Sweyn II of Denmark

Sweyn II Estridsson
Imaginary portrayal of Sweyn II.
King of Denmark
Reign 1047 - 1074
Predecessor Magnus the Good
Successor Harald III of Hen
Consort Gyda of Sweden
Gunnhildr Sveinsdóttir
Tora Torbergsdatter
Harald III Hen
Canute IV the Saint
Oluf I Hunger
Eric I Evergood
Niels I
Ingerid, Queen of Norway
Sweyn the Crusader
Full name
Sweyn Estridsson Ulfsson
House Estridsen
Father Ulf Jarl
Mother Estrid Svendsdatter
Born c. 1019
Died 28 April 1074 or 1076
Burial Roskilde Cathedral
Religion Roman Catholicism

Coin of Sweyn II.
Sven Estridson coin pendant, found in Mildenhall, Suffolk. British Museum.
Coin of Sven Estridson. British Museum.

Sweyn II Estridsson Ulfsson (Old Norse: Sveinn Ástríðarson, Danish: Svend Estridsen) (c. 1019 – April 28, 1074 or 1076) was the King of Denmark from 1047 to 1074. He was the son of Ulf Jarl and Estrid Svendsdatter. He was married three times, and fathered 20 children or more, including the five future kings Harald III Hen, Canute IV the Saint, Oluf I Hunger, Eric I Evergood and Niels out of wedlock.

He was courageous in battle, but did not have much success as a military commander. His skeleton shows him to have been a tall, powerfully built man who walked with a limp.


Ascension to the throne

Sweyn was born in England, as the son of Norwegian Ulf Jarl and Estrid Svendsdatter, the daughter of king Sweyn I of Denmark and sister of king Canute the Great. Sweyn grew up a military leader, and served under king Anund Jacob of Sweden for a time. He pillaged the Elbe-Weser area in 1040, but was caught by the Archbishop of Hamburg-Bremen, who released him shortly thereafter.

Svend was made jarl under Danish king Harthacnut, and led a campaign for him against Norway, but was beaten by Magnus I of Norway. When Harthacnut died in 1042, Magnus claimed the Danish throne and made Svend his jarl of Jutland. Sweyn fought for Magnus at the Battle of Lyrskov Heath in 1043. Sweyn won great reputation at Lyrskov Heath, and had the Danish nobles crown him king in Viborg in Jutland. He was defeated by Magnus on several occasions, and fled to Sweden where he eventually established a foothold in Scania.

The war between Magnus and Sweyn lasted until 1045, when Magnus' uncle Harald Hardrada returned to Norway from exile. Harald and Sweyn joined forces, and Magnus decided to share the Norwegian throne with Harald. In 1047 Magnus died, having stated on his deathbed that his kingdom would be divided: Harald would get the throne of Norway, while Sweyn would be king of Denmark. Upon hearing of Magnus' death Sweyn said, "Now so help me God, I shall never yield Denmark."

Feud with Harald Hardrada

Harald, unwilling to relinquish Denmark, attacked Sweyn and fought a long war. Hedeby was sacked in 1050, and Harald also sacked Aarhus. Sweyn almost captured Harald in 1050, when Harald attacked the coast of Jutland and loaded his ships with goods and captives. Sweyn's flotilla caught up with the Norwegians and Harald ordered his men to throw out the captured goods, thinking the Danes would stop to get the goods. Sweyn ordered his men to leave the goods and go after Harald. Harald then ordered his men to throw the captives overboard. For them Sweyn was willing to let Harald slip away.

Sweyn came close to losing his life at the naval Battle of Nissan off the coast of Halland in 1062. The fleets met at night and the Danes seemed to be winning, but when Norwegian reinforcements arrived, the Danes began to sail away. Ship after ship was captured and Sweyn at last was forced to abandon his own sinking ship and row to the coast with a few retainers. They reached land and stopped at the house of a peasant to ask for something to eat. "What was the terrible rumbling in the night?" she asked. "Didn't you know the two kings were fighting all night?" asked one of Sweyn's men. "Who won, then?" the woman asked. "Norwegians," came the reply. "It's a shame on us, for a king we already have. He limps and is timid." "No," King Sweyn explained, "Timid the king of the Danes is assuredly not," defended another of the king's men, "but luck isn't with him and he lacks a victory." The housecarl brought the men water and a towel to wash themselves. As the king was drying his hands, the woman tore the cloth from him, "You should be ashamed of yourself for using the whole towel for yourself," she scolded. "The day will come when I will have your permission to use the whole cloth," was the king's comment. Her husband gave the king a horse and Sweyn continued on his way to Zealand.

Some time later the peasant was called to Zealand and given lands there for his service to the king, but his wife had to remain behind in Halland. Sweyn had a reputation for generosity and kindness that helped him on several occasions to win the trust of his people. Harald relinquished his claims to Denmark in 1064, in exchange for Sweyn's recognition of Harald as Harald III of Norway, and Harald sailed off to England to try to enforce his claim on the crown of England.

Consolidation of power

Sweyn's connection to the Danish line of succession was his mother Estrid Svendsdatter, and he took the matronymic surname Estridsson after her, emphasizing his link to the Danish royalty. He also minted his own coins.

Sweyn sought to consolidate his power through links to the church as well as foreign powers, and actively sought the friendship of the Popes. He wanted his eldest son Knud Magnus crowned by the Pope, but he died on the journey to Rome. He also unsuccessfully pressed for Harald Bluetooth, the first Christian king of Denmark, to be sanctified. He was an ally of Henry III, Holy Roman Emperor against Baldwin of Flanders in 1049, and Sweyn assisted his son-in-law Gottschalk in the Liutizi Civil War of 1057.

