The grave of Liden Kirsten and Buris at Vestervig © Vestervig Church

Kirsten and Buris at Vestervig Abbey

In Vestervig in Northern Jutland newly wedded brides place their wedding bouquets at a medieval tombstone from the beginning of the 13th century. Why is that?

estervig Abbeay c. 1680 from Reesen's Atlas. b) indicates the location of the grave according to the legend.
estervig Abbeay c. 1680 from Reesen’s Atlas. b) indicates the location of the grave according to the legend.

In the 16th century Denmark a group of nobles were enthused by the old Danish ballads from the 13th and 14th century and collected them vividly. Some had “historical” allusions and antiquarians went hunting for a national heritage, which might illustrate the ballads. One of these ballads (or rather a group of ballads) featured King Valdemar and his sister (Dgf 126).

Belonging to a wider group of ballads from Scandinavia and Germany [1] featuring the motive of the “cruel brother” it tells the story of how Sofia of Minsk )1140 – 1198), who was married to the Danish king, Valdemar the Great (1131 – 1182) wished for her brother, Boris, and his sister, Kirsten, to get married. But this the king expresses nothing but contempt and defames Boris as nothing but a horse-thief; at which the queen threatens with revenge. The king then goes to war, while Boris stays at home. The queen then demands of Boris to seduce Kirsten, who nevertheless remains chaste until the queen “throws Runes” – that is, exercises magic – at which the maiden succumbs. Nine months later Kirsten gives birth to a daughter on the same day as the king returns. He calls for his sister to be present, but the queen explains that she has born a child the same day. The sister is brought forward after having instructed her ladies to care for the child and name it Lucia. Forewarned by a knight she is admonished not to tie her dress too tight, nor to make her ballad too long. The king now greets her and asks her to entertain his guests with both singing and dancing. The new mother is able to carry this out without divulging her situation, and the king scolds the queen for carrying false testimony. At this point, the queen grabs the breasts of the poor girl and squeezes milk. The king now understands that his sister has been adulterous and moreover made a fool of him as he had promised her away to the son of the King of England. According to the ballad she is now allowed to make her piece with the world before she is cruelly whipped until her lungs are bared and she dies. During this macabre part of the ballad, we hear that she tries to seek refuge under the skirts of the queen, who nevertheless just kicks her out. After her death the king asks the queen where Kirsten should be buried. Sophia suggests that it would be proper to bury her in the streets of Ribe, where she – the queen – might enjoy riding above her. However, the king decides to have her buried at the Abbey at Vestervig. At the same time, he has the right foot and the left hand cut off Boris, who is also blinded, we are told that the “relics” of this cruel act shall be carried in front of the queen. While he subjects himself to do penance, Boris is taken to Vestervig where he is condemned to be incarcerated in the port-house for the rest of his life. As a special favour his chain is made so long that it allows him everyday to do a pilgrimage to her grave.


The ballad in this form – several others exist – is first preserved in a manuscript from the mid-16th century. At this point, a group of dedicated noble ladies from the royal court began to collect the orally preserved ballads and have them written down in a kind of commonplace books. Approximately ten of those, which have been preserved, can be dated to the second half of the 16th century, but it is probable that very many more were circulating at the courts of Christian III and Frederick II. These books were also used to register lyrics, genealogies, family histories, heraldic drawings, as well as small antiquarian titbits.

Hjertebogen - Book of Hearts - is the oldest Danish manuscript containing a collection of Ballads. It dates from c. 1550. In: Royal Library, Thott 1510 4º. Source: Wikipedia
Hjertebogen – Book of Hearts – is the oldest Danish manuscript containing a collection of Ballads. It dates from c. 1550. In: Royal Library, Thott 1510 4º. Source: Wikipedia

One of the versions of the ballad about King Valdemar and his sister is found in a manuscript, which belonged to Anne Krabbe. Unfortunately, her collection is only known from later editions, and her small drawings have been lost. However, her antiquarian introductions have been kept it is due to her we first here about the link between the mythical fate of the sister of King Valdemar and her unfortunate lover, Boris. As an introduction Anne Krabbe wrote that:

“It is believed that “liden” Kirsten is buried at the cemetery at Vestervig Abbey at the Northern church door, and that the stone, which lies at her grave, is cut of grey granite and measures c. six and a half cubits and is a quarter wide.” [2]

This was written in around 1618 and is an obvious reference to a notice made by Jonas Colding in 1594. This continued to be elaborated upon in a number of later publications, not least the first printed edition of the ballad from 1695 by Peder Syv. According to this, the local sheriff dug up the grave in 1610, who is said to have found the remains of two persons beneath the stone, a man and a woman.

