Post-classical history

Chapter Eighty-Six


The Union and Disunion of Kalmar

Between 1387 and 1449, Margaret of Denmark unites all three Scandinavian kingdoms, but the confederation barely outlives her

NORTH OF THE BALTIC SEA, the three kingdoms of Denmark and Norway and Sweden had not yet played a leading role in the world’s affairs.

The Scandinavians had lived in the cold northern lands since far before the eighth century. The ancient chronicler Paul the Deacon made a note of their dilemma: they had “grown so great a multitude that they could not now dwell together.” Some of them had gone to Lombardy, northern Italy, where they had added their own blond and blue-eyed presence to the Italian mixing bowl. Others had crossed the Baltic Sea and built trading posts, founding Rus’ villages along the rivers and streams. Still others had set sail as marauding pirates into the Frankish and British lands, where they become known as Vikings.

But many had remained in their native lands, where they coalesced into kingdoms of the Suetidi, the Dani, and the Hordar: the Swedes, the Danes, and the Norse. The Norse had been united under Harald Tangle-Hair around ad 900 and afterwards had sent ships westward to colonize Iceland and Greenland. The Danes had claimed England for a time; the Swedes, cowed by the Danes, had been allies of the Danish and English kingdoms.*

Denmark and Sweden had held on to the old warrior-clan tradition of electing their kings, although the kings were usually elected from the royal families; Norway alone had developed a line of succession from father to son. Alike in their ways, slowly diverging in their languages, the three Scandinavian kingdoms had separated and reunited like partners dancing a reel.

In 1319, Sweden and Norway had been tied together in a brief and uneasy personal union when Magnus Ericsson, elected king of Sweden, also inherited the rule of Norway from his grandfather. Neither the Swedes nor the Norse were content under the combined crowns, and after multiple uprisings and revolts, Magnus was forced to pass the throne of Norway to his son Haakon in 1355; then, in 1364, he lost the throne of Sweden as well, when the Swedish nobles invited his cousin Albert to become king instead.

Dispossessed, Magnus Ericsson took refuge with Haakon in Norway, drowning in a shipwreck some ten years later. The personal union had been shattered, but Haakon had already laid the groundwork for a second confederation; he had married the Danish princess Margaret, daughter of Valdemar IV of Denmark (whose only son had died young). Margaret bore Haakon a single son, Olaf. When Valdemar IV died, in 1375, five-year-old Olaf was elected king of Denmark by the Danish electors, the Danehof, with his Danish mother as his regent; and when Haakon then died prematurely, in the summer of 1380, ten-year-Olaf became king of Norway by right of inheritance.

Once again the trilogy of kingdoms had been shuffled into a new arrangement. Sweden was now separate under Albert, Denmark and Norway linked in personal union. But like his father, Olaf died early. The teenaged king passed away in 1387, leaving his mother Margaret (who had not yet stepped down as his regent) as de facto ruler of both Norway and Denmark.

Neither country had any way to recognize a female sovereign, but Margaret now set out to do what no previous king had managed to achieve: the union of all three countries under a single crown.

She already held power in Norway and Denmark; she just needed to convince both countries to keep her on the throne. The Danehof, meeting after young Olaf’s death, agreed to continue to recognize her as regent; she was, after all, the only surviving child of Valdemar IV, and they were inclined to keep the crown within the royal family. They had no title for a woman holding such a position, so Margaret was known by the stopgap appellation “All-Powerful Lady and Mistress.”1

Norway, with its tradition of blood succession, took a little longer to decide. To boost her claims there, Margaret adopted a son and heir: her dead older sister’s grandson Eric, a child of five. The year after her recognition by the Danehof, Margaret was acclaimed as ruler of Norway as well.2

That left Sweden.

Albert of Sweden, brought to the throne by a majority of electors, had never gained the full allegiance of the noblemen in the west of his country. These men had preferred Magnus Ericsson; they had felt an affection for his son Haakon and grandson Olaf, and now were ready to offer their loyalty to Margaret. When Albert incautiously tried to commandeer noble-held lands and castles for his own use, their opposition to his rule crystallized.


86.1 Genealogy of Margaret and Eric.

A secret treaty, sworn out in January of 1388, promised Margaret the use of a series of castles and fortresses across Sweden, as well as recognition of the queen of Norway and regent of Denmark as “All-Powerful Lady and Rightful Mistress of Sweden.” In exchange, Margaret pledged to protect “the rights, freedoms, and privileges” that the Swedish aristocrats had enjoyed “before King Albert came to Sweden”; even more important, she promised to restore to Sweden all lands that had been filched by Denmark and Norway over the past decades, returning the country to its old boundaries.3

Albert had nothing but scorn for his opponent, whom he nicknamed “Queen Breechless.” But when Danish and Norse troops marched into Sweden, the country dissolved into civil war. “Ill stood the realm,” a contemporary rhyming chronicle laments,

One brother slew another

And sons moved against father

No one asked after law or right

For some they held to the king

And some the queen would follow.4

The war was violent but brief. In February of 1389, on a plain east of Falköping, Margaret’s army defeated Albert’s men in straight battle. Albert himself was taken prisoner. Unfamiliar with his surroundings, he had ridden out onto a frozen marsh and fallen through. Margaret, who had not appreciated her new nickname, ordered him crowned with a fool’s cap and taken back to the Danish castle of Lindholm; there he would remain imprisoned for the next six years.


