Post-classical history

2

FURY OF THE NORTHMEN

FROM THE FIRST RAIDS TO HARALD BLUETOOTH

The eighth of June 793 was Médard’s day, when the monks of Lindisfarne remembered a bishop who had bravely made a stand against paganism.1 Two hundred years earlier, Médard had helped a Frankish queen flee the clutches of her violent husband, and had supposedly been sheltered from a storm under the wings of a great eagle. Stories led to superstitions, and it was said in some parts of Europe that bad weather on St Médard’s day would remain for weeks on end.

The forecast was not good. Northumbria had recently been plagued by terrible weather, such that the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles reported ‘immense flashes of lightning, and fiery dragons were seen flying in the air’. Earlier that year, superstitious parishioners in York had reported blood dripping from the roof of St Peter’s church.2 St Médard’s day looked bad enough, but for many of the monks of Lindisfarne, it was their last. Quite without warning, a flotilla of sleek longships sailed out of the storm and on to the beach at the sacred island.

They came . . . to the church of Lindisfarne, and laid all waste with dreadful havoc, trod with unhallowed feet the holy places, dug up the altars and carried off all the treasures of the holy church. Some of the brethren they killed; some they carried off in chains; many they cast out, naked and loaded with insults; some they drowned in the sea.3

The Vikings were not appreciably fiercer than any of the other races warring for control of Europe in the period. What distinguished them was their willingness to regard the clergy as legitimate targets. Whereas mundane towns and villages boasted defensive walls, forts and local militia, monasteries in particular stood exposed and undefended, their occupants not expecting attack, and consequently unable to put up much resistance. In many places, monasteries accumulated wealth simply because they were regarded as safe from attack – who would donate an ornate Bible or silver candlesticks if they expected thieves to carry them off?

It is unlikely that the raiders left their Norwegian fjords, pointed their ships to the south-west, and sailed in a straight line. Even by the late eighth century, navigation was a timid affair. The ships hopped from Scandinavia to the Shetland Islands, then south to the Orkneys. From there, vessels could sail on to the Hebrides and Ireland, or south along the east coast of Scotland and England. The Vikings knew these routes because they had used them for some time. Their earlier presence may not have been recorded because a few bands of roaming foreigners might escape the notice of chroniclers for a generation or more, particularly if they did nothing but sell amber or animal furs. The early Vikings clung to Britain’s most distant areas, sheltering behind islands from Atlantic storms, just as they did along the Norwegian coast.

The Sack of Lindisfarne marks the official beginning of the Viking Age, but came after portents far more convincing than the omens of the chroniclers. For some time, there had been scattered whispers of trouble, many only recalled after it was too late. An archbishop in Kent wrote to his son ‘of the thick infestations of wicked men in the provinces of the Angles and Gaul’, while Irish chroniclers recorded settlers returning home from island colonies, forced to abandon them ‘for the sake of the thieving Norsemen’.4 A shield boss of Norwegian manufacture has been found in the Hebrides and dated to before 750 – it might have been a family heirloom, but its arrival in Scotland could have occurred at any point thereafter.5

More concrete evidence is available. Four years before the Sack of Lindisfarne, three longships arrived in the harbour of the Wessex town of Portland. They were met by a handful of horsemen, led by Beaduheard, the reeve of Dorchester. Assuming that they were travelling merchants, he berated them for not landing without the permission (and presumably, taxation) of Beorhtic, the king of Wessex. The strangers killed him on the spot, in what was the first Viking attack mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles.6 But even this minor incident does not appear to have been so isolated. The Vikings revealed that they were from Hardanger Fjord in west Norway, (at the time, the Norse and Anglo-Saxon languages were similar enough to permit rudimentary communication), and yet other reports called them merely Norsemen, or indeed Danes, suggesting that the slaying of Beaduheard was mixed with other incidents.7 The Vikings were already known, as traders and, if one monk is to be believed, trendsetters – a letter of Alcuin mentions that Viking hairstyles were all the rage in Northumbria in the years before the attack.8

