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Medieval Scandinavia: The Swedish Kingdom

By Beñat Elortza Larrea

For the sixth article in the series, Beñat Elortza Larrea discusses the transformation of Svealand and Götaland into the Swedish kingdom.

Two traits make Swedish medieval history considerably different from the developments of its neighbours during the same period. The first of these is purely a methodological limitation: primary sources either produced in or describing Scandinavia in the Middle Ages are relatively scarce, but such materials are virtually non-existent for Sweden before the thirteenth century.

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The second trait, on the other hand, is rather unique: the history of Sweden in the Middle Ages is, in fact, the history of two relatively well-defined communities: the plundering sea-kings of Svealand in the north-east, and the landowning aristocratic elites of Götaland in the south-west. These two polities, virtually separate kingdoms in many regards, nevertheless had strong connections, and were in fact governed by the same kings from the turn of the first millennium onwards; the differences between the two polities, however, remained considerable, and tensions between their respective elites would have a deep effect in the formative process of the Swedish kingdom.

Due to the scarcity of sources, not much is known about Sweden before c. 1130, and even less about developments before the turn of the millennium. The magnates of Svealand seem to have been particularly active in the Baltic, where they became famed both as raiders and as merchants. The large burial mounds of the Vendel and Viking periods highlight the riches and high status that these chieftains acquired. The great trading emporium of Birka, inside Lake Mälaren, was well known around the Baltic, and the Frankish missionary Ansgar visited it several times during his – largely unsuccessful – proselytising travels of the mid-ninth century. Much less, on the other hand, is known about Götaland; its elites seem to have had strong connections with Danes in Scania or Norwegians in Bohuslän, and the lack of well-known enterprises for external exploitation – such as raids – suggests that the wealth of these elites derived from their clientelistic relationships with the local farmers.

The main departure point from this situation took place in the closing years of the tenth century, when an aristocrat from Götaland, Olof Skötkonung, was recognised as king of both the Svear and the Götar. Little is known about Olof’s life and deeds, but he seems to have been the first Swedish king to embrace Christianity; the first bishopric of the realm, in Skara, was possibly founded during his reign. Intent on cementing his position in Svealand, Olof also founded a royal centre in Sigtuna, which would later become an episcopal see. Following Olof’s death around 1020, he was succeeded in turn by two of his sons, Anund Jacob and Emund; it is unclear whether both brothers were recognised as kings in the entirety of the kingdom, but Olof’s line ended with them when Emund died childless around 1060.

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Coin of Olof Skötkonung, circa 1030. Wikimedia. Commons

The decades between reigns of Olof’s sons and the early twelfth century are shrouded in mystery; primary sources tell us little about kings and claimants – such as the brothers Erik and Erik, who were elected as joint rulers, only to die shortly after when fighting each other –, to the point where much of the information is obscure or simply contradictory. From around 1060 to 1130, members of the house of Stenkil ruled; these decades were characterised by religious tensions between the centralising Christian kings and more remote areas where paganism was still relatively widespread. Inge the Elder, whose reign stretched from the early 1080s to 1110, was in fact deposed as king in Svealand due to his reticence to participate in pagan rituals, and a king known only as Blot-Svein (lit. Sacrifice-Svein) ruled between 1084 and 1087. Christianity, with its divine endorsement of royal rule, was indeed an unparalleled ideological tool to expand royal power; it is not coincidental that the bishopric of Sigtuna was moved to the old pre-Christian pagan site of Gamla Uppsala shortly after Inge’s reign, possibly in 1123.

The relatively stable – albeit fragile – period of the Stenkil kings ended with the death of Inge the Younger in 1125. Whilst kingship in Sweden was elective, members of the reigning family seem to have been prioritised as candidates, thus maintaining a semblance of stability upon a ruler’s death (the eponymous head of the dynasty himself, Stenkil, was probably elected because he had married into Olof Skötkonung’s family). Inge’s death, therefore, plunged the two polities into uncertainty; rivalling kings were elected and internal conflict flared up. This instability was capitalised by an aristocrat from Östergötland named Sverker, and he secured his election as king in both Svealand and Götaland around 1130. Sverker the Elder, as he is commonly known, is usually considered to be first historical ruler of Sweden.

The successes of Sverker’s accession partially rested on his own ancestry, as he could claim relation to the Stenkil rulers; he was, however, not the only aristocrat with such a claim. The magnates of the house of Erik, from Västergötland, were likewise descended from royal stock, and possessed the necessary economic and social capital to contest Sverker’s kingship. The tensions between the rivalling houses were such that the years between c. 1130 and c. 1250 were characterised by the internecine conflicts that were also widespread in Denmark and Norway during the same period. Sverker and Erik kings succeeded each other on the throne, as incumbent rulers met violent deaths at the hands of their opponents; curiously, many of these kings had long and relatively stable reigns, but ongoing dynastic strife and familial politics constantly threatened dynastic succession.

