Historical Tales: 9—Scandinavian - Charles Morris

The Fall of Christian II, the Tyrant

It was in November, 1520, that Christian II. of Denmark was crowned king of Sweden. Norway was his as well and he was monarch of the whole Scandinavian world. He had reached the highest point in his career, but so great had been his cruelty and treachery that all men feared and no man trusted him and he was on the brink of a sudden and complete overthrow. The man who had worn the crowns of three kingdoms was to spend years within the narrow walls of a dungeon, with none to pity him in his misery, but all to think that he deserved it all and more. Barely has tyranny met with such retribution on earth, and the "Fall of the Tyrant" will serve as a fitting title to an impressive tale.

So sudden and successful was the rebellion of the Swedes under Gustavus Vasa, that in the summer of the year after the massacre in the Great Square of Stockholm the Danes held only that city and a few other strongholds in Sweden. One after another these fell, Calmar and Stockholm in 1523, and in June of that year Gustavus was chosen king of the land which his hand had freed. A young man still, he was at the beginning of a great and glorious reign.

Before he became king, Christian, his great enemy, had ceased to reign. He had shown the same inhuman spirit in Denmark and Norway as in Sweden and had sown his whole dominion thick with enemies.

This is the way his fall was brought about. In 1522 he issued a code of laws for Denmark of a wise and progressive character, especially in freeing the peasantry from the slavish condition in which they had been held, they before being open to purchase and sale like so many brute animals. Christian declared that every man should be his own master and took steps to limit the power and wealth of the clergy and to improve the commerce of the kingdom.

These changes, while wise and important, were difficult to introduce against the opposition of the lords and the clergy and needed the hand of a prudent and judicious administrator. Such Christian was not. He undertook them rashly and endeavored to enforce them by violence. Even the people, whom the new laws so favored, were incensed by a great increase in their taxes. No one trusted him; every one hated and feared him. Even the monarchs of other countries detested him and would not aid him in his extremity.

The details of the blood-bath in Stockholm had reached the ears of the Pope and he sent a legate to inquire into the atrocities committed under the implied sanction of the Church. As they were not to be concealed, Christian attempted to excuse them, and, driven to extremity, accused one of his chief favorites, Didrik Slaghök, as the originator of the massacre.

Slaghök had just been named archbishop of Lund, but was brought to Copenhagen, examined under torture, condemned to death, and carried to the gallows and thence to a funeral pile on which he was burned alive, Christian leaving the town that he might not witness the cruel death of his late favorite.

This cowardly sacrifice of his devoted friend and servant, instead of winning the favor of the people, redoubled their abhorrence of the bloodthirsty tyrant. Shortly afterwards the Lübeckers invaded the kingdom, and Christian, not trusting his people, called in foreign soldiers to repel them. Needing money for their pay, he called a diet to meet on December 10, 1522. Few attended it, and in anger he called a new meeting for the following January.

Before the date arrived rumors were set afloat that he intended to butcher the Danish nobles as he had done those of Sweden, that chains were being provided to secure them, and that he would have disguised executioners among his guards; also that new and heavier taxes were to be laid on the peasants.

These rumors, widely circulated, incensed and frightened the nobility and a meeting was held by the nobles of Jutland in which they determined to renounce their allegiance to Christian and offer the crown to his uncle, Frederick, duke of Holstein.

Magnus Munk, one of these lords, was chosen to deliver their decision to Christian and sought him for this purpose. But it was far from safe to offer King Christian such a document openly, and Munk pretended to be making a friendly visit, conversing and drinking with the king until a late hour of the night. On rising to retire, he thrust into Christian's glove, which had been left on the table, the letter of renouncement of the Jutland nobles.

Instead of going to bed, Munk hastened to the vessel in which he had come and sailed to Holstein, where he made to Frederick the offer of the crown. As may be imagined, there was little hesitation in accepting it.

The next morning a page of the palace found the king's glove on the table and took it to him. On reading the letter which he found in it the tyrant was filled with fear and fury. He sent guards to seize Munk, but when told that he was not to be found, his terror grew intense. He knew not where to turn nor what to do. He might have gathered an army of the peasants, to whom he had just given freedom, to fight the nobles, but instead he wrote to the lords, abjectly acknowledging his faults and promising to act differently in the future.

