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The Last Viking King Was Buried With A Woman – But Who Was She?

All we know is it's not who we thought it was.

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Ben Taub

author

Ben Taub

Freelance Writer

Benjamin holds a Master's degree in anthropology from University College London and has worked in the fields of neuroscience research and mental health treatment.

Freelance Writer

Edited by Laura Simmons
Laura Simmons - Editor and Staff Writer

Laura Simmons

Editor and Staff Writer

Laura is an editor and staff writer at IFLScience. She obtained her Master's in Experimental Neuroscience from Imperial College London.

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Roskilde

Like many other Danish royals, Sven Estridsen is buried at Roskilde Cathedral.

Image credit: Birger Niss/Shutterstock.com

It’s just coming up to 1,000 years since the death of Sven Estridsen, the last Viking king of Denmark, and legends that have stood for the majority of the past millennium are now being re-written. According to the official narrative, Sven was buried opposite his mother, yet genetic analyses have revealed that the woman was in fact not his parent. So who was she?

Like many other Danish kings and queens, Sven is currently entombed in Roskilde Cathedral. Adjacent to his resting place stands a pillar containing the corpse of a woman and emblazoned with the words ‘‘Margrethe, alias Estrid, Queen of Denmark’’.

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That Sven’s mother would be buried in such a prominent location seems logical given the important role she played in the conversion of the Vikings to Christianity. In fact, it was she who initiated the construction of Roskilde Cathedral in the first place.

When Sven died in 1074, his body was placed alongside that of his mother in an earlier iteration of the church, before both were transferred to the present cathedral when it was completed in the 13th century. At least, that’s what the history books say, although the popularity of the name Estrid among Danish royals has led some scholars to question whether the woman in the pillar was Sven’s mother or another ruler.

Back in 2007, researchers were given permission to study the two corpses and analyze samples of mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) from the pulp of their teeth. Because this type of genetic material is inherited directly through the maternal line, the two royals would be expected to have matching mtDNA if they really were mother and son.

Yet results indicated that this was not the case. Sven, it turns out, was assigned to haplogroup H, which is made up of a group of linked genetic alleles – or variants – that is shared by around 40 percent of modern Scandinavians.

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The entombed woman, meanwhile, belongs to the subgroup 5Ha, which differs sufficiently from Sven’s DNA to rule out the possibility of her being his mother. Furthermore, while Estrid is reported to have died around the age of 70, an analysis of the female corpse’s teeth indicated that the woman in the pillar was between the ages of 35 and 40 when she perished.

The identity of the mystery woman has yet to be ascertained, although while it’s now clear that she wasn’t Sven’s mother, she probably was called Estrid.

Two of Sven’s daughters-in-law carried this name, and both went on to become queen of Denmark. One of the pair could therefore conceivably be the woman in the pillar, although no one can say with any certainty who is actually buried opposite the country’s last Viking King.

The 2007 study is published in the journal Forensic Science International.


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