We know that King Svein Forkbeard had secured alliances that gave him Denmark, Sweden and allies in Trondheim and what is now Poland. We know that Olaf Crowbone had other ideas, and that the forces of the two warlords were destined, inevitably, to clash. Snorri’s Heimskringla, however, chooses to frame their confrontation as a monstrous family feud, beginning with the image of a weeping Danish bride, dragged to a pagan ceremony in a foreign land, perhaps allowing latter-day notions of chivalry and romantic love to influence his account.
As Snorri tells it, the girl in question was Forkbeard’s sister Thyri, promised to Boleslav of Wendland (Poland) as part of a dynastic alliance. But Snorri, unable to resist a good story, claims that Thyri was a devout Christian, who celebrated her unwelcome betrothal to a pagan with a seven-day hunger strike, before fleeing with her Danish retinue in search of sanctuary. Supposedly, she chose to run to Crowbone, who not only welcomed her as a Christian bride, but resolved to regain the tracts of Poland that had gone to Boleslav as part of her abortive dowry. This is highly unlikely as a motive, and may have been manufactured in later centuries by writers intent on buttressing Crowbone’s good Christian values. Certainly Adam of Bremen and Thietmar of Merseburg seem never to have believed in Crowbone’s conversion, and see no romance or heroism, merely another skirmish over wealth and power.1
After sailing his 60 ships through Danish waters with miraculous lack of incident, Crowbone concluded a treaty with Boleslav for the handing over of Thyri’s lands. Boleslav may have known than any deal he made was unlikely to last all that long, or perhaps the deal was genuine, but Boleslav changed his story in the light of later events. Crowbone still had to sail home between the coasts of Sweden and Denmark, and the combined fleets of Forkbeard, his stepson Olof Skötkonung, and the dispossessed earls of Trondheim, were laying in wait.
The preamble to the battle and the battle itself, fought near the unknown island of Svold, occupy the sagas for some time – Snorri, in particular, steals several highly doubtful stories from other times and other wars, all designed to build a sense of the crushing finality of the great naval battle. There were representatives from every part of Scandinavia: independent Trondheimers, heathen Swedes, Christian Danes, the religiously mixed Norwegians, and warriors from other races. Men of Wendland fought on Crowbone’s side, while Snorri reports the presence of a Finnish archer with the Trondheimers, whose lucky shot shattered the bow of one Einar Paunch-shaker. At the time, Einar had been aiming at Earl Erik of Trondheim, whose life was thereby saved.
The battle went on so long, claims Snorri, that the combatants ran out of arrows and spears, and even their swords were too blunt to do much damage, so that Crowbone was forced to hand out fresh weapons to his men. But even though Crowbone’s fleet wrought significant damage on the Swedes and Danes, it was the men of Trondheim who fought most fiercely. In the closing moments of the conflict, the last battle for the right to rule Scandinavia was fought chiefly by Norwegians against Norwegians – the exiled Trondheimers against the man who had usurped their land. Crowbone was wounded in the shoulder, and kept fighting, but his giant warship, the Long Serpent, was completely surrounded by enemy vessels. Crowbone was last seen leaping, not falling, over the side of the Long Serpent, and disappearing beneath the waves.
There were rumours that he somehow survived, slipping off his mail shirt and swimming for his life, or perhaps escaping on a Wendish vessel that chose that moment to flee the battle. Snorri’s Heimskringla, perhaps unwilling to accept an unchristian suicide, cannot resist reporting a folktale that the 32-year-old Crowbone headed south to Byzantium, hoping to reclaim his fortune, but died anonymously in an unknown battle. Whether Crowbone died at the battle of Svold or somehow survived to live a new life under a new identity, he was never seen again by the Vikings. The battle of Svold marked a victory for Forkbeard, and the division of the spoils along familiar lines.
Olof, the son of Erik the Victorious, took Sweden, including the southernmost districts that had previously owed allegiance to Norway. Earl Erik of Trondheim received his father’s lands, while his brother Svein ruled the area to the south – Norway now belonged to Trondheimers. Among the allies of the new rulers was Einar Paunch-shaker – it is a sign of the flexibility and transience of Viking alliances that the bowman who had supposedly tried to shoot Earl Erik at Svold would soon become his brother-in-law.
Svein Forkbeard now ruled Norway, Sweden and Denmark, either directly or through his allies and relative. The line of Greycloak, Bloodaxe and Fairhair was now all but extinguished, and Forkbeard was able to turn his attentions to the prize he had coveted for almost a decade – the largest concentration of Danes to be found outside Denmark itself. For the next 60 years, England was to become the battleground for the children of the Vikings.
