Tag Archives: Vikings

The St. Brice’s Day Massacre: History, Archaeology, and Myth

The St Brice’s day massacre looms large over the legacy of Æthelred II (978-1013/1014-1016) as a well-known tale often held to exemplify the English king’s reign: a poorly considered act of fear, a vindictive mandate for xenophobic violence. But are the events of 13th November 1002 really so clear-cut, or is this a reading of St Brice’s day tailored to our preconceptions of Æthelred ‘the Unready’ and his kingship? Certainly the evidence is that Æthelred did indeed order the violence, and even that it was carried out to some extent. But to fully understand the event, we need to grasp Æthelred’s reasoning for the order, who was targeted on St Brice’s day 1002, and how the story has grown in the telling.

A note that there are images of skeletal remains in this article.

There are only two contemporary, or near-contemporary sources, that narrate the events of St Brice’s day. The C, D, and E texts of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles tell us that:

In that year the king ordered to be slain all the Danish men who were in England – this was done on St Brice’s Day (13th November) – because the king had been informed that they would treacherously deprive him, and then all his councillors, of life, and possess this kingdom afterwards.

The apparent order to kill ‘all the Danish men who were in England’ is affirmed in a diploma of 7 December 1004 which renews the privileges of the monastery of St Frideswide in Oxford, necessary as the church holding their deeds had burned down during the massacre of the Danes:

…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 cockle amongst the wheat, were to be destroyed by a most just extermination, and this decree was to be put into effect even as far as death. Those Danes who dwelt in the aforementioned town, striving to escape death, entered this sanctuary of Christ, having broken by force the doors and bolts, and resolved to make a refuge and defence for themselves therein against the people of the town and the suburbs; but when the people in pursuit strove, forced by necessity, to drive them out, and could not, they set fire to the planks and burnt, as it seems, this church and its ornaments and its books.

Neither source can be construed as positive. The Chronicles describe a suspicious and perhaps poorly advised king, while the description of the massacre at St Frideswide is particularly blood-thirsty, and Æthelred offers no censure for the deed in the diploma. Based on this evidence, there seems little reason to doubt that the order was indeed given and, to some extent, carried out. There is even potential archaeological evidence.

The discovery in 2008 of a mass burial at St John’s College Oxford, largely of young adult males, prompted some speculation of a link to the St Brice’s day massacre. Certainly these were people who had been subjected to violence – severe blade trauma was evident on their remains. Moreover, some of the bodies were charred, a fact which, more than any other, prompted a comparison to the violence narrated at St Frideswide. However, the grave rendered no grave-goods to aid in identifying the mens’ origins and, while analyses of collagen and enamel point to them likely being Scandinavian, radiocarbon dating indicates that they were buried in the decades before 1002. As such, researchers suggest that what we see here is a slaughtered viking raiding party, rather than an event directly linked to the St Brice’s day massacre. Nonetheless, it gives us a glimpse into the fraught political situation in England leading into 1002, and the types of conflicts which may have informed Æthelred’s decision-making.

St Johns
Skeletal remains from the mass grave at St John’s Oxford (BBC)

A similar discussion playing out around the same time in 2009 related to a mass burial found on the Dorset Ridgeway containing 51 decapitated individuals. The radiocarbon dates here allow us to say with some confidence that the burial occurred between 970-1025, placing it within a context that would allow for this massacre to be tied to St Brice’s day 1002. Enamel analysis identifies the victims as Scandinavian, indeed, with somewhat more confidence than the Oxford burials. Unlike Oxford, however, where evidence of injuries points to the men being warriors and likely dying while fighting (or fleeing), the bodies at Dorset show few injuries, either pre-existing or contemporary with execution. This suggests that the victims were not warriors, and also indicates that they were executed by beheading with little by way of struggle or resistance. So what to make of this burial? It is difficult to draw any definitive conclusions. In some ways it fits the narrative of the St Brice’s day massacre better – a group of non-combatant Scandinavians, executed en masse, perhaps resident Danes murdered in response to Æthelred’s orders. But researchers highlight the lack of injuries in the group, contrasting this with the violent episode at St Frideswide, our only direct detailed account of the St Brice’s day massacre. These individuals do not appear the victims of a vengeful mob, and the prevailing thought at this time is that what we see here is a group of  executed Scandinavian hostages.

