Post-classical history


The kingdom of Sweden was the last of the Scandinavian countries to become firmly Christianized. Sweden was finally incorporated into the Latin Church with the foundation of the Danish archbishopric of Lund in 1104, although it was only in 1164 that a separate organization for the Swedish church was created with the establishment of a new archbishopric at Uppsala.

This delay explains why the first association of Sweden with the crusade movement was in fact as a target, when, in 1123 or 1124, Niels Svensen, king of Denmark, and Sigurd Jorsalfar, the seasoned crusader king of Norway, planned a joint operation against the alleged pagan population in the peripheral region of Småland. It also explains why we know of no Swedish participation in the First Crusade (1096-1099), launched only a few decades before. In fact, unlike kings in Denmark and Norway, no Swedish king ever went on crusade to the Holy Land or, it seems, made plans to do so. However, some of the later crusades were preached in Sweden (the earliest documentary evidence dates from 1213), while testaments, mainly from the thirteenth century, indicate that individual Swedish aristocrats did make crusading vows to go to the Holy Land and Livonia.

Crusades against Estonia and Finland

Sweden’s participation in the crusading movement was directed against the eastern Baltic region. The principal target was Finland, although initially Sweden was active in other directions, too. Thus, in the 1170s the Swedes were involved in the crusades being planned to support Fulco, whom Pope Alexander III had appointed bishop among the Estonians. The chronicler Henry of Livonia relates that in 1197 a Swedish jarl (earl) planned a campaign together with Germans and Gotlanders against the pagan Curonians but ended up in Estonia after being thrown off course by a storm. Henry also reports that King Johan Sverkersson (1216-1222) led an expedition to western Estonia soon after the Danish conquest of the region of Reval (mod. Tallinn, Estonia) in 1219. The Swedes established themselves in a coastal fortress at Leal (mod. Lihula, Estonia) and attempted to convert the inhabitants, but a year later they were defeated and driven out by the pagan Oeselians.

The Swedes were more successful in Finland, which was incorporated into the Swedish realm over a period of 150 years from around 1150. According to a historiographical tradition founded by the Swedish historian and poet Erik Gustaf Geijer (1783-1847), this occurred as a result of three successive crusades. The “First” Swedish Crusade is known only from the thirteenth-century life of the Swedish king and saint Erik Jedvardsson (d. 1160): according to this source, in 1155/1157 Erik and a bishop named Henry are supposed to have led a crusade to the southwestern area of Finland around Turku (Sw. Åbo). King Erik returned to Sweden only to be killed soon after, while the bishop stayed on in Finland, later to be martyred and venerated as Finland’s patron saint. That the Swedes did in fact establish themselves in the region is confirmed by a papal bull from 1171/1172. It repeats Swedish complaints that the Finns promised to observe the Christian faith whenever they were threatened by an enemy army but denied the faith and persecuted the priests when the army retreated. Therefore, the pope urged the Swedes to force the Finns to observe the Christian creed. At this stage a missionary bishopric for the Finns was established, later to be located at Turku.

The “Second” Swedish Crusade is connected with the later jarl and founder of a new dynasty, Birger Magnusson, who in 1238 or 1239 attacked the Tavastians, a people settled to the east of the Finns proper. By this time the Tavastians must to a certain extent have been subjected to the Swedish church, because in December 1237 Pope Gregory IX quoted an alleged uprising among the Tavastians as a reason for requiring the archbishop of Uppsala to preach a crusade against them. The actual crusade, which must have taken place in 1238/1239, is only known from the so-called Erik Chronicle (Sw. Eriks- kronikan), a Swedish rhymed chronicle written in the 1320s. As a result Tavastia was conquered and the inhabitants forced to accept Christianity. The crusade allowed the Swedes to colonize the coastal region along the Gulf of Finland south of Tavastia, subsequently known as Nyland (New Land). Here it may have replaced earlier Danish settlements.

This crusade to Tavastia was immediately followed by a crusade directed further to the east in 1240, when Birger Magnusson attempted to entrench himself on the river Neva together with a number of bishops and Finns, Tavastians, and perhaps even Norwegians. This was part of the crusades against Russia called for by Pope Gregory IX, but it ended in defeat, when the Swedes were taken by surprise by the Nov- gorodians under Prince Alexander Yaroslavich (Nevskii).

Crusades against Karelia and Novgorod

From this time the Swedish rulers kept their eyes firmly fixed on the trade routes that linked the Gulf of Finland and Lake Ladoga, and after a short-lived alliance against the Mongols between the papacy and Russian princes during the pontificate of Innocent IV, Sweden once more started planning crusades toward the east.