86.1 The Scandinavian Kingdoms

Most of the country was now Margaret’s, but the city of Stockholm, loyal to Albert, held out until 1395. When it finally surrendered, Margaret could claim to be ruler of all three Scandinavian countries. She intended to keep them together and pass them to Eric as a single block, so she ordered a constitution drafted that would formalize their union. All three kingdoms would be “eternally united” under a single king; each would keep its own laws and customs; each was obligated to fight to defend the other two; and foreign alliances made by one would bind all three.5

On June 17, 1397, this constitution was signed by aristocrats from all three countries in a ceremony at Kalmar. Young Eric was crowned king of a unified Scandinavia, but his great-aunt Margaret—forty-five years old, the wife of a king since the age of ten, ruler of two countries for the last decade—was the real sovereign.

FIFTEEN YEARS after the death of the queen’s son Olaf, a penniless stranger arrived in the Teutonic state of Prussia, where he took up residence in a small village near Graudenz. The contemporary Prussian historian Johann von Posilge records the event: “Here he was discovered by some merchants who asked him whether he was well-known in Denmark,” he writes, “since he looked very much like King Olaf. He said that he was not the king. Then they left him but returned with some other men and addressed him as their lord, the King of Denmark and Norway.”6

How the merchants knew, fifteen years after the fact, what Olaf looked like is a fair question. Posilge doesn’t say, but the rest of the story suggests that the “merchants” may in fact have been native schemers, attempting to mount an upset to Margaret’s power. They took the man to the coastal city of Danzig and “showed him great honor,” setting up a court for him, giving him everything he wanted, and even making a seal for him. The mysterious stranger, possibly weak-minded, embraced his new identity and agreed to send Margaret a message, reclaiming his crown.7

The inevitable discovery took place as soon as he was brought into the queen’s presence. “He was shown to be false in every respect,” Posilge explains, “since he was neither born in the kingdom nor was able to speak the language” (something the conspirators should possibly have considered ahead of time). Unmasked, he confessed that he was actually a native of northern Hungary and that he had accepted his new identity only because the people of Danzig had heaped him with honors.8

Queen Margaret condemned him to death. In the international marketplace in the southern province of Scania, he was burned at the stake, forced to hold all the letters he had sent to the queen in his arms as he died.

THE UNION OF KALMAR had brought the countries together, but the document could not paper over the rifts between them.

On December 8, 1405, Margaret’s ward Eric married the daughter of Henry IV of England in Westminster Abbey. Philippa was eleven years old; Eric, aged twenty-four, was not even present. The royal wedding was carried out with a proxy in his place.

The ceremony made the match legal, but Philippa did not leave England until the following summer. She met her husband for the first time when she arrived in her new country; the marriage was celebrated for a second time in Sweden’s Lund Cathedral on October 26, 1406. Two hundred and four of Philippa’s attendants were present, brought by her from England as part of her household; an inventory of her trousseau that survives notes that their robes were trimmed with a total of 23,762 squirrel pelts.9

The alliance with England should have completed the transformation of Eric into the position of one of the premier monarchs of Europe. But he possessed neither Margaret’s energy nor her political savvy. After her death, in 1412, he overtaxed and undergoverned the Union, and his popularity began a slow and steady decline.

In 1434, open revolt started in Sweden; another armed rebellion broke out in Norway in 1436. Eric turned out to have little stomach for war. In 1438, he took the royal treasury and fled to the island fortress of Gottland.10

In Denmark, a new king was elected: the son of Eric’s sister, Christopher of Bavaria. He was a young and inexperienced ruler, and his acclamation meant that control of the country actually fell into the hands of the Danish nobles. Eventually Sweden agreed to recognize his kingship as well. Norway followed, last of the three; Christopher never even visited the country after his coronation.11

He then died after eight years of rule, leaving neither sons nor any memorable deeds behind him. Now the Union ruptured. Sweden elected the aristocrat Karl Knutsson, who had led the fighting against Eric during the original revolt; the Danes elected one of their own, Christian of Oldenburg, instead. The Norwegians were split in three; some wanted to elect a native ruler from the extended family of Haakon, others favored the Swedish king, and still others the Danish ruler.

Ultimately, the Danish party won out, and Norway and Denmark submitted to a single crown. But the Swedes remained apart and hostile; Margaret’s grand accomplishment had lasted only a single generation after her death.


*Bauer, The History of the Medieval World, pp. 237, 396–397, 427, 522ff.

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