Margaret I of Denmark (1353–1412)

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Margaret I of Denmark (1353–1412)

Queen of Denmark and one of Scandinavia's greatest monarchs, who unified Denmark, Norway, and Sweden by the Union of Kalmar . Name variations: (Danish) Margrete, Margrethe I, Margareta; Margaret of Denmark, Margaret Valdemarsdatter or Valdemarsdottir; Margaret Waldemarsdatter or Waldemarsdottir; "Semiramis of the North." Reigned as queen of Denmark, 1387–1397, queen of Norway, 1388–1405, and regent of Sweden, 1389–1412. Born in 1353; died on board her royal ship anchored in Flensburg's harbor on October 28, 1412; second daughter of Valdemar IV also known as Waldemar IV Atterdag, king of Denmark (r. 1340–1375), and Queen Helvig of Denmark (sister of Waldemar III, duke of Schleswig); sister of Ingeborg (1347–1370); married Haakon VI (1338–1380), king of Norway (r. 1355–1380), king of Sweden (r. 1362–1364), in 1363; children: Olaf or Oluf (born at the royal castle of Oslo in 1370), king of Denmark (r. 1376–1387), king of Norway (r. 1380–1387).

At the death of her father Waldemar IV (1375), persuaded the council of the realm to elect son Olaf as king of Denmark and appoint herself guardian; when Olaf inherited kingdom of Norway at the death of her Norwegian husband Haakon VI (1380), became guardian for that country as well; at Olaf's sudden death (1387), was declared "Denmark's proxy and guardian"; Norwegians made her regent for life and even the Swedes allied themselves with her to rid themselves of their German-born king; to ensure royal succession in all three countries, adopted six-year-old grandson of her sister, Erik of Pomerania, who was crowned king in each of the Scandinavian kingdoms (1397), while she remained regent; summoned the Union of Kalmar which unified the three Nordic countries, Denmark, Norway and Sweden (1397); maintained rulership till her death (1412).

In the 11th century, the kingdoms of Scandinavia were a relatively new feature of medieval Europe. During the earliest phase of Viking attacks on Europe, the area was characterized by disunity; bands of Vikings from various Scandinavian areas looted Western Europe for personal or regional gain. But from the late 9th through the 11th centuries, the Scandinavian rulers had consolidated the area; by 1100 three distinct kingdoms—Norway, Sweden and Denmark—had been created. By this time, there were significant regional differences in language and in rules of royal succession which ensured the separate development of the kingdoms. Of these northern realms, only Iceland existed without a king; by the mid-13th century, however, the king of Norway claimed jurisdiction there. Notwithstanding the 11th-century achievements of King Canute the Great of Norway, Denmark and England, the Scandinavian kingdoms remained separate realms with separate monarchs until the 14th century. The individual who succeeded in uniting the three was a woman—Margaret Waldemarsdatter, later Margaret I of Denmark.

This Danish princess, second daughter of Waldemar IV Atterdag, king of Denmark, and Queen Helvig of Denmark , spent only the first ten years of her life at her father's court on the island of Sealand. In her 11th year (1363), she was married to the Norwegian king, Haakon VI, and shortly thereafter was sent to the castle of Akershus near Oslo to become acquainted with the country of which she was to be queen. Because she was considered too young to consummate her marriage, she was given into the tutelage of a Swedish noble-woman, Merete Ulfsdatter , who brought her up with her own daughter, Ingegerd . Merete Ulfsdatter was a displaced royalist. With her husband, she had sided with the Swedish king, Magnus Eriksson (Haakon's father), when a faction of Swedish nobles had dethroned him and invited a German duke, Albert II of Mecklenburg, to take his place. Those same nobles would later ally themselves with Margaret to send Albert back to Mecklenburg and thus return the kingdom to the old Scandinavian line. From the very first, then, this Danish princess who married a Norwegian king at whose court she was reared by a woman of Sweden's bluest blood seemed destined by birth as well as circumstance to become the unifier of the three countries and earn the postscript among Danes of "greatest statesman in Danish history." The Swedes were less generous.