After Harald Hardrada was defeated and killed at the Battle of Stamford Bridge and William the Conqueror had conquered England, Sweyn turned his attention to England, once ruled by his uncle Canute the Great. He joined forces with Edgar Atheling, the last remaining heir of the Anglo-Saxon royal house, and sent a force to attack king William in 1069. However, after capturing York, Sweyn accepted a payment from William to desert Edgar, who then returned into exile in Scotland. Sweyn failed another attempt in 1074/1075.

Relationship with the church

Sweyn feared that Archbishop Adalbert of Hamburg would fill the upper ranks of Denmark's churches with Germans, so he brought Anglo-Danes over from England to keep the Danish church independent. Under the influence of Sweyn, Denmark was divided into eight dioceses around 1060. He set the dioceses up by donating large tracts of land, with the Diocese of Roskilde being the highest favoured one, as he had a good relationship with Bishop Vilhelm of Roskilde. When Archbishop Adalbert died in 1072, Sweyn was able to deal directly with the Holy See.

He was determined to bring men to Denmark to teach him and his people Latin so they could converse with the rest of Europe on equal terms. Adam of Bremen travelled to meet this learned king and came away with greater respect for the king's patience and wisdom. Sweyn encouraged the building of churches all over Denmark, and Adam of Bremen was astounded that there were 300 churches in Scania alone, more than in all the other countries of the north put together.

Sweyn could be ruthless. One New Year's Eve it was reported to the king that several of his guests and hired men had ridiculed him and talked behind his back. The king was so angry that he had them murdered in the church on New Year's Day. When the king arrived at Roskilde Cathedral for mass, his friend Bishop Vilhelm met him at the door and forbade the king and his party to enter. "You stand condemned before God, a murderer, who has defiled the house of God with blood!" cried the bishop and pushed the king back with his shepherd's crook. He declared the king excommunicated from the church. The king's men drew their swords and stepped forward to hack the bishop down, but Bishop Vilhelm held his ground. "Let him be," shouted the king and withdrew to his farm. There he removed his New Year's fine clothing and weapons and dressed in sackcloth. Then he walked back to the cathedral in his bare feet and cast himself face down in front of the entrance. Bishop Vilhelm had just begun the mass when he was told the king lay humbled at the door. Bishop Vilhelm stopped the service and went to the door to hear the king's abject confession. When the bishop realized the king was truly repentant, he raised him up, lifted the excommunication and led him into the cathedral.


King Sweyn died at his farm, Søderup, near Urnehoved Tingsted, near the town of Åbenrå. The Danish chronicles date his death to 1074, while some later sources argue that 1076 was his correct year of death. The king's body was carried to Roskilde Cathedral where he was interred in a pillar of the choir next to the remains of Bishop Vilhelm. Later he was called the "father of kings" because five of his fifteen sons became kings of Denmark.


One of the legacies of King Sweyn was a fundamental change in Danish society which had been based on whether a person was free or a bondsman. Sweyn is often considered to be Denmark's last Viking king as well as the first medieval one. A strengthened church in alliance with the land-owning noble families begin to pit their power against the royal family. The peasants were left to fend for themselves.

Sweyn built a strong foundation for royal power through cooperation with the church. He completed the final partition of Denmark into dioceses by corresponding directly with the pope, bypassing the Archbishop of Hamburg-Bremen. During his reign hundreds of small wooden churches were built throughout the kingdom, of which many were rebuilt as stone churches in the 12th century. Sweyn sought to create a Nordic Archbishopric under Danish rule, a feat which his son Eric I Evergood accomplished.

Sweyn seems to have been able to read and write, and was described as an especially educated monarch by his personal friend Pope Gregory VII. He is the source of much of our current knowledge about Denmark and Sweden in the 9th and 10th centuries, having told the story of his ancestry to historian Adam of Bremen around 1070.


Sweyn's first marriage was to Gyda of Sweden, daughter of king Anund Jacob of Sweden. His second marriage, in 1050, was to Gunnhildr Sveinsdóttir, the stepmother of Gyda. The Archbishop of Hamburg-Bremen ordered that the union be dissolved, which was effectuated by Pope Leo IX. After Harald Hardrada's death, Sweyn married his widow Tora Torbergsdatter. He took one mistress after another during his life. Sweyn fathered at least 20 children, of whom only one was born in wedlock.

With Gunnhildr:

  1. Svend Svendsen, who died young

With various concubines:

  1. Knud Magnus
  2. Harald III Hen of Denmark (d. 1080)
  3. Canute IV the Saint of Denmark (d. 1086)
  4. Oluf I Hunger of Denmark (d. 1095)
  5. Eric I Evergood of Denmark (d. 1103)
  6. Ulf Svendsen (Ubbe) (d. 1104)
  7. Benedict Svendsen (d. 1086)
  8. Bjørn Svendsen, Duke of Nordalbingien from 1099 (d. 1100)
  9. Niels of Denmark (d. 1134)
  10. Sigrid Svendsdatter (d. 1066), wife of prince Gottschalk
  11. Ingerid, wife of Olav III of Norway
  12. Svend Svendsen
  13. Sweyn the Crusader (d. 1097)
  14. Thorgils Svendsen
  15. Sigurd Svendsen, died in war against the Wends
  16. Guttorm Svendsen
  17. Ømund Svendsen
  18. Gunhild Svendsdatter (Helene)
  19. Ragnhild Svendsdatter, wife of Sven Askelsson


Sweyn Estridson
Born: c. 1019 Died: April 28 1074
Regnal titles
Preceded by
Magnus the Good
King of Denmark
Succeeded by
Harald III

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