Eric Ploughpenny. Mural in Ringsted Church c. 1280-1300

Eric IV – Murdered Danish King c. 1216-1241

On the 10th of August 1250, Eric IV – also known as Eric Ploughpenny – was murdered on a boat and dumped in the firth of Schlei. His death was the culmination of ten years of civil war and the harbinger of an even more tumultuous period in the medieval history of Denmark.

Dannenberg Tower. Christian Fischer/Wikimedia
Dannenberg Tower. Christian Fischer/Wikimedia

We, Eric, by the grace of God king of the Danes and the Vends have in the presence of our wife, the Queen and with her acclaim and in the presence of Ulrik of the order of the Friars and Peter our chaplain, and in full mind and health promised to die in the habit of the minorites and to be laid to rest in the same garment and with the Friars in Roskilde. To confirm this, we have sealed this letter. Given in Roskilde in the year of the Lord, 1241 on the fifth of June. (Annales Ecclesiæ Danicae Diplomatici I, s. 669. 1741)

The letter attests to the very early and fashionable veneration, with which the Franciscan friars were met after their arrival to Denmark in 1232, only six years after the death of the saint. Likely, the letter was part of a royal gift to the foundation of the friary in Roskilde, founded in 1237 by the otherwise unknown Esa, mother to a Niels Rønning. By signing up for such a humble burial, the king would gain remission for a third of his sins. At least, that was the going rate later in the 13th century.

Eric was the second son of King Valdemar II of Denmark (1170-1241) and his Portuguese queen, Berenguela (1197-1221). At the age of seven, his father and older brother were taken captives by the German Count Henry of Schwerin during a hunt organised at Lyø in May 1223.  According to a peace treaty between the Holy-Roman Emperor and Valdemar from 1214, the latter was the liege lord of Count Henry. Contemporary accounts could tell that the count had even taken part in the dinner in the tent the night before. Hence, the event was regarded as shameless, and the Pope tried to intervene.

Nevertheless, the King and his son, Valdemar the Younger, were held for ransom, first at Lenzen in Brandenburg and later in the Castle of Dannenberg. The 33-metre high keep was built around 1200. Today and in memory of the two captives, the tower is still known as The “Waldemarturm”. With its location far to the southeast, at the brink of the river Elb, the damp walls of the keep measured 3,5 metres, and one chronicle tells us the prison was “hard”. Were they chained? Probably not. Such hostages were “valuable” goods.

Whatever the conditions, negotiations were long and harsh. Although the king was released inside a year, his heir did not return until three years later, when Eric and his brother Abel were given as hostages until the enormous sum of 45.000 mark silver had been paid. (Perhaps the equivalent of a three to four years of income from the minting in Denmark at this time [1].  Also, Valdemar was pledged to surrender the principalities along the Northern coast of Germany between the rivers Elb and Eider, which he had captured and held in 1214. Further, numerous minor gifts and treasures were supposed to be paid – 100 horses, red cloth to mount a hundred knights plus the queen’s gold. Not quite in the same league as the ransom paid for Richard Lionheart, which amounted to 150.000 marks; and yet of immense concern for the future of the kingdom of Denmark. Probably, the ransom was a major reason for the drastic overhaul of the royal finances, which took place after the return of the King (see more below).

Further, as the payment of the ransom was stalled, the three younger brothers, Eric, Abel and Christoffer – who were exchanged for the release of their half-brother – were kept as hostages from 1225 -1230. Somewhat miraculously, they survived the fact that their father during this period broke his pledge and went to war in 1227 to regain Pommerania, Mecklenburg and Holstein; and lost the famous pitched battle at Bornhöved against a league of dukes and counts supported by Lübeck and Hamburg.

In 1231, Valdemar the Younger was killed in yet another hunting incident at the age of 23, and Eric was promoted from the spare to the heir at Lund Cathedral. Meanwhile, his younger brother was given Eric’s old duchy of Schleswig, reaching from Kolding to the old border at Danevirke. In 1239, Eric married Jutta of Saxony (1239-1267) and had four daughters and two sons. Unfortunately, the sons died, leaving him with no apparent heir.

