May 18, 2014

St. Erik, King of Sweden

Swedish king, lawmaker and patron of Stockholm, there are many reasons to know something about Erik Jevardsson, or St. Erik of Sweden. 

No actual historical records of Eric IX of Sweden, or Erik the Saint, have survived. Most of what we know about Erik is based on the Swedish Erikslegenden written in the 13th century.  But Erik is a saint whose legacy is relevant even today. 

Erik purportedly ruled from 1155-1160. From 1150, he was a rival king to Sverker the Elder who was crowned around 1130 and murdered in 1156, after which Erik was recognized as king. 

Crusade to Finland
During his reign, Erik was responsible for codifying laws that became known as King Erik's Law (or the Code of Uppland). Erik also insisted on paying tithes to the Church as elsewhere in Europe, irking many of the Swedish nobles at the time. He was also instrumental in Christianizing the Finns and led the First Crusade to Finland along with English bishop Henry of Uppsala, who later became Finland's patron saint, St. Henrik.

Scenes from Erikslegenden by Albertus Pictor, 1400s, Uppsala Cathedral. Photo: Anders Damberg

Murder in the cathedral?
Eric was attacked by rebel Swedish nobles in Uppsala at Ascension Mass on May 18 in 1160 at a church once located on the site of the present-day cathedral. According to legend, he was beheaded by Magnus Henriksson, an assassin said to have been hired by members of the Sverker dynasty. Interestingly, like many other Nordic saints, he is represented as a king standing on his murderer, who is often depicted as a dragon or serpent, in medieval iconography.

Also in line with legends about Nordic saints, a fountain purportedly sprang forth at the spot where his head fell. This was one of many miracles attributed to him after his death. The spring, which was said to cure the ill and restore sight to the blind, still flows by the north wall of Uppsala Cathedral. 

Erik was buried in the Old Uppsala church, which he had built around the Viking burial mounds located there. In 1167, his relics and regalia were transferred to the present cathedral of Uppsala. 

Not just a pretty face
Erik was never actually canonized, but he has been regarded as a saint in the Nordic countries since his death. At the end of the 12th century, the Swedes chose Erik as their patron saint and he later became Stockholm’s designated protector. His image first appeared on the Stockholm seal as early as in 1376 and it is used as the  logo of the City of Stockholm to this day. 

Erik in the news
In April, St. Erik's reliquary was opened by a team of researchers investigating the development of osteoporosis from the Middle Ages. This is the first scientific investigation of his relics and the first time the reliquary has been opened since 2000. The injuries that can be seen on the cranium, by the way, show that the person  suffered a violent death.  

Cranium and crown from reliquary. Photo: Bertil Eriksson

The royal burial crown (the oldest in Sweden) contained within the reliquary will also be restored and shown in an exhibition at Uppsala Cathedral this summer from June 18. The exhibition will be a part of Uppsala's celebration of 850 years as a bishopric.