Carlsberg Foundation 11: Not through the sword – but by the law

by Stefan Pajung and Mihkel Mäesalu

A few blog posts back, we dealt with Valdemar Atterdag and whether he planned to regain Estonia after he had reunited the rest of the Danish kingdom. In it, we mentioned that Valdemar in 1355 had petitioned the pope to undo the cession of Estonia, but that the pope was unwilling to do so, until he had heard what the Grand Master of the Teutonic Order had to say. Seemingly, the case died there, as Valdemar did not pursue this course of action any further.

Since then we have found out that in the 14th century there existed a rule within canon law which stated that a kingdom should remain undiminished, i.e. that it was illegal to separate provinces that were an integrated part of the territory of a kingdom from a crown permanently. The Duchy of Estonia was such an integrated part of the kingdom of Denmark. Apparently, in an early draft of the sales treaty the Teutonic Order even had tried to incorporate a clause which forbade Valdemar to invoke this rule afterwards and thus nullify the transfer of the Duchy of Estonia from Danish rule into control of the Teutonic Order. So, the question is now – why did Valdemar Atterdag not press his case at the papal courts?

We suspect that Valdemar did not press his case in the courts because of a single word in the canon law clause – the word “permanently”. While a king could hand over territory which was part of his kingdom to another ruler for the remainder of his own lifetime, this cession of territory remained only valid as long as he himself was alive. But as soon as he died and he had been succeeded by his heir, every integrated part of the kingdom should revert to the crown, and the new ruler would then decide what was to happen with the reverted territory – was it to be given to one of the king’s sons in order to give him a source of income, was it to be entrusted to a loyal vasal or should it remain under the king’s own control for the time being? So maybe Valdemar may have thought that he himself could not win back Estonia by invoking canon law. That would have to wait for his successors to sort out.

That does not mean that Valdemar himself did not want control over Estonia in his own lifetime, but while there were indications that Valdemar sought to extend his influence in Livonia, conflict closer to home both internally with the nobility of Jutland and externally with the Hanseatic League prevented Valdemar from taking the matter into his own hands.

The lands of the Teutonic Order and its neighbors 1260-1410. Wikimedia Commons

More urgent matters meant that it was only by the end of his daughter Margrete’s rule as regent that the Estonian question once again became a matter of debate between Denmark and the Teutonic Order. In 1412, the envoys of the Grand Master of the Teutonic Order visited Margrete and her adoptive son king Eric of Pomerania, king of Denmark, Norway and Sweden. The Teutonic Knights were looking for allies against Poland and Lithuania and promised to “do right” to queen Margrete and king Eric if they supported the Knights. Margrete and Eric took the Grand Master by his word. They sent their own ambassadors to the Grand Master in Prussia and asked him to “do right” to them and return the duchy of Estonia, which belongs rightfully to the crown of the kingdom of Denmark. The Grand Master was clearly surprised – as he had not anticipated such demands – and tried to excuse himself as politely as he could, but when the royal envoys pressed the matter, the Grand Master finally said that he rather would let himself be hanged than return Estonia to the Danish king.

That made king Eric determined to regain Estonia even against the wishes of the Teutonic Knights. Especially interesting, in this respect, was a remark by the former Danish chancellor and bishop of Roskilde Peder Lodehat, which reached the ear of the Grand Master of the Teutonic Order, and must have made him quite uneasy. In 1415, Estonian nobleman Hermann Little went to Denmark to see the king there, and while Hermann was there, he was invited to dine with the bishop of Roskilde, Peder Lodehat.

Tombstone of bishop Peder Jensen Lodehat, Roskilde Cathedral. Antikvarisk-Topografisk Arkiv, Copenhagen/Wikimedia

Bishop Peder stated during their conversation that it would be better for the king, if he took the advice of the older members of his council and stopped bothering the towns of the Hanseatic League and instead moved against Estonia, as “he had a claim to it”. What “claim” did he allude to precisely? All we know is, that Jens was an expert in canon law and for many years had been queen Margrete’s chancellor and closest legal advisor. Did he remember that king Erik now by canon law rightfully could reclaim the Duchy of Estonia from the Teutonic Order, not crudely by the sword – but though the law? And did Erik follow up on bishop Peder’s advice?

We shall have to see.