Queen Margareta I of Denmark –
a medieval top politician.
Text Martin Ciszuk.
The golden gown of Queen Margareta in Uppsala Cathedral, whose design has been reproduced by Durán Textiles, has been attributed to Margareta Valdemarsdotter. The radiocarbon dating rejects the tradition that the gown was her wedding dress, but suggests that the garment was used by her in mature age. The precious gold fabric, the advanced cutting and the professional sewing all indicates that the gown was made for a woman in the highest social stratum.
Besides saint Bridget of Sweden, Queen Margareta is one of the few women that are commonly remembered from medieval Scandinavian history. Her life is a fascinating story about political power play and crushed dreams. Margareta was born 1353 as the daughter of Valdemar IV Atterdag, the king who united Denmark after many years of political disorder and disintegration. He established Denmark as a great power in the Baltic sea region, occupied Gotland and fought against the counts of northern Germany. In 1363 Margareta was married to the 18 year old King Hakon of Norway, who was the younger son of the Swedish king Magnus Eriksson. Because she come to be the only surviving child of Valdemar Maragareta became the heir of the Danish kingdom, and through her marriage Norway came to be a part of Denmark. Saint Brigit of Sweden, who lived in Rome but was active in Scandinavian politics, cursed the marriage in her heavenly revelations. She denounced it as a “play with puppets” and prophesied that there would be no heir of this union. In 1370 however, the son Olof was born, but King Hakon died already in 1380, and Margareta as widow and guardian for her son became the ruler of both Denmark and Norway.
By his kinship with the Swedish king Olof asserted himself as heir of Sweden, where both Magnus Eriksson and his oldest son had been driven away from the throne by the German count Albrecht von Meckelnburg. In the name of her son Margareta lead a war campaign in Sweden and together with the Swedish nobility conquered Albrecht in a battle at Falköping 1389. But Olof had died unexpectedly already in 1387, only 17 years old. Margareta thus became ruler over both Denmark Norway and Sweden. To secure the concord of the kingdoms she adopted a young distant relative, Erik of Pomerania, and announced him as heir. At a meeting in Kalmar 1397 she succeeded in uniting the three kingdoms. Erik was crowned at the age of 16 with great pomp in the city church of Kalmar, which was one of the more important commercial cities in Scandinavia. The Kalmar union joined all Nordic countries - Finland was already a part of Sweden. A detailed document was formulated where it was stated how the united lands should be ruled. It is, among other, stated that no foreigners should be placed as bailiffs in the castles. This rule was however soon broken, and this caused great discontent with the Danish rule of the union, particularly in Sweden.
In 1406 Erik of Pomerania married with the English princess Filippa, but the marriage was without children and Filippa died in 1430. After this, the union was torn up by fighting between the king and the nobility in the three countries. The Kalmar union officially lasted until the Gustav I Vasas was crowned as king of Sweden in 1521, and Norway remained under Danish rule all until 1814. Erik of Pomerania was deposed as king and settled on the island Gotland, where he ruled as a pirate, making the important sea trading route unsafe until 1448.
Queen Margareta died in 1412, alone at her ship in harbor of Flensburg, probably from the plague. She was buried, as her last wish, in the convent church of Sorø. Some years later, however, the body was, despite the protest of the monks, moved to a new burial in the cathedral of Roskilde. Erik of Pomerania and the archbishop of Roskilde the former chancellor of Margareta, Jens Lodehat, wanted to strengthen the image of the ruling family by raising an imposing sepulchral monument. The funeral ceremonies lasted for three days and were visited by a lot of ecclesial and mundane leaders. Big donations were given to churches and monasteries in the Nordic countries, and pilgrims were sent to all big shrines in the Christian world to pray for the queen’s soul. A funeral monument in alabaster was commissioned, but it lasted long until it was finished. It is feasible that the golden gown was used in this second funeral. It was common to place figures of the deceased royals, in natural size made from wood and wax and dressed in personal garments and regalia, on top of their coffins in the funeral procession. These effigies sometimes also had the function of temporary funeral monuments. The oldest written records of the golden gown describe it as hanging beside the sepulchral monument of the queen.
In some historical records Margareta is scornfully called: the king without trousers, a woman with political power was considered as something unnatural. In the diaries of Vadstena convent it was commented at her death: “in her life – considering the worldly she was highly favored by fortune.” From preserved letters of instruction to the son Olof it can be seen that she controlled him in every detail and that she was familiar with political intrigues and psychological power play. There are no contemporary descriptions or depictions of Queen Margareta. The effigy at her tomb is an idealized image, which also was heavily damaged and repaired in the 19th century. In connection to the investigation of the golden gown it was noted that the sleeves were asymmetrically shaped, which might be interpreted as caused by a bodily defect of the wearer. This could have been proved by opening her grave, but this was never performed and Queen Margareta rests in peace. From Denmark there have been propositions of returning of the dress, which is considered as a national Danish treasure, but the golden gown is still one of the main textile objects in the cathedral museum of Uppsala. It reminds us of the fascinating life of a medieval woman in the centre of power.
Kalmar Castle, Sweden. The renaissance fortress is based on the castle where the Kalmar union was proclaimed in 1397.
Margrete I. Nordens Frue og Husbond, Utställningskatalog, Köpenhamn 1996.
Drottning Margaretas gyllene kjortel i Uppsala domkyrka : The golden gown of Queen Margareta in Uppsala Cathedral / Agnes Geijer, Anne Marie Franzén, Margareta Nockert. Stockholm 1994.
The alabaster funeral effigy of Queen Margareta made in 1423, Roskilde cathedral.
The seal of Queen Margareta. The three crowns represent the three kingdoms in the Kalmar union.
Erik of Pomerania in a contemporary drawing. He is described as tall, blond and athletic. A Greek chronicler wrote: He could mount a horse in one jump without using the stirrups and women were drawn to him longing for lovemaking…
Reconstruction of the golden gown of Queen Margareta made by Durán Textiles. Photo: Laila Durán.