Danish raiders had in fact been constantly harrassing the coasts of England throughout the 990s. In 991, agents of the Pope had tried to enforce a sense of Christian brotherhood between Aethelred Unraed and the Norman leader, Richard the Fearless. However, Richard seemed to prefer the company of his heathen cousins to his English neighbours, and continued to look the other way while Viking fleets put in to Norman ports to restock with provisions, sell their plunder and evade the ineffectual English fleets. Although Crowbone and Forkbeard had gone home to fight over their birthright, others continued to plunder Wessex and East Anglia, and Aethelred Unraed’s attempts to organize resistance were a failure. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles reported particular troubles in Devonshire, Cornwall and Wales in 997, and from a party of Vikings that sailed up the coast the following year, wintering at the Isle of Wight, before following the Kent coast in 999 to the Thames Estuary and heading up the River Medway to attack Rochester. There, the Kent army was supposedly prepared to meet them, but soon fled when faced with superior numbers. On the English side, there were operational disputes among the defenders. Aethelred Unraed had previously raised funds to pay off the Vikings. Now he wanted to raise funds to repulse them, but the monies do not seem to have been used in the right place. The Peterborough manuscript of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles notes sourly that the Kentish army was forced to retreat because ‘they did not have the help they should have had,’2 while the Canterbury variant, presumably written with much greater knowledge of local issues, speaks in detail of the money wasted assembling a navy, and marines who arrived late, and watched helplessly from the sea as the Vikings plundered deep inland, where the local armies were now at half-strength. In the end, wrote the chronicler: ‘the ship-army achieved nothing, except the people’s labour, and wasting money, and the emboldening of their enemies.’3
As in the days of Guthrum’s Great Host, the new raiders benefited from longer stays in their target areas. Instead of random attacks at points of presumed worth, they were able to spend months, even years reconnoitring the best places to attack.
The opening movements of the Danish seizure of England began in intrigue, with a supposed conspiracy against the ill-advised English king, Aethelred Unraed. We do not know if Forkbeard was behind it, or if it was simply the result of increased paranoia. Athelred’s efforts to buy off Danish raids had only served to encourage further attempts at extortion by other Vikings, and at the same time the number of Danes living within England was swelling. Whatever the reason behind it, Aethelred reacted by ordering the Danes to be removed. As he put it:
A decree was sent out by me with the counsel of my leading men and magnates, to the effect that all the Danes who had sprung up in this island, sprouting like weeds amongst the wheat, were to be destroyed by a most just extermination.4
The ethnic cleansing began on St Brice’s day, 13 November 1002. There is little evidence of how widespread the killings actually were – we do know that there were still Danes living in England after the massacre, although in some places entire communities of them were killed. In Oxford, some Danes sought sanctuary in the church of St Frideswide, only to have the bloodthirsty locals burn it down around them.
Another victim, presumably with the full knowledge of Aethelred, was one Gunnhild, a high-born Danish lady who had been left with the English king as a hostage. Her killing was regarded as an abrogation of the treaty, and an atrocity that required vengeance. According to legend, she was a sister of Forkbeard – another luckless (probably non-existent) sibling used as an excuse, like Thyri, for another war.5
Forkbeard arrived in England at the head of a fleet of ships in 1003, determined to avenge his alleged sister’s death – the murder of a Danish princess, we can assume, would require a hefty manngjöld, and one that would be most usefully spent in securing Forkbeard’s newly acquired territories in the Baltic. Nowhere is the folly of Aethelred’s actions more clear, not only in the vengeance it inspired from Forkbeard, but also in what followed. For the strongest resistance to Forkbeard’s fleet came from the Danes themselves, that sector of the population Aethelred most feared. Although the Danelaw may have made Aethelred uneasy, there were still Danes who called it home, and did not take kindly to attacks by sea-raiders. After attacking places in Devon and along the coast, he made the made the mistake of attacking East Anglia.
His nemesis was Ulfkell Snilling, a man of Anglo-Danish descent, a local leader in the Norwich region and powerful enough for some Scandinavian sources to refer to East Anglia as ‘Ulfkell’s Land’.6 Faced with Forkbeard’s oncoming fleet, Ulfkell had initially been prepared to pay the tribute demanded, realizing that he did not have time to assemble his own men. In theory, Forkbeard’s men should have waited by their ships for the money to arrive, but clearly tired of it, and decided to attack anyway. Ulfkell immediately mustered what little manpower he could. The Vikings were taken by surprise at the resistance, and might have even been completely defeated had Ulfkell’s victory not been ruined for him by his own allies. As in other cases alluded to in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, disorganization was the worst enemy of the local defenders, and Ulfkell’s order to them to destroy the Viking ships was ignored. The failure of his associates to act on his plan gave the Vikings an opportunity to escape. As had so often been the case in other parts of the Viking world, they simply fled in search of easier pickings, and Ulfkell could not be everywhere at once.7
Forkbeard’s fleet left for Denmark in 1005, because that year England was struck by famine (probably thanks at least in part to the previous year’s fighting), and the starving locals had little worth stealing. In 1006, Forkbeard was back in force, establishing a base on the Isle of Wight and plundering the Wessex heartland. Forkbeard’s fleet was packed with a new generation of Vikings; Scandinavia was divided between the victors, all the best land in Iceland was taken, news of Greenland had yet to spread, so England it had to be. The men with Forkbeard included one Olaf the Stout, a short but powerful teenage Viking whose father was that same Harald Grenske who had been legendarily killed by Sigrid the Haughty. At least for now, the old Viking feuds had been put to rest, while they united against a common foe.
