King Sverre Sigurdsson


Fra dets høye Sverre talte,
talte Roma midt imot





Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, one of the great writers of Norway, wrote Norway’s national song, ‘Ja vi elsker’. In the second stanza Kong Sverre is immoratalized in the words “Fra dets høye Sverre talte, talte Roma midt imot” (From the high speech of Sverre is Rome defied).

In the 11th century Olav Haraldson den Hellige (Olav the Holy) christianized Norway. Bishops paid their allegiance, first and foremost, to the bishop of Rome—the Pope and the Church shared secular powers with the king, often insisting on its right to designate who shall be king. King Sverre Sigurdsson put a stop to that.

In 1163, Magnus Erlingson made an alliance with the Church, promising to ensure the Church’s position in the country. Thus the Church gained power in Norway than it had ever had before. Eleven years later, the people went against Erlingson, led by Øystein Møyla who claimed to be the son of Øystein Haraldson. Øystein Møyla had the support of the young and poor followers who wore birch leggings that earned them the name Birkebeinerne.




The Battle at Re





Øystein Møyla was killed in the Battle at Re, just outside Tønsberg, where the Birkebeiner suffered a great defeat. They fled to Vaermland in Sweden where they met Sverre Sigurdsson. In 1176, Sverre came to Norway and became the leader of the Birkebeiner, who declared him king in 1177. With this, Sverre and his Birkebeiner directly threatened the kingship of Magus Erlingson.

Sverre and His Birkebeiner
Sverre Sigurdsson was said to be one of the many sons of Sigurd Munn. His mother Gunnhild later married Unas of Bergen, who was the brother of Bishop Roe at Færøyene. When he was five years old, Sverre was sent to Roe, where he was educated and was later ordained a priest. Sverre was 24 years old when his mother Gunnhild came to Færøyene for a visit and told him that his real father was Sigurd Munn. Gunnhild had made a personal visit to the Pope, who instructed her to tell Sverre of the truth about his parentage. It is said that Sverre was a learned and articulate man, ate only one meal a day, never drank alcohol and was totally against drinking. He was brave, daring, and was strong both in body and spirit. At the same time that Sverre was a great warrior, he was also morally upright and dutiful.

In 1178 Sverre and his men conquered Trondheim. Archbishop Øystein was then the foremost representative of the Church and so the alliance between Øystein and Magnus was also an alliance between the Church and the Throne, supporting and using each other. Military support was, among others, a part of this alliance. Øystein took part in the battle at Hatthamaren where he had a big ship with a large number of men. At the sight of the archbishop’s ship, the Birkebeiner fled.

Before the summer of 1179, Erling Jarl and King Magnus arrived with a great fleet, generously provided by Øystein. It was a critical situation for the Birkebeiner. Fortunately for them, Magnus had only about 600 men with him to pursue the Birkebiener because many of his soldiers were drunk and heavy with sleep. Magnus had earlier given his soldiers a good amount of drink as a reward for winning battles.

In the furious battle at Kalvskinnet, Erling was struck by a deadly spear at the waist. With Erling dead and about 70 officers and men slain, Magnus escaped to the sea with a part of his army. Most of the fleet had fallen under Sverre’s hand. The battle at Kalvskinnet was a big turning point in Sverre’s fight for the throne. Earlier, Sverre was known merely as the leader of a gang. With this victory, Sverre earned recognition as king in wider circles. As the name of Sverre rose higher, so did that of the Birkebeiner.

When Erling was killed. Magnus asked the Archbishop what he should do. Øystein assured Magnus that the king was well liked by the people that there is no great danger about their going over to Sverre. After the archbishop’s statement, many agreed to die with King Magnus than serve under Sverre. Although Sverre had won sufficient ground from which to launch further military operations, Magnus still was stronger and in control of the rest of the country.

The struggle for supremacy between Sverre and Magnus became more bitter and spread wider in the land, mobilizing more and more people for either side. Vital to the contest was the control of Bergen and Trondheim, the centers for each of the contenders. With the defeat of Magnus at Trondheim, which was Sverre's stronghold, Øystein fled to England in 1180.

