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The King Who Became a Pirate

When King Erik VII of Denmark was forced from the throne, he did the only thing any self-respecting descendant of Vikings could: He joined the warriors of the sea, and hit right back at his enemies.


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illustration of a man with a pirate hat holding an orb and sceptre, with fighting ships in the background

Illustrations by Darya Malikova 

A shallow oak ship moved silently through the waters, heading north toward the massive fortress looming on the horizon. On board, King Erik VII kept an eye out for cannons, for signs of action or soldiers arming themselves. The narrow strait between Denmark and Sweden remained calm. Only the sound of whining seagulls and the occasional whisper of waves tapping the stern filled the early morning air.

Erik smiled as he lowered one knee to the deck and opened the lid of a wooden chest. The faint rays of the winter sun shone on its jeweled contents as he picked up the red-and-white scarf that lay on top: Dannebrog, the flag of Denmark — the oldest national flag in the world.

Soon the Danes would know. They would understand the full scale of Erik’s power and of his secret order of knights. His allies would rise and stand against the usurpers. The scum that had stolen his throne would feel his wrath. They had cast him out, made him a stranger and a fugitive from his own country, but he would be back. He would fight them at sea. Steal their goods, loot their ships and slaughter their men. He was still the king. It was his right. Those colors were his.

Erik looked back at his beloved Krogen, the great fortress he had built. Generations later, the same castle would be visited by Shakespeare’s theatrical troupes and immortalized as the setting for the Bard’s Hamlet. Hundreds of years after that, it would be declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. But to Erik, in 1438, it was the fortress he had built to protect himself and his kingdom. The fortress that secured the Øresund Strait, running between Denmark and Sweden, where taxes were collected from every ship that passed, carrying goods back and forth through the Baltic Sea. He had masterminded this tax system that now bestowed fortune upon his country, securing its position as a superpower of the North.

Yet now he was exiled. Erik’s eyes damned them all as he unfolded the red banner bearing the large white cross and let it billow in the wind. He raised the flag higher, shaking the colors in his hands as a final farewell to his home. The coast was clear. A few hours later, he would be among friends on the isle of Gotland — a harbor of worn seafarers and war-ravaged men who would come to his call and fight to help him get his throne back.

He was King Erik VII, and the Danish aristocracy would come to feel his wrath. He would be king again. He would prevail. So help him God.

Erik VII wasn’t born a king. He came into the world as Bugislav of Pomerania, in a seaside region of what is now Poland and was then part of western Pomerania. His father, Duke Heinrich Wartislaw VII of Pomerania-Stolp, controlled the land and waterways there. His mother, Maria of Mecklenburg-Schwerin, was the daughter of a Danish princess, and it was her connection to the royal Scandinavian lineage that suddenly thrust their 5-year-old son into a life of power struggles, political unrest and, eventually, piracy.

Norway’s king and the king’s only son had died just seven years apart, leaving the queen (later Margaret the First), with her position as regent threatened. Her 16-year-old son, Oluf, had ruled both Norway and Denmark with his mother as regent, but after Oluf’s death the title of king seemed up for grabs. Margaret had to think on her feet if she wanted to secure her power. She had to find an heir to the throne. Somebody in her family, somebody whose blood ran blue and was connected to the kings of old.

If she did not, she knew that Denmark and Norway could end up with her nephew — the widely unpopular Swedish King Albrecht of Mecklenburg — on the throne. Margaret was known for her wits and political aptitude, and though she was grief-stricken from the loss of her only child, she nevertheless went straight to Erik’s mother and arranged to adopt young Bugislav. Margaret renamed him Erik, after the Swedish national saint, and brought him and his sister, Catharina, to Denmark. With this, the fate of King Erik VII was sealed.

The royal council and noblemen of Denmark and Norway turned a blind eye to Margaret’s unconventional dealings and agreed to crown then-7-year-old Erik king in 1389, with Margaret continuing as regent.

The nobles never intended for Erik to rule — King Albrecht of Mecklenburg still thought he had a chance of securing the throne. But Margaret let time unfold, allowing circumstances to work in her favor. Albrecht lost the Battle of Åsle, was captured by Margaret’s soldiers and thrown into prison. The Swedish capital of Stockholm remained under siege by Danish forces for years, and once released from prison in 1395, King Albrecht finally gave up the fight for the Danish throne. Meanwhile, Erik’s father died back home in Pomerania, leaving Erik as the undisputed male heir to the Danish, Swedish and Norwegian thrones. Margaret then enacted the next step in her plan, proposing to unite all three countries under one treaty: The Kalmar Union. Erik, still just a teenager, was about to become the ruler of a superpower.

