HUNDING'S SAGA - 43: BAD TIDINGS, Gunnlaug's Passing

The very end. Skagen, blasted by winds from the North Sea and the Skagerrak, point of navigation for turning south to the Kattegat
The very end. Skagen, blasted by winds from the North Sea and the Skagerrak, point of navigation for turning south to the Kattegat | Source
Braendings Slange comes about around Skagen
Braendings Slange comes about around Skagen
Knut's 'empire'- he kept an iron grip on his kingdom across the seas
Knut's 'empire'- he kept an iron grip on his kingdom across the seas
Jorvik's riverfront trade provided a centre for crafts and imports as well as exports to other kingdoms
Jorvik's riverfront trade provided a centre for crafts and imports as well as exports to other kingdoms
Skagen, 'the skaw' and 'the northernmost point of Jylland, Grenen
Skagen, 'the skaw' and 'the northernmost point of Jylland, Grenen
Grenen's wide strand faces the Skagerrak
Grenen's wide strand faces the Skagerrak

Hunding took his leave from Knut and Eirik in the fore-year.

Gunnlaug was nowhere to be seen.

'She may have gone to the kitchens to seek food', Knut offered helpfully. 'She has been feeling hungrier lately. I cannot think what has come over her'.

The king stood beside Hunding, trying to hide a wide grin. He wondered if Hunding knew what he hinted at. Eirik of Hladir raised his eyebrows, thinking his fellow Dane a little backward. Tofig took his leave, telling them all he needed to rid himself of the morning's ale,

'I think I have left something in the room I shared with Skuli'.

'By all means, Tofig', Hunding nodded. 'We will see you at the foreshore'.

'I have to go elsewhere', Skuli was better at hiding his mirth.

'What is the matter with everyone', Hunding asked, hurt than they might be laughing at him, 'Have I said something funny?'

'No, Hunding', Knut rested an arm on his shoulder blade. 'No-one is laughing at you. You have to know, however, that Gunnlaug is having your child. You were luckyJarl Ulf came last winter, soon after you and she were alone. He will think the child is his'.

'He may not have had time -' Eirik began, to be stopped by Knut before he could finish.

'He did have time, I am told', Knut grinned broadly. 'Hunding is safe for now'.

Eirik laughed out aloud, almost doubling up, then straightened and warned Hunding,

'Just hope the child doesn't run to you when Ulf is around!'

Knut and Eirik both laughed out aloud. Gunnlaug showed at the gate just then and asked what it was they were laughing about.

'Oh, nothing', her brother looked at Hunding. 'You two can take your farewells now. I hope your crossing goes well, Hunding. Give my greetings to your friends, Aesc, Ealdwin and Odd. Tell them I shall be thinking of them when next I am in Wintunceaster'.

With that Knut pulled on Eirik's right sleeve and they left for the foreshore to look over Braendings Slange one last time before she sailed. Knut had become fond of the ship, having spent many a day on her afterdeck with Hunding at the steering oar around the coast of West Seaxe and East Aengla. Hunding was left to take his fond farewell of Gunnlaug.

'You will think of me on your crossing - and afterward?' Gunnlaug looked into his eyes.

'Why do you ask?' Hunding looked down at the ground, suddenly shy.

'I know you men', Gunnlaug clutched at his right sleeve. 'Unless you are married to a woman, you will forever let your thoughts wander'.

'I will not!' Hunding blurted.

'Liar!' she punched him on his left shoulder, her hand still clutching his sleeve. She laughed, 'Fear not, I will not give you away. Believe me, Hunding, I will think of you all the time'.

'What will you call the child?' Hunding asked, her hands still on him. She brightened, happy that he did care after all.

'I do not know yet', Gunnlaug answered truthfully. She had not thought. Suddenly she was tearful and hugged Hunding tightly. He felt awkward. Here he stood with a young woman, who was another man's wife and yet she had welcomed him into her bed, given herself to him. He hoped Jarl Ulf would never learn it was he who was the child's father. 'I wish you did not have to sail to Jorvik!'

