In 1146 Denmark descended into chaos and civil war upon the abdication of King Erik III (r. 1137 – 1146). He was the first Danish King to abdicate and, with no legitimate son to inherit the throne, the kingdom did not have the political stability to ensure a smooth succession. Sources written after the civil war, in the knowledge of the turmoil his departure created, judge Erik as a weak and short-sighted ruler. We however will not judge him too harshly. After abdicating Erik took himself off to a monastery and was dead within months – it seems likely he was incapacitated by illness, and it was this that forced him from the throne.
Enter Sweyn III, Cnut V, and Waldemar I. All three men were of direct descent within the Danish royal line, and each had the backing of a faction of the Danish elites as they sought to become sole king of Denmark. The support each enjoyed was legitimising and, in separate ceremonies, all three were crowned king – to this day, despite the fact that they ascended the throne in the same year and reigned concurrently, they are all considered Kings of Denmark. The status quo of three independent kings of Denmark lasted a decade, the kings variously allying or warring as they sought to gain control of the kingdom. Invariably it ended in treachery, at the infamous Blood Feast of Roskilde. The three men had arrived at an agreement to split the kingdom among themselves and met in celebration for a feast at Roskilde in 1157. By the end of the night one king would be a traitor, one would be a corpse, and one would be in exile. The youngest of these men, a noble son who would go on to become *spoiler* King Waldemar the Great, does not wish us to forget this injustice, the greatest treachery of the civil war.
I wish it to be known to everyone, present and future, that certain traitors, who were enjoying a pleasant meal with me and were engaging me in friendly conversation, without warning sought to run me through with naked blades, unarmed as I was and not fearing any such thing. But God’s mercy was with-out end, without help from anyone it protected me and with great power pulled me out from the midst of armoured men.
We do need some background to this story to understand why these three men were fighting for the throne, and it is hideously complicated. In fact, it requires a diagram. (If you are mainly here for the murder and treachery, I won’t be offended if you skip this section)! We will start with the kingship of Sweyn II (r. 1047 – 1076) – a man of prodigious fecundity. Though we do not know precisely how many children Sweyn had, it was a least twenty, five of whom would succeed to the Danish throne.
Sweyn himself was the son of Estrid Svensdatter, daughter of the Danish King Sweyn Forkbeard, and sister to Cnut the Great, and it was through this lineage that Sweyn II held a claim to the Danish throne. As this claim was passed through the female line, it is often considered the start of a new dynasty which bears her name – the House of Estridsen. We will gloss over the five years of Norwegian rule over Denmark that immediately preceded Sweyn’s kingship, and our diagram of Danish Kings will pick up in 1047, continuing through to the three claimants of the civil war.
The Danish Succession (1047 – 1146)
This should give you an idea of the line of succession and the relationships between our three antagonists. I have tried to keep things simple and, as such, there are some nuances missing here. For example, Erik III’s paternal line descended from the Norwegian ruler Magnus the Good who held the Danish crown prior to Sweyn II, and thus Erik held a claim to the kingship from both parents. Of more importance, the kingship was, in principle, elective. This explains why a succession of brothers took the crown instead of it passing to the young sons of the elder siblings, why the kingship passed through the female line twice, and why an illegitimate son could make a claim to the throne. But this ‘elective principle’ should be taken with a grain of salt. The electors were an exclusive circle of elites, all the candidates for the kingship were drawn from the same family, and the crown invariably passed to the next ‘of age’ male in the line of succession. Indeed, if we consider that Waldemar, as the legitimate grandson of an elder brother, was considered by most chroniclers to have the primary claim to the throne, it seems clear that ideas of primogeniture had begun to permeate the Danish court. (Though I should also note that, as Waldemar emerged the victor of the civil wars, our sources tend to be deeply pro-Waldemar and thus make deliberate attempts to play-up his legitimacy). With all these nuances and caveats explained, and the picture duly complicated, I don’t want you to be in any doubt that this is essentially a family squabble, pure and simple. Cnut V, Sweyn III and Waldemar were cousins, all great-grandson of Sweyn II, and all thought they were deserving of the family inheritance.
Now, I have to admit that that all got far more complicated than I anticipated when I started writing. Clearly the politics of Denmark leading into the civil war are convoluted, but hopefully the outline I have given you will put you in good stead to watch the entertainment as Sweyn, Cnut and Waldemar vie for supremacy, culminating in the dramatically named Blood Feast.
