VIKING - 8: NORTHLAND CLASHES - Fall of Kings; Jomsvikings, Berserkers and 'Wolf-Heads' Band Together Under Oath

"Ask you must, and answer well to be called shrewd. One may know what you keep from others, never even a second. If three are told soon a thousand will know".

Havamal

Sea battles featured strongly in the Viking Age

The battle of Hafrsfjord, AD 872 in which Harald Harfagri (Fairhair) defeated an alliance of minor chieftains and petty kings to become king overall of the West Norse (Norway)
The battle of Hafrsfjord, AD 872 in which Harald Harfagri (Fairhair) defeated an alliance of minor chieftains and petty kings to become king overall of the West Norse (Norway)
Endgame AD 1000 - Olaf Tryggvason, cornered at the prow of his ship, stepped fully armed and in his mailcoat onto the ship wall and dropped into the sea at Svold in the Baltic. He is said not even to have looked up as he sank
Endgame AD 1000 - Olaf Tryggvason, cornered at the prow of his ship, stepped fully armed and in his mailcoat onto the ship wall and dropped into the sea at Svold in the Baltic. He is said not even to have looked up as he sank | Source
At the Holy River AD1026 in Skaane Knut's Danes and Englishmen fought an alliance of Swedes and Norsemen led by Anund Jakob, Olaf Haraldsson and Jarl Ulf. Godwin's Englishmen impressed Knut so much he made Godwin earl and gave him a sister in wedlock
At the Holy River AD1026 in Skaane Knut's Danes and Englishmen fought an alliance of Swedes and Norsemen led by Anund Jakob, Olaf Haraldsson and Jarl Ulf. Godwin's Englishmen impressed Knut so much he made Godwin earl and gave him a sister in wedlock
In AD 1062 Harald Sigurdsson fought Svein Estrithsson at the mouth of the River Nis on the coast of Halland (now Sweden). Although he won Svein escaped and two years later Harald acknowledged Svein's kingship
In AD 1062 Harald Sigurdsson fought Svein Estrithsson at the mouth of the River Nis on the coast of Halland (now Sweden). Although he won Svein escaped and two years later Harald acknowledged Svein's kingship | Source
The Battle of Svold where Olaf Tryggvason stepped overboard from the 'Ormen Lange' ('Long Serpent') in his full armour
The Battle of Svold where Olaf Tryggvason stepped overboard from the 'Ormen Lange' ('Long Serpent') in his full armour
Hafrsfjord - victory by King Harald 'Fairhair' over a coalition of minor nobles
Hafrsfjord - victory by King Harald 'Fairhair' over a coalition of minor nobles

Viking clashes tended to be ship-borne warfare within home territory,

as in the Battle of Hafrsfjord in AD872, Svold in AD1000, Holy River AD 1026 and at the mouth of the River Nis on the coast of Halland in AD1062. The exception was at Stiklestad in AD1030.

However, even though on water, by cabling ships together the confrontations were almost as if on dry land - aside from when Olaf Tryggvason stepped overboard fully armed and vanished below the fjord's surface. The decks were floating 'stages', then, upon which the players 'acted' out their heroic roles. Ships might be strengthened at the prow, with plates against accidental ramming. The masts were normally taken down and all jockeying for position during fighting was under oar power. It happened from time to time that a ship's oars might be sheared off by another ship's prow, but this was not normally done on purpose. The 'diekplus' as it was known was a hazard, not a tactical manoeuvre.

Central to the battle was that ships rowed up to one another, grappling hooks were thrown and crews would haul the vessels together to make a sort of platform or pontoon bridge. As many ships as could get near were held to the main battle 'platform' and secured for the attack.

A hail of arrows, spears, iron-clad posts and even slingshot would be the fore-runner of an attack. Oarsmen were shielded, as they were important in getting the ships into line. Ships often carried stones in reserve for dropping onto rivals' vessels, to crash through their decks and sink them.

For raids ships were run up onto the strand or an island, or even on a river-bend, making ramparts to use as a defensive wall and astockades were often built as make-shift strongholds from which to raid the surrounding territory. Lines of communication were maintained by leaders with foresight to ensure against surprise attack. The camps within stockades could be used as refuges should the local inhabitants get over the initial shock of an attack before the raiders were ready to pull out again. Rarely were they taken completely off-guard and could pull away again within a short time if raiding proved un-fruitful.


Snorri Sturlusson wrote accounts of the Norse kings' lives and achievements in the Heimskringla. Olaf Tryggvason was converted by the hermit Peter on the Scilly Islands. From then on he set out to convert his native Norway. That was his folly, and the lesson was final as he learned at Svold near the southern Baltic shore.