In 792, a year before the ‘surprise’ attack on Lindisfarne, the Mercian king Offa had ordered the construction of coastal defences in the east of England – hardly the act of a monarch unprepared for an attack. Mercia’s preparation paid off, and kept it safe for many years. Northumbria, however, was not so lucky. In later generations, Vikings would attack in England in forces as big as armies, but there is no need to imagine that these first raiders were anything of the sort. It is, perhaps, no coincidence that Norse traders were already in the Hebrides, where could be found Lindisfarne’s parent monastery of Iona. The following year, raiders hit another monastery in Jarrow, south of Lindisfarne, but a substantial number died in a storm.

In 795, significantly emboldened, a different group went on a spree in the Irish Sea, attacking Iona itself, Rathlin Island off the coast of Ireland, and Morganwg in South Wales. Other attacks followed in the same region. A modern-day criminal profiler would triangulate the attacks and look for an epicentre, concluding that these raiders did not sail each year from Scandinavia at all, but were already based somewhere in the west of Scotland. The Vikings always favoured islands just offshore for their winter bases, and the Hebrides seem to present the ideal location. It is also likely that there were more raids that remain unrecorded – large areas of Scotland and Ireland were poorly defended, and one of the Vikings’ prime interests was in acquiring slaves – an activity that would have ensured no witnesses were left to report these hypothetical earlier attacks.

It remains possible, although unlikely, that those same three ships that caused the end of Beaduheard were responsible for most of the Viking attacks, including that on Lindisfarne, reported in the period at the end of the eighth century – after all, how many armed warriors would it really take to terrorize a church of peaceful scholar-monks? Our sources for the period are primarily the records and letters of the clergy, who felt the terror of the Vikings more than anyone else. The scholar Alcuin, then dwelling at the court of Charlemagne and fully aware of what waited beyond, was even moved to quote Biblical prophecy: ‘Then the Lord said unto me, Out of the north an evil shall break forth on all the inhabitants of the land’ (Jeremiah 1:14).

Viking life revolved around the war-band, called a comitatus by Latin chroniclers, who used the term in their own language for a general’s personal retinue. A war-band comprised a leader, often a self-styled ‘king’, and his cronies. Sometimes barely enough men to fill a single longship, sometimes a veritable army, it was the defining unit of Viking life. A Scandinavian community without a war-band was simply a cluster of huts – it would eventually find itself facing aggressors, and be obliged to submit to someone else’s war-band or to form one of its own. The war-band was an organism that lived to acquire possessions – it would roam in search of a territory of its own. It could be destroyed by a more powerful adversary, or it could seize the territory of another, acquiring land, women and wealth for itself. At that point, it would have fulfilled its basic function, and could be expected to fizzle out, losing its vitality. A war-band was not so much a parasite upon a community as an outlet for a community’s bad seeds. A generation after the original raiders gave up on the raiding life, their many wives and concubines would have raised another horde of hungry mouths. Eventually, a new war-band would form, and go off in search of plunder, repeating the cycle once more.

To travel, they required the infamous Viking ship. As a community developed, and its wayward sons first turned to trade, a ship would permit them to travel further afield. In lean times, when traders had less to sell, and buyers had less to barter, ships became the vehicles of aggression, permitting the Viking group to remove itself from its own homeland to ruin somebody else’s. The raiders of the eighth century were rulers of nothing but their own ships and men, either because they had never had anything else, or, as increasingly occurred, because they had been ousted from their homeland by another group of rivals.

One of the most famous Viking ships is the vessel found in 1880 in a burial mound in Gokstad, south Norway. Sometime around AD 900 a great Viking chieftain had been buried inside his vessel, intact in every detail but for the mast, which was hacked off to fit under the roof of the burial chamber. Whoever he may have been, the middle-aged man was laid to rest with a significant number of sacrificial animals: 12 horses, 6 dogs, and even a peacock.9 The Gokstad ship was an improvement on earlier vessels from the Dark Ages. It had 16 pairs of oars – enough for a small crew of traders or, doubled-up, sufficient transport for a good-sized war-band. Along the gunwales were 32 shields, implying it was used for the latter purpose. There were, however, no seats for the oarsmen, leading archaeologists to presume that Vikings brought their own sea chests, somehow strapped them down, and used them in lieu of benches.

