Home DH-Debate
29. Erik Ejegod
31. Erik Emune

30. Denmark's History - Niels the Old

Introduction - Niels the Old - Knud Lavard - Niels as King of Denmark - The Murder in Haraldsted Forest - The Civil War - Archbishop Asser - Niels' Wife and Children - King Niels' Death and Burial - Links and Litterature -

Introduction

Niels was elected king of Denmark in 1104 because he was the oldest of Sweyn Estridson's many sons, who were still alive.

Niels den Gamle
Left: A granite head found in Ribe, which probably represents King Niels. During excavation at Ribe Cathedral, the Southwest Jutland Museum found a head of granite 21*20 cm in layers from around 1150. It has got a bad treatment, the nose is chopped off and the head is detached from a larger context. The sculpture has been almost new when it ended up in the garbage dump. Thus, as it is a deliberate destruction, the head does not represent Jesus or other holy persons. This is a king with a crown adorned with a cross and precious stones. It probably adorned the first stone church in Ribe, completed in the year 1134, the same year as the Battle of Fodevig and the killing of King Niels in Slesvig. After Erik Emune's takeover of power, it may not have been popular to exhibit a figure depicting King Niels. Niels has the typical hanging mustache, which his brother Erik Ejegod also has on the sculpture above the cat-head cathedral door in Ribe Cathedral. It seems to have been popular in the 1100's.
Right: American wrestler Hulk Logan with his typical hanging moustache.
From Southwest Jutland Museum and Pinterest.

In the 28 years that have passed since the death of Sweyn Estridson, the noblemen had consistently chosen the eldest of the sons of the old king as kings, one after the other, as they and the sons had sworn at the deathbed of Sweyn. Probably they feared the chaos that might arise from the rivalry between Sweyn's many talented and ambitious sons if they did not follow this principle.

Niels ruled Denmark for 30 years, from 1104 to 1134, most of the time in peace, freedom and prosperity. But in January 1131, hell broke loose - precisely because of the rivalry between royal candidates that the noblemen had feared.

Niels' son, Magnus the Strong, killed Erik Ejegod's son, Knud Lavard, in Haraldsted Forest. Both Magnus and Knud were talented and promising young men, loved by the people, but they were also very ambitious, and this started the civil war that would effectively last until Knud Lavard's son ascended the throne in 1157 as Valdemar the Great.
Royal dynasties throughout the history of Denmark
Royal dynasties throughout the history of Denmark. Except Magnus the Good all kings descended from "Hardegon, son of a certain Sven", who conquered a large part of Jutland in 917. But it gives a good overview to divide the line of kings series and thus the history of Denmark into manageable sections.
The Knytlinge line got its name from Hardecnudth, son of Hardegon. He is called Knud 1. and was probably Gorm the Old's Father. Magnus the Good in 1047 was the son of the Norwegian Olav the Holy; his reign forms a transitional period to the rule of Sweyn Estridson, his sons and grandsons.
The warring kings, Svend, Knud and Valdemar in 1157, were all grandsons of Sweyn Estridson; their time appears as an interregnum to the Valdemars' era.
Many historians, probably most, include only Valdemar 1. the Great, his son Knud 6. and Valdemar 2. Sejr in the Valdemars. But one cannot claim such a definition, and it seems natural and appropriate for the author also to include their direct male descendants - including Erik 4. Plovpenning, Abel and Christoffer 1. - until Christoffer 2. who was the last king before time withouta king in 1340.
Valdemar 4. Atterdag was not king of the Kalmar Union, but that his grandson Oluf became, and Valdemar's daughter Margrete 1. was Queen of the Scandinavian Union. One can say - with a little good will - that Valdemar Atterdag rebuilt Denmark and created the basis for the Kalmar Union with Norway and Sweden.
The early Oldenburg kings were also Union kings, but only for short periods.
The Civil War, the Count's Feud, in 1536 represents an important turning point in the history of Denmark. As a result of the Lutheran Reformation, the kings took possession of the third part of Denmark's agricultural land that belonged to the church. This immense wealth made it possible to overcome the old nobility and create the absolute monarchy that was a major cause of Denmark's historic decline. In 1848, a democratic constitution was introduced without violent episodes.
With the childless Frederik 7, the Oldenborg line became extinct in 1863. The throne was then transferred to Christian 9 of Glucksborg.

Sweyn Estridson was followed by five of his sons and then a grandson and a son of Erik Ejegod's daughter Sweyn Estridson was succeeded as king by five of his many sons, one after the other. After them came Erik Emune, son of Erik Ejegod, and Erik Lam, son of Ragnhild, who was a daughter of Erik Ejegod. It was Erik Ejegod, who led Gorm the Old and Sweyn Estridon's lineage to be kings for generations to come.

Niels the Old

Originally, his name must have been Niklas or Nikles. Aelnoth calls him Nicolaus. Only during the later middle Age, the name was changed into Niels.

It was Svend Aggesen who gave Niels the byname "the Old": "Now came the brother Niels, whom they called the Old because he sat on the throne of Denmark for over 30 years." But another explanation for the byname may be that there were two kings, and Niels was the older of them. Just as it is said in some sources that Harold Bluetooth was co-king with his father Gorm for a long time, and therefore his father was called Gorm the Old as he was the elder of the two kings.

Sweyn Estridson died on April 1076, so his son Niels must have been born latest this year, probably some years before.

Swords from the 1100's
Swords from the 1100's. Above from Kolindsund west of Grenaa, in the middle and bottom from Dragtrup at Soeborg Lake. Note the typical disc on the handle (counterweight). The swords were originally about 90 cm long, the double-edged blades have traces of inscriptions with silver inlay. The sword in the middle has the inscription IN NOMINE DOMINE, in the name of God. Foto krigsvidenskab.dk.

Niels volunteered to take his brother Oluf Hunger's place as a hostage in Flanders in 1086. It's hard to imagine a 10-year-old boy as such a hostage, we can think he must have been at least a young man of maybe 16 -18 years, which means that he may most likely have been born latest in 1069 - some believe 1065 - and therefore he must have been around 35-39 years old, when he was elected king in 1104.

Saxo praises Niels' for his accountability by agreeing to be a hostage in Flanders instead of his brother Oluf: "In order to get him back so he could take over the kingdom, they had to agree to pay a sum of money and put Niels, who was both his and Canute's brother, as a hostage to his release. After all, it was no small testimony of brotherly love."

Erik Ejegods sons
Erik Ejegod's three sons. Harald Kesja was the oldest. Knud Lavard was born within wedlock, which gained increasing importance throughout the Middle Ages. He got Erik Emune with a less distinguished mistress. The noblemen pushed them all aside in favor of Niels and the principle that Sweyn Estridson's sons should inherit the throne by age.

The Roskilde Chronicle characterizes Niels as a gentle and acquiescent personality who was not fit to be a king: "When his death (Erik Ejegod's) was rumored, the Danes took his brother Nils as a king; he was a good-natured and simple man, but by no means fit to rule". It is followed by Knud Lavard's Saint Description: "He put the weak King completely in the shadow".

It can be said that from the beginning King Niels should have faced Knud Lavard's dual role as Danish border earl and imperial duke at the same time, and not waited until the problem had grown big. Niels has probably been soft-hearted just like his famous father, Sveyn Estridson.

But, he must be judged on his deeds. Niels ruled Denmark for 30 years, of which the first 26 years were mainly in peace, freedom and prosperity. Therefore, we must believe that he was a good king, however, taken over by fate in the form of the civil war, which started with the killing of his nephew, Knud Lavard, in Haraldsted Forest in 1131.

The murder of children in Bethlehem at the Broddetorp altar
The murder of children in Bethlehem on the golden altar in Broddetorp. The swords are of the same type as above. Photo Szilas/gallery Wikimedia Commons.

Saxo, who wrote his famous history of Denmark only half a century later, recounts that both his father and grandfather had served as warriors under the murdered Knud Lavard's son, King Valdemar the Great. Yet he does not condemn Niels as a weak or bad king. On the contrary, he praises King Niels' kindness and selflessness: "When Niels came to the throne, he was far from becoming arrogant, on the contrary, he did not give up any of his former kindness, but in every way continued to act as he had hitherto been customary, for he did not let his mind change by the success he had, and would not allow to be said about him that he adjusted his behavior after his success, but rather that to adjusted his success after his behavior. In order not to burden the country with a costly troop of household guards and great expenses, he satisfied in daily life with a guard of only six or seven men just to be safe for thieves and robbers, and the splendor he unfolded as a king did not exceed what was indicated by the size of his household guard."