JOMSVIKINGS, Jomsborg and Loyalty to the Silver Chests

Reconstruction of the landward gateway, Jomsborg stronghold
Reconstruction of the landward gateway, Jomsborg stronghold | Source
The Jomsviking fleet at Svold
The Jomsviking fleet at Svold | Source
Jomsviking warriors
Jomsviking warriors | Source
Jomsborg combat training
Jomsborg combat training | Source

FELLOWSHIP AND MUTUAL INTEREST, Mercenary Corps

A feature of the Viking era was the springing-up of self-motivated and self-supporting brotherhoods of warriors. These were known as 'Viking-Lag' (pron:'Vikking-Law'), tightly-bound associations. They were confederations living under strict laws and supervision, not looking for conquest but hiring themselves out to heads of state for a financial return, or 'sold' (the origins of 'soldier [of fortune] that found their level in the Thirty Year's War half a millennium after the Vikings 'peaked').

Most widely-known, feared and respected were the Jomsvikings or Jomsvikingelag. Little is recorded about them but they built a fortress - the Jomsborg - at Jumne (now probably Wolin on the Baltic coast of Poland) near the mouth of the River Oder.

Harald Gormsson, 'Blaatand' (pron: 'Blotan', 'Bluetooth') turned a blind eye whilst they behaved - it is thought he founded them himself, but his son Svein Haraldsson, 'Tveskegg' ('Forkbeard') had them outlawed. A tower guarded the ship access, iron gates that barred the way in to a small haven said to hold three ships at any time, enough to carry a decent-sized warband. One story has it that Harald encouraged their free-booting and Jomsborg was probably garrisoned by Wends (Poles) led by Danes. At the Battle of Svold one of the eleven ships was manned wholly by Wends. The 'Jomsviking Saga' tells of Palnatoki, foster father of Svein 'Forkbeard' establishing the stronghold as a solely Viking base. Accounts of its origins vary, but most agree that at their zenith at the end of the 10th Century the leader was Jarl Sigvald, the son of a minor king of Skaane known as 'Strut Harald'.

Rules were very strict. Membership was limited to men of considerable strength between the ages of eighteen and fifty, expected to co-habit peaceably and not start any hostility between fellows for any reason. Showing fear in battle was discouraged, and fleeing from a foe of even strength was out of the question. The leader had the last word over blood-feuds that carried over from beyond the walls of the Jomsborg. Jomsvikings were expected to avenge the deaths of brothers-in-arms as if there were a blood-tie between them. All takings were collected centrally to be handed out evenly amongst the members. No man could be away from the fortress without permission for more than three days, and no women were allowed to stay within the fortress. Neither women nor children were to be taken captive. Anyone breaking the rules would be ejected from the brotherhood forthwith.

"Each summer they went out and made war in new lands, earned great renown and were seen as the greatest warriors; few were thought to be their peers at this time", the Jomsviking Saga tells us. They were well sought after. Nevertheless, looking behind the myth we see that each campaign in which they fought turned out badly for the hirer, such as when Styrbjorn Starki fought against his uncle Eirik 'the Victorious' at Fyrisvold near Uppsala. The ending proved calamitous for him. Svein 'Forkbeard' in his attack on Jarl Hakon of Norway was beaten at Hjoerungavag around AD990, and Olaf Tryggvason was cornered at Svold by the Swedes and Danes in AD1000. In each case Jarl Sigvald cut and left when the outlook darkened for his men. Yet in the Saga of King Olaf Tryggvason he is seen as a prudent, ready-witted man (in other words a quick-thinker who hates to lose his men in what he sees as a lost cause).

King Magnus 'the Good', Harald Sigurdsson's nephew, destroyed Jomsborg in AD1043, 'killing many, burning and levelling both the stronghold and the land around, wreaking the worst havoc'. The core of the membership had disbanded a lot earlier, perhaps shortly after the death of Jarl Sigvald around AD1010. Survivors of Magnus' attack are said to have left with Sigvald's brothers Heming and Thorkell 'Havi' (The Tall) for England with Svein 'Forkbeard' in AD1009. In time they would become the core of Knut's 'Tinglith', his royal bodyguard that became his 'Huscarlar' (huscarls - still the king's bodyguard in England under Harold II at Caldbec Hill near Hastings) .

Snorri Sturlusson's account of the Jomsvikings' saga, an agreement with a king, a 'blind eye' in exchange for a share in the spoils before King Magnus attacked their stronghold at Jumne (now Wolin in Poland) on the southern Baltic coast. Palnatoki and the survivors of his 'association' went east to seek their fortunes as mercenaries there.

