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H. E. Marshall

The Beginning of Scandinavia—Denmark and Sweden

W HILE the Northmen were founding new kingdoms in Europe, the countries they had left were also taking shape. But save for a few remarks in the works of ancient writers, nothing is known of Scandinavia in early days. There are indeed many sagas or hero stories of far-off times. But although these are delightful reading, and give a wonderful insight into the habits and customs of the Northmen, they cannot be looked upon as serious history. After the Northmen began to attack Europe, the chronicles of all the countries which suffered from them are full of their dreadful doings. But there are no Scandinavian chronicles of the same period. So we do not know what was happening in the countries whence these pirates came.


England and the Northmen

The first mention we have of a king of Denmark is during Charlemagne's Saxon wars (see Chapter IX). Then more than once Siegfried, King of Denmark, sheltered Wittikind, the great Saxon hero, from the wrath of Charlemagne. But until the end of the tenth century Denmark and the kings of Denmark are of very little account. Up to that time it was the men who left their country in order to raid Europe, and found new kingdoms there, who mattered, and not the kings and country they left behind. So these countries come late into the story of Europe. From the time anything is known of them, they were small, and they were constantly being divided by civil wars. They seemed too insignificant to have any influence on the growth of Europe. Yet in the building up of France, England, and Russia the people of these countries played a great part.

Indeed, all Europe was their battle-field, and where they came they conquered, none daring to attack them in their northern strongholds. Only Germany cast a covetous eye on the northern peninsula, and Henry the Fowler crossed the Eider, and reduced the south of Denmark to a mere province of the Empire.

The Germans would have pushed their conquests further still had not the Viking queen Thyra roused the people, and in three years caused a wall to be built against the invader. Part of this wall may still be seen, and the queen who caused it to be built is known to this day as Thyra Danebod or Dane's Defence. She died not long after the great work was finished, and over her grave the king raised a huge mound and placed a stone upon it with the description, "Gorm the King raised this stone to the memory of Thyra, his wife. Denmark's Defence."

Knut the Great

In the reign of Sweyn Forkbeard, the kings of Denmark begin to be of some European importance. Forkbeard began the conquest of England and of Norway, and his son, Knut the Great, finished his work, and when he died was ruler of a vast northern empire.

When Knut first came to England he was a blood-thirsty pirate, burning and slaying with ruthless cruelty. But as with his countryman Rollo, with power came judgment, and the freebooter was changed into a righteous ruler, the slumbering fires of his barbarian soul only bursting into flames once and again.

Knut was a power in Europe. The greatest rulers of the time, the emperor Conrad II and the pope, he treated as equals, and neither as spiritual nor temporal superiors, and he induced the emperor to restore the land between the Eider and the Danework which had been conquered by Henry the Fowler. Thus the frontiers between Denmark and the Holy Roman Empire were restored as they had been in the time of Charlemagne, and as they were to be for more than eight hundred years. Then at length they were swept away by Prussian aggression.

But the empire of Knut, like the empire of Charlemagne, was held together merely by the will of one man. It could not endure, and when Knut died his empire fell almost immediately to pieces, and England, Denmark, Norway, and Sweden became separate kingdoms.

After Knut the reigns of the kings of Denmark are full of civil wars. In these wars the German emperors constantly took part, for they were anxious to make Denmark part of the Holy Roman Empire. They had good hope of succeeding, for Denmark was more than once divided between rival aspirants to the throne, and the many factions left the country open to the invader. But under Valdamar the Great, Denmark was again united, and became the most powerful of all northern states.

Valdamar and Absalon

In all his undertakings Valdamar was aided by the archbishop of Lund, Axel or Absalon. He was equally great as a soldier, a statesman, and a priest. When Valdamar came to the throne Denmark was wasted by civil war, and made desolate by the attacks of the Wends or Slavs, who lived round the shores of the Baltic. They were a scourge and terror to Scandinavia just as the Northmen had been to the rest of Europe two centuries earlier. Absalon was determined to clear the country of these pirates, and for ten years he fought them. After long struggle he seized their chief fortress, hewed the four-headed wooden god into firewood, and burned his temple. This struck such terror into the hearts of the pirates that the next fortress which Absalon attacked yielded without a blow. He and a few companions marched unscathed through mile-long ranks of Wendish warriors drawn up to receive them, cut the hideous seven-headed idol in pieces, and baptized the whole population at the point of the sword.

Absalon also built a fortress of defence against the attacks of the Wends. This fortress was called Kaupmanna Havn, or Merchant's Haven. To-day it is Copenhagen, the capital of Denmark, and near the spot where Absalon's castle stood his statue may now be seen.

When Valdamar died he had united Denmark, and extended his sway over many Baltic lands, and had earned for himself the title of liberator of his country and preserver of peace. His sons, Knut VI and Valdamar II followed in his steps. They increased their conquests until the Baltic was little more than a Danish lake, and Denmark became important as it had not been since the days of Knut the Great. Even the Holy Roman Empire paid toll to Valdamar II, and his rule extended as far south as Lübeck and Hamburg. But at the height of his greatness a sudden change came over his fortunes and those of his kingdom.

