The Last King (aka Bierkebienerne, 2016, dir. Nils Gaup, Norwegian dubbed into English) tells a story famous among Norwegians but probably obscure to most other people of how two farmers saved the life of an infant king by taking him on a cross-country ski trip. But it doesn’t tell the story well. Or accurately.
The Norwegian Civil Wars
The period in Norwegian history from 1130 to 1240 is generally called the Norwegian Civil Wars because of a series of succession disputes. During these conflicts, two major factions emerged, the Baglars and the Birkebeiners. The Baglers were the faction of the aristocrats and the clergy, broadly speaking, while the Birkebeiners were essentially peasants and landless men who supported the power of the crown as a check on the aristocracy and clergy. There was also a geographic dimension to this struggle, with the Baglers dominating the southeast and the Birkebeiners dominating the west of Norway, especially around Trondheim. (The term ‘Birkebeiner’, incidentally, originated as a slur against them. It means ‘birch leggers’ and derives from Bagler claims that their opposition was so poor that they had to tie birch bark around their legs as clothing. In contrast, ‘Bagler’ refers to a bishop’s crozier, designating them as the party with ecclesiastical support.)
In 1177, Sverre assumed leadership of the Birkebeiners, married Margaret Eriksdottir, the daughter of the Swedish king, and reformed the Birkebeiners, purging the movement of its early criminal element. In 1184, he became king of Norway, but in 1194 he was excommunicated during a dispute with Church officials, which provoked another round of civil war. When he died in 1202, he was succeeded by his illegitimate son Haakon III, who got on poorly with his father’s wife. Margaret attempted to return to Sweden with her daughter Kristin, but Haakon prevented this. At Christmas in 1203, Haakon fell ill after undergoing a bloodletting, and died on New Years Day, 1204. Margaret was accused of having poisoned him, and one of her men underwent a trial by ordeal to prove her innocence. He failed, and she was forced to flee to Sweden without Kristen.
The unmarried Haakon was succeeded by his 5-year old nephew Guttorm, but the boy died in August of the same year. By this time, the Birkebeiners were politically ascendant, which alienated the Baglers, who put forward Erling Steinvegg, a supposed son of Sverre’s predecessor as king, with the support of the king of Denmark. The Birkebeiners favored Inge II Baardsson, the jarl of Trondelag. A low-level civil war ensued, which Inge essentially won by outliving Steinvegg in 1206, but the Baglers put forward another candidate and conflict continued.
However by 1206, it had became known that Haakon III had had an illegitimate child, Haakon, by a woman named Inga of Varteig. Inga was living in Bagler-controlled territory in the southeast of Norway, so when the Baglers starting hunting for her baby, a group of Birkebeiners fled with Inga and Haakon in the middle of winter, trying to reach King Inge in Nidaros (modern Trondheim). The party became snowed in, so two of the best skiers in the group, Torstein Skevla and Skjervald Skrukka, took the young boy and skied over the mountains from Lillehammer to Osterdalen and eventually got to Nidaros, where Inge took charge of the boy and raised him. The Baglers’ new candidate, Philip Simonsson, reached a deal with Inge in which Philip was given the eastern third of Norway to rule, but as a jarl rather than a king. He also married Kristin Sverresdottir.
Eventually, in 1217, when first Inge and then Philip died, the 13-year old Haakon emerged as one candidate in a four-way contest that also included Inge’s illegitimate son, Inge’s half-brother Jarl Skule, and a fourth candidate. Haakon had widespread support, especially after his mother Inga successfully underwent an ordeal to prove his paternity. Ultimately, Skule was made regent for the boy and given Philip’s portion of the kingdom, which he held onto until 1239. After years of resisting Haakon’s adult rule, he went into open rebellion, but Haakon’s men burned down the monastery he was in, killing him and ending Norway’s civil wars. Haakon emerged as a powerful king who played important role in German politics. He helped import broader European culture into Norway and his reign, down to his death in 1263, is often called Norway’s Golden Age.
The perilous trip by Skevla and Skrukka was memorialized in the early 20th century with a cross-country ski race in Norway, and today there are no fewer than 5 Birkebeiner races, including three in Norway, one in Canada, and one in my home state of Wisconsin, with the American Birkebeiner being reportedly the largest cross-country ski race in the world.
The Last King
The Last King focuses entirely on the brief moment when the young Haakon’s life was in overt danger. The incident of the daring flight on skis is justly famous in Norway, so it makes sense to build a film around it. After a brief opening in which Skjervald (‘SHARE-vald’) Skrukka (Jakob Oftebro) is established as a simple farmer with a wife and child, the film focuses on political machinations, but sort of assumes the audience will understand who the characters are, so it does a rather poor job of explaining who people are.
