The Birkebeiners and a Heroic Mountain Rescue that Helped Unify Medieval Norway
The rebels were so poor that their shoes were made of birch. The wealthier, better-established party derided the upstarts in state-sponsored propaganda, labeling them ‘birkebeiners’ after their birch bark shoes and gaiters. Yet what this rabble lacked in protective winter wear, they made up for in heart. Against all the odds, the Birkebeiner party would not only seize power but also snatch their king from the very jaws of death and lead the Kingdom of Norway to its golden age.
Norway in Turmoil
Medieval Norway was plagued with conflict. For nearly 100 years from 1130 to 1240, rival kings and pretender heirs vied for the throne. Alliances shifted frequently and families were often divided. More importantly, it was an incredibly violent period. Theodoricus the Monk, a Norwegian Benedictine, wrote a history of his country in 1180. With regards to the 1130 death of King Sigurd the Crusader (the event which launched the Civil War Era), Theodoricus wrote that he considered it “utterly unfitting to record for posterity the crimes, killings, perjuries, parricides, desecration of holy places, the contempt for God, the plundering no less of the clergy than of the whole people, the abductions of women and other abominations which it would take long to enumerate” (Monachus, 1998).
King Sigurd the Crusader and King Baldwin ride to the River Jordan (Gerhard Munthe: Illustration for Magnussønnens saga) ( Public Domain )
The Birkebeiners were just one of many political parties that existed during this time. However, by 1200, there were only two major powers left on the scene: the Birkebeiners, who supported King Håkon Sverresson, and the Baglers, who supported King Philippus.
In January 1204, King Håkon Sverresson died (possibly poisoned), as did his 4-year-old heir, Guttrom (probably natural causes). This put the Birkebeiners in a tight spot because without a clear line of succession, their party could split into factions or fall prey to Bagler influence. So they chose King Håkon Sverresson’s nephew Inge Bårdsson to fill the role. What nobody knew at the time was that King Håkon Sverresson actually had a second son, dubbed Håkon Håkonsson, who was born in March 1204. One can image the Birkebeiners shock to learn, not only that there was another Prince, but also that he was currently trapped in the Bagler’s territory.
While Håkon’s mother, Inga of Varteig, had managed to get word out to the Birkebeiners, news of the prince’s existence also reached the ears of the Baglers. The pair was hunted throughout Folkenborg (what is today Eidsberg) and it was only a matter of time before they were found.
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Håkon Håkonsson illustration in Flatøybok ( Public Domain )
A Mountain Rescue
In 1205, the King Inga Bårdsson (Håkon’s cousin) sent a group of Birkebeiner warriors to rescue the mother and baby. They managed to get as far as Lillehammer before a blizzard trapped the party. Yet the Baglers were still seeking to kill the Prince. So the warriors decided to split up: the best two skiers would spirit Prince Håkon away to King Inga’s court. The rest of the party, which included Inga of Varteig, would follow once the weather improved and perhaps would serve as a distraction to the Baglers.
The skiers chosen were named Torstein Skevla and Skjervald Skrukka and they set out just after New Year’s Eve, 1206. These “two brave Birkebeiner warriors rescued the prince and carried him by skis in the dead of winter to safety. They traveled 55 kilometers from Gudbrandsdal valley over two mountain ranges to Rena in Osterdal valley” (Canadian Birkebeiner Ski Festival, 2017). This journey was immortalized in Knud Bergslien’s 1869 painting Skiing Birchlegs Crossing the Mountain with the Royal Child . Skevla and Skrukka successfully managed to bring Håkon to safety.
Skiing Birchlegs Crossing the Mountain with the Royal Child by Knud Larsen shows the Birkebeiner skiers Torstein Skevla and Skjervald Skrukka rescuing the young Håkon (Public Domain)
Håkon went on to be a bright and precious young boy, growing up side by side with King Inge’s son, Guttorm. He received formal education at the Catholic Bergen Cathedral School (the first King to be educated). King Inge died in 1217 and even though the Birkebeiners had both candidates in their camp, almost immediately a succession dispute erupted that threatened to tear the Birkebeiners apart. Guttorm did not advocate his right to rule, instead he supported Håkon’s candidacy. But there were plenty of other earls and warriors vying for control, notably Earl Skule Bårdsson (King Inge’s half-brother). Skule was supported by the Archbishop of Nidaros and the majority of the Birkebeiners because many questioned Håkon’s ancestry and thus, his legitimacy to the crown.