The Fall of Kong Magnus
The outcome of the battles was uncertain. In 1184, Sverre had his headquarters at Sognefjord, terrorising the city’s population in Kaupanger. His ships lay at Fimreite at the mouth of the Sognefjord when King Magnus came sailing in with a fleet of 26 ships against Sverre’s 14. Sverre let his ships loose among those of Magnus, a traditional tactic. Sverre himself sat in a small boat directing his ships towards the enemy’s weakest points. The ships at Magnus’ flank were emptied one by one. Sverre’s men sprang into the enemy ships, creating panic that made men jump overboard. The last ship sank, overloaded with the weight of the fighting men. More than 2,000 men died, among them, King Magnus and his officers.

This victory gave Sverre control over Vestlandet (the area west of the mountain range that divides the western and eastern regions of Norway). With the fall of Magnus, Sverre became the one king of all Norway. At once, Sverre worked to build a stone fortress in Bergen, wishing to be safer in that city that is now the largest and most important in the whole land. With Sverre as King of Norway, the name “Birkebeiner” was no longer used in contempt and derision of the poor farmers from Trøndelag. It had become a name of honor.

A New Archbishop
In 1188, Eirik Ivarsson was named archbishop of Bergen. Despite the concern that the new archbishop was a bigger challenge than arcbishop Øystein because of his strong Roman Catholic stand, it was hoped that there would be more cordial relations between the new archibishop and King Sverre. For about 10 years, relations between King Sverre and the church were amicable. Soon, they were again at each other’s throat. The probable reasons for the conflict on each side were:

Archbishop Eirik

King Sverre:

Once again, an archbishop of Bergen fled the city. Eirik Ivarsson sought exile in Lund, justifying his flight to Pope Celestin 3, on the grounds that King Sverre had confiscated the properties and incomes attached to his tenure as bishop. King Sverre countered by sending Pope Celestin 3 a letter in his defense. At first there was no reply from Rome, which was then busy with a new papal election. When Celestine’s answer to Sverre’s letter finally came, it was clearly in support of archbishop Eirik. In addition, the Pope reaffirmed the 1152-1153 deal between Magnus and Øystein, reinforced by threat of excommunication to those who would defy the Church rulings. This threat was immediately applied to the bishops who crowned Sverre, a punishment that was called “å lyse i bann” (excommunication).

Bishop Eirik felt empowered by the letter of Pope Celestin 3,and from his headquaraters in Lund (in the south area of Sweden), Bishop Eirik sent King Sverre an excommunication ban.. The people viewed the Church action as a result of Sverre’s defiance of Rome. (“Han modig valgte å tale Roma midt imot.”) In response to Bishop Eirik’s move, King Sverre built his own counter-propaganda. He dismissed the Pope’s support for Eirik as merely a rumor from Denmark. Sverre also claimed that the excommunication ban was merely the bishop’s personal wish. More impressive though, was King Sverre’s use of Gratian’s Decretum in his defense, citing quotations on the principle that the King reigns on behalf of God from whom the King receives the authority over the Church as Inspector and Guardian and thus, the clergy owe him loyalty, obedience and service. In the meantime, the papal election had chosen Innocent 3 who was one of the most powerful counts of the Middle Ages, a superb theologian and jurist.

Baglerkrigen (The War with Baglerne)
In the same year that Innocent 3 became pope in 1198, he put an interdict over all those in Norway that defied Rome. He also made it clear that King Sverre’s claim of a papal letter freeing him from excommunication was false.
Perhaps, the history of Norway might have been different if King Sverre lived long enough to pursue his dispute with Rome. But it was not to be. The King of Norway’s defiance of Rome would be taken up again four centuries later by Christiern III, King of Denmark-Norway.

From the start, Sverre recruited his supporters from the lower classes, the young and poor men who later became known as Birkebeinerne. This was nothing remarkable at the time, as Øystein did the same thing. But Sverre who did not hae the support of the nobility and the wealthy farms did not have a choice. To some extent, King Sverre was a heroic figure who died too soon, before he can consolidate the gains he secured for the kingship against Rome’s demand. Also, he was fighting against internal strife at the same time that he was defying the immense power of the papacy, represented with its own military and political power through the Archbishop of Bergen.