Gisle (Paal Sverre Hagen) is the younger brother of Inge Baardson (Thorbjorn Harr). This character is a messy mix of Philip Simonsson and Jarl Skule, whose only clear motive is that Inge has always ignored him. Gisle is having an affair with the widowed Queen Margaret and hatches a plan with her to poison Haakon III. Her motive for participating in this is unclear, since the plan requires her to immediately flee home to Sweden while leaving her beloved daughter Kristin (Thea Sofie Loch Naess) in Nidaros, even though the plan is to somehow implicate Inge as the poisoner, based on the fact that he’s the ‘obvious’ person to want to kill Haakon. So when Haakon dies from Margaret’s poison, Gisle immediately orders Inge’s arrest.
The film establishes that there is a rift between the Baglers and the Birkebeiners and that it has something to do with the Baglars being allied to the Church and the Birkebeiners being the farmers, but it’s all very muddy. The Baglers are apparently based in the royal palace at Nidaros instead of in eastern Norway, but almost everyone else in Nidaros seems to be a Birkebeiner, including the chancellor of Norway. The fact that Gisle is apparently a Bagler while his brother is a Birkebeiner never seems to make anyone suspect that maybe Gisle is the bad guy here.
As he’s dying Haakon tells his men that he has an illegitimate young son in eastern Norway. Gisle announces that they want to rescue the previously unknown boy and bring him to Nidaros, while the villainous bishop of Nidaros, who is never given a name, declares that now is the time to end the rule of kings and let the Church rule everything, which Gisle seems to agree with, even though it would mean that he won’t get to become king. So the Bagler soldiers are given orders to kill the boy that Gisle has just announced needs to be rescued. Like I said, it’s all very messy, but it establishes the basic plot of the film, which is that the Birkebeiners need to save baby Haakon from the ruthless and nameless Bagler soldiers trying to kill him.
The soldiers come to Skjervald’s farm, somehow knowing that he knows where the baby is, and they get the information out of him by threatening to kill his wife and son. After he tells them, naturally they kill the wife and son anyway because that gives Skjervald some manpain and a motive to hate the soldiers. He escapes by slapping on a pair of skis and eluding the soldiers long enough to get to the farm where Inga of Varteig (Ane Ulmoen Overli), her son (who seems to be about 6 months old), and Torstein Skelva (Game of Thrones’ Kristofer Hivju) are staying. But the evil soldiers show up right behind him and massacre everyone except Inga, who inexplicably survives, while Skjervald and Torstein flee on skis carrying the baby.
This is the best part of the film. There’s some gorgeous camera work in the majestic Norwegian landscape, and the idea of an extended chase scene on skis feels pretty fresh. Our two heroes are clearly the better skiers, but the fact that there’s a blizzard setting in cranks up the tension. But the film falls into a pattern in which every time Skjervald and Torstein get to safety, the bad guys show up right behind them (apart from a brief break for sleep and character development), and somehow when they get to the next farm, Inga has magically gotten there first. Her sleigh-driver must be pretty damn good.
Meanwhile, there’s a really dreary sub-plot about Gisle wanting to marry Kristin. It keeps popping up to interrupt the main plot and theoretically provide some tension, but it’s hard to care very much about any of the people involved since their motives are undeveloped. It’s never even established that if Gisle marries her, it will give him a claim to become king.
Eventually, Skjervald and Torstein raise a small band of Birkebeiner fighters and decide to ambush the pursuing soldiers with a team of crack ski commandos. While sort of an interesting scene, it devolves into a highly improbable chase scene in which Inga’s sleigh is being pursued by the leader of the Bagler soldiers on horseback, while a trio of riderless horses pursue him, towing a wounded Skjervald behind them on his skis as he tries to kill the leader with an arrow. The horses rather improbably just keep running after the leader at full gallop for what seems like a mile or more without slowing down or veering off into the trees.
Ultimately, Skjervald saves Inga and the baby by killing the leader but dies in the process. Torstein gets the baby (who now seems to be at least two years old—I guess it was a really long chase) to Nidaros just in time to stop the villainous bishop from marrying the distraught Kristin to the villainous Gisle more or less over the corpse of the unwitting chancellor. Gisle, following the tradition of bland, uninteresting villains everywhere, just gives up without a fight.
Inge is released from the dungeon and declares that he will ‘guard the throne’ until Haakon is old enough to rule. As the epilogue text tells us, “In 1217, 13-year-old Haakon Haakonsson took over the throne from Inge Baardsson and held it for 46 years. During his reign, there was peace in Norway.” That’s quite a simplification of what actually happened, but right in line with the film’s approach to the facts.
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Want to Know More?
The Last King is available on Amazon.
So far as I know, there isn’t a good English-language book on the Birkebeiners’ famous escape on skis, but there is a really charming children’s book about the incident, Lise Lunge-Larsen’s The Race of the Birkebeiners. It’s never too early to get your children hooked on medieval history. It tells the story much better than this movie does.
If you’re looking to learn more about Norwegian history (and Scandinavian history in general), I strongly recommend T. K. Derry’s A History of Scandinavia, which covers all of Scandinavian history in about 450 pages. It’s a very good intro to the subject. There’s also Birget and Peter Sawyer’s excellent Medieval Scandinavia.