Murder, myth and magic: where Sweden began
I hear it’s raining back in Stockholm. But here on the hillside at Omberg, the morning sunshine is drying up the dew, a golden blanket sweeping across the green countryside.
“This is where it’s been happening for thousands of years, since the ice melted,” says Åse Theorell, my guide for the morning, as we gaze out across the valley. “This is where the real Sweden came to be.”
Even the name is evocative. To this day the county is called Ödeshög – which translates roughly as Rock of Fate. As for Omberg, the mountain rising behind us, it’s the Mountain of Queen Omma – a goddess said to reside there in pagan times. Omma, who has been called “Birdwoman” after the owl mask she always wore, was said to protect the animals and people who lived on and near the mountain. But whether or not the mountain’s powers stem from a pagan goddess, there’s clearly something mystical about this area.
”It’s always been a remarkable place, the place where the mountain meets the water and the plains,” Åse says. “Spiritually, this place has influenced people very strongly.”
The clashes of kings
Centuries later, the valley was also the birthplace of King Sverker the Elder.
”He was the first true Swedish king,” Åse says. “Sweden as a nation didn’t exist then, but he was the first king chosen by both the Svear and Götar, two separate clans, in order to prevent the Danish king from taking over.”
Sverker, who had humble origins as the son of a farmer, had an estate located in this pristine valley. But his queen – a noblewoman from Norway, Ulvhild Håkansdotter – had a darker past.
“She had been married to kings twice before, and it’s said she murdered her first two husbands,” Åse says.
Sverker also came to a grim end, though not at the hands of his wife but of his stable boy.
”There’s a monument down there along the road,” Åse says, pointing. “That’s where the king was murdered.”
On December 25, 1156, Sverker was assassinated on his way to the Christmas church service.
“The murder was probably ordered by the crown prince of Denmark,” Åse says. “But the stable hand fled to the other side of the lake and started boasting that he’s killed the king – not the smartest thing to do.”
The boy was captured and returned – and sentenced to death in a vat of boiling lead.
”When the clock struck one, they lowered him to his ankles,” Åse says. “When the clock struck two; his knees. And the third hour he was lowered to his stomach, and they say that’s when he stopped breathing.”
Spirits and buried treasure
Before the king’s untimely death, Sverker and Ulvhild donated a portion of their lands to what became the Alvastra Abbey, the first Cistercian monastery in Sweden, in 1143. Today, the ruins of Alvastra still have a powerful presence. Overgrown archways cast dark shadows upon the grass. What were once orderly corridors and courtyards are now a fallen labyrinth of stone. But it’s beautiful. Building the monastery helped Sverker maintain power, Åse explains.
“As pagan gods disappeared and the church gained power, it was smart to be on the front edge of that change.”
And long after Sverker’s death, the Alvastra Abbey changed the course of history.
“This place was very important for Saint Birgitta,” Åse says.
Birgitta Birgersdotter, as she was called earlier in life, was a noblewoman who spent a few years of her childhood in nearby Skänninge – also on our itinerary today. Later, she would become an influential religious leader across Europe. It all started at Alvastra.
“It was here that she had her first visions, that she should become a Bride of Christ and a mouthpiece for God.”
Birgitta spent many years in Östergötland with her husband. When her husband fell ill and died, Birgitta devoted her life to religion. But as we walk past the old courtyard, a still-bare walnut tree grasping at the sky despite the spring warmth, I wonder: How did such a significant centre of both religion and state fall to such ruin?
”The Abbey was active for 400 years,” Åse explains. “But then in 1523, Gustav Vasa came to power.”
Often credited with liberating Sweden from Danish king "Christian the Tyrant", Gustav Vasa is a powerful name in Swedish history. But for religious communities at the time, it was a bombshell.
“Sweden was Catholic, and all of a sudden Gustav Vasa decided it should be Protestant,” my guide says.
“He shut down all the cloisters, and began building his palace in Vadstena, using the stone from the abbeys he closed. He never found the treasure from Alvastra, though. It's buried on Omberg.”
It’s a lot to take in, and it’s only the beginning. Our next stop promises to be just as impressive and just as mysterious: Rökstenen.
