Erik theSaint from Sweden being studied

St. Erik of Sweden – A study of the Bones in his Reliquary

Erik the I of Sweden (c. 1125 – 1160) was a stout man, used to fighting and a great fan of a diet of fresh-water fish. We now know the legend of his death seems to speak the truth.

St. Erik of Sweden
The shrine of St. Erik is opened in the Cathedral in Uppsala 2014 Photo: Mikael Wallerstedt

In 2014 Uppsala Cathedral celebrated its 800-year centenary with an exhibition Heaven is Here. On this occasion the shrine of St. Erik of Sweden was opened in order to take his funeral crown out in order to exhibit it. This occasioned a series of renewed investigations into the bones kept in the shrine. The aim was to try and identify the bones as that of the saint.

The preserved legend says that Erik was chosen to be king of Sweden, ruled fairly, was a devoted Christian, led a crusade against Finland, and supported the Church. He was killed in 1160, in his tenth year of rule, by a Danish claimant to the throne. His remains have rested in a reliquary since 1257. An early cult is documented from the end of the 12th century. At least since 1257 his remains have rested in a reliquary in the Cathedral of Uppsala. The present reliquary is from 1570. Inside a wooden casket is held containing what appears to be the remains of a man fitting the description of the royal saint.

The Legend

Murals in Uppsala Cathedral depicting St. Erik
Heavily restored murals from c. 1480 in Erik’s and Olov’s Chapel in Uppsala Cathedral. © Uppsala Cathedral

The saint’s legend speaks of a king who died a dramatic death in battle outside the church in Uppsala, Sweden, where he had just celebrated mass. But what can modern science tell us about his remains? A joint research project headed by Uppsala University now reveals more of the health condition of Saint Erik, what he looked like, where he lived and what the circumstances of his death were.

No contemporary sources – apart from a much debated letter from the Pope – mention Erik Jedvardsson, the Swedish king, who was later sainted. The only account of his life is the saint’s legend, which in in its preserved form was written in the 1290’s. Such legends are often unreliable. The Erik-legend is, however, based on an older legend, which is presumed lost. The preserved legend states that more on his life and on the transferral of his body to a casket can be read elsewhere, implying the existence of a longer and older text.

According to his legend, Eric insisted that tithes be paid to support the Church as they were elsewhere in Europe. Some Swedish nobles joined forces against him with Magnus Henrikson, great-great-grandson of the late king Sweyn Estridson of Denmark. Eric was accosted by the rebels near Uppsala at Östra Aros as he was leaving church after hearing Mass on Ascension Day. It is not exactly known to what extent the stories told about Erik mimicked those told by another royal saint, St. Canute of Denmark, whose “story” may have been reused in the endeavour for one of the two competing royal families in Sweden to posses a saintly ancestor. Erik was married to Married to Kristina Björnsdotter of the Danish House of Estridsen.

Scientific explorations

A thorough analysis of the skeleton in the reliquary was conducted in 1946, but the availability of new methods of analysis motivated a new examination in 2014. In April 2014, the reliquary was opened at a ceremony in Uppsala Cathedral. After this, researchers from several scientific disciplines set to work running tests on the remains in an attempt to learn more about the medieval king. Now, the first results of these examinations are made public.

The Bones in the Reliquary

St. Erik in Uppsala Cathedral © Uppsala Cathedral
St. Erik in Uppsala Cathedral © Uppsala Cathedral

The reliquary contains 23 bones, which – apart from one stray find – have been identified as belonging to the same individual. The radiocarbon values in the bones, which were measured in both Belfast an Uppsala, are consistent with a death in AD 1160.

The osteological analysis shows that the bones belong to a man, ca. 35 years old and 171 cm tall.

Examinations of the bones using computer tomography at the University Hospital in Uppsala found no discernible medical conditions. DXA- and pQCT measurements conducted at the same hospital found that Erik did not suffer from osteoporosis, or brittleness of the bones; Quite the opposite, as he had a bone density 20 – 25% above that of the average young adult of today. King Erik was well-nourished, powerfully built and lived a physically active life.

The isotope analysis points to a diet rich in freshwater fish, which indicates that the king obeyed the church rules on fasts, i.e. days or period when the consumption of meat was forbidden. Stable isotopes also imply that he did not spend his last decade in the expected Uppsala area, but rather in the province of Västergötland further south, from where his kindred came from. These conclusions should however be considered very preliminary, as there are as of yet very few other studies to compare the isotope values to.

Battle Wounds

The Burial Crown of St. Erik © Uppsala Cathedral
The Burial Crown of St. Erik © Uppsala Cathedral

The cranium in the reliquary is dented by one or two healed wounds that may have been due to weapons. The legends say that Erik led a crusade against Finland, which is thought to be a possible explanation of the injuries.