The Gokstad ship was remarkably preserved, despite the damage done by a party of grave robbers that had hacked through its side. Its state made it possible to seriously contemplate a replica, leading several modern entrepreneurs to build their own versions. The first and most famous was theViking, constructed in 1893 as part of Norway’s entry in the Chicago World Fair. The project was led by Magnus Andersen, the editor of a shipping magazine, who was determined to prove that the Vikings were not only superb seamen, but had sufficient technology to allow them to reach America. Some critics accused Andersen of taking a few too many liberties with his ‘replica’, including adding extra topsails, and giving it a deeper keel than the original Gokstad ship. Nevertheless, theViking would eventually make the crossing to America in less than a month, with relatively little alteration to its ninth-century design.10

Actually building and sailing a Gokstad replica allowed Andersen to experience Viking sailing methods first-hand. Perhaps the most remarkable feature of the ship’s construction was the use of clinker-building techniques, overlapping planks rendered watertight with tarred rope. Such construction made the ship highly flexible in rough seas, and may have given it precisely the advantage the Vikings required. If a ship could make it from Norway to Shetland, it could make it from there to the Faeroes or Scotland, and fromthere to Iceland or Ireland. The engine of the Viking invasion had been created.

The popular image is of Viking warships, fronted by a fearsome dragon’s head, but such craft were of less practical use in making a long sea crossing. In fact, in the later days of the Viking Age, some communities deemed that dragon’s heads were too frightful for local nature spirits, and had to be removed before a ship was permitted to approach land.11 Many of the most famous Viking voyages were instead undertaken in a longship, with more capacity for booty, or a craft called a knorr – a much more conventional trading ship, with enough space to hold cattle or other livestock. The majority of Viking vessels were much broader at the front, leading to the Norse term of endearment knerra-bringa – ‘a woman with a chest like a knorr’.12

Regardless of whether they moved by oars or sail, in a sleek longship or a rounded knorr, another mystery of the Viking expansion lies in their means of navigation. The Vikings did not have compasses, and no evidence has been found to confirm stories of asólarsteinn, a crystal that somehow enabled Vikings to work out the position of the sun on cloudy days. Others have suggested that a broken wooden disc, found in Greenland in the twentieth century, might be the only extant example of the Vikings’ secret weapon – a form of sundial that enabled them to compute compass points based on the shadow cast by a central spindle.13 Such solar compasses were in use in Arab Aleppo in the fourteenth century, but that does not explain how one would end up in Greenland. The use of the solar compass is certainly a possibility, but why are there not significantly more examples? Or was this another of the secrets of Odin?

Towards the close of the Viking Age, civilized by contact with the Christian West, many descendants of the Vikings would attempt to reform their old ways, but the front line of the Viking expansion was undeniably brutal. Even in later medieval Iceland, when the Viking spirit was supposedly somewhat tamed, there were still vestiges of a code based on bravado and at the most basic level, one’s willingness to defend one’s actions in trial by combat. As Hromund the Lame puts it: ‘It’s the way of Vikings to make their gains by robbery and extortion, but it’s the way of thieves to conceal it afterwards.’14 Among the belligerent Vikings any argument could be settled by a fight, and as long as no blood was drawn, it was supposed to be forgotten in the morning.15

The Vikings often seemed more afraid of slander than they were of violence. Perhaps this is a subjective viewpoint, introduced by enterprising skalds wishing to emphasize the importance of leaving a good saga behind after one’s death, but nonetheless, the available sagas are riddled with anecdotes of playful insults that get out of hand. But they are also full of nicknames that somehow stuck, perhaps because their owners rather enjoyed the implications, or admitted that the sobriquets had some element of truth. Names such as Erik the Victorious and Bodvar the Wise recall great deeds; Eyjolf the Lame and Eyvind the Plagiarist are less impressive; others like Halli the Sarcastic and Ivar Horse-Cock beggar belief.

