Early Christian Era – Stenkil’s Line And Interchanging Dynasties

THE sources of Swedish history during the first two centuries of the Middle Ages are very meager. This is a deplorable fact, for during that period Sweden passed through a great and thorough development, the various stages of which consequently are not easily traced,

Before th year of 1060 Sweden is an Old Teutonic state, certain y of later form and a larger compass than the earliest of such, but with its democracy and its elective kingdom preserved. The older Sweden, such as it had existed at least since the days of Ingiald Illrade, was in regard to its constitution a rudimentary union of states. The realm had come into existence through the cunning and violence of the king of the Sviar, who made away with the kings of the respective lands, making their communities pay homage to him. No change in the interior affairs of the different lands was thereby effected; they lost their outward political independence, but remained mutually on terms of perfect equality. They were united only through the king, who was the only centre for the government of the union. No province had constitution-ally more importance than the rest, no supremacy by one over the other existed. On this historic basis the Swedish realm was built, and rested firmly until the commencement of the Middle Ages. In the Old Swedish state-organism the various parts thus possessed a high degree of individual and pulsating life; the empire as a whole was also powerful, although the royal dignity was its only institution. The king was the outward tie which bound the provinces together; besides him there was no power of state which embraced the whole realm. The affairs of state were decided upon by the king alone, as in regard to war, or he had to gather the opinion of the Thing in each province; any imperial representation did not exist and was entirely unknown, both in the modern sense and in the form of one provincial, or sectional, assembly deciding for all the others. The latter form is one of transition, the modern form the ripe fruit, both brought out by the historic development. In society there existed no classes. It was a democracy of free men, the slaves and freed men enjoying no rights. The first centuries of the Middle Ages were one continued process of regeneration, the Swedish people being carried into the European circle of cultural development and made a communicant of Christianity. With the commencement of the thirteenth century Sweden comes out of this process as a mediaeval state, in aspect entirely different to her past. The democratic equality among free men has turned into an aristocracy, with aristocratic institutions, the hereditary kingdom into an elective, or, at least, into one close upon turning into an elective, kingdom, while the provincial particularism and independence have given way to the constitution of a centralized, monopolistic state. No changes could be more fundamental.

For lack of sources the historians were, until quite recently, led to the belief that the change was due to one tribe in gaining the ascendency over another, the political supremacy changing from one part of the country to an-other. The epoch was called “The Struggle between Swedes and Goths,” “The Struggle about the election of kings between Swedes and Goths.” Now it is generally admitted that the struggle was between principles, not between tribes. The circumstances sometimes were such that one section or province opposed others, but these divisions never were identical or at all depended upon racial or tribal conditions. It was a struggle between heathendom and Christianity, democracy and aristocracy, provincial particularism and centralized state unity.

The old provincial laws of Sweden are a great and important inheritance which this period has accumulated from heathen times. The laws were written down in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, but they bear every evidence of high antiquity. Many strophes are found in them of the same metre as those on the tombstones of the Viking Age and those in which the songs of the Edda are chiefly written. In other instances the text consists of alliterative prose, which proves its earlier metrical form. The expressions have, in places, remained heathen, although used by Christians, who were ignorant of their true meaning, as, for instance, in the following formula of an oath, in the West Gothic law: “Sva se mer gud hull” (So help me the gods). The laws show a good many individual traits and differences, but these are not of such a serious character as to give evidence of having been formulated by tribes of different origin. A remarkable exception is formed by the laws of matrimony and inheritance for the inhabitants of Vrend and Bleking, who, it will be remembered, are the descend-ants of the Herulian immigration in historic times. In lieu of a missing literature of sagas and poetry, these provincial laws give a good insight into the character, morals, customs and culture of the heathen and early Christian times of Sweden. From the point of philology they are also of great value, besides forming the solid basis of later Swedish law. How the laws could pass from one generation to another, without any codification, depends upon the facts that they were recited from memory by the justice (lagman or do-mare), and that this dignity generally was inherited, for centuries being carried by the descendants of one and the same family.

Interesting is the appendix to the law of the island of Gothland, the Guta Saga, being the fragment of a history of the island and its first contact with Christianity through a visit by St. Olaf of Norway. The style is the same simple and serene one as in the Icelandic sagas; while the Gutnic dialect, in which it is written, more closely resembles the Gothic of Bishop Wulfila in vowel sounds than the language of any other known dialect. Quite an important appendix is found in the older form of the West Gothic law, consisting of lines of the kings of Sweden, with short but highly valuable accounts of their reigns and characteristics.