Also Aelnoth, who was a contemporary of King Niels, praises his kindness, wisdom and patience: "As Your Highness's gentleness is disgusted by the naughty, the ignorant and the abominable, so it is honored by every right-thinking and right-acting man, not only in outward speech but also with awe of honor, taking into account the present with tact and wisdom as well as the coming."

Knud holds the stirrup for King Niels
Knud Lavard was sued for wrongfully acquiring the name of king. When King Niels arrived at the scene, Knud received him reverently in German way by meeting him without a robe and reverently holding the stirrup for him. Drawing by Louis Moe.

In Saxo's description of the meeting on the ting between King Niels and Knud Lavard, who was accused of having unlawfully assumed the title of king, Knud addresses King Niels as follows: "You act sinfully, Father, who excites yourself, who is otherwise so balanced" - "It pains me to a great extent to see your otherwise so undisturbed calmness brought to an uproar that otherwise lies so remote to you, so to speak, that you are completely out of yourself."

King Niels had a strong physique. He actively participated in the Battle of Fodevig in 1134. This year he must have been about 65 years old, and he was still able to ride and carry weapons.

Knud Lavard

Another very important person in the fateful events of the first half of the 1100's is Knud Lavard, Erik Ejegod's son with his queen Bodil.

Robert of Ely's Saint Depiction from around 1135 says that Knud Lavard was born in Roskilde to St. Gregory's Day - which is March 12 - in the Father's first years of reign. If Knytlinge Saga speaks the truth, he may have been born in 1097, As Erik first had to wage war in Venden, where he found Queen Bodil, and then she had to endure the mandatory nine months.

Mural painting representing Knud Lavard in Vigersted Church at Ringsted
Mural painting representing Knud Lavard in Vigersted Church at Ringsted. During his son Valdemar the Victorious' government, Knud Lavard was elevated to a saint, so that there now were two Danish saints, both named Knud, namely Knud King and Knud Duke.

When his parents left for the Holy Land in 1103, he may have been about 6 years old. Saxo tells that Knud's father placed him in the care of Skjalm Hvide on Sjaelland, and he was raised there: "(Skjalm Hvide) he assigned to raise Knud", and "As Skjalm Hvide's sons, who had a very familiar relation with Knud because they had been raised together."

Helmold's Chronicle of the Slavs tells that Knud stayed for several years at the Emperor Lothar's court: "But when Cnut came of age he went to the emperor Lothar because he feared that he could easily be overpowered by the craft of his uncle, and he stayed with the emperor many days and years, being accorded all the honor that became his royal station." That sounds very likely, as he became fond of everything German. If the Knytlinge Saga speaks true, he was even - through his mother Bodil - family-related to Emperor Lothar. But when he left Sjaelland to go to the Emperor's court, and when he came back, it is uncertain.

Emperor Lothar was childless. Helmold tells: "By the message of the death of Knud, Emperor Lothar and his wife Rikenza were seized with very deep sorrow, because the fallen had with such great benevolence strongly attached himself to the Emperor and the Empire."

At one point in Niels' reign - many historians agree that it was in 1113 - the Danish army suffered a humiliating defeat by a Slav army led by Henrik Godskalkson in a battle at Lutke on the Baltic coast between Kiel and Lubeck, because the Jarl of Slesvig had taken bribes and did not come with the cavalry as he had been ordered. Jarl Ejlif was deposed and convicted of treason.

But now King Niels lacked an earl in Slesvig to guard Denmark's southern border. Saxo suggests that it took some time before a new earl was appointed. The choice fell on his brother's son, Knud, who then must have been about 18-19 years old.

Knud Lavard grave in Sct. Bendt's Church in Ringsted
Knud Lavard grave in Sct. Bendt's Church in Ringsted. It was not until 1168 that he was elevated by Pope Alexander III to be a Catholic saint.

Knud was Duke of Slesvig, as he called himself, in about 26 years, until his death in 1141 in Haraldsted Forest.

Knud Lavard was married to Ingeborg of Novgorod. Together they had three daughters and a son, who was born shortly after his death. The daughters were named Kirsten, Margrethe and Katrine and the son was named Valdemar after Ingeborg's grandfather, Vladimir, the great prince of Kiev.

The young Knud was by all accounts an intelligent and determined young man. As soon as he was put in charge of defending the southern border of Denmark, he arranged the ramparts and palisades in the city of Slesvig, at the entrance to the fjord Slien and on the defense dike Danevirke to be improved, and he surprisingly attacked the Slavic tribes with rapid cavalry raids.

Helmold's Chronicle of the Slavs states that Knud made peace in the country: "And the peace-loving man began to make peace in the country, and he removed the wandering men. He especially did much good for the people of Slesvig. But it happened that some robbers were arrested on the moor between Sli and Ejder, and they were brought before Knud. When he had sentenced them to be hanged, one of them, who would save his life, shouted that he was related to him and was a descendant of Danish kings. To him, Knud said, it would certainly be disgraceful to treat our relative as we treat others. We must exalt him above the others. And he commanded that he should be hanged in a tall ship's mast."

Knud was fond of unconventional strategies, titles and clothing. He preferred to use the German title, Duke, instead of the old Danish title, Jarl. He explained to King Niels: "My men call me Lavard or master, not king". Lavard has the same meaning as the English Lord, meaning the master or the bread-giver.

He was undoubtedly kind, self-conscious, quick in the reply, and most likely a handsome man. But all men rival for women's love and that kind of thing are not forgiven so easily. As Saxo writes: "Those, who in any way were Magnus' relatives, envied Knud his good fortune, for nothing creates more envy than one, who is thought to be one's equal, surpasses oneself in virtues."

Henrik Skadelaar is mocking Knud Lavard's suit
Henrik Skadelaar is mocking Knud Lavard's suit at Magnus and Richita's wedding at Riberhus. Drawing Louis Moe.

Saxo says that when Niels's son Magnus the Strong celebrated his wedding with the Polish princess Richitza at Riberhus, Knud had an exchange of views with his cousin Henrik Skadelaar: "When Knud arrived dressed in Saxon fashion and more handsomely than anyone else, Henrik, who could not stand foreign splendor, disliked it and initiated a quarrel with him. Purple cloths did not protect against swords, he said, to which Knud replied that they protected just as well as a lambskin shirt". Henry's byname "Skadelaar" means "damaged thigh" and came from the fact that he was lame as his grandfather, Sweyn Estridson, and also his grandfather, Thorgils Sprakeleg.

Some time after, Henrik Skadelaar's wife ran away with a young lover. He found her in Aalborg and forgave her. The lover escaped, but Henrik was completely convinced that Knud was behind the whole affair. Saxo says: "In those days, Henrik Svendson's wife, who had developed the biggest disgust in her life with her husband, escaped from him one night disguised as a man. It is said that a young man who, by his will to please her, cleverly had won her highest favor granting him her love and so that they should not fail, had seduced her to dress in man's clothes and secretly abducted her. The husband followed her track and found her in Aalborg in her usual clothes; her lover escaped, and then he brought her back home again. He believed, however, that Knud was secretly behind this disgraceful deed, and had since secretly nourished a grudge against him, though he was completely innocent." Henrik Skadelaar later had a key role in the conspiracy, which took Knud's life in Haraldsted Forest.

South of Slesvig and Ejder lived the Slavic tribe the Abodrittes led by King Henrik Godskalkson. He was the son of King Godskalk and Sweyn Estridson's daughter Sigrid; Henrik Godskalkson was thus Knud Lavard's cousin. King Henrik claimed that he had not received his maternal inheritance, and demanded that it be paid by King Niels. For this reason, his pirate ships constantly threatened the Danish coasts. Saxo writes: "The land between the Elbe and Slesvig was so ravaged by Henrik that it lay completely uncultivated."

Henrik Godskalkson flees when Knud Lavard surprises him in his fortified city
Henrik Godskalkson flees when Knud Lavard surprises him with a quick cavalry raid. Drawing by Louis Moe.

Saxo tells that: "Shortly after Knud took over the leadership of Slesvig, he sent envoys to Henrik with the message that he would like to make peace with him if he would replace the damage he had done to Jutland and return the prey, he had taken." - "When the envoys had departed, he gathered, as if he knew in advance what answer he would get, not only his own people but also those of his neighbors." When Knud had received the negative response: - "he immediately left the same night in the greatest haste, but as quietly as possible, abstaining from all ravaging and looting because it should no be told that he was on his way, and reached at dawn the fortified city where Henrik stayed. He, who was not prepared to such a sudden attack, did neither manage to seize his weapons nor make other preparations for defense." However, Henrik managed to escape. "Now, Knud first ravaged the fortified city and then the whole area. And he came for a second time with fresh fighting forces and brought fire and sword throughout Venden."