Masculinity seems to have been a particularly sore point with the Vikings – cross-dressing by either sex was grounds for immediate divorce, and the greatest insult one could deliver to a Viking was to accuse him of behaving in an effeminate manner.16Homosexuality was not unknown, but talk of it seems to have been repressed. One Viking in a saga is heard to accuse an enemy of submitting to anal sex, while foreign observers occasionally implied that the rituals of Viking sorcery may have involved some form of blurring of gender boundaries. It is still a mystery as to why the grave of one Swedish wizard was found to contain the body of an elderly man from Lapland, clad in women’s clothes.17

Women were to weave, tend to domestic animals, grind corn, cook and warm the beds. Their objectification in saga poetry reaches remarkable heights – it seems complimentary for a Viking poet to describe a woman as a display unit for jewellery. Viking females are described as ‘sleighs for necklaces’, as ‘guardians of gold’, or as ‘ring-wearers’. Insult a woman, of course, and you would also insult her man, a permanent threat that led to an uneasy form of etiquette, misogyny held barely in check. The most powerful women are still mainly defined by their male relatives – most women in the sagas have patronymics instead of nicknames, although there are self-explanatory exceptions like Thorkatla Bosom and Hallgerd Long-legs. The most notorious Viking women held power through their children: such as the legendary queens Sigrid the Haughty and Gunnhild Kingsmother. Such women could command indirect respect, through the power inherent in their dowries and marriages. They had the right of inheritance and control over the home, and for the marks of the respect that some might command in the afterlife, we need only turn to contents of some of their graves.

There is no historical evidence for the existence of the legendary Viking chieftain Halfdan the Black, or indeed his mother, Queen Asa, although it has been suggested that this Norwegian lady may have been the occupant of a ship-burial found at Oseberg in 1903.18 The mound was over 120 feet long and just below 20 feet high, earth shovelled over a ship facing to the south, her prow pointing at the sea. Inside, archaeologists found two skeletons – a young woman whose corpse had been partly tugged away from its resting place by later robbers, and an accompanying older woman. One of them was a luckless slave, accompanying her mistress into the afterlife.

The women were buried with rich accoutrements – beds, pillows and blankets, chests full of supplies, looms and even ‘elf-tremblers’, rattles designed to scare off evil spirits. The ship was large enough to hold a carved carriage, four sledges and kitchen utensils. Whoever the occupant of the grave was, she was of a family powerful enough to attract fine artisans, in a culture that could support such fripperies above and beyond the harsh demands of subsistence. The Oseberg ship was not built for raiding. It would have lacked the speed, and its oar-ports were devoid of any means of holding back waves from heavy seas. It was designed for luxury alone, a rich woman’s transport, presumably around a peaceful territory.

Our information about Asa and her son Halfdan the Black is dubious, coming in the early chapters of Snorri’s Heimskringla. For Snorri, however, the story of Halfdan the Black is where his tales of gods and supernatural deeds begin to dovetail with the historical world. Though Halfdan’s existence may be difficult to prove, that of his son and grandsons is not. Somewhere between here and the end of this chapter, the legends begin to fade and we find ourselves discussing people who really existed. Exactly where is still debatable.

According to Snorri, a small chiefdom on the coast of the Vik expanded during the days of one ruler, Halfdan the Stingy, and again under the management of his heir, Guthroth the Generous. Guthroth was able to push his borders up to the site of modern Oslo, by marrying Alfhild, daughter of the king of Alfheim – these ‘elves’ being one more local people subsumed into the growing territory. Alfhild gave Guthroth a son, Olaf Geirstatha-Alf, but then died, leading Guthroth to marry Asa, beautiful daughter of the neighbouring kinglet Harald Red-Beard. Red-Beard had refused permission, and paid with his life, when Guthroth took the country, and the young Asa, by force.

