Post-classical history




In 961, the oldest surviving son of Erik Bloodaxe was Harald Greycloak,1 who became the nominal ruler of western Norway after the death of Hakon the Good, although his mother Gunnhild and, we may assume, her other Danish relatives had no small say in her son’s decisions. He had four surviving brothers, who were also clamouring for areas of their own. Meanwhile, other parts of Norway belonged to non-relatives. Trondheim stayed in the hands of Earl Sigurd (who recognized the authority of Harald Greycloak, so long as he kept his nose out of Trondheim business), Tryggvi Olafsson still had the eastern coast of the Vik, and Guthroth Bjarnarson hung on to the western area.

The conflict over Norway became one of pagan independents versus the Christianized descendants of Harald Fairhair – or, from a more secular point of view, it was a matter of increased interference from the Danes. Unlike Hakon, Harald Greycloak was determined to force Christianity on the Norwegians – possibly as a result of an agreement made with Harald Bluetooth in Denmark. Envoys of Greycloak interrupted sacrifices and despoiled places sacred to the gods of the Vikings, and did so with bad timing. The farmers began to wish for the more flexible days of Hakon, while a series of poor harvests and bad weather convinced both sides that their gods were angry.

On that much, historians are agreed, although Snorri pushes into more dubious ground in his Heimskringla, preferring to continue his one-man vendetta against Gunnhild Kings-mother.2 Gunnhild, so claims Snorri, was incensed that such large sectors of Norway were not under the direct rule of her sons. Tryggvi and Guthroth in the south she could understand, since they at least had some claim to royal blood and some relationship with the departed Harald Fairhair. But these earls of Trondheim had no right to throw their weight around. Either through chance, or Gunnhild’s sorcerous influences, depending on whom one believes, strife broke out among the earls of Trondheim. The weather in Norway continued to be very bad, such that it became unfeasible to leave cattle in the open, causing a skald to complain that: ‘like the Finns, have we our bud-eaters bound in barn in middle summer.’3

Sigurd’s brother Grjotgarth, a younger sibling unlikely to ever gain the title of earl through natural causes, was won over as Greycloak’s man on the inside, and participated with the sons of Erik Bloodaxe in a surprise attack on the incumbent ruler of Trondheim. Sigurd perished in the flaming hall, but Grjotgarth did not gain the earldom for which he had hoped. Instead, he was forced to defer to Sigurd’s son, Hakon the Great. Hakon had the full support of his region and the Uppland hinterland, which had often voted in favour of paganism and still supported its prime candidate. He fought Harald Greycloak to a standstill, and the king was forced to accept that Hakon the Great had the same dominions as his father before him. Harald Greycloak was eventually lured to Denmark and killed by an agent of Hakon, who ensured that he himself then captured the ‘criminal’ and sent him off to the gallows.

Gunnhild Kingsmother and the survivors of her brood fled for the Orkneys. Although the remaining sons of Erik Bloodaxe would continue to raid the coasts of Scandinavia and points beyond for another 20 years, they no longer presented any firm candidates for kingship in Norway.4 In purging the powerful earls and kinglings of southern Norway, Harald Greycloak and his brother had cleared the way for an unexpected alliance of their bitterest enemies. Hakon the Great struck a deal with Harald Bluetooth, reclaim his title of earl, and no more. Meanwhile, the fleet of the Danish king arrived among the strongholds of southern Norway. On either side of the Vik, the depleted earldoms saw little choice but to swear allegiance to the Danes. Southern Norway was given to Harald Grenske, an obscure great-grandson of Fairhair – he took the title ‘king’ but ruled as an agent of the king of Denmark. Norway was split between the Danish puppet and the earl of Trondheim, and would remain so for a generation. Heimskringla reports a series of scuffles between Hakon the Great and a few fractious kinsmen, but essentially, he had what he wanted. Norway’s sea coast belonged to Trondheim, and the southern districts were now, at least in theory, ruled by a descendant of Harald Fairhair. What Harald Bluetooth had to say about Norway’s continued pagan status is not recorded – it seems that he would rather have peaceful heathens on his northern frontier than Greycloak and his covetous Christians. Possibly, Bluetooth had other plans for the Norwegians, but he was soon ousted by a series of misfortunes to the south, and by a betrayal from amongst his allies, and possibly from within his own family.

