Historical Tales: 9—Scandinavian - Charles Morris

The Fortunes and Misfortunes of Valdemar II

Prosperous and glorious was the kingdom of Denmark under Valdemar II. in the early part of his reign, though misery was his lot during many years of his life. By his victories he won the title of "Sejr," or "the conqueror," and his skill and goodness as a ruler won him the love of his people, while the Danes of to-day look upon him as one of the best and noblest of their kings. He was long regarded by them as the perfect model of a noble knight and royal hero, and his first queen, Margrete of Bohemia, was called by the people "Dagmar," or "Day's Maiden," from their admiration of her gentleness and beauty. In many of their national songs she is represented as a fair, fragile, golden-haired princess, mild and pure as a saint, the only sin she could think of to confess on her death-bed being that she had put on her best dress and plaited her hair with bright ribbons before going to mass. While the Danes thus regard the memory of Queen Dagmar, they have no words too bad to use in speaking of Valdemar's second queen, the black-haired Berangaria, whose name became with them a by-word for a vile woman.

But Valdemar's tale is largely one of sorrow and suffering and rarely has monarch had to bear so cruel a fate as was his during many unhappy years of his life.

Valdemar was the son of Valdemar I., and brother of King Knud, for whom as a prince he fought bravely, putting down the Sleswick rebels, who had been stirred to rebellion by the German emperor, and conquering his enemy, Count Adolf of Holstein. Succeeding his brother Knud in 1202, his first exploit was the conquest of Pomerania, which Knud had won before him. This was now added to the Danish dominions, and in 1217 the German emperor of that date granted to him and the future kings of Denmark all the territories north of the Elbe and the Elde. Thus Valdemar was made master of a great part of northern Germany and ruled over a wider dominion to the south than any Danish king before or after.

His success in the south led him to attempt the conquest of the north, and armies were sent to Norway and Sweden with the hope of winning these kingdoms for the Danish crown. In this effort he failed, but in 1219 his zeal for the Church and love of adventure led him to undertake a great expedition, a crusade against the heathens of Esthonia.

Gathering an army of sixty thousand men and a fleet of fourteen hundred ships, a mighty force even for the small craft of that day, he quickly made himself master of that stronghold of paganism, great numbers of the people consenting to be baptized. But here he found a new and unexpected enemy and had to fight fiercely for the privilege of carrying the cross of Christ to the heathen Esthonians.

His new enemies were the Knights of the Sword, of Livonia, who declared that the duty of converting the pagans in that region belonged to them, and that no other Christians had the right to interfere. And from this ensued a war in which fierce battles were fought and much blood was shed, for the purpose of deciding who should have the privilege of converting the heathen. It is doubtful if ever before or since a war has been fought for such a purpose, and the heathens themselves must have looked on with grim satisfaction to see their enemies cutting each other's throats to settle the question as to who had the best right to baptize them.

In one of the battles with the heathens, while Bishop Andreas, the successor to Bishop Absolon, was praying on a high hill with uplifted hands for victory, there suddenly fell down from heaven the Danneborg, the national standard of Denmark. At least, that is what legend tells us of its appearance.

It is held to be much more probable that this banner, bearing a white cross on a blood-red field, was sent by the Pope to Valdemar as a token of his favor and support, and that its sudden appearance, when the Danes were beginning to waver before the pagan assaults, gave them the spirit that led to victory. The result, in those days of superstition, naturally gave rise to the legend.

When Valdemar returned a victor from Esthonia, having beaten alike the pagans and the Livonian knights, and bearing with him the victorious Danneborg, he was at the height of his glory, and none dreamed of the terrible disaster that awaited him. He had made enemies among the German princes, and they conspired against him, but they were forced to submit to his rule. Some of those whose lands he had seized did not hesitate to express openly their hatred for him; but others, while secretly plotting against him, pretended to be his friends, shared in his wars and his courtly ceremonies, and were glad to accept favors from his hands.

One of those who hated him most bitterly, yet who seemed most attached to him, was the Count-Duke of Schwerin, a man who, alike from his dark complexion and his evil disposition, was known in his own country as "Black Henry." The king had often been warned to beware of this man, but, frank and open by nature and slow to suspect guile, he disregarded these warnings and went on treating him as a trusty friend.

This enabled Count Henry to make himself familiar with Valdemar's habits and mode of life. He secretly aided certain traitors who cherished evil designs against the king; but when he found that all these plots failed he devised one of his own which the king's trust in him aided him in carrying out.

In the spring of the year 1233 Valdemar invited his seeming friend to a two days' hunt which he proposed to enjoy in the woods of Lyö, but the count sent word that he regretted his inability to join him, as he had been hurt by a fall and could not leave his bed.

His bed just then was his horse's saddle. The opportunity which he awaited had come, and he spent the night scouring the country in search of aid for the plot he had in view, which was no less than to seize and hold prisoner his trusting royal friend. He knew the island well, and when his spies told him that the king and his son Valdemar had landed at Lyö with a small following of huntsmen and servants, Black Henry prepared to carry out his plot.

The king's first day's hunt was a hard one and he and his son slept soundly that night in the rude hut that had been put up for their use. No one thought of any need of guarding it and the few attendants of the king were scattered about, sleeping under the shelter of rocks and trees.

Late that night Count Henry and his men landed and made their way silently and cautiously through the tired sleepers to the royal hut, which he well knew where to find. Quietly entering, they deftly gagged the king and prince before they could awake, and before either of them could raise a hand in resistance sacks of wool and straw were drawn over their heads, so closely as nearly to choke them, and strong bonds were tied round their legs and arms.