Asa gave Guthroth a son, Halfdan the Black, but arranged her husband’s assassination when the boy was still barely a year old. Official sources claimed that the king had drowned after a drunken banquet, but Asa made no secret of the truth – she had asked for someone to spear him and throw him into the sea. Asa then returned to her homeland, where she ruled in the name of her infant son. Guthroth’s eldest, Olaf Geirstatha-Alf, ruled Guthroth’s old territory until Halfdan the Black reached the age of maturity. The boys then shared the rulership of the land between them, until Olaf Geirstatha-Alf died in his fifties, leaving the entire area to Halfdan. Reference in Heimskringla to a leg disease, and signs of crippling arthritis in the knee-joint of the Gokstad body both point to Olaf as a likely candidate for the man in that ship-grave.19

Halfdan’s domain increased by traditional means. He fought a brief war with the neighbouring region of Heithmork, and won the land for himself. Before long, his borders had extended all the way to Sogn on the coast of the sea, which he secured for his descendants by marrying Ragnhild, the daughter of Sogn’s ruler Harald Goldenbeard. He died barely into his forties, drowning when he fell through the thawing ice on a lake, leaving a ten-year-old heir, Harald Fairhair. Immediately, other neighbouring states sensed their chance to move in, and Fairhair’s regents were threatened with a series of attacks. Such was life in southern Norway around AD 860, a petty series of strikes and counter-strikes by war-bands jostling for supremacy.

Things were slightly different just to the south, over the swirling waters of the Skagerrak strait that divides Norway from continental Europe. The feuds and skirmishes of southern Norway were the last remanants of a barbaric tradition dating back through the many tribal conflicts of the Dark Ages. In Europe proper, rulers were thinking on a much larger scale. There was more infrastructure, tax revenues made larger public works possible, and the petty local feuds of olden times had now grown into much larger feuds, albeit just as petty.

While the Norwegians had dealings with isolated islands and forest peoples, it was the Danes who had to deal with the outside world. Denmark was situated on a vital trade route, the only way from civilized Europe into Scandinavia and the Baltic. For two thousand years, Denmark had been the conduit for delivering goods between those two worlds. And Denmark’s Jutland peninsula was connected directly to the European mainland, hence witness to the thirty years of war that engulfed Germany at the end of the eighth century. In the distant land of the Franks, peace had broken out, and along with it enough political unity to create a region that fancied itself as an inheritor of Rome. Its king, Charles the Great, Carolus Magnus or more commonly, Charlemagne, desired to do what his Roman predecessors could not, and secure the north-eastern border of his empire by conquest.

The fighting began in 772, four years after Charlemagne ascended his throne. His war was fought on military and spiritual fronts, with the Saxons spared retribution if only they would submit to the rule of Christ, and his earthly representative, Charlemagne. He had no truck with paganism; one of the first acts of his soldiers was the destruction of Irminsul, the sacred column that the Saxons believed held up the sky. The impact of the Frankish war on the Saxons was felt in Denmark in the form of refugees, particularly in 777 when the Saxon leader Widukind sought sanctuary with the Danes. By 800, when Charlemagne was proclaiming himself to be the new emperor of the west, his actions had provoked the Danes on to the offensive. The Danish king Godfred led a campaign south of the Baltic against some pagan allies of Charlemagne, destroying the ancient trading post of Reric and, inadvertently it would seem, making the Danish port of Hedeby the centre of the Baltic trading world by default. Hedeby sat inland a way down the Danish peninsula, at the end of a long inlet that cut halfway into the land from the east.