They were not to be won, no one trusting him. Then the terrified tyrant hurried to Copenhagen and rode round the streets, imploring the citizens with tears to aid him, confessing his errors and vowing to change his ways. Many of the people, unused to see a king in tears, were moved by his petitions, but no wise man trusted him, few came to his assistance, and the sedition rapidly gained strength.

At length he took a desperate step. In the harbor lay twenty large warships, which he might have used for defence, but in his terror he thought only of flight. All the treasure he could lay hands on was carried to these vessels, even the gilt balls on top of the church spires being taken. Sigbrit, a detestable favorite, who had given him much evil counsel and dared not show herself to the enraged people, was carried on board in a chest and placed among his valuables. He, his wife and children, and a few faithful servants, followed, and on the 20th of April, 1523, he set sail from his native land in a passion of grief and despair. A violent storm scattered his ships, but the one that bore him reached Antwerp in safety. Sigbrit, who had crept from her trunk, sought to console him by saying that if he could no longer be king of Denmark he might at least become burgomaster of Amsterdam.

Thus did this cruel and contemptible coward, who less than three years before had been unquestioned monarch of all Scandinavia, lose the crown he was so unfit to wear, and land, a despised fugitive, in a Dutch city, with but a handful of followers. His fall was thoroughly well deserved, for it was an immediate consequence of the detestation he had aroused by his deed of blood in Stockholm, and there was scarce a man in Europe to pity him in his degradation.

It was a sad thing that the salutary laws he had promulgated in the last year of his reign came from so evil a source. Frederick was forced by the nobles to whom he owed his throne to abrogate them, and the code was even burned as "a dangerous book contrary to good morals." The peasants fell back into their former state of semi-slavery and for centuries afterwards failed to enjoy the freedom accorded to the people of their sister states of Norway and Sweden.

In the years that followed the deposed king went from court to court of the German princes, seeking help to regain his throne, but meeting with scorn and contempt from some of them and refusal from all. He still retained much of the wealth of which he had robbed Copenhagen, and now, in despair of obtaining assistance, he took into his service a number of soldiers of fortune whom a treaty of peace had lately thrown out of employment.

With these sons of adventure, twelve thousand in all, he ravaged Holland, which had recently afforded him refuge, doing so much mischief that he was at length bought off. The emperor, Charles V., then ruler over Holland and brother-in-law to the adventurer, paid him the fifty thousand gulden still due on his wife's dower and gave him twelve battle-ships in addition. The Dutch whom he was plundering helped in this as the easiest way to be quit of him, and, with a body of experienced troops, with funds and a fleet, the hope of winning back his old dominions arose in his soul.

There were many malcontents then in Sweden, ready to aid him in an invasion, and the clergy and nobility of Norway, dissatisfied with Frederick's rule, subscribed large sums in money and plate for his aid. Finally, thus strengthened and encouraged, Christian set sail for the Northland with twenty-five ships and an army of eight thousand men.

Unfortunately for him the elements proved adverse, a violent storm scattering the fleet and sending nearly half of it to the bottom. He had only fifteen ships and a reduced number of men when, in November, 1531, he landed at Obslo, Norway.

The nobles and people, however, discontented with Frederick's government and eager for a king of their own choice, declared for him and at a diet held at Obslo proclaimed him king, only a few nobles dissenting. These, however, held the strongest fortresses in the kingdom. One of these was Magnus Gyllenstierna, governor of Aggerhus. Against this stronghold Christian led all his force and might easily have taken it, for it was lacking in provisions, but for a stratagem by which Magnus saved himself and his fortress.

He sent word to Christian that the place was too weak for him to attempt to hold and that he had seen the king's success with pleasure; but, to save himself from the imputation of cowardice, he begged leave for time to ask King Frederick for assistance. If none came before the 1st of May he would willingly surrender the place.

Adept in deceit as Christian was, he this time suffered himself to be tricked. At the suggestion of Magnus a thousand men were sent from Denmark, and led by secret paths over mountains and through forests in all haste, throwing themselves into Aggerhus while Christian was watching the seas to intercept them. In a rage he hurried back to renew the siege, but the shrewd commandant was now strong enough to defy him.

Ture Jönsson, one of the Swedish nobles who had joined Christian, led a portion of his forces against the fortress of Bohus, writing to its commandant, Klass Bille, a letter in which he set forth the great change for good which had come upon King Christian and begging him to side with his Grace. He closed in the manner customary in those days: "Commending you, with your dear wife, children, and friends, hereby to God's protection."

On the next day he received the following answer:

"Greeting suited to the season.