Stenkil was the name of King Emund’s successor. He was a jail and married to Emund’s sister. The statement that he was born in West Gothland is not confirmed by the authorities. His father’s name was Ragnvald, and it seems likely that this Ragnvald was identical with the jarl spoken of above, who died in Russia. Stenkil had close relations with Russia, for his son Inge was called in from that country to succeed his father. If Jarl Ragnvald was Stenkil’s father, this only made his selection as king more plausible, being then the half-brother of Isiaslaf of Russia and the brother-in-law of the reigning kings of Hungary, France and Norway. King Stenkil was a devout Christian, but of a sagacious disposition, careful not to offend his heathen subjects by any Christian propaganda. He was a giant in size, and although phlegmatic, an ardent sportsman. Adalvard, exiled by Emund, returned and did active work as bishop of Skara, also converting the population of Vermland. Even among the heathen of Svealand, Christianity got a foothold, Adalvard the Younger being established as bishop in Sigtuna, close by the pagan centre of Upsala. But when he, in conjunction with Egino, of the newly erected bishop’s chair of Lund, schemed for the destruction of the heathen temple of Upsala, he was removed by the command of the king, who found that such a plan, if carried through, would prove disastrous to both Church and throne.

During the short reign of Stenkil there was a conflict with Norway, an exiled Norwegian jarl having been granted possessions in Vermland. King Harald Hardrade invaded Gothaland, punishing this insult by a victory over the Swedes. No further complications ensued, perhaps on account of the close family relations of the two rulers.

Stenkil died in 1066, leaving two sons, Halsten and Inge, both minors. During their minority two men, both named Eric, relatives of Stenkil and the old royal line, fought for supremacy, and both fell in the contest for the crown. Hakon of West Gothland took hold of the reins of state and kept them for thirteen years, until King Halsten became of age, Hakon himself dying. Halsten was a devout Christian like his father, but less sagacious, trying to force the new faith upon the heathen of Svealand. For this reason he was dethroned, and his brother Inge called in from Russia. But King Inge was a Christian enthusiast like his brother, and was subsequently driven away by the irate inhabitants of Svealand, who now called to the throne his brother-in-law Sven, surnamed Blot-Sven (Sven, the Sacrificer), of heathen faith. The royal brothers dwelt undisturbed among the Christians, but after three years King Inge, in old heathen style, surrounded and set fire to the domicile of Blot-Sven, who with all his household perished within. King Inge resumed his reign, likely very much in his old spirit, for two other pretenders, although less formidable, appeared : Olof Naeskonung (Nose-king) and a son of Sven, called Kol or Eric Arsaell. Two papal documents are preserved from Inge’s reign. They consist of letters from Gregory VII., making appeals for closer relations between the pope and the Swedish king.

An invasion was made from Norway, whose king, Magnus Barfod, subdued the inhabitants of the province of Dal. King Magnus built a fortified place on the island of Kollandsœ in Lake Venar, close to the shore of West Gothland, but it was captured by King Inge, who set its occupants free, but without their weapons. Two battles were fought at Fuxerna, the Norwegians being victors in the first, the Swedes in the latter. Peace was effected at a meeting between the two kings at Kunghrell in the summer of 1101, when it was agreed that the frontiers should remain as they were before the war. King Eric Ejegod was also present at the meeting, where the betrothal between King Magnus and King Inge’s daughter Margaret was agreed upon. On account of the original nature of the meeting the Swedish princess was surnamed Fredkulla (Peace-Maiden).

In 1103 the bishopric of Lund was raised to the dignity of an archbishopric, yet not becoming perfectly independent of the archbishopric of Hamburg-Bremen. The archbishop of Lund received the title of Primas of Sweden, preserved long after Sweden had obtained its own archbishop.

King Inge died in 1111, receiving, by the appendix to the West Gothic law, credit for “having ruled Sweden with manliness, without breaking the law which governed each province.” About his brother Halsten, who died before him, the same source says: “He was sagacious and good-natured; the cases brought before him were bettered, and Sweden became worse through his death.” At the time of Inge’s death, Jemtland was persuaded to pay scat to the Norwegian king, but it remained in connection with the church of Sweden.

Inge’s son Ragnvald died before him, and Halsten’s sons, Philip and Inge the Younger, ascended the throne. They were of a more peaceful disposition toward the heathen than their predecessors, Christianity making great progress during their reigns. Philip died in 1118, Inge following him in 1125; his death was said to have been caused by poison. The epitaph over the two runs thus: “Sweden fared well while they lived,” in the terse language of the source quoted above. With them the race of Stenkil became extinct in the male line.