'I shall be back before winter', Hunding told her.

'I hope you will be, too', a young lad told him. Harthaknut,Knut's son by Ymme - erstwhile queen to Aethelred - stood looking at them, still hugging. 'To see what Jarl Ulf says about you being the child's father'.

'You would not tell him', his aunt scolded. 'Your father is a good friend to Hunding'.

'I am also a good friend to Jarl Ulf!' Harthaknut bridled. 'Why would I not tell him?'

'I could not stop you', Gunnlaug sniffed, 'but you have to think, that you need friends and Jarl Ulf has been unwise in his choice of friends'.

'What do you mean?' Harthaknut snapped,

'Your father and he have fought more than once', Gunnlaug recalled. 'Not on the same side'

'He is still my friend', Harthaknut mumbled..

'Think only that one day you will have to rule this kingdom on your own, nephew. Jarl Ulf may be old and feeble by then. He will no longer be able to guide you. The Svear and Norsemen will press against you even harder then. Eirik of Hladir may not be with us, either. If he is, he will be unable to go out and fight side-by-side with you. Hunding may be a good friend to me now, he could be to you, too, one day'.

Harthaknut, unable to think of an answer slunk away to the hall as his father and Eirik strode back.

'Hunding, still here?' Knut smiled. 'Not that I wish you away, but the tide will not wait'.

'I was about to go', Hunding kissed Gunnlaug on her right cheek and made to leave. She clutched at him with one hand and drew his mouth to hers with the other, and kissed him on the mouth.

Knut and Eirik looked away, then back again when Hunding bade them farewell.

'You still have breath to speak?' Eirik laughed and slapped Hunding's back. Knut took his right hand between both his and looked him in the eye.

'Were Jarl Ulf no longer with us, Hunding, I would give you his lands', Knut took one hand away and gave Hunding a light punch to his chest. 'I mean that. You have been a truer friend than he!'.

Hunding thought about the farewell both Gunnlaug and Knut had given him, the feast on the night before, the oaths of friendship. He also thought back on what Harthaknut had told him and Gunnlaug, of his friendship for Jarl Ulf. He wondered whether Gunnlaug's nephew did tell Ulf when the jarl next showed in Roskilde. He was still thinking about them, leaning on the steering oar, looking up at the clouds above Jorvik when he saw someone hastening towards him.

'What gives?' Hunding asked. 'By your look you do not have good tidings.

'Thegn Ingjald has sent me, Master Hunding. He bids you pay him your respects, and he has something to tell you, about news from the king'.

'News from the king?' Hunding said the words again, fearing the worst. What can have happened - perhaps Harthaknut told Jarl Ulf that he - Hunding Hrothulfsson - was the father of Gunnlaug's child? 'I have matters to see to, tell the thegn. I shall be there shortly after you'.

Hunding's thoughts whirred like a bee in his head. What was it he was to learn. Would Wulfwila be there, at the thegn's hall.

The tidings were as bad as they could be. He reeled when Thegn Ingjald passed on Knut's words...

'Gunnlaug died soon after the child was born, of blood loss. She asked for you before she died, Hunding, to love her child as would an uncle'. An uncle? So Harthaknut had kept it to himself, that he and Gunnlaug were lovers. He had listened to her warning and heeded it, friendship with the jarl notwithstanding! Jarl Ulf must have been there when she died, grief-stricken as was Hunding now. 'The king wishes you to sail to Roskilde as soon as you are able, he says in his letter, as he has much to tell you. When can you sail?'

'I will sail before the next Sabbath day, Thegn Ingjald', Hunding told him, stunned. What could Knut have to tell him that he could not write of?

Thegn Ingjald had the man brought forward who brought word of Gunnlaug's death after childbirth.