The Saga of the Jomsvikings

SOCIETY'S OUTSIDERS - Berserkers and Wolf's-Heads (or Wolf-Coats)

Before Christianity in the northern kingdoms berserkers were thought of being possessed of supernatural strength. They were outsiders who fought for a king or jarl, but other than their paymasters or leaders they were left alone.

In battle they rushed on unarmoured (bar-serk, without mail-shirt) as might mad dogs or ravenous wolves. They bit their shield-rims and were as strong as bears or wild boar and could kill with one blow. Neither fire nor iron could harm them. This was what was called the 'berserk fury', so the Ynglinga Tal (Yngling Saga) says.

These days we say of anyone in a rage as having gone berserk. The berserk fury would have been some sort of mental illness, perhaps linked to a belief in shape-changing (or lycanthropy). The king's champion Bodvar Bkarki in the Saga of Hrolf Kraki lapsed into a trance and 'became' the bear. He was in this state when one of his friends saw him and demanded to know why he was asleep when his king was in danger; thus King Hrolf lost the battle against the Svear warlock king Adhils. It may even be put down to epilepsy, where the victim is unaware of what is happening to or around them. There was some kind of gene passed down through generations.

A chronicler tells of a man whose twelve sons were all 'stricken' by the condition. 'It was their habit if they were with comrades that when the fury came over them they went ashore and wrestled with trees or boulders, as otherwise they might kill one of their own'.

The Volsunga Saga raises the spectre of shape-changing, in the Sigmund and his son put on wolf-skins, communicated in the manner of wolves and howled when they attacked. Wolves and bears are the creatures most often linked with berserkers, for whom the expression 'ulf hednar' (wolf-coats or wolfskin-clad ones). 'Berserker' was thought originally to mean 'bear-shirt' and not 'bare-of-shirt'. 'Hrafnsmal' (Lay of Hrafn) paints berserks as very brave - if not foolhardy - and never drew back from a fight. Together with being seen by Odin as of particular worth this view of berserks meant they were to be seen in the retinue of great warrior kings, fighting at the head of their armies. They were not known for being sharp-witted, however, not very bright. In one sea battle at Svold in AD1000 some of Olaf Tryggvason's berserkers forgot they were fighting at sea and in their mad rush to attack the enemy fell overboard and drowned. In later Christian Iceland the berserk fury was outlawed, berserks being seen as 'ungodly freaks' whom the sagas (written in later years by men of the cloth) tell us were overbearing bullies, cut down by heroes of Christian persuasion or learning.

Viking Berserkers

Some say berserkers did not exist, then how come references to them emerge time and time again in sagas? In pre-Christian times they were employed to frighten the opposition, unless the opposition also had berserkers. Then they would try to intimidate one another, howl, snarl and snap like wolves before hurling themselves mindlessly at their rivals. In the saga of Hrolf Kraki both the Danish king Hrolf and the Svear (Swedish) king Adhils had berserkers. There is no reason to suppose other minor kings had no berserkers. Berserker means 'without mail' or sark, mailshirt, i.e., 'bare serk'., In other words someone who went unprotected into battle. After their stints they were physical and mental wrecks and had to 'tank up' again to regain their composure.

SONS OF THE STORM, Lords of Battle

Wolfshead rites? As these characters were more myth than real, who knows how they got up courage
Wolfshead rites? As these characters were more myth than real, who knows how they got up courage | Source
Lewis chessman berserker bites his shield -  this is the accepted notion of the berserker,  who brought himself to fever pitch before a battle and afterwards was left shaking like a leaf (a bit like your heavy metal rock stars of the 1970s)
Lewis chessman berserker bites his shield - this is the accepted notion of the berserker, who brought himself to fever pitch before a battle and afterwards was left shaking like a leaf (a bit like your heavy metal rock stars of the 1970s) | Source
This is the 'romantic' version - all 'berserker' meant was someone who didn't wear a mailshirt to battle - foolhardy to many, feared by most, tackled by few
This is the 'romantic' version - all 'berserker' meant was someone who didn't wear a mailshirt to battle - foolhardy to many, feared by most, tackled by few | Source

Vikings, Wolves of War - the way we largely see the Norsemen. It's dramatic, it's colourful and it's eventful. The early days saw them mercilessly fall on their foes. Their eyes were on the prize. However they achieved that prize justified the means. Riches were to be had, a lifestyle to maintain. The only way of doing that was by going 'a-Viking' = raiding. Where better for a Dane than with Ubbi Ragnarsson and his brothers to make a name for himself on the field of battle against Wessex?.

Next - 9: Missionary Raider

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