"Learn, Ture Jönsson, that I yesterday received your writing with some of your loose words with which you sought to seduce me from my honor, soil my integrity and oath, and make me like yourself, which God, who preserves the consciences of all honest men, forbid. To the long and false talk which your letter contains, I confess myself, by God's providence to be too good to give you any other answer than this which my letter conveys. You have so often turned and worn your coat, and it is now so miserably thread-bare on both sides, that it is no longer fit to appear among the apparel of any honest man. No more this time, I commend you to him to whom God the Father commended that man who betrayed His only Son,

Ex Bohus.

Sunday next before Lady-day, 1531."

Klass Bille proved as good with an answer by balls and blows as by pen, and the Castle of Bohus defied all attempts to take it.

Meanwhile the Swedish exiles were writing to their friends at home, and, elated by the capture of a Swedish fort, Christian marched his army towards the frontier, and made ready to invade the kingdom from which he had been driven two years before.

But Gustavus and Frederick were not idle. They recognized the danger of this invasion and prepared to meet it, renewing their treaties that they might work loyally together. Gustavus wrote to his officers not to fight with Christian unless they were from four to six times as strong, as he wished to give him a reception that would cure him of all future desire to return to Sweden.

The forces of Christian and Gustavus first met at Kungelf, where Christian looked with disturbed eyes on his antagonists as he saw them marching across a frozen river, among them three thousand men in armor of polished steel. Turning to Ture Jönsson, who stood beside him, he said wrathfully:

"You said that there was not a man-at-arms in Sweden. What see you yonder? Do you think those old women?"

The next morning Ture Jönsson's body was found lying headless in the street, whether thus punished by Christian for his lies or by some Swede for his treason, is not known.

The war began with equal fortune at first to each side, but later fortune turned in favor of the Swedes, while food grew scarce in Christian's army, his foragers being beaten back wherever they appeared. Soon, with an army dwindled to two thousand men, he was forced to march back to Obslo.

So far Gustavus's army had been fighting alone, and it was not until March, 1532, that some Danish ships of war arrived. But their coming soon ended the war. They burned Christian's vessels and reinforced Aggerhus, and in May sailed towards Obslo.

Christian's hopes of success were now at an end. He had made his final effort and had failed. His men were forsaking him in troops and resistance to his foes became impossible. As a last resort he tried a crafty expedient, contriving to get some forged letters distributed in the Danish camp to the effect that twenty Dutch men-of-war, with five thousand troops, were coming to his aid.

The Danish commander, alarmed at this report, hastened to conclude peace with him, on condition that all who had taken part in the rebellion should be pardoned. Christian was to cross to Denmark, and if he could not agree with Frederick was to be free to go to Germany, on giving a solemn oath never again to make any attempt on the three Scandinavian kingdoms.

Before this treaty was confirmed messengers arrived from Frederick who discovered the condition of Christian to be hopeless and insisted on an unconditional surrender. But Knut, the Danish admiral, who had been given full power to act, took Christian on his ships and sailed with him to Denmark, where he insisted that the conditions he had made should be observed.

Frederick and his council were in a strait. To let this tiger loose again was too dangerous, and finally some pretext for breaking the treaty was made and Christian was sentenced to a life imprisonment in the Castle of Sanderberg on the island of Femern. Frederick and his son were obliged to confirm this sentence by a written promise to the Danish nobles that they would never release the detested prisoner.

When Christian learned that the convention had been broken he wept bitterly, lamenting that "he had fallen into the hands of men who cared neither for oaths, promises, nor seals."

These complaints no one heeded. He was taken deep into the dungeons of Sanderberg Castle, and locked up in a dark and narrow prison vault destitute of every convenience, his only companion being a half-witted dwarf who had long been in his service. With the harshness common in those days, and which in his case was well deserved, the door of the cell was walled up, only one small opening being left through which he could receive the scanty allowance of food brought him, and a little barred window through which some sparse light could make its way.

In this dreadful prison the captive remained twelve years without the slightest amelioration of its conditions. Then the door was opened and fresh air and other conveniences were allowed him, but a strict watch was kept up. Finally in 1549, five years later, it being believed that no harm could possibly come from an old man sixty-eight years of age, he was taken to Kallendborg Castle, where he was permitted to entertain himself by hunting or in any other manner he pleased. He lived ten years later, ending in 1559 a life whose misfortunes were a just reward for his faithlessness and cruelty in his day of power.