Post-classical history

Magnus II Eriksson of Sweden (1316-1374)

King of Sweden (1319-1363) and Norway (1319-1344) and leader of a crusade against the Russian republic of Novgorod in 1347-1350.

The son of Duke Erik Magnusson, brother of King Birger Magnusson of Sweden, Magnus II inherited the Norwegian throne through his mother at the age of three; the same year, he was elected king of Sweden after a fratricidal war in which his father and uncle were starved to death in prison (1318) by the king, their brother, who was subsequently driven into exile. Until 1332 a regency governed in his name. After attaining his majority he was able to acquire the province of Scania from Denmark by purchase, but he was subsequently forced to fight several wars to safeguard his hold on it.

Magnus was criticized for waging war against fellow Christians by the mystic Birgitta Birgersdottir, who was extremely influential in the aristocratic circles surrounding the king. She urged him to turn against the “infidels and pagans” in the East, by whom she evidently meant both the Orthodox Russians of Novgorod and their pagan subjects in Karelia and Ingria. Birgitta told the king that he should first attempt to convince them by peaceful means. Only as a last resort was he to take to the sword. Before taking military action, therefore, Magnus commenced his “Birgittine” crusade in 1347 by inviting the Novgorodians to participate in a theological debate and then to join the faith that it decided was the better. When the Novgorodians refused to take part, Magnus attacked, capturing the important island fortress of Noteborg (mod. Shlis- sel’burg, Russia) in Novgorodian Karelia. However, when winter set in, the Novgorodians were able to retake Noteborg, and although Magnus made another attempt to attack Novgorod from Estonia in 1350, he was again forced to retreat. By the time Pope Clement VI issued a number of bulls in support of the crusade (1351), Magnus had been forced to conclude a peace that restored the status quo ante.

The defeat of the crusade proved a turning point for King Magnus, who was blamed for the failure for not having followed Birgitta’s advice to the letter. He became the target of a fierce propaganda campaign that eventually led to his dethronement in 1363 and imprisonment in 1365, until he was set free in 1371 by his younger son, Hakon VI, who had succeeded him as king of Norway in 1344.

Magnus’s crusade, however, had a great impact in Novgorod. In the early 1400s a curious text, the so-called Testament of the Swedish King Magnus, was compiled, presumably in Valamo Monastery, and subsequently included in numerous Russian chronicles. This text claimed that rather than dying in the shipwreck that actually ended his life, Magnus was carried by a storm to an Orthodox monastery, which he entered as a monk: there he supposedly wrote a testament admonishing his people not to attack Russia. Thus, in Novgorod, the Swedish crusader-king was transformed into a defender of the Orthodox faith against further crusades and even became the subject of local veneration.

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