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The consequences of not keeping it in your pants – a medieval morality

Once upon a time there was a king named Valdemar. Okay, we might need to slow down as there have been quite a few kings named Valdemar, especially in Denmark. Not so much in Sweden, though, and this particular king was Swedish.

Sweden in the 13th century was not Sweden as it is today. Huge chunks of what is my present homeland were either Norwegian or Danish, and Sweden had until recently consisted of a couple of kingdoms, now united under one crown, one king.

The Danes were  a constant plague for my medieval countrymen, but at the battle of Leda in 1208, the Danish King Valdemar Sejr (I warned you! Many kings called Valdemar . . .) saw the huge host he’d fielded to support Sverker Eriksson in his bid for the Swedish crown pulverised. Sverker fled the field, and two years later, supported by yet another Danish army, he yet challenged Erik Knutsson’s right to the Swedish crown at the battle of Gestriljen.  This time, Sverker died. The Danes had lost many, many men in these futile campaigns and retreated. Erik Knutsson could now begin building a strong, unified Sweden.

The battle of Gestriljen as depicted in the movie “Arn, riket vid vögens slut”

One of the men who died fighting for Erik was one Magnus Minnesköld (or Månesköld. I prefer this version as it means “moon shield”, and seeing as my very own hubby has a coat of arms featuring a sickle moon, I can sort of pretend he is distantly related to long-ago Magnus. Not that he is: my hubby has Scottish antecedents – and you can read more about that and the Belfrage coat of arms here, especially about the three beavers!)

Back to my story: Magnus was a powerful Swedish nobleman, married to an impressive woman named Ingrid Ylva. We know the lady was highborn (potentially related to the Sverker who died at Gestriljen while facing Ingrid Ylva’s husband). We also know she was forceful and capable, managing the sizeable family estates until her youngest son, Birger, was old enough to shoulder the burden. Ingrid Ylva’s two older sons by Magnus were bishops, likely because Magnus already had a son and heir, Eskil, from his first marriage.

Ingrid Ylva was credited with having the sight. She also practised white magic and was much revered by the people in the area. One of her prophesies was that one day, her descendants would rule Sweden—for as long as she held her head high. Young Birger must have liked this prophesy: as the youngest of Magnus’ sons, his career opportunities were somewhat limited. Head of the family was brother Eskil, and while Birger likely had land through his mother, he was in no way rich.

And then Eskil died. Birger was seventeen at the time, and as his other two brothers were in holy orders, just like that Birger became not only rich, but also powerful. His mother proved a wise guide as did various older male relatives, and soon enough, Birger was one of the movers and shakers in what was a very unstable Sweden.

You see, Erik Knutsson, victor at Lena and Gestriljen, had died in 1220, and his son was only six at the time, so for a while, Sweden was ruled by regents. But one of the regents fancied himself king and at the age of fifteen, Erik was deposed and replaced with Knut the Tall. Some years later, Knut died, and in 1234, Erik yet again became king, his power base now bolstered with the presence of Birger Magnusson, his fate firmly tethered to that of the young king by his marriage to Erik’s sister, Ingeborg.

Some years later, Birger was named the jarl, effectively the most powerful man in the land after the king. Birger had, as one says, arrived and was hereafter called Birger Jarl.

Bjälbo Church tower, built (perhaps) by Ingrid Ylva and where she is (perhaps?) buried standing up. Photo: gamnacke

In 1250 or so, Birger’s mother died. Mindful of her prophecy—the one saying that her descendants would rule as long as she held her head high—Birger purportedly buried her standing up in one of the pillars of Bjälbo church. Hmm, I say. Double hmm, in fact.

In 1250, King Erik also died, and now, dear peeps, it is finally time to meet Valdemar Birgersson, the Valdemar of this post.

King Erik had no children, and as Birger’s oldest son and nephew to Erik, Valdemar now became king. At the time, he was eleven.

Not everyone was happy with the new king. There were those who considered their claim to the throne much stronger than Valdemar’s. There were many who resented the fact that Birger Jarl was so powerful, and likely to further consolidate his power base, what with the new king being his son. So yes, the first few years, there was a lot of fighting. Lots and lots, actually. But Birger Jarl was an extremely capable man and emerged from all this as the most powerful man in Sweden.

During Valdemar’s minority, It was Birger Jarl who did the actual ruling. And even when Valdemar became an adult, this young man was more than happy to leave the toil to daddy. Valdemar was more into enjoying life, whether it be ale or ladies. Very many ladies, the legends say.

Valdemar, as depicted in Skara Cathedral

In 1260, our twenty-year old king was married to Sofia, daughter of Erik Plogpenning, king of Denmark. His new wife was smart, an excellent chess player, very attractive, and equipped with a sharp tongue. She wasn’t all that fond of her new brothers-in-law, labelling the dark and thin second son Magnus as a “swarthy tinker”—a major insult. These days, we believe Magnus suffred from a chronic condition, hence him being so thin. The third brother, Erik, she nicknamed Mr Nothing, seeing as he (in Sofia’s opinion) brought nothing to the table. While Valdemar may have been amused by his wife’s nicknames, his brothers deffo were not.

