Medieval rulers were known to build castles and fortifications. Not Jarlabanke, however. 

A powerful local chieftain thought to be a hersir, in charge of 100 underlings, this rural leader commissioned the creation of a bridge and some 20 runestones. 

Carvings and causeways 

While the bridge is now a causeway more than 100 meters long, the runestones can still be seen and inspected, an essential Viking attraction within easy reach of Stockholm. 

Beyond the northern suburbs of Sweden's capital, close to the pretty waterside community of Täby, stands Såstaholm, a hotel and conference center. 

The site, though not the graceful mansion once called "Autumn Sun" that housed Sweden's retired actors, is now thought to have been Jarlabanke's estate. 

But it's the bridge and the runestones that tell us as much as we actually know about Jarlabanke. 

The crossing had two runestones beside it, proclaiming that he had built the bridge "for his soul" and declaring his ownership of the surrounding domain. 

This was curious, as most runestones were carved as messages to honor the deceased relatives of the wealthy patron who could commission such an artistic undertaking. 

Skilled artisans specialized in the carving and painting of runestones, roaming the landscape in search of affluent Vikings, not unlike the painters who created portraits of noble dynasties centuries later. 

Jarlabanke's bridge, now a causeway, was a significant engineering feat in medieval Sweden, facilitating travel and trade across the eastern shores of Lake Vallentuna. Photo: Berig (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Status symbol 

Historians posit that Jarlabanke and his clan must have become rich from their time serving in the Varangian Guard, the elite personal protectors of the Byzantine emperor. 

Norse warriors would travel through Kievan Rus to reach Miklagard, which was the term the Vikings used to refer to Constantinople. 

They would be well paid for their services and return to Scandinavia laden with silver. 

But there is more to these monuments than the reward for mercenary activities in exotic capitals. 

The bridge is a testament to the Christian beliefs of this Norse lord. 

With the Viking Age on the wane in the 11th century, Jarlabanke was part of a powerful local family in Täby, Christian for at least two generations. 

Jarlabanke assumed his lofty status after the death of his father, Ingefast, and it is commonly thought that, as a fairly young man, he needed to assert himself in the area. 

His crossing connects the north and south of the eastern shores of Lake Vallentuna. At that time, the area would have been marshland, with water levels approximately five meters higher. 

As Jarlabanke proclaimed or had his runestone master carve for him, he established a meeting place for the assembly that governed the neighboring political district. 

Runestone U 127, commissioned by Jarlabanke, serves as a lasting monument to his authority, asserting his sole ownership of Täby and commemorating his various achievements. Photo: Mats O Andersson / Shutterstock

News bulletins in runes 

In 2005, the bridge was excavated, revealing its composition of layers of tree branches, sand, and gravel. 

It would have been most impressive and practical in its day, impressive enough for the young lord to have a master rune carver proclaim to the world, in letters only experts understand today: 

"Jarlabanke had this stone raised in his own memory while he was still alive, and all alone he owned the whole of Täby. He built this bridge for his soul." 

Experts can approximate the date of the bridge runestones by analyzing the writing style. In this case, the pr2 style places the artifact between 1020 and 1050. 

Another runestone carries the sadder news of Jarlabanke's death, indicated by its pr4 style, pointing to the later 11th century.

To learn more about Jarlabanke and his bridge, you can visit the site as part of the STOEX Viking History Extended tour from Stockholm. 

This branded article was produced in collaboration with STOEX, a partner of The Viking Herald. You can find out more about their Viking and history tours - and book one - here.

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