Civil War

Eric was a very beautiful and brave man, in every way friendly towards all, and a man who carried out many strenuous acts. Between him and his brother Abel, there was much strife, which continued for along time”
(Vetus Chronica Sialandie MCCL) from: Scriptores Historiae Danicae Minores Vol 2, p. 67)

Eric Ploughpenny’s reign was marked by a raging civil war between himself and his brothers, two legitimate and one illegitimate half-brothers (and the descendants of another). Each had been given an “out-lying” part of the kingdom as a fief or principality, a duchy; and all took part in a series of hostilities waged between the different factions and shifting loyalties in Denmark and Northern Germany along the Baltic Coast. Principal opponent to Eric Ploughpenny was his brother Abel, who as part of the peace-nogotiations had been married to a daughter of the Count of Holstein, a member of the earlier northern German faction, which had waged war on their father.

In this connection, we must note the role which  a series of political marriages likely played in the aftermath of he events in the 1220s. When Eric Ploughpenny married Jutta of Saxony in 1239, he married the daughter of Albrecht of Saxony, who was not only the Hohenstaufen Emperor’s man, but also the liege-lord of the various counts of Schwerin, Dannenberg etc. who had been directly involved in the kidnapping of the king. Thus, he was one of the main foes of Valdemar, and furthermore someone, whom the king had fought at Bornhöved.  Likewise, the marriage of Abel to that of Mechtilde, the daughter of Count Adolf of Holstein, would have been politically dictated. Adolf had stood neck to neck with Albrecht. Finally, the third brother, Christopher, married a daughter of the Duke of Pomerania, the third partner engaged at Bornhoved. Already in 1230, their sister Sophie had been married to Count  Johan 1. of Brandenburg. Gone were the days, when the Valdemarians might seek their alliances “abroad” in France or Portugal. Likely, the new marriages were negotiated as dowerless. Perhaps they figured as partly payment of the ransom. But the marriages had further implications, opening up for the establishment of new kingroups or clans with vested interests in the politics of the Danish kingdom. In the 14th century, this led to a period when German princes ruled to the extent that the King was totally sidelined.

To some extent, the civil war in Denmark during this decade mirrored the wars between on one hand the Holy-Roman emperor, the two dynasties – the Welfs and the Hohenstauferns – their dukes and counts, the Papal state, the princes of the Church, and the burghers of the rising cities and towns. During these years, feuding became rampant between the different factions and their economic interests, gradually changing the scene from a Reichsgeschichte to Landesgeschichte. In Denmark, the feuding played out in the same manner with the major actors being the King and his brothers, the Danish princes matrimonially linked to the Dukes of Northern Germany. Other feuding parties were the cities in the Hanseatic League, the Bishop of Roskilde and the Archbishop of Lund, incidentally members recruited from inside the dynastic clans constituting the local Danish elite.

The question, though, is what were these wars about? Were they waged to fulfil the dreams of Abel and later Christopher to secure their own unhampered realm? Or were they rather a question of the new and more independent cities trying to secure better conditions for their trade in Northern Germany and Denmark? Or was it a question of how to operate in relation to the Holy German Emperor and the different factions and dynasties competing inside Germany? To answer this question, we need to delve into some significant changes in the monetary system at this time.

Eric Ploughpenny. Ringsted Church c. 1275-1300. Wikipedia
Eric Ploughpenny. Ringsted Church c. 1275-1300. Wikipedia

New Financial System

Eric Ploughpenny is thrown in the Schlei. Ringsted Church. Wikipedia
Eric Ploughpenny is thrown in the Schlei. Ringsted Church. Wikipedia

One of the significant changes in this period was the shift in the system of taxation. Until ca. 1230, royal income derived from the sur-tax incurred by the practice of the recall and reissue of coins, the so-called renovatio monetae or re-coinage. During Valdemar II’s reign, it has been estimated that forced exchanges took place at least once a year with an exchange-rate of two or three to four.