After some time, the two cousins came to an understanding and concluded a settlement. Knud worked out that Henrik was paid his inheritance, and Henrik decided that Knud: "should inherit Venden after him, and he sealed the decision with his oath. He also did this for the reason that he was afraid that his sons' power would not be enough for going to war with the Germans, who greatly tormented the Slavs in Venden, and he would rather insert a man of proven bravery as his heir."

Battleax from the 1100's
Battleax from the 1100's. The ax was still a popular weapon in Denmark, as it had been in the Viking Age. Photo krigsvidenskab.dk

In his Chronicle of the Slavs, however, Helmold reminds us that Venden was an imperial fief and that the ruler there should swear allegiance to the Emperor: "Now, he came to think that the position as the prince of Venden was vacant. Henrik was dead, and his sons were gone. Then he went to Emperor Lothar and bought the Obodrite kingdom for a great deal of money, all the power that Henrik had. And the emperor put a crown on his head to make him king of the Obodrites, and showed him great honor."

This is confirmed by Saxo: "As Venden was under the emperor's supremacy, he now urged him to seek to win his favor, as it was a very important precondition, and Knud then sent as a gift to the Emperor a horse, which had been shoed with shoes of gold."

Knud Lavard had two masters, only one of whom was the Danish king - the other was the Emperor. It may have been this that plagued King Niels and his son Magnus the Strong and led to the killing in Haraldsted Forest.

Niels as King of Denmark

King Niels' army of war
King Niels' army of war. Drawing by Louis Moe.

Saxo expressly states that Niels was elected to Isoere Ting in 1104: "Ordinary Danish ting was now held at Isoere, and the crown was awarded to Ubbe because he was the oldest. Niels, whom it was thought would be regrettable to this, expressed very much his satisfaction of the choice of the ting, for it had always been custom among Sweyn Estridson's sons to follow each other on the throne according to age so that it was inherited from the elder to the younger."

Memorial stone for Niels the Old
Memorial stone for Niels the Old and Harald Hen at Langesoevej in Isoere. The text says: "At Isoere Ting, Harald Hen was elected in 1076 and Niels in 1104". Photo Elgaard 2011 Wikimedia Commons.

But Ubbe refused to take on the duties of a king: "Ubbe, however, did not think highly of his own skills, and, recognizing his meager gifts, he refused taking up so heavy a burden upon his shoulders, and assured that the brother was the most worthy of taking on this office." Then the noblemen chose Niels as king, and probably he was afterward hailed on the county tings following old custom.

Robert of Elgin from Scotland claims in a Knud Lavard saint description, which was written before Saxo's time that Niels won the crown by bribe. It probably covers that Niels and Ubbe had agreed in advance which of them should be king.

Henrik Godskalkson was king of the Western Slavic area called Venden, he was the son of Godskalk and Svend Estridson's daughter, Sigrid. He believed that Niels had denied him his mothers legacy, and so he waged war against the Danes and plundered along the coasts. To calm him down King Niels ordered leding in 1113 and went ashore at Lutke in Wagrien between Kiel and Lubeck.

The border earl of Slesvig, Ejlif, had been ordered to meet him with the cavalry; but he had received money from Henrik and only sent a messenger with excuses.
A Crusade against the heathen Vendic peoples
A Crusade against the heathen Vendic peoples in 1147, Polish history painting by Wojciech Gerson. Wikipedia.

Niels, therefore, had to fight the Vendic army with infantry alone, which proved to be difficult - the battle turned into a disaster. Saxo tells: "They flew hither and thither, attack soon the Danes in the front and soon in the flank and tortured their enemies by attacking them from the side with their javelins" - "as they avoided being attacked by the Danes." The Danes entrenched themselves on a nearby hill and spent the night there. The next day, they again tried their war luck on the plain with the same result. Harald Kesja had to be carried away on a shield, badly wounded, Knud Lavard was injured so he could not walk. As darkness fell, the Danes retreated to the hill after a day's vain battles. The next day they went back to their ships. They were supported by the people from Scania, who had just arrived, delayed due to bad weather. The old warrior, Saxo, describes in detail all the stupidities that he thinks they committed: "They came unexpectedly to a large morass, that they had to pass, it did not last long before they were stuck in the mud." - "Most of them could not move in the soft mud and were beaten down like cattle."

The Vendic horsemen attack the Danes in the Battle of Lutke
The Vendic horsemen attack the Danes in the Battle of Lutke. Drawing by Louis Moe.

The Earl Ejlif of Slesvig was convicted of treason and deprived of his property. Saxo writes: "Ejlif, who had sold the welfare of the country, was now condemned by the King for his treachery, lost with shame and disgrace not only his position but also his estate." After a couple of years, Niels appointed a new border earl, the young Knud Lavard.

There were problems with Vendic attacks on small islands and along the coasts. Knud Lavard himself lost some money when the ship carrying the money was attacked by Vendic pirates in Great Belt. When he was accused of assuming name of king, he defended himself: "You, countrymen, can cultivate your land near the coasts as much as you want, you can build your houses as close to the sea as you want; If you will protect the coastal dwellers against the nuisance of the waves, I will protect you against the pirates."

As early as 1117, King Niels received a letter from the pope arguing for the celibacy of priests. The letter further admonishes King Niels: "All power comes from God" and "You must protect the widows and the fatherless, judge fairly with vigor, and with your power punish those who oppose it, and not allow the property of the church to be destroyed by evil people.", because "this is sacrilege, for which the blame falls on the king, and because one should not forcibly ruin what is given to the salvation of the many." Such a letter to Niels is interpreted so that he is regarded as a strong and important king on par with his father, Sweyn Estridson.

Svantevit priest
A Vendic Svantevit priest depicted on a stone from Arkona, today Altenkirchen. Svantevit was the god of war in Slavic mythology and the father of all other gods. Wikimedia Commons.

At the First Lateran Council in Rome in 1123, a ban on priests' marrying was adopted. It may be this meeting that the Sjaelland peasants had heard about when they initiated the great controversy over the celibacy of priests: "In his days, a great persecution of the priesthood took place," Roskilde Chronicle writes, "In the 20. year of his reign, a certain Peder Bodilsen, after the advice and encouragement of his chaplain Nothold, who later became bishop of Ribe, began to demand that the priests who had wives should send them away and that those who had none should never take any. This claim the priests could not resist, since Bishop Arnold was already burdened by his old age, and was ill; some were mutilated, others killed, others chased into exile, and only a few retained their property. - Arnold died the year after this the enterprise of the peasants." Many believe that the celibacy dispute occurred because the farmers discovered that it cost more to support a whole priest-family than a single unmarried priest.

But Niels held with the priests; The Roskilde Chronicle continues: "In his place, King Nils put his son Magnus' chaplain Peder, an enlightened and learned man, as well as the most eloquent and most firm of character of all the bishops in Denmark. He soon assumed the case of the priests against the peasants.

As the eldest of Erik Ejegod's sons, Harald Kesja got a royal bride, namely Ragnild Magnusdatter, daughter of the Norwegian king, Magnus Barfod. Already in his father's lifetime, he had erected a castle north of Roskilde called Haraldsborg. Here he lived with his wife, many mistresses, 12 sons, an unknown number of daughters and a lot of goods that he had collected from near and far.

The central image in the Broddetorp altar
The central image in the Broddetorp altar in Vestergothland from the 1100's. He has a royal crown and hangs on a kind of cross; it must be Jesus, the King of Earth and Heaven. But it is a Jesus with authority who teaches us something completely different from the powerless suffering Jesus on the cross that we usually see. It is made of gold-plated copper, adorned with mountain crystals. Photo Szilas/gallery Wikimedia Commons.

Knud Lavard's second brother, Erik Emune, gathered his prey in a dilapidated castle called Arnakke, perhaps south of Holbaek: "The prey he made he took to a poor and dilapidated place named Arnakke." Saxo writes.

However, when the King of Sweden died, the Goths dared to choose Magnus the Strong as their new King. The Swears declared the election of Magnus invalid, declaring that the Goths had no right to choose their own kings, and they elected a new king. Saxo writes: "this one was soon after killed by the Goths, and upon his death, the power passed to Magnus".

