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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 11

Chapter XIV. Sverrir and Descendants, to Hakon the Old

Chapter XIV. Sverrir and Descendants, to Hakon the Old.

The end of it was, or rather the first abatement, and beginning of the end, That, when all this had gone on ever worsening for some page 284 forty years or so, one Sverrir (A.D. 1177), at the head of an armed mob of poor people called Birkebeins, came upon the scene. A strange enough figure in History, this Sverrir and his Birkebeins! At first a mere mockery and dismal laughing-stock to the enlightened Norway public. Nevertheless by unheard of fighting, hungering, exertion and endurance, Sverrir, after ten years of such a death-wrestle against men and things, got himself accepted as King; and by wonderful expenditure of ingenuity, common cunning, unctuous Parliamentary Eloquence or almost Popular Preaching, and (it must be owned) general human faculty and valour (or value) in the overclouded and distorted state, did victoriously continue such. And founded a New Dynasty in Norway, which ended only with Norway's separate existence, after near three hundred years.

This Sverrir called himself a Son of Harald Wry-Mouth; but was in reality the son of a poor Comb-maker in some little town of Norway; nothing heard of Sonship to Wry-Mouth till after good success otherwise. His Birkebeins (that is to say, Birchlegs; the poor rebellious wretches having taken to the woods; and been obliged, besides their intolerable scarcity of food, to thatch their bodies from the cold with whatever covering could be got, and their legs especially with birch bark; sad species of fleecy hosiery; whence their nickname),—hisBirke-beins I guess always to have been a kind of Norse Jacquerie: desperate rising of thralls and indigent people, driven mad by their unendurable sufferings and famishings,—theirs the deepest stratum of misery, and the densest and heaviest, in this the general misery of Norway, which had lasted toward the third generation and looked as if it would last for ever:—whereupon they had risen proclaiming, in this furious dumb manner, unintelligible except to Heaven, that the same could not, nor would not be endured any longer! And, by their Sverrir, strange to say, they did attain a kind of permanent success; and, from being a dismal laughingstock in Norway, came to be important, and for a time all-important there. Their opposition nicknames, 'Baglers (from Bagall, baculus, bishop's staff; Bishop Nicholas being chief Leader),' 'Gold-legs,' and the like obscure terms (for there was still a considerable course of counter-fighting ahead, and especially of counter-nicknaming), I take to have meant in Norse prefigurement seven centuries ago, 'bloated Aristocracy,' 'tyrannous Bourgeoisie,'—till, in the next century, these rents were got closed again!—

King Sverrir, not himself bred to comb-making, had, in his fifth year, gone to an uncle, Bishop in the Faröe Islands; and got some considerable education from him, with a view to Priesthood on the part of Sverrir. But, not liking that career, Sverrir had fled and smuggled himself over to the Birkebeins, who, noticing the learned tongue, and other miraculous qualities of the man, proposed to make him Captain of them; and even threatened to kill him if he would not accept,—which thus at the sword's point, as Sverrir says, he was obliged to do. It was after this that he thought of becoming son of Wry-Mouth and other higher things.

His Birkebeins and he had certainly a talent of campaigning which has hardly ever been equalled. They fought like devils against any odds of number; and before battle they have been known to march six days together without food, except, perhaps, the inner bark of trees, and in such clothing and shoeing as mere birch bark:—at one time, somewhere in the Dovrefjeld, there was serious counsel held among them page 285 whether they should not all, as one man, leap down into the frozen gulphs and precipices, or at once massacre one another wholly, and so finish. Of their conduct in battle, fiercer than that of Baresark, where was there ever seen the parallel? In truth they are a dim strange object to one, in that black time; wondrously bringing light into it withal; and proved to be, under such unexpected circumstances, the beginning of better days!

Of Sverrir's public speeches there still exist authentic specimens; wonderful indeed, and much characteristic of such a Sverrir. A comb-maker King, evidently meaning several good and solid things, and effecting them too, athwart such an element of Norwegian chaos-come-again. His descendants and successors were a comparatively respectable kin. The last and greatest of them I shall mention is Hakon VII., or Hakon the Old; whose fame is still lively among us, from the Battle of Largs at least.