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Northern Europe

Sigtuna Burned to the Ground in 1187

by Hain Rebas, 21 April 2017

Since the 1920s or 1930s, all good Estonian patriots have been convinced that Sigtuna, the centre of ancient Svealand, was destroyed in 1187 by Estonians.

This conviction is based on Evald Aav's opera, Vikerlased (The Vikings), plus the results of research work carried out by the historians Hans Kruus and Jüri Uluots, and thanks to popular novels by August Mälk and Karl August Hindrey.

The act was carried out by the men of Saaremaa, the Osilianer - who else? Through Karl August Hermann (1886) and Jaan Jung (1878), the basis of this instinctive, patriotic approach reaches back to Carl Robert Jakobson's fundamental first patriotic lecture in 1868.

However, the current archaeological surveys at Sigtuna by Sten Tesch in 2005 have not provided decisive proof of the town being emptied during the height of the medieval period, and the written evidence originates from relatively late dates, such as the details covering the event in the medieval chronicles and annals.

No specific culprits have been determined, with the blame being placed on pagans, paganes, in general. There is no doubt, however, that the authors of the annals believed that the incident really did occur: combusta or incensa erat.

Examining the sources

Firstly, the anonymous Eric's Chronicle from the 1320s, which was a courtly hero's tale which originated in western Sweden or Åbo/Turku, far from Sigtuna in any case, suspects the arch enemies of the Swedes of the time of committing the violent act. These would have been the Karelians or the Russians, who were quite eager to slaughter their enemies and torch cities around 1187. However, there is no way that they would not have been christened in this era and, even more crucially, they did not have the ships with which to make a crossing of open seas, which is something they very much would have needed to do to have been able to reach Lake Malar from around the mouth of the River Neva.

In the sixteenth century, a new era began with Olaus Petri, the man who translated the Bible into Swedish and who not only reshaped church life and the linguistic landscape of Sweden, but who was also an uncompromising reformist of the Swedish way of chronicling history.

Olaus worked in the Malar valley for decades, initially for the bishop of Strängnäs, who was in charge of the Swedish national archive, which at this time was still at the embryonic stage. Following that, Olaus worked as the annalist for the city of Stockholm and was finally promoted to the position of personal secretary to King Gustav Vasa. Finally, in 1530, he started work on his own chronicle, the Svenska chroeneka.

In order to be able to complete his work he had all of the known sources of that time at his disposal, including Eric's Chronicles and the documents in the national archives. These included those documents which were destroyed in the great fire at the royal castle in 1697. As we know, he was very familiar with the Malar valley, which is also where Sigtuna is located, and where one can find ancient Estonian place names and a local heritage which covers a good many decades.

Unlike Eric's Chronicles, Olaus claimed simply and clearly that Estonians (Estar) had been the ones not only to destroy Sigtuna, but were also feared enemies of the people of Svealand at the time, on dry land and at sea.

Historical remains

These statements are indirectly proven by historical remains, such as a well-developed system of protective barriers on the archipelago at the mouth of the Malar and the long line of tower strongholds lining the eastern coast of Svealand, but also by remains on Öland and, especially, on Gotland, which originate from the late twelfth century.

St Olof's Church, Sigtuna
St Olof's Church was built in Sigtuna around 1100, showing a strong Christian presence in the region by this date, even if many ordinary Swedes would have continued to practise their everyday pagan duties (External Link: Creative Commons Licence)

Recent studies of Saaremaa show that, in the High Middle Ages, there was a military hierarchy-based society here, one which produced iron and was involved in trading. Four main castles served as the area's strongholds and there were numerous ports. The findings from pre-Viking-era ships from Salme (in 2008 and 2010) and the use of swords from a Frankish smithy in the valley of the River Rhine are proof of the early overseas contacts between the people of Saaremaa and Scandinavia. [1]

This is also supported by some sections in the Gesta Danorum by Saxo Grammaticus which originates from the same period (the late twelfth century), specifically in the Norwegian Sverris saga, in the chronicle of Novgorod, and in Henricus de Lettis' Chronicon Livoniae (the Livonian Chronicle). Unfortunately, the latter story only begins properly at the end of the 1190s.