Forkbeard’s assault was a military exercise in depopulation and despoiling. The Vikings set up guarded supply dumps in Reading, allowing them to conduct missions further inland, before returning to recuperate. They may have even been encouraged in this by English bragging, since in an outbreak of Alfred-style patriotism, it had been widely boasted that if the Vikings ever dared to advance as far as Cwichelm’s Barrow (Cuckhamsley Knob in Wiltshire), they would never make it back to their ships alive. Such a challenge was too good for Forkbeard to resist, and he not only made it to Wiltshire, but also saw off the English army that had been waiting for him there. We get a sense of disorganization prevalent in England. Even as Denmark became ordered enough to mount an invasion on a national scale, England was reverting to a cluster of small states, each unwilling or unable to cooperate with its neighbour. Forkbeard met resistance, but the forces that ranged against him seemed consistently unable to work with each other towards a common good. By 1007, a shaken Aethelred scraped up another small fortune to pay Forkbeard off, and for two years there was peace.
Local legend in some parts of England holds that captured Danes were skinned alive and their flayed hides nailed to church doors. In Copford, near Colchester, and Hadstock near Saffron Walden, fragments of this supposed Daneskin survive, and the Hadstock piece still sports grey-blond hairs. However, the gruesome local legends have their doubters – another ‘Daneskin’ from Westminster Abbey was found to be perfectly normal leather, a completely mundane and everyday protective covering for a door. The precise origin of the Hadstock and Copford skins are unconfirmed; the Hadstock fragment only survived because it sat under the hinges, and, far from being nailed to a church by irate locals after a Danish attack, it appears to have been carefully laid in as part of the door’s original construction. Hadstock church itself was founded by a Dane, King Canute in fact, making the presence of a Daneskin unlikely, to say the least. Even more damagingly for the Daneskin legend’s believers, the first documented mention of one is by Samuel Pepys in 1661, when the noted diarist recorded a visit to Rochester cathedral, ‘. . . observing the great doors of the church, as they say, covered with the skins of the Danes.’ There is already a sceptical note here, perhaps because it would take a very rotund Dane, roughly the size of a cow, to cover such a door.8
Sometime around 1005–6, the dire situation in England led to a quiet revolution. Although Aethelred remained the nominal ruler, a number of the powers behind the throne lost their influence in a palace coup. The largely South Saxon clique that had previously ‘helped’ Aethelred run the country so badly was replaced by a largely Mercian group, who were to find a number of entirely new and original ways of failing. Most notable among them was Eadric Streona (‘the Acquisitor’), a power-hungry nobleman who soon proved to be no less corrupt than his predecessors.
Whoever really held the reins of power, the problem remained the same. Forkbeard would be back the next time he needed silver, whether or not Aethelred and his ‘advisors’ provoked him by another massacre. The Normans across the Channel were uncooperative and untrustworthy, so Aethelred’s marriage to Emma of Normandy had achieved little. The Danes, at least, were not attacking, but Aethelred had bought himself nothing but time, which he devoted to preparing a better resistance against the next assault. It is likely that his attempts to find the money to fight the Vikings were almost as extortionate as the Vikings themselves. The unit of taxation was the hide, an area of land thought to be large enough to support a peasant family, but more likely to support several by the early eleventh century. Every 310 hides had to come up with enough money to construct a warship, and every eight hides had to raise enough funds to provide armour for a single soldier. By these means, it was hoped, England might defeat the Vikings by fighting fire with fire, and destroying them on the sea.
England’s new navy was ready in 1009, and was immediately mired in squabbles over who was in charge – the exasperation in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles’s reporting of events is clear to this day.9 One nobleman of the new faction, Beorhtric, made a series of accusations against the West Saxon leader Wulfnoth, who had control of another part of the fleet. Since Wulfnoth’s father had been one of the previous ‘advisors’ to Aethelred, we may assume that Beorhtric’s attack was an attempt to edge the old guard out once and for all. Whatever Beorhtric may have accused him of, Wulfnoth took great exception, absconded with much of the fleet, and conducted a series of his own raids against the south coast.
The one and only significant battle of the new English fleet was thus fought against itself, as Beorhtric’s squadron pursued the breakaway faction. Beorhtric went aground in a storm, and his ships were burned on the beach by Wulfnoth – a third of the new navy was thus destroyed before it had even seen a Viking.10 With civil war threatening to break out between Wessex and Mercia, Aethelred and his ‘advisors’ hurried to London for safety, taking the pitiful remains of their fleet with them. It was thus nowhere to be seen when the Vikings landed in Kent on 1 August 1009.
The new arrivals were followers of Forkbeard, but Forkbeard was no longer with them. He was otherwise occupied in Denmark, and had delegated the next round of extortion and pillaging to a party of lesser Vikings, led by one Thorkell the Tall. The Vikings of 1009 were not the old-style traders, wheeler-dealers, ne’er-do-wells, and criminals. Instead, they were professional soldiers, many of them Danes, with a significant proportion of Swedes. We know this from the number of rune stones in Sweden that commemorate their deaths. There were no hoards of Muslim silver in Scandinavian graves of the eleventh century; instead, old Vikings were buried with coins that bore the face of Aethelred Unraed.11
The people of Kent bought off the raiding party for 3,000 pounds – enough to protect a county, but not its neighbours. Abandoned by Aethelred, the people of south England did not make any attempt to hold off the Vikings from their next target: London.