With Norway shakily secured, Bluetooth encouraged his son-in-law Styrbjorn to lead an attack on Sweden, then ruled by Styrbjorn’s uncle Erik. Erik earned his nickname ‘the Victorious’ from this ill-fated venture, since the Danish army and its Baltic allies was soundly trounced near Uppsala. Harald Bluetooth then turned to his other available border, expanding south-eastward into the land of the Wends. All the while, he made sure to pay extravagant homage to Otto I, the ruler of Germany, although the two-faced nature of this loyalty became immediately apparent on Otto’s death. His son Otto II was barely on the throne before Danish raiders conducted a series of attacks on Germany’s north coast. Although Bluetooth denied all knowledge of it, he was surely somewhere behind it all, testing the new ruler’s resolve. Unfortunately for Bluetooth, Otto II was resolute, not wasting any time listening to Bluetooth’s protestations of innocence, but immediately launching a massive offensive against Denmark’s southern border. Bluetooth was forced to call upon every available ally to held defend the Danevirke. Hakon the Great, embroiled in several local disputes with argumentative subordinates, was obliged to send a large force of his own men down to help, a case of pagan and Christian Scandinavians fighting side by side, and a sign, if ever there was, that blood ran thicker than holy water.

Several Viking sagas detail the attempts by the Germans to break through the invulnerable walls and moats that defended the land. This would have been news to the German chroniclers, and indeed it contradicts archaeological evidence from the location itself, both of which make it rather clear that the Danes and their Norwegian allies were severely beaten. German troops made it through the Danevirke, the port of Hedeby suffered a brief period in German hands, and the twilight years of Bluetooth’s reign were spent as a German vassal. It was a humiliating descent from the heyday of the 960s, when Bluetooth stood a fine chance of becoming the master of all Scandinavia. His forays into Europe had cost him dear, and now Hakon was suddenly less willing to lend support from Trondheim – ready to plead he was busy on other matters, knowing that Bluetooth was no longer able to force him to comply.

Harald Bluetooth made one last attempt to bring the pagans to heel, sailing north to the Trondheim with a mighty fleet – so the saga claims, although this national ‘navy’ was still probably no more than 60 ships. Hakon was waiting for him with a fleet of similar size, jointly led by himself and his successor Earl Erik. Bluetooth’s fleet was repulsed, and the aging Danish leader retreated to his native domains, never to trouble the north again. During the closing years of Bluetooth’s reign, the Danes finally regained some of their honour, but did so without the help of the aging king.

Instead, Bluetooth’s final years appear to have been dogged by an unexpected nemesis – his son, Svein Forkbeard, who, if the sagas are to believed, was instrumental in deposing him. A fort built by Otto II on the Danevirke was captured and burned down in 983, and soon Hedeby itself was recaptured after a siege. The Germans beaten away, at least for now, one might have expected the Danish leaders to congratulate themselves, but it was now that Bluetooth retreated too, supposedly to die from his wounds somewhere on the southern Baltic coast. The Christian king had been defeated by his pagan son – Svein Forkbeard was firmly devoted to the savage ways of Odin, trusting more in battle than in diplomacy. He did, however, tolerate a minor Christian presence if it prevented the Germans from finding another excuse to attack. Attempts by Forkbeard to orchestrate takeovers in Norway and Sweden were foiled, since the earls or Trondheim and Olof Skötkonung were strong in their respective realms. Consequently, with Germany strong to the south, and Norwegians and Swedes uncooperative to the north and east, Forkbeard turned his attentions west, to England.

England had enjoyed a long period of peace under King Edgar (r.959–975), a monarch with the support of several powerful Scandinavians and Celts. Through the early and unexpected death of his brother, Edgar had come to be the ruler of Mercia andNorthumbria, and enjoyed relatively good relationships with the large Scandinavian populations in both his kingdoms. Squabbles among the English managed to ruin that state of affairs with Edgar’s death. His son and heir was murdered before he made it out of his teens, by supporters of his younger brother, known to history as Aethelred the Ill-Counselled (Aethelred Unraed, or more popularly, ‘the Unready’). The term ‘supporters’ is perhaps misleading – much was done in Aethelred’s name without his consent. Whoever was running England from behind the scenes operated on the foolish assumption that the new waves of Viking invaders could be bought off.

