Historical Tales: 9—Scandinavian - Charles Morris

King Valdemar I and Bishop Absolon

The most brilliant period in the history of Denmark was that of the reigns of the Valdemars, and especially of Valdemar I. and his sons, whose names and memories are still cherished in that kingdom, the Danes regarding them as the greatest and best monarchs they ever had.

There were wretched times in Denmark before 1157, when Valdemar came to the throne, and his early years were passed in the midst of civil wars and all kinds of sorrows and troubles. When the new king was crowned and began the business of governing, he found little to govern with. There were no money, no soldiers, no trade, no order in the kingdom, everything being at so low an ebb that he found it necessary, as some writers state, to secure support from Germany by recognizing the Emperor Frederick Barbarossa as his suzerain and doing homage to him as a vassal in 1162. But this ceremony did not entail upon him any of the usual duties of a vassal, and was more of an ordinary alliance than a formal act of submission.

Yet poor as was the state of Denmark when Valdemar came to it as king, when he died he left it a flourishing, busy and peaceful country, to which he had added great tracts of land on the pagan shores of the Baltic, whose people he forced to give up their heathen practices.

During his reign Valdemar made as many as twenty expeditions against these piratical peoples, gradually subduing them. At first, indeed, he showed very little courage, and found so many reasons for turning back before meeting the foe, that the sailors looked upon him as a coward, and once he overheard one of them say with a laugh, that the king was "a knight who wore his spurs upon his toes, only to help him to run away the faster."

This made him very angry, but on speaking of it to his foster-brother, Axel Hvide,—afterwards Bishop Absolon,—he found that the feeling that he lacked the courage of a warrior was general. This contempt made him so ashamed that from that time on he faced danger bravely and was never again known to turn back from any risk.

Though Axel became a bishop, he had begun life as a soldier and was throughout life bold and daring, a man who loved nothing better than to command a ship or to lead his men in an assault against some fierce band of sea robbers. From his castle Axelborg, on the site of the later city of Copenhagen, he kept a keen lookout for these pirates and sought manfully to put an end to their plundering raids.

The war against the Baltic heathens continued until 1168, when it ended in the capture of the town of Arcona, on the island of Rygen, and the destruction of the great temple of the Slavic god Svanteveit, whose monstrous four-headed image was torn down from its pedestal and burned in the presence of its dismayed worshippers.

The taking of this temple is an event of much interest, for it was due to the shrewdness of a young Danish soldier, who circumvented the heathens by a clever stratagem.

While the army lay encamped on the island beach, below the town of Arcona, this man noticed that the high cliffs on which the temple was built were honeycombed by many deep holes, which could not be seen from the ramparts above, but were quite visible from the beach below. One day it occurred to him that by making use of these holes he could roast the pagan worshippers out of their nests, and he arranged with some of his fellows to carry out his plan.

Gathering such dry straw and small sticks as they could collect, the soldiers pretended to be playing at a game of pitch and toss, which if seen by the sentinels on the ramparts above would not seem suspicious to them. In this way they caused much of the straw and sticks to lodge in the holes in the steep cliff. Then, by using spears and stones for a ladder, one of them climbed for a distance up the steep rock wall and set fire to some of the inflammable rubbish in the holes.

The effect was stupendous. The flames spread from hole to hole, creeping up the face of the rock until the wooden spikes and palings at its summit were in a blaze. This took place unseen by the pagans, who first took the alarm when they saw flames circling round the great mast from which floated the banner of their god.

Before they could take any steps to extinguish the flames, and while they stood in a panic of apprehension, the Danes, headed by Bishop Absolon, rushed to the assault and succeeded in taking the town.

There was nothing left for them but to accept baptism, on which their lives depended, and the worthy bishop and his monks were kept busy at this work for the next two days and nights, the bishop desisting only when, half blind from want of sleep, he dropped down before the altar that had been set up beside the fonts, where the converts were received and signed with the cross.

The work of baptism done, King Valdemar caused the huge wooden idol of the god to be dragged amid martial music to the open plain beyond the town, where the army servants chopped it up into firewood. In this work the new converts could not be induced to take part, for, Christians as yet only in name, they feared some dread revenge from the great Svanteveit, such as lightning from heaven to destroy the Danes.

The Christians of that age were quite as superstitious, for they declared that when the image was being carried out of the temple gates, a horrible monster, spitting fire and brimstone, burst from the roof and leaped with howls of wrath into the sea below, which opened to receive it, and closed over its head with billows of smoke and flame.

Valdemar died in 1182, after making such friends of his people and doing so much for them, that when the funeral procession, headed by Bishop Absolon, drew near the church of Ringsted, where the burial was to take place, it was met by a throng of peasants, weeping and lamenting, who begged the privilege of carrying the body of their beloved king to his last resting place.

When the bishop began to read the service for the dead his voice failed him and he wept and trembled so much that he had to be held up by some of the assistant monks. After all was over the people went away in deep grief, saying that Denmark's shield and the pagans' scourge had been taken from them and that the country would soon be overrun again by the heathen Wends.

But Absolon kept a firm hand upon the reins of state, and when the young Prince Knud, Valdemar's son, was proclaimed king at the age of twenty everything was in order. Knud proved as good and gallant as his father, holding Denmark bravely against all foes, and when the Emperor Barbarossa sent to him to appear before the imperial court at Ratisbon and do homage for his crown, he returned a defiant answer.

The position of Denmark had greatly changed since Valdemar had obeyed such a summons, and when the envoy of the emperor brought him the imperial command, he sent back the following proud reply:

"Tell your master that I am as much monarch in my own realm as the kaiser is in his, and if he has a fancy for giving away my throne, he had better first find the prince bold enough to come and take it from me."

This ended all question of the vassalage of Denmark, but the emperor never forgot nor forgave the insult and took every opportunity in after years to stir up strife against Denmark. In 1184 he incited the pagan princes of Pomerania to invade the Danish islands with a fleet of five hundred ships. But they had old Bishop Absolon to deal with, and they were so utterly routed that when the fog, which had enabled the Danes to approach them unseen, cleared away, only thirty-five of their ships were able to keep the sea.

This victory made Knud ruler over all Pomerania and part of the kingdom later known as Prussia, and he added to his title that of "King of the Wends and other Slavs." He went on adding to his home kingdom until the dominion of Denmark grew very wide.

That is all we need say about King Knud, but it must be said of Bishop Absolon that he was a wise patron of knightly arts and historical learning and encouraged the great scholar Saxo Grammaticus to write his famous "History of Denmark," in which were gathered all the old Danish tales that could be learned from the skalds and poets and found in the monasteries of the age. Absolon, who had loved and cared for the princes Knud and Valdemar since their childhood, died in the year 1201 and King Knud followed him a few years later, leaving the throne to his brother Valdemar.