The Lady King Who United Medieval Scandinavia

A true visionary doesn’t claim to be a visionary. A genuine leader doesn’t require an authoritative title. Margrete Valdemarsdatter of Denmark asserted neither prerogative, and yet her vision for a unified Scandinavia and her ability to realize and effectively lead that union make her one of history’s most important rulers.

By Victoria Martínez

On June 17, 1397, the Kalmar Union was signed at Kalmar Castle in Sweden, joining together the kingdoms of Denmark, Norway and Sweden with a common foreign policy and a single ruler. At the head of this union was Margrete Valdemarsdatter (1353-1412), a woman who had already proven herself a formidable and capable leader during a period of instability and foreign encroachment within Scandinavia.

To call Margrete exceptional is not a glib overstatement. Although her father had been King Valdemar IV of Denmark, and her husband was King Haakon VI of Norway and (briefly) king of Sweden, Margrete distinguished herself and carved out her position far beyond these patriarchal connections. Her power and authority were the product of her own abilities and her mastery of politics and governance.

After her father died in 1375, Margrete was instrumental in ensuring that her 5-year-old son Oluf was elected the new king of Denmark with her as regent.[1] Her regency expanded when Oluf became king of Norway on the death of his father in 1380. Under Margrete’s rule, Denmark regained lands and power previously lost during the reigns of her father and husband. She was gradually bringing peace and security back to Norway and Denmark, while also working to regain Sweden, which had been lost during the reign of her husband and father-in-law.

It’s a testament to her success as a ruler that even after Oluf came of age in 1385, Margrete continued to wield power as regent. But the true acid test of her importance came with Oluf’s sudden death in 1387. Faced with the Danish throne passing into less desirable hands, Margrete was elected ruler in her own right with a groundbreaking declaration.

“The extraordinary event in her life – and in legal history – occurred one week after Oluf’s death when a provincial assembly declared her ‘sovereign lady and lord and guardian of the entire kingdom of Denmark’, a double-gendered title which bestowed upon the holder the power and authority of a man (‘husbonde’ = lord), of a woman (‘fuldmægtige frue’ = sovereign lady) and of the gender-neutral guardian (‘formynder’).”[2]

In her book on Margrete, author Vivien Etting wrote:

“The appointment of Queen Margrete as ‘the husband and guardian of the whole kingdom’ with authority to rule until she decided to nominate a successor (in agreement with the royal council) must be described as a coup d’état, which had no basis in law or the constitution.”[3]

In January 1388, Norway followed suit, granting Margrete the title “Mighty lady and righteous husband of Norway” on the condition that she provide a successor. Sweden wasn’t far behind. In March, she was elected “the almighty lady and true husband of Sweden” and was asked to help overthrow the reigning King Albrecht, which she accomplished at the Battle of Falköping in February 1389, with an army of Danish, Norwegian and Swedish troops.

As the uncontested ruler of three kingdoms, Margrete consolidated her power and moved toward a true union of the Nordic countries by ensuring the succession through the adoption of her great-nephew, Erik of Pomerania. Erik became king of Norway in 1389 with Margrete as regent. In 1396, he became king of Denmark and Sweden, though Margrete was still the power behind all three thrones. Finally, in 1397, with the Kalmar Union, Erik was proclaimed king of the union, but Margrete remained the effective ruler until her death in 1412.

During her lifetime, Margrete held numerous titles. The least important of these were the ones she gained at birth and through marriage. Those she earned demonstrated an unprecedented display of respect and trust independent of her relationship to any man. Even monikers like the initially pejorative “the Lady King” were ultimately badges of honor.

Not that a title seemed to matter to Margaret. She knew who and what she was: a powerful ruler fulfilling her vision for a united Scandinavia.

“…her unification of the three kingdoms marked the start of a new and prosperous era for the Scandinavian people. In light of the turbulent history of those realms – a history of war and plague and usurpation – Margaret’s triumph establishes her as one among the most remarkable of European monarchs.” [4]

Some of the greatest people in history knew that what they did was more important than what they were called. Unconcerned with labeling herself and indifferent to the labels given her by others, Margrete focused on accomplishing rather than posturing – a strategy that helped her achieve greatness in her own time against the odds. Unfortunately, while many who did far less are celebrated ad nauseum, some truly great individuals are ignored by a collective consciousness that favors the sensational over the consequential.

“Were the writers of history concerned with justice, the name of Margaret… would surely outshine many another royal name known to the merest child at school.”[5]

Image: A copy of Queen Margrete’s tomb effigy, a drawing of her based on the effigy, Kalmar Castle, a replica of one of her gowns. (Personal photos of the author with the exception of the drawing of Margrete.)

[1] Her husband, Haakon, was also regent, but historical records show his role was minimal and by 1377 was essentially nonexistent.

[2] Jacobson, Grethe. “Less Favored – More Favored: Queenship and the Special Case of Margrete of Denmark, 1353-1412.” Less Favored – More Favored: Proceedings from a Conference on Gender in European Legal History, 12th-19th Centuries, September 2004, 7.

[3] Etting, Vivian. “Queen Margrete I, 1353-1412, and the Founding of the Nordic Union.” (Boston: Brill, 2004), 56.

[4] White, Richard. “These Stones Bear Witness.” (Bloomington: Author House, 2010), 59.

[5] ibid



  1. A bit harsh on her father Valdemar Atterdag to claim that she recovered land lost under him, since he litterally did not inherit any land when he got the Dannish crown, everything was either lost mortgaged out.

    He is actually the only Dannish King at least the Viking ages that rivals Margrete as the best Monarch Denmark have had. They are an impressive parent/child combo well in calls with more famous parings as Philip II of Macedon and Alexander the Great.


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