Dates in contemporary accounts do not match each other for the period 1009 to 1014, but we can still work out a progression of events from the contradictory sources. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles for the period sees only undifferentiated Vikings and fierce resistance in London. The Norse sagas are more forthcoming, albeit less trustworthy, and reveal that there were at least two distinct groups of Vikings in the area – possibly four. Moreover, the battles in the south of England were fought not only between English and Vikings, but between Vikings themselves.
Both before and after the death of Forkbeard, several groups of Vikings were already choosing to serve his enemies. Among them was Olaf the Stout, the eldest descendant of Harald Fairhair, who seems to have chosen this moment to rediscover his family vendetta against the Danes. Norwegians, fighting in the name of England, attacked a fortress of Danes, nominally loyal to Denmark, on the south bank of the Thames. Heimskringla reports fierce fighting in ‘Súthvirki’ (modern South-wark) around the site of London Bridge, a heavily fortified structure that not only crossed the river, but permitted archers, catapults and the like to threaten any passsing ships.
What happened next, doubtful though Heimskringla’s account may be, lives on in a nursery rhyme, and indeed in the name of a London street. Just as Vikings of an earlier age had been thwarted by fortified bridges over the rivers of France, the Norwegians serving in the English army found their passage barred by London Bridge. In a conference between Aethelred and his generals, Olaf the Stout volunteered a plan that would make him forever famous on both sides of the North Sea. Olaf led a river assault on the bridge, using mastless longships roofed over with ‘soft wood’ – wicker and unseasoned green planks that would be more resistant to fire. Amid a constant hail of rocks, spears and other missiles, Olaf’s ships attached strong cables to the wooden pilings that supported London Bridge. The rowers then propelled their ships away from the bridge, no doubt using the current’s momentum and their own brute strength to pull down the wooden pilings. The old wooden bridge now collapsed, other forces were able to land at an undefended portion of the south bank, seize Southwark and regain control of London. The location of Olaf’s alleged adventure is marked today by the hidden London alleyway, St Olaf Stairs.
According to Olaf’s own saga, his forces continued to fight on Aethelred’s behalf, in the internecine conflict that continued to destroy many of the best men in England. At some point, Olaf’s fellow-Viking Thorkell the Tall transferred his allegiance to the English as well. Some historians see Thorkell’s sudden defection as a sign of his newfound ambition – a desire to win a kingdom for himself as his predecessors had done in Ireland, Scotland, Northumbria and elsewhere. Certainly, with England left in ruins by attacks both within and without, Thorkell does not seem to have had much trouble convincing the Anglo-Danish population of East Anglia that he would make a good ruler – he even married a daughter of Aethelred.12 What difference would it make to them if they were paying ‘tax’ to Saxons or ‘tribute’ to Vikings?
Other sources regard Thorkell’s change of heart as something more spiritual. In 1012, his army took Canterbury, with the aid of a traitor. One of the Vikings’ prize prisoners was the archbishop Aelfheah, for whom they demanded a ransom.13 Aelfheah, however, would not allow anyone to pay it on his behalf. The 58-year-old clergyman was dragged along with the Viking host as far as Greenwich, where, in what seems to have been a banquet prank that turned deadly, he was pelted with bones, offal and heavier missiles, until his captors tired of their sport and buried an axe in his skull. Thorkell, however, attempted to stop his followers from torturing their eminent guest, and even offered to pay the ransom himself. It is claimed that this may have been the last straw for him, deciding him to abandon Viking ways.
For some years, England had been a battleground, source of revenue, and ultimately a pressure valve for Viking ambitions. For as long as England was plundered and exploited, Forkbeard’s Scandinavia remained at relative peace. But with Thorkell and Olaf the Stout defecting to Aethelred, it did not take a genius to see what could happen next. ‘Ill-Counselled’ or not, King Aethelred now had the chance to follow in his predecessors’ footsteps. Just as his great-uncle Aethelstan had done in the case of Earl Hakon the Good, he could deal with his local Viking problem by sending it back. Instead of cowering before a series of assaults from Scandinavia, Aethelred now had the opportunity to cultivate his newfound Viking friends, perhaps suggesting to Thorkell or, more sensibly, Olaf the Stout, that their true destinies lay in Norway and Denmark. Unless Forkbeard did something quickly, every Viking in England, and a fair number of English reprobates, might suddenly invade Norway with Aethelred’s kingly blessing. Whether his next move was provoked by fear or merely the culmination of a long-hatched plan, in spring 1013 Forkbeard arrived at the head of his fleet, to invade England.
