Order is the mother of civilization and liberty; chaos is the midwife of dictatorship; therefore history may now and then say a good word for kings. Their medieval function was to free the individual in rising measure from local domination, and to centralize in one authority the power to legislate, judge, punish, mint, and make war. The feudal baron mourned the loss of local autonomy, but the simple citizen thought it good that there should be, in his country, one master, one coinage, one law. Men rarely hoped, in those half-illiterate days, that even kings might disappear, and leave no master but the laws and blunders that men had freely made.
Scandinavia had some remarkable monarchs in the fourteenth century. Magnus II of Sweden organized the conflicting laws of his kingdom into a homogeneous national code (1347). In Denmark Eric IV disciplined the barons and strengthened the central power; Christopher II weakened it; Waldemar IV restored it, and made his country one of the major forces in European politics. But the supreme figure in the Scandinavian dynasties of this age was Waldemar Y daughter Margaret. Married at ten (1363) to Haakon VI of Norway, who was the son of Magnus II of Sweden, she seemed destined by blood and marriage to unite the kindred thrones. When her father died (1375) she hurried to Copenhagen with her five-year-old son Olaf, and persuaded the baronial and ecclesiastical electors to accept him as king and herself as regent. When her husband died (1380) Olaf inherited the crown of Norway; but as he was still only ten, Margaret, now twenty-seven, there too acted as regent. Her prudence, tact, and courage astonished her contemporaries, who were accustomed to male incompetence or violence; and the feudal lords of Denmark and Norway, after dominating many kings, proudly supported this wise and beneficent queen. When Olaf came of age (1385) her diplomacy won for him the succession to the Swedish throne. Two years later he died, and her patient, far-seeing plans for the unification of Scandinavia seemed frustrated by his death. But the royal council of Denmark, seeing no male heir available who could match “Margrete” in ability to maintain order and peace, overrode Scandinavian laws against a woman ruler, and elected her Regent of the Realm (1387). Proceeding to Oslo, she was chosen Regent of Norway for life (1388), and a year later the Swedish nobles, having deposed an unsatisfactory king, made her their queen. She prevailed upon all three kingdoms to recognize her grandnephew Eric as heir to their thrones. In 1397 she summoned the three councils of state to Kalmar in Sweden; there Sweden, Norway, and Denmark were declared to be forever united, all to be under one ruler, but each to keep its own customs and laws. Eric was crowned king, but as he was only fifteen, Margaret continued to act as regent till her death (1412). No other European ruler of the age had so extensive a realm, or so successful a reign.
Her grandnephew did not inherit her wisdom. Eric allowed the Union to become in effect a Danish Empire, with a council at Copenhagen ruling the three states. In this empire Norway declined, losing the literary leadership that she had held from the tenth to the thirteenth century. In 1434 Engelbrekt Engelbreksson led a revolt of Sweden against the Danish hegemony; he gathered at Arboga (1435) a national diet of nobles, bishops, yeomen, and burghers; and this broad-based assembly became, through a continuity of 500 years, the Swedish Riksdag of today. Engelbreksson and Kark Knutsen were chosen regents. A year later the hero of the revolution was assassinated, and Knutsen ruled Sweden as regent, then intermittently as king, till his death (1470).
Meanwhile Christian I (1448–81) began the Oldenburg dynasty that governed Denmark till 1863 and Norway till 1814. Iceland came under Danish rule during Margaret’s regency (1381). The high point of the island’s history and literature had passed, but it continued to give chaotic Europe an unheeded lesson in competent and orderly government.
The strongest democracy in the world at this time was in Switzerland. In the history of that invincible country the heroes are the cantons. First were the German-speaking “forest cantons” of Uri, Schwyz, and Unterwalden, which in 1291 united in a Confederation for mutual defense. After the historic victory of the Swiss peasants over the Hapsburg army at Morgarten (1315) the Confederation, while formally acknowledging the sovereignty of the Holy Roman Empire, maintained a virtual independence. New cantons were added: Lucerne (1332), Zurich (1351), Glarus and Zug (1352), Bern (1353); and the name Schwyz was in 1352 extended to the whole. Encouraged to autonomy by geographical barriers, and accepting French, German, or Italian speech and ways according to the slope of its valleys and the course of its streams, each canton made its own laws, through assemblies chosen by the vote of the citizens. The extent of the franchise varied from canton to canton and from time to time, but all cantons pledged themselves to a united foreign policy and to the arbitration of their disputes by a federal diet. Though the cantons sometimes fought one another, nevertheless, the constitution of the Confederation became and remains an inspiring example of federalism—the union of self-governing regions under freely accepted common agencies and laws.
To defend its liberty the Confederation required military training of all males, and military service, at call, from all men between ten and sixty years of age. The Swiss infantry, armed with pikes and sturdy discipline, provided the most feared and expensive legions in Europe. The cantons, to eke out their income, leased their regiments to foreign powers, and for a time “made Swiss valor an article of merchandise.”9 Austrian overlords still claimed feudal rights in Switzerland, and occasionally tried to enforce them; they were repulsed at Sempach (1386) and Näfels (1388) in battles that merit some remembrance in the records of democracy. In 1446 the Treaty of Constance once more confirmed the formal allegiance of Switzerland to the Empire, and its actual liberty.