Knud argued to King Niels that his position as king over the Abodrites was quite similar to Magnus's position as the king of the Goths. However, Knud had his position as a fief from the Emperor, while Magnus had his position only from the choice of the Goths, and he did not swear allegiance to the king of the Swears; On the contrary, he had obtained his position despite the Swears.

Magnus courted the Polish king's daughter Richiza, whom he became betrothed to, and immediately after he went to war against the Vendic peoples in collaboration with her father, King Boleslaus. Saxo writes: "Immediately afterward, he sailed with a fleet, gathered at the command of his father, and under his charge, to Venden, where King Vartislaus for a long time had been at odds with the Danes and the Poles. Here Niels first besieged the city of Osna, forcing it to pay a sum of money to make him raise the siege. He then sailed to Julin, where King Boleslaus supported him with a large army, and after receiving this reinforcement he quickly conquered the city."

Coin minted by king Niels
This coin that King Niels minted in Lund, is the oldest example of commercial advertising. On the front, the king is seen with a hunting falcon on his hand, on the back is a wooden tower and in front of it a bridge. The inscription PAX POR (tu) means "port of peace". By proclaiming in this way that people and traders could enjoy peace and security in the ports of the kingdom, the king had wished to benefit the trade. On this coin, only the king's name is mentioned. On other coins, minted by Niels, besides the King's name, is also mentioned the Queen's name: Margrete. This was never seen before. Photo Aarboeger for Nordisk Oldkyndighed og Historie 2015.

The Vendic king Vartislaus realized that it did not look good for his kingdom and asked for negotiations. Niels granted him safe conduct and invited him aboard a ship at Strela, believed to be Stralsund. But some of his men treated king Vartislaus like a prisoner "- and it was forbidden him to go ashore again." But Knud Lavard was a more modern chivalrous type: "Knud raised his voice against this and urged earnestly the King that he should listen no more to the counsel of treacherous men than to what his own reason told him. By holding an enemy prisoner in spite of granted safe-conduct, he deprived not only this one of this freedom but also himself of his good reputation for all eternity."

The murder in Haraldsted Forest

The killing of Knud Lavard in Haraldsted Forest triggered the civil war which - with pauses in between - lasted until the start of Valdemar the Great's coronation in 1131.

Knud Duke on frescoes in Sct. Bendt's Church in Ringsted
Knud Duke on a fresco in Sct. Bendt's Church in Ringsted

Roskilde Chronicle writes that this murder created the biggest divide that ever hit Denmark: "But since the old enemy is always lurking and always disapproves the deeds of the righteous, he made such a great division among the Danes that neither priesthood nor congregation had been in greater peril ever since Christianity took root in Denmark. - Magnus, the only son of King Nils, killed, at the devil's instigation, under a false peace, King Erik's son Knud, who was a chaste and moderate man, equipped with reason and eloquence and all good abilities, in that year of the Lord."

Svend Aggesen wrote a few years after the events: "We also saw this here as Knud's cousin Magnus, without regarding the blood relationship, embarked on a conspiracy with Henrik Skadelaar, Ubbe, Hagen and some others; had a meeting with them in a hall, as if it was about a friendly state matter, and there they made up the abominable plan to assassinate Knud. To that end, he invited Knud to meet him without witnesses in the woods near Haraldsted."

Saxo explains the sequence of events in more detail:

- "He (Magnus the Strong) called those who previously had joined Henrik Skadelaar regarding this disgraceful attack and let them swear that they would remain silent with what was entrusted to them." The leading men in the conspiracy were Magnus the Strong, Henrik Skadelaar and Hagen Jyde, which last one pulled out when he realized what it was about.

- During the meetings of the conspiracy the participants were obliged to lie down: "On that occasion, they lay down on the ground so that, in case their attack was discovered, they could safely take their oath that they had neither standing nor sitting conspired against his life."

The Killing of Knud Lavard in Haraldsted Forest
The Killing of Knud Lavard in Haraldsted Forest. Illustration from Danmarks Historie i Billeder from 1898.

- The first step was to make Knud confident. Magnus invited Knud to a Christmas party in Roskilde and declared that he would travel to the Holy Land and asked Knud to take care of his estate and his family while: "He (Magnus) gathered a large part of the nobility of the kingdom in Sjaelland and invited Knud to Christmas party with him in Roskilde and then stated that he had felt the desire to make a pilgrimage where he entrusted Knud as the guardian of his wife and children and charged him in every way to take care of everything concerning his house."

- Next, Magnus arranged a meeting with Knud in a deserted place: "After the noblemen had celebrated Christmas in Roskilde for a full four days, the meeting was closed, and Knud and Magnus spent the rest of the Christmas days at separate places." - "The conspiracy swore that they would be faithful and silent, and hided its warriors, and arranged ambushes in the places most suitable, and sent one of the the conspirators, a German singer, to Knud, who was then a guest in Haraldsted Village with Erik, the headman of the island of Falster."

- Both Knud's wife, his servant, and the German singer, who came to pick him up, warned Knud, but all in vain: "The singer, who knew Knud was a great lover of German customs and culture and all that was German, now wanted to warn him, but as he thought that the oath he had sworn made it difficult for him to do so, he could not do it openly, he then tried to do it in an indirect way, sharing his honesty in such a way that he did not reveal the secret, yet trying to save the innocent Knud. He then started eagerly to sing the beautiful song about Grimhild's famous betrayal of her brothers."

- When Knud arrived at the meeting-place, he wondered why Magnus was armed and wearing armor: "When Knud came to the woods, Magnus, sitting on a windfall, greeted him with pretended kindness and false kisses. When Knud, embracing him, noticed that he was wearing armor, he asked why, and Magnus, who wanted to hide his fraud, said to give a reason that there was a peasant, whose house he would plunder."

Knud Lavard's Chapel in Haraldsted
The ruins of Knud Lavard's chapel are located five kilometers north of Ringsted in Haraldsted and it was excavated by archaeological excavation in 1883. It was built around 1150. The source that burst at his killing site has not been found. Photo Wikipedia.

- The conspirators broke out from their hiding places and Magnus killed Knud: "Now, those in ambush, made noise, and Knud looked in that direction and asked what warriors were doing there. Magus replied that now they should settle the question about who should be the King's successor and rule the kingdom. Knud said he wished his father could rejoice in the kingdom for a long time, and that he should succeed happily in everything he wanted to do, but it was not appropiate to talk about now, he said. Saying that, Magnus jumped up and grabbed him in the hair like a rowdy, and now it was obvious that fraud was going on, which is why Knud grabbed his sword and wanted to pull it out of the sheath, but he had only gotten it half out when Magnus split his head and killed him."

Saxo is not an objective source. He writes himself that both his father and himself have served Knud's son, Valdemar, as warriors, and he undoubtedly portrays Knud as advantageous as possible.

The Civil War

Knud Lavard's brothers, Erik Emune and Harald Kesja, as well as Hagen Jyde and Skjalm Hvide's sons, showed Knud's bloody and pierced robe on the tings: "They presented his bloody robe to the public. Niels and Magnus stayed away from the tings," Saxo writes. "Since Knud's brothers now both had complained their brother's death on the tings, the commoners became so moved by the sad speeches that they in public made the judgment on the ones, who had shed his innocent blood, and declared the pious lord's killers outlawed."

The most important battles in the first part of the Danish Civil War 1131-1134
The most important battles in the first part of the Danish Civil War 1131-1134. Onsild Bro must be a port city on the eastern coast of Jutland, but cannot be located.

King Niels had to promise to sever any ties with his son: "He was only allowed to defend himself on the precondition that he swore to shun any contact with Magnus, banish him not only from the court but also from the kingdom and not allow him to return until the people allowed him."

"But after some time", Saxo tells " - Niels sent people over (to Gothe-land) to bring Magnus home and thus renewed the connection motivated by the wicked love for him that he had sworn not to have." That, Erik and Harald meant, gave him: "Part and share in the murder, because he broke his oath, and they now passed the same judgment on him as on his son."

The Sjaelland peasants believed that they could not attack a king without having a king in charge: "- believing that they would do nothing or even fail their goals if they did not have somebody to lead them, and as they preferred a king of the old royal family, they gave - bypassing Harald (Kesja) - the leadership to Erik (Emune), who belonged to the Royal House."