Parties of Danes were raiding the coasts of England, often with the tacit and not-so-tacit support of their countrymen in the Danelaw, and of their cousins in Normandy. Christian envoys tried to broker some kind of deal based on shared spiritual beliefs with the Normans, but a treaty between them and the English failed to stop Normandy being used as a rest stop and hiding place for raiders on their way across the Channel.

If anything, the English attempts to buy off the raiders only encouraged even more of them. The term used at the time for the protection money was gafol (‘tribute’) although later writers would call it danegeld (‘Dane-gold’). Once they started in 991, the English would be forced to pay such bribes for almost two hundred years, either directly to their enemies as danegeld, or to their supposed kingly protector as heregeld (‘army-gold’) a tax levied to fund the army that was supposed to make the paying of danegeldunnecessary.5

While the English came to regard their danegeld as an insurance policy against further raids, the Danes themselves saw it as a tribute not dissimilar from that collected in Scandinavia – not a one-off payment, but instead a form of protection money that could be extorted anew. Where more than one attacker was in the neighbourhood, such extortion often afforded very little safety, as the new outlaws in town would first raid to prove they could, and only then collect their danegeld. By the time the protectors’ protection was actually needed, they were often long gone, and the cycle repeated itself with a new set of raiders.

Sources are largely quiet as to why Svein Forkbeard, the king of Denmark, should suddenly turn up at the head of a Viking raiding expedition in England in AD 994 – although a simple search for ready cash is not unlikely. Most contemporary references to his alleged conflict with his father, while mentioning that Harald Bluetooth was dead by 987, neglect to discuss a third party who temporarily seized Denmark from Forkbeard himself for a few years. But the chronicler Adam of Bremen claims that Denmark was invaded by King Erik the Victorious of Sweden, leading an army ‘as innumerable as the sands of the sea’. The same period, claims Adam, also saw Denmark attacked from the south by Saxon war-bands intent on plundering the beleagured country.6

There are signs here of a forgotten conflict involving Swedes and Danes at the very least, either as invaders or forces supporting a pretender, with the likely involvement of non-Vikings, too. It is, perhaps, no coincidence that the highly doubtful tale of derring-do, the Saga of the Jomsvikings, revolves around a group of raiders from what is now Germany/Poland, and their involvement in a conflict in Svein Forkbeard’s Denmark.

The fact will not have escaped the reader that the family ties of the Norse world had become rather complicated by this point. The family trees in this book make some small attempt to demonstrate the dynastic connections that bound the Viking leaders together, but do not even come close to the whole story. Svein Forkbeard may have been the son of Harald Bluetooth, but he was also the nephew of Gunnhild Kings-mother. His sister Thyri was the widow of Styrbjorn, who led the ill-fated raid on Sweden repulsed by Erik the Victorious. Svein himself would eventually marry the widow of Erik the Victorious, making him the stepfather of King Olof Skötkonung, the ‘tributary king’ who came to the Swedish throne in AD 995, and paid Forkbeard to leave him alone. Forkbeard’s own daughter Gytha would marry Earl Erik of the Trondheim, and there were several other, lesser alliances that firmly joined Svein to the other rulers of Scandinavia. When one finally untangles the web of marriages, in-laws, cousins and obligations, Forkbeard almost appears as the single figure most likely to rule Scandinavia with, if not the blessing of its inhabitants, at least a fair amount of toleration. The operative word, however, is almost. There was another.

His name was Olaf Tryggvason, nicknamed Crowbone for his hobby of reading the omens, an interest that he supposedly retained even after his conversion to Christianity. Crowbone’s father was the same Tryggvi who had been killed in battle with Harald Greycloak. His mother, Astrid, had been a scion of the Swedish royal house. When Tryggvi was murdered in Grey-cloak’s purges, Crowbone was not even born. His pregnant mother Astrid had somehow eluded capture. The sons of Erik Bloodaxe scoured the countryside looking for her, all the more desperately when they heard that she might be carrying Tryggvi’s heir. But their ongoing troubles with Hakon distracted them, and Astrid was able to make her escape.