The Blood Feast of Roskilde
I will let the twelfth-century Danish historian Sven Aggesen open proceedings, as Sven provides a succinct summary of the narrative as it has been passed down to us:
And when he was dead, [Cnut], the son of Magnus … was made king at the Viborg assembly, and Sven … was put on the throne by the Scanians. And while they were engaged in numerous battles, Waldemar, the scion of holy blood … gained possession of his father’s fief and gave assistance to both in turn, as if he stood between them.
However, after a long time, a council was held in Lolland, and the rulers decided to divide the kingdom into equal thirds and to confirm the treaty by an oath. But the treaty did not remain firm for long, as the outcome of the arrangement showed. For after the council had been held, the three we have mentioned came together that autumn in the city of Roskilde for a feast, and they dined first with King [Sweyn]. The peace and trust between them had been broken, and he had prepared a trap: he plan[ned] to kill [Cnut] and [Waldemar] that evening after vespers by means of commissioners previously instructed. When the lights had been snuffed, they slew [Cnut] and crowned him with martyrdom; but while they were trying to run [Waldemar] through with a naked sword, he was seriously wounded in the thigh, but God’s grace preserved him and he escaped. However, as soon as he had recovered somewhat from the pain of his wound, he set out for Jutland and gathered together an army. Sven, who was king of Scania, hastened after [Waldemar], king of Jutland, and they joined battle at Grathe. Nor was the victory long in doubt, for Sven was beaten, and killed by the hand of a peasant. And so the glorious victor, King [Waldemar], gained possession of the kingdom.
Let’s walk through what Sven tells us here with the help of some other chroniclers. The Blood Feast and, more broadly, the Danish civil war is covered extensively in other chronicles – most comprehensively by Saxo Grammaticus in his Gesta Danorum, but also within the Chronica Slavorum of Helmold of Bosau, the Knýtlinga saga of Óláfr Þórðarson (?), and in collected minor historical treatises and diplomatic texts. I will be relying mainly on Saxo to augment Sven’s account, though aspects of the other sources will also help with context.
Sven’s first paragraph covers a decade of civil war in a couple of sentences. Here the factionalism and independent coronations I noted above are on display. Each man is declared king by his own followers – Sweyn and Cnut are the older of the cousins and it is perhaps a little unsurprising that Waldemar, fifteen at the time of Erik III’s abdication, took a back seat. For a fifteen year-old claimant to the throne during a civil war, staying alive was rather an impressive feat and Sven indicates that Waldemar supported each of his rivals as it best suited him. Indeed, Saxo informs us that, in the early years of the civil war Sweyn was ascendant and well supported by Waldemar, whom he rewarded with a dukedom in addition to his patrimony. Cnut however wooed Waldemar to his cause through a marriage alliance and, at the time of the Blood Feast, Cnut and Waldemar were very close indeed. Which is not to say that Waldemar did not remain on friendly terms with Sweyn, and it was in fact this friendship that doomed Cnut on that fateful day in Roskilde.
Which moves us on to Sven’s account of the council and the division of the kingdom. But first I should briefly note the kind of pro-Waldemarian propaganda we are invariably dealing with. Sven’s description of Waldemar as the scion of the holy blood makes his opinion pretty clear and, as we lead up to the Blood Feast, Saxo makes sure that he proclaims Sweyn’s duplicity at every moment. We are not supposed to be in doubt that Sweyn is the bad guy, and that Waldemar is a paradigm of virtue. However, in Saxo’s account there is a naivety to Waldemar’s virtue, a naivety which to which much of what occurs can be attributed. It was Waldemar who brought Cnut to meet with Sweyn at Lolland, and it was Waldemar who convinced Cnut to attend the feast at Roskilde despite his clear distrust of Sweyn. In the lead-up to the Lolland treaty, Sweyn had sought to return Waldemar to their former alliance, however the faithful Waldemar declared that you’re wasting your time if you go on trying to shatter the sympathy between Cnut and myself. Sweyn responded disingenuously that he had no such intent, merely a desire to establish peace with both of them, an interaction which resulted in the treaty. Having thus convince Waldemar of his integrity, the now twenty-six year-old Waldemar in his naivety was further able to overcome Cnut’s distrust of Sweyn, convincing him to attend the feast at Roskilde. Leading him into the lion’s den.
