Birger Jarl – The Pillage of Sigtuna and the Founding of Stockholm

A Jarl is the Scandanavian term for someone who is an earl. Earl’s are members of the nobility. The meaning of the word is “chieftian” refering to the individual who is in-charge of ruling over the region or country in the king’s stead.  second only to the king in medieval Sweden. The name of Jarl was also referred to as a dux or duke. The jarl was an important person, he (back then it was almsot exclusively a he) was the only person apart from the king allowed to have an armed guard. However these were people with control over land and resources and money, and in many cases, they were the real powers behind the throne.

And it is to the last person to hold this title that we turn to today.

We arrived at the City Hall just minutes late for the tour and so decided to walk around the building while waiting for the next tour to begin.

The city hall is a beautiful place, even with a whole host of tourist. It’s blessed location on the water-edge, facing the old town of Gamla Stan, hipster region of Sodermalm and central business district of Klara Kyrka is breathtaking.

It was here that we came across the coffin of the man and the story of the founding of Stockholm. Resting in state, overlooking this view and this city is Birger Jarl – the last Jarl of Sweden and the founder of Stockholm.

I had heard of Birger Jarl before, but had no idea who he was. Seeing the cenotaph outside the city hall, I decided to do some googling.

Birger Magnussen was the last person to hold the title of Jarl. He was arguably also the most powerful one and unabashed to show his title – calling himself the Dux Sweorum, latin for the Duke of Sweden. He was a member of the then ruling family of Bjelbo which was the family that sequentially consolidated the nation of Sweden (over a period known, obviously, as the Consolidation of Sweden).

Like all young noblemen Birger Jarl spent his young and built his early career in the town of Sigtuna. The Sigtuna-based Sweden of the time was a Christian country at the edge of the Christian world. Although Christianity had supplanted Norse as the religion of the people in the land their neighbours were still Norse and pagan. One of the main enemies of Sweden, in its evangelising attempts, were the Karelian people who lived in what is today northern Finland.

Sigtuna today

About 13 years before his birth, Sigtuna was attacked by the Karelians. According to the Eric Chronicles, “[the Karelians] sailed into Lake Mälar from the sea, whether calm or stormy it might be, secretly within the Svealand islesin stealthily advancing files. Once their minds to the idea did turn, that they the town of Sigtuna should burn, and so thoroughly they put it to the flame, that it since then has never been the same.”

The pillage of Sigtuna was a lesson to the people of Sweden. And it was a lesson that Birger Jarl obviously did not forget. After consolidating power, Birger Jarl decided that Sigtuna needed to be defended. There needed to be a citadel that would protect the cities all around Lake Malaren from enemies across the Baltic. In 1252, the old town of Stockholm was founded by Birger Jarl as the place. It was the island that separated Lake Malaren from the Baltic Sea and the best place to build a fortress. This was what was to become the Tre Kronor castle,

the present day Royal Palace.

The Stockholm that Birger Jarl founded was intended to merely be a protection for Sigtuna, but as the Hanseatic League got underway Stockholm grew and grew in prominence and Sigtuna’s glow faded prompting the eventual move of the capital to Stockholm in 1634.

That was as far as I got before it was time for the tour of the City Hall to begin, and we left the cenotaph of Birger Jarl lying to tour the centre of power in the city – the city that he founded.



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