Sources of information regarding Margaret's early years in Norway are scarce, but the birth of her only child, Olaf (V), is recorded to have taken place in 1370. Margaret was then 17 years old. That she and her husband lived together in good understanding is suggested by a letter from Margaret to Haakon written during one of his frequent journeys about Norway to raise an army to liberate his father from the hold of the Swedish nobles. She lets him know that she and her household are on the point of starvation, and she urges her husband to write a German merchant with assurances that he will cover any loans extended to the queen in his absence for the purpose of buying food. She requests a copy of the letter as well as the king's permission to be granted cash from the treasurer of the realm in the event of ships entering the harbor with goods she needs to buy. At 18, she not only demonstrates her ability to manage the royal household but shows her knowledge of affairs of state and her participation in the solution of problems. She reports the receipt of a letter of apology from a certain jeweler who had failed to heed a royal summons, and she asks the king's indulgence on the jeweler's behalf. Finally, she seeks her husband's approbation for having mortgaged some royal possessions to obtain a pardon for an alleged criminal. This demonstrated ability to assess a situation and make choices in accordance with inborn intelligence and ingenuity, careful upbringing, and a sense of fairness would become her hallmark as she advanced from queen of one country to ruler of three.

In 1375, at age 22, Margaret was summoned to Denmark at the death of her father, King Waldemar IV. No successor to the Danish throne had been chosen even though Waldemar's son, the acknowledged heir, had died several years earlier. The first in line at this time was the son of Waldemar's eldest daughter, Ingeborg , who before her death in 1370 had been married to Henry, duke of Mecklenburg. As the younger daughter, Margaret had the lesser claim for her son, but she appeared with Olaf by the hand immediately after learning of her father's death and persuaded the state council to proclaim the five-year-old Olaf king of Denmark with his mother as guardian. That began 37 years of rule during which she would gather the three Scandinavian countries under her dominion, one by one.

When Margaret's husband King Haakon of Norway died in 1380, ten-year-old Olaf inherited his father's kingdom and, again, his mother became his appointed guardian. She and Olaf subsequently traveled to Norway where Olaf was crowned king in Oslo. With two crowns in place, Margaret was ready to challenge the power of the Hanseatic League which not only dominated trade in the Baltic, but which also held extensive land holdings in all three Scandinavian countries. These had been obtained by purchases or leases from the succession of weak or profligate kings who had preceded Margaret's father, Waldemar IV. She targeted the most lucrative first, the possessions in southwest Sweden (Scania) with their castle strongholds which guarded the entry to the Baltic. Her father had been forced to mortgage them for 15 years, but the year of repossession, 1385, was approaching. The merchants, however, refused to release either property or castles, so Margaret had Olaf dispatch a letter expressing his royal wrath at being thwarted in his princely claims and threatening severe repercussions. Her own letter to the Hanseatic merchants subsequently promised her aid in smoothing matters over if they yielded to her son's demands. Simultaneously, pirates attacked the Hanseatic vessels in the Baltic with unaccustomed vigor. When their League complained to Margaret, reminding her that it was the duty of the Danish king to keep the sea safe for trade, she agreed but professed her inability to do anything without her Scanian castles. Realizing they had been outwitted and unwilling to go to war to keep their estates, the Hanseatic merchants yielded them up. Margaret had had her way, and once again the Danish monarch, now in possession and control of both sides of the Sound which connects the North Sea and the Baltic, could demand and receive the tariff from ships entering that inland sea. The incident shows Margaret as her father's daughter, intelligent and shrewd; for his violence, however, she had substituted flexibility, and experience had taught her patience to bide her time.

Merete Ulfsdatter (fl. 1320–1370)

Swedish noblewoman . Name variations: Marta Ulfsdottir. Born around 1320; daughter of St. Bridget of Sweden (1303–1373) and Ulf Gudmarsson (d. 1342), prince of Nericia; sister of Saint Catherine of Sweden (c. 1330–1381); children: Ingegerd , who became an abbess at Vadstena.

