A written medieval legend holds that Swedish King Erik IX, the patron saint of Stockholm whose likeness still adorns the city’s coat of arms, was beheaded in 1160 after being ambushed outside a church. Legends from that era are notoriously inaccurate. But this one—the main source of information about Erik’s life and death—received a credibility boost last week, when researchers announced that a modern analysis of the king’s suspected bones largely supports what appears in its pages.
Very little is known about King Erik IX of Sweden, who is also referred to as Erik Jedvardsson, Erik the Saint and Erik the Lawgiver. No surviving documents from his lifetime even mention him, and his earliest appearance in the extant literature merely reports that his remains rest in a shrine in Uppsala, Sweden, and that his daughter married Norwegian King Sverre Sigurdsson. In fact, the only detailed biographical account is a legend, written around the 1290s for the express purpose of establishing him as a saint. According to this legend, Erik ruled justly over the course of his decade-long reign, codified the laws of his kingdom, relentlessly promoted the Catholic Church at a time when many Swedes still worshipped the Norse gods and launched a religious crusade against Finland.
Like many Swedish kings in the post-Viking age, Erik met his end violently. The legend asserts that supporters of a Danish claimant to the throne surrounded an Uppsala church as Erik observed mass there on a May morning in 1160. Insisting on finishing the service, he then supposedly rode out to meet his opponents in battle, only to be thrown from his horse, repeatedly stabbed, mocked and finally beheaded. Miracles occurred afterward, the legend states, such as a fountain that popped up right where his decapitated head fell to the ground. For the next century, his descendents ruled Sweden on and off, including his son, who took power after murdering a rival in 1167. Erik’s suspected remains, meanwhile, along with a copper crown and a pair of medieval textiles, were placed in a reliquary at Uppsala Cathedral, about 40 miles north of present-day Stockholm.
King Erik’s reliquary has been opened numerous times since then, including once in the 1570s so that it could be melted down to help finance a war and again in 1946 so that researchers could analyze the skeleton inside. After participating in a TV documentary about All Saint’s Day in the mid-1990s, Sabine Sten, a professor of osteoarchaeology at Uppsala University’s Gotland campus, realized that more of Erik’s secrets could be unlocked with the help of modern forensic and archaeological techniques. Applying to the county administrative board and the Swedish Church, she received permission to run two days’ worth of tests in April 2014 (after which Uppsala Cathedral displayed Erik’s crown to the public for the first time).
Last week, Sten and her research team announced their results, which were published in the Swedish journal Fornvännen. As it turns out, they found virtually nothing to contradict Erik’s legend. Radiocarbon dating, for example, placed the bones to the 12th century, exactly when Erik is believed to have lived. An osteological analysis showed that the bones belonged to a 35- to 40-year-old man, Erik’s supposed age at the time of his death. A stable isotope analysis uncovered a diet rich in freshwater fish, which the devout Erik likely ate during the medieval church’s many fast days. And an assortment of hospital tests, including CT scans, confirmed that a neck vertebra had been severed consistent with decapitation, that multiple stab wounds marred the legs (which chainmail armor wouldn’t have protected), and that there were one or two healed skull wounds possibly suffered during the crusade against Finland.
The tests moreover found the man to be 5 feet 7 inches tall, about average height for the time, to be well nourished and powerfully built, to have no discernible medical conditions and to have significantly thicker bones than the typical 21st-century male of his age. “Medieval people were always moving and working and straining the skeleton,” Sten said in a Skype interview from Sweden. “Today, we are sitting here at the computer.” She pointed out that of the 3,600 medieval skeletons she’s examined, only 12 had a fracture caused by osteoporosis, whereas nowadays osteoporosis causes a fracture in about half of all Swedish women older than 50.
A second study, to be published later, will analyze DNA that Sten and her team extracted from three of the reliquary’s 24 bones. In so doing, they’ll be able to determine whether the three bones, including the severed vertebra, belong to the same individual and whether there are diseases present they can’t otherwise see. They may even be able to determine eye and hair color. Eventually, the researchers hope to compare the DNA with other royal DNA and to definitively confirm once and for all whether the reliquary’s bones belong to Erik, who, though considered a saint in Sweden, was never formally canonized by the pope in Rome. “It’s like doing a large jigsaw puzzle,” Sten said.
Some mysteries, however, are apt to remain. For one thing, the reliquary contains 23 bones that are seemingly King Erik’s. But it also has an extra shinbone that belongs to someone else. “We have no idea whose shinbone that is,” Sten said. It’s moreover unclear what happened to the rest of the skeleton; rib, finger, jaw, arm, foot and other bones have all gone missing, possibly having been brought to other churches as relics.