Documented in 1234 – but probably planned and carried out at an earlier date – the King sought to transform this income from the mints into a tax levied on the land; or more precisely to a tax levied collectively on the villages, manors and abbeys, and the number of “ploughs”, for which they were registered. This change was first implemented in Jutland in the 30s; later, it was adopted on the islands. Finally – in 1249 – King Eric sought to put it into practice in Scania. However, the peasants rebelled, and the King had to flee. Hence, his nickname “Plovpenning” or “ploughpenny”!

We know of the system from texts included in the Danish Census Book ca. 1231 – 40, which listed the cameral value of this new tax. It appears locals must have been asked to report the actual number of “ploughs” in the approximately 200 “hundreds”, thus indicating the actual value of the land in the kingdom of Denmark. Based on these so-called “plough-numbers”, the countryside was taxed. As claimed in several law texts from the period, the new tax system was introduced to stabilise the monetary system and forge a common Danish coin, thus replacing the output from former local mints. Thus, the tax was intended to compensate for the lack of income formerly derived from the practice of re-coinage. However, it was probably also a decisive move to integrate Denmark into the world of Western Europe (England, France and the Mediterranean), which operated inside a more mature economic system based on long-lived coins. Likely, the new taxes and the financial system were inspired by the English introduction of a comparable tax in 1198, following the need to raise the money to pay for the liberation of Richard the Lionheart. To be noted in this context is the name of the principal moneyer during the reign of Valdemar II, Nicholas of St Albans. Together with the chancellor and bishop Niels Stigsen, he was responsible for the shift in the monetary system. Later, in 1237,  Nicholas moved on to reform the English economy along the same lines. [2]

Eric Ploughpenny is found by fishermen in the Schlei. Ringsted Church, Wikipedia
Eric Ploughpenny is found by fishermen in the Schlei. Ringsted Church, Wikipedia

Unfortunately – as Eric learned the hard way – the peasants and local noblemen experienced the new tax as unjust. What had formerly been a kind of VAT paid by merchants and traders operating inside tightly monetised circles (towns) and centred on luxury production and consumption was now transformed to a tax levied on the primary producers, who were gradually entering the money economy in this period (as witnessed by the increase of lost “single” coins excavated from church floors during this period).

This new monetary system continued to govern during the reign of Eric and his brothers Abel and Christopher. In the 1260s, however, it petered out after Eric Klipping took over. Interestingly enough, his nickname – Klipping – referred to the fact that he had begun to systematically debase the coins while at the same time reintroducing the old system of renovatio monetae. However, not only was the old system reintroduced, the new plough-tax was kept. Thus, Eric Klipping was known as the King who clipped the coins and short-changed his people.

Arguably, the return after 1260 of the old system of yearly recurring re-coinage was not economically sensible. Already, the Danish government was sliding “economically” towards bankruptcy, which materialised at the beginning of the 14th century. At the end of the 13th century, too many coins circulated to make it practically impossible to secure a total re-coinage. Also, the number of coins gave the opportunity for counterfeiting while hampering the life of the towns, in which the obligation to use the new coins might be heavily policed. Elsewhere, for instance, at seasonal markets, the control was much more complicated to enforce.

This re-coinage system constituted a severe impediment to tradespeople, merchants and artisans. In practice, the recirculation of coins made it opportune to shift any fortune of coins in the months leading up to the stipulated day for the recall , creating a potential bubble of coins entering the sphere of circulation up to the approaching day – in Denmark, St. Michaels. Built-in and short-term inflation and deflation would hamper the growing cities and towns. On the other hand, the old system kept the mints busy and generated income for the local rulers of cities and towns, primarily bishops, who were in charge of “their towns”. In fact, the first time we learn of the new plough-tax in detail is in a grant (06.07.1234) by the King to the Bishop of Ribe, who received the income from the plough tax from three regions and two villages. This grant likely represented compensation for the bishop’s income from the local system of re-coinage, now superseded. Likely, the church was not in favour of the new form of monetisation, a factor which may have added to the harsh conflict between several generations of Danish kings, bishops and archbishops – and especially between Eric Ploughpenny and Niels Stigsen, his former chancellor an later bishop of Roskilde.

