Historical Tales: 9—Scandinavian - Charles Morris

Sverre, the Cook's Son, and the Birchlegs

In the year 1177 those people in Norway who loved a joke must have laughed to their hearts' content, when the tidings reached them that the son of a cook, followed by seventy ragged and half armed men, had set out to win the throne of the kingdom. Surely a more extraordinary and laughable enterprise was never undertaken, and the most remarkable thing about it was that it succeeded. A few years of desperate adventures and hard fighting raised the cook's son to the throne, and those who had laughed at his temerity were now glad to hail him as their king. How Sverre the adventurer won the crown is a tale full of adventure and amply worth the telling.

No common man was Sverre and no common woman was his mother Gunhild, a cook in the kitchen of King Sigurd Mouth. Not handsome was she, but quick of wit and bright of brain. If the king had had his way the boy would have had a very short life, for he bade the mother to kill her child as soon as it should be born. Instead of consenting to this cruel mandate, she fled from the palace to a ship, which took her to the Faroe Islands, and here her son was born. She was then serving as milkmaid to Bishop Mathias.

The little Sverre began his life with an adventure. When he was a few months old a man named Unas came from Norway to the islands, a smith or comb-maker by profession. But Gunhild suspected him of being a spy sent by King Sigurd to kill her son, and she hid the boy in a cavern, which is still called Sverre's Cave. He acted like a spy, for he followed her to the cave, found where she had hidden the child, and threatened to kill it unless she would marry him. Gunhild had no love for this dangerous stranger, but she dearly loved her little son, and with much reluctance she consented to marry Unas to save the babe's life.

Such was the first event in the life of the later King Sverre. The new-married pair went back to Norway, for King Sigurd had died, but when the boy was five years old they returned to the Faroes, for Bishop Mathias was now dead, and Roe, the brother of Unas, had been made bishop in his stead.

The little fellow was made to believe that he was the son of Unas, and as he grew up Bishop Roe took a great fancy to him, for he showed himself to be very bright and intelligent. There was no boy in the island his equal, so the good bishop had him educated for the priesthood and when he was old enough had him ordained in the lowest priestly grade.

This was much against the wish of Gunhild, his mother, who had higher hopes for his future, and when he proudly told her that he was now a priest, and hoped some day to become a bishop, or even a cardinal, she burst into tears.

"Why do you weep, mother?" he asked in surprise. "I do not know why you should hear of my honor with sorrow."

"Oh, my son," she cried, "this is but a small honor compared to that to which you were born. I have not told you of the great station that is yours by right, but must now say that you are not the son of my husband Unas, but of King Sigurd of Norway, and you have as good a claim as any man living to the throne."

This surprising revelation destroyed Sverre's peace of mind. All his ambition to rise in the priesthood was gone, the crown of a kingdom seemed to float in the air before him, and his thoughts by day and his dreams by night were fixed on that shining goal. The great hopes in his mind kept sleep from his eyes and after days of mental unrest he felt that life was worthless to him if his high ambition were not fulfilled.

"Since I am born heir to the crown," he said to his mother, "I have as much right to it as any man, and I will strive at any cost to win it. I stake my life on this cast, for without it life to me has lost all its joy."

Magnus, the king then on the throne, was not of royal birth. He was the son of Erling Skakke, a great and ambitious nobleman, who had killed every descendant of the royal house he could find to make his own son king. Of the boy who was destined to dispute his claim, the cook's son on the Faroes, he knew nothing, and when the bright youth landed in Norway, whether he had gone in spite of the protests of Bishop Roe, not a soul in the kingdom dreamed that a new claimant for the throne was in the realm.

No one was likely to learn from Sverre until his plans were ripe. He was too shrewd and cautious for that. He wanted to feel the sentiment of the people, and was disappointed to find them all well satisfied with their king. Full of humor and a good talker, everybody he met was pleased with him, and when he talked with the men-at-arms of Erling Skakke they told him all they knew about the state of affairs. They were quite won over by this lively priest from the Faroes. He even made the acquaintance of Erling Skakke himself and got a thorough idea of his character.

