Editor’s Note: The following account is taken from Historical Tales, Volume IX, by Charles Morris (published 1908).
Historical tales have much to do with war and bloodshed, with rides and raids, with schemes and stratagems, with plunder and piracy, and with outrage and oppression. These are the things to which historians give the most space in their pages and which many readers find fullest of interest and excitement. In the present tale we have to do wholly with scenes of war, for we propose to tell the story of one of the most remarkable battles ever fought on Swedish soil.
This is what led to it. After the death of Charles VIII and the appointment of Sten Sture as administrator of the kingdom, Christian I of Denmark, whom the brave Sture had driven away with his army, fancied that the way was open to him again, and that Sweden, without a king, was a ripe plum ready to drop into his mouth. He was to find it a sour plum, for in Sten Sture he had to deal with a man of notable ability, just and upright in his dealings, wise and prudent in government, and brave and skillful in war. He was a man who did not swear to keep his word, but who never broke it. “I promise by my three water-lilies” (the arms of the Stures) was his form of affirmation, but this simple promise was more to be trusted than the solemn oaths of many kings and potentates. The people loved and trusted him, and on the 1st of May, 1471, the late king’s appointment was confirmed at a general diet of the people, which accepted him by acclamation as the administrator and captain-general of the realm.
He soon had work cut out for him. Christian of Denmark equipped a great fleet and sailed to Stockholm, where he anchored in the harbor and opened negotiations with the Swedish senate, then the great source of power in the land. He promised to govern the kingdom in the way they might decide upon and be to them a mild and merciful father. While some of them were seduced by his specious promises, the majority had no fancy to make him their “father.” But they made a truce with him until the matter could be decided, the Danes being allowed to buy provisions in the town, and on their side selling salt to the citizens, this being at that time very scarce in Stockholm.
Thus matters went on for seven weeks, at the end of which time Christian concluded that the Swedes were playing with him, seeking to spin out the time until all his provisions would be consumed and winter with its storms would be at hand to destroy his fleet. As it began to appear that nothing was to be gained by peace, he resolved to try the effect of war, and on the 1st of September landed his army and laid his plans to besiege the city.
His camp was pitched on the hill of Brunkenberg, near the city, connection being made with the fleet by a strong bridge built from the shore to an island in the harbor. Bulwarks and ramparts of earth were thrown up on the side next the town, and were mounted with cannon, with which he soon opened a bombardment. He enticed some of the Swedish peasants into his camp by promise of an abundance of salt, but his main army consisted of the Danish nobles and their troops and of German and Scottish soldiers of fortune, brave, stout, able warriors who exercised themselves daily in military sports and led a merry and careless life in camp, heedless of everything except pay and plunder.
When the proud Danish king was told that Sture was collecting an army of peasants with which to fight him, he sneeringly said:
“Herr Sten sneaks along ditches and dikes, but I shall punish my little gentleman with the rod like a child, and teach him to keep himself quiet.”
Threats were also made by the foreign mercenaries against the citizens, but these only served to rouse their anger and make them more resolute in the defense of the city.
As for Herr Sten, he went on raising troops and driving out the Danes whom he found infesting the seaboard lands, not marching towards the city until he had got rid of all hostility in his rear. On his march he was met by his brave cousin, Nils Sture, with an army of the bold Dalmen of the north, and the united armies marched on to Jerfva, in the vicinity of the beleaguered city.
From this point Sture wrote to King Christian, offering him safe passage home, if he would leave Sweden without the need of blows; but he only roused the wrath of the king, who loudly swore:
“By God’s five wounds, I have not gone to so much trouble and expense to go home without finishing what I came for.”
All that could be done in the cause of peace had been done without avail, and events had reached a point in which the affair could be settled only at sword’s point and cannon’s mouth.
It was the 10th of October, 1471. Long before the sun rose on that memorable day the Swedes of Sture’s army were awake and busy preparing their arms for the coming fray, in which the mastery of their kingdom was to be decided. At an early hour the whole army was called to the solemn service of the mass, after which holy and impressive ceremony they refreshed themselves with a hasty meal and returned to their ranks ready for battle.
Nils Sture was already on the march with a third of the army, secretly leading them around a clump of woodland with the purpose of attacking the Danish camp at Brunkenberg from the east. As the ranks of the main army formed for the attack, their brave leader was gratified to see a body of gallant horsemen, in shining armor, riding to join him. They were thirteen hundred in number, and had been sent from the town of Kungsholm.
Advancing before his people, Sture spoke to them with few but telling words:
“If you ever desire to enjoy peace and security in Sweden stand by me this day and cling one to another. I shall do my part. I fear not the king nor his Danes and mercenaries, but gladly venture life and blood and all that I possess on the event of this battle. If you will do the same, lift up your hands.”
“That will we do with God’s help,” came the roar of response, followed by a great shout and wild clanging of arms. Immediately the advance began, the men singing the verse of a psalm written for the occasion. It was now the hour of eleven.
King Christian and his army boldly awaited the assault, looking down from their commanding position on the Swedes, who came on heedless of the roar of guns and flight of arrows. Reaching the foot of the hill, they began its ascent, met as they did so by the Danes, who rushed down upon them with lance and sword. In a moment more the hostile lines met and the bloody work of war began.
