Birchlegs 101: History and The Last King
The background you need to fully appreciate Norway’s newest international hit film
Yes, you are in for another Norwegian history lesson. I can’t stop myself. I am so excited; the Norwegian film industry has made a film about the Birkebeinerne (the Birchlegs). In fact, the movie is called Birkebeinerne. The director is Nils Gaup, one of Norway’s greatest directors, who won an Academy Award for his movie about a legendary Sámi skier in the 1987 movie Pathfinder.
The movie Birkebeinerne has premiered in Norway and was released on June 17 in U.S. theaters under the title The Last King, because hardly anyone in the U.S. knows about the Norwegian Birkebeiners. But if you keep reading this piece you will soon be among the enlightened “hardly anyones.”
Fierce fighting did not end in Norway with the close of the Viking Age and the coming of Christianity; it just turned inward. From 1130 to 1240, Norway experienced a bitter civil war in which numerous contending rivals for the throne fought nearly continuously for 110 years (the treachery and blood-letting in HBO’s Game of Thrones pales in comparison). Quarter was rarely given by either side; if you lost, you died, or much worse. Few of the contending kings lived beyond their 20s and some never made it out of their teens. And yes, there were many mistresses, but because it was Norway we know their names and they had influence in their respective worlds (and in those days you could be an heir to the throne whether you were legitimate or not; it did not matter).
Over time two major political parties emerged, the Birkebeiners (Birchlegs) and the Baglers (Croziers). Geographically the Birkebeiners had their political base in Trøndelag, the province that contains the ancient city of Nidaros (now Trondheim); whereas the Baglers had their seat of power largely in the region centered on Oslo and Tonsberg in eastern Norway.
Originally, many of the warriors on the Birkebeiner side came from Norway’s wild central border zone with Sweden. These were tough, hardy men who often were so poor that they had to wear leggings made of birch bark, hence the name “Birkebeiner” or “Birchleg” in English. Eventually, by the end of the thirteenth century, the Birkebeiners began to include many men and women of wealth and standing in their ranks. The Bagler faction was nicknamed the “Croziers” because of their close alliance with the leaders of the Norwegian Catholic Church.
In 1203 King Haakon Sverresson, the leader of the Birkebeiners, died unexpectedly in Sarpsborg at the relatively young age of 27 (most likely from poison). The new king, elected by the Birkebeiners, was Inge Baardsson. Soon it was discovered that the recently deceased king, Haakon Sverresson, had left an unknown living heir who had been born in 1204 to Inga of Varteig (one of the mistresses of influence) in Folkenborg, Norway, in the province of Østfold. However, Østfold was in the territory of the rival Bagler king, Erling Stonewall, who controlled most of southeastern Norway and who was supported by Denmark. When they learned of the existence of the little 18-month-old Haakon Haakonsson, the Birkebeiners knew that both the child and his mother were in great danger. If found, they would certainly be killed by the rival Bagler faction.
So in December of 1205, the Birkebeiners sent a band of warriors to bring Haakon and his mother to safety in Nidaros where they could find protection under the rule of King Inge Baardsson. The Baglers, in turn, had heard that King Haakon Sverresson had produced a living heir and they were actively searching for the boy.
The band of Birkebeiner warriors successfully gathered up the child and his mother in Østfold and made their way north on skis to Hamar and then on to Lillehammer where they briefly rested. Hot on their trail were the Bagler soldiers of King Erling Stonewall. Faced with a severe blizzard, two men from the Birkebeinerne group were specially chosen to take little Haakon Haakonsson over the mountains to Østerdalen, a large valley located along Norway’s border with Sweden. These two men, Thorstein Skevla and Skjervald Skrukka, were thought to be the best skiers among the group of Birkebeiners and therefore would have had the best chance for getting the child to safety. After making a successful initial ski run to Østerdalen, Skevla and Skrukka, carrying child-Haakon, skied hundreds of miles across the high snowy mountains of central Norway to the Birkebeiner stronghold at Nidaros. Little Haakon had been saved by the stalwart and brave Birkebeiner warriors.
After his amazing winter journey, Haakon Haakonsson grew up to become one of Norway’s greatest kings. He ended the civil wars and consolidated political power in Norway under his authority. During his long reign (1217-1263), Norway entered what has been called its “Golden Age.” At his court learning flourished and he constructed the first monumental stone secular buildings in Norway (for instance, the great Haakon’s Hall in Bergen). Also, he won direct control over Iceland, Greenland, the Orkneys, the Hebrides, as well as large parts of Scotland. With his fleet of up to 300 ships, Norway became recognized as a world power and the friendship of King Haakon was actively sought by both the Pope and the King of Spain.
The movie Birkebeinerne recreates this epic medieval journey on skis. The costuming and settings appear to be historically accurate and the one-pole skiing in the movie is heart-stopping in its intensity. Initial reviews of this movie are very good and it has already been put forward by some film critics for an Academy Award.
Skevla and Skrukka’s famous ski rescue of the future king of Norway is also commemorated each year in the Birkebeinerrennet, a 54-kilometer ski race from Rena to Lillehammer, Norway (the reverse of this leg of the original journey). There is now also an American commemorative race held in Wisconsin known as the “Birkie.”
Now you are among the “hardly anyones” who know about this famous journey by the Birkebeiners from Norway’s distant past. Check your local showtimes and go support Norway’s movie industry!
Terje “Ted” Birkedal was born in Stavanger, Norway, in 1946. He grew up in Colorado and earned a Ph.D. in Anthropology from the University of Colorado. He retired in 2012 but remains active in his field and has served as the President of Sons of Norway Bernt Balchen Lodge in Anchorage since 2012. He has conducted archeological fieldwork in the American South, the Great Plains, Norway, Canada, Guam, and Alaska. He has always been passionate about Norwegian prehistory and history.
This article originally appeared in the July 1, 2016, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.