Arguably, Lübeck and other burgeoning Hanseatic cities played decisive roles in the events in the 1220’s and later. An early introduction of a more “Western” and modern form of monetisation would make it easier to operate in Denmark and across Northern Germany. Occasionally, we get glimpses in the annals and chronicles of the role, which Lübeck played in the complicated negotiations between the Holy-Roman Emperor and his faction of princes, the local magnates in Pomerania, Mecklenburg and Holstein and the Danish King and his government concerning the payment of bribes and the release of the King and his sons as well as other nobles. Later we see Lübeck acting as a warring nation playing a decisive role in the hostilities and wars of the next two decades. In the shadows of this powerplay, we encounter the last Emperor of the Hohenstaufern dynasty, Frederic II, his conflict with his eldest son and the continued feuding between the different factions led by German dukes and counts; and not least the Church which fought to control their cities, which more often than not ended up being organised in leagues (for instance the Hanseatic League). In this game, the income from mint and customs played a huge role. As did the protection from kings, which cities and their guilds might wring from time to time. In this connection, it is worthwhile to mention the eighteen Danish guilds mentioned in 1266, which had the “non-official” saint of  Eric Ploughpenny (and Christopher I) as patron.

The Murder of Eric Ploughpenny 1250.

After 1246, the hostilities between King Eric and his brother, Abel, intensified until 1249-50, when a truce was negotiated. At this point, Eric seems to have felt safe when entering the heart of the Duchy of Schleswig, the fortress at the Möweninsel, Skt. Jørgensbjerg (Juriansburg and Möwenburg), where he was given a friendly welcome in August 1250. The story goes that he was playing chess when he was suddenly taken prisoner and hewn aboard a boat, which carried him midstream. Here, he asked for a priest to whom he confessed and who was given his royal robe and belt as a gift. Finally, Eric was decapitated. Before he was thrown into the firth, his helmet was bound to his right arm to take him down. Nevertheless, his floating body was later caught in the net of some fishermen and was carried to the church of the Dominicans in Schleswig. Later, his body was translated to the Cathedral.

After the death of Eric Ploughpenny, his brother Abel got off by clearing his name through the solemn testimony of 24 nobles. Following this, Abel was elected King and crowned. Already in 1252, however, he was killed in battle in Frisia, and the third brother, Christopher I, sidelined Abel’s sons and was elected king. He instigated a formal process of canonisation, which – although it was never fulfilled – led to the reinterment at Ringsted in 1258, the traditional royal burial site of the Valdemarian dynasty. Arguably, Christopher tried to push the canonisation through, to underwrite his claim to the throne by vilifying Abel and his sons, and – probably – avoid paying up their inheritance.

At this point, no-one cared about the murdered king’s wish to be buried as a Franciscan. Also, Eric Ploughpenny missed out on his matyr’s crown. Instead, we remember him for his nickname indicating that in the end the civil war was perhaps much more about the new and modern type of monetisation, than the new fashionable Franciscan spirituality.

Möweninsel in the firth of Schlei. Source: Wikipedia
Möweninsel in the firth of Schlei. Source: Wikipedia


[1] The outputs of the Danish mints between 1100 and 1320 have been calculated to rise from one million pennies to twenty; or 4166 mk to 83.333 mk. The income from the annual re-coinage would perhaps be 1/4 of the median of this: 40.000 mk; or 10.000 mk in 1225. The calculation is highly speculative. See: The Danish resources c. 1000-1550. By: Nils Hybel and Bjørn Poulsen, Leiden, Brill, 2007, p. 386 ff.

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By Jørgen Steen Jensen
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