The cunning adventurer was feeling his way and found things not at all to his liking. To attempt, alone and with an empty pocket, to drive a favorite monarch from the throne, seemed the act of madness. But the ambitious youth had dreamed his dream of royal state and had no fancy for returning to a humble priesthood on the bleak Faroes.

In Sweden, across the border, dwelt Earl Birger, who had married a sister of King Sigurd Mouth. To him Sverre went, told who he was, and begged for aid. The earl looked on him as an imposter and would have nothing to do with him. Then he sought Folkvid the Lawman, with whom lived his half-sister Cecilia, and told him the same story. Folkvid received him more graciously, but he had no power to make him king. But the rumor that a son of the late King Sigurd was in the land got abroad, and soon made its way to the ears of a band of rebels who hated the king.

Here we must go back a step. All the people of Norway were not content with the new king. From time to time pretenders to the throne arose, hornets whom Magnus and his father Erling had some trouble in destroying. They had their following, and the malcontents gathered at last around Eystein Meyla (Little Girl), who professed to be the grandson of a former king. But all this last of the pretenders was able to do was to roam about in the wilderness, keeping himself and his followers from starving by robbing the people. They were in so desperate a state that they had to use birch-bark for shoes, and the peasants in derision called them Birkebeiner, or Birchlegs. Though little better than highwaymen, they were sturdy and daring and had some success, but finally were badly beaten by the king and their leader slain. They might have never been heard of again had not the greatest of the pretenders just then came to Norway.

The rumor that a son of King Sigurd Mouth was in the land reached the ears of the handful of Birchlegs remaining and, learning where Sverre was, they sought him and begged him to be their chief. He looked at them, and seeing what dirty and ragged vagabonds they were, he told them that he had no fancy for being their leader, that there was no link of connection between them and him but poverty, and advised them, if they wanted a chief, to seek one of Earl Birger's sons, who, like himself, were of royal descent.

The beggarly troop took his advice, but the earl's son would have nothing to do with them. By way of a joke he told them to go back to Sverre and threaten to kill him if he would not be their leader. They did so, using persuasions and possibly threats, and Sverre, seeing no hope of success among the great, finally consented to become the leader of this ragged band of brigands. Such was his first definite step on the road to the throne.

In this humble fashion, the ambitious young prince, then about twenty-four years old, with empty hands and pockets and seventy ragged followers, began his desperate strife for the throne of Norway.

From Vermeland, where his enterprise began, he led his forlorn seventy southward toward Viken, his party rolling on like a snowball and growing in size on its way, until it swelled to four hundred and twenty men. In spite of his protest, these vagabonds proclaimed him king and touched his sword to indicate their allegiance. But their devotion to his cause was not great, for when he forbade them to rob and plunder the peasants most of them left him. To test the remainder, he ordered them back to Vermeland and before they reached that region only the original seventy remained.

Desperate was now the position of the youthful adventurer. He had declared himself a claimant for the throne and any one had the right to kill him. The peasants hated his robber band and he could get none to join him. They would rather have killed them all and thus earned the king's favor.

Had young Sverre been a man of common mind his enterprise must now have reached its end. But he was a man of wonderful mental resources, daring, indefatigable, capable of bearing the most extreme reverses and rescuing himself from the most perilous situations. Followed by his faithful seventy, he wandered through the pathless mountain wilderness, hopeful and resourceful. His courage was unfailing. Often they had to live on bark and frozen berries, which were dug up from under the snow. At times some of his men, worn out with hunger and exposure, would drop lifeless on their barren paths; at times he had to sleep under his shield, as his only protection from the falling snow; but his heart kept stout through it all, and he chided those who talked of ending their misfortunes by suicide.

As an example of his courage and endurance and his care of his men, we may tell the following anecdote. Once in his wanderings he came to a large mountain lake which had to be crossed. It could only be done on rafts, and the men were so exhausted that it proved desperate work to fell trees and build the necessary rafts. In time they were all despatched, Sverre boarding the last, which was so heavily laden that the water rose above his ankles.