As long as Birger Jarl remained alive, the increasing tensions between his sons were kept under control , but in 1266, the man who more or less singlehandedly shaped the foundations of Sweden died. He is buried with his second wife, dowager queen Mechtild of Denmark, in Varnhem, one of Sweden’s oldest churches. (As an aside, Birger’s second wife was the widow of King Abel of Denmark, the man who’d murdered Sofia’s father. I can imagine family reunions were a tad tense…)

Valdemar now had all the power. While it seems as if Birger Jarl intended for Magnus to take over as jarl, i.e. become the king’s closest advisor and a man almost as powerful as the king, Valdemar had no intention of promoting Magnus. Nope, no way: this was the time of Valdemar, and only Valdemar. Well, okay: maybe of Sofia as well.

Sofia’s seal

Sofia was excellent queen material. She was also somewhat fed up with Valdemar’s infidelities, but seeing as this was the 13th century, she was sort of expected to suck it up. Not that their marital issues were of any major importance, not when faced with growing unrest in the realm, a lot of that fomented by Mr Nothing, a.k.a. Erik Birgersson, who was extremely unsatisfied with his restricted role (and income, one imagines) Erik also claimed Valdemar had tricked him out of a share of his inheritance, and he also demanded that Magnus be given a role similar to that of his father.

So far, though, Valdemar’s position was secure. The bishops were firmly on the side of the anointed king, as were several of the powerful magnates. Yes, there were mutterings about Valdemar’s amorous escapades, but hey, a man’s a man. And then came Jutta.

Jutta was Sofia’s younger sister. In 1266, Jutta was more or less forced to became a Dominican nun at the convent of St Agnes in Roskilde. She was elected abbess, but in 1272, she decided the life of a nun was not for her and fled the convent. A major no-no, that: once you’d made your vows (however coerced), you were a nun for life. (Well, mostly. Sometimes, nuns were carried off and wed. Not always with their consent . . .)

Staying in Denmark after reneging on her vows was not an option, so Jutta decided to visit with her sister in Sweden. Sofia welcomed her with open arms—something she was to regret. Because there was Jutta, pretty as a picture, and there was Valdemar, totally in lust with his sister-in-law.

The scandal was enormous. A king to fornicate with an ex-nun and his sister-in-law to boot! OMG! That was incest! (At least according to the Holy Church) What sort of an immoral bastard was this man? The church was up in arms, and where before many of the Swedish magnates were reluctant to choose sides in the brewing conflict between Valdemar and his brothers, now they flocked to Magnus, seeing in him a better man, a potentially more capable king.

Poor Sofia was humiliated, even more so when Jutta ended up pregnant. Valdemar needed to do something, so in 1274 off he went to Rome to ask the pope for absolution.

Magnus Birgersson – mostly as a faded outline

Meanwhile, Magnus reinforced his position. In his brother’s absence, he took over managing the kingdom, his personal seal affixed to documents that normally required the royal seal. When Valdemar returned, he made a major effort to reassert his authority, but it was too late. His brothers rebelled, marching towards him with an army of Danish mercenaries and a majority of the Swedish nobles. Valdemar, meanwhile, had the support of the yeomanry and collected a huge host—much, much larger than that of his brothers.

While marching towards the confrontation, Valdemar was in a good mood. He felt confident he had the upper hand, and to further strengthen things, he had his household knights, capable fighters all of them. The king’s army set up camp. The king himself, together with his entourage, retired to the nearby Ramundeboda, where he had a royal residence.

It may be that Valdemar did not quite know just how close his brothers were. Or maybe he assumed someone else would sort the matter for him. Whatever the case, he took the night off, relaxing in his residence. Some of the old chronicles indicate he wasn’t alone: the fair Jutta was there as well. In other chronicles, he is accompanied by Sofia. This sounds more probable, because Jutta seems to have been sent back to Denmark in disgrace after the scandal—I imagine Sofia refused to house the sister who had so betrayed her.

While the king sipped wine and the queen played chess, Magnus’ men were sighted. Valdemar’s huge army was disorganised and inexperienced. Magnus’ men were not. It quickly became a blood bath, the peasant army fleeing for their lives into the surrounding forest, the impenetrable Tiveden.

Suddenly, a frantic rider galloped into Ramundeboda. “All is lost,” he yelled. “Sire, your army is defeated, and your brother calls himself lord of this land.”

Valdemar fled north, hoping to return and fight another day. That was not to be. He was captured some days later, and was to spend the rest of his life under Magnus’ control. Initially, he was made a duke and allowed some freedom, but ultimately he ended up a prisoner, dying in captivity in 1302. Ironically, he survived his brother by a decade or so: Magnus succumbed to that chronic condition of his when he was around fifty.

Magnus ascended the throne. Sofia returned to Denmark: her husband may have lost his crown, but he had not lost his taste for other women—many women, and she was finally fed up, deciding to leave Valdemar to his fate. It is said that to her dying day she regretted having welcomed Jutta, expressing that “I curse the day my sister saw the kingdom of Sweden.” Understandable, given that Valdemar’s indiscretion with the former nun was that catalyst that led to their lost crowns. . .

Magnus had a rocky start as king, but after some years he had a firm control of his kingdom. In difference to Valdemar, he worked hard to drag Sweden into some semblance of modernity. When he died, he left a legacy of implemented laws and an organised state. He also left three sons, and as history has a tendency to repeat itself, soon enough Birger, Erik and Valdemar Magnusson were at each other’s throat. That story ends in cruel, cruel death – and you can read more about it here!

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