A drawing from the time shows Margaret in her royal best, cutting a tall figure in front of a room full of Scandinavian noblemen, clerics and royalty. One arm hugs 15-year-old Erik’s shoulders, her adopted son’s fair hair and light complexion shining with excitement, surrounded by the powerful families and officials of his vast new kingdom. One parched and yellowed document, dated June 17, 1397, features beautiful cursive along with hastily scribbled notes in a medieval language. The ornate document is signed by 67 names and confirms that King Erik was “to become one united king, reigning over all three realms.” Ironically, the union was partly meant as a defense strategy against the region’s growing number of pirates — a strong alliance in a world ridden with unrest.

The Kalmar Union turned out to be much more than that. It was also a farewell to the times of old. It marked a break with the old Nordic Viking culture, when strong chieftains ruled continents of people who acquiesced when the settlements were under attack but otherwise kept to themselves. Now the regions were all bonded as one. The new lords became part of something greater — and pledged their allegiance to just one king.

While Margaret was busy creating the Kalmar Union, the region’s merchant ships were experiencing growing violence at sea. When the city of Stockholm was under siege, a fellowship of seafarers had bonded to bring the city food and supplies. They called themselves the Victual Brothers. Now that the war was over, they maintained a presence in the region’s waterways, where they looted and pillaged ships. Margaret commissioned her own posse of “pirate catchers” to go after the Victual Brothers, but on more than one occasion she was pretty lenient with the lot. The isle of Gotland, off the coast of Sweden in the Baltic Sea, became a pirate’s nest — similar to Jamaica in the 1700s, populated by sailors notorious for their drinking, debauchery and violence. “Gotland was safe harbor for these pirates,” says Moody Jensen, adding, “Margaret turned the blind eye to what they were doing, officially denying having anything to do with them — or pirates in general for that matter. However, she herself did commission other sea warriors actively in her service whenever it was needed.”

This commissioning of pirates — or “sea warriors” — was standard practice for monarchs in medieval times, says Thomas Heebøll-Holm, professor of medieval studies at University of Southern Denmark. “In a time where there was no official fleet of the state, kings had to enter into public-private cooperation with sailors to attack their enemies. The plundering of ships was a central part of any war in this period in time, and it could actually be hard to separate the looting, pillaging pirate from the legitimate soldier. They both plundered, the only difference was by which right and by whose authority.”

However, the Victual Brothers and their pirates’ nest on Gotland were starting to upset the powers to the south, and a year after the sealing of the Kalmar Union, the Teutonic Order (a religious order and German state along the Baltic sea) sent 4,000 ships and 200 horses to Gotland to rid the island of pirates once and for all. The pirates surrendered and three of their fortresses were torn down.

On the surface it looked as if the pirates in the Baltic Sea had been dealt with, but in fact the looting just moved elsewhere for a while. The pirates typically had twice as many hands on deck as a merchant vessel, making it impossible to keep the looters at bay. Sailing the European waters in this era was a dangerous and often deadly business.

On October 28, 1412, Margaret died, and Erik — although crowned king and regent several years earlier — finally got to rule. “Her soul left her body under a mighty and wondrous storm filled with lightning and thunder,” states the Holstener recountal, a noble document from the era. After attending the queen regent’s three-day funeral in Roskilde Cathedral, where her sarcophagus is still displayed, another scribe wrote the following in the Lübske Chronicle: “There has never been a more wonderful funereal in all of Europe, no one richer in gifts, in ornaments, in chalices or in money.”

There was hope that this era of prosperity would continue under Erik. “The young king gives great promise for the future,” wrote one clergyman in his diary. Even Pope Pius II heaped adulation on Erik, describing him as a man “with a beautiful body, golden hair, reddened face, a long and slender neck,” and so agile that he could “jump onto his horse, alone, and without touching the stirrups in a fashion that attracted all women, especially the Empress, and caused her romantic longings.”

But Margaret’s death marked a difficult time for Erik, who quickly learned that keeping a vast and very dissimilar kingdom together is no easy task. Tensions were high. Before Margaret died, she and Erik had started a war on the kingdom’s southern border. Thinking they could annex the two territories of Slesvig and Holstein (in what is now Germany), they had pitched a fight with the area’s dukes and suddenly found themselves in the middle of an expensive battle, which they had trouble winning.

In the year 1416, an outright war broke loose in Slesvig and Holstein. It ended in a truce in 1423, but as a result of the war Erik raised taxes, upsetting his Swedish and Norwegian subjects. He further ruffled feathers in the outer regions of his kingdom by putting Danes and Germans in charge of Norwegian and Swedish affairs.

Meanwhile, Erik’s childless marriage to the English princess Philippa was starting to be a national problem. Without a son, there was no heir to the throne, so Erik started looking for a successor in the Polish part of his family tree. He decided to push for his cousin, Bugislav IX of Pomerania, and started giving him and other Pomeranian counts ownership of Danish castles.

