A medieval king who ruled both countries in the early 14th century, his era was marked by the Scandinavian homeland's lingering power in the settlements and possessions established by Viking societies centuries earlier.
What can medieval history teach us?
Up until the late 20th century, history was very much a collection of dates, events, and adventures of powerful men.
A popular historical narrative, even today, is the so-called "theory of great men" - that history has been shaped and dominated by powerful men.
Only in the past few decades has silenced history – the stories of women, children, and minorities – started to be discovered and told.
One might imagine then what we moderns have in common with the life of Magnus Eriksson, a King of the medieval kingdoms of Norway and Sweden in the 14th century.
However, although he was an absolute monarch, his life entails lessons in overcoming vast odds, battling personal adversity, and persevering to great personal success.
Whilst he may very well just be another "dead white man," the history of Magnus Eriksson allows us a snapshot into medieval life at the top in Scandinavia centuries ago.
Tønsberg played a pivotal role in King Magnus's early life, as it was here at the Haugating, the ancient assembly site, where he was first acclaimed as Norway's king. Photo: Piotr Kubowicz / Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Born with two types of blue blood
The boy who would be king, Magnus Eriksson, was born in Norway in 1316. Even the most ambitious definition of the Viking Age, which would end it sometime in the 12th century, means that young Magnus was born some two centuries after the last Viking ship ever sailed.
Nevertheless, medieval Scandinavian kings owed a great deal to their Viking forebears, who had established their kingdoms and acquired territories abroad in the earlier medieval period.
Magnus was born the son of King Magnus of Sweden (yes, Magnus is one of the names that pops up repeatedly in Swedish history, so buckle up!) and his wife, Ingeborg, a daughter of Haakon IV of Norway.
As a result, he had both Norwegian and Swedish blue blood flowing in his veins.
When young Magnus was three years old, he was acclaimed as the hereditary King of Norway – at the Haugating in Tønsberg.
This was a process and a place, a sort of proto-parliament, that had its origins in the era of Viking chiefs and rulers.
That same year, in a very modern process, he was elected (not acclaimed) by Swedish nobles as the King of Sweden. He thus became King Magnus VII of Norway AND King Magnus IV of Sweden – but would not reign until he came of age at 15 in 1331.
It was from then that the real trouble would start.
Within Stockholm, the Riddarholmen Church, which would later gain prominence as a royal burial site, was already an important medieval structure during the reign of King Magnus. Photo: Holger.Ellgaard / Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Internal challenges to royal authority
Ascending to the throne should have meant ultimate power for King Magnus. However, his two kingdoms were plagued by trouble and strife.
In Norway, the country had only recently recovered from a century-long civil war that saw the country wrecked by power struggles involving Viking chieftains, aspiring kings, and bloody power struggles.
As King Magnus tried to solidify his grip on the kingdom, local nobles and regional rulers resisted his centralization efforts.
Upon the end of his minority, in 1331, a local rising was led against his rule by Erling Vidkunsson, which was only suppressed two years later.
Adding to the powerful local and regional elites was the presence of the Hanseatic League.
This medieval commercial and defensive confederation, which dominated Northern Europe, had a powerful presence in Norway, especially centered around the western trading city of Bergen.
They had vested commercial interests that the centralization of power by King Magnus would damage.
Across the border in Sweden, things did not look much better for King Magnus. A group of powerful nobles, dubbed the "Magnates," sought to resist any attempt by the King to assert authority over them.
Like the Hanseatic League in Norway, these magnates dominated the economy and had important commercial interests that would be undermined by the royal centralization of power.
Much of the king's reign – which, in Sweden, would be the second-longest in history after Carl XVI Gustaf - would be dominated by the struggle for power and political instability.
During King Magnus VII's reign, the historic city of Novgorod played a pivotal role in Swedish-Russian relations, marked by a series of conflicts and treaties as both powers vied for control in the region. Photo: LenskiyS / Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Family life and foreign affairs
In 1335, King Magnus married a descendant of King Louis VIII of France, Blanche of Namur. As a wedding gift, she received provinces in Norway and Sweden.
Tragically, though they had two sons (one of whom would become the future king Haakon VI of Norway), two daughters died in their infancy.
Pressure from Norwegian elites, resisting the centralization of power that Magnus had tried to assert since he came of age, led to an agreement being brokered over succession.
Against royal custom, the younger son of Magnus and Blanche, Haakon, would succeed his father, while his older son, Eric, would become King of Sweden.
The centralization of power that Magnus had forged over two decades would cease to exist upon his death.
With Swedish and Norwegian resistance and internal conflict resolved, King Magnus could turn his eyes overseas.
Though he had concluded a peace treaty with Grand Prince Yury of Moscow between Sweden and Novgorod back in 1323, there had been consistent border disputes involving the deaths of local villagers.
A Swedish commander had captured a Novgorodian fortress on the border and slaughtered the entire population.
A second treaty in 1339 only lasted a few years before the Swedes returned in 1348, led by their King on a crusade against Novgorod itself.
However, though he had initial success against the Russian Orthodox population (Sweden was still part of the Roman Catholic Church then), the ravages of the Black Death would undermine the early military victories and see Magnus retreat in 1351, and a status quo ante bellum ensured.
Iceland, a key overseas possession acquired during the Viking era, was integral to King Magnus's realm and had been under Norwegian rule since the 13th century after its founding by Norse exiles. Photo: Jay Yuan / Shutterstock
Overseas possessions, death, and legacy
Aside from his kingdoms in Scandinavia, King Magnus had overseas possessions acquired during the era of Vikings.
Further across the seas, there were still two thriving Norse settlements in Greenland during the reign of King Magnus.
Despite this, in 1355, Magnus dispatched two ships to these remote settlements, both to deliver supplies and to collect information about this remote outcrop of his kingdom.
When the ships returned, they not only informed King Magnus that these two settlements were thriving but also, thankfully, that the settlers were still Norse and very much Christian.
Though there had been skirmishes with the local Inuit population, they had not "reverted to barbarism."
What is interesting about this contact is that it represents one of the last glimpses of the Greenland settlements before their assumed collapse sometime in the late 14th or early 15th century.
Whilst King Magnus had spent much of his life trying to centralize power and assert his authority in Norway and Sweden, he would remain unsuccessful.
However, modern historians believe he helped pave the way for the Kalmar Union, which would be finalized just decades after he died in 1397.
This union would see the three Scandinavian kingdoms of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden joined under a single monarch. This union would last for almost two centuries until 1527.
The life of King Magnus VII of Norway shows that even for those with unlimited power, there are daily struggles, challenges, and adversities to overcome and that even "dead white men" can teach and educate us centuries after their death.
For news of a recent Viking hoard uncovered in Sweden, visit Archaeology Magazine here.
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