Erik went to Jutland with a Sjaelland peasant army: "He first went to Jutland with the warriors he had summoned to command. As he advanced in an organized military way, Bishop Thord of Ribe met him, and in false and cunning words he assured him that the king was quite innocent, and promised that in future he would certainly keep his oath." After these assurances, Erik and his men relaxed and camped in scattered order, which Niels took advantages of to attack and chase them on the run. This does not indicate that the conscripted Sjaelland peasants were very eager to fight for him.

Corner figures at Hasle Church at Aarhus.
Corner figures at Hasle Church at Aarhus. A man and a woman, perhaps the founders of the church, stand side by side. The woman's right arm, now almost destroyed reaches around the corner, and she holds in the ring that the animal-like human being has in the gap. Perhaps it symbolizes that the woman is connected to the besties and the underworld. Foto Lennart Larson.

Then, says Saxo, Erik wrote to Emperor Lothar and:: "asked him to avenge his friend's death and to punish Magnus for the murder he had committed, and sought by prayers as well as by pledging to pay him for this by waging the war together."

The emperor followed the invitation and moved north with his army, but was stopped at the defense-dike Danevirke: "Magnus, however, acted in advance of both enemies by carefully fortifying the defense-dike and manning the gates with strong guards. After a few days, Niels joined him with a large army of Jutes and occupied the north side of the dike with it. It was so big a military force that the Emperor was afraid to engage in battle, nor did he dare to use Erik's fleet to transfer his warriors to the city," Saxo tells.

Now the Emperor turned his back to Erik: "whom he had promised steady and secure assistance, and concluded the agreement with the enemy chieftains that he should raise the siege against Magnus swearing the Roman Empire's honor and allegiance."

Erik sailed disappointed back to Sjaelland.

However, a Jutlander named Kristjern, who was Svend Aggesen's grandfather, had gathered a large army and decided to attack the king. But things worked out badly for him, Saxo writes: "However, Kristjern had fought Niels, but he failed badly, he suffered a major defeat, was himself captured and put in custody in the prison in Slesvig."

Man and woman with their arms around each other on baptismal font in Tryde Church
Man and woman with their arms around each other on baptismal font in Tryde Church north of Ystad in Scania. Photo Lennart Larson.

Svend Aggesen has a little more information about this battle:: "The first battle they had with each other was at Nonnebjerg ((Maybe at Skanderborg); here Niels won and caught in the same battle my grandfather Christjern, whom he let put in iron and send away in custody to a castle near Slesvig." Aggesen says this was the first major battle the war parties held against each other. He must know that as Kristjern was his grandfather and his father took also part in the war on Erik's side. As he describes the following battle as a skirmish - that is, a minor battle - we must believe that the Battle of Nonnebjerg was the decisive battle, the turning point of the war - the Civil War's Stalingrad.

In the ensuing battle, Erik was about to be captured, but was rescued by Harald Kesja's brave son, Bjoern Jernside, and Aggesen's father, Aage, who were holding back the enemy on a bridge, thereby giving Erik the opportunity to escape to his ship: "Afterward there was delivered a skirmish at Onsild Bro (Unknown port city); It was a fierce battle, but Niels' party again had victory, so Erik and his army had to turn their backs, and he himself was close to being taken prisoner, if not Bjoern - because of his renowned bravery called Jernside (Ironside), as well as my father Aage - had not done what they did. Both of these men stood in the middle of the bridge, offering strong resistance" - "Nor did they move from the spot, despite their many wounds, before the King had had time to rescue himself and board a ship. Then they hurried after him and followed him over to Scania."

Armored rider in Lem Church in Salling
Armored rider in the wall of Lem Church in Salling. Photo Pinterest.

But at the sea, Magnus suffered a severe defeat at Sejroe: "He (Niels) put Magnus over the fleet and told him to go against Erik. However, this one had already arrived at Sejeroe and had landed there. Magnus knew nothing about this. When he sailed from Aarhus he had a good wind, but bad things we waiting for him. His fleet sailed scattered and out of order, some of the ships ahead of the others." - "But (Erik) attacked the ships individually as they came sailing, killing the crew. As Magnus from far away realized what dangers lay ahead, he immediately let the sail of his ship take down, preferring to throw anchor rather than sail on, then he let blow the lur to call his scattered fleet together." - "When the Jutlanders saw that they could neither could hope for victory or escape, they would first and foremost ensure saving their chieftain before they thought on saving their own life, and they also did so with dangers to themselves, for they broke into the hostile fleet where it was most dense, and sought to help the beaten Magnus to flee as they could not get him victory."

Then Harald Kesja switched side and went over to Magnus and Niels, "who secretly lured him with promises."

It was on Sjaelland and the islands that Erik had most of his supporters. Harald strengthened the defense of his castle Haraldsborg at Roskilde. He was soon besieged by Erik Emune, who, however, could not immediately take the castle, Saxo explains: "When Erik, with a large crowd of Sjaelland people, had surrounded this castle and laid siege to it, he saw that his efforts ran aground on the firmness of the wall, then he resorted to some Germans living in Roskilde and learned from them to use stone-throwing siege engines," - "because the Danes were still quite ignorant in the science of war and did not understand very much the use of such devices."

With the help of the siege-engines, Erik managed to break down Haraldsborg's walls. But Harald Kesja and his men escaped by cunning: "Now the whole camp was stirring, but he spurred his horse with all his might and cunningly he told his people to shout: "stop Harald" so that the enemies thought it was not Harald, but one who pursued him." Then Harald joined Niels in Jutland.

Effect of Erik Emunes stone-throwing siege engines on Haraldsborg
Effect of Erik Emunes stone-throwing siege engines on Haraldsborg. Drawing Louis Moe.

Niels, Magnus and Harald invaded Sjaelland, bringing the war into Erik's territory, where a large part of the people already supported them. They had victory over Erik in a big battle at Vaerebro in North Sjaelland. Roskilde Kroeniken writes: "But in the third year King Nils went to Sjaelland with 100 ships, and as the greater part of the people, together with Bishop Peder, supported Nils, Erik had to flee at the first encounter, after it had come to a battle at Vaerebro."

Helmolds Chronicle of the Slavs writes that Erik Emune first fled to Slesvig: "Eventually he had to turn his back on Danien and fled to the town of Slesvig. And the Slesvig people had not forgotten the charities Kanut had shown them; they welcomed Herik so that they were ready to suffer death and banishment for him. For, Nicholas and his son Magnus ordered all the Danes to go down to fight against Slesvig, and the power of the attack exceeded all reasonable limits. In addition, the lake near the city was frozen so that one could walk on it; and the city thus became attacked from both the sea and the land side. The Slesvig people then sent a message to Count Adolf and offered him a hundred mark if he would come to help the city with the people of the North Albingen. But Magnus offered him an equal amount to keep stay out of the fight."

But the prospect of great prey made Count Adolf enter the war anyway: "Therefore, Count Adolf gathered an army, crossed the river Egdora, and decided to wait there for a short time until the whole army could meet, in order to then with the utmost caution to move into the enemy country. But the for lust of booty the army came out of control; they set off at such a speed that the rear troops had yet to reach the river Egdora, as the front troops had already arrived at the Thievela Bushes."

Map showing Fodevig
Map showing Fodevig at Store Hammer at Skanoer Falsterbo. Today Fotevik is very shallow. It can be believed that Niels and Magnus used the old Viking tactics to land on an istmus, so that they had a short front to defend during the critical disembarkation. Drawing Fotevikens Museum.

Count Adolf did poorly: "When Magnus, therefore, had learned that the Count was approaching, he chose a thousand armor-clad men from his army, went with them against the Count's forces that had come from Holtsatien, and engaged in battle with them. Here the Count was beaten and had to flee, and the North Albingens suffered a great defeat; but the Count himself, along with all those who escaped the battle, retreated over Egdora, thus saving their lives."

The winter was very hard this year and Helmold goes on to say that Magnus failed to take the rebellious city, and Erik escaped to Scania: "After his victory, Magnus again attacked the city, but his efforts were fruitless; for neither the city nor the enemy came into his power. With the severity of the winter, his attack also became weaker, so Herik escaped and reached the coast of Scania, where he everywhere complained of the murder of his innocent brother and his own troubles."

Erik lost his foothold in Denmark, and he fled to Norway with his family, believing that his family ties to Norway would secure his stay there. His wife Malmfried had been married to the beloved Norwegian King Sigurd Jorsalfar, and his niece, Christine, was married to Sigurd's son, King Magnus, who was later to be bynamed "the Blind." Saxo writes: "Erik was overcome by him in a great battle at Vaerebro and, relying on the brother-in-law relationship between them, he trusted King Magnus, along with his wife, who had been a queen in Norway, and his little son Svend, whom he had bred with a mistress. At their arrival Magnus welcomed him, but soon turned out to be false and deceitful."