The Danelaw welcomed him. The northern regions of Northumbria, Lindsey and the Five Boroughs took one look at his fleet and proclaimed their allegiance. Forkbeard’s fleet did not begin raiding until it reached the south. Establishing a base at Gainsborough on the Trent under the command of his son Canute, Forkbeard took his army south, through Oxford, to Winchester and then west to Bath. London remained safe, defended by soldiers under Thorkell the Tall. Others, however, deserted the beleaguered Aethelred – Olaf the Stout took himself off to France, and so did Aethelred himself. Realizing that London would be unable to hold out much longer, Aethelred and his family fled for Normandy, abandoning England to Forkbeard.
In 1013 Svein Forkbeard proclaimed himself the King of England by right of conquest. Five weeks later, in what the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles boldly describes as a ‘happy event’, he dropped dead.14
His son Canute, a youth in his late teens, received pledges of allegiance from the other Viking leaders in Gainsborough. As far as the Norsemen were concerned, Canute was the rightful heir, and tragic though Forkbeard’s death was, England remained a part of the Danish hegemony. The English, however, had other ideas – Forkbeard had been ‘king’ for only five weeks, and had never been crowned.15 Claiming Forkbeard’s demise to be caused by the wrath of God, the ruling clique swiftly dispatched ambassadors to Normandy, where Aethelred was living in exile among his in-laws. Within two months, Aethelred was back, promising a new order and a better deal for the English. Enough locals believed him to flock to his banner again, and the restored English king marched with an army on the traitorous region of Lindsey.
Canute faced an army of Englishmen, bolstered once more by Viking mercenaries – Olaf the Stout was back in Aethelred’s service, and Thorkell the Tall continued to serve the English. He also faced trouble back home; he was the king of the English, but not of Denmark, since that role was reserved for his elder brother Harald II. Meanwhile in Sweden, King Olof Skötkonung signalled his defiance by appointing a bishop whom Forkbeard had vetoed. Canute gathered up his fleet and set sail, pausing at Sandwich to order the mutilation of the hostages he had inherited from Forkbeard. Having set the luckless individuals ashore, Canute sailed to Denmark, where he struck a deal of some sorts with his elder brother. It was in Harald’s interest to get Canute out of the way in a kingdom of his own, and England presented the ideal opportunity. The kings appear to have agreed some kind of joint authority (Danish coins were struck in Canute’s name), and a year after he arrived in Denmark, Canute was ready to head back and claim England for himself.
In the intervening period, Aethelred Unraed had not enjoyed much luck. His eldest son, named Aethelstan in honour of the great English unifier of old, died in June 1014. In September of the same year England suffered some of the worst flooding in record. Fully expecting Vikings to return, Aethelred organized a conference designed to reassure all parties that, regardless of whether or not they had been willing to pledge allegiance to Forkbeard, all would be forgiven if only they would pull together and resist any further attacks.16
The conference was a disaster. Some allies, it transpired, were trustier than others. Two northern leaders, in-laws of the absent Canute, were murdered by another earl, kicking off another vendetta among the English nobles. Edmund Ironside, one of the sons of Aethelred’s first marriage, seized much of the north of England for himself and married the widow of one of the murder victims. Aethelred might have been the nominal king, but England was still a divided nation. The behaviour of Aethelred’s son in the north verged on rebellion – Edmund Ironside received pledges of allegiance from the lesser nobles, and issued proclamations in his own name. Meanwhile, the south coast was largely in the hands of Wulfnoth, the infamous noble who had once stolen half the English fleet. Upon Wulfnoth’s death sometime around 1014, the region passed to his son Godwine.
Aethelred died in 1016, after a long but troubled reign. No more than a child when he became king, he had been buffeted by the interests of his regents as England tore itself apart. In his attempts to play Vikings off against each other, he had only served to encourage more alliances between his feuding nobles and their sometime enemies. When Aethelred died, leaving England to the disobedient Edmund Ironside, Canute was back with 160 ships and an avowed intention of regaining control of the country. Sources, once again, are contradictory, but he seems to have enjoyed the support of Thorkell the Tall for his attack on London. With London Bridge apparently repaired after the supposed assault of Olaf the Stout, the Vikings seized Southwark again, and bypassed the bridge – either by dragging their ships along the bank, or through a newly dug channel. With Edmund Ironside trying to raise an army in the west, the defence of London fell to his stepmother, Queen Emma, a remarkable woman who saw seven kings rule England in her lifetime, two of whom were her husbands, and two her sons. Trusting more to the support of the Mercians than the West Saxons (i.e. keeping to the north of the Thames), Edmund Ironside finally caught up with the Danes at Brentford, where he crossed the Thames and dealt a crushing blow. The Danes regrouped in the east, marching through Essex, and fought the Saxons again at the disputed site ofAssandun (either modern Ashingdon in south-east Essex, or Ashdon in the north-west). The list of combatants includes an impressive number from far-flung parts of Edmund’s kingdom, from Dorset in the west to the faithful Ulfkell Snilling in the east. Assandun may, finally, have brought the English together, but only for them to experience defeat there at the hands of the Danes.
Scattered skirmishes continued, with the tide now turning in favour of the Danes. Eventually, their armies fought to a standstill, the two rival kings agreed to meet on an island in the River Severn. There, they agreed that the land would be split between them in a similar power-sharing arrangement to that which Canute had with his brother in Scandinavia. The lands north of the Thames were Canute’s. South of the Thames (i.e. the ancestral domain of the Kings of Wessex) was in Edmund’s hands. It was enough of a compromise that both parties could call themselves the victor – both held large areas of land under a kingly title, and both agreed that the other would inherit the lands of whoever died first.
