Margaret of Denmark (1353-1412) was a fourteenth-century Danish queen and first medieval queen to rule in Europe, who united three powerful Scandinavian kingdoms.
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 ninth 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 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 Valdemarsdottir.
A glance at the years immediately preceding her reign reveals the enormity of her accomplishment. Early in the 14th century, Norway and Sweden were joined into one kingdom under Magnus Eriksson. Magnus was three years old, and the only available heir, when his grandfather, Norway's King Haakon V, died in 1319. The boy's father, Swedish prince Erik Magnusson, had died in prison at the hands of his uncle King Birger of Sweden. Thus, when Birger was forced out of his kingdom by dissident nobles, three-year-old Magnus became king of both Norway and Sweden. His mother Ingebjorg exerted great influence over the affairs of her son, and her plans to enlarge the combined kingdom included designs on Denmark. But the war she provoked with the Danes proved to be so costly to Norway that a popular noble, Erling Vidkunnsson, was made viceroy and ruled Norway until Magnus Eriksson came of age in 1332.
Four years later, in 1336, King Magnus married Blanca of Namur, and by 1340, they had two sons. Erik, the elder, was elected king of Sweden in 1344; the younger son, Haakon (VI), became king of Norway. As the brothers grew to manhood and ascended their thrones, relations between Magnus Eriksson and his sons were marked by turbulence, jealousy, and aggression. In 1362, when Erik died, Haakon was named as his brother's successor in Sweden; he was to rule jointly with his father. The two kings then entered into a war with their powerful neighbor, Waldemar IV of Denmark, over rights to Skaane. During this war, Magnus and Haakon enlisted the aid of the Hanseatic League, a powerful alliance of German cities with trading interests in northern Europe. The League's presence in Scandinavia would prove a significantly disruptive influence in the political and economic life of later medieval Scandinavia. Shortly thereafter, in 1363, Magnus and Haakon arrived at an agreement with Waldemar. Their friendship was cemented by the marriage of the 23-year-old Haakon with Waldemar's 10-year-old daughter Margaret.
Soon after the marriage, Waldemar's son Christopher died, and it became apparent that Margaret would succeed her father—not only as queen in Denmark, but as queen of Norway and heir to the throne of Sweden as well. This alarming prospect stiffened the determination of the German Hanseatic League to extend its control over Denmark by military might, and the 1360s witnessed great strife between the two parties.
By 1370, the great power of the united German cities prevailed, forcing Waldemar to sign the humiliating Peace of Stralsund, which awarded enormous commercial concessions to the Hanse (German merchant guild) and placed the fate of the Danish king under German control. According to the terms of this treaty:
If it should be that our lord and king, Valdemar, desires to abdicate his land of Denmark during his lifetime, we will and shall not suffer it, unless it be that the [Hanse] cities have given their consent, and that he has sealed to them their privileges with his great seal. Thus, too, it shall be if our lord and king Valdemar, be carried off by death…. Then, too, we will accept no ruler but in council with the cities.
Strained relations between German commercial interests and Scandinavian monarchs would continue in the reign of Waldemar's daughter Margaret; indeed, the tension would persist for the rest of the medieval period.
Margaret was one of several children born to Waldemar and his wife Helvig, who was the sister of the Duke of Schleswig. Although little is known of Margaret's childhood, the normal expectation for noble girls of her period was that they would serve as participants in diplomatic marriages. This was an expectation Margaret clearly fulfilled. As Haakon's 10-year-old bride, Margaret lived in Oslo's Akerhus castle, and her guardian, Marta Ulfsdottir, was a daughter of St. Birgitta of Sweden. By the time Margaret was 18, she had borne her only child, Olaf.
When Waldemar died in 1375, Margaret advanced the candidacy of her young son for the throne of Denmark. There was at the time one other possible heir: Albrecht, the son of Margaret's deceased older sister. Though Waldemar IV had arranged for Albrecht to succeed him, two factors helped Margaret's determination to establish Olaf as king: (1) Albrecht offended the Danish nobility by assuming the title of king, thereby violating the elective nature of that office; and (2) in exchange for commercial privileges in Norway and Denmark, Margaret convinced the Hanse towns not to intervene on Albrecht's behalf. Margaret at age 22 demonstrated great charm, according to contemporary chroniclers, and her political maneuvering resulted in the election of her son Olaf (now Olaf V) to Denmark's kingship in May of 1376.