'Brother Wilfrid will give you a letter from me, in answer to the king's. Go with him. Brother Wilfrid', the thegn turned in his seat to a monk who stood close behind him, 'write a letter from me in answer to the king. Seal it and hand it over after I have undersigned it'.

The monk nodded and left with the Dane in tow, and Thegn Ingjald turned to Hunding,

'You must have been dear to the king's sister that she asked for you on her deathbed?'

'We were friends, Thegn Ingjald', was all Hunding was willing to answer. Wulfwila looked up from her tapestry and smiled warmly. Did she know - could she know more?

The crossing was stormy, wind crossing the path of the ship at a bad angle. The beitass was full out to catch all the wind, yet hopefully would not pull them over. When Jylland's coast came into sight Hunding crossed himself without knowing, thankful Njord had delivered him safely... thus far, at least.

He turned to Skuli, his hands tight on the steering oar, and grinned. Hunding's hair flapped about over his left forehead, the wind seeming to want to tear it out,

'Soon we shall be in the Skagerrak', Hunding called out across the wind.

'Our woes are not yet over!' Skuli yelled back, pointing astern with one hand, to the south-west. A dark cloud raced after them. As if they did not have enough with the raging wind, now they would be sore-tried by rain!

True enough heavy, drenching rain followed them around Skagen, darkness looming to the south-east. Night would soon be with them.

'We must put in!' Tofig had pushed his way into the wind from where he had been seated, leaning against the ship side out of the worst of the wind.

'True, and hopefully this will blow itself out before dawn!' Hunding turned towards the driving rain to see Skuli struggle with the steering oar. Tofig pushed against the wind again to join Skuli, to help hold the steering oar steady whilst they came about around Skagen, into the lee of the naes, the nose of Jylland that pointed towards the island of Marstrand.

'We can put in to the south-west of here, towards the Limfjord', Skuli offered as they came around into calmer waters, 'towards Aalborg'.

'It will be dark by then, surely?' Tofig looked over one shoulder at Skuli.

'Trust me', came the answer.

Came the morning, Braendings Slange rocked in the chill waters of the Limfjord mouth. The crew made ready to leave, finishing their morning meal - a snack, really - whilst they stowed their sleeping bags and food bags.

'Are we ready?' Hunding called out. The wind had died down, but the rain still came in steadily from the south-west. They rowed out, away from the shore, and when Hunding felt the wind strengthen had the sail lowered. They were borne past Anholt and soon the northern shore of Sjaelland came into sight. Hunding gave the order to run out the oars and, 'Lower sail'.

When the ship ran onto the foreshore there were men waiting at the head of the strand to take Hunding to the king. He, Tofig and Herjolf strode behind Knut's men to the king's garth.

'Hunding', Knut welcomed him warmly, shook hands with Tofig and nodded towards Herjolf. 'We will go and see my sister Astrid. She is looking after Ivar now he no longer needs suckling. She and Jarl Ulf are now wedded. The poor fellow was beside himself with grief at Gunnlaug's passing'.

'I would think so', Hunding nodded, thankful no-one had - yet - told the jarl of him lying with his wife. He thought of Harthaknut, wondering what had entered his thoughts to keep silent about what he knew of his aunt's love for Hunding.

'He will be with us shortly. Meanwhile, what news from Northanhymbra?' Knut had ale brought into the great room for his guests. 'I understand Siward has the earldom firmly in his grasp?'

'I have as yet to meet Earl Siward - the child's name is Ivar?' Hunding's thoughts switched suddenly.

'It is indeed Ivar. Would you like to meet your nephew?' Knut asked, tongue-in-cheek. 'He looks much like his father'.

'I would like to see the lad', Hunding nodded and took a draught of ale. Knut signalled to one of his maids.

'Can you have my nephew Ivar brought to me?'

'He is asleep, my Lord King', the young maid reddened at being spoken to by her king, as yet unused to being so close to him.