Sverre was rather a man before his time. Although his people had a very real sense of identity as ‘norse’ (Norwegians), the concept of the state as the sole and central power was still being contested by the church. A year after Sverre was crowned King, Bishop Nikolas formed a group that became known as “Baglerne”. The name comes from “bagall” (bishop’s rod). Nikolas found Inge, a son of Magnus, who soon went under the name of Inge Baglerkonge (Inge King of the Rod). The Bagler pursued a political and military campaign against King Sverre, and received the usual support in Viken (at the Oslo fjord area). Several times they tried to take control of Trøndelag and Vestland.

King Sverre was fighting Baglerne in Galgeberg and at Hovedøya. In 1198, Baglerne put Sverre under siege in Bergen and later burned the city under the command of Nikolas. Sverre decided to crush the defiance from Viken by sending several thousand men. In addition he imposed a heavy sanction on the farmers and townspeople of Viken who had been supporting Baglerne which, of course, was immediately opposed.

At the turn of the century, Sverre was attacked by a farmers’ army recruited from Svinesund to Telemark. Despite this army being many times as big as Sverre’s 3,000, it was badly coordinated. Sverre called for strong reinforcements from Vestland, pursued Baglerne from Viken and imposed economic sanctions on the farmers in Eastern Norway. At this time, Baglerne were strongest in Oppland (north-west of Akershus), but Sverre had the rest of the country under his control.


In September 1201, Sverre surrounded Tunsberghus in West Viken, where the Reidar Lendemann had his Bagler headquarters. But they realized that the fort was invincible and they began a siege that lasted for 20 weeks. During this time, Sverre attempted to trick Baglerne into opening the fort. Baglerne had sent a message asking for reinforcements and Sverre sent his army back to masquerade as Bagler reinforcements. The trick failed because Reidar saw that some of the men were not bloodied and refused to open the fort to receive them.

Eventually, hunger proved too much for both sides and Baglerne surrendered. The siege was over. Sverre was victorious again. The conquest of Tønsberg was Sverre’s last military foray. He fell sick on the way and his condition worsened on the way back to Bergen. King Sverre died in his own fortress on March 8, 1202.

When Sverre died, it was revealed that Håkon was his only living son but his mother was unknown. This was again a case of a king’s son born out of wedlock. Håkon was in Trondheim when he received news of his father’s death. He had also received a letter from his father, King Sverre’ advising him to have a talk with the bishops, but that it should not mean a compromise.
King Sverre must have thought over his values towards the end and come to realize that either he had been wrong or that he did not have the possibility to continue what he had started despite a strong military and political power.

The Birkebeiner soon accepted Håkon as king. In 1202, the same year that Sverre died, King Håkon recalled the exiled bishops and they came to an agreement that Håkon will give up the dispute against the Church. The agreement also ended the coalition between the Church and Baglerne. In addition, the Church regained all freedoms they had worked for since 1152, evidently in return for recognizing Håkon as lawful king of Norway. Barely two years after, Håkon suddenly died in Bergen and the Birkebeiner intended that the new king should be the four -year old Guttorm, the son of Sigurd, one of Sverre’s son who had died.

Conflict Once More
Baglerne saw the Birkebeiner move as a threat and they began to mobilize. They gathered in Denmark where they received support from the Danish King. But Guttorm had died and the archbishop, together with the farmers, refused to accept Håkon the Mad to be the new king. Officially, the reason was that he was not good enough. In reality, a man named Inge Bårdsson seemed more peaceful compared to the warlike Håkon. Inge took control over Trøndelag, Håkon ruled in Vestland, and Baglerne were unwilling to give up. Once again, the country was torn in strife, with Birkebeinerne in control over Trøndelag and Vestland while Baglerne controlled in Trøndelag in Viken.

