Eric of Sweden

(d. 1160)

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King (d. 1160).

His ten-year reign marked the consolidation of Christianity in Sweden and its spread to Finland, in which enterprise the English bishop Henry of Finland took a prominent part. Eric was the son of Jedvard, of the landed gentry of Vastergotland: through his wife Christine, of Sweden's royal family, Eric was able to claim the throne in 1156, after ruling his own province since 1150. His reign was notable for the codification of laws, for the establishment of a monastic chapter in Old Uppsala, which had come from the Danish monastery of Odense, as well as for his general favour and patronage of the Church. Sources are few about the details of his reign, but more is known about his death and the results of his cult.

After the death of Bishop Henry in 1156 in Finland, which Eric had invaded in a reprisal expedition, he was faced by a hostile combination of Danes under Prince Magnus allied with discontented Swedes, moved (it would seem) by combined regionalist and financial discontent, sparked by Eric's insistence that tithes should be paid to the Church for its support, as elsewhere in Europe. The temporary alliance of Danes and Ostergotlanders resulted in the assassination of Eric on Ascension Day just after he had heard Mass. This took place at Ostra Aros, on the site of the present cathedral of Uppsala. He was attacked by many Danish soldiers, and fell to the ground from his horse. He was then wounded, tortured, and ridiculed; finally he was beheaded. He was buried in the church in Old Uppsala, which he had rebuilt amidst the burial mounds of his pagan predecessors. In 1167 his body was enshrined; and then translated to the new cathedral of Uppsala in 1273. This was the decisive point in the development of his cult: other elements followed, such as processions for a good harvest going from Old Uppsala to the new cathedral. This is his supreme memorial; in it his body and regalia are still enshrined and a whole series of wall-paintings of the later Middle Ages survives. These depict the Lives of Eric and of Henry of Finland.

Eric is often depicted in Swedish art as the saintly king and patron of his country, notably in painted retables. His cult was popular until the Reformation, implicitly rather than explicitly approved by Rome. His cult may be compared with those of the other Scandinavian kings, Olaf and Canute. In all three cases, like those of Edmund and Edward the Confessor in England, national identity, as well as virtuous life, played a considerable part in the development of these cults. Feast: 18 May.

H.S.S.C., vi. 133–8; Bibl. SS., iv. 1322–6; R. Folz, Les Saintes Rois du moyen age en Occident (1984).

Subjects: Christianity.

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