Historical Tales: 9—Scandinavian - Charles Morris

The Friends and Foes of a Boy Prince

After the death of the great King Sverre tumult and trouble reigned in Norway. Several kings came to the throne, but none of them lived long, and there was constant fighting between the Birchlegs and the opposing party who called themselves Baglers. Year after year they kept their swords out and their spears in hand, killing one another, but neither party growing strong enough to put an end to the other. All this time the people were suffering and the country growing poorer, and a strong hand was needed at the helm of the ship-of-state.

It was when King Inge, who was not of royal blood, and whose hand was not the strong hand needed, was on the throne, that new hope came to the people, for it was made known that they had among them a boy of kingly descent, a grandson of the noble Sverre. Men thought that King Sverre's line had died out, and there was great joy in their hearts when they learned that his son Haakon had left a son.

This boy was born in 1203, son of the beautiful Inga of Varteig, whom King Haakon had warmly loved though she was not his wife. The little prince was named Haakon, after his father, but he was born in the midst of the Baglers, his father's foes, and the priest who baptized him bade Inga to keep his birth a strict secret, letting none outside her own family know that a new prince had come to the land.

The secret was well kept for a time, but whispers got abroad, and Thrond, the priest, at length told the story to Erland of Huseby, whom he knew to be on the right side. Erland heard the news with joy, but feared peril for the little prince, thus born in the land of his enemies. Rumors were growing, danger might at any moment come, and though it was mid-winter, a season of deep snows and biting winds, he advised the priest to send the boy and his mother to the court of King Inge, offering himself to take them across the pathless mountains.

The difficult journey was made in safety and the boy and his mother were kindly welcomed by the king, and joyfully greeted by the Birchlegs, who were strong in that district. Little Haakon was then less than two years old, and it is said that the old loyalists, who were eager to have a king of the royal blood, used in playfulness to pull him between them by the arms and legs, to make him grow faster.

The Birchlegs were in fear of Haakon Galen, the king's brother, who was ambitious to succeed to the throne. Yet Earl Haakon took a great fancy to the helpless little child and seemed to love him as much as any of them. Thus the child prince, though in the midst of plotters for the throne, who would naturally be likely to act as his enemies, seemed protected by the good angels and brought safely through all his perils.

Even when he was captured by the Baglers, when four years of age, they did not harm him, being possibly so taken by his infantile beauty and winning ways that they could not bring themselves to injure their little captive. In the end, after many fights and flights, in which neither party made any gains, the Birchlegs and Baglers grew tired of the useless strife and a treaty of peace was made between them, the king of the Baglers swearing allegiance to King Inge and becoming one of his earls. But new trouble was brewing for the youthful prince, for in 1212, when he was eight years old, a compact was made that none but those of legitimate birth should succeed to the throne. As his mother had not been a legal wife, this threatened to rob little Haakon of his royal rights.

In doing this the plotters were like some politicians of the present day, who lay plans without consulting the people. They did not know how strong the sentiment was in favor of the old royal line. One of the old Birchlegs, on hearing of this compact, was bitterly angry. He had made frequent visits to the young prince, whom he loved and admired, but on his next visit he pushed away the playful lad, roughly bidding him begone.

Haakon reproachfully asked, "What have I done to make you so angry?"

"Go away from me," cried Helge, the veteran; "to-day you have been robbed of your right to the crown and I have ceased to love you."

"Who did that and where was it done?"

"It was done at the Oere-thing [the Assembly at Oere], and those who did it were King Inge and his brother Earl Haakon."

"Then you should not be angry with me, my kind Helge, nor be troubled about this. What they did cannot be lawful, for my guardian was not there to speak on my side."

"Your guardian! Who is he?" asked Helge.

"I have three guardians, God, the Blessed Virgin, and St. Olaf," said the boy solemnly. "To their keeping I give my cause, and they will guard me against all wrong."

The old man, at this declaration, caught the boy in his arms and kissed him.

"Thanks for your wise words, my prince," he said. "Words like those are better spoken than unspoken."

These words show that the little fellow was coming to think for himself and had an active and earnest mind. In fact, he was so precocious and said such droll things as greatly to amuse the king and those around him. Here is one of his sayings, spoken in a spell of cold weather when the butter could not be spread on the bread. The prince bent a piece of bread around the butter, saying:

"Let us tie the butter to the bread, Birchlegs." This was thought so smart that it became a proverb among the Birchlegs.

Soon after this Earl Haakon died and the little fellow, who had hitherto lived in his house, was taken to the king's court, where he was treated like a prince. The king was growing feeble from sickness and he loved to have the boy with him, finding his talk very amusing and entertaining. Soon after this he also died, Prince Haakon then being fourteen years old.

Though Earl Haakon, the king's brother, who had hoped to be king, died, as we have said, before him, there was another brother named Skule who was quite as ambitious and of whom the Birchlegs were much afraid. A body-guard of these faithful warriors took charge of the boy as soon as King Inge was dead, with orders to follow him day and night.

