Libellus de Magno Erici Rege
by Arne Jönsson
Libellus de Magno Erici Rege (a pamphlet about King Magnus Eriksson). The anonymous Libellus de Magno Erici Rege gives an outline of King Magnus Eriksson’s reign, painting it in dark colours. The author emphasises that Sweden is an elective, not a hereditary kingdom, and that the king can be deposed if he commits evil deeds and turns into a tyrant. The detailed account of King Magnus’s reign is designed to show that he had wilfully and systematically broken the law, proving himself to be a rex iniustus, a tyrant, whom it was legitimate to depose. At the end, King Magnus is being kept prisoner after having committed his latest misdeed. This shows that God had taken his hand from him and that the new king, Albert, could count on divine support.
In the only extant manuscript, the title of the work is Qualiter regnauit rex Magnus. The modern title, Libellus de Magno Erici Rege, was given to the work by the editor.
Qualiter regnauit rex magnus. Suecia est vna regio …
… qui adhuc captus sicut male meruit detinetur. tu autem.
7 standard pages (of 1200 characters).
SRS III:2, 12-15.
Date and Place of Composition
The Libellus can be dated to 1365-1371 since it describes the imprisonment of King Magnus as a present fact. The king was held prisoner from 1365, when he had been defeated in the battle at the Gata Wood, to 1371. Since no events after the battle are mentioned, it is possible that the pamphlet was written soon after 1365.
Summary of Contents
In the beginning of the pamphlet, it is emphasised that from heathen times it was Swedish law that when a king had died or been deposed because of evil deeds or tyranny, the people of the realm was free to elect a new king and that no one inherited the realm. In this way, continues the Libellus, Magnus had been elected king unanimously by the nobility and the people at the age of three, not by right of inheritance (non quia justiciam habuit ad regnum propter hereditatem), but out of charity (propter caritatem) and because he was next of kin to the dead king. He was elected to ensure peace and concord among the people. The king’s guardians governed the realm amid great tribulations and wars, warding off hostile kings and tyrants; the men of the realm (homines … regni) redeemed Skåne (terram Skanie) for a great sum of money. At the age of five, Magnus inherited Norway from his grandfather.
When the king came of age, everyone in Sweden and Norway rejoiced, and as long as the king was obedient to the powerful and wise men who had governed when he was a minor, Sweden prospered, and there was peace and concord.
But because people did not thank God for His blessings, a root was planted in the kingdom from which all the king’s tribulations grew, for the king took a young, beautiful and high-born French lady to be his wife (Blanche of Namur). Very soon he began to distrust his old and wise advisers and make young, poor and low-born men his councillors. This gave rise to pride and greed to such a degree (tantus incepit superbie et cupiditatis esse excessus) that the two kingdoms were impoverished through very heavy taxation (propter imposiciones grauissimas) that forced people into exile. To be sure, the king used to go to mass and fast, but he did not care to administer justice. In fact, writes the pamphleteer, he loved tyrants and enemies of God and despised God’s wise friends, and because of that it pleased God to punish the realm.
The king and queen had their elder son (Erik Magnusson) elected king of Sweden, the younger (Håkan) king of Norway, and everyone was pleased because that arrangement was thought to guarantee peace. But cruel officials who did not care about either God or their souls were appointed to extract money from the people, not for the good of the realm or for purposes of war, but to satisfy their pride and their craving for luxury. At that time pleasure turned into pain, because the king got tired of the queen and did not want to have sexual intercourse with her. After a while he began to have unnatural intercourse at the instigation of the devil, and he started to promote a knight (Bengt Algotsson) whom both he and the queen loved, raising him to a position above that of their sons. They made him duke and handed over the greater part of the realm to him, and the son who had previously been made king (quem antea rex creauerat regem) was degraded to the rank of duke. The nobles and other people took offence, but no one dared to protest until the son came of age, when, encouraged by the advice and assistance of the great, rich and wise men of the realm, he went to war against Duke Bengt, recaptured the realm and expelled him. He set aside a part of the realm for the maintenance of his father and mother and vowed that he would never be a friend of the duke but would rather kill him if he could. When the queen heard this, she went to the very cruel king of Denmark and promised him Skåne if he reinstated the duke. The king declared himself willing to comply. Everyone thought that it was absurd and suspicious that the queen interfered with such matters of state while the king stayed peacefully at home. But since the son had a powerful position, a meeting with the parents and the councillors was arranged to reach an agreement. After long discussions the mother gave her son poison and he died after twenty days. When he felt that he was dying, he said that those who had given him the light of day now separated him from it.
In this way the father recovered his position, but he could not revenge himself on his son’s supporters because they were too powerful. Instead, all served the king as they had served his son, and he himself vowed that he would mend his ways, avoid infamy, and not surrender any territories to the king of Denmark. However, things got worse: (1) the king promoted a new favourite who exposed him to infamy; (2) against the advice of all his councillors, he surrendered Skåne to the king of Denmark without recovering the sum of money paid for the territory, which seemed to confirm what the councillors of the king of Denmark claimed, namely that the two kings had conspired against their own men to destroy them; (3) he permitted the king of Denmark to invade Öland and Gotland, plundering the islands and killing many people, while at the same time he himself imprisoned the bishop of Åbo (Turku); and (4) he had neglected a papal interdict for five years even though the law of the land declares that whoever is excommunicated for more than a year is subject to capital punishment.