According to Saxo, this was no spur of the moment plot. One of Sweyn’s soldiers, Detlev, was prepared in advance and looking for a moment to undertake the nefarious deed, even seeking to put Cnut at his ease with friendly interaction. Shortly after, Sweyn removed himself from the hall, leaving Cnut and Waldemar alone with his men, preparing to assassinate the rival kings. Then the attack began. Waldemar, sensing the impending attacked, leapt from his chair and, wrapping his cloak about his hand fended of blows, though Detlev managed slice open his leg as he fled, bursting through his opponents and out the door. Turning his attention to Cnut, Detlev stabbed him in the head. Cnut was caught as he fell by one of Waldemar’s key advisors and a man destined for greatness, Absalon, the future Archbishop of Lund. But this was a harrowing moment for the young cleric. A man named Dobik stood over then, attempting to avenge Cnut, but he was struck down. Another of Cnut’s confederates, Konstantin, sought to lead Absalon from the hall, but he too was killed before Absalon, in the gloom, managed to bluff his way past the guards at the door. Yet Absalon was still pursued, and even trapped by a band of men as he sought sanctuary at the cathedral of the Trinity, before other men bravely rescued the cleric. Thus, with both the future sole king of Denmark and the future Archbishop of Lund escaping the slaughter, Saxo declares: In this way Fate preserved the future pillar of our fatherland, unwilling to let the hope of Denmark’s restoration disappear completely. And that hope did not disappear. The Blood Feast had occurred on the 9th of August, and on the 23rd October Sweyn and Waldemar met in a final battle at Grathe Heath, from which Waldemar would emerge victorious. And the restoration began immediately as, with the loyal Absalon by his side, Waldemar united Denmark, brought the country into the Wendish Crusades, and began a period of territorial expansion that would earn him the sobriquet ‘the Great.’
It’s all a little neat though, isn’t it? Waldemar was on good terms with Cnut, a relative both by descent and through marriage, so what would the two men have done if they had defeated Sweyn? Split the kingdom? That kind of arrangement has traditionally been a poor one with one of the kings dying shortly after. However, if Waldemar was able to control the narrative, he could scarcely have come up with a better one to absolve himself of ill-deed. His ally was murdered through treachery, he himself was wounded and fled, pursued by the traitor. Finally, turning to face his pursuer, by the grace of God, he was granted victory.
After eleven years of civil war, it was all over in the space of a month and, if we are to believe the chroniclers, Waldemar achieved this rapid victory by a mix of good luck, circumstance, and divine intervention. While I could never prove this, as our sources almost universally follow Waldemar’s narrative, I would contest that Waldemar’s victory was of his own making. It was Waldemar who acted as a go-between for the other kings, it was he who brought Cnut into Sweyn’s clutches, and it was he who somehow ‘miraculously’ escaped the Blood Feast. Was this in fact pre-arranged with Sweyn? It seems likely to me that Waldemar played Cnut and Sweyn off against each other, convincing each of his support, and taking the opportunities to eliminate them as they arose. The quote by Waldemar at the top of this article, in which he exhorts us to remember the treachery of that day, is our most contemporary account of events. Waldemar was creating his own narrative and, given his really quite extraordinary success as a king on the years to come, it seems likely the chroniclers were happy to follow. So who was the real traitor at the Blood Feast of Roskilde? Certainly it was Sweyn and his men that hewed down King Cnut V, but perhaps they too were mere pawns in the hands of the man who would become one of Denmark most extraordinary and accomplished kings, Waldemar the Great.
- Feature image: The Blood Feast of Roskilde – each king is labelled by his name and Cnut can be seen being cut down. MS Sächsische Weltchronik, Forschungsbibliothek Gotha, Memb. I 90, f. 131v.
- Eric Christiansen, The Works of Sven Aggesen, Twelfth-Century Danish Historian, London: Viking Society for Northern Research, 1993. [English translation abridged by me].
- Lars Kjær, ‘Feasting with Traitors: Royal Banquets as Rituals and Texts in High Medieval Scandinavia,’ in Rituals, Performatives, and Political Order in Northern Europe, c. 650-1350, edited by Jezierski et al., Turnhout: Brepols, 2015, pp. 269 – 294.
- Hermann Pálsson and Paul Edwards, Knytlinga Saga: The History of the Kings of Denmark. Odense: Odense University Press, 1986.
- Saxo Grammaticus, Gesta Danorum,edited by Karsten Friis-Jensen and translated by Peter Fisher, 2 vols, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2015.
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Categories: History & Analysis