A Mother’s Ordeal
The only way to put the matter to rest and to see her son on his rightful throne was for Inga of Varteig to undergo a trial by ordeal. In 1218, before the Birkebeiner royal court and church officials, Inga “had to carry hot iron ( jernbyrd) as a trial by ordeal to prove her son’s right of succession” (Vea, 2017). The Birkebeiners were convinced and the tide of support shifted in Håkon’s favor. In 2018, a compromise was arranged so that Håkon would be King but Skule would rule as regent due to Håkon’s minority (he was only 14 years old).
King Håkon illustrated in Olav Tryggvasons saga (1890s) ( Public Domain )
The struggle to rule Norway continued on until 1240, at which time Håkon Håkonsson finally managed to become the King of a united Norway. Håkon was a great King. He ushered in an age of cultural flourishing and legal reforms that ended the never-ending cycle of bloodshed and revenge. He established allegiances and personal correspondences with such personages as Pope Innocent IV and the Sultan of Tunis. Håkon’s wife, Queen Margrete, and daughter, Princess Kristina, absolutely loved the chason de geste that were popular in Europe ( chason de geste means ‘song of heroic deeds.’ These early works of Western literature mostly focus on romantic tales of Charlemagne and King Arthur ). At their behest, Norse sagas, both old and new, were written down and illustrated.
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A Story Remembered
Inga of Varteig died in 1234 at the age of 49 due to an unspecified illness. King Håkon died during an aggressive military campaign against Scotland. In 1263, Håkon wintered at the Bishop’s Palace on Kirkwall (part of the Scottish Orkney Islands). A delegation of Irish kings invited Håkon to spend the winter in the more hospitable, more southerly Ireland (in exchange for removing some pesky English settlers) but Håkon’s advisors rejected the Irish offer over Håkon’s wishes. While at Kirkwall, Håkon became ill and rapidly declined. He died on December 16, 1263. He was interred at Kirkwall until the spring when his body was exhumed and reburied in the Old Cathedral in Bergan (then the capital of Norway). In 1531, his remains and the remains of all the other Norwegian kings buried in the Cathedral were destroyed in a fit of Reformation rage.
The commemorative ski marathon, Birkebeinerrennet, in Norway (2010) (CC BY-SA 3.0 )
In commemoration of the good King Håkon and, more particularly, to daring skiers Torstein Skevla and Skjervald Skrukka, Norway celebrates Birkebeinerrennet every year since 1932. This cross-country skiing marathon retraces the original journey; participants even wear a pack weighing 7.7 pounds (3.5 kgs) on their backs to symbolize the 18-month-old prince. Men and women compete.
Top image: Skiing Birchlegs Crossing the Mountain with the Royal Child by Knud Larsen Bergslien ( Public Domain )
Editor’s note: This article was updated on 31-8-2020 to correct the year of Knud Bergslien’s painting Skiing Birchlegs Crossing the Mountain with the Royal Child to 1869.
Canadian Birkebeiner Ski Festival. “The Birkie Legend.” Birkie Legend , Canadian Birkebeiner Ski Festival, 2017, www.canadianbirkie.com/birkie-legend.
Monachus, Theodoricus, et al. An Account Of The Ancient History Of The Norwegian Kings . Viking Society For Northern Research Text Series , Edited by Anthony Faulkes and Richard Perkins, XI, University College London, 1998, www.scribd.com/document/206367302/Theodoricus-Monachus-The-Ancient-History-of-the-Norwegian-Kings.
Vea, Marit Synnøve. “Håkon Håkonsson.” Avaldsnes, 2017, http://avaldsnes.info/en/informasjon/hakon-hakonsson/.