The most well-known feat of the Birkebeiner was the role they played in the winter of the year 1205. The infant Håkon Håkonsson (son of the Kong Håkon Sverresson and grandson of King Sverre Sigurdsson) had to be secured from harm from Baglerne. Some Birkebeiner fled with the infant, who was then less than two years old, and bring him to safety with King Inge at Nidaros. They arrived in Hamar on Christmas eve and hid for a short while in a farm at Lillehammer where they hid during the Christmas season. They continued the journey, not through the usual road upp Gudbrandsdalen, but through the mountains to Østerdalen. This route was hazardous due to the bad weather, frost and snow. Two of the best skiers, Torstein Skjevla and Skjervald Skrukka, carried Håkon in their arms and they skied through the treacherous mountains. They safely reached Østerdalen where the farmers received them well.

The infant that the Birkebeiner carried in their arms through the mountains to Østerdalen grew up to be king in 1217, King Håkon Håkonsson, and was recognized as a great and very popular monarch. The old Birkebeiner were very fond of him. When King Inge died, Håkon was only 13 years old, but Duke Skule, half-brother to King Inge, believed that young Håkon had the right to be king. Duke Skulle was designated king regent while Håkon was still a minor and worked towards conciliation between Birkebeinerne and Baglerne. King Håkon married the daughter of Duke Skule, but the duke would later be so reluctant to relinquish power that he would attempt to wrest the kingship from his son-in-law.
King Håkon Håkonsson was crowned in 1247. Seven years earlier, Bergen was formally declared the capital of Norway (in place of Trondheim) and King Håkon Håkonsson held his court there . He was a just and righteous king who made many laws, built churches and monasteries, fortresses and king’s halls, among them Håkonshallen (Håkons Hall), which still stands at the mouth of the inner harbor of Bergen. Encircled in red is the green-roofed Håkon's Hall.


About 1070 King Olav Kyrre granted municipal status to Bjørgvin (the old name of Bergen that means (“hill pasture”), then a port settlement of some importance on the east side of the Bergen peninsula. The town developed rapidly as an occasional royal residence. Encircled in red is the green-roofed building known as Håkon's Hall.



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Norges Nasjonal Sang

Ja, vi elsker dette landet,
som det stiger frem
furet, vejrbidt over vandet
med de tusen hjem, -
elsker, elsker det og tænker
på vor far og mor
og den saganat, som sænker
drømme på vor jord.

Dette landet Harald bjerged
med sin kjæmperad,
dette landet Haakon værged,
medens Øjvind kvad;
Olav på det land har malet
korset med sit blod,
fra dets høje Sverre talte,
talte Roma midt imot.

Bønder sine økser brynte,
der en hær drog frem;
Tordenskjold langs kysten lynte,
så den lystes hjem.
Kvinder selv stod op og strede,
som de vare mænd;
andre kunde bare græde;
men de kom igjen!

Visstnok var vi ikke mange;
men vi strak dog til,
da vi prøvdes nogle gange,
og det stod på spil;
ti vi heller landet brændte,
end det kom til fald;
husker bare, hvad som hændte
ned på Fredrikshald!

Hårde tider har vi døjet,
blev tilsist forstødt;
men i værste nød blåøjet
frihed blev os født.
Det gav faderkraft at bære
hungersnød og krig,
det gav døden selv sin ære -
og det gav forlig.

Fienden sit våben kasted,
op visiret for,
vi med undren mod ham hasted;
ti han var vor bror.
Drevne frem på stand af skammen
gik vi søderpå;
nu vi står tre brødre sammen
og skal sådan stå!

Norske mand i hus og hytte,
tak din store gud!
landet vilde han beskytte,
skjønt det mørkt så ud.
Alt, hvad fædrene har kjæmpet,
mødrene har grædt,
har den Herre stille læmpet,
så vi vandt vor ret.

Ja, vi elsker dette landet,
som det stiger frem
furet, vejrbidt over vandet
med de tusen hjem.
Og som fædres kamp har hævet
det af nød til sejr,
også vi når det blir krævet,
for dets fred slår lejr.

(Fra Digte og sange 1904,
Bjørnsons siste bearbeidelse)

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