Hedeby was perilously close to the new realms of Charlemagne, behind a remarkable rampart that established a border with the south. In time it was augmented, so that it reached from a river estuary on the North Sea side, all the way to Hedeby’s Baltic coast, a construct of earth and wooden palisade known as the Danevirke. It also permitted swift access to the Baltic to the Danes and their allies. It was now possible to sail from the North Sea up the Eider estuary and its Trene tributary, unload cargo and carry it a mere eight miles in relative safety, before reaching Hedeby and its access to the Baltic.20 It was long believed to have been constructed to defend Denmark from Charlemagne, but dendrochronological analysis of the tree-rings of the wood from the palisade reveals that parts of the Danevirke were built considerably earlier than that, around 737, long before the perceived threat of the Franks.21

Denmark was a strong enough kingdom by the beginning of the ninth century to have a sense of its own borders and the organization required to define them. It also had a strong enough sense of hegemony to feel threatened by the further encroachment of the Franks. The Danevirke may have established a southern border, but Denmark had interests that lay even further to the south, fanning out from Frisia on the North Sea coast, through Saxony and Germany directly to the south, and to the Baltic tribes to the south-east. As the Romans found, the region presented enough problems to encourage a solution by treaty instead of conquest. With enemies pressing at other points on his vast borders, Charlemagne wanted trouble to go away, and by raiding Frisia in ships, Godfred made it clear that he could make a lot more if he wanted.

The Frankish offensive continued in the spiritual realm. Charlemagne’s son, Louis the Pious dispatched missionaries to his frontiers, and, it is said, the first Viking converts were made sometime around 825. In 826, Louis sent a 25-year-old missionary called Anskar, who enjoyed a short-lived period as a Christian preacher in Hedeby, before he was forced to leave by enemies of his patron. Anskar next tried his luck in Sweden in 829. Attacked by pirates, he and his companion lost all their possessions and eventually limped into Birka with nothing but the clothes on their backs. It is no coincidence that these early missionaries concentrated their energies on trading posts, where Christian travellers might be found in greater quantities, and where homesick itinerant traders might be more amenable to tales of a new religion. The backward hinterland could wait until after the missionaries had achieved some success in the more cosmopolitan towns.

Anskar and others like him endured an uneasy relationship with the pagan Vikings. They were regarded less as messengers of Christianity than as flunkies of the empire to the south, and their presence was often barely tolerated. Nevertheless, the Vikings were not above being impressed by military might, and the claims of the imperial messengers to represent a stronger, more enduring faith than that of the old gods eventually began to influence their hosts, albeit not without a few missionaries martyred at the hands of irate pagans. As far as the empire was concerned, all of Scandinavia was thereafter the responsibility of Anskar, now made the archbishop of the new fort of Hammaborg (Hamburg). As far as Scandinavia was concerned, the Christian missionaries with their messages of humility and an Almighty God were a minor irritation best left unscratched until it was safe to do so.

In 840, Louis died, resulting in a struggle for the succession between his sons Lothar, Charles the Bald and Louis the German. The northern coast of Europe, formerly a risky target for Scandinavian raiders, was left undefended as the Franks warred among themselves. The Danes lost little time in taking advantage of the weakness of their former adversary, pushing south with a fleet of ships to attack and destroy Hamburg. Anskar escaped with his life, and undertook another mission in 849. By now the Franks were, again, no longer an ally to trifle with, and the Danish king Horik, an aging man with strife in his own family, accepted a new mission from the Christians. He may have hoped, or indeed been promised, that openness to missionaries would bring political advantages. When he died, his sons killed each other in a series of bloody conflicts, until a single survivor, Horik the Younger, ascended the throne in 853. Despite pressure from a heathen faction within his kingdom, Horik the Younger not only continued his father’s permissive attitude towards the Christians, but even allowed the rebuilt Hedeby church to have a bell, the sound of which was an alien and unwelcome thing to the local heathens.

Each time Christians were in Denmark for any lengthy period, we gain a glimpse of the heathen population from the missionaries’ writings. From notes made by Anskar and his successor Rimbert, and from reports made by other Christians, we know that Denmark by the late ninth century was not the monolithic single kingdom implied by earlier dealings with the Franks. In fact, we are not even sure if Godfred was the ruler of all Denmark at the start of the epoch, although someone in the region had certainly been powerful enough to organize the construction of the Danevirke. After the death of Horik the Elder, it is far more likely that there were a number of ‘kings’ not of Denmark but in Denmark, and is even possible that Horik the Younger’s brothers were not eliminated as other accounts imply.