This, at least, is the Heimskringla version, although the sons of Bloodaxe must have been remarkably stupid if they truly failed to locate Astrid in her hiding place, her father’s house. Heimskringla’s highly entertaining but also highly dubious version of events has Astrid and her infant son fleeing to the court of Sweden’s King Erik the Victorious, eluding pursuing soldiers sent by the irate Gunnhild Kingsmother. From there, supposedly, they head for Russia, only to be intercepted midway by Baltic pirates,7 and sold into slavery. Crowbone, claim his sagas, was then sold for the value of a single goat, and grew to manhood as a farmhand in what is now Estonia, before being rediscovered and freed by his uncle Sigurd.

If there is any truth in such a rags-to-riches fairytale, it may lie in its use as a legal defence later in Crowbone’s life. For the first we hear of the adult Crowbone is in Russia, where he killed a man with an axe in a Novgorod marketplace, later claiming that his victim was the same pirate who had killed his mother’s guardian Thorolf Lousebeard (too old to fetch a good price as a slave). Crowbone’s legendary exploits then took him from Russia to the land of the Wends (Poland), where he enjoyed an all-too-brief marriage to the doomed princess Geira, daughter of the Wendish ruler Boleslav.

With that lady’s early death, Crowbone supposedly headed west, first to his great-uncle Erik Bloodaxe’s old haunts in Northumbria, before completing an impressive (and some might suspect, poetically neat) circumnavigation of the British Isles, raiding Scotland, the Hebrides, Man, the coasts of Ireland, Wales, and then somewhere on the coast of France. Heading back for England, he stopped over in the Scilly Isles, close to the south-western tip of Cornwall, where a soothsayer, claims his epic saga, told him that he was destined for kingship, and to ‘find the true faith.’8

Such is the idealized portrait of sagas, though the repetition of the word ‘raiding’ gives the game away. Luckily for the historian, Crowbone’s enemies provided a wholly more believeable account of his deeds off the coasts of Britain. We see increasing evidence of Crowbone, or at least men very like him, in the British Isles in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles in 981. It tells of a raid on Padstow in Cornwall, and seven ships (perhaps the same group) attacking Southampton. By 987, Anglo-Saxon records imply that the Vikings were raiding in far greater numbers, with Goda, the ruler of Devonshire, falling in battle ‘with a great slaughter’.9 It is around this point that the Chronicle records the first instance of paying off raiders from Dublin – an apparently simple solution, to a Christian bishop, which backfired almost immediately. In 993, the small raids of previous years were replaced with something much larger:

Here in this year Olaf [i.e. Crowbone] came with ninety-three ships to Folkstone, and raided round about it, and then went from there to Sandwich, and overran all that, and so to Maldon.10

It was Maldon where the Anglo-Saxons would mount one of their most famous stands against the Vikings. Regardless of the unpheavals at the centre of the country, there were still local leaders who were able to put on a resistance. In Essex, the land of the East Saxons, the locals had managed to resist most attempts by Danes to settle, largely by organizing themselves on similar lines. The Vikings were not the only war-bands in the area – waiting for Crowbone at Maldon was the white-haired Saxon earl Byrhtnoth. The Vikings followed their time-honoured strategies, picking an offshore island for protection. The Maldon area, however, is notorious for its mud flats and shallows; when the Saxons arrived, they climbed down off their horses and simply waited on the shoreline, while the Vikings on Northey island glumly stared down at the receding tide. A thin causeway joined Northey to the mainland, and neither side felt like wading through the mud on either side of it. Someone would have to attack along the causeway, and whoever did would be at a great disadvantage.

If we are to believe the surviving fragment of the English poem The Battle of Maldon, there was considerable confidence to be found on both sides. The Vikings on the island called out to Byrhtnoth, asking him if he was the richest man in the neighbourhood, thereby hoping to work out whether he was in a position to offer them money. Pointedly, the Vikings in the poem refer to the bribe they demand as ‘tribute’. But Byrhtnoth was not one of the Saxons who believed the Vikings could be bought off. His use of terms and phrasing in the poem implies that he stood with a force of several hundred men, easily the equal of the Viking numbers, and with the upper hand for as long as he stood on solid ground.