One man was still on the shore, so utterly worn out that he had to crawl to the water's edge and beg to be taken on, lest he should perish. The others grumbled, but Sverre would not listen to their complaints but bade them to take the man on. With his extra weight the raft sank till the water reached their knees. Though the raft threatened to go to the bottom Sverre kept a resolute face. A great fallen pine on the other side made a bridge up which the men clambered to safety, Sverre being the last to leave the raft. Scarcely had he done so when the watersoaked logs sank. The men looked on this as a miracle and believed more fully than ever that he would win.

Now came the first success in his marvellous career. He had one hundred and twenty men on reaching the goal of his terrible journey, but here eighty men more joined him and with these two hundred followers he successfully faced a force of fourteen hundred which had been sent against him. With a native genius for warfare he baffled his enemies at every point, avoiding their onset, falling upon them at unexpected points, forcing them to scatter into separate detachments in the pursuit, then falling on and beating these detachments in succession. While he kept aware of their plans and movements, they never knew where to look for him, and in a short time the peasant army was beaten and dispersed.

This striking success gave new courage and hope to the Birchlegs and they came in numbers to the place to which Sverre had summoned a body of twelve representatives from the province of Tr÷ndelag. These met and proclaimed him king of Norway. It was now the summer of 1177.

The Birchlegs were hasty in supposing the beating of fourteen hundred peasants would bring success to their cause. Erling Skakke was still alive and active, and on hearing of the exploits of this new leader of rebels in the north, he got together a large fleet and sailed northward to deal with him.

The new-proclaimed king was too wary to meet this powerful force and he sought refuge in the mountains again, leaving to Erling the dominion of the coast. And now, for two years, Sverre and his men led a precarious life, wandering hither and thither through the mountain wilderness and suffering the severest privations. He was like a Robin Hood of the Norwegian mountains, loving to play practical jokes on the peasants, such as appearing with his hungry horde at their Yuletide feasts and making way with the good cheer they had provided for themselves. He was obliged to forage in the valleys, but he took pity on the poor and more than once made the great suffer for acts of oppression.

Everywhere he was hated as a desperate brigand; some believed him to be the devil himself. Naughty children were scared with the threat that the terrible Sverre would take them, and laundresses, beating their clothes at the river's brink, devoutly wished that Sverre's head was under the stone. Yet his undaunted resolution, his fights with the king's soldiers, his skirmishes with the peasants, and his boldness and daring in all situations, won him a degree of admiration even among those who feared and hated him.

Thus for two years his adventurous career went on. Then came an event that turned the tide in his favor. Erling was still pursuing him and in June, 1179, was in the coast town of Nidaros, his son, Magnus, with him. In the harbor lay the fleet. The earl and the king were feasting with their followers when word was brought them that the Birchlegs were approaching.

"I wish it was true," said the earl. "I should like nothing better than to meet that hound Sverre. But there will be no such good luck to-night, for I am told that the rascals have gone back to the mountains. You can go to bed in safety, for Sverre will not dare to trouble us when we are on the watch for him."

To bed they went, sleeping heavily from their potations, and down on them came Sverre, who, as usual, was well informed about their situation.

"Now is your time to fight bravely, and repay yourselves for your sufferings," he said to his men. "A fine victory lies before us. I shall promise you this. Any one of you who can prove that he has slain a liegeman shall be made a liegeman himself, and each of you shall be given the title and dignity of the man you have slain."

Thus encouraged, the poorly-armed adventurers rushed down the hills into the town. One sturdy fellow who carried only a club was asked where his weapons were.

"They are down in the town," he said. "The earl's men have them now. We are going there to get them."

This they did. As they came on the warriors, hastily alarmed and heavy with their drunken sleep, flocked staggering into the streets, to be met with sword and lance. The confusion was great and the king had much trouble in rallying his men. Many chieftains advised flight to the ships, but the stout-hearted Erling was not ready for that.

"It might be best," he said, "but I can't bear the thought of that brigand priest putting himself in my son's place."

Leading his men outside the city, he awaited the attack. It came in haste, the Birchlegs falling furiously upon the much greater force before them. In the onset the earl was killed and his men were put to flight. The king, as he fled by, saw the bloody face of his father lying under the stars. He stooped and kissed him, saying:

"We shall meet again, father, in the day of joy." Then he was borne away in the stream of flight.