Expensive wars and ill-conceived decisions caused doubt about the king’s rule among the Union’s noblemen. His wife’s death in 1430 exacerbated these concerns. To some extent, her gentle ways had countered his rigid temper and less diplomatic style. Four years after Queen Philippa’s death, there was outright rebellion on the Swedish side of the country. The Swedes tried to force Erik from power, and negotiations lead to the Council of State making concessions that limited Erik’s power.

Erik had spent the last decade building his Krogen fortress and securing the countries’ finances by inventing a tax system in the Øresund Strait that would last for centuries after his death, effectively laying the foundation for the bustling capital of Copenhagen. Still, despite this boon, the Council of State had determined that Erik’s poor decision-making, combined with the widely disliked Øresund taxes, had created too many problems.

With the walls closing in, Erik saw that his fate was sealed. He decided to leave the country with the royal treasure chest, a few of the crown jewels, the royal regalia and the country’s historical flag. He knew where he was going: to join the pirates.

The pirates in question were sea-worn men who for years had created fear and havoc among the merchants and noblemen of Sweden, Denmark and the German towns known as the Hanseatic League. The pirates’ enemies — the nobility who were once King Erik’s friends — were the same people with whom he now found himself at odds. So naturally, his enemies’ enemies became his friends.

As he stood proud and unrepentant on that ship, the Dannebrog banner in hand, plowing through Oresund toward the pirate’s nest on the isle of Gotland, the Danish nobles were on his trail. And while he cursed the powers that be and readied himself for piracy, the nobles made a deal with his sister, Catharina, offering her son, Christoffer of Bayern, the Danish throne. They simultaneously started a rumor that King Erik was directly involved in a conspiracy to overthrow the Royal Council. According to a diary from the noble lady Anne Krabbe, found in the Royal Danish Library’s “New Royal Collections” and written in uneven handwriting, the nobles told a tale of Erik striking a deal with the rebel farmers of the time, supposedly telling them to kill their lords, so that Erik could return and claim his throne.

At this point Erik still saw himself as a king, and he did want to return to the throne. However, Denmark’s new king, his nephew, Christoffer of Bayern, saw him as a pirate. Erik was not on board the looting ships himself, but he undoubtedly orchestrated everything from Gotland.

Erik and his band of pirates primarily attacked merchant ships, pillaging goods to feed themselves as well as to sell. He saw himself as a sea warrior, not a pirate, and he felt he was only taking what was rightfully his. “One could actually tell the whole story from his point of view, and totally understand his choices,” says professor Moody Jensen.

The sources from Erik’s life as a pirate king are scarce, and few details are available. “We know that he held court and had scribes and other officials living with him at his fortress, Visborg on Gotland,” says Moody Jensen. It was a certainly a stark change from royal life in Denmark. “It was a limited and poverty-stricken court — created by a small but vicious band of his own men, locals, and people who wanted to fight [for] his cause.”

Eventually, one powerful group of merchants became tired of the renegade king’s looting. They captured seven of his men and hanged them for piracy.

Erik continued on and spent a full decade as a pirate king, always hoping to return to power in the country he believed to be his. But when his nephew, Christoffer of Bayern, suddenly died — childless and at the age of 31 — his countrymen brought in a new king from a different lineage, Christian the First.

Erik finally gave up hope of ever reclaiming the throne. With the death of his nephew, their family’s regal bloodline, which dated all the way back to the ancient Viking kings, had reached its end. There was nothing left to fight for. He returned to his birthplace, Pomerania, and died there at the age of 77.

“Erik returned to Pomerania a beaten and bitter man,” says Moody Jensen. In the history books, his royal mother is heralded as legendary, while Erik is largely overlooked. “But that said, the taxes of the Øresund Strait … was a brilliant idea. It lasted until 1857, and it actually financed the build of modern Denmark.”

Perhaps the pirate king’s father, Wartislav VII, foresaw what was in store for his son, according to one notable story that still lingers from some 600 years ago. As reported in Brita Hartz’s book Erik of Pomerania: The Robber’s Son, Wartislav, the brawny and very practical Polish duke, who for years had collected taxes on the land and waterways around Darlowo, gave his 5-year-old boy an important piece of advice before his departure: 

“Remember, my son,” he said, pressing the family crest of a vigilant, yellow-clawed winged griffin into his hand: “A lot of robbers have made it further than plain folk, and a scepter does never make for a sword.”

Anja Klemp Vilgaard is an author, publicist, journalist and the owner of Get Ajour, a storytelling agency that sits on the grounds of Kronborg Castle in Denmark. Her work has been published in both national Danish dailies (Politiken, Berlingske Tidende, Urban etc.) and magazines (Euroman, Computerworld, etc.) as well as international magazines such as Crossing Borders and the Scandinavian publication Illustrated Science. This piece was inspired by her work on the book Kronborg Stories Untold.

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This post originally appeared on Narratively and was published April 20, 2020. This article is republished here with permission.

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