In 1223 he was treacherously seized by one of his German vassals, Henry of Schwerin, and carried away prisoner to the castle of Dannenberg in Germany. Here for two and a half years, in spite of all efforts towards his release, he pined, while his German vassals, following Count Henry's example, rose in rebellion. He only won his release at length by paying a huge ransom, and giving up his Baltic conquests, and the land lying between the Eider and the Elbe.

As soon as he was free Valdamar tried to retrieve his fortunes by the sword, but in the battle of Bornhoved he was utterly defeated. This might be looked upon as one of the decisive battles of history, for it put an end to Danish rule in the Baltic and Danish hopes of a northern empire.

After his defeat, with unusual wisdom, Valdamar thought no more of conquest but turned his attention to the betterment of the land which still remained to him. Thus in the last years of his reign he introduced many reforms and codified the Danish laws.

For a century after the death of Valdamar II Denmark was torn asunder by civil war, and half the kings died by violence. "At the death of Valdamar II," says an old chronicle, "the crown slipped from off the head of the Danes. Henceforward they became the laughing-stock of all their neighbours through civil wars and mutual fury, and the lands which they had honourably won by the sword were not only lost but caused great mischief to the realm and wasted it."

Union of Calmar, 1397

When Valdamar IV came to the throne Denmark had sunk to the lowest point in its history. But under him it rose again for a short time to something nearer its past greatness. When he died he had recovered much of the territory which had been lost during the previous reigns. He was succeeded by his grandson Olaf, whose mother Margaret acted as regent. She was then but twenty-two, but she is one of the greatest figures in Scandinavian history. When in 1387 Olaf died, she adopted her grand-nephew Eric. Through her influence Denmark, Norway, and Sweden were united under him by the Union of Cahalan.


In Sweden serious history begins with the reign of Olaf Skettkonung the Lap-King. He received this name, it is said, because he was still a baby sitting in his mother's lap when his subjects came to do homage to him. He made an alliance with Knut the Great, and it may be that he joined Knut's army when first he invaded England.

Olaf introduced Christianity into Sweden. But for a long time many of the people refused to accept the new religion, and nearly eighty years later we find a Christian king, Inge, being driven from his throne, because he would not sacrifice to heathen gods. "At a thing  (parliament) which the Swedes held with Inge," so runs an old saga, "they offered him two things: either to follow the old faith or give up the kingship. Inge answered and said, 'I cannot reject the faith that is truest.' Whereupon the Swedes raised a cry, pelted him with stones, and drove him forth."

The king's brother-in-law Blotsweyne, so called from blota,  a sacrifice, then usurped the throne, and once more set up the old heathen religion. But in less than three years Inge returned, slew Blotsweyne, and again took possession of the kingdom. With Blotsweyne's death the power of heathendom in Sweden was broken, although the worship of idols did not readily die, and in remote districts it was preserved still for many years. Indeed, Sweden was probably not really Christianized until the reign of St. Eric. He carried his religious zeal as far as Finland, conquering a great part of that country, which remained a dependency of Sweden for six and a half centuries.

During the following hundred years Sweden was cursed with tyrannical and incapable kings. Many of them came to the throne as children, and regents ruled—some well but mostly ill. There were incessant wars, both within the country and without, and these helped to make the nobles powerful and arrogant. They oppressed the people and coerced the king, who was often little more than their henchman.

In 1319 Magnus II was elected king. He was but three years old, and when his grandfather Hakon V of Norway died in the same year he became king of Norway also. But the union was one in name only. When he came of age Magnus utterly neglected Norway, and in 1355 the Norwegians chose his son Hakon as king. His wife was Margaret, daughter of King Valdamar of Denmark.

The reign of Magnus was full of disaster. The Black Death swept Scandinavia, carrying off more than a third of the population. Magnus was involved in debt and disastrous wars, and at length some nobles who had been banished by Magnus offered the throne to his brother-in-law Albert of Mecklinburg.

Then civil war raged. Albert filled the land with German favourites, who oppressed the people, and the people rose against them. German pirates swept the Baltic, and the trade of Scandinavia was ruined.

By this time King Hakon of Norway was dead, and his widow Margaret was regent of both Norway and Denmark. To her the Swedes now appealed for help, and in 1389 Albert was defeated and taken prisoner. But still the war continued, Swedes and Germans fighting with bitter hatred. "In Sweden at this time," says an old chronicle, "there were enemies on all sides, son against father and brother against brother." At length in 1395 peace was made, and Albert was released on condition of paying an enormous ransom. Then in 1397, by the Union of Calmar, Margaret's grand-nephew Eric of Pomerania was acknowledged king of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden.