History & Analysis

Kingship in the Viking Age – Icelandic Sagas, English Kingship, & Warrior Poets

The Germanic king or lord as the dispenser of treasure, the ‘giver of rings,’ is a familiar image. The reason it is familiar is that it permeates that famous epic poem, Beowulf. In the opening lines of the poem, we are introduced to Scyld Scéfing, a man known for violence against his enemies, and his gifts of treasure to his friends, a man of whom the poet says þæt wæs gód cyning (that was a good king). His son in turn is a chip off the old Scyld and, no less vigorous in war or generous in his gifts, has the loyalty of his men, being praised as léofne þéoden, béaga bryttan (beloved prince, ring giver). Later in the poem, just as Beowulf himself is about to benefit from such kingly largesse at the court of Halfdan, a king of the Scylding line, Halfdan is referred to as sinc-gyfan (treasure/ring giver). All these terms are kennings – evocative poetic metaphors common to Old English and Old Norse poetry – and the Beowulf author is implying that gift giving and Kingship are the same thing. There were, of course, many other elements to cultural perceptions of successful kingship in the Anglo-Scandinavian world, but those are for a different day. In this article I am going to take the lead of the Beowulf poet and concentrate on the king as ‘giver of rings.’

But today is not Beowulf day! It is íslendingasögur day! The íslendingasögur ­– Icelandic family sagas – were written in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries and, with varying degrees of historicity, preserve Icelandic narratives of the tenth- and eleventh-centuries, albeit with the attendant anachronisms of two centuries of societal evolution and a nice dose of authorial invention. What is interesting about the íslendingasögur in contrast to Beowulf as far as it relates to ideals of kingship, is the idea of cross-cultural narrative – Beowulf, written in Old English, describes the characters of past Scandinavian kings, while the íslendingasögur, written in Icelandic/Old Norse, describes the characters of past English kings. Homing in on the trope of the king as gift giver, we will see that, just as it is key to ideals of Scandinavian kingship in Beowulf, it is a very important element of the portrayal of English kings as they interact with Icelandic protagonists. Without entering into the (ridiculously) contentious debate as to the dating of Beowulf, we can say with some confidence that the three íslendingasögur I will be looking at today were written a minimum of two centuries after Beowulf. It is curious then that the same narrative representation of kingship is prevalent in both traditions, despite the linguistic divide and the centuries of separation.

So. Are early English cultural values being overlayed on the kings in Beowulf? Do the íslendingasögur give evidence of a deep authorial understanding of early medieval English social mores? Or is it the opposite, and both provide a fundamentally Scandinavian world-view? OR are both literary traditions accessing a common Germanic heritage of idealised kingship?

Let’s ignore all of those questions, and have a story. Bjarnar saga Hítdælakappa (The Saga of Bjorn, Champion of the Hiterdal People)

Now this story requires a bit of context which will put us in good stead for the next story as well. Bjorn is a warrior-poet, a character-type within the íslendingasögur that probably seems very odd to people who don’t spend a lot of time with the sagas. Basically, a warrior-poet tends to be a restless lad, in love with an unobtainable woman, who likes to compose a bit of verse, quite often slandering his enemies, which results in his exile or flight from Iceland for a number of years, where he goes adventuring to build his credentials as a warrior and a poet. When said troublesome lad returns home, he tends to have a reputation, a chip on his shoulders, and vengeance in mind. After saying hi to mum, he normally sets his mind to goading the man who has managed to wed the aforementioned unobtainable woman – this usually involves some serious versification. Which probably sounds more than a little odd, but when you consider that Icelandic law codified restrictions on slanderous verse, apparently this was, historically, a surprisingly common problem. Once the warrior-poet begins on this course, there can be three outcomes. Firstly his enemy takes the bait, fights the poet, and inevitably dies, upon which that man’s family takes up a law-case or a sword, and our hero is exiled or killed. Secondly, the poet goes too far in his slander, becomes socially vilified, and is exiled or killed. Thirdly, everyone lives happily ever after (I’m looking at you Viglund, you smug sod). Generally speaking, the warrior-poet sagas do not end happily.