Edmund Ironside suddenly passed away on 30 November 1016. Although there is no mention of foul play, it certainly seems suspicious – the young king was barely in his twenties, and Canute was not above skulduggery when the opportunity presented itself. Whatever the reason, Canute was now the ruler of all England – Canute the Great, as he is remembered, a local translation of the Danish Knud den Store.
Wanting no part of the squabbles that had so hobbled the reign of Aethelred, Canute put his own people in charge at all places of strategic importance. Thorkell the Tall was rewarded for his double defection with the earldom of East Anglia, while Earl Erik of Trondheim, the aging son of Hakon the Great, acquired Northumbria. A couple of local turncoats were given brief roles in Canute’s government, but many were purged, either through their own misdeeds or through Canute’s machinations. Canute, whatever the methods he employed, was remarkably successful in reconciling the disparate factions of his kingdom. He is, after all, the king who supposedly ordered his throne to be set on the seashore, so that his courtiers might observe that he was unable to command the rising tide. Canute’s legendary paddle, a folktale which comes to us through the twelfth-century History of the English by Henry Huntingdon, reminded the assembled nobles that, although they might be Angles, Saxons, Danes and Swedes, all of them, their king included, were subject to the Christian God, whatever gross flatterers might say.
In an attempt to establish a link with the previous dynasty, Canute sent for Aethelred’s widow Emma, who had so boldly resisted his army in London. Emma became the wife of Canute the Great, in a match decried by a contemporary satirist as a bull ravishing a queen.17 Canute and Emma, both together and separately, would somehow be the parents of several monarchs, until the ruling dynasty of England crashed to a messy end with the death of Edward the Confessor. After the battles, mutilations, banishments and natural attrition of several generations, only one of the secret cliques behind Aethelred’s throne survived to see the latter half of the eleventh century, and that was the family of Wulfnoth, the man who stole half of Aethelred’s fleet. Wulfnoth’s son Godwine ensured that his daughters married into the royal family, and after the Confessor, his eldest surviving male heir, Harold Godwinson, was ideally placed to seize the throne for himself.
Canute paid off the Vikings in his entourage, causing most of the raiders to return to Scandinavia or leave England in search of plunder elsewhere. When his elder brother died, Canute sailed for Denmark with an Anglo-Danish fleet that enforced his sovereignity over the old territories of Forkbeard.
Many in England might have considered the new king’s reign to be a return to relative peace. The period saw the establishment of communities of Danes in London itself – the Thames riverbank or ‘Strand’ gaining a Densemanestret and Westminster gaining aDenscheman parish, both eventually with churches sacred to St Clement of the Danes.18 Canute kept the English free of most Viking predation, and enacted new laws, many of which were slightly polished old laws, written up for him by the Saxon bishop Wulfnoth. However, peace restored in one area only caused pressure elsewhere in the Viking world. Canute was forced to lead an army against his sometime ally Thorkell in 1023, when East Anglia attempted to exhibit a little too much of the old Viking spirit. He may have secured a series of advantageous tributary treaties with the kings of Scotland, but faced increasing unrest back in his homeland. While Canute could legitimately claim to be the overlord of a North Sea empire that stretched from Cornwall to Sweden, it was alsoover-stretched. He suffered a military defeat against Swedish rebels in 1026, and was forced to make a prolonged expedition to Norway in 1028 to deal with a predictable return of old enmities.
With the Earl of Trondheim busy with his new possessions in Northumbria, Trondheim itself was open to seizure by anyone who could offer the locals a better deal than the incumbent Danes. Even as Canute had set sail with his invasion fleet for England, the eldest surviving heir to Harald Fairhair was making plans of his own. Deprived of his main source of mercenary revenue, Olaf the Stout embarked on a couple of raids on the English coast before returning home. Heimskringla strains credulity by reporting him taking the remarkable step of abandoning his longships in England, and instead packing his followers into a couple of converted merchant ships. Olaf, now nominally a Christian, was giving up on the raiding life and setting off home with a small army, not a raiding party, intent on conquest. For Olaf, the voyage back to Scandinavia was intended as a one-way trip to reclaim his birthright.19
He announced his intentions to take back Harald Fairhair’s kingdom from Canute at the point of a sword. His stepfather Sigurd called an assembly of south Norwegian headsmen, capitalizing on Olaf’s ancestry and his kinship with them. Olaf the Stout was decreed to be the ruler of Norway by common acclamation, gaining further support from many of the places through which his retinue passed. He met little resistance until he reached the north, where, predictably, Trondheim and its outlying regions rebuffed any who claimed to be its lord. Olaf was obliged to put down the Trondheim resistance by force, fighting Earl Erik’s brother Earl Svein, who enjoyed ominous support from Olof Skötkonung, Sweden’s ruler and Canute’s stepbrother.
