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Staging deaths: King Sverre or a usurper’s path to the throne

Staging deaths: King Sverre or a usurper’s path to the throne

By David Brégaint

Medievalista Online, No.23 (2018)

Peter Nicolai Arbo (1831–1892) painting of King Sverre

Abstract: The present study explores how the Norwegian usurper, King Sverre (1184-1202) exploited three princely burials to overthrow the ruling king and establish his dynasty. Both in 1179 and 1184, King Sverre took full advantage of his military victories to gain popular support for his claims to the throne, in transforming the burial of his most prominent enemies felt on the battlefield into a rostrum for his political propaganda, through speeches and ritual staging.

Sverre’s own agony and funerals were also meticulously staged in order to defend his rule from accusations of excommunication and pave the way for his succession. The study provides insights on the challenges met by a usurper on his way to royal power and, in particular, on the concomitant relationship between military combat and the work of political persuasion.

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Introduction: In 1177, the defrocked priest Sverre Sigurdsson left the Faroe Islands in the North Atlantic for the shores of Norway with the resolute intention of claiming the throne of Norway. According to the Sverris saga, soon after landing in Norway, Sverre took command of a rebel faction, the Birchlegs, whom he subsequently led to numerous victories. Eventually, Sverre became the sole king and went on to “enjoy” 18 long, yet troubled years in power. His rise to royal power was troubled likewise, as the Norwegian throne was already occupied by King Magnus V Erlingsson (1161-1184), who needed to be driven out.

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