So in the ‘naughty boy – heroic adventurer – naughtier boy’ narrative structure, we join Bjorn in his heroic adventurer phase:

The next summer Bjorn went west to England, and won much esteem there, and stayed for two years with King Cnut the Great. It happened, when Bjorn was accompanying the king, and sailing with his company in southern seas, that a dragon flew over the king’s company and attacked them and tried to snatch one of the men. Bjorn was standing nearby and covered the man with his shield, but the dragon clawed almost through it. Bjorn then gripped the dragon’s tail with one hand, while with the other he struck behind its wings, and the dragon was severed, and fell down dead. The king gave Bjorn a large sum of money and a fine longship…

There should be little question as to the author’s intent here. Bjorn, a hero of regional repute in Iceland, is being thrust onto the world stage, a companion to the great King Cnut, and a dragon-slayer to-boot. However, it is the last sentence that is of particular interest to us: Cnut’s gifts to Bjorn for the services he rendered are dealt with briefly and casually by the saga author. It once again gives the impression that the giving of gifts to distinguished followers was a basic societal expectation. Cnut enjoyed a reputation throughout Norway, Denmark, and England as a paradigm of kingship, and as such he is portrayed as a ‘giver of rings.’ Of note, he also transcends any Anglo-Scandinavian cultural divide, being of Danish origin, however transforming himself into an Anglo-Saxon king with great alacrity. Yet this also means the origin of the trope of the gift-giving king remains murky – the saga author may have been reacting to expectations of a Scandinavian king, or the reputation of an Anglo-Saxon one.

So let’s have another story. Gunnlaugs saga Ormstungu (The Saga of Gunnlaug Serpent-tongue)

We join Gunnlaug, another warrior-poet, in his heroic adventuring phase and he too will become a member of the Anglo-Saxon court, for King Æthelred, the son of Edgar was ruling England at that time. He was a good ruler… Gunnlaug is not a shy lad and approaches the king saying ‘I have come to you, my lord, because I have composed a poem about you, and I should like you to hear it.’ Quite happy with the praise Gunnlaug proceeds to heap upon him, Æthelred rewards him with a cloak of scarlet lined with the finest furs and with an embroidered band down to the hem. However, like Bjorn, Gunnlaug must undertake a task that truly sets him apart in the eyes of the king to gain the greatest gifts, and that presents itself in the form of a berserk named Thororm who can blunt swords by looking at them (?!). Gunnlaug and Æthelred devise a plan in which Gunnlaug shows Thororm one sword, but uses another in battle given to him by the king.

As soon as he saw [Gunnlaug’s] sword, the berserk said, ‘I’m not afraid of that sword.’ He struck at Gunnlaug with his sword, and chopped off most of his shield. The Gunnlaug struck back with the sword King’s Gift. The berserk left himself exposed, because he had thought Gunnlaug was using the same weapon as he had shown him. Gunnlaug dealt him his death-blow there and then. The king thanked him for this service, and Gunnlaug won great fame for it in England and beyond.

This one is interesting. There is no tradition of Æthelred as a good king in Anglo-Saxon England, and there is no tradition of the berserk in Anglo-Saxon England. We are clearly dealing with a narrative fabricated by a Scandinavian author, tailored to a Scandinavian audience, with little residual memory of an Anglo-Saxon past. Therefore, in giving Gunnlaug the sword, it seems most likely that the author is making Æthelred operate within a Scandinavian conceptual framework of kingship and, as a gift giver, Æthelred is also a good king (despite all evidence to the contrary).

So I’ll do just one more story, but it’s a big ‘un – Egils saga Skallagrímssonar (Egils saga)

In 937 a coalition of Scots, Britons, Norse, and Hiberno-Norse met the forces of the Anglo-Saxon king Æthelstan in battle at Brunanburh to contest Æthelstan’s claim to the title Rex totius Britanniae. In the decade leading up to this battle, Æthelstan had established overlordship of all the regional polities on the island of Britain. He had been crowned king of Mercia in 924 and of Wessex in 925, thereby maintaining the hegemony established by his father Edward. While in 927, Æthelstan had brought the Anglo-Scandinavian territories of Northumbria under his lordship and, in that same year, the rulers in Wales, Strathclyde, and Scotland all submitted to Æthelstan. Æthelstan’s overlordship was not uncontested in the following decade – he was required to force a Hiberno-Norse claimant to Northumbria from the shores of England in 927, and resubjugate Scotland in 934. Yet the unified uprising of 937 was undoubtedly the greatest challenge that Æthelstan faced, and the ferocity of the battle, and the carnage that resulted from it, found its way into the literatures of numerous Northern-European cultures.

In Scandinavia the author of Egils saga Skallagrímssonar placed an Icelandic hero at the centre of the tale, leading a contingent of Æthelstan’s men. According to the saga author, it was this hero, Egil, whose actions changed the course of the battle when his brother died. In his rage, Egil charged the opposing Norse king, Olaf, and, as the opposing troops began to flee the wrath of his men, Æthelstan pressed the advantage.

When king Æthelstan perceived king Olaf’s division beginning to break, he then spurred on his force, and bade his standard advance. A fierce onset was made, so that king Olaf’s force recoiled, and there was a great slaughter. King Olaf fell there, and the greater part of the force which he had had, for of those who turned to fly, all who were overtaken were slain. Thus king Æthelstan won a great victory there.