The decollated remains in the Dorset Ridgeway mass burial (Oxford Archaeology)

Whether or not the burials at Oxford and Dorset can be tied to the St Brice’s day massacre, the locations of the burials are interesting – well within the bounds of territories under traditional English control. We do not have evidence for these sorts of burials within the Danelaw during the late-tenth/early-eleventh centuries, nor do our textual sources give evidence of Æthelred’s orders being carried out in those areas. The Danes of the Danelaw had lived in England for five generations, integrating and intermixing with the English inhabitants, evolving into Anglo-Danish societies. The thought that the descendants of the original Danish settlers were identifiable, that their loyalties were suspect, or that there was any desire to carry out Æthelred’s order in these regions and execute members of established local families is not supportable.

In truth, the St Brice’s day massacre was unlikely to have been aimed at all those of Danish descent in England. It has, for example, been pointed out that few, if any, moneyers of apparent Scandinavian lineage (or at least with Scandinavian names) operating in Æthelred’s kingdom appear to have died at this time. Yet Danish mercenaries, viking raiding parties, and the remnants of a large Danish army that arrived in 991 were active throughout the south of the island in 1002. The vikings had been resurgent in England over the previous two decades, raiding throughout the country, making and breaking alliances with the king, terrorising the inhabitants (English and Anglo-Dane alike). The evidence of our sources, of the political context of early eleventh-century England, and of the archaeological finds, rather point to the massacre being targeted at Danish mercenaries and perhaps at newly established Danish frontier settlements. While this certainly does not excuse Æthelred his actions, it does provide them some logical sense – violence, and perhaps even vengeance, directed toward a perceived aggressor. Indeed, the zeal with which the inhabitants of Oxford exercised this mandate implies popular approval for Æthelred’s order.

However, while this may well be the truth of the St Brice’s day massacre – a limited action intended to neutralise the threat of Danish mercenaries – it is a story that has grown in the telling. In recent decades scholars have worked to rehabilitate Æthelred’s reputation, but in many ways the best that can be said (as I have done here) is that his decisions were understandable given his political situation and resources. This does not mean we can argue for his as a successful kingship – understandable policies do not necessarily equate to good ones. The St Brice’s day massacre, for example, clearly did little to resolve the internal political tensions of early eleventh-century England, nor to deter Scandinavian raiders from its shores. Æthelred’s reputation for ineptitude is one that attaches to his reign early in the historical record, and the St Brice’s day massacre is a part of that story.

The earliest account of St Brice’s day that accords with the erroneous image of genocidal violence that seems to have become attached to the event is found in a passage of William of Jumiège’s Deeds of the Norman Dukes composed c. 1050. Here Æthelred is accused of ‘defiling the kingdom’ by ‘murdering in a single day, without charging them with any crime, the Danes who lived peacefully and harmoniously throughout the kingdom and who did not fear at all for their lives.’ William speaks of Danish women being killed by packs of dogs, of their children being crushed to death – acts at odds with the Chronicles, the charter, and the viking mass burials found at Oxford and Dorset which overwhelmingly contained adult males. He also speaks of young Danish men fleeing to Denmark, seeking audience with the Danish king Sveinn Forkbeard who, twelve years later would invade England and depose Æthelred (though this narrative posits only a two-year interval). William is, in essence, providing an origin narrative for the rise of the Danish dynasty. Or, more precisely, a narrative that justifies the rise of the Danish dynasty as divine retribution for Æthelred’s deed, for it was the last king of that dynasty who brought Edward the Confessor to the throne, and through Edward the Confessor that William of Normandy (William of Jumiège’s lord) claimed his right to the English throne. There are no Scandinavian or pre-Conquest English sources that support this narrative.

Post-Conquest English sources, however, really do go for it. John of Worcester, for example, who frequently sticks close to his edition of the Chronicles, recites that version of events, yet adds the detail that the massacre targeted ‘all Danish settlers … of either sex’. Henry of Huntingdon posits a conspiracy whereby Æthelred had secret letters sent to all English cities to enact the slaughter of Danes at the same day an hour. There may be some merit to this – that the event happened on a feast day does suggest a level of coordination not otherwise possible in a society without readily accessible calendars. Once more, however, this is described as being directed at Danish settlers and, for some reason, Henry ascribes Æthelred’s actions as deriving from a surge of machismo associated with his marriage to Emma of Normandy!? But perhaps even more extraordinary is the tale put together by William of Malmesbury. Here he unites the two traditions, suggesting that the massacre was targeted at all Danish settlers and was the impetus for Sveinn’s invasion. More than this, he describes Sveinn’s sister Gunnhild as having been caught up in massacre, giving the Danish king personal reason to seek retribution (there is no Scandinavian tradition of Sveinn having a sister Gunnhild). Finally, to really bring the story together, William tells us that the well-known knave Eadric Streona was the person who ordered her beheading. It’s a wild tale and has little to recommend it as historical narrative.

Yet these are all myths of the St Brice’s day massacre that have permeated modern perceptions of the event: the death of Sveinn’s sister asserted as fact, the event characterised as wholesale slaughter, Æthelred’s order viewed as impulsive. But these are contrary to the historical and archaeological record. Sveinn needed little reason to invade other than to extend his hegemony to include the wealthy island to his west. In turn, there was little to benefit Æthelred in enacting slaughter across England’s integrated Anglo-Danish communities, and there is no evidence that this occurred. And while Æthelred’s order can be understood as a poorly considered mandate for xenophobic violence, it must also be read in the context of his reign as having a certain logical intent – the elimination of the threat represented by Danish mercenaries and viking armies residing in England.

-Matt Firth


  1. Feature Image: St Frideswide’s Church, Oxford
  2. Angela Boyle, ‘Death on the Dorset Ridgeway: The Discovery and Excavation of an early Medieval Mass Burial’, in The Danes in Wessex: The Scandinavian Impact on Southern England, c. 800 – c. 1100, ed. by Ryan Lavelle and Simon Roffey (Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2016), 109-21.
  3. Simon Keynes, ‘The Massacre of St Brice’s Day (13 November 1002).’ In Beretning fra seksogtyvende tværfaglige vikingesymposium. Edited by Niels Lund. Aarhus: Forlaget Hikuin, 2007, pp. 32-66.
  4. A. M. Pollard et al., ‘“Sprouting like cockle amongst the wheat”: the St Brice’s Day massacre and the isotopic analysis of human bones from St John’s College, Oxford’, Oxford Journal of Archaeology, 31 (2012): 83-102.
  5. Levi Roach. Æthelred the Unready. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016.
  6. Dorothy Whitelock (ed.), The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1965.
  7. Dorothy Whitelock, ed. and trans. English Historical Documents, C. 500 – 1042. 2nd edn. 10 vols. Vol. 1. London: Eyre Methuen, 1979.

 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

Queenship and Power: The Political Life of Emma of Normandy

Reading England in the Icelandic Sagas: Cultural Memory and Archaeology

A Scribe’s Life (5): The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles

See our bibliography on the Early Medieval England.