In 1123 the Norwegian king, Sigurd Jorsalafare, under-took a crusade to the eastern parts of Smaland, which were still heathen. “Crusades” of this kind were not uncommon during that period, and were hardly anything else than Viking expeditions in Christian disguise.

Great confusion ensued through the extinction of Stenkil’s line. Ragnvald Knaphaefde, probably the son of Olof Naeskonung, was chosen king, but lost his life through the contemptuous neglect of an ancient custom. The newly elected king should always make a tour of the realm, receiving homage and giving assurance of his good faith to the population of the various provinces. The provincial laws had stipulations as to the nature and number of the gisslan (hostages) to meet and escort him through each province. This tour, called Eriksgata, Ragnvald under-took without accepting hostages upon entering West Goth-land. He was killed at Karleby, in 1130, by the peasants, indignant at what they considered an insult to all the West Goths. These had, moreover, made another choice in Magnus Nilsson, the son of Margaret Fredkulla in her second marriage. Magnus never made claim to the Swedish throne, endeavoring to become king of Denmark, after his father, Nils Svendsen, but losing his life in the attempt.

Sverker, who had married the widow of the younger Inge, was in 1133 chosen king by the East Goths, and the Up-Swedes (in the provinces north of Lake Maelar), having no special choice of their own, also agreed on him. After the death of Magnus Nilsson, the West Goths joined by formally acknowledging King Sverker, who, born in East Gothland, has been supposed to be the son of Eric Arsæll, without solid reasons. During Sverker’s reign ecclesiastical matters developed. The old bishoprics of Birka and Sigtuna were changed into that of (Old) Upsala, where the pagan temple seems to have been at last changed into a church. New bishoprics were created in Linkœping, Strengnaes, Westeros and Vexio. The whole of Swedish Finland formed one diocese. The famous Bernard of Clairvaux was asked by King Sverker and his queen Ulfhild to send monks of his order, and several Cistercian convents were founded. The quiet and scholarly monks from France, no doubt, soon began to exert a beneficial influence of importance, through the means of their superior culture. A papal legate, Nicolaus of Alba (later Pope Hadrian IV.), visited Sweden in 1152, meeting all the dignitaries of Church and State for a conference at Linkœping. The legate was willing to give to Sweden an archbishop, but the matter was postponed, since no agreement could be reached in regard to the archbishopric’s seat. Measures for the establishment of the Church on a firmer basis and the payment of Peter’s pence to Rome were agreed on.

Sverker was a good and peaceful monarch, but seems with old age to have lost some of his authority. A war with Denmark was brought on through an escapade of his son John, who had carried away two Danish women of noble birth. He returned them, and was himself killed by the peasants at a Thing. Yet the Danish king, Svend Grade, had the excuse for an invasion and entered Smaland with an army in the winter of 1153-54. The brave inhabitants of Voerend gave him a hearty welcome, and he soon returned to Denmark. It is an old tradition that a woman by the name of Blenda was chiefly instrumental in this result. When the peasants feared to attack the superior enemy, she had a splendid meal spread for the foe. After the Danes had partaken heavily of its eatables and drinkables, they were surprised and routed by their hitherto invisible hosts and hostesses.

King Sverker, now called “the Old,” was murdered by his valet while starting for the Christmas matins in 1155 or 1156. The murder was, without doubt, committed at the instigation of the Danish prince Magnus Henricsson, who on his mother’s side was a great-grandson of Inge the Elder, and who in this manner made his first attempt to reach the throne of Sweden.

Already, in 1150, the Up-Swedes had in Eric, the son of Jedvard, found a man in their opinion better suited to rule Sweden than Sverker the Old. His mother is said to have been the daughter of Blot-Sven and the sister of Kol, while his father was “a good and rich yeoman.” Through a mistake he was named Eric IX., but is more commonly known as St. Eric. One source calls him “lawgiver,” although nothing is definitely known of his activity in this direction. At the death of Sverker, his son Charles was certainly of age, but the growing fame of King Eric made it useless for him to force his right, and Eric was recognized as king of the whole realm.