Therefore, all bishops, barons, other nobles and wise people came together, and having found the king obstinate, deceitful, perjured and conscious of his guilt (attendentes regem obstinatum in conceptibus suis proditoremque regni et suorum violatorem juramentorum et promissionum suarum fauctoremque regis Dacie et conscium doli sui sed et depopulatorem communitatis sue), they deposed him as the law prescribes and elected a new king, Albert, the son of King Magnus’s sister Euphemia, (a. filium sororis sue e.). There was an agreement between the old king and Albert to the effect that the old king should retain a part of the realm and the new one have both the name and office of king.
When Albert went abroad to lay siege to a castle, King Magnus sent for his son, the king of Norway, and for other men from Denmark, and declared his promises and vows null and void. However, the few men whom the new king had left behind won, with God’s help, a victory over the old king, although his army was superior in numbers. The king of Norway escaped wounded, but his father was caught and is still in captivity which, in the pamphleteer’s opinion, serves him right.
The sources of the Libellus have been investigated by KRAFT and ANDERSSON. KRAFT (1927) writes that he is almost certain that the Libellus is a revelation of St. Birgitta, that it has been composed by prior Petrus Olavi, and that Petrus has served as a contact between Birgitta in Rome and the king’s enemies in Sweden. ANDERSSON points out that there are important differences between this text and St. Birgitta’s revelations. He maintains that the Libellus is a piece of literature and that the revelations are only one of the sources of the Libellus, albeit an important one.
To be sure, St. Birgitta’s Revelations and the Libellus have a number of facts and opinions in common, but that does not necessarily mean that Birgitta is the source. In fact, the lack of verbal similarities, the presence of significant differences in facts and opinions (e.g., Birgitta was no friend of the Mecklenburg dukes and she never accuses Magnus and Blanche of having killed their son) and, finally, the fact that Birgitta’s revelations do not seem to have circulated widely in Sweden as early as 1365-1371 make direct dependence of the Libellus on the Revelations unlikely. Rather, Birgitta and the author of the Libellus have had access to the same political proclamations and propaganda. Moreover, in order to motivate the dethronement of King Magnus, both of them had to show that he had broken the Swedish law, which of course determined the choice of accusations.
Purpose and Audience
The pamphlet divides Magnus’s reign into two periods: in the earlier one, Sweden flourished (tunc Suecia plena fuit diuiciis, felix pace et concordia et exultans gaudio magno), while in the later period everything is miserable: his reign is now characterized by injustice, greed, treason, perversions and murder. When the king married Blanche of Namur he began to dissociate himself from the councillors he had retained from his young days and to appoint new men. The councillors are also mentioned in another context. It is said explicitly that Magnus’s surrender of Skåne was done against the will of all the councillors. The pro-Council, anti-Magnus bias makes it natural to assume that the pamphlet was composed in circles connected with the Council and, as ANDERSSON claims, that it was written to justify the position adopted by part of the Swedish aristocracy when they summoned Albert to be king of Sweden. The fact that Magnus is presented as the second king in succession who had been deposed makes it tempting to see the pamphlet also as a warning to the new king. Some of the issues that had caused Magnus’s downfall could easily come to the fore again.
Medieval Reception and Transmission
The Libellus has been preserved in only one copy (from the early fifteenth century), which was kept in the library of Vadstena Abbey. It was, however, used as a source for two important medieval chronicles, the anonymous Förbindelsedikten (‘the connecting poem’, probably written in the 1450s, in Swedish) and Ericus Olai’s Chronica regni Gothorum. It has thus indirectly influenced posterity’s view of King Magnus and has contributed to the king’s poor reputation in Swedish historiographical tradition.
- ANDERSSON, I. 1928: Källstudier till Sveriges historia 1230–1436, Diss. Lund. [Andersson argues that Förbindelsedikten used Libellus as a source and that the author of Libellus to a great extent was inspired by St. Birgitta’s revelations.]
- AXELSON, S. 1976: ‘Notiserna om Magnus Erikssons kröning och hans nederlag vid Gata 1365’, Historisk Tidskrift 96, 184-188. [Axelson discusses two notes that follow the Libellus in the manuscript (and the edition).]
- FERM, O. 1993: ‘Heliga Birgittas program för uppror mot Magnus Eriksson. En studie i politisk argumentationskonst’, pp. 125-143 in Heliga Birgitta – budskapet och förebilden, Kungl. Vitterhets Historie och Antikvitets Akademien. Konferenser 28. Stockholm. [Ferm shows that St. Birgitta’s accusations against King Magnus closely correspond to the regulations of the Swedish law code of about 1350.]
- HERGEMÖLLER, B-U. 2003: Magnus versus Birgitta. Der Kampf der heiligen Birgitta von Schweden gegen König Magnus Eriksson, Hergemöllers Historiographische Libelli III, Hamburg.
- KRAFT, S. 1927: ’En pamflett mot Magnus Eriksson i dess idéhistoriska och litterära miljö’, Historisk Tidskrift 47, 1–27. [Kraft claims that the Libellus is a Birgitta revelation.]
- KRAFT, S. 1929: Textstudier till Birgittas revelationer, Diss. Uppsala.
- NORDBERG, M. 1995: I kung Magnus tid, Norden under Magnus Eriksson 1317–1374, Stockholm.
- SJÖSTEDT, L. 1954: Krisen inom det svensk-skånska väldet 1356–1359, Diss. Lund. [Sjöstedt demonstrates that the Libellus was written by someone connected with Swedish aristocratic circles hostile to King Magnus in order to defend his dethronement.]