But King Niels offered the Norwegian King Magnus money to kill Erik: "However, Niels decided to get rid of his rival by cunning and offered King Magnus of Norway money to take his life. Magnus, who was more money-greedy than any outlawed robber, was transformed from Erik's hosting friend into his enemy."

But, says Saxo, King Magnus' Queen Christine, who was Knud Lavard's under-age daughter, leaked the plan to her uncle Erik: "However, Erik had learned from his brother's daughter, the Queen, that there was fraud behind the kindness, and he then let his friends in Lolland know, what the King was up to, and asked them to help. The Lolland people did not hesitate; they sailed to Norway with a single ship and sent a secret message to Erik that they had arrived."

Rider relief in Sattrup Church
Rider relief from the early 1100's in Satrup Church between Flensburg and Slesvig. The rider has a solid saddle and stirrup. He is armed with lance and sword and wearing a helmet and probably armor.

On the agreed day, Erik and a priest drank the prison guards drunk: "Knowing that the greatest pleasure of the Norwegians was to drink, he thought he could fool his guardians by drinking them drunk. He, therefore, made a feast on them and sought by diligently drinking with them to make them give up their soberness and drink themselves intoxicated, and to further spur their drinking he lured them to play dice between the cups. He played for money with some of them, and even when he made lucky throws, he purposely pretended to be completely lax to the game so that his opponents in the game by steady winning should be lured into forgetting their duties by continuing playing, drinking and having fun. At last, he pretended to be tired and left them to lie down, but he left a priest, who had followed him in his exile as his representative at the game.

When the prison guards had fallen asleep, Erik broke a hole in the outer wall of his room and, with his family and some servants, fled to the beach. Here he found some ships in which he drilled holes in the bottom. Then he boarded the ship from Lolland and sailed away.

Erik Emune sailed to Lolland: "But Erik sailed to his loyal Lolland, where he let Ubbe, whom Niels had set as governor of the small Islands, seize and hang, thus giving clear evidence that he had come again."

Like a Robin Hood, he stole the supply that had been gathered for King Niels' Christmas party, scheduled to be held in Scania: " - he went, before he (Niels) had come there, over to Scania and took all that had been collected for the King's Christmas Party." Maybe Erik really lacked food.

Reconstruction of a ship from the 1100's
Reconstruction of a wreck found at Falsterbo, which dates to around 1100. The ship is 13.5 meters long and 4.5 meters wide. It would take really many trips with such a ship to transfer a group of 300 riders including their horses and weapons from Germany to Scania.

The following summer, in the fateful year of 1134, King Niels's ordered leding throughout the country including Scania, surely with the intention to finally clean up Scania. The army went ashore at "a bay, commonly called Fodevig" . The Roskilde Chronicle tells: "Second Holiday (Second Pentecost) when the army went ashore carelessly and without arranging themselves wisely; Erik threw himself against them with his army and added all of Denmark an indescribable and irreparable loss."

Niels's leding army was run completely over by an army of riders who - following many historians - numbered 300 riders. We can think that the big peasant army was attacked during disembarkment before it came in order. Saxo gives more details about the battle: "He (Niels) put his army in order near the shore, and so he stood for a little while, until Erik moved forward; but when he from far away saw the horses swirling up the dust with their hoofs like a cloud, he gradually pulled back to his ships, and when he heard the roaring of the advancing riders, he fled. When Erik reached his army, it was already beaten, not in battle, but by destiny, and without himself suffering any wound, he cut it down and won a victory that cost him no blood, for God avenged the assassination of the kinsman." - "Only Magnus, who, along with a small group of brave men, refused to flee, faced the enemies and sought to drive them back while the others turned their backs" - "Eventually, after he fought formidably and killed a host of enemies, he fell on top of the heap of corpses that he had accumulated around him, as well as Bishop Peder of Roskilde, who followed him in death." The rest of the army fled in panic against the ships.
The equestrian frieze in Aal Church
Excerpt of the rider frieze from the 1100's in Aal Church west of Varde. They use a solid saddle and stirrups, although the latter cannot be seen. They are armed with some pretty long swords. They nod their heads to protect their faces. The rear rider splits his opponent's head. Photo Pinterest.

The old warrior, Saxo, describes the panic in details: "Most of the fleeing grabbed the thwarts and clung to the ships ready to board them, so some of them were about to sink under the immense weight, and they, who came first, then, regardless of the brotherhood, cut with their swords the hands of those who came later and clung to the ships so that they were grimier against their own than they had been against the enemies"

The Roskilde Chronicle bursts into tears over the disaster at Fodevig: "Erik threw himself against them with his army and added an indescribable and irreparable loss to all of Denmark. Woe to that horrible year and the bitter day, the day of death, the day of darkness, full of wailing, heavy of weeping! Woe to that day when Magnus is killed, the flower of Denmark is broken; he, the handsomest of the young ones, cheerful and powerful, a happy giver, wise, and a lover of firmness; Magnus is killed, and with him chieftains and 5 bishops, namely: Peder from Roskilde, Thore from Ribe, Ketil from Vestervig, and Henrik, who was displaced from Sweden - Adelbert from Slesvig suffered an incurable wound during the battle and lived hardly for a year and a half thereafter. A sixth bishop, namely Eskil, Erik had killed two years before this battle in the church while conducting the morning service."
The equestrian frieze in Aal Church
Excerpt of the rider frieze from the 1100's in Aal Church west of Varde. Photo National Museum. Most of the riders are armed with some pretty long swords, but here the front rider is armed with a throwing spear. The rear rider splits his opponent's head. The front attacks an enemy, who holds his shield inclined to make the thrust glance off. Foto Pinterest.

Then one can consider where Erik's rider's army came from. It must have cost a lot of money to rent such an army, and quite a few months before Erik had huddled through like a Robin Hood and stolen the food that had been collected for King Niels' Christmas party. Moreover, as Niels had planned to celebrate his Christmas party in Scania, he must have felt that this region was safe and supported him just as the rest of Denmark did. What had caused the Scania people to turn away from him?

For a warrior to be able to wage war on horseback, he and his horse had to spend many hours together. The horse had to be trained to be controlled solely with the rider's legs so that he could have his hands free to use weapons. Ordinary horses are easily frightened by sudden sounds and movements; a cavalry horse had to be trained to be obedient even in the tumult of the battle. Besides, it had to be large and strong horses that could carry a warrior with armor and weapons; all of that is expensive and time-consuming. A rider's army was not something that was conjured up for a few months.

Magnus the Strong's Tomb in Vreta Monastery Church near Linkoebing in Eastern Goetaland
Magnus the Strong's tomb in Vreta Monastery Church near Linkoebing in Eastern Goetaland. The historian Palle Lauring writes that Magnus Strong's body was taken to Vreta Monastery Church 10 km northwest of Linkoebing in Eastern Goetaland. Here is the tombstone that Johan the Third later laid with the words: "Here rests Magnus Nielson Strong King of the Goths". Lauring writes that the tomb was examined some years ago and the skeleton of a broad-shouldered man was found a little over two meters tall. Foto Jacob Truedson Demitz for Ristesson Wikipedia.

In fact, a rider's army of 300 men or something similar can only come from one power, namely from the Emperor, and it must also have been associated with a very substantial cost to sail it from Northern Germany to Scania. One wonder if Niels and Magnus had not heard about it.

The Emperor had accepted Magnus the Strong's allegiance to the Roman Empire quite a few years before, but Erik Emune and Archbishop Asser must have succeeded in convincing him that he should fall his new vassal in the back. Furthermore, the Emperor immediately accepted Erik Emune without he had to travel to Saxony, and Erik Emune dates from the very beginning his diplomas after Emperor Lothar and his own years of reign.

Archbishop Asser

Asser was the first archbishop in the new Scandinavian Archbishop Site in Lund - established while Erik Ejegod was traveling to the Holy Land.

"Asser was an intense and irritable man," The Roskilde Chronicle writes, "unrestrained, without firmness: In the great confusion of the kingdom he did not stand as a wall for the house of Israel, but turned where the wind blew, like a reed swaying to the wind."

