BIRGER JARL AND THE CONQUEST OF FINLAND
 BIRGER JARL, who became one of the great men of Sweden about 1250, rose to such importance in the
early history of that kingdom that one cannot pass him by without saying something about his career.
Sweden was then a Christian kingdom and had been for many years, for the religion of Christ had been
preached there, as the sagas tell, four centuries earlier. But heathenism prevailed until long
afterwards, and it was not until the days of King Stenkil, who came to the throne in 1061, that an
earnest effort was made to introduce the Christian worship. Finally paganism completely died out,
and when Birger came to the throne Sweden had long been a Christian realm.
But paganism still had a stronghold in Finland, and when Bishop Thomas, a zealous churchman, of
English birth, proclaimed that the Christians should have no intercourse with the pagans in Finland
or even sell them food, the Finlanders became so incensed that they invaded the Christian country
and put the people to death with frightful tortures. Their cruelties created terror everywhere and
Bishop Thomas fled to Gothland where, crazed with horror at the result of his proclamation, he soon
King Erik was then on the throne of Sweden,
 but Birger, the son of a great earl of Gothland, became a famous warrior, and as the king had no
sons he made Birger a jarl, or earl, and chose him as his heir. One of the exploits by which Birger
had won fame was the following. The town of Lübeck, in North Germany, was closely besieged by the
king of Denmark, who had cut it off from the sea by stretching strong iron chains across the river
Trave, on which the town is situated. He thus hoped to starve the people into surrender, and would
have done so had not Birger come to their rescue. He had the keels of some large ships plated with
iron, loaded them with provisions, and sailed up the river towards the beleaguered city. Hoisting
all sail before a strong wind, he steered squarely on to the great chains, and struck them with so
mighty a force that they snapped asunder and the ships reached the town with their supplies,
whereupon the Danish king abandoned the siege. This story is of interest, as these are the first
iron-plated ships spoken of in history.
By this and other exploits Birger grew in esteem, and when the Finns began their terrible work in
the north he and the king summoned the people to arms, and the old warlike spirit, which had long
been at rest, was reawakened in the hearts of the Swedes. The Pope at Rome had proclaimed a crusade
against the Finns, promising the same privileges to all who took part in it as were enjoyed by those
then taking part in the crusades to the Holy Land, and on all sides the people grew eager to engage
in this sacred war.
 Then there was brushing and furbishing on all sides; ancestral swords, which had long hung rusting
on the walls, were taken down and sharpened anew; helmets and cuirasses were burnished until they
shone like silver or gold; tight-closed purses were opened by those who wished to aid the cause of
Christ; and old ships were made ready for the waves and new ones launched. Rosy lips were kissed by
lovers who would never kiss them again, and loud was the weeping of the maidens and mothers who saw
those they loved setting out for the war, but they consoled themselves as best they could by the
thought that it was all for the glory of God. Men of Sweden had gone to the crusades in Palestine,
but here was a crusade of their own at home, and all were eager to take part in it.
A great fleet was got together and set sail under the command of Birger Jarl. Its course lay up the
Gulf of Bothnia, and where it came to land Birger erected a great wooden cross as a sign that he had
come for the spread of the Christian faith. From this the place was called Korsholm.
The heathen Finns knew of his coming and had gathered in great numbers to defend their country
against its invaders, but nothing could stay the fury of the crusaders, who were incensed with the
cruelties these barbarians had committed, and drove them back in dismay wherever they met them,
Birger Jarl showing the greatest skill as a leader. He made public a law that all who became
Christians should be protected in life and property, and
 within two years he succeeded in introducing Christianity into that country—perhaps more in
appearance than reality. At any rate he built forts, and settled a colony of Swedes in East Bothnia,
and thus did much towards making Finland a province of Sweden.
While this was going on King Erik the Lame died (in 1250). As he left no heir there were many
pretenders to the crown. The fact that Birger had been named by the king two years before was lost
sight of, and it looked as if there would be civil war between the many claimants. To prevent any
such result a powerful noble named Iwar hastily summoned an assembly and through his influence
Valdemar, Birger Jarl's son, was chosen as king. This was all done so quickly that it was completed
in fourteen days after Erik's death.
When the news of this hasty action reached Birger in Finland he was very angry, and hastened home
with all speed, bringing with him the greater part of his army. He was highly displeased that he had
not himself been named king, as had been promised, instead of a boy, even if the boy was his son.
Calling together those who had made the choice of Valdemar, he hotly asked them:
"Who among you was so bold as to order an election during my absence, though you knew that King Erik
named me Jarl and chose me for his heir? And why did you choose a child for your king?"
Iwar answered that it was he that ordered the election and said:
VILLAGE LIFE AND HOMES IN SWEDEN.
 "Though you are indeed most worthy to wear the crown, you are advanced in years and cannot live to
rule us as long as your son."
This answer brought another angry outbreak from Birger and Iwar again said:
"If you do not like this, do with your son what you please. There is no fear but we shall be able to
find another king."
For a time Birger sat in moody silence, and then asked:
"Who then would you take for your king?"
"I also can shake out a king from under my cloak," was Iwar's haughty answer.
This threw the Jarl into a dilemma. The faces of the people present showed their approval of what
Iwar had said, and at length, fearing that if he resisted their action the crown might be lost both
to himself and his son, he gave in to their decision.
To give dignity to the occasion, he took steps to have his son crowned with much magnificence, and
shortly after sent his daughter Rikissa with great pomp and a rich dower to the frontier of Norway,
where she was met by the king of that country and was married with stately ceremony to his son. The
next year Birger's mother died, and as there was a prophecy that her family would remain in power as
long as her head was up, he had her buried upright, being walled up in a pillar in Bjelbo Church so
that her head should never droop.