This extraordinary patience and willingness to negotiate were trump cards as well in the realization of her dream to build a Baltic empire. To be successful at that, Margaret had to include Sweden in her Dano-Norwegian sphere of influence. Again, time and circumstance were on her side, and she took advantage of the proffered opportunity. She learned that the same nobles who had grown weary of Magnus Eriksson, Olaf's grandfather, and ousted him, had grown equally disenchanted with Albert of Mecklenburg, the German whom they themselves had invited to rule. He and his fellow Germans, they complained, sat like eagles on the mountain tops tyrannizing the country. With her accustomed sense of timing, Margaret therefore had had her son proclaimed heir of Sweden as the last descendant of the Swedish royal line simultaneously with her regaining possession of the Scanian provinces. The positive results of that proclamation measure the degree of dissatisfaction experienced by the Swedish nobles: they preferred to ally themselves with the daughter of King Waldemar, their one-time enemy in the battle for control of the Baltic, than to be ruled by their invited king. Another fortuitous circumstance which served to strengthen Margaret's position was the death of Sweden's greatest and richest landholder, Bo Jonsson. Void of heirs, he had left his estates in the hands of a group of nobles who as executors of his will were to further the politics of Swedish nobility and prevent his property and manors from reverting to the crown. The Swedes were concerned, however, that the wealthiest estate in the country and the power connected with it would be claimed by Albert of Mecklenburg, and that they would be powerless to prevent it. They therefore offered the estate to Margaret, or rather to Olaf, in the hope that he would return it to Swedish aristocracy. The gesture signalled the first step towards the deposition of Albert of Mecklenburg. It was now up to Margaret and Olaf to demand the castles from those who were managing them.

Margaret saw the Swedish crown within her reach when Olaf died suddenly in the year 1387. She grieved as a mother for the loss of her only child, but she acted quickly and decisively. She had the Danish council of state proclaim her "Mistress of our realm, Master of our house, and guardian." In Norway, she was declared "Regent for life," and, in Sweden, she continued her negotiations with the disenchanted nobles, avoiding war against Albert of Mecklenburg until no other option was possible. At that point, in 1389, she met Albert's forces in the battle of Falkoebing in Southern Sweden and defeated them. "Praise be to God who gave an unexpected victory into the hands of a woman," wrote a contemporary chronicler. Albert of Mecklenburg was captured by the Danes and kept in prison until he was ready to cede all claims to Sweden, including the city of Stockholm where the Germans had wielded their greatest influence. Subsequently, all of Albert's estates and holdings as well as those he had bequeathed to German officials reverted to the crown; possessions lost in the war were restored to the nobles, and all castles and fortifications erected during Albert's reign were demolished. Peaceful rule, order, and unity were the pillars of Margaret's empire.

Yet she was in a precarious position as ruler of all three countries but queen only of Norway. She was firm in her conviction, however, that a country could not be ruled well without a royal monarch. She therefore adopted her sister's six-year-old grandson, Bugislav of Pomerania, whom she diplomatically renamed Erik (VII of Denmark) in memory of the Swedish national saint and numerous Scandinavian kings, and once again she toured the three kingdoms with a youth to have him proclaimed king of all.

Half a century after her father had started reconstituting the Danish kingdom which previous kings had parcelled out in mortgages and leases or downright sold to German dukes, Margaret had finished what he began: she had not only reconstituted Denmark, she had unified the three Scandinavian kingdoms. The event which celebrated and ratified that union is the now-famous Convention of Kalmar summoned by Margaret in 1397. Here were gathered nobles from all three kingdoms, and Erik VII was crowned king of the Scandinavian countries. The coronation document praises Margaret for her work which has yielded such glorious rewards. It reads, "God grant her heaven for her great deeds and her presence among us," and in it her subjects thank her for leading the Nordic countries out of the difficulties that had arisen with the infighting of nobles and their relationship to the king. Sixty-seven nobles attached their seals to the document. The charter which sealed the union was, however, signed by only a minority. Despite the brilliant conceptualizing of a Nordic union unlike any before or since, fear of dominant Danish rule prevented the consensus necessary to ensure its survival. It was nonetheless in effect for 126 years, until 1523, when Sweden broke away. The union between Denmark and Norway remained undisrupted until 1814 when England forced it asunder. By then Denmark and Norway had been united for 434 years.

The Kalmar Union was intended to ensure peace among the three countries. Together, they would elect one king, and each country would respect the independence of the others. They were equals, and no one country was to dominate another. For the time being, Erik was king of all three countries—with Margaret as ruler. In the future, one king was to be elected for all. If one country were forced into battle, all three were to consider it a declaration of war.