Blood Eagles and Fatal Walks Revisited: Orms þáttr stórólfssonar

It’s nearly two years since we posted our article on the viking tortures of literature and the likelihood that the acts as described ever occurred. This included two implausible instances of brutality: the ‘blood eagle’ and the ‘fatal walk’. We looked at the blood eagle in the context of the death of Hálfdan Longlegs, son of the Norwegian king, at the hands of the Orkney Earl, Torf-Einnar, and in the light of the more famous death of King Aella of Northumbria at the hands of the sons of Ragnar Loðbrók. The ‘fatal walk’ was considered as described in Njals saga as the punishment for Broðir, the Scandinavian mercenary who reputedly killed King Brian Boru at the Battle of Clontarf. However, these are not the only examples of the two punishments (although it’s pretty close for the blood eagle). In fact, there is one tale in which both tortures are described that I didn’t tackle last time: Orms þáttr stórólfssonar. So that is our focus today, the bloody Tale of Orm Storolfson, the man who ‘blood-eagled’ a troll (or giant). But first a bit of a recap. Continue reading Blood Eagles and Fatal Walks Revisited: Orms þáttr stórólfssonar

A Scribe’s Life (4): Saxo Grammaticus

This article is part of an ongoing series of short biographies of medieval scribes.

Scribe: Saxo Grammaticus
Lived c. 1150 – 1220
Location: Lund, Denmark (modern Sweden/Scania)
Notable works:
Gesta Danorum – a history of Denmark from pre-history to the late 12th c.

Saxo Grammaticus was a Danish historian working at the same time as Snorri Sturluson (who we have already covered in this series). While his life was not the roller-coaster of political intrigue of Snorri’s, Saxo still hobnobbed with the elites and wrote history under some significant pressure from these patrons. Indeed, Saxo was in the employ of the archbishop of Lund, Absalon (apparently as his secretary according to Absalon’s will), and important enough to have appeared in a witness list on one of Absalon’s charters. Continue reading A Scribe’s Life (4): Saxo Grammaticus

Viking Women & Authority in the Icelandic Outlaw Sagas of Gisli and Grettir

There is nothing like a good outlaw story, they tend to contain some very enjoyable motifs – a trickster hero, feats of derring-do, vengeance, comeuppance and, usually, some interesting female characters. A bit of recent Twitter chatter (here and here) have brought to mind a couple of strong women in two Icelandic outlaw sagas – Auð Vesteinsdottir of Gísla saga Súrssonar and Thorbjorg ‘the Stout’ in Grettis saga. So today I thought we would take a look at these two women, and their roles in the male-dominated Icelandic society in which law, feud, and honour created and pursued outlaws. Strong female characters can be found all throughout Old Norse literature – it is one of the things that makes the sagas so pleasurable to read, and speaks to a culture in which women were able to exercise some personal agency. Auð and Thorbjorg are excellent examples of this agency and we will focus on them as such – the broader topic of women in Old Norse society would be a book-length study (which happily Jenny Jochens has provided). Continue reading Viking Women & Authority in the Icelandic Outlaw Sagas of Gisli and Grettir

A Case of Clerical Diplomacy – King Æthelstan and the Church in York

A man of no mean ambition, by 927 King Æthelstan found himself walking on untrodden ground, the ruler of much of what we would consider modern England. His grandfather, Alfred, had beaten back the vikings and united much of southern England (primarily Kent and Wessex) under his crown. Æthelstan’s father and aunt, Edward the Elder and Æthelflæd of Mercia, picked up where Alfred left off, further taking the fight to the viking invaders and settlers. These two brought East Anglia and the Five Boroughs of the Danelaw under the control of Mercia and Wessex, though upon Æthelflæd’s death Edward also absorbed Mercia into the widening Wessex hegemony. Æthelstan thus inherited the kingship of more territory than had ever before been held under a single Anglo-Saxon ruler (despite some apparent hiccups in doing so). And now, come the death of the Viking King of York, Sihtric, in 927, Æthelstan seized control of Northumbria and Viking York. Continue reading A Case of Clerical Diplomacy – King Æthelstan and the Church in York

Northern Ambitions – Æthelstan and the Annexation of York and Northumbria

On the death of Sihtric, the Danish King of York, in 927, King Æthelstan seized control of the Viking Kingdom of York. It was an event reasonably early in his reign, Æthelstan had only come to the throne of Mercia in 924 and of Wessex in 925. In 926 he had sought a peaceful co-existence with York and Northumbria, marrying his sister to Sihtric, but with the Dane dying less than a year later, things didn’t go according to plan.

