It’s Good to be King, Unless You’re Magnus II&VII

“It’s good to be king,” sings Tom Petty, but this is not always true. Consider the case of King Magnus II and VII. His grandfather, Hakon V of Norway, and his uncle, King Birger of Sweden, both died in 1319, making him king of both countries.

Doubly good, huh? Actually, no.

He was only two years old at the time. By the time he was proclaimed king ten years later, his mother Ingeborg and the nobles and bishops of Sweden and Norway “had secured a controlling interest in government which he was never quite able to dislodge,” according to Eric Christiansen, the author of a delightful book called The Northern Crusades.

The bishops and nobles of both countries, for a lot of complicated reasons, were very anxious for him to lead a crusade in Karelia against the ‘heretical’ Russian Orthodox princes of Novgorod.

One reason was that the Avignon popes, Clement V and John XII, were levying a tax on all Catholic countries to finance a crusade in the Holy Land. They (the popes) were actually using the money to fight the Viscounti in Italy, but it’s pretty amazing, when you think about it, that they were actually able to collect from Catholics as far away as Iceland and even Greenland.

The Swedish and and Norwegian nobles and bishops wanted in on the action, and they wanted estates and tithes and bishoprics and stuff like that. And, of course, they had a deep and abiding concern for the souls of the Karelians. This is clearly reflected in the deal the Scandinavians had agreed to with the Russians before the crusade began:

“If our Karelians flee to you, kill or hang them all. If your Karelians flee to us, then we will treat them in the same fashion, so that they shall not give rise to discord between us.”

Then there was Magnus’ cousin Bridget. She was made a saint, so I have to be careful here, but she was told by Jesus AND the Virgin Mary that Magnus should crusade in Karelia against the Russians. But he had to do it correctly.

Everybody in his army had to be a man of righteousness. No mercenaries. And they had to follow procedure: “This picked body of conscientious volunteers was to be marshalled under two banners: one of the Passion, signifying peace, and one of the Sword of Justice, signalling war.

“It was essential that the heathen should first be offered peace, faith and liberty, by having banner number one displayed to them, and only if they rejected the offer was the army to move on to battle under banner number two.”

So much for the element of surprise.

“Once defeated, they (the heretics) could be compelled to accept baptism into the Latin faith, on pain of death. If they were killed, it was surely better for their souls than being left to drag out their lives in sinful error.”

To make a very long story short, Magnus II&VII crusade in Karelia was not a success. He was later deposed and shipwrecked on Lake Lagoda, where he converted and became a Russian Orthodox monk, according to the Chronicles of Novgorod, which may or may not be trustworthy.

“Live in peace and charity,” he is said to have said in a testament to his successors, “avoid all manner of treachery and untruth, renounce luxury and drunkenness and all devilish play, do wrong to no man nor violence to any, break no agreement sealed by the kissing of the cross, and go not over to the land of Russia as long as peace prevail and the cross be kissed, for we gain no joy in this life therefrom, and we lose our souls thereby.”