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The Sverker Stone (Svekersstenen) monument at the site of the assassination of Sverker the Elder in 1156. Photo by Sven Rosborn / Wikimedia Commons

These internal struggles were brought to an end by a combination of shrewd diplomacy and resolute military successes. Both Sverker and Erik rulers and claimants had relied on local and Scandinavian support for their struggle, which had brought the wars to a relative deadlock. In 1208 and 1210, Erik Knutsson, a claimant opposed to Sverker the Younger, delivered two crushing defeats to his opponents. Sverker himself was killed, and his main foreign supporters, the Danish Hvide kin-group, had such substantial losses that they were in no position to continue supporting their allies. Erik became king, but he was reliant on a third aristocratic kin-group, the House of Bjälbo, who were powerful landowners, and had served as jarls to both rivalling dynasties. Somewhat more detached from the conflict and with powerful interests to defend, the Bjälbo jarls ensured that succession would be orderly. Erik was succeeded by a Sverker king, Johan, in 1216, who was in turn followed by Erik’s son, also called Erik.

After decades of violent conflict, the houses of Sverker and Erik were depleted, and the former went extinct in the male line in 1222 with the death of Johan Sverkersson. As Erik Eriksson became older and remained childless, a renewed conflict over succession seemed inevitable. The Bjälbo jarls, however, were shrewd diplomats as well as capable administrators; Birger Magnusson, the incumbent jarl, claimed descent from the Sverkers and was married to Erik’s sister. When the king died in 1250, he was succeeded by Birger’s son Valdemar, whose shared descent from the rivalling houses sealed the dynastic breach.

The reign of Valdemar Birgersson – and his father’s tenure as jarl – were characterised by the expansion of royal power. The Folkungs, an aristocratic faction from Svealand who objected stronger royal control, were defeated in 1247, and over the following decades, the region was brought into the fold, as new taxes were imposed and military obligations defined. Valdemar’s position was strong as long as his father was alive, but Birger’s death in 1266 complicated things severely. Valdemar’s younger brother, Magnus, had expected to receive the sweeping powers of jarl after their father’s death, but these promises failed to materialise, and young Magnus rebelled. Opposed by the aristocracy and his own brother, Valdemar was soundly defeated on the field and forced to abdicate in 1275 – although he was allowed to live unperturbed under nominal house arrest.

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Contemporary stone bust of King Magnus III – Wikimedia Commons

Magnus Birgersson (r. 1275-1290) continued the reforms from previous decades, most notably by formally recognising the privileged status of the lay and ecclesiastical aristocracy. The Statutes of Alsnö, promulgated in 1280, gave exemption from taxation to those who provided military service and counsel to the Crown, thus separating them from the general populace. During the second half of the century, castles began to be built across Sweden too; these were initially just military structures, but these castles would quickly become part of an expanding administrative network, which would be staffed by the newly made aristocratic elites.

In hindsight, one of the greatest failings of Magnus– who was otherwise an accomplished statesman and military leader – was the recreation of the conditions that had allowed him to usurp his brother’s title. When Magnus died in 1290, he was succeeded by his eldest son, Birger, but he also had two younger sons, Erik and Valdemar, who were given ducal titles but lacked any real power. Unhappy and frustrated, the young dukes began machinations to claim their share, and conducted a coup against Birger in 1306. Plots, counter-plots and sporadic violence among the brothers and their supporters would mar the following decade; this period, too, saw a further expansion of administration, as new castles were erected, and provincial laws were written down by the elites. Waging war, after all, was an expensive business, and securing income and unpaid services from the peasantry was a crucial way of ensuring that coffers did not run dry.

In 1318, during a long lull in the conflict, Birger invited his brothers to a banquet at his castle in Nyköping. Following the feast, the unsuspecting dukes were captured, locked up and eventually killed. The reaction of the Swedish aristocracy to this act of kin-slaying was immediate and swift; the few castles held by Birger loyalists were besieged and subdued, and the king himself was deposed after he had fled to Denmark. The following year, the Swedish aristocracy elected Magnus Eriksson, Duke Erik’s infant son, as king. Young Magnus, however, was also the closest male relative of the recently deceased Norwegian king Håkon V; for the first time in almost three centuries, a personal union was about to take place in Scandinavia.

Beñat Elortza Larrea has a PhD from the University of Aberdeen, and he is currently finishing a Bernadotte postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Gothenburg. His research interests include state formation in medieval Scandinavia, military history from a social perspective, and maritime societies in the Middle Ages. Click here to visit his page on Academia.edu.

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Click here to read more from Beñat’s series on Medieval Scandinavia

Top Image: Statue of Olof Skötkonung, Stockholm City Hall. Photo by Holger Ellgaard / Wikimedia Commons

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