Clearly, we’re back with Æthelstan today. Specifically, I’m going to look at his annexation of north-eastern England – York and the region of Northumbria. Chronologically, in previous articles I have worked through Æthelstan’s youth, and his (potentially) troubled succession to the throne of Wessex (I’ve also published an article on the reliability of our key source for these early years of Æthelstan’s life). So, we’re moving the narrative forward today. Originally, my intent was to do this via the medium of a charter (like our article on Æthelstan and Malmesbury Abbey). The grant of land in question, contained in a charter known as S407, gifts lands at a place called Amounderness to the church of St Peter, York. It provides interesting evidence of Æthelstan’s methods of territorial and political control. But I am going to save that for my next article. You see, I started writing up the context we needed in order to be able to understand the content and strategy behind that charter and, as it grew and grew, I realised that what I had written a full-length article looking at how Æthelstan assumed control of the northern territories without ever getting to the charter! So we’ll stick with the annexation of the Kingdom of York and territories today.

Continue reading Northern Ambitions – Æthelstan and the Annexation of York and Northumbria

Harbard the Ferryman & the Embarrassment of Thor – On the Presence of Odin or Loki in Hárbarðsljóð

Hárbarðsljóð is a flyting poem from the Poetic Edda, in which Thor is challenged to battle wits with a ferryman named Harbard (Hárbarðr) for passage across an inlet. Interestingly, Harbard gets the better of the exchange, ultimately denying Thor passage and sending him around the bay on land. By which we may surmise that Harbard is not a simple mortal to have bested a god in a flyting and confidently sent him away.

In fact, it is something of a trope within Old Norse/Icelandic mythological and legendary literature for gods to travel the world in disguise. There are possibly two figures within the Norse pantheon best known for this trick. Loki, variously appearing as a salmon, a mare and, possibly, an old woman, also noted for disguising himself and Thor as a bridesmaid and bride (respectively) in the famous wedding-feast sequence from Þrymskviða. Loki certainly has form for embarrassing Thor and, of all the gods, he is the most noted for flyting, courtesy of his exchange with the gods Asgard after gate-crashing a feast in Lokasenna. (Both Þrymskviða and Lokasenna also form part of the collection known as the Poetic Edda). Yet Loki’s disguises almost invariably involve shape-shifting. The old ferryman is far more in line with the trope of the Odinic wanderer – Odin-as-vagabond, wandering the worlds of Norse mythology and meddling. And, among his varied roles, Odin does perform as the god of (good) poetry. Cases have been made for Harbard being either of these gods in disguise, and that is what I intend to look at today – the elements of the poem that correlate with other representations of Odin and Loki and thus point to Harbard’s true identity. (Spoiler – it’s Odin). Continue reading Harbard the Ferryman & the Embarrassment of Thor – On the Presence of Odin or Loki in Hárbarðsljóð

Berserks, Revenants, and Ghost Seals – Surviving a Saga Christmas

Christmas in the Icelandic sagas is not always pleasant. Perhaps a shipload of berserks will arrive at your isolated farmstead intent on rape and slaughter. Or maybe the undead have become active, killing your shepherds or overrunning your mead-hall. Or, worst-case scenario, are trolls haunting the landscape and ghost seals haunting your floorboards? These are all tales I will be exploring today as we look at the dangers of a saga Christmas.