This decisive victory turned the tide of the war. The death of Erling removed Sverre's greatest opponent. King Magnus was no match for the priest-king, and the rebel force grew until the contest assumed the shape of civil war. Sverre no longer led a band of wanderers, but was the leader of an army.

This was not the ordinary army recruited from the settled classes of society, but an army made up of the lower stratum of the people, now first demanding their share of the good things of life. Fierce and unruly as they were, Sverre knew how to control and discipline them. He kept his promise, as far as was possible, to reward his men with the honors of those they had slain, but charged them with the maintenance of law and order, punishing all who disobeyed his commands. This he could safely do, for they worshipped him. They had shared peril and suffering together, had lived as comrades, but through it all he had kept his authority intact and demanded obedience. Birchlegs they still called themselves, for they had grown proud of the title, and they named their opponents Heklungs, from the story that some of them had robbed a beggar woman whose money was wrapped in a cloak (hekl).

For six years afterwards the war for dominion in Norway continued, the star of King Sverre steadily rising. In 1180 Magnus attacked his opponent with an army much larger than that of Sverre, but was utterly routed; and an army of peasants that came on afterwards, to kill the "devil's priest," met with the same ill success.

Magnus now took refuge in Denmark, abandoning Norway to his rival, and from there he came year after year to continue the contest. In a naval battle in 1181, in which Sverre had less than half the number of ships of his opponent, his star seemed likely to set. The Birchlegs were not good at sea fighting and the Heklungs were pressing them steadily back, when Sverre sprang into the hottest of the fight, without a shield and with darts and javelins hurtling around him, and in stirring tones sang the Latin hymn, "Alma chorus domini."

This hymn seemed to turn the tide of victory. Magnus, storming furiously forward at that moment, was wounded in the wrist as he was boarding a hostile ship. The pain caused him to pause and, his feet slipping on the blood-stained deck, he fell headlong backward, a glad shout of victory coming from the Birchlegs who saw him fall.

Orm, one of King Magnus's captains, demanded what had happened.

"The king is killed," he was told.

"Then the fate of the realm is decided," he cried.

Cutting the ropes that held the ships together, he took to flight, followed by others and breaking the line of battle. Leaping to his feet, Magnus called out that he was not hurt and implored them not to flee from certain victory. But the terror and confusion were too great, and Sverre took quick advantage of the opportunity, capturing a number of ships and putting the others to flight.

The final battle in this contest for a throne came in 1184. It was one in which Sverre was in imminent danger of a fatal end to his career. Usually not easily surprised, he was now taken unawares. He had sailed up the Nore fiord with a few ships and a small force of men, to punish some parties who had killed his prefect. Magnus, afloat with twenty-six ships and over three thousand men, learned of this and pursued his enemy into the fiord.

Sverre was caught in a trap. Not until he saw the hostile ships bearing down upon him had he a suspicion of danger. Escape was impossible. Great cliffs bounded the watery ca˝on. He had but fourteen ships and not half his opponent's force of men. The Heklungs were sure that victory was in their hands. But when Sverre and his Birchlegs dashed forward and attacked them with berseker fury their confidence turned to doubt. Soon it began to appear that victory was to be on the other side. Before the furious onset the Heklungs fell in numbers. Many in panic leaped into the sea and were drowned, King Magnus among them. Till mid-night the hot contest continued, by which hour half the king's force were slain and all the ships captured. The drowned corpse of King Magnus was not found until two days after the battle, when it was taken to Bergen and buried with royal ceremony. His death ended the contest and Sverre was unquestioned king of the whole land.

Shall we briefly conclude the story of King Sverre's reign? For twenty years it continued, the most of these years of war, for rebellion broke out in a dozen quarters and only the incessant vigilance and activity of a great king and great soldier enabled him to keep his throne and his life.

After all his wars and perils, he died in his bed, March 9, 1202, worn out by his long life of toil and strain. Never before had Norway so noble and able a king; never since has it seen his equal. A man was he of small frame but indomitable soul, of marvellous presence of mind and fertility in resources; a man firm but kindly and humane; a king with a clear-sighted policy and an admirable power of controlling men and winning their attachment. Never through all its history has Norway known another monarch so admirable in many ways as Sverre, the cook's son.