In Herbord's account of Bishop Otto of Bamberg's life is told of a Polish delegation who visited the Archbishop Site in Lund. The delegation wrote a report on their journey in which it gives a characteristic of Asser. They praise Asser as a good and righteous, knowledgeable and godly man. But on the outside, they say, he looked more like a Vendish farmer than an ecclesiastical man, so that the priest Ivan, who was leading the mission, was more stately than the Archbishop himself.

Jelling Church
Jelling Stone Church is a typical village church in roman style from the beginning of the 1100's. It is built with travertine stones, also called spring lime. It is a porous rock type that is easy to process. It is created from the deposition of calcareous water in springs and streams as the water spreads over the vegetation. Many early Danish churches were erected with travertine stones.

We can believe that Asser was about 30 years old when he was ordained bishop in 1089, which means that he was born about 1059 and thus 45 years old, when he was appointed to Archbishop in 1104, and onwards 75 in the fateful year of 1134. He died three years later in 1137.

After being King Niels' faithful partner for nearly 30 years, he suddenly turned against him in 1134. Erik Emune had completely lost his footing throughout Denmark and had fled to Norway, from where he too had to flee in a hurry. But Asser's conversion breathed new life into Erik's rebellion against Niels and his son Magnus.

The Scanian peasants had until then apparently been quite satisfied with Niels and Magnus' victories in the civil war, but the authority of Asser as an exceedingly Godly man raised them to battle against King Niels. We can also imagine that the assumingly great fortune of the Archbishop Site also helped to pay for the horsemen who miraculously appeared on the battlefield of Fodevig, wherever they came from.

In his old days - 75 years - Asser may have felt humiliated by King Niels and his son Magnus, and in the light of recent developments decided that now it could be enough.

The Jotun Finn in the crypt of Lund Cathedral
The Jotun Finn in the crypt of Lund Cathedral. Photo Pinterest.

Throughout King Niels' reign, which coincided with Asser's time as Archbishop, it has probably been King Niels, who in effect appointed bishop. In connection with the celibacy dispute, the Roskilde Chronicle is quite unambiguous: "In his place, King Nils appointed his son Magnus' chaplain Peder, who was an enlightened and educated man, and the most eloquent and strong of character among all that time bishops in Denmark."

As to the other bishops, the conditions of their appointment are unknown. But their unwavering loyalty to King Niels makes it likely that they have also been royally appointed.

Bishop Eskil of Viborg was murdered in front of the altar by Erik Emune in 1132 for his allegiance to King Niels. The Roskilde Chronicle explains that in the Battle of Fodevig in 1134, five bishops proved their loyalty to the king by paying the highest price: "Peder from Roskilde, Thore from Ribe, Ketil from Vestervig, and Henrik, who was displaced from Sweden - Adelbert from Slesvig suffered an incurable wound during the battle, and lived hardly for a year and a half thereafter." We may believe they all owed their position to King Niels - to Asser's suppressed annoyance.

Some historians have shown that King Niels' largest donations went to Bishop Hubald in Odense, while the Archbishop Site of Lund was somewhat bypassed.

In Herbords Bishop Otto of Bamberg's biography, it appears that when Otto was preparing for his second missionary journey to the Land of the Vendic Slavs, it was decided to send a delegation to Archbishop Asser in Lund to obtain his permission for the mission to include Rugen. Apparently Rugen - at least formally - belonged to Denmark. The delegation's report tells "that the Rugen people should be subject to the Danes' Archbishop".

Crucifix on the Lisbjerg altar
The crucifix on the golden altar of Lisbjerg Church north of the Aarhus. Until 1867 the church had a gilded altar that dendrochronologically us dated to 1135. It can now be seen at the National Museum. Photo Kornbluth Photography.

But Asser did not give a clear answer: "He said he could not answer until he had consulted the Danes' principles and magnates." In other words, Asser's authority was also limited in this regard.

Therefore, there are many indications that Asser's venerable Archbishop Site was a Potemkin backdrop that covered the fact that it was King Niels, who decided all important things about the Danish Church.

We recall that Erik Ejegod exploited the political disagreement between the Pope and the Emperor in connection with the Investiture Controversy - that is, the dispute over who should appoint candidates for ecclesiastical office, the secular or clergy authorities. The pope was then happy to create a Scandinavian archbishop Site, thereby challenging and limiting the emperor's power.

However, the Investiture Controversy was settled. The Concordate of Worms in 1122 between the Pope and the Emperor agreed upon fixed rules for appointment to ecclesiastical positions. These were further confirmed in the great meeting of Rome called the First Lateran Council in 1123. Indeed, the Pope and Emperor became really good friends; in 1133 Pope Innocens II in Rome crowned Lothar as a Roman Emperor.

Archbishop Adalbero of Hamburg Bremen accompanied the Emperor and his army to Rome as his adviser. The Danish Biographical Lexicon of 1979 states that the day before the coronation he received "a series of documents degrading Asser to bishop" - "and their contents which, in addition to Asser, were addressed to the Nordic bishops and kings, clearly and unequivocally say: "since Asser did not react on the Pope's many inquiries, and since no one should benefit from his rebellious defiance, Asser and his bishops now shall obey Hamburg that has ruled all the Nordic kingdoms and territories since Ansgar".

Emperor Lothar 2
Emperor Lothar 2. German Roman Emperor 1133-1137. Photo Codex Eberhardi Wikipedia.

Under these circumstances, it must have been unthinkable that Magnus the Strong could swear allegiance to the Emperor without simultaneously agreeing to shut down the Nordic Archbishop Site and that the leadership of the Scandinavian church was to be brought back to Hamburg Bremen.

This must have been the drop that caused the cup to flow over for Asser. After nearly thirty years of faithful service as an Archbishop under King Niels, where he had faithfully followed Niels' directives and approved the candidates as bishops submitted to him by the King, should he then be thanked by that he - at the age of 75 - should be degraded and humiliated? Therefore - one can believe - Asser chose to switch sides and blow new life into the last smoldering embers of Erik Emunes's failed rebellion against King Niels.

The historian Palle Lauring writes that the Battle of Fodevig was very important: "That battle is one of three major military destinies that turn Danish history. The other two are the loss of the Scania-lands and the England wars. The battlefield of Fodevig is perhaps the most crucial and in its consequences loaded with destiny. It is Danish independence policy that is getting its first dangerous downturn, as Erik Emune, with his German mercenaries, beats the Danish peasant army to pieces."

Niels' Wife and Children

Niels was one of the youngest sons of Sweyn Estridson, but not necessarily the youngest. His mother was an unknown mistress.

After a war between King Inge of Sweden and the Norwegian King Magnus Barfod, it was in 1101 agreed that Inge's daughter, Margrete, should marry Magnus Barfod to secure peace. Because of these circumstances, the Icelandic sagas have given her the byname "Fredkulla", which means the woman of peace. Magnus Barfod Saga writes: "She was sent east, from Svitjod to Norway with noble followers".

However, only two years after the wedding - in 1103 - Magnus Barfod fell in Ireland. In 1105 Margrete married King Niels of Denmark.

Coin with both King Niels' and Margrete's names
Coin minted by King Niels with both King Niels' and Queen Margrete's names. The inscription reads: Rex, Nicalas, Margaret. Roskilde. There are two main types of coins from Niels' long reign. The one with both Niels 'and Queen Margrete's names and the other with only Niels' name. These are the only known Danish medieval coins that mention the Queen's name, and it is also throughout the European Middle Ages a very rare phenomenon. Foto: Aarboeger for Nordisk Oldkyndighed og Historie 2015.

Queen Margrete was very active in arranging marriages. She arranged her stepdaughter with Magnus Barfod, Ragnild Magnusdatter, to marry Harald Kesja. She arranged that Harald Kesja's son, Bjoern Jernside, married her little sister, Katrine. She got her sister's daughter, Ingeborg, married to Knud Lavard, and she got her brother's daughter Ingerid married to Henrik Skadelaar. The Queen gifted each of these young girls with some of her father's estates in Sweden. Saxo tells: "She divided her father's estate into three equal parts, of which she herself retained one, and gave the two before-mentioned friends each a part as dowry."

Niels got two sons with Margaret, Inge and Magnus, and a daughter named Ingerid, with an unknown mistress.

Inge died as a boy because of an accident with a runaway horse. Saxo describes in details the sad event: "One of their sons, Inge, was, just as he had worn his children's shoes, thrown off by a runaway horse and trampled to death under its hoofs, so that all his noble blood was shed in the dirt and mud of the road, and he perished in the most pitiable way, for his corpse was found lying on the ground completely torn apart. His steward, who wanted him to ride, had let himself take the reins, and when the boy could not control the horse, it threw him off and dragged him over the ground hanging in the stirrup."