The standoff continued until the proud Byrhtnoth allowed the Vikings to come ashore. He had little choice – if he had forced them to remain on Northey, they would eventually have simply sailed away to raid elsewhere. By permitting them to come ashore along the narrow causeway and draw up in battle formation, Byrhtnoth hoped to settle things once and for all. Unfortunately, after granting them equal footing, he met his own death, as did many of his men, in a hard-fought battle on the shoreline. The progress of the battle was regarded with some bitterness by its poet, who took care to list the names of those who fought bravely, even after Byrhtnoth was cut down, as well as those who fled from the Vikings, particularly one Godric, who galloped off on the dead Byrhtnoth’s horse, thereby giving some of the other men the impression that Byrhtnoth himself was running away. Although later sources would claim that the battle of Maldon was a pyrrhic victory for the English, Byrhtnoth’s last stand was not damaging enough to prevent Crowbone conducting further raids that season, and the Vikings were also able to demand crippling tributes from the people of Essex that year.

In 994, Crowbone returned with 94 ships, some of which were led by his brother-in-law Svein Forkbeard. Forkbeard had greater plans than a mere series of assaults – in a banquet with his allies, he swore that within three years he would invade England and seize the country for himself, driving out King Aethelred or killing him. The hordes of Swedes and Danes who had once sailed east in search of fortunes, now turned west again. Forkbeard was one of them, realizing that with the coffers of the Muslims empty, the next best source of ready coin at the edge of the Viking world would be among the wealthy English.

Forkbeard may have had another reason. Svein Forkbeard was the son of Harald Bluetooth, but Forkbeard’s modern sources are not even sure which of Bluetooth’s wives or concubines was Forkbeard’s mother. The Icelandic Tale of Thorvald the Far-Travelledbaldly states that Svein only‘claimed to be the son of Harald Gormsson [Bluetooth] . . .’ and that ‘Svein was not settled in Denmark at that time because [Bluetooth] would not admit his paternity.’11 Is this a later slander by enemies of Svein? If true, it would certainly help explain his strange relationship with the ‘father’ he supposedly overthrew, and his long-term association with outcast war-bands like the Jomsvikings. It also casts new light on Forkbeard’s willingness to simply take England by force, without any acknowledged right of kingship. If Denmark had not been his by birthright, why not steal England as well?

So it is that we have Forkbeard and Crowbone, raiding the coasts of England either to bolster Forkbeard’s Danish regime, or to raise enough funds to win it back from a forgotten usurper, or possibly simply because they felt like it. For outlaws intent on plunder, there had not been a better time to attack the English. No Alfred the Great appeared to unite the shires; instead, the hapless country was saddled with Aethelred Unraed and his coterie of self-interested nobles. As ‘England’, that confederacy of Angles, Saxons and Britons threatened to tear apart, Aethelred and his advisors were prepared to consider anything, appearing to blow hot and cold towards the raiders quite unpredictably.

Aethelred might have ordered the deaths of entire communities of Danes, but he also seemed keen to establish alliances with other Vikings. The Saga of Gunnlaug Serpent-Tongue goes out of its way to describe him as a ‘good ruler’, always ready to help his Viking associates – he even bestows Gunnlaug with the trusty sword, Kingsgift, after Gunnlaug sings a song comparing him to God Almighty.12 Christian Vikings, it appears, were friends that Aethelred was prepared to tolerate. He would even marry one, in a manner of speaking, when he wed Emma, the daughter of the Norman ruler Richard the Fearless in 1002. The marriage, it was hoped, would bring England and Normandy closer together, perhaps even into a union that might block the Channel and bottle up the Vikings in the North Sea. But there were other implications. Queen Emma was of Viking ancestry – her great-grandfather was the raider Hrolf the Walker, and she probably spoke reasonable Danish.13 Emma was not the only new arrival with possible pro-Danish leanings. Other nobles in and outside the Danelaw took the hint, and tried to deal with the Vikings on their own terms. The presence of the Danes in the midst of the English would eventually prove to be the most insidious assault of all – over the generations, the fearsome raiders from the sea gained a human face. The end result of Aethelred’s haphazard attempts at inclusion was to make Danish alliances, and ultimately Danish kings, seem acceptable to the English.

