Historical Tales: 9—Scandinavian - Charles Morris

The Crime and Punishment of King Birger

When the events narrated in the last tale took place, there were three young princes in the kingdom, Birger, Erik and Valdemar, Torkel, the regent, ruling in their name. But when the princes grew up Birger, the oldest, was crowned king, the other two becoming dukes. But very early in Birger's reign there arose many complaints about the conduct of his brothers, who showed themselves haughty and insubordinate. The ill-blood in time grew to such an extent that the king dismissed his brothers from his presence, giving them until sunset to leave.

"After that," he said, "if you shall fall into my hands, it will go ill with you."

This gave rise to bitter enmity and the two dukes gave King Birger no end of trouble, there being war between them three times in succession, bringing the country into a miserable state. During the second war King Birger was taken prisoner by his brothers, but he was afterwards set free under the promise that he would no more disturb Sweden, a third part of which was left under his rule.

He did not intend to keep his word, but was no sooner set free than he sought aid from his brother-in-law, the king of Denmark, and invaded the kingdom with a Danish army. This was the third war above spoken of. It ended without the king gaining anything but the third of the kingdom, which had already been promised to him. After each of these wars the brothers became reconciled, and lived for a time peacefully in their dominions, but they laid such heavy taxes on the people to support their extravagant courts that great misery prevailed.

After the last outbreak all remained quiet for nearly ten years, and the dukes thought that their brother was friendly towards them, not dreaming that his heart was full of hate and treachery.

In 1317, when Duke Valdemar made a journey to Stockholm, which was in his section of the kingdom, he stopped at Nyköping to visit his brother Birger, whom he had not seen for a long time. Birger met him with a great show of friendliness, making him welcome in every way. Queen Martha was equally kind, and Valdemar was highly pleased with these tokens of regard. Before he left the queen complained to him that it gave her great pain that Duke Erik avoided his brother, saying that God knew she loved him as much as if he were her own brother.

After spending the night with them Valdemar rode away very well pleased. His men were equally pleased, for they had been well entertained. On leaving Stockholm he went to Erik's home in Westmoreland, who told him that he had just been invited to visit Birger's court, and asked if he thought it safe to make such a visit.

Valdemar said he had no doubt of it, telling of what a pleasant visit he had made. Erik, however, had doubts, being distrustful of the queen and Chancellor Brunke, whom he looked upon as his enemies. But in the end the brothers decided to accept the invitation and rode away towards Nyköping. When six miles distant they met a knight who advised them to go no farther, saying:

"You will cause yourselves and your friends much sorrow if both of you trust yourselves in the king's hands at the same time."

Valdemar indignantly replied to this that "there are too many who seek to breed disunion between the king and his brothers."

The knight then rode off, saying no more, and the dukes rode into Swärta, where they proposed to spend the night. To their surprise no preparations had been made for them, but a knight met them and saluted them in the king's name, adding that he earnestly requested them not to repose until they reached Nyköping, as his longing to meet them was so great that he could not rest until they arrived.

On receiving this warm request they rode on, reaching Nyköping in the evening. The king advanced from the castle gate to meet them, greeting them in an affectionate manner, and taking each of them by the hands as he led them into the castle. They found a rich feast prepared for them, at which neither mead, wine, nor fair words were wanting. At length Duke Valdemar grew suspicious and said to his brother that they were drinking too much wine. But this was soon forgotten and the feast went on, Queen Martha showing herself very gay and lively and every one being full of the spirit of enjoyment.

It was late at night before the merrymaking ended and the dukes went to their rooms. The queen then said to their men, who had also been well taken care of:

"Lodging has been prepared for you in the town, as there is not room enough for you in the castle."

As they went out Chancellor Brunke stood at the gate, making sure that they had all gone, when he shut the castle gates behind them. Then he armed the servants and led them to the king. Birger, who seemed in some doubt, bade them to retire and turned to Sir Knut Johanson, asking if he would assist in making prisoners of the dukes.

"I will not, my lord," said Sir Knut. "Whoever has counselled you to do this is leading you into a great treachery. What, would you deceive and murder your brothers who came here trusting in your good faith? The devil himself must be your tempter. Let who will be angry on this account, I will never help you in it."

"Small care you have for my honor," said the king angrily.

"Little honor can accrue to you from such an act," answered Sir Knut sturdily. "If you should carry out this design your honor will be less here-after."

Two other knights warned the king against so treacherous a deed, but he was so displeased with their words that he ordered them to prison.

Then he led his armed servants to the sleeping apartment of the dukes and broke open the door, the noise awakening the sleepers. Valdemar sprang up, and seeing armed men entering the room, he seized one of them and threw him down, calling on his brother for help.

