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Few coins to trace Sweden’s history
By Bob Reis
September 20, 2017

Editor's Note: This is the second of a nine-part series. Read the first part here, the third part here, the fourth part here, the fifth part here, the sixth part here, the seventh part here, the eighth part here, and the ninth part here.


I’ve been writing these articles for a long time. Its going to be 30 years soon. Each time I go and do a survey of the history of some country. Some common features have emerged.

Everywhere I’ve looked, what we call “history” is humans mostly interacting with other humans as adversaries. Mostly they are either trying to take advantage of each other or they are fighting. Almost all of this belligerent behavior is conducted by a few males seeking and wielding what we call power. Most males don’t participate in such competitive activity, neither do almost all women.

The competitives, some of them, cajole or force the non-competitives to work for them in the accomplishment of their schemes. Over time various attempts are made to restrain the competitives, who otherwise would always be fighting and ruining things. Religion, pillow talk, strategic family alliances, legal contracts, etc. The attempts have always been temporary and only partially effective. Competition continues throughout history periodically to get out of control.

So here I am doing Sweden and it is more of the same old, same old. Today we call them gang leaders, or CEOs, or key people in politics, or heads of families. In the 11th century, kind of in general, sort of all over the world, some of the big people were getting bigger, and as they found themselves in better competitive positions they correspondingly enlarged their dreams. What eventually emerged was what we today call countries. Let’s consider Sweden.

Olaf Skotkonnung, 995-1022 C.E., first to call himself king of Sweden, possibly but not definitively ruled in the two great tribal territories: the lands of the Geats and the lands of the Swedes. Svea, Svenska, Swede. Geat, Gota, Goth. Gotaland. And Gotland, the island, part of the domain of the Geats.

About Gotland, the island, from the 9th century or so people (Vikings) had been going there to stash their booty. It was safer than keeping it on the mainland. On the island you could see them coming to try to take it. Whether it came from trade or raid, a lot of treasure, mostly silver, was deposited in the soil of Gotland island. It came to have its own government, non-monarchical, a council composed of the local big shots.

Later on, when kings were flexing their muscles, the Gotland government made a deal that involved formal fealty to the crown and a lot of local autonomy, including, crucially, the mint right. Kind of reminds me of the relationship, at about the same time (12-14th centuries) of the rich trading island Majorca with the Spanish monarchs.

Not that the Swedish king in any way approached impunity at that time. He had to make deals with everyone, even to make war. He couldn’t just go and do things. He had to get allies. He had to convince people.

Finances were a problem too. Sweden was not rich. Even the rich people there were rich because they had a pile of silver, perhaps some stone buildings. They didn’t have dukes and counts with vast holdings of land at that time. What they had was the local equivalent of barons, people in charge of a town or two or three back in the 11th century.

Olaf Skotkonnung, whatever he was actually king of, was succeeded by his son, Anund Jakob. The stories of his doings are somewhat fragmentary. Very rare coins with his name exist. The picture I saw is of a copy of a type of English king Aethelred II. His dates are 1022-1050, the latter is tentative.

The next and last of that line was Emund the Old, 1050-1060. He marked the border between Denmark and Sweden, it is written. No coins are known.

Olaf and his descendants were Svealanders. The next king was the son-in-law of Emund, and a Geat. The records state that he was a West Geat. There were East Geats, too, and that he favored his homies over all others in his realm. His name was Stenkil, ruled around 1060-1066, not much time. He job was threading the needle between growing Christianity and still powerful pagan traditions. No coins are known.

Upon Stenkil’s demise, after a bit of conflict between claimants, a son of Stenkil’s, Halsten, was crowned and ruled until 1070. It is written that he attended to business and refrained from war. No coins are known.

I could go on with this list of Swedish proto-kings who did not issue coins for more than a century. Sweden was a kind of ephemeral country at the time. Norway was a country. Denmark was certainly a country. Sweden was a more amorphous proposition, with uncertain borders and incomplete lines of control. Kings apparently had more important things to do than provide standardized metallic aids to commerce.

On Gotland island a precisely opposite situation prevailed. Business was most of what was being done on Gotland. The foreigners, with their stuff, were more and more doing their business with coins. The Gotlanders wanted to get in on the act, and in the second half of the 12th century, while the Swedish kings were working on their security issues, they did.

Exactly what authority or how many of them decided to strike the coins of the Gotland anonymous series is unknown. Typologically it kind of divides up into a kind of geometrical design group, with Christian symbols and mostly without legends, and the lily and Lamb of God type with mint name (Visby) and religious motto. As a group they are, I won’t say common, but obtainable, especially the Lamb type.

On the mainland people were killing each other and stealing the crown, East and West Geats and Svealanders fighting it out, over and over again until the reign of Knut I Eriksson, 1167-1196, who united the lands and died in bed. There are coins of Knut I, small, thin, uniface bracteates with cartoonish portraits, hard to find. Let’s note that bracteates were pretty much of a German phenomenon, apparently coming into use as a convenient manufacturing method for coins that would be recalled after a few years.

We don’t know if Erik’s coins were used that way or if he was just being stylish. Contemporary coins of Gotland island were normally shaped pennies. Bracteates were not favored in international commerce. If you wanted your silver coins to stay local, you made bracteates.

Sverker II, 1196-1208, not a son of Canute, killed in battle, there is a picture of a drawing of a small bracteate attributed to him on various websites, but there is no photo of an actual coin. A Swedish coin catalog of the late 17th century offered drawings of several coins that are not known today. Two monarchs later, his son, Johan I, 1216-1222, may or may not have issued a coin for which a drawing exists but the actual coins are apparently unknown.