Birger Jarl belonged to a great family called the
 Folkungers, who long held all the power in Sweden, and many of whom had been aspirants for the
throne. These were so angry at being deprived of what they had hoped for that they determined to
take the throne by force, and their leaders went to Denmark and Germany, where they collected a
large army. When they landed in Sweden many of the people of that country joined them, and though
Birger had also a large force he began to fear the result.
He therefore sent his chancellor, Bishop Kol, to ask for a personal interview with the leaders of
the opposite force, with solemn promises of safety. Yielding to the bishop's persuasions, the chiefs
accompanied him across the river that separated the two armies. Then Birger did a dastardly act. No
sooner had the chiefs come within his power than he had them seized and beheaded on the spot as
Thus fell a number of the leading men of Sweden, and, the leaders fallen, Birger attacked and easily
dispersed their army, sparing the Swedes, but cutting to pieces all the Germans that could be
overtaken. Thus he added greatly to the power of his family, but by an act of treachery and perjury
for which Archbishop Lars laid upon him a heavy penance. As for Bishop Kol, who had been made the
innocent agent in this shameful deed, he never read mass again, and finally resigned his office and
left his country, journeying as a pilgrim to the Holy Land in expiation for his involuntary crime.
 He never found peace and rest until he found them in the grave.
Birger Jarl by these means rose to be the mightiest man in the north. His son was king of Norway,
his daughter was queen of Sweden, and his daughter-in-law was a princess of Denmark, for when
Valdemar became twenty years of age he sought and won for his bride the beautiful Danish Princess
Sophia. The marriage was one of great pomp, a great hall being built for the occasion, where the
courtiers appeared in new-fashioned dresses of rich stuffs, and there were plenty of banquets,
games, dances, and even tilts and tournaments, all conducted according to the noblest custom of the
Birger himself had a queen for his wife, having married the dowager Queen Mechthild of Denmark, and
to increase his importance he assumed the title of duke, never before borne in Sweden. But many of
the peasants called him king, since he governed the kingdom and was married to a queen. But
meanwhile poor Bishop Kol was dying of grief for the deed of shame into which this proud lord had
Shall we here tell an interesting and romantic story about one of Birger's brothers? He was a judge
in East Gothland, his name being Bengt, and had fallen deeply in love with a damsel named Sigrid,
whose family was not rich nor great, though she herself was so beautiful that she was widely known
as Sigrid the Fair.
Duke Birger was not pleased with the idea of such
 a match, thinking the girl, though of noble birth, of far too lowly rank to mate with a member of
his family. But in such things Judge Bengt had a will of his own and he married Sigrid without
Birger's consent. This so displeased the proud jarl that he sent Bengt a cloak, half of which was
made of gold brocade and the other of coarse and common baize. This was in token of the difference
in rank of the families of Bengt and Sigrid and a significant hint that he should separate from his
But Bengt was equal to the situation. He covered the coarse half of the cloak with gold, pearls and
precious stones so as to make it more valuable than the other, and this he sent to his brother with
no other answer. This only irritated Birger the more, and he sent back the message, "that he would
speak with his brother face to face about this affair," adding some harsh words which were also
repeated to Bengt.
Then, soon after this, the angry jarl saddled his horse and rode with a large company to Ulfasa,
where Bengt lived. When the judge saw the jarl's train near at hand he fled from his house to the
woods, leaving his wife, whom he had carefully instructed how to act, to meet his irritated brother.
When the angry jarl rode into the court, fully prepared to call his erring brother severely to
account, he was surprised to see the fairest woman he had ever beheld come forward to meet him. She
was adorned with the most costly robes and precious
 ornaments she could command and everything had been done to enhance the charm of her beauty.
Stepping forth before the jarl, who gazed at her with astonishment, she bowed low and welcomed him
with all honor and courtesy.
So astonished was Birger with the charming vision that he sprang from his horse and seized Sigrid in
his arms, saying, "Had my brother not done this I should have done it myself."
Leading him to the house, she entertained him with the best cheer, and Bengt being sent for to the
wood, the two brothers were fully reconciled. Such an effect have the charms of a fair woman over
the pride and passion of men.
A few words must serve to finish the story of Birger Jarl. The greatest and most valuable service of
his reign lay in the new laws he gave the country and his doing away with many of the old barbarian
customs to replace them with the customs of civilization.
Before this time it was the common practice for the relatives of a murdered man to avenge him on the
family of the murderer, thus giving rise to long and bloody feuds. This custom Birger forbade,
ordering every one to seek redress for injury at the courts of justice. He also passed four Laws of
Peace, viz.: for the Peace of the Church, of Women, of House, and of Assize.
Every one was forbidden to assault another in the church or the churchyard or on the way to or from
church. Whoever did so was declared out
 lawed, and if the assailed man killed his assailant he was held free from blame or revenge. This was
the Peace of the Church.
Another ancient custom was to carry away a desired bride by force, without her consent or that of
her parents, a fight often arising in which the bride's father and brothers were killed. Or on the
way of an affianced pair to church the same outrage might take place, the bridegroom being often
killed. This, too, was forbidden under penalty of outlawry, the new law being that of Peace for
To promote general security he forbade, under the same penalty, the attacking of any man, his wife,
children, or servants, within his house or on his property. This was the Law of Home-peace or
House-peace. All violence was in like manner forbidden to any one going to or attending an assembly
of the people, this being the Peace of Assize.
Birger Jarl improved the laws in many other ways and made Sweden a far more civilized country than
it had been before his time. Another of his useful acts was the founding of the city of Stockholm,
which before his day was a mere village on an island, but which he made a stronghold and city,
inviting that commerce to which its situation so excellently adapted it. This was one of the most
important acts of Birger Jarl, who died soon afterwards, not living to see the rapid growth in
importance of his new city.