Main areas of Swedish crusading activity in the Baltic Region

Main areas of Swedish crusading activity in the Baltic Region

In 1257 Pope Alexander IV issued a new bull proclaiming a crusade against the Russians, and at the request of King Valdemar Birgersson (1250-1275), he urged the Swedish bishops to preach a crusade against the Karelians, who were then under the rule of Novgorod. That signaled the beginning of a succession of Swedish attacks on Novgorodian Karelia that in their totality have been labeled the “Third” Swedish Crusade. From the 1280s the Swedes began to impose restrictions on trade with Novgorod in order to weaken their enemy, and in 1293 they began to build the fortress of Viborg (mod. Vyborg, Russia), blocking the western outlet of the river Vuoksi that linked Lake Ladoga and the Gulf of Finland. The next year they attempted unsuccessfully to take and hold Kexsholm (mod. Priozërsk, Russia), a strong place in the center of Karelia, situated at the Ladoga end of the Vuoksi.

The most dangerous move for Novgorod, however, was the attempt by the Swedes, with the assistance of engineers from Rome, to establish a fortress with the proud name of Landskrona (“Crown of the Land”) at the Neva delta. That too failed, when Novgorodians, helped by forces from central Russia, arrived the following year and managed to annihilate the garrison and demolish the fortress.

To judge by the dramatic account in the Erik Chronicle, there can be no doubt that the Swedes saw themselves as fighting paganism on behalf of Christianity. Yet they also met with opposition from Orthodox Russians as well as potential western allies. Had the Swedes succeeded in achieving their goal, they would have been able to control a large part of the all-important trade between Novgorod and western Europe. The Swedish restrictions on trade with Novgorod, however, angered the Hanseatic towns. In 1295 the Swedes tried to mollify the merchants by intimating that the war they fought was a holy war and that the pagan Karelians had now been pacified and converted, while Viborg had been built “to the honour of God and the Virgin” [Sverges Traktater, 15 vols., ed. Olof S. Rydberg et al. (Stockholm: Norstedt & Soner, 1877-1934), 1: 310]. This, they tried to persuade the merchants, would also benefit them. The merchants were not convinced, and in 1300 they asked the king of Germany, Albrecht of Habsburg, to pressure the king of Sweden, Birger Magnusson, into abolishing the restrictions.

In 1301 the Novgorodians invited the city of Lübeck to collaborate against the Swedes, and in 1302 the Danish king, Erik VI Menved, who had previously guaranteed the Hanseatic merchants free access to Novgorod through his lands, concluded a treaty with Novgorod. It was clear that major agents of the Latin West gave priority to the interests of trade over Sweden’s crusading efforts, probably on the correct assumption that Swedish policy was also to a large extent guided by economic interests. The war with Novgorod continued in desultory fashion until 1323, when hostilities were ended by the Treaty of Noteborg (Russ. Orekhovets), signed at the fortress the Novgorodians had built in 1322 on an island that blocked the entrance to Lake Ladoga from the Neva.

A contributing factor to Sweden’s inability to strike efficiently against Novgorod after 1301 was the fratricidal war between King Birger Magnusson and his two brothers, dukes Erik and Valdemar. This conflict ended when the king left his brothers to starve to death in prison in 1318, but he was then expelled by the brothers’ supporters, who in 1319 elected Duke Erik’s infant son, Magnus II (1319-1363), as new king of Sweden. The same year Magnus also inherited the Norwegian throne. Until Magnus’s majority, the aristocracy ruled Sweden through a regency, but even later the young king remained strongly under the influence of the aristocracy, not least the circle around the mystic (and later saint) Birgitta Birgersdottir, who was also tutor to the young queen, Blanche of Namur.

During the regency and the first years of Magnus’s personal rule, Swedish attention was directed toward Denmark, at this time without a king. In 1332 the Swedes were able to exploit the situation to purchase Scania, the Danish territory on the southern Swedish mainland. After 1340, when Denmark again had a king, Valdemar IV Atterdag, Magnus II had to fight Denmark in order to safeguard his hold on Scania. For this, however, he was strongly criticized by the ever-more-vociferous Birgitta Birgersdottir. In her visions or revelations, Birgitta claimed to be the mouthpiece of both the Virgin Mary and Christ: several revelations were addressed directly or indirectly to King Magnus, who, instead of waging war against his fellow Christians, was supposed to turn against the pagans in the east. To some extent the Swedes were already active in that region as part of their anti-Danish policy. When Valdemar IV Atterdag ascended the Danish throne, he hardly controlled any part of the realm. His best asset was the duchy of Estonia, which he planned to sell to the Teutonic Order. However, the Swedes were themselves eager to take over the duchy; even if they did not actually incite the uprising that broke out in April 1343 among the Estonians, they at least supported it, and even after the sale to the order went through in 1346, King Magnus still prepared to lay claim to the duchy.

