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Charles Morris

Birger Jarl and the Conquest of Finland

Birger jarl, who became one of the great men of Sweden about 1250, rose to such importance in the early history of that kingdom that one cannot pass him by without saying something about his career. Sweden was then a Christian kingdom and had been for many years, for the religion of Christ had been preached there, as the sagas tell, four centuries earlier. But heathenism prevailed until long afterwards, and it was not until the days of King Stenkil, who came to the throne in 1061, that an earnest effort was made to introduce the Christian worship. Finally paganism completely died out, and when Birger came to the throne Sweden had long been a Christian realm.

But paganism still had a stronghold in Finland, and when Bishop Thomas, a zealous churchman, of English birth, proclaimed that the Christians should have no intercourse with the pagans in Finland or even sell them food, the Finlanders became so incensed that they invaded the Christian country and put the people to death with frightful tortures. Their cruelties created terror everywhere and Bishop Thomas fled to Gothland where, crazed with horror at the result of his proclamation, he soon died.

King Erik was then on the throne of Sweden, but Birger, the son of a great earl of Gothland, became a famous warrior, and as the king had no sons he made Birger a jarl, or earl, and chose him as his heir. One of the exploits by which Birger had won fame was the following. The town of Lübeck, in North Germany, was closely besieged by the king of Denmark, who had cut it off from the sea by stretching strong iron chains across the river Trave, on which the town is situated. He thus hoped to starve the people into surrender, and would have done so had not Birger come to their rescue. He had the keels of some large ships plated with iron, loaded them with provisions, and sailed up the river towards the beleaguered city. Hoisting all sail before a strong wind, he steered squarely on to the great chains, and struck them with so mighty a force that they snapped asunder and the ships reached the town with their supplies, whereupon the Danish king abandoned the siege. This story is of interest, as these are the first iron-plated ships spoken of in history.

By this and other exploits Birger grew in esteem, and when the Finns began their terrible work in the north he and the king summoned the people to arms, and the old warlike spirit, which had long been at rest, was reawakened in the hearts of the Swedes. The Pope at Rome had proclaimed a crusade against the Finns, promising the same privileges to all who took part in it as were enjoyed by those then taking part in the crusades to the Holy Land, and on all sides the people grew eager to engage in this sacred war.

Then there was brushing and furbishing on all sides; ancestral swords, which had long hung rusting on the walls, were taken down and sharpened anew; helmets and cuirasses were burnished until they shone like silver or gold; tight-closed purses were opened by those who wished to aid the cause of Christ; and old ships were made ready for the waves and new ones launched. Rosy lips were kissed by lovers who would never kiss them again, and loud was the weeping of the maidens and mothers who saw those they loved setting out for the war, but they consoled themselves as best they could by the thought that it was all for the glory of God. Men of Sweden had gone to the crusades in Palestine, but here was a crusade of their own at home, and all were eager to take part in it.

A great fleet was got together and set sail under the command of Birger Jarl. Its course lay up the Gulf of Bothnia, and where it came to land Birger erected a great wooden cross as a sign that he had come for the spread of the Christian faith. From this the place was called Korsholm.

The heathen Finns knew of his coming and had gathered in great numbers to defend their country against its invaders, but nothing could stay the fury of the crusaders, who were incensed with the cruelties these barbarians had committed, and drove them back in dismay wherever they met them, Birger Jarl showing the greatest skill as a leader. He made public a law that all who became Christians should be protected in life and property, and within two years he succeeded in introducing Christianity into that country—perhaps more in appearance than reality. At any rate he built forts, and settled a colony of Swedes in East Bothnia, and thus did much towards making Finland a province of Sweden.

While this was going on King Erik the Lame died (in 1250). As he left no heir there were many pretenders to the crown. The fact that Birger had been named by the king two years before was lost sight of, and it looked as if there would be civil war between the many claimants. To prevent any such result a powerful noble named Iwar hastily summoned an assembly and through his influence Valdemar, Birger Jarl's son, was chosen as king. This was all done so quickly that it was completed in fourteen days after Erik's death.

When the news of this hasty action reached Birger in Finland he was very angry, and hastened home with all speed, bringing with him the greater part of his army. He was highly displeased that he had not himself been named king, as had been promised, instead of a boy, even if the boy was his son. Calling together those who had made the choice of Valdemar, he hotly asked them:

"Who among you was so bold as to order an election during my absence, though you knew that King Erik named me Jarl and chose me for his heir? And why did you choose a child for your king?"

Iwar answered that it was he that ordered the election and said:


Village life and homes in Sweden.

"Though you are indeed most worthy to wear the crown, you are advanced in years and cannot live to rule us as long as your son."

This answer brought another angry outbreak from Birger and Iwar again said:

"If you do not like this, do with your son what you please. There is no fear but we shall be able to find another king."

For a time Birger sat in moody silence, and then asked:

"Who then would you take for your king?"

"I also can shake out a king from under my cloak," was Iwar's haughty answer.

This threw the Jarl into a dilemma. The faces of the people present showed their approval of what Iwar had said, and at length, fearing that if he resisted their action the crown might be lost both to himself and his son, he gave in to their decision.

To give dignity to the occasion, he took steps to have his son crowned with much magnificence, and shortly after sent his daughter Rikissa with great pomp and a rich dower to the frontier of Norway, where she was met by the king of that country and was married with stately ceremony to his son. The next year Birger's mother died, and as there was a prophecy that her family would remain in power as long as her head was up, he had her buried upright, being walled up in a pillar in Bjelbo Church so that her head should never droop.