"There is no use in resisting, brother," said Erik, seeing the room filling with armed men.

The king now rushed in and called out savagely:

"Do you remember Hatuna? It will not be better for you here than it was for me there, for you shall have the same fate, though it has tarried so long."

Hatuna was the place where the king had previously been taken prisoner by his brothers, in somewhat the same treacherous manner. But they had not treated him with the same shameful cruelty with which he now treated them.

They were taken barefooted deep into the tower and fastened in a dungeon, with a great chain on their legs, while their servants in the town were taken prisoners and locked up in one ward to the number of twenty, all their possessions being divided among their captors. This being done, the king clapped his hands, saying:

"The Holy Ghost bless my queen! Now I have all Sweden in my hand!"

When he set out soon afterwards on an errand of conquest, he left his brothers in the charge of a Livonian knight, who had evidently been bidden to treat them harshly, for he removed them to the lowest dungeon and placed a beam upon their legs. They were fastened to the wall by thick iron round the throat and chains weighing one hundred and forty pounds were riveted on their wrists, the other end being fastened to the beam. When the chain was fastened upon Erik it was done with such violence that a piece of iron broke out, cutting him on the eye so that blood ran down his cheek.

Their dungeon was at the bottom of the tower, where they lay on the bare rock, a pool of water lying between them. Their food was wretched, their clothing was wretched, and there was every indication that their wicked brother did not wish to have them leave that prison alive.

But the cruel and treacherous king did not find it so easy to bring all Sweden under his rule. The news of his wicked act got abroad and spread through the land, exciting general horror and detestation. When he rode up to Stockholm to take possession he found it closed against him and the burghers made a sally against him, putting his forces to flight. It was the same way everywhere, the whole country rising against him. The wicked king now began to learn that the way of the transgressor is hard, and in his fury of disappointment he locked the door of the dungeon in which his brothers lay and threw the key into the stream, leaving them to die of starvation.

But the poor victims were to be thoroughly avenged, for the people were implacable in their wrath, and in a short time had so environed the king that the fortresses of Nyköping and Stegeborg were alone left to him, and both of these were besieged.

Nyköping was soon so severely pressed that the garrison brought up the dead bodies of the dukes and laid them under a dais outside the castle, saying to the besiegers:

"Your siege will now answer no purpose, for the dukes are dead and King Birger is heir to all the kingdom."

"No one can hope to win an inheritance by murder," they replied. "We now serve as our ruler, Lord Magnus, Duke Erik's son."

The bodies of the murdered dukes were carried to Stockholm, where they were buried with much ceremony. But the siege of the castle was continued until the garrison was forced to surrender. On obtaining possession of it the enraged people razed it to the ground.

Stegeborg, where Prince Magnus, King Birger's son, was in command, held out much longer. The king and queen, with Brunke, their confederate, were in Gothland, which province alone they held, and from which they sent a number of ships to Stegeborg with provisions and troops. These had no sooner appeared in the river Skares, however, than they were attacked and taken, leaving Prince Magnus as bad off as ever. When this news was brought to the king and queen they exclaimed in despair:

"Where shall we turn now, since God has sent us such a misfortune?"

[Illustration] from Historical Tales - Scandinavian by Charles Morris


Brunke, the cruel chancellor, volunteered to lead an expedition himself, saying that he would no more spare the dukes' people than they had spared the king's. Gathering some vessels, he had them strongly planked all around, and loading these with provisions and the remainder of the king's forces, he set out for Stegeborg.

On entering the Skares the people attacked him with stones and other missiles, but he and his men protected themselves behind the planks. Seeing this, fire-rafts were sent off from the shore against the ships, and despite all that could be done to keep them off they drifted upon the vessels, setting three of them on fire, from which the flames spread to the others.

Brunke and his men leaped overboard, hoping to escape by swimming, but they were all taken and Brunke and three of his chiefs sent to Stockholm, where they were soon afterwards beheaded. Stegeborg was now in a desperate state and was soon forced to surrender, on the condition that the life of Prince Magnus should be spared. This condition was not kept, notwithstanding the fact that he was innocent of his father's crime. The indignant people were not willing to leave any scion of their wicked king alive and the poor boy's head was cut off.

Thus the unholy treachery of King Birger met with retribution. Sir Matts Kettilmundson, the brave knight who had shown such courage in Russia, was made Administrator of the kingdom and soon defeated a Danish army which had been sent to King Birger's aid. Then Birger and his wicked queen were obliged to flee to Sweden, where grief soon brought him to his death-bed. Queen Martha lived long, but it was a life made bitter by memory of her crimes and Heaven's retribution.