The son Magnus, later bynamed the Strong, was born around 1107 and grew up to become a promising and much-loved prince. Magnus married the Polish Princess Richitza, together they had the sons Knud and Niels. Knud Magnussen should later become co-king with Svend Grathe and Valdemar in 1146.

Man and woman embracing each other on baptistery in Tryde Church
Man and woman on the casing stone in Oersted Church east of Randers. We believe they are the noble couple who founded the church. Photo Lennart Larson.

Magnus was for a time king of the Goths and he is buried near Linkoebing in the Goetaland. He is known in the history for the killing of Knud Lavard.

Saxo mentions a daughter: "Niels should also have had with a mistress a daughter named Ingrid, who later married a man named Ubbe."

Queen Margrete became incurably ill, some believe around 1130. Saxo has a detailed description of a visit that Knud Lavard paid to Queen Margrete: "However, as she got water in her body, her legs swelled profusely and no drug could cure the mortal illness. In her last days she called Knud to her, for his noble ways of thinking she trusted, and urged him honestly and trustworthy to care about the peace of the country and the unity between kinsmen, so it should not be disturbed, and asked him to show as great within the borders of the kingdom as he had appeared outside them. There were those, she said, who sought to stir up divisions in the Royal House, but so far, with her good advice and admonitions, she had overcome their ill-advised urges. Knud called God as a witness to testify to the sincerity of his heart, and that he in all his days of life would seek to live honestly and lawfully.

However, Helmold's Chronicle of the Slavs believes that Queen Margrete was a more irreconcilable type. The chronicle describes that in a meeting in Slesvig between King Niels and his Duke of Slesvig, Knud Lavard acted like he was also king, which made Margrete very angry. When King Niels had sat down "dressed in his royal robe" Knud sat down facing him, dressed as a king with the crown of the Abodites on his head, and surrounded by hirdmen, much like King Niels. Knud did not rise to kiss the king, as was customary, but he waited until the king got up and then met him midway. "In doing so Knud incurred a deadly hatred. Because Magnus Nielsen saw it happen, with his mother, and she became filled with an anger so big that it cannot be said." The Queen said to her son: "Don't you see that your cousin has taken the reign and is already ruler? You can count him as an enemy of the people as, while your father is still alive, he is not afraid to take a royal name without having right to it. If you continue forgetting about it and don't kill him, you must know that he will take your life and your kingdom!" These words incited him, and he began to consider to kill Knud.

The king as a legislator - fresco in Aal Church
The king as a legislator - fresco in Aal Church at Varde. Photo: Aal Kirke

Niels sought to pour oil on the waters. Helmold continues: "King Nicholas, who sensed this, called all chieftains in his kingdom together and made every effort to reconcile the young enemies. When the animosity thus was about to wear off to a peaceful relationship, both sides comcluded a settlement, which was confirmed by oath."

We must not forget that probably none of the Danish sources are objective. The Roskilde Chronicle firmly supports the party of Niels and Magnus, Svend Aggesen's father and grandfather fought on Erik Emune's side in the Civil War, and Saxo's father and grandfather served Valdemar the Great, Knud Lavard's son. Besides, Saxo himself served under Bishop Absalon, who was King Valdemar's man. By contrast, we can believe that Helmold saw the events more from the outside and had no particular interest in the parties in Danish politics. One can think that his Chronicle of the Slavs is more objective.

After Margrethe's death, Nils remarried, but it didn't work out so well. Saxo tells: "Niels had, after Margrete's death, married Ulvilde from Norway. To her, Sverker (Swedish King) sent messengers that courted for her love, and soon after, he had her secretly abducted from her husband and made her marry him."

King Niels' Death and Burial

King Niels was not a man who broke down sobbing in hardship. After the Battle of Fodevig, he succeeded in boarding a ship and sailed to Sjaelland. The Roskilde Chronicle reports: "When he came over to Saelland, he tried as good as possible to improve the courage in his people."

"Then he went to Jutland and put Harald here over half the kingdom, honoring him with a royal name," The Roskilde Chronicle continues, which is confirmed by other sources. "Since he was shamefully betrayed by the Slesvig people, even free conduct was given and confirmed with oaths, and treacherously killed in the city of Slesvig together with the noblemen, he still had left on June 25. in the said year, in his king's 31. year of reign."

Unlike King Niels, Harald Kesja did not trust the Slesvig peoples' promises. Roskilde Chronicle continues: "But Harald, who knew these peoples' deceitful plans and had greatly discouraged the king from trusting them, pretended to go elsewhere."

King Niels' household troops
King Niels' household troops. As Rolf Krake's lif guard and as Knud's men in Odense, they defended their king to the last man standing. Drawing Louis Moe.

Both Knytlinge Saga and Sven Aggesen confirm that the Slesvig people lured King Niels into the town with false promises: "Niels lost the battle; he had lost his son and heir, and now resorted to a ship to Slesvig, where he was treacherously murdered by the citizens, even though they had received him within their walls."

As usual, we have to find the details at Saxo: "Then he asked the Slesvig citizens, who had long been angry at him because of the crime that Magnus did, to make peace with him, for he was very keen to again reconcile with them and thought they would feel sorry for his old age and his ill luck. He decided to go into the city to take hostages from them, and when he again had second thoughts by putting his life at risk by submitting himself to the citizens without knowing if he could trust their fidelity, one of the most esteemed men of the city named Boje encouraged him so strongly that he gave up his suspicion and it came to cost him his life."

King Niels was killed by the citizens of Slesvig in Torvegade in Slesvig the day after Midsummer's Day in 1134. Like Rolf Krake's household troops and Canute the Holy's men in Odense, his bodyguards fought to the last standing man for their king. Saxo continues: "When he saw people walking in the streets to add to him violence and nuisance, he tried to find security in the castle, although his friends advised him to flee to the Church of Saint Peder." - "Nor were his warriors short of zeal and willingness to defend his life by sacrificing their own; For a long time, they kept him unharmed by bravely offering their own bodies, they did not hesitate of exposing themselves to the greatest dangers for protecting him, but after shedding the blood of his defenders the Slesvig people finally killed the King."

Part of a coin with a portrait of King Niels
Part of a coin with a portrait of King Niels. It looks like he had his hair set with small braids at each ear, maybe he had a full beard. Photo Lunds Universitets Historiske Museum by Hedning Wikipedia.

Many historians ask what Niels intended to do in Slesvig? It must have been the most dangerous place for him in all of Denmark! The historian Palle Lauring believes he sought his death thereby pleasing the powers of destiny to the benefit of Denmark.

But Saxo and partly Roskilde Chronicle actually tell us that Niels wanted to negotiate - probably with the aim of ending the war - why not believe it? It had been Niels' leadership-style for 30 years to make peace and reconciliation and give everyone his due. This is what his opponents call weakness: "Then he asked the Slesvig citizens, who had long been angry at him because of the crime that Magnus did, to make peace with him, for he was very keen to again reconcile with them".

It is known that King Niels is buried in the Cathedral of Slesvig, but the grave's location is not known.

Links and Literature

Roskildekroeniken Heimskringla
Svend Aggesen Heimskringla
Knytlinge Saga Oldnordiske Sagaer Bind 11
Saxo Grammaticus Heimskringla
Full text of "Danmark under Svend Estridsen og hans Soenner" J. G. F. Raeder - Archive.com
Aelnoths fremstilling af Knud den helliges historie Heimskringla
Kongeraekken Kongehuset
Harald Hens love Historisk Tidsskrift - Joergen Olrik inc. Radulfus Niger in Danish.
Ryd Klosters Kroenike Heimskringla
Danske helgeners levned: 2. Knud Hertug Heimskringla
Helmolds Slaverkroenike som kilde til Danmarks, Vendens og Nordtysklands historie Stefan Pajung og Lone Liljefalk
Venderkroeniken archieve.com
Venderkroeniken Crassus
Asser - Dansk Biografisk Leksikon Den Store Danske
Kong Niels - Skitse til en Biografi Tore Nyberg
Danmarks Historie 4 - Ole Fenger - Gyldendal og Politikken.
Saxo Grammaticus oversat af Fr. Winkel Horn - Sesam.
Valdemarerne - Palle Lauring Gyldendals Bogklub.

Tilbage til start af artikel

20190830

Passed W3C Validation