Written in stone
The stone, said to be the longest runic stone inscription in the world, has been dated to 800 A.D., three centuries before Alvastra and King Sverker. It’s also been called the first work of Swedish literature. Known since at least the 1600s when it was built into the wall of the Rök Church, the stone was removed from the wall in 1862, and has stood near the church ever since. I’m told the stone is a tribute to a Viking father’s lost son, but from there things get a little weird.
“It’s incomprehensible. The stone mixes two different rune alphabets, one old and one new at the time, and it seems to mix myth and reality. We don’t know what’s real, says Åse.”
The stone refers to historical kings and mythological gods, but the text itself remains confusing.
”And if that weren’t enough, it’s also encrypted,” Åse says, pointing to a series of slanted runes at the top of the stone. “These are written in code and have to be reorganized in order to be read.”
On top, she points out a set of “magical” lönnrunor, secret runes.
“Not just anyone could read this,” Åse asserts. “So who was it created for? What is the hidden message?”
It’s a question which must remain unanswered, at least for now. I leave the mysteries of Ödeshög and Rök behind, heading for another village with bold claims related to Sweden’s history. The first word that comes to mind upon entering the town of Bjälbo is “quaint”. I’m greeted by a 12th century church with simple, whitewashed walls and a petite courtyard. Bees hum peacefully from tulip to tulip. But even here there are ghosts. We are met at the church gate by Björn Rydell, a gleeful guide known to dress the part to bring history to life.
”The church itself is perhaps not the most interesting. But this is where the House of Bjälbo has its roots,” Björn says. The midday sun is at its peak, forcing us to shade our eyes as we look up at the tower.
If medieval Sweden was like Game of Thrones (and at this point it's looking that way), then the House of Bjälbo would be the Tyrells.
“The Bjälbo family was very important. It’s said they had roots in Danish and French royalty,” Björn says. “And they had long-term schemes for getting their kin on the throne of Sweden.”
Their method? To marry into all of the important families.
"They gradually married into all the rival royal families; they were good at it," Björn says. Before long, the House of Bjälbo (later called the Folkunga House) had an heir related to all the dynasties. In the 13th century, a woman named Ingrid Ylva emerged as the head of family.
Thought to be descended from King Sverker’s son Sune Sik, Ingrid Ylva certainly made her mark.
“In many stories she’s called a white witch,” Björn says. “She was a dangerous person, someone you watched out for.”
Her offspring assumed prominent positions as bishops and lawmakers.
“And, not least, Birger Jarl,” Björn adds with a smile.
As we climb the narrow, uneven stone steps to the chambers where the woman supposedly lived, Björn explains that Ingrid Ylva likely was the one who ordered the tower built, and may still be here.
“She had a dream that things would go very poorly for her descendants if her head should ever tilt. And so she instructed her son Birger Jarl to bury her upright in these very walls when she died.”
And as for her descendants, it’s hard to say what the angle of her head might be. Their name has vanished, but the blood lives on. Even the current royal family of Sweden, the House of Bernadotte, can trace back some weak roots to Birger Jarl and Ingrid Ylva.
Birger Jarl: Building a nation and breaking traditions
Birger Jarl. As a resident of Stockholm, I’m already familiar with the name. It adorns streets, squares, and hotels, and he’s memorialized in the City Hall. But who was he?
“This was a man with a mission. You can see that in his face,” Björn explains.
We’re standing in another dark room on the ground floor of the old church, staring at a stone depiction of Birger Jarl’s face. The carving used to stand on a pillar looking down at his own grave. Today it’s here, home in Bjälbo, the stony eyes staring blankly ahead at visitors who enter the cold church. I’ve heard that Birger ‘Jarl’ Magnusson was the man who built the nation, but never became king. It seems there’s some truth to it.
“The Bjälbo House held the position of jarl, or captain, hand of the king, for hundreds of years,” Björn says. “A jarl was essentially a regent, with plenty of power and control over the armies.”
He married the king’s sister. He was essential to the consolidation of Sweden. He allegedly founded Stockholm. And finally, he put his son on the throne.
