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Secular and Spiritual Power: Notable 14th-Century Scandinavian Women

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For the last day of Women’s History Month, we present a brief glimpse into the interconnectend lives of several powerful medieval Scandinavian women, in particular, Queen Margaret I (1353-1412) and the family of her instructress, Märta Ulfsdotter, (ca. 1319-71). Märta was the daughter of Birgitta Birgersdotter–the future Saint Birgitta of Sweden (Bridget, 1303-73) and sister of Katarina Ulfsdotter, later known as Saint Katarina (Catherine, ca. 1331-81).

What made Margaret so successful as a ruler? Undoubtedly, the environment in which she grew up had an important impact. At the tender age of six, for purely political reasons, she was betrothed by her father, King Valdemar IV of Denmark, to the much older Haakan (1340-80), King of Norway. Although born in Denmark, Margaret was brought up in Norway, and had a husband whose father ruled both Norway and Sweden. She thus observed firsthand the ruthless quest to maintain power through diplomatic alliances.

Betrothal of Margaret and Haakon. “Nordens historie populært fremstillet” (A popular treatment of the northern countries). Second ed. Kjøbenhavn: Forlags bureauet, 1881-87″ v. 3, p. 47.

Margaret I is called by that name to distinguish her from the current Queen of Denmark, Margrethe (Margaret) II. In actual fact, because she was a woman, Margaret I ruled first in the name of her son Olaf (1370-87), and then in the name of her sister’s young grandson, Erik of Pomerania (1381-1459). However, acknowledged as the real ruling force until her death, Margaret I was variously addressed as the Queen, Lady Ruler, or Sovereign.

Queen Margaret I. Below her image, the escutcheon displays the following emblems clockwise from top left: the three lions of Denmark, the three crowns of Sweden and the Kalmar Union, the lion of Norway, and the lion of Sweden. Frontispiece, from Paul Sinding, “History of Scandinavia, from the Early Times of the Norsemen and Vikings to the Present Day.” New York: Pudney & Russell, 1858.

Margaret I worked tirelessly to bring together the Nordic countries of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. She wanted a power base that could stand up to the feuding Scandinavian nobles, the powerful Hanseatic League, and German inroads. Historians view the Union of Kalmar as the culmination of Margaret’s efforts. At the 1397 June meeting in Kalmar, in southern Sweden, Margaret’s great nephew Erik of Pomerania was crowned King of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden.

A much-rebuilt Kalmar Castle after the days of the Union. Niels Bache, “Nordens historie populært fremstillet” v. 3, p. 90.
A romanticized depiction of the coronation of Erik of Pomerania. “Nordens historie populært fremstillet” v. 3, p. 89. 










Map of southern Sweden. Vadstena (Vaste) and Kalmar (Calmar) circled in yellow. Detail from “Carta Marina” (Map of the sea) by Olaus Magnus. Second edition, 1572.
A more accurate map showing Vadstena and Kalmar. Frederico de Wit, “Nova et accurata totius Europae descriptio” (A new and accurate description of all Europe), 1700.











Reared in Norway, Margaret’s instructress and head of her court was the noblewoman Märta Ulfsdotter. The twice-married Märta’s first husband was a Norwegian nobleman, and the second, a Swedish noble. Margaret was thus raised by a woman with an understanding of both Norwegian and Swedish affairs. Märta’s daughter, Ingegerd, was schooled together with Margaret under Märta’s strict and authoritarian tutelage.

Märta came from an environment of strong women who served as influential role models for a future ruler. Märta’s widowed mother, Birgitta, was a strong woman in her own right. After her husband’s death, she withdrew to be near the Cistercian monastery at Alvastra in eastern Sweden. Throughout her life, Birgitta had experienced mystical visions. These revelations she dictated to the monastery’s prior, who translated them into Latin.

At a time when women were expected to remain subservient to men, religion was one of the few areas where women could attain prominence. As a member of a well-connected noble family, Birgitta was in an ideal position to achieve her religious goals. She advocated in both Sweden and Rome for the founding of a new religious order. She realized this goal toward the end of her life, receiving permission in 1370 from Pope Urban V to found her order of cloistered nuns at Vadstena Convent on Lake Vättern, north of Alvastra.

Saint Bridget of Sweden. “Uppenbarelser” (Revelations), image 23. Low German edition “Sunte Birgitten Openbaringe” (Saint Birgitta’s revelations). Lübeck, 1496.

Pursuing her objectives, Birgitta traveled to Rome in 1350 and remained there for the rest of her life, accompanied by her pious daughter, Katarina. Birgitta made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 1372, and died the following year, after returning to Rome. She was canonized in 1391.

Saint Katarina of Vadstena, from “Uppenbarelser” (Revelations), image 363. Low German edition, 1496.

Birgitta’s daughter, the future Saint Katarina, carried on her mother’s work at Vadstena Convent. Märta’s daughter and Margaret’s fellow pupil, Ingegerd, succeeded Katarina as abbess.

Vadstena Convent. “Nordens historie populært fremstillet” v. 3, p. 64.

The legacy of these Scandinavian women remains with us today. Although the Union of Kalmar did not last (Sweden became completely independent in 1523, and Norway became a province of Denmark in 1536), Margaret’s vision may be seen as a precursor to today’s Nordic co-operation. Birgitta’s revelations were published in 1492 and have been widely read ever since. The Birgittine (Bridgettine) Order of the Most Holy Savior is still active today, and Saint Birgitta was proclaimed one of the patron saints of Europe in 1999.

Margaret I.  The profile is based on the 1423 effigy on Margaret’s tomb in Roskilde Cathedral. “Nordens historie populært fremstillet” v. 3, p. 97.
Saint Birgitta. “Nordens historie populært fremstillet” v. 3, p. 43. 













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