When Margaret's husband King Haakon VI died in 1380, Margaret immediately went to Norway to ensure Olaf's succession to the throne. Thus began a union between Norway and Denmark that was to last for over four centuries until 1814. Although Margaret was given the power of regency, she was to allow a Norwegian council to rule on her son's behalf when she was in Denmark. With the Hanseatic League controlling important areas of Denmark, the situation there required her energetic attention. Contemporary chronicles attest to her ability to provide effective leadership. "It is quite astonishing," said one source, "that a woma…. became so powerful in a quarter of a year that she lacked nothing in the whole kingdom."
When Olaf reached the age of 15 in 1385, he declared his intention to rule without a regent. Nevertheless, Margaret remained his chief advisor and convinced him to press for the title of king of Sweden, despite the fact that Albrecht of Mecklenburg (uncle of the Albrecht who claimed the Danish throne in 1375) had ruled there since Magnus Eriksson's death in 1374. As Olaf's father had continually agitated to obtain the Swedish throne right up to his death in 1380, Margaret encouraged her son to carry on Haakon's policy.
Olaf's sudden death in 1387 did not dissuade Margaret from her determination to acquire the Swedish throne. Swedish nobles, resentful of the favors their King Albrecht granted to Germans, worked with her in their attempt to depose him. Margaret's position in Denmark and Norway was strengthened in 1387 and 1388 when both countries declared her to be Olaf's rightful heir; the Norwegian council declared her their "mighty lady and rightful ruler." Soon after, a council of Swedish nobles followed their example, vowing not only to overthrow Albrecht, but to accept Margaret and anyone she designated as her successor. In 1389, Albrecht was defeated, and most of Sweden was in Margaret's control.
Stockholm, however, presented a problem for the new queen of Sweden. German Hanse merchants controlled the town and were supplied by a notorious gang of pirates known as the Victuals Brothers. Their illegal activities had been encouraged by the Hanseatic League during its frequent altercations with Denmark. The lawless Brothers were responsible for various atrocities throughout Scandinavia, including the brutal sack of Bergen, Norway. By 1398, Margaret was able to subdue Stockholm, although she was forced to confirm privileges to the Hanse towns.
As Margaret's desire to maintain a united Scandinavian kingdom required her to find an acceptable heir, she chose her great-nephew Erik of Pomerania as her successor. In 1389, the Norwegians proclaimed eight-year-old Erik as king; it required several more years, until 1396, for Margaret to see her adopted son proclaimed king in Denmark and Sweden as well. Despite their shared king, each Scandinavian country retained its own separate government.
In 1397, a meeting was held at Kalmar with hopes of firmly establishing a hereditary state. At this gathering, Erik was officially crowned as king of all the Scandinavian countries. While plans for an even more thorough union were drawn up at Kalmar, they appear not to have been adopted officially by the participants. The first provision of the Kalmar document holds that: "The three kingdoms shall henceforth have one king and shall never be parted." But Danish and Norwegian seals were not attached to this document, indicating that the dynastic choice of Erik was intended to be a singular event. The Kingdoms preferred to make case-by-case decisions regarding future rulers.
Though King Erik was recognized as old enough to rule in 1400, Margaret—whose concerns remained both dynastic and political—managed affairs until her death in 1412. To maintain close ties with England and thus ensure protection against the Hanseatic naval power, she arranged for the marriage of King Henry IV's daughter Philippa to her adopted son Erik. Margaret's administrative policy was to increase the centralizing power of the crown, effected by appointing Danish nobles to oversee her interests in Sweden and Norway.
Critics have said that Margaret strengthened Denmark at the expense of Swedish and Norwegian national aspirations; if so, the more strategic location of Denmark and the vastly greater population perhaps provide the rationale for such a policy. By the end of her reign, she came under significant criticism. According to a Swedish monk: "Albrecht levied heavy taxes, but Margaret made them still heavier. What he left, she took; the peasant's horse, ox, and cow; in short, all his possessions."
In creating a Scandinavian union, Margaret changed the nature of government throughout her realms. Before 1389, each separate Scandinavian country had a system that entailed the sovereign's actual presence in the realm, making rule intensely personal. Margaret, however, ruled Norway and Sweden from Denmark; thus, she could not provide the important personal element that characterized earlier royal practice. Upon her death, probably from plague in 1412, Margaret left her successor a strong, united Scandinavia, but discontent in Norway and Sweden was to be the legacy of the united kingdoms of the North.
Further Reading on Margaret of Denmark
Gjerset, Knut. History of the Norwegian People. Macmillan, 1932.
Larsen, Karen. A History of Norway. Princeton University Press, 1948.
Zimmern, Helen. The Hansa Towns. London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1889.