Another of Aethelred’s new allies was Crowbone himself. At some point in his adventures, Olaf ‘Crowbone’ Tryggvason became a Christian. Heimskringla suggests that he had a sudden conversion after hearing the ravings of the old man in the Scilly Isles. Possibly he was coming to realize the political advantages of tolerating Christians. Supposedly, after his conversion, Crowbone stopped raiding the coasts of Britain. He was baptized at Andover, in modern Hampshire, with King Aethelred himself serving as his godfather, a symbolic adoption, alliance and treaty that bore great similarities to the conversion of Guthrum by King Alfred. But unlike Guthrum, Crowbone did not appear to have any obvious designs on the British Isles. He seemed ready, like Hakon the Great before him, to acknowledge a friendship with the Anglo-Saxons that would allow him to return to Norway with his rear sufficiently guarded. As for Aethelred, although history famously records that he was badly advised, perhaps he was copying the actions of some of his forerunners on the French mainland. Had not the Franks successfully halted the Viking advance by setting other Vikings like Hrolf the Walker upon them? If Aethelred was prepared to do a deal with Crowbone for this reason, it could only mean that there was a Viking somewhere else in the world he feared more. In a textbook case of preferring the Christian devil he knew to the pagan devil he didn’t, Aethelred formed an alliance with Crowbone, thereby hoping to keep Forkbeard away.

His friendship with the English established, Crowbone had begun a slow procession back to his native Norway. Now supposedly a Christian, he did his bit for godliness on the way, stopping off in the Orkneys and Hebrides en route, and threatening to put the locals to the sword and burn their houses to the ground unless they were prepared to submit to the love of Christ. Although hardly a Church-approved method of evangelizing, it did bring fast results, and Olaf sailed for Norway with newly Christianized territories at his back, hoping for similar results in Norway.

When matters of Christian evangelizing among Vikings are discussed, it is important to remember that for the early Church, the end often justified the means. Mass conversion under threat of execution hardly represented the acceptance of Christianity into a people’s hearts, but it did pave the way for further missionaries. Christian priests and bishops accompanied Crowbone in his later travels, and if any of them had any reservations about his bluntly barbaric methods, their complaints are not recorded. But the Church has always been able to think in the long term. While the reluctant promises of threatened farmers were unlikely to change their characters all that much, their children would grow up in towns with churches at their centre. Christianity had a toehold, and Europe would be fully Christianized within a few generations, thanks in part to the atrocities of men such as Crowbone.

Forkbeard, meanwhile, was making other plans. He married the widow of Erik the Victorious, a woman unnamed in the contemporary chronicles, but who may have been the Sigrid the Haughty of saga legend, who had seen off several earlier suitors, including the hapless Norwegian king Harald Grenske, by burning them alive.14 She had also, according to legend, even rejected the advances of Crowbone himself, or rather, been rejected by him when she refused to give up her pagan ways.

Norway was unstable once more, and Crowbone arrived in the hope of winning a kingdom for himself. Trondheim’s Earl Hakon had not helped matters by imposing his own variant of the droit de seigneur on a couple of prominent locals. Heimskringla recounts at least two occasions when the pagan lord decided to borrow another man’s wife, sending his warriors over to the lawful husband, and demanding that his spouse be handed over like a common whore for his use. The placing of the stories by Snorri Sturluson immediately invites suspicion – they crop up at exactly the moment that Crowbone returns with his Christian message, as if Crowbone himself was using them as reasons why the Trondheimers might find Christianity to be a more appealing religion than the ‘old ways’.

Whatever the truth regarding Earl Hakon’s behaviour, the farmers were in open revolt by the time Crowbone arrived – whether to avenge their stolen womenfolk, or to depose a leader who had lost Odin’s mandate depends on one’s sense of story. Crowbone was welcomed by a large sector of the population, and promised riches to whoever brought him Hakon’s head. According to Heimskringla, a disguised Earl Hakon heard this proclamation, and decided to hide in a pigsty, accompanied only by his faithful servant Kark, who, realizing which way the wind was blowing, knifed the old earl in the throat, hacking off his head and bringing it to Crowbone. For technical reasons, however, Kark’s reward for his betrayal was to be beheaded himself.

