The man who led a rebel faction to unify the Norwegian realm after decades of civil war also managed to go on a crusade and sought to centralize power and assert royal authority that would be continued for centuries after his death.
Norwegian Civil War
Whilst we at The Viking Herald believe that Norwegian history peaked during the so-called "Viking Age" (c. 750 – 1100 CE), sadly, the story of Norway went on long after the last Viking ship ever sailed.
One historical view of this period is to see the long process of the emergence of a state and its centralization of power. This centralization of power under one king started back in the 9th century CE when Harald Fairhair was said to have "unified" Norway under his rule.
However, how much of the realm of Norway was effectively under his sole rule is debated among modern historians. Norway had powerful barons, effectively kingmakers, who crowned monarchs had to keep on their side throughout the entire medieval period.
When Sigurd Magnusson, who has been called the last true Viking king of Norway, died in 1130 CE, Norway descended into a century-long civil war fueled in part by the political ambitions of these powerful northern barons and rival claimants to the throne.
Dynastic struggles would plague Norway for the next century seeing two societal power blocs – the lower classes and the peasantry fight with the landed gentry and the church.
Since the 1130s CE, tensions had been boiling over, and this was the fractious nature of Norway that Sverre was born into sometime in the mid-1140s CE.
From the Faroes to Norway via the priesthood
Like so many medieval monarchs of Norway, we have limited historical records of note and must rely on the rich tapestry woven by the sagas. Luckily for us, what the sagas lack in historical accuracy, they make up for in pure entertainment, drama, and high adventure.
Upon his ascendancy to the Norwegian throne (much on that below) in 1184 CE, court historians started the long process of writing a royal biography (Sverre saga) which would only be completed in the years after his death, more than a decade later.
Whilst hardly authoritative and full of apparent bias, the saga still allows us a limited window to view the life of this king. Like most early medieval rulers, we do not have a complete and accurate picture of when Sverre was born, but the modern consensus is sometime between 1145 and 1151 CE.
Growing up on the Faroe Islands – then a part of the Norwegian realm – his young life was dominated by an education that saw him be ordained as a priest as a young man.
Whilst his saga paints him as the son of Sigurd Munn, who ruled Norway for almost two decades from 1136 CE - modern historians feel this "fact" may have been added in later to legitimize his ascent to the throne.
Nonetheless, he was born on the Faroes, and the fact he was educated to join the priesthood suggests a level of privilege and class for young Sverre.
We know little of the desires of young Sverre, but it takes a very special young man to be able to commit himself to the life and lifestyle of the priesthood. It appears that young Sverre was not suited to this vocation, and if we are to believe his sagas, this was foretold by a series of dreams.
These dreams apparently made him believe that he was destined for something greater than just being a priest on a remote island in the North Atlantic Ocean. Whatever the reasons, prophetic dreams or not, Sverre decided to sail to Norway to seek his destiny.
The remote Faroe Islands, where Sverre spent his formative years preparing for a destiny beyond his initial calling as a priest. Photo: kasakphoto / Shutterstock
A rebel leader on the run
The Norway that young Sverre arrived in, sometime in the 1170s, had been devastated by more than two decades of civil war. Essentially, the reason for this civil war was an evident lack of succession planning.
Unlike other medieval kingdoms (e.g., England or France), there was no primogeniture and, in a process dating back to Viking rulers, often most male relatives of a deceased king would have to fight it out for a chance to ascend to the throne.
As the claimed son of a former king, Sverre found himself front and center in what later historians have dubbed the "Civil War Period" (1130 – 1240 CE).
Finding little initial support to launch a campaign to seize his birthright, Sverre traveled to what is now modern-day Sweden, where he met the leader of one of the two participants of this civil war, the so-called Birkenbeiners.
This rebellious faction comprised the lower classes and the peasantry of Norway, whose name came from a disparaging remark that they could only afford to wrap bark around their legs instead of buying shoes (Birkebeiner literally means "Birch Legs").
Aside from supporting a rival claimant to the Norwegian throne, Øystein Møyla, there was a general malaise at the marginalization of the lower classes by the aristocracy and church.
According to his saga, Sverre found the Birkebeiners a mere ragtag of less than 100 men but soon was elected as their leader. He then went about fashioning them into a professional fighting force to take on the forces of the landed gentry and church called the Baglers.
Guerilla tactics and ascension to the throne
Despite being vastly outnumbered, Sverre skillfully led the Birkebeiners on a guerilla warfare campaign. With outside help and aid from Swedish and Orkney allies, his force employed hit-and-run tactics and helped mobilize the support of the common people to try and challenge the political status quo.
After initial setbacks, these sneaky tactics worked, and the peasantry was soon won over by who they started to call the "King of the Poor." Essentially, Sverre was a sort of Norwegian Robin Hood-type figure without the tights or Sherwood Forrest.
After a grueling campaign that saw Sverre and his force march all over central and Northern Norway, from Bergen to Nidaros (modern-day Trondheim) and everywhere in between, the two rival sides knew that the only way to land a decisive blow was to fight on the open seas.
The leader of the Baglers, Magnus Erillsson (himself the son of Sigurd the Crusader, see above), fled to Denmark to build a flotilla. Sverre stayed in Norway and put all his energy into constructing a giant ship, the Mariusada.
With his flotilla constructed, Magnus sailed and met the forces of Sverre at Fimreite, in the narrow part of the Sognfjord (undoubtedly one of the most picturesque places on earth for a battle!) on June 15, 1184, CE.
Sverre’s forces won the day thanks, in part, to Mariusada. Sverre had finally reached the pinnacle of the long and rocky ascent to total power in medieval Norway. Like all Norwegian monarchs (including the current one King Harald V), Sverre was crowned at Nidaros Cathedral.
Nidaros Cathedral, the coronation site for King Sverre Sigurdsson and all Norwegian monarchs, from Harald I to the current King Harald V. Photo: Kenggo / Shutterstock
Reignship and civil strife emerge
The reign of King Sverre was almost two decades long and full of energetic reform. He is, perhaps, best known for an introduction of a new style of kingship to Norway.
Having seen his realm devastated by civil war, sparked in part by the church and aristocracy, he sought to centralize more and more power in the sovereign, diminishing the influence of these two pillars of Norwegian society.
His meddling in church politics, and curbing of its power, saw Sverre officially excommunicated by Pope Celestine III in 1194 CE.
Like the English King Henry VIII centuries later, it was Sverre’s decision to be responsible for the appointment of bishops, something which had traditionally been done by the Pope in Rome, that was at the center of this conflict.
Many of the bishops in Norway, loyal to Rome, had fled to Denmark under the leadership of the Bishop of Stavanger, and they would provide the context for further civil war.
The final years of his reign saw civil conflict rear its ugly head again as the Baglers, now under the leadership of a pretender to the throne, Inge Magnusson, landed a force in Viken.
Oslo and Nidaros fell under the control of the Baglers, and Sverre was soon on the run. From his in Bergen, Sverre launched one final assault to recapture much of the eastern part of his realm, failing in a siege at Tønsberg.
By the time he limped back to Bergen, he was gravely ill and appointed his son, Håkon, as his successor. He passed away in 1202 CE, having spent almost two decades on the throne.
Whilst he lasted less than two decades on the throne, Sverre is best remembered now for his centralization of power in Norway for the sovereign, his rebel leadership and military victories, his tussle with the Pope (foreshadowing Henry VIII by 400 years), and for founding a royal dynasty, the House of Sverre, at times, ruled the Kingdom of Norway and Scotland, from 1184 to 1319 CE.
The Royal Central has more information on Sverre’s tussle with the Pope, available to read here.
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