On the summit of the hill proudly waved the Danneborg, the sacred standard of Denmark. In the midst of the Swedes fluttered their country’s flag, borne resolutely up the hill. Around these banners gathered the bravest of the champions, fighting with heroic fury—the Danes, under their ambitious king, fighting for glory and riches; the Swedes, under their patriot leader, striking for peace and freedom from foreign rule.
While the battle was thus raging outside the town, Knut Posse, its governor, a skilful soldier, was not idle. He was not content to rest within the walls while his countrymen were fighting so vigorously for his relief. The heat of the fight had left the bridge leading from the shore to the ships without a guard, and he sent some men in boats to row towards it and with saws and axes to sever the supports beneath it. This was successfully done and the men returned unseen.
While this was being accomplished the warlike governor, seeing that the Swedes had been checked in their ascent of the hill, made a sally from the town with two thousand of the garrison, taking possession of the Danish fortifications in that quarter and setting them on fire. His position, however, could not long be held, for Sten Sture’s troops had been driven down the hill and Christian was free to lead a heavy column against him, forcing him back with his handful of men. In the struggle, however, the bold governor advanced so vigorously upon the king, that he received a wound from Christian’s own hand.
While Knut Posse was thus being driven back into the town Sten Sture was seeking to infuse new spirit into his defeated people, telling them that “it would be to their eternal shame if they suffered themselves thus to be repulsed.”
Marshaling them into orderly ranks as quickly as possible he led them again towards the hill, and the battle recommenced with its old fire and vigor. Sture rode valiantly at their head, encouraging them with a display of heroic valor. While he fought on horseback, by his side ran a peasant named Björn the Strong, who kept pace with the horse and at times ran before it, swinging his broad battle-axe with such strength that he opened a road for his leader to ride through. Though surrounded by enemies, the two held their own with the fiery energy of the berserkers of an earlier day, dispensing death while not receiving a wound.
King Christian, on the other hand, showed himself not wanting in valor, keeping well in the front rank of his men. In the midst of the fight a ball struck him in the mouth, knocking out three of his teeth and so disabling him that he was carried fainting from the field. In the end the Swedes, who had borne their banner to the summit of the hill, where they looked in vain for the expected aid from Nils Sture and his men, were driven back again and a second time forced down the hill, the victorious Danes driving them well into the plain at its foot.
Three hours of hard fighting had now passed and both armies were wearied. Trotte Karlsson, a Swedish renegade who had been fighting against his country in the ranks of its foes, seated himself on a stone to rest, taking off his helmet that he might breathe the fresh air. As he did so a ball from the Swedish ranks struck him between the eyes and he fell dead—a traitor fighting with strangers against his native land.
Though twice beaten Sten Sture had no thought of giving up the fight. For some reason Nils Sture, who with the large force under his command had been depended upon to make a diversion in their favor, had not appeared. Bad roads had detained him and he was still struggling onward towards his assigned position.
Looking around him, and satisfied that it was hopeless to dislodge the enemy from their post of vantage, Sten now attempted a diversion by sending a force to attack the troops stationed at the convent of St. Claire. The Danes on the hill, seeing the danger of this detachment, and thinking that they had thoroughly beaten off the Swedes, rushed down to the aid of those at the convent, and Sten, with the skill of an able commander, took advantage of this movement and at once marshaled his men for a third attack.
They did not need much encouragement. Though twice beaten they were not dispirited, but rushed forward shouting: “Now the Danes come to us on equal ground! Let us at them and swing our swords freely!”
Some bright streaks appearing on the sky, the cry ran through the ranks:
“St. Erik is waving his sword over his people to aid them and point the way to victory.”
On the enemy they rushed, with a valor not weakened by their previous repulses, and Knut Posse, who had been watching the fight with keen eyes, made a fresh sally from the town. Soon the battle was on again with all its former fury, the Danes fighting at first for victory, then, as they were forced to give way, striking resolutely to defend their standard, the Danneborg. Knut Posse made a fierce onset upon the proud banner, but was not able to reach it until five hundred noble Danes, who gathered around it as a guard of honor, had fallen under the swords of the Swedes.
When the Danes saw their great standard fall they gave way, but only with the intention to regain the height and defend themselves on its summit. It was at this critical juncture that Nils Sture appeared with his long-delayed troops and attacked the enemy from a fresh side. Before this unlooked for and powerful force the Danes gave way in a panic, their ranks being broken and the fugitives rushing in wild flight down the hill to take refuge in their ships.
Now the stratagem of Knut Posse became effective, the weakened bridge swaying and sinking under the multitude of fugitives who crowded it, plunging them by hundreds into the water. Others leaped into boats to row to the vessels, but these were so crowded that many of them sank, their occupants being drowned. In all, nine hundred men were drowned in the flight, while as many more who were not able to escape threw down their arms and surrendered. Christian succeeded in escaping with that portion of his army which had reached the ships, while Sten Sture marched in triumph into Stockholm with his victorious troops, there to be received with shouts of gladness, and with tears of joy by his wife Fra Ingeborg, who had been in the city and with the noble ladies of the place had prayed earnestly for victory while their friends and husbands fought.
For four hours the battle had lasted. It was one of vast importance for Sweden, since it brought to that country many years of peace and repose. King Christian dared not attack the Swedes again and the country got on prosperously without a king under the able government of Sten Sture.