'Shall we go and look?' Knut looked at Hunding and Eirik, who had entered the hall on hearing Hunding was back. 'He is a wondrous child to behold!'

'By all means', Hunding set down his beaker and followed Knut to the nursery.

The king's sister Astrid was in the room with him and put two fingers to her mouth,

'He has just been fed, my Lord'.

'Have you met the child's uncle, Hunding?' Knut asked her quietly.

'I have seen him about', Astrid answered coyly, not looking straight at Hunding. She must have known he was the father, Hunding thought, but she would not say anything to Ulf, either. The clan was close-knit! 'His - Ivar's - father was here not long ago to see him'.

'Jarl Ulf is about?' Knut's brows rose. 'I should like to see him'.

'Your wish is my command, brother', Astrid looked warily at Knut, and sideways at Hunding, who gazed moist-eyed at his son, a last reminder of his time with Gunnlaug. Inwardly he was racked with grief.

Next - 44: Jarl Ulf

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Glossary and geography:

'g' in mid-word pronounced as 'y' (or swallowed), 'Skagerrak'; 'J' as 'y' - Jarl; 'ae' as short 'e' - Aengle; 'ce' as 'ch' as in 'Wintunceaster', 'Winchester'; 'y' as German 'umlaut' 'u' (ue) - Jylland;

East Aengla - East Anglia; Jarl - Danish equiv. of 'earl', introduced by Knut in 1016; Jylland - Jutland, westernmost Danish mainland territory;Kattegat - south from Skagerrak, seaway between Jutland and Sweden; Limfjord - sea inlet of NW Jutland; Roskilde - Danish royal seat and capital; Skagerrak - seaway northward between Jutland and Norway, westward from Sweden; West Seaxe - Wessex; Wintunceaster - Winchester, Wessex (now Hampshire);


The nation state is born. The era of Frankish expansion was set to engulf Denmark. King Godred established defences across southern Jylland (Jutland), the Danevirke. Gorm 'the Old' consolidated and Harald 'Blue-tooth' brought defences to a new level with ring forts built around the kingdom that Sven 'Forkbeard' used to train his men prior to his invasion of England in 1014. Mints were established to distribute coinage and steps were taken by Harald to usher in Christianity by the beginning of the 11th Century as a 'state religion'.

Jutland (or Jylland in Danish)...

The long peninsula that points north toward Norway and western Sweden divides the North Sea from the Baltic, with the Skagerrak between Denmark and Norway leading east into the Kattegat. In the first third of the 11th Century, during Knut's reign the territories on both sides of the Skagerrak and the Kattegat were under his rule. It was effectively an empire that stretched from England in the west to South-western Sweden, up to Iceland and Western Norway.

Knut died in 1035 his 'empire' fell apart, Norway finding independence under Olaf Haraldsson's son Magnus' rule. The territories in South-western Sweden still held to Knut's son, Harthaknut, and England came under the regency of Harold 'Harefoot', latterly Harold I until shortly before Harthaknut found it possible to come to England to take the kingship from Harold. Around that time, 1040 Harold died suddenly, leaving the way clear for Harthaknut to claim the throne. Harold was disinterred and thrown into the Thames, where a Danish fisherman netted his corpse and had him re-interred in the church of St Clement (rebuilt after the Great Fire of 1666 by Christopher Wren).

Harthaknut offered to share the throne with his half-brother Eadward (Emma/Ymme was mother to both, Eadward by Aethelred and Harthaknut by Knut. At a wedding feast given by a nobleman, Osgod 'Clapa' (after whom Clapham in SW London was named) for his daughter Harthaknut choked - probably laughing, drinking, eating, talking excitedly to an old friend not seen for some time - and died several days later. The way was clear for Eadward to reign on his own. Problems arose through his favouritism towards the Normans at his court, the rest you may know well from the series 'GODWIN'S CLAN' here on Hub-pages (see my profile).

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