Crowbone became the ruler of Trondheim, causing Earl Hakon’s relatives to flee to Sweden. As a descendant of the famous Harald Fairhair, Crowbone also enjoyed a good claim to southern Norway, and with Grenske dead, it fell to him by default. Undoubtedly, there would be resistance from the Danes under Forkbeard, and Crowbone had a brief window of opportunity to establish himself before war broke out again.

Crowbone began his campaign of Christianizing Norway, marching from the Vik up to the west and north, accompanied by his army. In each new township, he presented the case – accept the love of the Christian God, or die resisting. While the sagas present Crowbone’s march as a largely religious venture, it also mopped up a lot of political resistance, firmly establishing the new order along with the new beliefs. There are reports of fights and skirmishes, but also of mass conversions and treaties sealed by marriages. Crowbone smartly targeted not just the wielders of temporal power, but also their allies in the pagan religion. A proclamation went ahead of him, demanding that all ‘sorcerers’ leave the country. It was, at least, a witch-hunt that permitted the victims a chance to escape. Those that chose to remain were burned at the stake or otherwise executed. Among Crowbone’s victims was a distant cousin, Eyvind Kelda, a descendant of Harald Fairhair, left to drown on a tidebound skerry.

Even though Crowbone’s achievements are lovingly recounted by later Christian authors, there are still some strange contradictions. His habit of observing the omens and other pagan beliefs seems to have stayed with him for his whole life. Even Heimskringla, the work of the pious Snorri, recounts a folktale that grew up around one particular visitor – an old one-eyed man who entered the hall at Ogvaldsness, where Crowbone was staying. Crowbone found him to be an entertaining conversationalist, and with no skald around to sing stories of times past, Crowbone talked to the old man through the night. The one-eyed stranger seemed to have an answer for anything; he was even able to provide a detailed account of how Ogvaldsness got its name.

It was only late in the night that Crowbone was ushered to bed by the Christian bishop who had been at his side through the long campaign, but even then, he woke in the night and asked where the stranger was. The stranger could not be found, although the bemused kitchen staff reported that he had admonished them on leaving for the meagre fare they were preparing for the king’s table. He offered them two sides of beef and was never seen again. Crowbone ordered the meat destroyed, claiming that it was surely a gift from the pagan Lord of Hosts, Odin, and not to be accepted by good Christian folk.15

The tale of Crowbone’s mystery visitor may have been a bad dream given shape and meaning by later scribes, but if it has any roots in the real world, it could also be an allegory of Crowbone’s own doubts. There is certainly something suspicious in the behaviour of the bishop, who all but orders Crowbone to bed – was this famous figure less a soldier of Christ than another puppet? The tale of the one-eyed man hints that Crowbone still had some hankering for his old religion.

It did not come as any surprise to Crowbone that true resistance awaited further to the north, in Trondheim. Ahead of Crowbone’s arrival, assemblies met and decided that they would treat his attempt at conversion with the same indifference as they had that of Hakon the Good. Crowbone’s attitude demonstrates how little had changed. He was happy, he claimed, to sacrifice to the old gods with the people of Trondheim, as Hakon the Good had done so reluctantly in the past. But since Crowbone was a great king and this was an event of supreme importance, it would have to be the greatest sacrifice ever made in the region. The old gods, said Crowbone pointedly, were no longer happy with a few chickens, the odd dog and a couple of horses. The situation (presumably the blessing of his kingship and the brewing war with Denmark) required full-strength human sacrifice. But Crowbone wanted to take things even further. This time, he claimed, it would not be enough to bump off a couple of slaves or prisoners-of-war, nor would it be acceptable to execute some criminals in the name of Odin. These sacrifices would require the noblest of blood, the deaths of leaders, not followers – and he proceeded to list the names of twelve of the most powerful men in the region. In a matter of moments, the assembly changed from discussion into standoff, with Crowbone’s warriors seizing twelve eminent hostages.

