modern world to Denmark. He introduced firearms and cannon, he built up the Danish navy and presided over a court alive with culture. In this, his wife was a major contributor. Kristina of Saxony had arrived in Denmark in 1478 at the age of seventeen, and some years later she became queen, focussing on her family, on the Church and on enticing European painters and other artists to visit Denmark.

Overall, the king and his queen seem to have lived amicably with each other. Did Hans now and then enjoy the company of other women? No idea. But given the times he lived in and the fact that he likely spent a lot of time away from home (like when he sailed to Greenland) I imagine it happened. But given his wife’s reaction to his relationship with Edle, he had not made a habit of flouting his lady loves before his wife.

Young Kristina (?)

Kristina, of course, would have been a major, major fool had she taken someone else to bed. It was OK for the king to do so—men, after all, needed to slake their desires—but the queen was expected to be a model of decorum. Seems Kristina had the personality to go with this expectation: pious, kind and loyal, she was a respected queen and over the years she became adept at managing her life and household relatively independently, what with Hans not always being around.

Hans had not given up on Sweden. In 1484, he had managed to get the Swedish council to elect him as king, but Sten Sture the Older refused to accept this. Sten Sture was the de facto ruler of Sweden in the vacuum created by not having a crowned king. I imagine he rather enjoyed being the biggest fish in the pond, but Sten Sture was not only motivated by self-interest: he genuinely wanted Sweden to be totally independent, and the fire that burned in him would be passed down to his son and daughter-in-law and, ultimately, to Gustav Vasa, who in 1523 would triumphantly enter Stockholm and crown himself king of free Sweden.

Back to Hans: in 1497, Sten Sture was obliged to bend knee to the Danish king, and Hans entered Stockholm in triumph, there to be crowned and have his eldest son, Christian, recognised as the heir. He was smart, our Hans: he went to great lengths to appease the Swedish nobility and send a message of no hard feelings for all those years of frustrating skirmishes. Hans wanted Scandinavian unity to pull the teeth of the Hanseatic League, and for a while, everyone rubbed along happily.

In 1501, Hans and his wife yet again visited Stockholm. With them travelled various people, including one Edle Jernskaegg, who was the queen’s lady-in-waiting. It seems probable that the king had initiated a relationship with Edle prior to coming to Sweden, but it was in Stockholm that the queen fully realised what was going on. Hubby no longer spent any time with her—he preferred the fair Edle.

Simultaneously with this rocky patch in his marriage, Hans also had to deal with growing unrest among his Swedish subjects. No longer quite as taken with their well-spoken king, more and more of them were flocking to Sten Sture  who once again was doing a William Wallace – you know “Freedom! Freedom!” Add to this unrest in other parts of his reign, and Hans was a tad beleaguered.

The king decided to start assembling a force to finally put the Swedes in their place and left for Denmark. Queen Kristina was left in Stockholm, there to act as his regent. One would have thought her lady-in-waiting would stay with her mistress, but nope, King Hans insisted Edle travel with him, thereby making it obvious to everyone that the fair Edle was not only warming his bed—she meant something more to him. All very nice for Edle, not so much for the humiliated queen. From that moment on, the marriage between Kristina and Hans was fundamentally damaged—even more so given what Kristina was going to live through over the coming years.

Soon enough, Kristina and her men found themselves besieged by the Swedes. Sat behind the thick walls of the fortress Tre Kronor, I suspect Kristina spent a lot of time staring out towards the sea, hoping to catch a glimpse of the relieving Danish navy.

Stockholm around 1570. To the left, Tre Kronor

The Swedes, upset on her behalf because of the king’s obvious preference for Edle, offered her to leave with any priests and women in her service. Kristina refused: she was in command of the strongest fortress around and she was determined to somehow regain control of Stockholm—after all, she had over 1 000 soldiers under her command.

We know of at least one attempt to retake Stockholm, during the winter of 1501/1502. The garrison fired the mighty cannon, thereby spreading fear among the people of Stockholm, and simultaneously the Danish soldiers charged out of the fortress, armed to their teeth. They were beaten back—maybe they were too weak after months on restricted rations—and any sympathies the Swedes may have had for Kristina evaporated like dew on a summer morning.