By this time King Magnus was already at work preparing his crusade against Novgorod as urged by Birgitta Birgers- dottir. In a number of revelations she gave specific directions: the king, accompanied by priests and monks who could refute the errors of the pagans and infidels, should first attempt to convince them by peaceful means; only as a last resort should he take to the sword. These directions form the background for the course of events related in the Novgorod Chronicles. According to these, King Magnus started his crusade in 1347 by inviting the Novgorodians to a theological debate that should decide whose faith was best. Each party was to accept the result and then unite in the faith agreed upon as best. If the Novgorodians did not consent to this, King Magnus would attack them. Baffled by this approach, the Novgorodians refused to enter such a debate, referring the king to the patriarch of Constantinople. Consequently, King Magnus immediately pressed on with his attack and managed to capture the island fortress of Noteborg. At once he began to baptize the pagan Ingrians and prepared to do the same among the Karelians. When winter set in, however, the Novgorodians were able to attack Noteborg over the ice and force the Swedes to surrender the fortress. Having toured Estonia and Livonia, soliciting support from the local aristocracy, King Magnus made another attack from Estonia in 1350 but was forced to withdraw. The bulls in support of the crusade issued by Pope Clement VI in March 1351 came too late because King Magnus was already negotiating a peace recognizing the status quo.

The defeat in the Birgittine crusade to all intents and purposes ended Sweden’s participation in the crusading movement, although one later Swedish ruler managed to procure yet another crusading bull against the Russians. For Magnus II, his dynasty, and his kingdom, the defeat also proved a turning point. Whereas Denmark regained its former strength with amazing speed, King Magnus was deposed by the aristocracy in 1363. Sweden was ruled by the dukes of Mecklenburg for a brief spell until they too were expelled with the help of the Danish queen Margaret I. As a result Sweden became part of the Danish-led union of the crowns of Denmark, Sweden, and Norway (the Kalmar Union).

Kings and Queens of Sweden

(in the period of the crusades)

Erik Jedvardsson


Magnus Henriksson


Karl Sverkersson


Knut Eriksson


Sverker II Karlsson


Erik Knutsson


Johan Sverkersson


Erik Eriksson


Knut Långe


Erik Eriksson (again)


Valdemar Birgersson


Birger Magnusson (de facto ruler)


Magnus I Ladulås Birgersson


Birger Magnusson


Magnus II Eriksson (also Norway to 1344) 1319-1363

Albrekt of Mecklenburg


Margaret (also Denmark)


Erik of Pomerania (also Denmark as

Erik VII) 1412-1439

Christopher (also Denmark)


Karl Knutsson Bonde


Christian I (also Denmark to 1481)


Karl Knutsson Bonde (again)


Christian I (again)


Karl Knutsson Bonde (again)


Sten Sture the Elder (regent)


Hans (also Denmark 1483-1513)


Sten Sture the Elder (regent, again)


Svante Nilsson (regent)


Sten Sture the Younger (regent)


Christian II (also Denmark 1513-1523) 1520-1521

During the later fifteenth century part of the Swedish aristocracy wanted to leave the union and repeatedly managed to have its own candidate elected as king or regent. Whenever that happened, the Danish kings attempted to reclaim Sweden for the union, as happened during the regencies of Sten Sture the Elder (1471-1497 and 1501-1503). In 1493 the union king Hans (1481-1513), offering Danish support against Lithuania in return for Russian help to regain Sweden, formed an alliance with the Muscovite grand prince Ivan III (1462-1505), who had by then incorporated Novgorod into the ever-expanding Muscovite state. In 1495 Ivan followed up by attacking Finland on three fronts. This gave Sten Sture the opportunity to procure a last crusading bull against the Russians, which Pope Alexander VI duly provided in 1496. Ironically, the papacy was at the same time trying to involve the Muscovite grand prince in its planned crusades against the Ottoman Turks. Although the Russians were ousted, the papal bull did not help Sten Sture. In 1497 he was defeated by the Danes and had to accept Hans as the King of Sweden.


The importance of the crusades for Sweden is clear from the fact that the acquisition of Finland was almost entirely the result of its participation in the Baltic Crusades. However, in contrast to the Germans, who dominated Livonia and Prussia, the Swedes never endeavored to dominate the local population. A division of the population in Finland into a privileged upper class and a suppressed lower class along ethnic lines similar to the division between Deutsch (German) and Undeutsch (non-German) in Livonia never occurred.

There are few traces of influence of the crusades in Sweden itself. A convent of the Order of St. John was established in Eskilstuna in 1185. Later, in 1262, a commandery of the Teutonic Order, the only one in Scandinavia, was established at Årsta as a result of the testament of Karl Ulfsson, son of jarl Ulf Fase (d. 1248). Karl had decided to join the Teutonic Order after fighting on the losing side against Birger Magnusson in 1251. He was killed in 1260 by the Lithuanians in the battle of Durben. The only other Swede known to have joined the order was St. Birgitta’s brother, Israel Birgersson.

More importantly, it was a crusader king, Erik Jedvards- son, who became Sweden’s patron saint. His cult was instituted by his son Knut Eriksson in 1167, but it was only during the Kalmar Union that it began to prosper, when the saint came to represent Swedish resistance to Danish domination. This dual function as anti-Danish national saint and crusader saint made him extremely useful to Sten Sture in his battle for independence against the Danish-Russian alliance in 1495-1497.

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