Friday, August 22, 2008

Historical tales

Birger Jarl, who became one of the great men of Sweden about 1250, rose to such importance in the early history of that kingdom that one cannot pass him by without saying something about his career. Sweden was then a Christian kingdom and had been for many years, for the religion of Christ had been preached there, as the sagas tell, four centuries earlier. But heathenism prevailed until long afterwards, and it was not until the days of King Stenkil, who came to the throne in 1061, that an earnest effort was made to introduce the Christian worship. Finally paganism completely died out, and when Birger came to the throne Sweden had long been a Christian realm.

But paganism still had a stronghold in Finland, and when Bishop Thomas, a zealous churchman, of English birth, proclaimed that the Christians should have no intercourse with the pagans in Finland or even sell them food, the Finlanders became so incensed that they invaded the Christian country and put the people to death with frightful tortures. Their cruelties created terror everywhere and Bishop Thomas fled to Gothland where, crazed with horror at the result of his proclamation, he soon died.

King Erik was then on the throne of Sweden, but Birger, the son of a great earl of Gothland, became a famous warrior, and as the king had no sons he made Birger a jarl, or earl, and chose him as his heir. One of the exploits by which Birger had won fame was the following. The town of Lübeck, in North Germany, was closely besieged by the king of Denmark, who had cut it off from the sea by stretching strong iron chains across the river Trave, on which the town is situated. He thus hoped to starve the people into surrender, and would have done so had not Birger come to their rescue. He had the keels of some large ships plated with iron, loaded them with provisions, and sailed up the river towards the beleaguered city. Hoisting all sail before a strong wind, he steered squarely on to the great chains, and struck them with so mighty a force that they snapped asunder and the ships reached the town with their supplies, whereupon the Danish king abandoned the siege. This story is of interest, as these are the first iron-plated ships spoken of in history.

By this and other exploits Birger grew in esteem, and when the Finns began their terrible work in the north he and the king summoned the people to arms, and the old warlike spirit, which had long been at rest, was reawakened in the hearts of the Swedes. The Pope at Rome had proclaimed a crusade against the Finns, promising the same privileges to all who took part in it as were enjoyed by those then taking part in the crusades to the Holy Land, and on all sides the people grew eager to engage in this sacred war...

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