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Eric the Victorious

Eric the Victorious

Swedish king
The basics
Quick Facts
Intro Swedish king
A.K.A. Erik Segersäll
Countries Sweden
Occupations Politician
Gender male
Death Gamla Uppsala
Father: Björn Eriksson
Spouse: Sigrid the Haughty
Children: Olof Skötkonung
The details

Eric the Victorious (Old Norse: Eiríkr inn sigrsæli, Modern Swedish: Erik Segersäll) (c. 945? – c. 995) was the first Swedish king (c. 970–995) about whom anything definite is known. Whether he actually qualifies as King of Sweden has been debated, as his son Olof Skötkonung was the first ruler documented to have been accepted both by the Svear around Lake Mälaren and by the Götar around Lake Vättern.
Sometimes, Eric the Victorious is referred to as either King Eric V or VI, modern inventions based on counting backwards from Eric XIV (1560–68), who adopted his numeral according to a mythological history of Sweden. Whether or not there were any Swedish monarchs named Eric before Eric the Victorious is disputed, with some historians claiming that there were several earlier Erics, and others questioning the reliability of the primary sources used and the existence of these earlier monarchs. The list of monarchs after him is also complicated (see Eric and Eric, as well as Erik Årsäll), which makes the assignment of any numeral problematic.

Eric's kingdom

His original territory lay in Uppland and neighbouring provinces. He acquired the name "victorious" because he defeated an invasion from the south in the Battle of Fýrisvellir located close to Uppsala. Reports that Eric's brother Olof was the father of his opponent in that battle, Styrbjörn the Strong, belong to the realm of myth.

The extent of his kingdom is unknown. In addition to the Swedish heartland round lake Mälaren it may have extended down the Baltic Sea coast as far south as Blekinge. According to Adam of Bremen, he also briefly controlled Denmark after the defeat of Sweyn Forkbeard.

According to the Flateyjarbok, his success was in large part due to an alliance with free farmers against the nobility, jarl class, although it is obvious from archaeological findings that the influence of the latter diminished during the last part of the tenth century. He was probably responsible for the introduction of a system of universal conscription known as the ledung in the provinces around Mälaren.

In all probability he founded the town of Sigtuna, which still exists and where the first Swedish coins were stamped for his son and successor Olof Skötkonung.

Sagas as sources

Eric the Victorious appears in a number of Norse sagas, the historical tales which nonetheless had a dose of fiction. In various stories, he is described as the son of Björn Eriksson, and as having ruled together with his brother Olof. One saga describes his marriage to an infamous (and likely fictional) Sigrid the Haughty, daughter of the legendary Viking Skagul Toste; and how later on their divorce he gave her Götaland as a fief. According to Eymund's saga he took a new queen, Auð, the daughter of Haakon Sigurdsson, the ruler of Norway.

Before this happened, his brother Olof died, and a new co-ruler had to be appointed, but the Swedes are said to have refused to accept his rowdy nephew Styrbjörn the Strong as his co-ruler. Eric granted Styrbjörn 60 longships in which he sailed away to live out a seafaring existence as a Viking. He would become the ruler of Jomsborg and an ally of the Danish king Harold Bluetooth whose sister he wed. Styrbjörn returned to Sweden with an army, although Harald and the Danish troops supposedly turned back. Eric won the Battle of Fýrisvellir, according to Styrbjarnar þáttr Svíakappa after sacrificing to Odin and promising that if victorious, he would give himself to Odin in ten years.

Two scaldic verses composed by Thorvaldr Hjaltason are said to describe the battle. The first verse expressly mentions how an Eric has utterly defeated an enemy host at a fortification at Fýrisvellir, while the second specifies that the Vikings, "the army of Hunding", were superior in numbers but were nevertheless handily captured when they attacked Svithiod; only those who fled survived. The Hällestad and Sjörup rune stones from Skåne, then a part of Denmark, do mention a battle at Uppsala characterized by the defeat and flight of the attackers. These stones have traditionally been associated with the battle, but present chronological problems and may actually date from the 11th century.

Adam of Bremen

In 1691 coin expert Elias Brenner published designs allegedly used by King Eric, but a minting of coins by Eric is unknown to modern scientists, and these attributions are considered inaccurate; Brenner's methods are not considered reliable on early medieval Swedish coins.

The German ecclesiastic chronicler Adam of Bremen (c. 1075) provides by far the oldest narrative about Eric that differs substantially from the sagas. As his spokesman he refers to the current Danish king Sven Estridson whom he interviewed for his chronicle. Adam omits the Battle of Fýrisvellir but relates that Eric gathered a large army and invaded Denmark, turning against king Sveyn Forkbeard. The immediate reason for the attack is not disclosed by Adam. However, it had to do with an alliance between Eric and "the very powerful king of the Polans, Boleslaw [992-1025]. He gave his sister or daughter in marriage to Eric". This princess has been identified as Gunhild of Wenden, who is mentioned in certain Nordic sources as the daughter of a king Burislev (Boleslaw). According to another opinion, she is the person known in the later sagas as Sigrid the Haughty, in Polish possibly Świętosława. Eric's invasion of Denmark was successful. Several battles were fought at sea, with the result that the Danish forces, attacked from the east by the Slavs, were entirely annihilated. After his victory, Eric kept Denmark while Sveyn was forced to flee, first to Norway, then to England, and finally to Scotland whose king received the refugee with kindness.

According to Adam, Eric's rule in Denmark coincided with increased Viking activity in northern Germany. A fleet of Swedish and Danish ships sailed up the Elbe and landed at Stade in Saxony. A Saxon army confronted the invaders but was badly defeated. Several prominent Saxons were captured and brought to the ships while the Vikings ravaged the province without meeting resistance. One of the prisoners, margrave Siegfried, managed to escape at night with the help of a fisherman. The infuriated Vikings then maimed their remaining prisoners and threw them on land. However, margrave Siegfried and duke Benno soon raised a new army and raided the Vikings encamped at Stade. Another Viking detachment was tricked deep into the desolate marsh of Glindesmoor by a captured Saxon knight, and annihilated by the pursuing Germans.

Adam characterises Eric as a heathen, initially very hostile to the Christian religion. Nevertheless a number of missionaries were at work during the reign, foreigners as well as belonging to recently converted Nordic families. Among them was Odinkar the Elder who preached in Fyn, Sjaelland, Skåne and Sweden. Eventually Eric accepted baptism, presumably while he stayed in Denmark; apparently he was the first Swedish king to do so. Due to this significant event, the missionaries were allowed to sail over from Denmark to Sweden where they "worked valiantly in the name of the Lord". After some time Eric forgot the Christian faith and reverted to the religion of his ancestors. When Eric died, Sveyn Forkbeard returned from exile and regained Denmark. Furthermore he married Eric's widow, mother to his successor Olof Skötkonung. In that way an alliance between the Swedish and Danish royal houses was created.

Adam's account seems to date the demise of Eric the Victorious between 992 (the accession of his ally Boleslaw I Chrobry) and 995 (when his son Olof's coinage in Sigtuna starts). The discrepancies between Adam and other documentary sources have led to a variety of interpretations among Swedish historians, especially concerning Eric's various marriages. The details about his conquest of Denmark have been questioned since they are unsupported by other materials. Nevertheless, according to a recent evaluation, "this is not unlikely, at least not if we think of a loose suzerainty over Danish grandees". At any rate, a comparison between Adam and the Nordic sagas shows that Eric made an imprint in the collective memory as a warlike and successful ruler.

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