It is a curious thing that such ill-deeds occur on Christmas in the sagas and there appears to be two reasons for this. The first is didactic. Bad things happen to those who fail to celebrate the festival – for example, things do not end well for the berserks who decided to undertake a raid on Christmas Eve. The second follows from this, and reflects an inherent tension between Christianity and paganism that exists within many Icelandic sagas. The saga world is one in which Christianity was a relatively new player and, in these narratives, there is a recognition that paganism was still active in society, as was belief in creatures of pre-Christian origin, and there is an apparent desire to repress both. This is certainly true of the sagas we are looking at today: the events of both Eyrbyggja saga and Grettis saga occur within a Christianised or Christianising Iceland and, more importantly, the authors of both wrote within a thoroughly Christian milieu. Continue reading Berserks, Revenants, and Ghost Seals – Surviving a Saga Christmas

A Traitor’s Banquet – The Blood Feast of Roskilde

In 1146 Denmark descended into chaos and civil war upon the abdication of King Erik III (r. 1137 – 1146). He was the first Danish King to abdicate and, with no legitimate son to inherit the throne, the kingdom did not have the political stability to ensure a smooth succession. Sources written after the civil war, in the knowledge of the turmoil his departure created, judge Erik as a weak and short-sighted ruler. We however will not judge him too harshly. After abdicating Erik took himself off to a monastery and was dead within months – it seems likely he was incapacitated by illness, and it was this that forced him from the throne.

Enter Sweyn III, Cnut V, and Waldemar I. All three men were of direct descent within the Danish royal line, and each had the backing of a faction of the Danish elites as they sought to become sole king of Denmark. The support each enjoyed was legitimising and, in separate ceremonies, all three were crowned king – to this day, despite the fact that they ascended the throne in the same year and reigned concurrently, they are all considered Kings of Denmark. The status quo of three independent kings of Denmark lasted a decade, the kings variously allying or warring as they sought to gain control of the kingdom. Invariably it ended in treachery, at the infamous Blood Feast of Roskilde. The three men had arrived at an agreement to split the kingdom among themselves and met in celebration for a feast at Roskilde in 1157. By the end of the night one king would be a traitor, one would be a corpse, and one would be in exile. The youngest of these men, a noble son who would go on to become *spoiler* King Waldemar the Great, does not wish us to forget this injustice, the greatest treachery of the civil war. Continue reading A Traitor’s Banquet – The Blood Feast of Roskilde

Creating a Saint – King Edmund the Martyr & the Great Viking Army

Riddled with spears, clinging to his faith, King Edmund of East Anglia was beheaded on 20 November 869 at the orders of Ivar Ragnarsson ‘the Boneless.’ Or at least that is what the tenth-century Passio Sancti Edmundi, Regis et Martyris of Abbo of Fleury would have us believe (note that I am using the Old English redaction of the text by Ælfric of Eynsham as my source). Unfortunately, as great as story as this is, it is just that, as story. The martyrdom of Edmund is an excellent example of late Anglo-Saxon hagiography and, particularly, of the cults of Anglo-Saxon Royal saints I have written about previously (Æthelberht of East Anglia, Kenelm of Mercia, Edward the Martyr). Yet there is something different about Edmund – Æthelberht, Kenelm, and Edward were all young kings, killed in their youth and innocence as a result of political machinations and their naivety. Though they do not suffer what is traditionally considered a martyr’s death – death in defence of their Christian faith – they are accorded a martyr’s death by virtue of their innocence. This ambiguity does not exist in Ælfric’s account of Edmund’s death. Edmund, according to Ælfric, tells Ivar’s messenger, who was sent to demand the capitulation of the East Anglian king: I will not defile my clean hands in your foul blood, because I follow Christ who sets us such an example; and I will happily be killed by you, if God ordains it so. Edmund intended to die a martyr’s death at the hands of the heathen vikings, and so he did. Continue reading Creating a Saint – King Edmund the Martyr & the Great Viking Army