”When King Erik XI died in 1250, Birger Jarl put his 11-year-old son on the throne. But he was only a puppet,” Björn says. “It was Birger Jarl who ruled.”
There were several uprisings against Birger Jarl’s de facto rule, and the norm at the time among noble families was to duke it out by taking prisoners and negotiating. “Nobles didn’t kill each other”, Björn says.
But the king who wasn’t king changed everything.
“Birger Jarl invited the rebels to negotiations, with a bishop who assured them they would be safe. And then he had them executed for crimes against the crown, which no one had even heard of at that time.”
Scores of nobles were executed – but there were no more uprisings in his time.
“The stakes were raised. Birger Jarl showed that going up against the crown came with a high price.”
But it wasn't all bad. As we walk out into the garden and past the church gate, we are met by a sober memorial stone under the trees.
"To the memory of Birger Jarl, the women of Östergötland raised this stone in 1913", the engraving reads.
Raised by the powerful and single Ingrid Ylva, perhaps it's no wonder Birger Jarl took a stand to make things better for the women of Sweden. Birger Jarl instated kvinnofrid, a law protecting women from violence of various kinds. Men were no longer permitted to beat their wives. Not even words of abuse were permitted, and a woman could not be called "whore" without reason. Rape carried the death penalty.
As we say goodbye to Björn Rydell, it occurs to me that Sweden has been a supporter of the #HeforShe movement since the 13th century, thanks to Birger Jarl. It’s the end to a morning of mysteries, but the saga continues after lunch in Skänninge, yet another historic pit-stop of Östergötland.
A living museum
Stockholm has Skansen, and Linköping has Gamla Linköping, with its idyllic rows of old houses. But they’re nothing like Skänninge. The town has changed very little since the 11th century, and with just over 3,000 inhabitants, it is still about the same size it was then. The streets lie in the same places and many locations still look the way they did centuries ago.
Driving into the quiet, picturesque city, it's hard to imagine that it was once something of a capital. Skänninge was a hub of trade and culture, with one of the richest and most popular marketplaces in all of Sweden. Kings held meetings here. It was here that the famous Ingrid Ylva bought a bell she donated to the tower of Bjälbo Church. Even today the annual market - now more than 1,000 years old - attracts some hundred thousand visitors.
And as one of the strongest cities in Sweden at the time, Skänninge was also a religious centre. There is little left to see of the monasteries here, which were even more devastated by Gustav Vasa than the abbey in Alvastra. But the eerie empty shell of All Saints' Church remains, marked by an empty stony plot and a large wooden cross. St. Ingrid's Abbey and St. Olof's Abbey faced the same fate as Alvastra, and most of the stones were removed for Gustav Vasa's castle in Vadstena. It would be easy to spend hours wandering the streets of Skänninge, but today it is a stepping stone on a larger journey. Saint Birgitta had family in Skänninge and spent some time here in her youth, but the epicentre of her efforts, the fruit of her labours, lie in Vadstena – beside the castle of Gustav Vasa. Their names have come up again and again throughout the day. Birgitta and Gustav Vasa were both key figures in Sweden’s history, with roots and connections to Östergötland. And I’m off to find them.
Parties and pilgrims
Skänninge and Vadstena may both have big memories, but Vadstena flaunts them.
“Skänninge had its limelight until the 1300s, and then Vadstena took over,” local Markus Lindberg, the driving force behind the Saint Birgitta Convent Museum, says. “When the Vadstena Abbey was built much of the trade moved here, and it became a more important city ideologically as well.”
And it was all thanks to Birgitta.
“Birgitta’s husband died in Alvastra,” Markus reminds me. “And it was then that she changed from worldly wife to spiritual mother. It was in Alvastra that she received a vision instructing her to build an abbey here in Vadstena.”
”Today you would get locked up if you claimed you had a vision from God,” Markus acknowledges cheerily. “But back then it wasn’t so strange. And, noblewoman as she was, Birgitta’s vision was deemed genuine.”
Birgitta’s mother belonged to the House of Bjälbo, and as a relative of kings, the visionary woman was helped along by the donation of lands and a building for the abbey.