The events

According to Saxo (born about AD 1150), the men of Saaremaa and Courland fought against the Danish for three days in 1170. Sverris saga says that King Sverre's brother, Erik, spent three years around 1185 looting Estonian coastal areas and then sailed back to Svitjod in Svealand, to King Knut Eriksson, to whom he was related. Surely this was to Sigtuna, the most important centre in Svealand. Where else could it be? And this brings us, chronologically, to the dramatic story of Sigtuna in 1187.

Next, according to the chronicle of Novgorod, 'coastal Estonians' - undoubtedly the people of Saaremaa - sailed their six snäckas (shown as шнекъ in the chronicle, a Scandinavian type of vessel) to Lake Peipus in 1190, where they were defeated and killed by the people of Pskov. After this, the Scandinavian-type pirate ships of the men of Saaremaa - the pyraeticas - landed at the settlement of Listerby in Blekinge County, Sweden, in 1203.

One question arises from these incidents. What business did the hundred or so men of Saaremaa, who could row a boat and undoubtedly also fight, have to take care of on Lake Peipus in 1190? The answer is connected to Sigtuna in 1187 and to Listerby in 1203. The parallels are obvious. Just like similar operations which were carried out by Scandinavian Vikings in the west, these were also quick smash-and-grab raids by vessels against wealthy, unsuspecting, and therefore more-or-less defenceless communities.

After that, in 1206, the people of Saaremaa managed to fend off the onslaught of the Danes against their island. In 1211, they attacked Turaida Castle, a stronghold of the Livs on the Koiva. These Livs had cooperated with the traitorous and constantly encroaching Germans (from Riga), both by sea as well as on the river. During the course of a counter-attack they mounted a seaborne siege of the newly-established hostile centre of Riga on two occasions (in 1215 and 1218).

In 1220, they crossed the Moonsund with a great host and liberated Rotalia County in western Estonia from the people of Svealand, who had conquered Lihula Castle. In 1226, the men of Saaremaa sailed back home from Svealand with a great deal of loot and a large number of prisoners.

Viking remains on Saaremaa, Estonia
Two ships were filled with Viking warriors who were killed in battle between AD 700-750, as uncovered by archaeologists on the island of Saaremaa in 2008-2010, proof of a Viking raid more than a century before the Vikings are thought to have been able to sail across such distances

[1] Two Viking burial boats dated between the eighth and eleventh centuries (and favouring the earlier date) were found quite close to the ground's surface during the building of a shared cycle and pedestrian path in the Salme area of Saaremaa in 2008-2009, with investigations continuing into 2010.


In conclusion, the people of eastern Svealand were forced to fortify their coasts and skerries with signalling systems and defence structures at any cost around 1200 (give-or-take a couple of decades), especially because the increasingly weakening power of the king was quite feeble in this period.

There is equally little reason to doubt that the well-organised people of Saaremaa (and the men of Courland to a lesser extent) with their pyraeticas, which were suitable for sailing across open seas, were much-feared pirates and looters around the entire central region of the Baltic Sea.

Who else in the Baltic Sea region other than the men of Saaremaa could have been bold and capable enough to row and sail to the well-protected Lake Malar, attack Sigtuna itself, and loot the city (and perhaps even burn it to the ground) in the year of 1187, while Saladin was defeating the poorly-led army of crusaders at the Battle of Hattin in a desert far away in Palestine and launching the subsequent, decisive besieging of Jerusalem?

And why should we not believe clear statements covering the matter which were written by an historian who was generally highly critical, one Olaus Petri, who had lived in the Malar valley and who was well acquainted with archival materials?



Published in the 15th Yearbook of the Estonian Learned Society in Sweden, 2010-2014 (Eesti Teadusliku Seltsi Rootsis aastaraamat XV. 2010-2014), edited by Ants Anderson (Stockholm, 2015), pp 13-36. Reprinted with the permission of the author and the publisher in the biennial of Saaremaa Museum: Saaremaa Muuseum, Kaheaastaraamat 2015-2016, Kuressaare 2017