Months went by. Kristina’s men started to sicken. In fact, they began to die like flies. Yes, rations were low, but the Danish soldiers did not die of starvation, they died of symptoms described by the queen as starting with bleeding gums, with teeth falling out, with diarrhoea and repeated cramps. Kristina had no idea what may be afflicting them, but suspected it might be due to their diet. Too right: Kristina’s garrison was dying of scurvy.

By late spring, the situation within the walls of Tre Kronor was dire. In May of 1502 she capitulated. Of the original garrison of 1 000 men, only 70 remained alive. Ish. Ironically, only days later, The Danish fleet was sighted, carrying food and ammunition. But by then Stockholm and the fortress of Tre Kronor were firmly under Sten Sture’s control. It is said Hans concluded he’d been too late and simply turned round and sailed back home.

Sten Sture entering Stockholm

Now, Kristina had been promised she and the few surviving members of her followers would be set free. The Swedes reneged on their promises and the queen was transported to the Blackfriar convent where Sten Sture had recently been acclaimed as king of the free Sweden. Not exactly life in a dungeon, but restricted nonetheless. Things would get worse, with Kristina being transported to the Vadstena convent where she was more or less starved by her captors. I imagine Kristina cursed Sten Sture for being false—and her hubby for taking Edle with him, but not her.

To be fair to Hans, he was most incense at his wife’s captivity. He might be bedding fair Edle, but Kristina was his queen, mother of his children. It took some time, and Hans even had to go as far as to ask the Hansa to help him negotiate. Hard to do for a king who’d spent most of his reign determinedly hacking at the ties that bound his kingdom to the Hanseatic League.

Eighteen months or so later, the negotiations were concluded. Kristina was transported south and in a ceremony designed to show the world just how powerful Sten Sture was—and how humiliated the Danes—the visibly thin queen was returned to her husband, represented by their son, Kristian.

Sten Sture was to sicken and die some days later—and Kristina probably felt he deserved it, oath-breaker that he was. Me, as a Swede, I’ve grown up to consider Sten Sture Sr something of a hero, but he did not exactly cover himself in honour by his treatment of Kristina. Ironically, a generation later his daughter-in-law, also named Kristina, would be besieged by the Danes, led by “our” Kristina’s son, Kristian II. Yet again, a woman would command the garrison of the fortress Tre Kronor. Yet again, a siege would break resistance. Yet again, the victor’s promises would prove worthless, as Kristian II took belated revenge on the Swedes for the humiliation and suffering of his mother. Read more about all that here!

Kristina, as depicted much, much later

Back to Kristina of Saxony, Queen of Denmark. She returned to Denmark with her son, where it soon became painfully apparent that dear Hans was indeed spending many of his nights with Edle, this despite having married her off to a Danish nobleman called Torben Bille. As an aside, I’ve always wondered what a man obliged to wed a royal mistress felt for their wife. Yes, she was a stepping stone into royal favour, but to know that the woman who’d sworn lo love, honour and obey him was happily welcoming their liege to her bed . . . It cannot have made for a happy, harmonious relationship.

Hans, of course, was experiencing an increasingly disharmonious relationship with his wife. In fact, after her return to Denmark, they never again shared a home or, God forbid, a bed. Instead, Kristina spent the following years building her own powerbase and keeping her distance from the man who so openly betrayed her.

The relationship became even more bitter when the queen accused one of the king’s favourites, bishop Jens Andersen for having indirectly been behind the murder of one of her men. Royal protection ensured the queen’s complaints never came to anything—which may be why the queen instead staged a very elaborate funeral procession for the as yet very live bishop and had it pass by his abode—a not-so-subtle threat, IMO.

In January of 1513, Kristina unusually was travelling with King Hans. Maybe there’d been a rapprochement what with the fair Edle having died a year earlier. More likely, the king was conducting royal business—he was hearing court cases—and had requested that his queen come along. They were crossing a river when the king’s horse stumbled, spilling Hans into the ice-cold water.  The king was drenched but insisted on continuing. Some days later, he became very ill and died. Kristina accompanied his body to its final resting place, the Greyfriars in Odense. Eight years later, she would also be buried there, dressed in the habit of a Franciscan nun. I somehow don’t think Kristina and Hans shared a tomb. . .

So ends a rather sad story of how a functioning marriage was derailed, and all because the oh, so fair Edle Jernskaegg. Not that we can blame her, at least not entirely. After all, what was a girl to do when the king himself set his heart on you?

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