Monsters and the Monstrous in the Sagas – The Saga of Grettir the Strong

Monsters and otherworldly powers are a real danger to the Icelandic saga-hero. Many an Icelander has to deal with ghosts, with trolls, with the undead, or contest with witch’s curses. There are few who have to deal with more monsters than Grettir Ásmundarson (also know as ‘the Strong’), a historical outlaw with a mythologised past. Today I am going to look at three episodes of Grettir’s fighting monsters as he works to clear Iceland of its monstrous inhabitants. Grettir is not always loved or loveable, but he performs a function in a newly Christianised Iceland that other men do not seem able to perform. Grettir alone stands against to monsters. Or rather, Grettir is the only one who seeks them out, as we shall see in each case – the fight against the undead mound-dweller Kar the Old; the famous battle with the revenant Glam; and a fight to the death with a troll-wife and her ‘friend.’ And these are but a sampling of the monsters and monstrous available in Grettis saga! I will be looking at some of the similarities between the tales, the function of the tropes, and what I think the author is up to. However, my main focus today will be on storytelling and, while this is a rather long article, I anticipate it will be an entertaining one! Continue reading Monsters and the Monstrous in the Sagas – The Saga of Grettir the Strong

Blood Eagles, Fatal Walks, and Hung Meat – Assessing Viking Torture

An act of torture is rarely an act of finality in feud cultures – the family of the tortured man, whether he survives or not, will rarely allow such a deed to stand without vengeance. For that reason, it is rare to find examples of torture in saga literature (excluding perhaps the King’s sagas – that Olaf Tryggvason could be a bit intense). This means that, where saga authors do relate occasions of deliberate mutilation, they stand out within the literature and gain a certain amount of infamy.

So today’s is a brief(ish) post, a kind of follow up to our article on the body in law, looking at the logistics of some of the more famous acts of brutality from saga literature (both from a physical and literary perspective): the ‘fatal walk’ of the Viking Broðir in the aftermath of the Battle of Clontarf, Hrafnkel Freysgoði and his men being strung up by their heels and, of course, the infamous blood-eagle. What we will see in these instances of torture is that, even where the act is physically possible, the sheer unlikeliness of the deed and the manner in which these violent interludes are deployed by saga authors recommends them more as literary tropes than genuine deeds. Which is not to say that brutality did not occur in the Viking settlement cultures of Iceland, Ireland, and Britain during the period, or even that these accounts have origins in cultural memories that evolved over time but, in this article, I want to focus on the acts as written.

Disclaimer: I will only be as graphic as what is written in the saga texts, but there are descriptions of disembowelment, evisceration and bodily torture.

Continue reading Blood Eagles, Fatal Walks, and Hung Meat – Assessing Viking Torture

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.’

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

Sweyn Forkbeard, Olaf Tryggvason, and the Kingship of Norway

Dressed in armour, watching his fleet fall to his Danish rival, King Olaf I Tryggvason of Norway threw himself into the sea, sinking to his death and denying his enemies the pleasure of killing him. The death of Olaf (r. 995 – 1000) at the Battle of Svolder returned the Norwegian crown to Sweyn Forkbeard the king of Denmark (r. 986 – 1014), and the Danish hegemony. The Norwegian crown had fallen under the tenuous control of the Danish Kings c. 971 during the reign of Sweyn’s father, Harald Bluetooth. Thus, when Sweyn seized the throne of Denmark at the expense of his father in 986, he also ostensibly assumed the throne of Norway. Continue reading Sweyn Forkbeard, Olaf Tryggvason, and the Kingship of Norway

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

By 1028, Cnut the Great had brought England, Denmark, and Norway into a vast North Sea hegemony under his kingship. It was an unrivalled achievement that granted Cnut the political clout to deal with the Holy Roman Emperor and Pope as equals. (Despite this, his legacy in the English-speaking world is as an eccentric who attempted to halt the waves – go figure.) Yet only fourteen years earlier, Cnut had been a landless Danish Prince, fleeing England upon the death of his father and before the wrath of the vengeful Anglo-Saxon King Æthelred II (the Unready). Continue reading Danish Invasion, Viking Violence, and Cnut’s Mutilation of Hostages at Sandwich