Æthelstan retains a major role in the central chapters of the saga, forming a lasting relationship with the protagonist that started with Egil offering his services and men to the king to fight. Obviously, according to the saga author, this went well and we should expect, as Egil did, that he would be rewarded for his service at the celebration after the victory.

Egil sat down there and put his shield at his feet. He had his helmet on his head. He laid his sword across his knees and now and again he would pull it part way out of its scabbard, then slam it back in again. He sat bolt upright, but his head was bowed low … As he sat there, as described, one eyebrow drooped down to his cheek and the other lifted to the roots of his hair … Æthelstan sat in his high-seat; he, too, had laid his sword across his knees. They sat like this for a while. Then the king … took a fine large ring from his arm [and gave it to Egil]. When Egil sat down, he put the ring on his arm and his eyebrows became level again.

I have abridged this quote somewhat, and chapter 55 of Egils saga is worth reading in its own right. Of note, Egil, the greatest of the Icelandic warrior-poets (though the saga does not conform to type), does have a number of verses throughout the passage; also of note, the ring is exchanged ritualistically by the men using their swords, but that is a different article! This is the most explicit demonstration of a king as ring giver we have seen so far. However, both Egil’s victory and his loss has been greater than that of either Bjorn or Gunnlaug, and Æthelstan must both reward Egil for his part in the battle and compensate him for the loss of his brother during the fighting. Thus he presents the Icelander not just with one of his own arm-rings, but then two chests of silver, and finally two more gold arm rings.

While we cannot dismiss entirely that an Icelander of regional repute fought for Æthelstan at Brunanburh, it is my solemn duty to inform you that there is no historical evidence that the battle pivoted on such a man, or that such a man was so richly rewarded. Yet the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle entry for the Battle of Brunanburh does independently describe Æthelstan as the ‘dispenser of treasure to men.’ Indeed, the Chronicle account predates Egils saga by two centuries, and this rather emphasises the idea that the king as ‘ring giver’ falls within a native English tradition. More so than the authors of Bjarnar saga or Gunnlaugs saga, the Egils saga author demonstrates a grounding in real historical events, and it may be that he was accessing a genuine tradition of Æthelstan’s kingship.

In the course of the three narratives, the interludes in the Anglo-Saxon court have very little effect on the overarching narrative. In nature, they mainly function to show the value of the Icelanders – invariably when they get back to Iceland they are going to engage in farming, poetry, and petty squabbles, but when they travel the northern world, they are honoured by kings. Yet these interactions are illuminating. We have seen that Egils saga demonstrates an English tradition of the king as giver of rings, while Gunnlaugs saga demonstrates a native Scandinavian tradition of the king as gift-giver. Bjarnar saga in its turn seems to demonstrate an inherent cultural compatibility in Anglo-Scandinavian representations of the concept, much as Beowulf does. (Plus, both of those stories have dragons – just as an aside.) In geographical narrative scope, these tales take us from Iceland to Norway to Denmark to England (Bjorn even ends up in Russia), while in temporal scope these stories cover a period of five-hundred years. Similarly, the Beowulf author and the íslendingasögur authors were writing at a significant geographical and temporal divide. Yet the giver of rings permeates all the narratives, and I would suggest then that, in answer to our questions, both literary traditions were accessing a common Germanic heritage of idealised kingship. In early medieval Germanic kingship, a strong king was a victorious king, a man made wealthy with the treasure of his enemies, able to force tribute, and willing to share his treasure fairly and generously – þæt wæs gód cyning!

-Matt Firth


  1. Feature image: Peter Nicolai Arbo – Håkon den Gode [Haakon the Good/Haakon Aðalsteinsfóstri, King of Norway 934 – 961]
  2. Katrina Attwood, trans., ‘The Saga of Gunnlaug Serpent-tongue.’ in Sagas of the Warrior Poets, edited by Diana Whaley, London: Penguin, 2002.
  3. Alison Finlay, The Saga of Bjorn, Champion of the Hitardal People, in Sagas of the Warrior Poets, edited by Diana Whaley, London: Penguin, 2002.
  4. Seamus Heaney, ed. and trans., Beowulf (Bilingual Edition), London: Faber & Faber, 2011.
  5. Jónas Kristjánsson, Eddas and Sagas, translated by Peter Foote, Reykjavík: Hið íslenska bókmenntafélag, 2007.
  6. Bernard Scudder, trans., Egils saga, edited by Svanhildur Óskarsdóttir, London: Penguin, 2002.

If you liked this post, follow this blog and/or read the following blog posts:

Cnut the Great, the Conquest of England, and the Puzzle of London

Danish Invasion, Viking Violence, and Cnut’s Mutilation of Hostages at Sandwich

Sweyn Forkbeard, Olaf Tryggvason, and the Kingship of Norway

Viking Identity & Christianity – The Performed Violence of Olaf Tryggvason

See our bibliography on the Viking World.

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