Thus thoroughly disabled, the strong king and his youthful son were carried through the midst of their own people to the strand and laid helplessly in the bottom of the waiting boat, which was rowed away with muffled oars, gliding across the narrow sound to the shore of Fyen. Here waited a fast-sailing yacht to which the captives were transferred, sail being set before a favoring wind for the German coast.

The next morning, when the king's attendants were searching for the missing king, he and his son, still bound and gagged, were landed on a lonely part of the sea-shore, placed on awaiting horses, and tightly secured to the saddles, after which they were hurried on at full gallop, stopping only at intervals to change the armed escort, until the castle of Danneberg, in Hanover, was reached.

This castle had been loaned by its owner to Count Henry, he having no stronghold of his own deemed secure enough to hold such important captives. So roughly had they been treated that when the bonds were removed from Prince Valdemar, who resembled his mother Dagmar alike in his beauty and her feebleness, the blood flowed from every part of his body. Yet, without regard to his youth and sufferings, the cruel captor shut up him and his royal father in a cold and dark dungeon, where they were left without a change of clothing and fed on the poorest and coarsest food.

This, many might say, was a just retribution on King Valdemar, for years before, when as a prince he had put down the rebellion in Sleswick, he had seized its chief leader, his namesake Bishop Valdemar, and kept him for many years in chains and close confinement in the dungeon of Söborg Castle, and had later subjected Count Adolf of Holstein to the same fate. Bishop Valdemar had been released after fourteen years' imprisonment at the entreaty of Queen Dagmar, and was ever after one of the most bitter enemies of the Danish king.

But though a bishop and count might be thus held captive, it is difficult to conceive of a powerful monarch being kept prisoner by a minor noble for three long years, despite all that could be done for his release. Nothing could give a clearer idea of the lawless state of those times. King Valdemar and his son lay wearing the bonds of felons and suffering from cold and hunger while the emperor and the Pope sought in vain for their release, threatening Black Henry with all the penalties decreed by empire and church for those who raised their hands against a prince.

The shrewd captor readily promised all that was asked of him. He would release his captives without delay. Yet he had no intention to keep his word, for he knew that Rome and Ratisbon were too far from Danneberg to give him serious cause for alarm, especially as the other nobles of northern Germany were prepared to help him in keeping their common enemy in prison.

As for Denmark itself, the people were infuriated and eagerly demanded to be led to the rescue of their beloved king; yet Valdemar's sons were still young, all the kinsmen of the royal family had been banished or were dead, and there was no one with the power and right to take control of public affairs.

For some time, indeed, the fate of the king remained unknown to the people. Valdemar's nephew Albert, Count of Orlamunde, was on his way to Rome when the news of the king's capture reached him. He immediately turned back, collected an army, and gave battle to the German princes who were helping Count Henry to defend Danneberg. But his hasty levies were defeated and he taken prisoner, to be thrown into the same dungeon as the royal captive.

Finally King Valdemar, seeing no other hope of release, agreed to the terms offered by Black Henry, which were that he should pay a ransom of 45,000 silver marks, give him all the jewels of the late Queen Berangaria not already bestowed on churches and monasteries, and send him a hundred men-at-arms, with horses and arms for their use. For assurance of this he was to send his three younger sons to Danneberg to be kept in prison with Count Albert until the money was paid.

These terms agreed to, the king and prince were set free. Valdemar at once hastened to Denmark, which he found in a fearful state from its having been three years without a head. Humbled and crushed in spirit, finding all his dominions in Germany set free from their allegiance and all the kingdoms won by his valor lost to Denmark, he scarcely knew what steps to take. The ransom demanded he was unable to pay and he grieved at the thought of subjecting his young sons to the fate from which he had escaped. In his misery he wrote to the Pope, asking to be released from the oath which had been exacted from him to let his children go into captivity.

The Pope, full of pity for him, sent a bishop to Count Henry, telling him that if he tried to enforce the demand exacted under durance from the king of Denmark, he should be deprived of the services of religion and be heavily fined by the papal power for his cruel and unrighteous act. Thus called to account for his treachery and wickedness, Black Henry was forced to forego the final cruel exaction of his traitor soul.

Misfortune, however, pursued Valdemar. When in 1227 the peasants of Ditmarsh refused to pay the tribute they had long paid the Danish crown, the insult to his weakness was more than the king could endure. He marched an army into their lands, but only to find himself defeated and four thousand of his men killed by the rebels, who were strongly aided by the German princes of Holstein, and especially by Count Adolf, his former captive. He himself was wounded in the eye by an arrow which struck him to the ground, and would have been captured a second time but for the aid of a friendly German knight.

This foeman had been formerly in Valdemar's service, and when he saw his old royal master helpless and bleeding, he lifted him to his saddle and carried him to Kiel, where his wounds were healed, means being then found to send him back to his kingdom.

Valdemar remained on the throne for fourteen years afterwards, but these were years of peace. War no longer had charms for him and he devoted himself to the duties of government and to preparing codes of law for the provinces of his kingdom. In that age there were no general laws for the whole country.

The laws of Valdemar continued in force for four hundred and fifty years, and in 1687, when Christian V. framed a new code of laws, some of the old ones of Valdemar were retained. In them the old custom of the ordeal was set aside, being replaced by the system of the jury, one form of which consisted of "eight good men and true" chosen by the king, and another of twelve men chosen by the people. The laws were lenient, for most crimes could be atoned for by money or other fines. Three days after the last of these codes was approved Valdemar died, at the age of seventy-one, leaving three sons all of whom in turn ruled after him. His son Valdemar, who shared his imprisonment, had died long before.