The saint’s legend says that in the king’s final battle, the enemy swarmed him, and when he fell to the ground they gave him wound after wound until he lay half dead. They then taunted him and finally cut off his head. The remaining bones have at least nine cuts inflicted in connection with death, seven of them on the legs. No wounds have been found on the ribs or the remaining arm bone, which probably means that the king wore a hauberk but had less protected legs. Both shin-bones have cuts inflicted from the direction of the feet, indicating that at some point the victim fell on his belly. All-in-all 11 peri-mortal traumas have been identified.

A neck vertebra has been cut through, which could not have been done without removing the hauberk, i.e. not during battle. This confirms that there was – as described in the legend – an interlude of taunting, between battle and decapitation. It has been speculated that this wound was inflicted by a sword and that the king was in fact decapitated with his head resting on a wooden stump. However, the killing stroke seems to have been inflicted from the front. On the other hand the decapitation must have taken place after his hauberk were ripped from him. One speculation is that the king was killed on the steps of the church and then brought to another place where the final execution was carried out. At this point the man has hardly been able to stand as one of his legs was probably nearly cut off. At no point do the documented wounds contradict the account of the fight given by the much later legend.

Finally the bones have a series of marks which document that the bones were cleaned and later brushed with egg-white in order to conserve the bones. This might indicate a somewhat earlier “translation” of the bones than that which is indicated by the Legend.

According to legend, the king was killed in Östra Aros (present day Uppsala) . Later, he was buried in the church of Old Uppsala, which he had rebuilt around the burial mounds of his pagan predecessors. In 1167, his body was enshrined and his relics and regalia were transferred to the present cathedral of Uppsala, built on the site of Eric’s martyrdom, in 1273.


The results have been expected from some time as similar investigations into the relics of St. Brigitta and her daughter have shown, that the remains of these two saints did not rest in their designated reliquaries.

Thus, the opening of the reliquary also saw DNA samples taken. It is hoped that these will produce results that will shed new light on questions of genealogy. This analysis has not yet been completed, and is expected to take another year. The researchers can, however, reveal that the samples have yielded DNA information.

The results of the DNA analysis results have not yet completed. However, it is hoped that it will be probable to demonstrate that the man belonged to the same kin-group as Magnus Ladulås (whose presumed bones are also undergoing an analysis).



New research sheds light on the life of Saint Erik

Video-presentation of the Conference, where the results were presented


The scientific report is scheduled to be published in Fornvännen in spring 2016. At first it will only be available in print. Autumn 2016, the issue will be digitally and freely made available.

The cult of St. Erik in Medieval SwedenThe Cult of St Erik in Medieval Sweden: Veneration of a Royal Saint, Twelfth – Sixteenth Centuries
by Christian Oertel
Brepols N.V.; Bilingual edition June 2016
ISBN-10: 2503555071
ISBN-13: 978-2503555072

In this first comprehensive monograph on St Erik, the author follows the cult of the Swedish royal saint from its obscure beginnings in the 12th century up to its climax in the time of the Kalmar Union (1397-1523). The focus of the book lies on the interaction of the cult with different groups within the medieval Swedish society and their attempts to utilise the prestige of the saint to further their political aims. From the middle of the 13th century the cult was particularly connected to the archbishopric of Uppsala and the royal dynasty of Bjälbo. During the 15th century the Swedish royal saint symbolised (together with St Olaf of Norway and St Knut of Denmark) the three kingdoms of the Kalmar Union. At the same time his prestige was successfully used in the propaganda of King Karl Knutsson (Bonde) and the three Sture-riksförestandare to legitimate their anti-Union politics. In order to reach a broad perspective the author uses a wide variety of sources. This includes a number texts which contain information about the cult of the saint (legend, miracle collection, offices, sermons, chronicles, charters). In addition different sorts of depictions showing St Erik on wall paintings, altar pieces, seals, and coins are used in order to give a comprehensive account of the multifaceted veneration of this saint.

sanctity on the North -CoverSanctity in the North. Saints, Lives and Cults in Medieval Scandinavia.
Ed. by Thomas A. Dubois
University of Toronot Press 2008

With original translations of primary texts and articles by leading researchers in the field, Sanctity in the North gives an introduction to the literary production associated with the cult of the saints in medieval Scandinavia.

For more than five hundred years, Nordic clerics and laity venerated a host of saints through liturgical celebrations, written manuscripts, visual arts, and oral traditions. Textual evidence of this widespread and important aspect of medieval spirituality abounds. Written biographies (or vitae), compendia of witnessed miracles, mass propers, homilies, sagas and chronicles, dramatic scripts, hymns, and ballads are among the region’s surviving medieval manuscripts and early published books.

Sanctity in the North features English translations of texts from Latin or vernacular Nordic languages, in many cases for the first time. The accompanying essays concerning the texts, saints, cults, and history of the period complement the translations and reflect the contributors’ own disciplinary groundings in folklore, philology, medieval, and religious studies.



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