With the Scandinavian union in place, Margaret could turn her attention to a problem she had ignored in her efforts to tie Sweden to the Scandinavian alliance: the dukedom of Schleswig. In a seemingly brilliant move, she had made peace in 1386, shortly before Olaf's death, with the Holstein dukes who were clamoring for possession of Schleswig. She had offered that southernmost Danish province as a fiefdom to a Holsteiner who would then consider the Danish king his lord. Historians have criticized Margaret for sacrificing Schleswig, but throughout her reign she remained constant in her decision to fight one battle at a time. With the Swedes in her corner, she could address the problem of dominion in southern Denmark. Her opportunity for intervention came in 1404 when the Holstein duke who had been installed in Schleswig with the rights and privileges of a Danish duke died, leaving a widow, with one daughter and three young sons, in urgent need of money. Fearful of the Holstein dukes who were eager to relieve her of the guardianship of Schleswig, the widowed duchess Elizabeth of Brunswick allied herself with Margaret. Elizabeth found Margaret willing to come to her rescue by paying cash for either mortgages or estates in Schleswig, in the manner practiced so successfully by Germans in other times. Thus, when Margaret acquired the city of Flensburg as a mortgage, young King Erik moved in and openly undermined the rule of the Holsteiners. They grew nervous at the vision of a separation between Holstein and Schleswig and consequently revolted in 1409. Erik took up the gauntlet and readied for war against the rebels. With her characteristic reliance on peaceful resolutions, Margaret nonetheless managed to intervene and secure an armistice for five years. She entered Flensburg on October 24, 1412, to receive the citizens' oath of fealty on Erik's behalf. That journey of reconciliation cost her her life. She caught the plague which during those weeks was ravaging the city and died on October 28 on board her royal ship anchored in Flensburg's harbor. She was 59 years old.

Her body was brought to Soro where she was to be interred with her father, grandfather, and son; but her chancellor, the bishop of Roskilde, wanted her close by and insisted she be brought to Roskilde Cathedral.

Approximately ten years later, King Eric erected a sepulchral monument for his famous foster mother. On the lid is a figure of alabaster, a young, gothic queen with an elaborate hairdo, a linen headpiece topped by a crown, a low-cut gown, and bells fastened to her belt with chains. Historians concede they know nothing about how Margaret looked. No paintings or drawings or even descriptions of her exist. They see in the alabaster woman an idealized figure, possibly even a rendering of Mary the Virgin , whose resemblance Margaret herself might want to emulate after a long life's devotion to the heavenly queen.

Margaret had been especially tied to the cloister of Vadstena, housed in the castle which

her father-in-law, King Magnus Eriksson, had deeded to St. Bridget of Sweden to house her order of Brigettines (Birgittines). Bridget, the mother of Merete Ulfsdatter, was famous throughout Europe for her visions and healing powers, and after her death in 1373 Margaret had been instrumental in her sanctification. A devout Catholic, Margaret had repeatedly returned to Vadstena where her childhood playmate, Ingegerd, the grandchild of Bridget, was an abbess. There she had been generous with her gifts as was also her custom vis-a-vis the church in general. She donated substantial holdings in exchange for daily masses for her soul and those of her parents.

The 18th-century Danish historian Ludvig Holberg, who was a wise and prudent observer of humanity, lauds Margaret as one of the great rulers of history. She managed, he writes, "through victories and through sagacity and statesmanship to unite three contentious kingdoms and become one of the mightiest if not the mightiest ruler of her time." Others consider her an enigma and wonder what she was really like, this strong woman, who after the death of her husband never remarried yet managed—with the help of her friends but with unfailing self-reliance—to bend the wills of Scandinavian nobles to her ends.


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Holboll, C. Th. Dronning Margrete. Copenhagen: Arne Frost Hansens Forlag, 1968.

Jacobsen, Helge Seidelin Jacobsen. An Outline History of Denmark. Copenhagen: Host & Son, 1986.

Lauring, Palle. A History of the Kingdom of Denmark. Copenhagen: Host & Son, 1960.

Linton, Michael. Drottning Margareta. Aarhus: Aarhus Stiftsbogtrykkerie, 1971.

Olsen, Olaf. Gyldendal og Politikens Danmarkshistorie. Copenhagen: Nordisk Forlag, 1989.

Stangerup, Henrik, ed. Holbergs Helte- og Heltindehistorier. Copenhagen: Lindhart og Ringhof, 1990.

Inga Wiehl , a native of Denmark, teaches English at Yakima Valley Community College, Yakima, Washington

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Margaret I of Denmark (1353–1412)

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