May 18 is Saint Eric’s Day. The Swedish King Erik Jedvardsson, stabbed and beheaded on Ascension Thursday 1160, is the patron saint of Sweden and its capital city. In the 14th Century Saint Eric’s head first appeared on the seal of Stockholm. Today it features on the city’s blue-yellow flag.
The flag of Stockholm, capital of Sweden, is a heraldic banner of the city’s arms: In a blue field the golden head of Saint Eric en face crowned with a golden royal crown. The oldest known seal of the city with Saint Eric’s head is from 1376. In the 20th Century it became common for the City of Stockholm to use its armorial bearings in flag form. The city flag flies in front of the city hall, Stockholms stadshus, for example.
Wether or not Erik Jedvardsson was a particularly holy man we will never know. No contemporary sources from his lifetime have survived. However, after his violent death, legends were told about him and, in the following years where two rival dynasties fought for the Swedish crown, his family promoted Erik as a martyr of the faith and a crusader king.
Although never officially canonized by the Catholic Church, Saint Eric (in Swedish known as Erik den helige, or Erik IX) is recognized as the patron saint of Sweden and Stockholm. His remains are kept in a beautiful reliquary in Uppsala Cathedral, the archiepiscopal seat of the head of what is today the protestant Church of Sweden.
Saint Eric’s feast day, May 18, was celebrated in medieval times and also sometime after the protestant reformation of Sweden in the 16th Century. Today, May 18 is the name day for anyone named Erik. Name days play a role similar to birth days for Swedes. The tradition of celebrating a person’s name day is totally unknown in my home country of Denmark.
Another difference between Sweden and Denmark is the use of heraldic banners as municipal flags. The flags of Sweden’s largest cities, Stockholm, Gothenburg and Malmö, are all banners with city arms. In comparison, Denmark’s capital city of Copenhagen has no city flag at all, and it seams to me that Danish municipal authorities are entirely unaware of the concept of heraldic banners.
So today, on Saint Eric’s Day, I salute the beautiful blue-yellow banner of Stockholm.