Birger Jarl belonged to a great family called the Folkungers, who long held all the power in Sweden, and many of whom had been aspirants for the throne. These were so angry at being deprived of what they had hoped for that they determined to take the throne by force, and their leaders went to Denmark and Germany, where they collected a large army. When they landed in Sweden many of the people of that country joined them, and though Birger had also a large force he began to fear the result.

He therefore sent his chancellor, Bishop Kol, to ask for a personal interview with the leaders of the opposite force, with solemn promises of safety. Yielding to the bishop's persuasions, the chiefs accompanied him across the river that separated the two armies. Then Birger did a dastardly act. No sooner had the chiefs come within his power than he had them seized and beheaded on the spot as rebels.

Thus fell a number of the leading men of Sweden, and, the leaders fallen, Birger attacked and easily dispersed their army, sparing the Swedes, but cutting to pieces all the Germans that could be overtaken. Thus he added greatly to the power of his family, but by an act of treachery and perjury for which Archbishop Lars laid upon him a heavy penance. As for Bishop Kol, who had been made the innocent agent in this shameful deed, he never read mass again, and finally resigned his office and left his country, journeying as a pilgrim to the Holy Land in expiation for his involuntary crime. He never found peace and rest until he found them in the grave.

Birger Jarl by these means rose to be the mightiest man in the north. His son was king of Norway, his daughter was queen of Sweden, and his daughter-in-law was a princess of Denmark, for when Valdemar became twenty years of age he sought and won for his bride the beautiful Danish Princess Sophia. The marriage was one of great pomp, a great hall being built for the occasion, where the courtiers appeared in new-fashioned dresses of rich stuffs, and there were plenty of banquets, games, dances, and even tilts and tournaments, all conducted according to the noblest custom of the times.

Birger himself had a queen for his wife, having married the dowager Queen Mechthild of Denmark, and to increase his importance he assumed the title of duke, never before borne in Sweden. But many of the peasants called him king, since he governed the kingdom and was married to a queen. But meanwhile poor Bishop Kol was dying of grief for the deed of shame into which this proud lord had led him.

Shall we here tell an interesting and romantic story about one of Birger's brothers? He was a judge in East Gothland, his name being Bengt, and had fallen deeply in love with a damsel named Sigrid, whose family was not rich nor great, though she herself was so beautiful that she was widely known as Sigrid the Fair.

Duke Birger was not pleased with the idea of such a match, thinking the girl, though of noble birth, of far too lowly rank to mate with a member of his family. But in such things Judge Bengt had a will of his own and he married Sigrid without Birger's consent. This so displeased the proud jarl that he sent Bengt a cloak, half of which was made of gold brocade and the other of coarse and common baize. This was in token of the difference in rank of the families of Bengt and Sigrid and a significant hint that he should separate from his new wife.

But Bengt was equal to the situation. He covered the coarse half of the cloak with gold, pearls and precious stones so as to make it more valuable than the other, and this he sent to his brother with no other answer. This only irritated Birger the more, and he sent back the message, "that he would speak with his brother face to face about this affair," adding some harsh words which were also repeated to Bengt.

Then, soon after this, the angry jarl saddled his horse and rode with a large company to Ulfasa, where Bengt lived. When the judge saw the jarl's train near at hand he fled from his house to the woods, leaving his wife, whom he had carefully instructed how to act, to meet his irritated brother.

When the angry jarl rode into the court, fully prepared to call his erring brother severely to account, he was surprised to see the fairest woman he had ever beheld come forward to meet him. She was adorned with the most costly robes and precious ornaments she could command and everything had been done to enhance the charm of her beauty. Stepping forth before the jarl, who gazed at her with astonishment, she bowed low and welcomed him with all honor and courtesy.

So astonished was Birger with the charming vision that he sprang from his horse and seized Sigrid in his arms, saying, "Had my brother not done this I should have done it myself."

Leading him to the house, she entertained him with the best cheer, and Bengt being sent for to the wood, the two brothers were fully reconciled. Such an effect have the charms of a fair woman over the pride and passion of men.

A few words must serve to finish the story of Birger Jarl. The greatest and most valuable service of his reign lay in the new laws he gave the country and his doing away with many of the old barbarian customs to replace them with the customs of civilization.

Before this time it was the common practice for the relatives of a murdered man to avenge him on the family of the murderer, thus giving rise to long and bloody feuds. This custom Birger forbade, ordering every one to seek redress for injury at the courts of justice. He also passed four Laws of Peace, viz.: for the Peace of the Church, of Women, of House, and of Assize.

Every one was forbidden to assault another in the church or the churchyard or on the way to or from church. Whoever did so was declared out lawed, and if the assailed man killed his assailant he was held free from blame or revenge. This was the Peace of the Church.

Another ancient custom was to carry away a desired bride by force, without her consent or that of her parents, a fight often arising in which the bride's father and brothers were killed. Or on the way of an affianced pair to church the same outrage might take place, the bridegroom being often killed. This, too, was forbidden under penalty of outlawry, the new law being that of Peace for Women.

To promote general security he forbade, under the same penalty, the attacking of any man, his wife, children, or servants, within his house or on his property. This was the Law of Home-peace or House-peace. All violence was in like manner forbidden to any one going to or attending an assembly of the people, this being the Peace of Assize.

Birger Jarl improved the laws in many other ways and made Sweden a far more civilized country than it had been before his time. Another of his useful acts was the founding of the city of Stockholm, which before his day was a mere village on an island, but which he made a stronghold and city, inviting that commerce to which its situation so excellently adapted it. This was one of the most important acts of Birger Jarl, who died soon afterwards, not living to see the rapid growth in importance of his new city.