“It was first a Bjälbo party palace,” Markus says, pointing out where the façade betrays signs of once-extravagant windows, balconies, and other decorations. However, the palace was cut to a more modest size and remodeled to suit the humble character of the Bridgettine Order.
Today, more than 25,000 pilgrims visit Vadstena each year, and that says nothing of those who come just to see the castle or quaint colourful cottages.
“The whole area was built to receive thousands of pilgrims,” Markus says. “That was the goal even before Birgitta was sainted.
Even when Birgitta herself left Vadstena the city continued as a vital node in Swedish society. Indeed, when Gustav Vasa sought to solidify his power 200 years later, he built his castle right by the abbey.
“Churches and abbeys were very powerful symbols then,” Markus explains. “It was a way of snatching power form the church and the monastery; of shifting power to the crown.”
”Vadstena was the most important religious place in Sweden in the beginning of the 1500s. Kings were crowned in Uppsala or Stockholm, but they were obliged to come to Vadstena as a sort of initiation.”
I can’t help but find it remarkable that Gustav Vasa chose to build here, lying like yin and yang in tight embrace with one of the country’s most powerful Catholic churches.
“The nuns weren’t dangerous,” Markus explains.
The monastery on the other side of the church was closed down immediately, but the convent was allowed to continue operations “until they died out”, and the last of the nuns moved to the Bridgettine Abbey in Poland in 1595.
We climb up the spiral staircase and amble the long corridor where the nuns used to live. But the most powerful moment is standing in a tiny room by the stairs. Chipped ornate paintings decorate the domed ceiling, gazing at a glass-encased coffin more than 600 years old.
”Birgitta died in Rome, and her bones were carried in this coffin all the way to Vadstena,” Markus explains. “It’s a relic.”
In front of the coffin, a single pale stone is also encased, standing out from the rest of the stone floor.
“This was the holiest room in the building, and right here is where Birgitta prayed, with her knees on this stone. And that’s the original stone.”
Reflections at Vreta
In a way, we’re ending at the beginning. My last stop in Östergötland is Vreta, which I’m told was the very first convent in Sweden.
“Just standing here on this spot is incredible,” Märta Karlsson, my guide at Vreta Abbey, exclaims.
The mysterious King Inge was said to have lived in this area with his Queen Helena, and founded the abbey as early as 1100.
“But this was a holy place even before that,” Märta says.
The evening sun slants through the lattice work – “a reconstruction to imagine how the walkways looked” – as we walk through the churchyard. Traces of a house from the 11th century have also been found and carbon dated, making this place an archaeological marvel nearly on par with Rökstenen. When Gustav Vasa embarked on his anti-Catholic campaign in the 16th century, he spared Vreta, just like Vadstena.
"Gustav Vasa's mother-in law was Catholic, and she said 'Don't you touch Vreta'," Märta says. "And he didn't."
And though it’s the end of my journey, it seems that everything has come full-circle.
King Sverker’s daughter Ingegerd was the first abbess of the convent in 1164. Sune Sik, enigmatic son of Sverker and father of Ingrid Ylva, is also memorialized with a centograph inside the church. And after a fire in the 13th century the church was rebuilt and consecrated by none other than Birger Jarl’s sons.
It’s still raining in Stockholm. But as the train crosses the bridge from Södermalm in towards Central Station, I look out at the cityscape through the spattered windows and see the city with new eyes. Passing Old Town and the Royal Palace, I think of the kings of bygone days, who started off as farmers and had to always be on their toes. I see the so-called Birger Jarl Tower and imagine him sitting here in 1252, cunningly commanding the country and writing letters back home to Bjälbo.
Östergötland is a maze, brimming with Viking sagas, pagan queens, clashes of kings, murders, magic, and so much more. The connections are endless, and much remains a mystery, but this much is clear: Stockholm is now the capital, but the heart of Sweden lies in Östergötland.
This article was produced by The Local in partnership with Visit Östergötland.
Gallery: Pilgrimage to the heart of Sweden: https://www.thelocal.se/galleries/Travel/ostergotland-pilgrimage-to-the-heart-of-historic-sweden-tlccu/
Text: Solveig Rundquist/The Local
Photo: Johnny Franzén