Despite minor resistance, Olaf the Stout was able to consolidate his rule. With the north pacified, he enforced his domain as far as the border with Sweden, and with it brought Christianity to the populace. While Olaf did little that had not been tried before by Crowbone or Hakon the Good, had the benefit of a further generation of missionary influence. Faced with the prospect of violence or conversion, many acknowledged Christianity as their belief, even in the ever-resistant Trondheim region. Olaf reputedly put an end to ‘many heathen customs’, although undoubtedly they still persisted.
Sweden was next on Olaf’s list – unless he did something swiftly, he might find the same Swedish-Danish resistance in Scandinavia that had destroyed his predecessor Crowbone. But Heimskringla would have us believe in yet another romantic intrigue – if Snorri had his way, every Scandinavian princess would doubtless be a lovestruck damsel waiting for a heroic rescuer. Even as the aging Olof Skötkonung railed against ‘that fat man’ in Norway, his own daughter Ingigerd supposedly considered the possibility of marrying Olaf the Stout. The story probably conceals a more prosaic truth – that Sweden was torn between the prospect of alliance with Russia or Norway. When faced with the prospect of a marriage alliance between Norway and Sweden, or continued tit-for-tat raids across their territory, the landholders of southern Sweden preferred the former option. But the Swedish king had already promised Ingigerd to Jaroslav the Wise in Russia. Olaf the Stout, however, eventually got a princess of his own, Ingigerd’s sister Astrid.
Norway was back in the hands of a descendant of Harald Fairhair, and the Swedish border was finally quiet. Olof Skötknonung seems to have been a most unpleasant father-in-law, and the passing of the Swedish crown to his son Onund Jacob in 1022 on his death was probably a large contribution to peace in the region.
Olaf busied himself with the spread of Christianity, either for genuine reasons, or simply as a handy excuse to unseat any incumbent local lords who refused to do his bidding. The 1020s passed with occasional skirmishes over religion or land (or both), but to many in Norway, it was a good time – there were constant whispers from further to the south that life under Olaf the Stout was preferable to life under Canute, and several outlying regions volunteered to join Olaf’s Norway, such as the distant Orkney isles, and Norway’s far north, where the Viking world receded into that of the Sámi.
Olaf the Stout is one of the more famous kings of Norway, and yet his reign was not all that successful, chiefly remembered for the lasting impact of Christianity. His saga recounts several incidents of unrest among his men, including an assassination attempt on their king. With Canute’s empire blockading the west, and Sweden only nominally supportive to the immediate east, Olaf the Stout was forced to seek aid at the only border available to him – the bleak regions of Halogaland and Finland to the north-east. There, Snorri speaks of a disastrous ‘tax-collection’ expedition into Finland, which ended in fighting between Olaf’s men, and the desecration of a local temple. Although he was ready to play the simple, local ruler with the people of Trondheim, Olaf the Stout was not above demanding tribute from elsewhere, particularly distant Iceland. Like Crowbone before him, he probably hoped to squeeze the Icelanders by exerting pressure on their shipping route to Trondheim, but they refused to pay up.
More worryingly for Olaf, two closer regions refused to acknowledge him as their king. Jamtaland and Helsingaland, founded several generations earlier by Norwegian exiles, had long been nominally parts of Norway. They had paid tributes to previous Norwegian rulers, and maintained relationships with the Norwegians across the Keel mountains. Now, in the mid-1020s, the people of Jamtaland and Helsingaland changed their minds. Instead of acknowledging the rule of a man over the mountains, they preferred to pledge allegiance to Onund Jacob.
Canute seemed ready to accept Olaf the Stout as the ruler of Norway, on the condition that he came to England, swore allegiance, and acknowledged that Canute was the rightful owner of Norway, and that he was merely looking after it. Efectively, Canute was demanding a form of danegeldfrom Norway itself, since Olaf would be obliged to collect taxes on his ruler’s behalf. A more pragmatic man might have seen it as a good opportunity to avoid conflict, but it wasn’t good enough for Olaf, who may have also regarded Canute’s offer of a treaty with healthy suspicion – was Canute really intending to ignore the claims of the earls of Trondheim, or was the offer simply a ruse to lure Olaf to his death?
Olaf told the ambassadors that Denmark belonged to the Danes, and Norway to the Norwegians, and that Canute should be more than pleased with the extension of his lands to include England and large parts of Scotland. According to Snorri, Olaf even laughed that Canute should surely be happy with all the cabbage he was getting – England’s vegetable produce being something of a joke in medieval Europe. But Olaf would not send any portion of his revenues to any other king. Norway belonged to him, and he was prepared to fight for it.20
Canute began preparing a fleet to retake Norway and reinstall the earls of Trondheim. It is likely that this was his plan all along, but a ship of ambassadors, a ship to carry Olaf to England, and then an assassin’s dagger in the dark were an altogether cheaper means that he had been prepared to try first.
