Plotting, Rebellion, Fratricide: A Game of Thrones in Medieval Sweden

By Minjie Su

It is no secret that, in conceiving and writing A Song of Ice and Fire, George R. R. Martin has drawn inspiration from many historical events as well as medieval literature and lore. This also holds true for fiction writers as a whole. Be they shockingly nasty, heartrending, or encouraging, the past is always a source for our imagination and give rise to new tales. Perhaps this is why these stories of bygone days never get old; we enjoy hearing them just as much as people did centuries ago.

The one story that I wish to tell today is from Erikskrönikan, or ‘The Chronicle of Duke Erik’. Composed in verse in the first half of the 14th century by someone in the courtly milieu, the epic Chronicle recounts the political struggle and fraternal conflicts within Sweden’s ruling house across two generations. Among the main players, the author clearly prefers Duke Erik, whose Game-of-Thrones-worthy ending – as we shall see – is the climax of the Chronicle.

Since many of the key players bear same names, it might be worthwhile to introduce all the main characters and outline the plot by chronological order. The Chronicle opens with the death of King Erik the Lisper and Stumbler – while to lisp and stumble may not be the most desirable trait in a king, King Erik has done great deeds in his time. But now a worthy successor must be decided, as King Erik has left no heir. Two powerful players stand out at this time: One is Birger Jarl, a powerful magnate and King Erik’s brother-in-law; he had been the de facto ruler of Sweden long before the King’s death and, naturally, sees himself the rightful successor to the throne. The other is Joar Blå, a magnate who knows that he cannot claim the throne but does not want the Jarl to gain any more power. As a result, a compromise is reached: Birger Jarl’s underaged son Valdemar is elected king. This way, Birger Jarl remains in power but will never become king; nor will he revolt against his son. Peace is ensured – for the time being.

Then we move forward to when Valdemar actually reigns as king. Valdemar has three brothers. The youngest is Bishop Bengt or Benedict, who, though becomes Duke of Finland in his later years, dedicates himself to an ecclesiastical career, therefore posing no threat to the throne. However, the other two brothers, Magnus and Erik (NOT the Erik in the title), are not so ‘safe’ as far as Valdemar is concerned, especially when his reign is not as smooth as everyone else would have wished. In his private life as husband and father, Valdemar has an affair with his sister-in-law (a relationship considered as incest) and has an illegitimate child with her. In his public life as king, he causes dissatisfaction among the aristocrats. Supported by those and by the King Erik of Denmark, Magnus and Erik defeat Valdemar at the Battle of Hova in 1275. Magnus is elected king, now known as Magnus Ladulås. Peace is ensured – but, again, only for the time being.

Stone bust of King Valdemar at Skara Cathedral, Sweden

King Magnus, too, has three sons: Birger, Erik (the one in the title), and Valdemar – sounds familiar? History is about to repeat itself; no good can ever come out of this. When all the boys come to age, the two dukes become unsatisfied with Birger’s reign and, as their father and uncles once did, rise up against their brother. At the Håtuna Game in 1306, the dukes invite themselves to the feast to meet King Birger under friendly pretext, but at the end of the day, they seize both the king and the queen; only the king’s heir escapes – a young squire carries the prince away to Denmark and places him under King Erik’s protection. Meanwhile, King Birger is imprisoned in Nyköping Castle – the very place where King Valdemar was imprisoned.

Stone bust of King Magnus III at Skara Cathedral, Sweden

King Birger is not deposed, however. Enraged by the brothers’ rebellion, King Erik of Denmark forces them to restore the king and swear allegiance, though the brothers are also granted what they want. Peace seems to have once again descended upon Sweden, but it soon turns out that, though the brothers are pacified, King Birger is not – he is merely biding his time for revenge.

Stone bust of King Birger at Örebro, Sweden. Public domain.

The Christmas banquet

The fateful moment arrives in 1317, when King Birger holds a Christmas banquet in Nyköping Castle and invites his brothers. Duke Erik expresses his doubts, but Duke Valdemar manages to persuade him to come. ‘Do not into such thoughts be led!’ Valdemar assures Erik, ‘No longer the idea you harbour must / that you the king should so distrust.’ Together the brothers ride to the royal court, not knowing that they are riding to their tragic end. Upon their arrival, the chamberlain kindly asks all their knights to stay in town, since ‘lodgings here are far too few’.

While the dukes eat and drink their fill, and goes to bed satisfied and delighted, the castle gate is barred and crossbowmen sneak in, the dukes and their men are seized in their sleep. At that moment, the King walks in: ‘Do you the Håtuna game recall? Full well I do remember it all!’ Then he laughs ruthlessly, as if he were mad. On his order, the dukes are thrown into ‘the deepest dungeon’, each chained to a stock and refused any food or drink. Birger tosses the key into the river, so the prisoners may never be freed. Duke Erik dies after nine days, Valdemar two days after.

To the relief of the author who clearly favours Erik, the dukes’ death and the king’s fratricide incite the dukes’ men, like a spark lights the fire. Within a year, Birger is chased out of Sweden and goes into exile with the queen. Prince Magnus, Birger’s son, is left behind and executed in Stockholm. Duke Erik’s son Magnus, only three years old at that time, is elected king at the Stone of Mora. After the death of King Håkan of Norway, Magnus also succeeds the Norwegian throne through his mother Ingeborg, King Håkan’s daughter. The Chronicle ends with the poet’s praise of the new king:

He over two kingdoms now does reign;
Few Christian kings do that attain!
The honour he gained and still does have,
That God and Swedish men him gave.

You can read the entire story in The Chronicle of Duke Erik: A Verse Epic from Medieval Sweden, translated by Erik Carlquist and Peter C. Hogg.

You can follow Minjie Su on Twitter @minjie_su 

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