Three monarchs later Canute II, 1229-1234, struck at least three coin types, all small bracteates. This tells us that the coins were apparently part of a taxation scheme but they are extremely rare, so who was being taxed and how many of them were there?

I passed a few minutes on the page, on which is discussed details of the arms and seals of the early Swedish kings. Everything means something in medieval heraldry, but exactly what is often debatable.

From the conversation, the author opines that “after the middle of the 13th century there was not such a thing as a United Kingdom of Sweden.” The formal disunity seems to me to be a continuation of the never ended conflict between the various noble houses, the power of some of which was growing. In the 9th century there were war leaders until one of them decided to call himself “king.” In the 13th century there were dukes and earls (equivalent to counts), all thinking about the possibility of grabbing the throne and crown.

I want to resist the temptation to describe the dynastic progression in detail: this guy married that daughter of that guy, the son succeeded him, was deposed by his illegitimate son by someone else, who died and the legitimate (technical term) son came back, and died, and his infant son became king but a noble enemy became regent and usurped the throne. Etc. I mean its all interesting I suppose, most of history is that story, would be more interesting if there were coins, I think. Don’t you? Or dragons.

In contemporary France and Germany there were all of those local feudal coins because the royal power was weak. In England and Denmark the royal power was strong, it was one king after another, issuing coins as central government initiatives, closing down provincial mints.

In Sweden it was kind of like coinage was an afterthought. There are places in the world today where they either don’t have or barely have their own currency. They use USA dollars mostly. A couple of places they maybe use Russian rubles. That was 13th century Sweden: mostly foreign money, most of it on Gotland island.

Swedish kings at that time were elected by a council of big shots. Valdemar I, 1250-1275, was the son of a collateral relative of the previous king, was deposed by his brother Magnus, who kept him locked up but living in luxury. Wikipedia doesn’t have much to say about the deeds and undertakings of his reign, mentioning only an affair with his sister-in-law and a trip to Rome as penance.

He issued bracteates in two major types: a facing portrait and a dragon’s head in profile, with several minor varieties, a typical tax scheme technique, the head faces left one year, right the next, the previous year’s coin became illegal. They are not common, look basically like other bracteates of the period, and aren’t ridiculously expensive, a few hundred dollars. The coins are said to have been struck on Gotland island. I have no idea how they attribute a lot of the bracteates. Facing portrait could be anybody. How do they know it’s Valdemar?

His brother, Magnus, went to war against him, beat him, took over, reigned 15 years, 1275-1290. Technically he is Magnus III, but a faction of historians, apparently dominant at this time, thinks of him as a “first king of Sweden” as we define the country today.

Records are still not great, but he is noted as having remitted some duties of peasants and to have exempted people who supplied mounted soldiers from certain taxes. This act is seen by some as the formal foundation of the Swedish noble class. His coins were bracteates, some with his initial “M” in various changing styles. They tend to be rarer and more expensive than the coins of predecessor Valdemar. There is also a series of “normal” coins, small pennies, similar in size and shape to things circulating in the Low Countries, Bohemia, Hungary, Bavaria.

Magnus died, apparently not in war, and was succeeded by his son Birger, who ruled until 1318. There was plenty of familial skullduggery during his reign, culminating in the murder of his two brothers, the ouster of Magnus, the execution of his son, and the selection of the infant king of Norway, son of one of the murdered brothers, as king of Sweden as well. A web search pulled up a listing of a single coin, actually a bit more than half of one, reminiscent of Gotland anonymous coinage. Got about $250 in a Swedish auction.

Birger was succeeded by his brother, Magnus IV, 1319-1364, whose mother was a daughter of the king of Norway, who happened to die that same year. Three-year-old Magnus was thereupon acclaimed king of Norway as well, creating a personal union of the two countries. He came of age and was crowned in 1336, embarking on a career of irritating the nobility of Norway and mucking around in Russia. The Norwegian situation resolved with an agreement to give the countries separately to his two sons. In Russia there was a peace treaty between Sweden and Novgorod, which broke down, and there was some military adventurism.

I found coins attributed to Magnus IV on the web, a picture from the Swedish national collection. A small penny, Gothic “M” surrounded by three crowns, lion on the other side. Also some small bracteates, one with a letter “A,” another with “L,” and another with a crown over 2 dots. Some were sold at a Swedish auction last year. The same auction house had other earlier Swedish coins. I asked them for permission to use pictures for this article. They did not respond. I wrote three more times, including, for what it was worth, a Google translation into Swedish. Nothing. So I won’t name them here. But you can find the coins through Google, an easy search.

What else? Magnus IV outlawed slavery within Sweden. The reasons are obscure. Usually such changes of legal status of lower classes have to do with economic considerations, labor requirements, or attempts to damage the power of some privileged competitors, the kind of people who at that time would have been members of the Royal Council. What’s a royal council? A group of big shots who can’t be ignored.

A tycoon named Bo Jonsson became the richest guy in Sweden, wangled the job of head of the governing council, made moves against the king, was kicked out of the country with his lackeys, landed in Mecklenburg in northern Germany, convinced the duke there to help them depose Magnus.

The duke, Albert II, was married to the sister of the Swedish king so there could be a plausible “reason” to get involved, sent his son, who would be Albert III of Mecklenburg, and an army, and they overthrew Magnus.

The Swedish nobles were thinking they’d rule Sweden through Albert but Albert’s father had the same idea. So, more skullduggery, to be continued next time.

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