Alf Tore Hommedal
Associate Professor, University of Bergen
It’s time to bring the weekend queen Sunniva back to Norwegian search.
This is a chronicle. Opinions in the text are at the writer’s expense.
Our future queen, Ingrid Alexandra, is coming of age these days. The heiress princess is thus constitutionally ready to take a seat on the cabinet on the day her father becomes king. She can then rule as crown princess regent.
Likeins, she will be able to take over as the reigning queen – when that day comes. Ingrid Alexandra’s official day 21 January 2022 is thus an anniversary in Norwegian history. An adult woman is ready to take over the Norwegian throne.
If the formal framework for equal female succession has only been established in our time, the future ruling queen can still build her identity on 850-year-old roots in Norwegian history.
Just as the saint king Olav in the Middle Ages was a role model for the Norwegian kings, the saint queen Sunniva has been the case for the Norwegian queens.
But while Olav in the 19th century had pointed out that as a Norwegian symbol, Sunniva was to the extent that she was mentioned at the time, reduced to “a princess” without the equal status that the saint queen in the Middle Ages had with the saint king. It’s time to bring the weekend queen Sunniva back to Norwegian search.
Sunniva was an Irish princess. Legend has it: “When her pious father died, she took power in the kingdom according to the law of succession.”
The legend, probably designed in Bergen around 1170, thus depicts female succession to the throne and governing power. It happens at a time when the succession to the throne in Norway should only go through men.
Sunniva was not just a queen – she was a reigning queen, as Ingrid Alexandra will be too!
Legend has it that the Christian Sunniva, who lived in the 10th century, chose to leave Ireland accompanied by women, men and children.
Sunniva wanted to avoid forced marriage with the pagan tyrant, who would otherwise harden her kingdom.
In three small ships put the Iranians at sea without oars, seals or rudders. They drifted towards the Norwegian coast, where most went ashore on the island of Selja near Stad. There the boat refugees suffered martyrdom.
According to the same legend, the Christian king Olav Tryggvason found the bone relics of these first Norwegian saints in 996.
In 1170, the holy remains of Queen Sunniva were transferred to Kristkyrkja in Bergen, the cathedral which was located next to Håkonshallen on the new Bergenhus.
Sunniva was the patron saint of Bergen city and diocese, and she was “Norway’s guardian”.
Sunniva had a greater weight than we think today
Ointment of God
Legend’s emphasis on Sunniva’s inheritance rights and status as reigning queen is undoubtedly related to the dynastic situation in Norway in 1170.
Magnus Erlingsson was king of Norway (1161-1184). According to current inheritance rules, Magnus was not entitled to the throne, as his “blue blood” did not come through the male limbs. It was mother Kristin, daughter of King Sigurd Jorsalfare, who gave Magnus “blue blood”.
To remedy this “deficiency” in Magnus’ right, the seven- to eight-year-old boy was in 1163 or 1164 kroner in Kristkyrkja in Bergen.
At this first coronation in the Nordic countries, both the Church and the environment around the child king wanted to legitimize Magnus’ fragile royal right: The boy was anointed by God, and who dared to depose a king whom God himself had seen on the throne?
Fade down female inheritance rights
When the relics of the saint by the reigning queen Sunniva in 1170 were transferred from Selja to Bergen, Kristkyrkja was not just the city’s cathedral. She was also King Magnus’ coronation church. For the king, the band that was then a party between dynasty and saint queen, must be central to the legitimation of the royal court Magnus had. Because Sunniva could rule – then Magnus could too!
In 1184 Magnus fell in the battle of Fimreite in Sogn, against King Sverre. He led his royal court through the patriarchy. Sverre claimed to be the son of King Sigurd Munn.
The emphasis on female inheritance rights in the Sunniva texts was thus irrelevant to Sverre.
It is interesting to note that when the next variant of the Sunniva legend was carried on parchment by the Icelander Odd Munk until the year 1200, and thus in Sverre’s reign, the mention of Sunniva’s legacy has been given a different wording.
In Odd Munk, a non-liturgical text, it is said that Sunniva had inherited “large estates from his father”. The wording thus fit well into the Norwegian contemporary where women could inherit from the right of inheritance. The female right to inherit a throne was greatly diminished.
The point of view of Sunniva as the reigning queen has nevertheless lived on in the liturgical text throughout the Middle Ages.
The Holy Queen must also be a role model for the Norwegian queens “of this world”. This is especially true in the 13th century when Bergen was the most important city of residence, and the royal family resided only a few tens of meters from the cathedral where Sunniva rested.
It was also in Christ Church, and in the presence of the holy queen, that central life events in the royal family took place such as coronations, weddings and burials of kings and queens.
After a quarter of an hour, female succession for a period also came into the legislation, male inheritance via women’s joints around 1273 and women’s direct right to the throne in 1302.
With King Håkon V’s daughter Ingeborg, Norway could thus in 1319 have had a reigning queen, if Ingeborg had not had the son Magnus, who then went before the mother in the line of succession.
If the saint queen Sunniva in the Middle Ages never reached the same significance and spread as the saint king Olav, Sunniva has had a greater weight than we think today.
The Sunniva cult has been documented in the Middle Ages from Finnmark in the north to Germany in the south, from Iceland in the west to Finland in the east.
In church art from the late Middle Ages, the queen status of Sunniva can be emphasized both by crown and by scepter.
In several representations, the saint king Olav and the saint queen Sunniva are equated as the male and female symbol of the Kingdom of Norway.
In this way, it is both right and reasonable that the saint queen Sunniva is brought out as a symbol of our future reigning queen, Ingrid Alexandra.
Literature: AT Hommedal, Å. Ommundsen and A. O’Hara (eds.) «St. Sunniva – Irish queen, Norwegian patron saint », Bergen, 2021: Alvheim & Eide. Akademisk Forlag.