However, this was not the last time, the grave was disturbed. Again in 1876, the architect and archaeologist J. B. Løffler examined the monument and excavated the grave. Approximately a meter down, he found the remains of two stone sarcophagi with two skeletons: one of a young woman and another of an older male. Finally in the beginning of the 1960s the skeletons were once more dug up. To the chagrin of professional historians the excavators, both professors of medical history, had no trouble identifying the remains as by all likelihood those of “Liden Kirsten” and Buris!

Historical veracity

Romanesqe Tympanon from Vestervig Abbey © Vestervig Church
Romanesqe Tympanon from Vestervig Abbey © Vestervig Church

Now it stands to reason that much ink has been spilt on establishing the historical veracity of the events surrounding King Valdemar, his queen, his sister and her lover. This much is known, though:

Buris is a well-documented individual. He was the great-grandson of Sveyn Estridssen and his father had taken part in the murder of Knud Lavard, the father of Valdemar the Great. Nevertheless, Buris figured as part of the Valdemar’s royal retinue from 1157 – 1162 and in 1163 the king visited him in Western Jutland at his manor, where he witnessed the foundation by Buris of the Cistercian monastery, Tvis.

Drawings made of Antiquarians  of tombstone from Vestervig. The inscription is generally regarded as too muddled to read with certainty. However, it does tell about a brother and a sister.
Drawings made of Antiquarians of tombstone from Vestervig. The inscription is generally regarded as too muddled to read with certainty. However, it does tell about a brother and a sister.

However, in 1166 Buris – according to Sven Aggesøn – declined to offer his future support to the royal heir, Cnut. He was also said to be in collusion with “the Norwegians”. A year later, Buris was imprisoned at Søborg castle. Older chronicles tells us that he was also laid in chains, whiler younger chronicles adds that he was both castrated and blinded. In a famous characterisation of Valdemar, we are told he possessed all sorts of virtues except that he was more than cruel to his nearest and dearest (in suos tantum plus iusto crudelior).[3]

As to Kirsten, it is probable that she was a daughter of Valdemar’s sister, who had married to the Swedish king, Karl Sverkersen. After his murder in 1167, some sources claim she went to Denmark with her small son; others, that she joined Vreta Abbey. Another contender to the role of Kirsten is a sister of Valdemar, born c. 1119. She was married to the King of Norway, Magnus IV, but separated from him in 1139, when she warned her Danish relatives that her husband was supporting the other side of the civil war being waged between a series of contestants for the Danish throne. In 1141 she is last mentioned as a witness to a deed. If anything, she would have been to old to have a romantic affair with Buris.

What happened was probably that these stories, which circulated in the later Middle Ages gave the impetus to the poetic composition of the ballad, later known as “King Valdemar and his Sister”. Later, in the 16th century, the ballad – inspired by the double grave – was possibly fitted with the ending verses mentioning “Vestervig”.

Romantic Resurrection

However, this was not the final re-telling. In the beginning of the 19th century poets initiated a veritable flood of recycled ballads, reinventing the poetic genre as well as the old stories of mermaids, maidens, kings, knights and trolls. Not least Hans Christian Andersen was inspired by the genre, and who reused the material for librettos, fairy-tales and poems. Thus, in 1869 he wrote a poem paraphrasing the story of Liden Kirsten and Prins Buris. In this he lets her grave be shadowed by mayflowers, perhaps leading to the romantic tradition that brides married in the old church leaves their bridal bouquets on the grave of Liden Kirsten “as she never got one”…


[1] And perhaps also Scotland…

[2] Svend Grundtvig: Danmarks Gamle Folkeviser, Vol 3. p. 80 ff.

[3] Dansk Litteratur. Middelalder. By Pil Dahlerup, Gyldendal 1998, Vol. 2, p. 58 – 59


Die Ballade vom “Grausamen Bruder”
By John Meier
In: Jahrbuch für Volksliedforschung (1951) Vol. 8, pp. 1 – 30

Danmarks Gamle Folkeviser
By Svend Grundtvig et al.
Reitzel’s Forlag 1853 – 1976

Dansk Litteratur. Middelalder.
By Pil Dahlerup
Gyldendal 1998




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