Knowing that Canute was on his way, Olaf sent word to his brother-in-law Onund Jacob, the king of Sweden. He urged the ruler of the Swedes to consider the implications of an Anglo-Danish attack on Norway, and that Canute’s ambition was unlikely to stop at the Swedish border. Onund Jacob sent his reply that he was prepared to agree a treaty with Olaf, stating that each would send aid to the other in the event of an assault by Canute. Canute had himself already sent an embassy of his own to Sweden, laden with gifts for Onund Jacob, and assurances that Sweden would be quite safe from Denmark, and that only Norway and her allies need be concerned by his plans for war. Onund Jacob treated the ambassadors to an icy reception, and made it plain that he placed greater value on the simple, homespun aims of Olaf the Stout than he did on the imperial ambitions of Canute the Great.
With an attack by Canute seemingly inevitable, the kings of Norway and Sweden decided it was time for a pre-emptive strike, and led a double-pronged assault on Denmark. They may have also attempted a more diplomatic form of attack, since Canute’s regent, his sister’s husband Ulf, may have switched sides at least once during the conflict. Canute’s long-awaited fleet caught up with the raiders on the Baltic coast of southern Sweden. Onund Jacob escaped with his life and dignity intact, while Olaf the Stout was forced to abandon his ships. Remembering the unhappy end of his predecessor Crowbone, he preferred to walk home rather than risk a further encounter with the Anglo-Danish fleet.
Olaf the Stout’s golden age was coming to an end, largely because Canute cut a much more impressive figure. Olaf the Stout spoke of an independent Norway and the benefits of Western civilization, but even as he limped home with his supporters, Canute was doing everything in his power to win the Norwegians over with similar promises. And Canute was not an old war hero, returning with booty and tales of raids in the west, he was an acknowledged king of several countries, bolstered with the wealth and prestige of his adopted English home. Where Olaf the Stout spoke of Christ’s power, Canute could brag of his pilgrimage to Rome itself – his trip there had won him the Pope’s approval, and also secured Denmark’s German border with the betrothal of his daughter Gunnhild to Henry III, son of the emperor Conrad.
Olaf’s talk of ‘Norwegian independence’ meant little at the grass-roots level, merely that he wished to hang on to more of the tax revenues himself. To farmers in Trondheim, it mattered little who was collecting the taxes, as long as they were left to themselves. Although Olaf had done what he could to promote the idea that Canute was evil incarnate, the Danish king’s arrival in Norway killed many of those rumours for good. Canute was conspicuously generous with his gifts and grants and soon had won the people of Norway over.21 In 1028, with supporters deserting him in droves, Olaf the Stout was forced to admit that Canute had the upper hand. The Trondheimers proclaimed Canute a fitting person to be their king, and Olaf the Stout may have sneaked away to Russia, where he hoped to impose on the hospitality of Princess Ingigerd, his former betrothed, and her husband Jaroslav the Wise.
Canute turned out to be almost as wily as Olaf had painted him. News drifted in from the Pentland Firth that Earl Hakon, the strongest of the Trondheim rulers, had met with an unfortunate accident. The Trondheimers Kalf Arnarson and Einar Paunch-Shaker both now put themselves forward as possible replacements – and each believed himself to have the support of Canute. Imagine, then, their surprise when Canute favoured neither, and instead announced that the vassal-king of Norway would be his own son, Svein, in spite of promises he had initially made for home-rule in Trondheim.
The Trondheimers did not greet the news with much relish, particularly when it transpired that the newly arrived King Svein was only a child, and that the reins of power would actually be in the hands of his mother. To make matters worse, King Svein’s mother was not even Canute’s acknowledged wife before Christ, Queen Emma, the widow of Aethelred Unraed. Instead the new de facto ruler of Norway was Aelfgifu (Álfífa), regarded by the Norwegians as a highly unwelcome, interfering floozy who was not even Scandinavian, but instead from Northampton in England.
Canute had his reasons for keeping Aelfgifu at arm’s length – he intended to eventually leave England and Denmark to Harthacanute, his son by Queen Emma, and thereby pre-empt any succession wrangles among the Anglo-Saxons. Since he already had two elder children by Aelfgifu, they would need to be packed off somewhere out of the way, and Norway must have seemed ideal. Some sources claimed that Canute and Aelfgifu were ‘hand-fasted’, or married in the pagan sense. This, of course, was of little concern to the people of Norway, converts, however grudgingly, to the Christian faith.
News of all this eventually reached the court of Jaroslav the Wise, where Olaf the Stout was in exile. Leaving his infant son Magnus (named after Carolus Magnus, Charlemagne) in the care of his in-laws, Olaf gathered his war-band once more and prepared to take back his kingdom. He was eager enough to have begun his travels in the dead of winter, traversing the frozen rivers of Russia and waiting at the Baltic coast for the ice to break up. His initial band of only a couple of hundred men was doubled in size upon his arrival at the court of his sometime ally, Onund Jacob of Sweden. He marched into southern Norway, offering the unhappy locals a choice between a foreign mistress or a Norwegian master. By the time he faced his enemies on 29 July 1030 at the Battle of Stiklastad, he had perhaps 3,600 men in his retinue, including Norwegians, Swedes, Russians and Finns. Unfortunately for Olaf, he faced an army in excess of 14,000. By the end of the day he was dead, although the legends of ‘Saint Olaf’, patron of all Scandinavia, were only beginning.