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Did you know that Birger Magnusson was the founder of Stockholm?

Rediscovering the lost remains of the Jarl of Sweden

Birger Magnusson was the Jarl of Sweden who played a pivotal role in consolidating Sweden, leading the Second Swedish Crusade, and establishing Stockholm. But when the tombstone from his grave was removed during a restoration, Birger’s gravesite was lost and forgotten. Centuries later, scientists rediscovered the putative grave of Birger. However, it was almost another 100 years before DNA tests could confirm the identities of the three skeletons found in this grave – Birger, his second wife Mechtild of Holstein and his son Erik.

Stockholm is the capital of Sweden, and is the most populous city in Northern Europe. It stretches across fourteen islands where Lake Mälaren flows into the Baltic Sea. There is evidence that the area around the city has been inhabited since the Stone Age, but Stockholm itself wasn’t founded until around 1252 by Birger Magnusson. Birger led the Second Swedish Crusade into Finland (which established Swedish rule in Finland) and founded Stockholm in order to protect Sweden against sea invasions by the Karelians from Finland.

Birger ruled Sweden for nearly two decades in the 1200s. However, he was never a Swedish king, and instead held the title of jarl, ruling the country while his young son was the underage king. Birger was born to an influential family. His mother Ingrid Ylva was the granddaughter of King Sverker I of Sweden (so he was a matrilineal member of the House of Sverker), and he was also the nephew of Jarl Birger Brosa (who he was named after) from the House of Bjelbo.

His marriage to Princess Ingeborg Eriksdotter, (the sister of King Eric XI of Sweden), was a marriage of convenience, as King Eric XI wanted to strengthen their family’s ties with the mighty house of Bjelbo. Birger was formally given the title of jarl by King Eric XI in 1248. When Eric XI died without a heir in 1250, Princess Ingebore and Birger’s eldest son succeeded him, with Birger acting as regent. Ingebore bore many more children, and her death is attributed to complications during childbirth possibly giving birth to twins. A few years later Birger married Mechthild of Holstein, the widow of King Abel of Denmark.

Birger played a pivotal role in consolidating Sweden, even leading the Second Swedish Crusade, permanently establishing Swedish rule in Finland. It was after this that Birger mentions “Stockholm” in his letters, as the foundation of a city. Stockholm was an ideal location for several reasons: it offered a defense to the land around lake Mälaren from invading enemies and could serve as a bridgehead to attract German merchants. Even though he acted as his son’s regent, Birger was so powerful that some historians call him the “first true king of Sweden”, and he led Sweden until his death in 1266. He was buried in the abbey of Varnhem, Sweden, along with his second wife, Mechtild, and his son, Erik, (from his first marriage).

Stone carving and putative skull of Birger
The stone portrait of Birger in Varnhem Abbey (A) and the skull of the putative Birger photographed during the reopening of the grave in 2002 (B). (Figure from Malmström H et al. (2012) Ann Anat)

In the 1530s, the abbey church of Varnhem was partly destroyed by a fire. During the restoration of the church, the tombstone on Birger’s grave was removed, and the site of his grave was forgotten. In the early 20th century, the grave was rediscovered. A Swedish anthropologist examined the remains in 1920 and determined that they were the lost remains of Birger, Mechtild and Erik. Although the original tombstone was replaced, some still questioned the validity of the investigation from the 1920s. In 2002, the grave was reopened and genetic analyses were conducted to verify the identification of the remains.

Given their father-son relationship, Birger and Erik should share the same Y-DNA profile, because Y-DNA is passed down from father to son at each generation. There are two different kinds of variation in the Y-DNA, the fast changing Y-STRs (short tandem repeats) and the slow changing Y-SNPs (single nucleotide polymorphisms) that can be used to identify an individual’s position on the Y-DNA evolutionary tree. The major branches of this tree are called Y-DNA haplogroups, and are essentially like ancient family groups. The researchers analyzed three Y-DNA SNPs from tooth samples taken from the remains of Birger and Erik, and found that the pattern matched what would be expected for a father-son pair that belonged to Y-DNA haplogroup I1.

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Erik was Ingeborg’s son (not Mechtild’s); hence there is no maternal relationship between Birger, Mechtild and Erik. The researchers analyzed the mitochondrial DNA from each skeleton to prove this lack of a maternal relationship. Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) is the DNA found within small organelles in most of our cells and is passed unchanged from mother to child. While the Y-DNA evolutionary tree shows paternal relationships, mtDNA is used to create the mitochondrial evolutionary tree to show maternal relationships. As expected, each skeleton had a different mtDNA profile, with Birger belonging to mtDNA haplogroup H, Mechtild to mtDNA haplogroup U5b1 and Erik to mtDNA haplogroup Z1a.

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These genetic analyses conclude that these remains are from two paternally related individuals and a female who is not biologically related to either of the other individuals. Of course, it is entirely possible that these remains are not Birger, Mechtild and Erik, and are instead from a different family group. However, this genetic information in conjunction with historical and anthropological evidence strongly supports the positive identification of the remains of Birger, Mechtild and Erik.

This study defined the Y-DNA and mtDNA profiles of three prominent members of Swedish royalty. If you have taken the DNA Maternal Ancestry Test, you can compare your DNA against these three individuals to see if you may have descended from one of the same maternal lineages. Alternatively, if you have taken the DNA Paternal Ancestry Test you can determine if you have descended from the same paternal lineage as Birger Magnusson.

Reference:

Malmström H et al. (2012) Finding the founder of Stockholm – a kinship study based on Y-chromosomal, autosomal and mitochondrial DNA. Ann Anat. 194(1):138-45.

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