We separate myth and legend from hard historical truth in the story of Eric IX, the first Swedish Crusader King. 

Busy (medieval) business 

Compared to our medieval forebears, we moderns are a lazy bunch. Who hasn't spent a Sunday afternoon parked on their couch and found themselves devouring Netflix series as quickly as Uber Eats orders? 

If we wind the clock back almost a millennium, we find that Sweden's patron saint, Eric IX, stood in stark contrast – he was a man in a rush, propelled by a divine mission. 

He is best remembered as being a Crusader King – he launched a crusade against pagans in what is now eastern Sweden and Finland. 

Leading the "First Swedish Crusade," he marched into what is now Finland and helped spread Christianity – at the point of a sword. 

He also helped Christianity proliferate back home in Sweden so that when he died, he was canonized as the patron saint of Sweden. 

When he wasn't on a campaign against godless pagans, he was busy laying the foundations of the modern Swedish legal system. 

Nicknamed the "Lawgiver," he is credited with codifying the complex and varied laws of the land, a feat surely deserving of the admiration of any contemporary affluent Swedish lawyer. 

Finally, in the little spare time he had, he established the House of Eric, a royal dynasty that would govern vast territories, spanning present-day Sweden and Finland, for close to a hundred years until the mid-13th century. 

This was almost like an epoch in the short, nasty, brutish, and bloody world of medieval royal dynasties. Yet much of what we know about Eric IX is shrouded in legend and myth. 

Can we separate the sinner from the saint, the man from the mystery? Who is the real Eric IX? 

In Stockholm, the monument to Saint Eric on Torsgatan stands as one of many representations of the city's patron saint, Eric IX of Sweden. Photo: Jacob Truedson Demitz (Public domain)

Obscure origins but rise to power 

Given that Eric IX is the Patron Saint of Sweden, we know so little about him that can be historically verified. He was believed to have been born around 1120, about a century since the highwater mark of the Viking Age – the creation of the North Sea Empire

In retrospect, he might have grown up with memories of the heroic exploits of Viking warriors like Harald Hardrada, whose demise traditionally marked the conclusion of that era

Eric was born into a region in transition. By the early 12th century, vast regions of what is now Sweden and Finland still adhered to indigenous beliefs, notably Norse paganism, known by modern historians as the Old Norse religion

Unlike its Scandinavian neighbors to the south and west, Sweden had not been beaten into bloody submission, and all its political elites converted to Christianity. 

Furthermore, whilst Eric may have been born into a ruling family – we have no contemporary records to confirm this – the region was beset by warring families and petty kingdoms. 

We do not know where he was born or to whom. What we do know, however, is that he had a sudden and dramatic rise to royal power in the 1150s. This would place Eric, approximately 30 to 35 years old, in the prime of his life. 

Even when Eric ascended to the "Swedish" throne, he did not rule all of what would become the medieval kingdom of Sweden, with a rival claimant ruling over the province of Östergötland. 

According to medieval legend and lore, Eric was born into royal blood and was unanimously elected as King of Sweden following the assassination of King Sverker by a servant in 1156. 

A Danish pretender to the Swedish throne, Magnus Henriksson, had bribed the servant to commit the murder, but it was Eric who eventually found himself seated upon the throne of royal power. 

The House of Sverker would continue to challenge Eric and his family's hold on power over the next century. 

Late medieval depiction from Uppland showcasing Eric IX of Sweden and English Bishop Henry en route to Finland. Source: Unknown author (Public domain)

Legal and spiritual affairs 

Regardless of how he got the throne, some medieval accounts state that he may have murdered a brother on his way to the top. 

Eric IX is remembered as one of Sweden's most brilliant rulers of the medieval period. 

Finding his kingdom, which encompassed most, though not all, of the borders of modern-day Sweden, in legal disarray, he is credited with codifying and streamlining ancient laws. 

He was also said to be a just ruler, supporting the oppressed and expelling tyrants from his kingdom. 

What historians can confirm, however, is that while he may have contributed to improving an aging and decrepit legal system to some extent, his influence is primarily linked to the imposition of an unpopular tax (a series of tithes) to support the Christian church in Sweden and abroad. 

Why the need to burden his subjects with unpopular taxation? The answer lay in matters spiritual. 

King Eric was said to have led the "First Swedish Crusade" eastward across the Baltic to convert the heathen Finns. However, the Christianization of what is now Finland had commenced centuries earlier, around the turn of the 11th century. 

Eric IX was said to be accompanied by Henry of Uppsala (later canonized as a saint), but aside from a brief mention of a Swedish expedition in a Russian chronicle, there are no contemporary records. 

Furthermore, no archeological proof of this supposed crusade to convert the Finnish heathen masses has been found. 

Most historians believe this "First Swedish Crusade" is little more than an elaborate legend, a tall tale worthy of any Viking-era saga

Through the fabrication of these stories, the Swedish Christian Church had in Eric a benchmark for the just and pious conduct expected of the ruler of Sweden. 

The final resting place of King Eric IX, whose demise occurred at Uppsala Cathedral's site in 1160, is within the cathedral itself. Photo: Mark A. Wilson (Public domain)

Assassination and later life 

Despite his rise to power, not everyone was happy with the prospect of a long reign for King Eric IX. According to legend, it was the devil himself who convinced Danish and Swedish nobles to hatch a plot to kill their king. 

They ambushed him on the road to Uppsala after he attended a mass celebrating the Feast of the Ascension in May 1160. 

King Eric was violently pulled from his horse and stabbed multiple times by nobles who supported a rival claimant to the throne from the House of Sverker. 

However, Eric's son, Canute, would have the last laugh, reclaiming the throne and overthrowing the House of Sverker as well as unifying all the provinces of Sweden under his rule. 

King Eric IX was buried at the Old Uppsala Church, later transformed into Uppsala Cathedral. His remains were displayed in a casket upon which later Swedish monarchs would take their oaths of office. 

Recent archeological analysis of the skeletal remains seems to corroborate the nature of Eric's demise (hacked to death) and has also found evidence of battle wounds. 

This lent credence to the myths of Eric leading the 'Swedish Crusade' from the front. 

Still interested? Start booking STOEX 

If you're intrigued by King Eric IX, including details about his final resting place, our partners at STOEX can satisfy your historical curiosity. 

They provide daily tours from Stockholm, complete with transportation, that offer glimpses of both the scenic Swedish countryside and its vibrant history. 

Old Uppsala, where King Eric IX was initially interred before being relocated to Uppsala Cathedral, is among the stops featured on the STOEX Viking History Extended tour.

Here, you'll delve into the life of King Eric IX and explore its storied Viking heritage, which includes serving as a site for burial mounds and assemblies. 

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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