Further north, in the heartland of the Trondheim region, he faced a similar assembly of recalcitrant heathens. This time, one farmer in particular, Járnskeggi, whipped up the crowd into support of the old ways. Faced with greater numbers than in the last location, Crowbone feigned acceptance until he was inside the temple. Once inside, he personally smashed Thor’s idol, while his associates destroyed the other gods. In the riot that ensued outside, Járnskeggi was killed by Crowbone’s men. None stepped forward to take his place, and the remaining farmers accepted the decree of Crowbone that they would all be baptized and turn into good Christians. Just as extra insurance, he took many of their family members hostage, and threatened to kill them if anyone stopped behaving in a Christian manner.

The treatment received by Trondheim was a textbook case of Crowbone’s methods. He arrived with threats and destruction, and then, once consent was at least theoretically obtained, did what he could to make his reign appear to bring benefits. On the banks of the Trondheimfjord he founded a new town, first simply called ‘the trading place’, kaupang, but later known as Nitharos, and long after the Viking Age was over, as the city of Trondheim. The town would form a new centre for the Vikings in the outlying areas, a place for them to gather that had no association with the pagan assembly or temples of old. At its centre, of course, there would be a church.

The crucifix began to compete with the hammer of Thor as the must-have fashion accessory, and missionaries soon followed behind the trendsetters. In distant Iceland, for example, where missionaries had been visiting the remote communities since 980, the news of the conversion of Norway as a whole led many of the diehard heathens to believe they were missing out on something.16 When Thangbrand, a Saxon priest in Crowbone’s retinue, was dispatched to Iceland to spread the word, many Icelanders began to seriously consider converting.17 Others, however, spoke out against the Christians in the same manner as the Trondheimers of old. One Hedin the Sorcerer was slaughtered by Thangbrand the Christian soldier, along with all his retainers. A similar fate awaited Veturlidi the Poet, who composed a satirical verse about the missionary, for which he was cut down in front of his son.18 Thangbrand met his match when his ship, the Bison, was wrecked on the eastern coast near Bulandness. There, he got into an argument with a devout heathen lady by the name of Steinunn, who asked him where his Christ was when Thor was causing his ship to be smashed on the rocks. According to Steinunn, Thor had challenged Christ to a fight, but Christ had not shown up.19

Thangbrand eventually headed back to Norway around 999, leaving behind him a confused mix of Christian converts and zealous heathen resistance. Although many Icelanders had accepted Christ, there were still many like Steinunn. Thangbrand had killed a few himself, no doubt on the understanding that they could be better convinced by God himself, but he certainly could not kill them all. The Icelanders, let us not forget, were largely the descendants of those who had left Norway during previous troubles up to and including the imposition of the rule of Harald Fairhair. They were, to a large extent, like Trondheimers, but difficult.

Back in Norway, Crowbone hit the Icelanders where it hurt. After allowing them to enjoy relatively free trade for two years, he closed the ports of Norway to heathens. Icelanders found their newfound trading route cut off, and with it the bulk of their contacts with Europe – Trondheim was the point of departure for most vessels heading for Iceland. Crowbone did not merely enforce his will indirectly; his men seized ships with Icelanders on board, and held any prominent Icelanders hostage. Possession of a ship fit to travel to Norway was a likely sign of a man being high indeed in Icelandic society, and Crowbone found himself with relatives and associates of many of Iceland’s most powerful families. Crowbone sent word back to Iceland that if the families wanted to see their sons and cousins again, then it was time to welcome Christ into their lives. If they resisted again, he promised maimings and executions.20

News of Crowbone’s behaviour caused exactly the upheavals he had hoped for. The growing Christian faction in Iceland immediately redoubled its efforts at conversion. Resistance to missionaries dropped drastically when preachers were backed by the threat of harm to loved ones. Some strongholds clung even harder to their heathenism, but there was enough discord for the already Christianized areas to seriously consider forming a breakaway society – holding their own Christian assemblies. The prospect threatened to divide Iceland along sectarian lines, and to destroy the democratic system that had endured for a generation. A boatload of Icelandic Christians reached Norway, its passengers intent on pleading with Crowbone for more time. They would do what they could, they said, to persuade their more reluctant fellow islanders. Crowbone gave them a little more time, but he knew that he was winning. Iceland could not survive without the shipping link to Norway.

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