Earl Skule at once began to plan and plot to seize the throne, and in this he was supported by the archbishop, but in spite of them the Birchlegs proclaimed Haakon king and Skule had to yield to the strong sentiment in his favor. As for the noble then called king by the Baglers, he too died just at this time and left no children, so that the way was clear for the boy king, and Haakon soon sailed to the south with a large fleet and took possession of Viken and the Uplands, the chief dominions of the Baglers.

By the wise policy of the young king and his advisers the Baglers were made his friends and the next year they were fighting with the Birchlegs against the Slittungs or Ragamuffins, who were made up of robbers, tramps, and wandering vagabonds of all kinds, thousands of whom had been set adrift by the civil war.

But Haakon's worst foe was Earl Skule, who con tinued his plots and intrigues, and who was supported by the clergy, these saying they had doubts if the boy was really the son of the elder Haakon and grandson of King Sverre. Such things were not in those days usually settled in courts of law, but by what was called the ordeal, one form of which was to walk barefoot over red-hot irons. If not burned the accused was thought to have proved the justice of his cause.

[Illustration] from Historical Tales - Scandinavian by Charles Morris


For a king already in possession of the throne to submit to such a demand and humble himself by thus trying to prove who he was, was a thing never done before and an old peasant gave vent to the general sentiment in these words:

"Who can show in history a case of the sons of peasants prescribing terms like these to an absolute king? It would be wiser and more manly to bear another kind of iron—cold steel—against the king's foes, and let God judge between them in that way."

But Inga, the king's mother, declared that she was ready to endure the ordeal and Haakon consented to it. Earl Skule now felt sure of succeeding, not dreaming that the ordeal could be gone through without burning, but to make more sure, he bribed a man to approach Inga and offer her an herb which he said would heal burns.

The plot was discovered by the faithful Birchlegs and Inga warned of it; for to use such herbs would make the test invalid and subject Inga and her son to opprobrium. But all that Skule and his fellow-plotters could do proved of no avail, for Inga passed through the ordeal unhurt and triumphantly proved, in the legal system of that day, the justice of her cause. How red-hot iron was prevented from burning is a matter which we cannot discuss, and can only say that this ordeal was common and many are said to have gone through it unscathed.

We set out in this story to tell how the child Haakon passed through all the perils that surrounded him and grew up to become Norway's king. Here then we should end, but for years new perils surrounded him and of these it is well to speak. They were due to the ambitious Earl Skule, who made plot after plot against the king's life, and was forgiven again and again by the noble-minded monarch.

King Haakon's friends sought to put an end to this secret plotting by arranging a marriage between the young monarch and Earl Skule's still younger daughter Margaret. But this did not check him in his plots, and he finally set sail for Denmark to try and get aid from King Valdemar. He was ready to agree if the kingdom were won to reign as a vassal of the Danish king; but when he got there no such king was to be found. He had been captured in battle five days before, and was now with his son in a prison at Mecklenburg. The disappointed plotter had to sail home and pretend to be the king's friend as before.

For years Skule's plots went on. He took the field against a new horde of rebels called the Ribbungs, but he took care never to press them too closely, and they long gave the king trouble. For more than twenty years Skule thus continued to plot and plan, the king discovering his schemes and pardoning him more than once, but nothing could cure him of his ambitious dream.

In the end, when he was nearly fifty years old, he succeeded in having himself proclaimed king and in sending out bands of warriors who killed many faithful friends of King Haakon. He tried to conceal his purpose until he had gathered a large force, but one man escaped the vigilance of his guards and brought word of the treachery to Haakon. The latter, seeing that he must check this rebellion if he wished to sit safely on his throne, at once took to his fleet, sailed southward with the utmost speed, and rowed, under cover of a fog, up the Folden fiord to Oslo, where the rebel was. He had been carousing with his followers the night before and the wassailers were roused from their drunken sleep by the war-horns and ran out to see the king's ships driving in towards the piers.

The rebels were quickly scattered, but Skule escaped, and at length was traced to the woods, where he was wandering with a few friends. The friars of a monastery took pity on them and hid them in a tower, disguised with monkish cowls. Despite their disguise they were traced to their hiding place, and when the friars refused to give them up the pursuers set fire to the tower. Driven out by the smoke and heat, Skule stepped from the gate, holding his shield above his head and saying:

"Strike me not in the face; for it is not right to treat warriors thus."

In a minute more he lay dead, slain by Birchleg swords.

The next act in King Haakon's reign was to have himself crowned king, and thus to rid himself of the blot on his claim to the throne. After some negotiations with the Pope, a cardinal was sent from Rome, the ceremony being performed with much pomp and ceremony, and followed with the most magnificent feasts and festivities Norway had ever seen.

From this time on King Haakon ruled as a wise, noble and powerful monarch, making his strength felt by his great fleet and setting Norway high among the nations of the north. He died at length in 1263, loved by his people and respected by all outside his realm.