King Eric was a warm friend of the Christian propaganda in his own country, and by crusades spread the faith outside of its borders. It was only natural that Sweden should turn its attention to Finland, with which country it had stood in close relations since the remotest period, and where Swedish settlements in all times existed. Accompanied by Bishop Henric of Upsala, King Eric sailed with a fleet to the southwestern part of Finland, or the province now called Finland Proper, where the inhabitants were forced to receive baptism. This crusade must have taken place late in the fifties of the twelfth century. Eric soon returned, but Bishop Henric remained with other priests to have Christianity firmly established. These efforts met with considerable difficulty, and Henric was murdered by one of his converts. He was later worshipped as the patron saint of Finland.

The pious King Eric was attacked by the perfidious prince Magnus Henricsson at Past Arias (the present or New Upsala), in 1160. It is said that Erie was attending mass at the Trinity Church, when he was told of the approach of his enemy. He remained till the service was over, after which he went to meet his fate. He was overcome and slain by the superior force. His pious life and virtues and the miracles which were said to have been worked at his grave made him the patron saint of Sweden, although never canonized by the Church of Rome. His bones are preserved in a shrine of gilt silver behind the high altar in the cathedral of Upsala, and were in Catholic days objects of worship. Oaths were taken “by the power of God and Saint Eric the King,” his banner was carried in war, and the city of Stockholm still has his image on its shield.

Charles Sverkersson (Charles VII.) now made valid his claims, the whole people rising to support him against the usurper Magnus. In the following year Magnus was killed by the indignant people. During the reign of Charles some important novelties in Church and State were introduced. Sweden received, in 1164, her first archbishop in Stefan, a monk of Alvastra. The archbishop’s seat was first Old Upsala. Instead of jarls in the various parts, there is from this time on a jarl for the whole kingdom at the side of the king, whom he assists in the government of the state, sometimes obtaining a power rivalling that of his master. The first jarl of the realm was Ulf, the second Gutorm. The rivalry noticeable between the different provinces, which all thought themselves called upon to select a new line to rule after Stenkil’s, ceased at the death of Saint Eric. What follows is a rivalry of interchanging dynasties. Charles Sverkersson was, in April, 1167, surprised by a pretender to the throne, Knut Ericsson, who deprived him of crown and life, while his little son Sverker was saved and carried away to the queen’s uncle, Valdemar the Great of Denmark.

Knut Ericsson was the son of Saint Eric, and ruled Sweden for twenty-five years in peace. In his youth he had made one unsuccessful attempt to reach the throne, after which he fled to Norway. After the death of King Charles he had to fight two pretenders, Kol and Burislev, the latter said to have been a son of King Sverker.

During this period the Baltic and its coasts were continually disturbed by heathen sea-rovers from the southern shores. A fleet of this kind entered Lake Malar in 1187 and destroyed by fire the town of Sigtuna, which, as a mercantile centre, had succeeded the earlier destroyed Birka. The second archbishop of Sweden, John, was killed by the invaders. The first preliminary plan for the fortification of the present site of Stockholm was probably then laid, in order to prevent further invasions, and a little town commenced to grow up.

Conditions in Finland were not satisfactory. Invasions by Esthonians and Vends were frequent, while the Finns themselves were troublesome and little devoted to the new faith. Bishop. Henric’s successor was killed, but Sweden continued to send bishops during the next hundred years.

The relations with foreign powers were peaceable, the first known treaty between Sweden and a German prince being entered into by King Knut and Duke Heinrich of Saxony and Bavaria, in regard to trade relations with Lubeck. King Knut died in the winter of 1195. He had four sons, but although he had selected one of them for his successor, “with general consent and through election by the foremost men in Sweden,” Sverker the Younger, the son of King Charles, succeeded him. That this could take place with out serious objection of Knut’s sons can only be explained by the influence wielded by the Church and the nobles. The latter had already grown up to strength and importance. Their leader was the mighty jarl, Birger Brosa, who had succeeded Gutorm. He was of the influential family of Folkungs, which, one of the first in the land, soon aspired to the throne. Birger, himself married to a Norwegian princess, gave his own daughter Ingegerd in marriage to the new king, and remained in power.

King Sverker sought the favor of the Church by sup-porting its claims. In a document of the year 1200, by which he donates some property to the church of Upsala, historians have seen the privileges extended to the Church as an independent power of state, whose members could be arraigned before an ecclesiastic forum only, and whose property was to be exempt from taxation. This is the spirit of the document; but the king had not, at that period, the right to grant such extensive privileges. King Sverker, and probably each of his successors, in turn, gave only an assurance of their sympathy with the Church policy, which was to its full extent an assured victory only toward the close of the thirteenth century.

