Historical Tales: 9—Scandinavian - Charles Morris

The First War Between Sweden and Russia

In the last tale it was told how Birger Jarl subdued the Finns and brought then to give up their heathen practices and accept Christianity. But this refers only to the section of Finland bordering on the Baltic Sea. Farther east the Finns were pagans still, worshipping idols and living a savage life in their vast forests, and bitterly hating the Christians. At times they would come in hordes out of their wild woodlands and attack the settled people, killing them in the most cruel way their distorted fancies could contrive.

They had two chief deities, Jumal, the great good one, and Perkel, the great evil one, and these were supposed to meet in fierce encounters in which they would throw each other over high mountains. The people kept wooden images of these deities in their huts, and had also open places in the forest, with a stone on the centre of each, on which they made sacrifices to their divinities. When a Karelian, as these people were called, came to within a fixed distance of the sacrificial stone, he took off his cap and crawled up to it silently, making sacrifices there of the bones and horns of elk and reindeer. In case of danger they would sacrifice goats, cats and cocks, sprinkling their idols with the blood of these animals.

At that time, shortly before the year 1300, Birger, heir to the throne of Sweden, was very young, and the country was under the rule of Torkel Knutson, regent of the kingdom and a wise and energetic man. Exasperated by the cruelties committed by the Karelians on the Christians, he determined to put a stop to them and sailed to Finland with a strong army. Against this force the pagan foresters could not make head and they were soon obliged to submit. A fort with a strong garrison was built at Wiborg to keep them in order, and the churchmen who went with the expedition strove to convert them.

It is not with these savage woodsmen, however, that we are concerned, but with the Russians, with which people the Swedes now first came into warlike contact. The forest Russians of that day were as savage as the Finns and as hard to deal with. They came to the help of the Karelians in this war, and to punish them the regent took Castle Kexholm, their chief stronghold, and left in it a garrison under Sigge Lake. It was this that brought on the first war between the Swedes and the Russians, some of the events of which are so interesting that it is worth telling about.

After the Swedes had held Kexholm for some time their food supply ran very low, and as no aid came from home many of them wished to abandon the fort. This Sigge Lake would not listen to. He had been left there to hold the place and did not intend to give it up. But only the bravest of his men remained with him, the others leaving under pretext of sending food and reinforcements from home.

Neither men nor supplies arrived and the Russians, learning of the state of affairs, gathered in multitudes around the fort, laying close siege to it. In the end, after a brave resistance lasting many days, food became so scarce that the Swedes dared not stay any longer and they determined to try and cut their way through the besiegers.

The gates were thrown open and Sigge rushed out at the head of his company, with such force and fury that for a time it seemed as if they would succeed. But they were weakened by semi-starvation and in the end the swarming Russians killed them all but two, who alone made their escape and carried the news of the disaster back to Sweden.

The regent was greatly distressed at the loss of the brave men whom he had left so long without support. It was too late to save their lives but he felt it his duty to avenge them. To do so he set sail with another army, making his way up the river Neva, the stream on which the city of St. Petersburg was afterwards built. No enemy was seen and the regent landed on an island in the river, where he built a strong fort which he named Landscrona, furnishing it plentifully with provisions.

The Russians, when they found what was being done, were infuriated. A great multitude of them, thirty thousand in number, gathered on the Neva and made a vigorous effort to burn the Swedish fleet, sending rafts down the stream on which were great heaps of blazing wood. But the regent caught these by iron chains which he stretched across the stream, holding the fire-floats until they burned out.

This effort failing, the Russians made a fierce attack on the fortress, with such savage violence that though many of them fell the others would not give up the assault. But so strong and so well defended was the place that they failed in this also, and in the end were obliged to retreat, leaving great numbers of dead behind them. Then a young and brave knight in the garrison, named Matts Kettilmundson, made a sortie against the Russians and drove them back in panic flight, many more of them being killed.

Shortly after this a party of Russian cavalry, one thousand strong, appeared in the edge of a wood, not far from the fort, their armor gleaming brightly in the sunlight. While the garrison were looking at them from the walls, the brave knight Matts Kettilmundson asked permission of the regent to ride out against them, saying that "he would venture a brush with the bravest among them."

The regent having consented, the daring fellow put on his armor and had his horse led through the gate. Leaping on it he rode out, and when he had passed the moat, turned back to his friends who lined the wall.

"Strive to live happily," he said, "and do not be troubled about me, for it depends on God in heaven whether I shall return with a captive foe or fail to return at all."

He then rode boldly on and sent an interpreter to the Russian lines, challenging the bravest of the Russians to fight with him for life, goods and freedom. It must be borne in mind that those were the days of chivalry and knight-errantry, when such adventures and challenges were common things and good faith was kept with those who made them. So no force or treachery was attempted against the daring knight, although we should hardly have looked for knightly deeds and chivalrous ways in the Russia of that day.

However, as the story goes on to say, the Russian king appealed in vain for a knight to try conclusions with the Swedish champion. Not a man in the troop was ready to make the venture, and Sir Matts sat his horse there all day long waiting in vain for an antagonist. As evening approached he rode back to the fortress, where every one congratulated and praised him for his courage. The next morning the Russians had disappeared.

Soon after this, the army growing weary and longing for home, the regent set sail down stream, leaving three hundred men and abundant supplies in the fort, under a knight named Swen. But as contrary winds detained the fleet Sir Matts landed with a strong party of horsemen and made long raids into the country, gathering much booty, with which he returned to the ships. Then the army continued its way home, where it was received with much joy.

But the garrison in Landscrona did not find their lot much better than had the former garrison in Kexholm. The new walls were damp and the advancing summer brought hot weather, so that their provisions began to spoil. As a consequence scurvy and other diseases broke out and many of the men died. Some of those who remained wished to send home for help, but others objected to this, saying that "they preferred waiting for help from heaven and did not wish to trouble the regent, who had enough to attend to at home."

When the Russians gathered around the fort to attack it, as they soon did, only twenty men in the garrison were fit to bear arms in defence. These could not properly guard the walls and the Russians steadily advanced, all losses being made up from their great numbers, until in no great time the walls were taken. The Swedes retired to their houses, continuing to fight, but as the Russians set fire to these, the governor and some others threw down their arms, offering to surrender. They were at once cut down by the assailants.

The few who remained alive now took refuge in a stone cellar, where they defended themselves manfully; and refused to submit until the enemy had offered them their lives. Then they yielded and were carried as captives into the country, the fortress being razed to the ground. Thus, in the year 1300, ended the first war between Russia and Sweden. The Swedes fought well and died nobly, but they lost their lives through the neglect of their countrymen and rulers.