According to the chronicler Adam of Bremen, Denmark had at least two ‘kings’ in 873, and they too were supposedly brothers, Sigfred and Halfdan.22 Wherever they may have reigned, they were at constant odds with other rulers, most likely dotted among the Danish islands, since the prime activity of the rival ‘kings’ was said to be piracy. In other words, we see Denmark assuming the characteristics for which it was associated throughout the Viking Age: a series of domains ruled by rival chiefs, occasionally giving allegiance to the most powerful overlords, but generally in conflict with each other.

By the 890s, the answer to exactly who was in charge of Denmark eluded the kings themselves. No less an authority than Svein Estridsen, who claimed descent from the kings of the period and in his own time became ruler of Denmark himself late in the eleventh century, was reportedly unable to say for sure which of his ancestors had ruled when when questioned on the matter by the chronicler Adam of Bremen. There are confused references to a peaceful king called Helgi, soon supplanted by Olaf, a Swede who ousted this rightful ruler. Olaf’s two sons split the realm between them, although Sweden seemed to be in other hands by then. Before long, the usurper Hardegon took all Denmark for himself.

Whatever the truth of it, by 900 the Swedes were in a position to take control of certain Danish areas for themselves. They were less interested in the island enclaves and Jutland farms than they were in Hedeby, a centre of trade that many of them would have visited with merchant ships from Gotland and points east. For a while, the area was under Swedish control, but in 935, when we enter a better documented period with some relief, Denmark was back in Danish hands.

When the internecine struggles were finally over and missionaries were able to visit and report once more on Denmark, the land was resolutely pagan, thanks chiefly to its leader Gorm the Old. Gorm had no time for the new-fangled Christians; instead he had purged Denmark of many petty kings and warlords, until, it appears, just one remained, an earl in northern Jutland. Gorm married the earl’s daughter Thyri, and their son inherited the lands of them both. Thyri’s tombstone at the ancient burial site of Jelling refers to her, or perhaps her husband, as the ‘Glory’ or ‘Improvement’ of Denmark, the first time that a Danish source had referred to the region by that name – earlier references had all been in the work of foreign authors.

But while Gorm was a pagan, his son Harald Bluetooth would accept Christianity into his kingdom and his life. By now, the political advantages were impossible to ignore. Christianity was gaining sway all over Europe, and sentiments of Christian brotherhood were much more useful to the beleaguered ruler than yet another round of squabbles. Acceptance of Christianity, even in name only, effectively shut off a number of political conflicts along Harald’s southern borders.

Harald Bluetooth also ensured that his rule was strictly enforced. His reign saw the construction of five gigantic circular forts, two in Jutland, one in southern Sweden, one on Fyn, and the last at Trelleborg in Zealand. The design of these ‘Trelleborg’ forts seemed inspired by similar constructions in the realm of the Franks, massive defensive works, protecting an inner area that formed a military base and place of trade.23 Most importantly, the Trelleborg forts were an impressive symbol of kingly power, and are thought to have functioned as places to collect the king’s tax. Harald Bluetooth had moved away from the old wandering collection of plunder that characterized his ancestors, and instead made a decisive step towards Denmark as a centralized kingdom.

The Christian rulers to the south became his spiritual brothers, everyone was friends, trade flowed and everything was peaceful again, except that is for the dispossessed heathens, who carried out a series of raids on the rest of Europe; Harald could wash his hands of responsibility for them, since they were outlaws and his loyal subjects were Christians. Harald Bluetooth’s acceptance of Christianity brought Denmark into the Christian realm; it effectively moved the border of conversion several hundred miles north. The Danes had a new excuse to prey upon the heathens of Norway.

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