In 1202, Birger Brosa died, and with him the firm sup-port against the pretenders had fallen. The sons of Knut now made open revolt, leaving their places at Sverker’s court. In 1205, Sverker gave battle to them at Elgaros, three of the brothers being killed and the fourth, Eric, fleeing to Norway. But a few years later he returned with an army, and Sverker found it safest to retire to Denmark, whence he returned with a splendid army, which King Valdemar II. Seier, had placed at his disposal. But this army was defeated at Lena, in West Gothland, in 1208, and Sverker returned to Denmark, now turning to the pope, Innocent III., who in vain threatened the pretender with his ban. Sverker entered Sweden with a new Danish army, but was killed at the battle of Gestilren, in West Gothland, in 1210.

Eric Knutsson now came to undisturbed possession of the throne and thus remained until his death in April, 1216, his reign being short and uneventful. He was the first king of Sweden of whom it is known with certainty that he was anointed and crowned, thus placing himself under the protection of the Church. His queen, Rikissa, a sister of Valdemar H., returned to Denmark after his death, there giving life to a son, who was named Eric, after his father. King Valdemar tried in vain to have this royal babe placed on the Swedish throne.

John Sverkersson succeeded King Eric, being, on ac-count of his fifteen years of age, first surnamed the Young, later the Pious. By confirming and extending the rights of the Church which his father granted he won the favor of the ecclesiastics, and the attempts made by Valdemar to have his consecration prohibited proved futile. Toward the end of his short reign (in 1220) King John undertook a crusade to Esthonia, where he left behind him his jarl, Charles, a brother of Birger Brosa, and Bishop Charles of Linkœping, with a part of the army. These all perished in an onslaught made on them by the heathen in August of the same year, and the ravages by Esthonians continued as before. King John died in the island of Visingsœ, in Lake Vetter, in 1222, like several of his predecessors, and was, like them, buried in the monastery of Aivastra.

Eric Ericsson now became king of Sweden. The royal babe was then six years of age, a halting and lisping little creature. The Church took him under its protection, but there was no powerful man to take hold of the government during his minority. A pretender rose in the person of Knut the Tall, a. great grandson of St. Eric, like the king himself. He defeated Eric’s troops at Olustra, in 1229. Eric fled to Denmark, where he remained until the short and restless reign of Knut came to an end through his death, in 1232. Eric resumed the reins of government, with the Folkung, Jarl Ulf, at the helm.

Pope Gregory IX., in 1230, gave commandment to the Swedish bishops to rouse the people to opposition against the ravages of the heathen in the Baltic provinces in the further parts of Finland. In 1237 he commands the Swedish bishops to have a crusade started against the heathen Tavasti in the interior of Finland. This crusade took place under the leadership of Birger Magnusson, who converted the barbarous Finns by the sword and erected a fort on the site of the later Tavastehus. Birger, according to Russian testimony, tried to extend the dominion of Swedish supremacy as far as to the river Neva, but was repulsed by the Russians.

Peace had reigned in Sweden for some time when new conflicts ensued. The peasants of Upland made an uprising in 1247, but were conquered at Sparrsætra and punished by heavier taxes. A pretender rose in the person of Holmger, the son of Knut the Tall. He was captured and beheaded in 1248.

A papal legate, Bishop William of Sabina, visited Sweden and arranged, in 1248, an ecclesiastical meeting at Skenninge, effecting the final separation of Church and State, and establishing the former as an independent power at the side of the latter. Archbishops and bishops were now to be elected by the ecclesiastics and not by the king. Celibacy, previously not enforced in the Swedish church, was then introduced, meeting with a good deal of opposition ; for the ecclesiastical offices had already commenced getting hereditary, as had in earlier times the combined dignities of Asa priest and chieftain. Birger Magnusson had, shortly before the meeting of Skenninge, succeeded Ulf as jarl of the realm. This converter of the Tavasti was destined to play a most important part in Swedish history, shaping its destiny through the power of his iron will. He was the leader of the Folkung family and party, a nephew of Birger Brosa, and married to princess Ingeborg, a sister of the reigning king. Birger Jarl, as he is generally called, effected a satisfactory agreement with Norway at a meeting with Hakon in the summer of 1249, according to which the enemies of one realm should have no refuge, or support, in the other. Besides, it was agreed that the son of the Norwegian king should marry Rikissa, the daughter of Birger Jarl.

King Eric died in 1250, at the age of thirty-four. He called himself Eric III., while in later times, when St. Eric was supposed to have been the ninth king of that name, he has been called Eric XI. He was said to have been peaceful, just and kind.