Danelaw Years - 7: Danes at Home, Viking Age Kingdom Over the Waves
An emerging power in Scandinavia. Harald Gormsson, 'Blue-tooth' reigned from Jellinge in the late 10th Century
The earliest we hear of Denmark as a state is the reference to 'Denemearc' in the preface to the Early English 'Orosius' as written around AD890.
'Denimarca' was used in the Chronicle of Regino of Pruem, last recorded in AD908. The earliest reference in Scandinavia dates from the mid-10th Century with 'tanmarkaR' or 'Danmarkar' appearing on a rune memorial erected at Jellinge in Jylland (Jutland) by King Gorm 'the Old' to his dead queen Thyre. Denmark came into existence several hundred years earlier.
Denmark has a larger ratio of quality growing land than its neighbours and has long been known as the 'granary of Scandinavia'. Through this lucky accident of nature Denmark was the wealthiest, most densely populated and politically advanced society in the region. The beginnings of the political unity of the Danish provinces can be tracked back through the Roman Iron Age (around AD1-400) and the subsequent German Iron Age (around AD400-800).
Angantyr, earliest known king of the Danes reigned in the early 8th Century, although the size of his kingdom is unknown. It is likely the Danevirke fortifications, the Samsoe Canal and the founding of a market at Ribe (central western Jylland) all date to his reign. By the onset of the 9th Century the Danes had a kingdom that encompassed all its present dominions aside from Bornholm. It has lost land to neighbours, like Gotaland, Halland and Skaane to Sweden and Slesvig as well as Holsten (ancestral lands of the Aengle = English) to the Germans.
In the early middle ages Skaane and Halland were the Danes' 'mark' or march, which might be the origin of the kingdom's name. Another view is that the southern boundary of Jylland facing the Franks/Germans was the reason for its name. Danish kings also ruled over the Vestfold (in modern Norway). However this kingdom was by no means settled in its borders with its neighbours. Following King Godred's death in AD810 the kingdom suffered civil strife, with the succession in question for two decades. In the first quarter of the 9th CenturyHoerik was the only one who could give the kingdom a period of peace. After his overthrow in AD854 the kingdom was submerged in political unrest once more. No detailed knowledge is available about the oft-divided kingdom for a hundred years.During the first three decades of the 10th Century at least part was ruled by the Svear (Swedish) Olaf dynasty.
Around the mid-10th Century Gorm 'the Old' founded a new, energetic dynasty. His son Harald 'Blaatand' (pron. 'Blotan', 'Bluetooth') brought the kingdom together and built a chain of forts such as Trelleborg and Aggersborg to re-establish direct royal governance around the islands and in Jylland itself. Harald also brought some of the West Norse chiefdoms and kingdoms (Norway) under his rule.
With his conversion to Christianity in AD 965, Harald was the first Scandinavian ruler to actively bring about national conversion by AD1000, the same year as Iceland 'legally' adopted Christianity. The reason for conversion in Denmark is simple: German missionary Poppo was the only man able to cure Harald's incessant tooth ache, due to his love of blueberries, hence his nickname. Svein Haraldsson, 'Forkbeard' overthrew his father in the late 10th Century. Svein consolidated power by launching attacks on Aethelred's England, using the Danegeld handed over by Aethelred 'Unraed' to pay his fleet and land forces. By ordering an attack on the Danes in England Aethelred played into Svein's hand (St Brice's Day Massacre, November AD1002). This action enabled Svein to hit back with a vengeance, as one of the victims in Oxford was his sister Gunnhild. Even more Danegeld was demanded of Aethelred's crippled kingdom. By AD1013 Svein controlled much of England. At Svein's death his elder son Harald reigned in Denmark, whilst the younger Knut ruled over England after the deposition and death of Aethelred and the death from wounds suffered in battle by Eadmund 'Ironside' in late AD1016. Knut succeeded to the Danish throne in AD1019 and ruled strongly until his death in AD1035. Much of his time was divided between the two halves of his 'empire', and Norway was ruled on his behalf by his elder son Svein (by Aelfgifu of Northampton). With Knut's death in AD1035 Denmark was racked by raids from Norway under Olaf Haraldsson's heir Magnus. His son Harthaknut (by Ymma/Emma of Normandy) was chased around the kingdom by the Norse king's men until they came to an agreement. Harthaknut's death due to choking at a wedding feast near London in AD1042 brought about another period of instability and Denmark slipped under the control of Magnus. His uncle Harald Sigurdsson returned from exile and sided against Magnus with his new ally Svein Estrithsson in the mid-1040's. Magnus agreed to share the throne and a Danish king was chased around the islands again until AD1047, when Svein was allowed to get on with ruling Denmark unmolested (for a while, anyway, until Harald grew bored with his lot and began raiding again). New interest raised by Tostig Godwinson, former earl of Northumbria and brother of King Harold II (both half-Danish on their mother Gytha's side) in taking the throne of England took Harald's mind off Denmark again. Their demise at Stamford Bridge near Jorvik (York) brought about a new period of stability in Denmark under Svein Astridsson/Estrithsson*.
Svein also showed interest in England during AD1069-71, but William I 'bought him off' and with his brother Jarl Osbeorn Svein returned a little richer. His reign lasted until AD1074, during which time the kingdom prospered, not least from riches gained from Burh (Peterborough, in Eastern England). In AD1086 Knut II, younger son of Svein raised the prospect of a full-blown invasion of England to stake his claim on the crown. His nobles were less keen on the idea and pursued him through the kingdom, catching up with and slaying him him in the cathedral at Odense (shades of Thomas a Becket?)
During the 11th Century the kingdom was divided into administrative districts (much like the Ridings in Yorkshire), each known as a 'herred' with its own 'Thing' or parliament.
By the end of the century Denmark still suffered from internal instability. The monarchy was still elective - no such thing as a 'done thing' when a king came to the throne, as in England under William I or II, or Henry I - and the kingdom was split three ways in AD1156 after one stalemated battle.
*Svein's father was Jarl Ulf Thorgilsson, who at one time took the side of Knut's West Norse and Svear enemies (Norway and Sweden), defeating him AD1025 at the Battle of Helgeaa, Holy River (now southern Sweden). Interesting to followers of English history inasmuch as Harold's father Earl Godwin was asked by Knut to help him. He took a large number of English warriors and, although Knut's side lost the battle, he rewarded Godwin with the hand of his sister Thyra in marriage. Thyra died, possibly in childbirth, and Godwin was given Gytha, Ulf's sister, in wedlock. For an insight into this era from the English viewpoint see 'The Godwins' by Frank Barlow, pub. Pearson Education Ltd, 2002, 2003 - ISBN 978-0-582-78440-6
The Danes first show in 6th Century written sources. The Gothic historian Jordanes may have been using sources from the early 6th Century in writing of the Dani, tall and fierce who ruled over southern Scandinavia. Gregory of Tours wrote shortly after AD575 in his History of the Franks about a raid by them on the lower Rhine in the second decade of the century. He suggested they might have originated further east (in Sweden). The Danes were active chiefly in north-western Frankia (Normandy) the eastern areas of East Anglia, the Danelaw (the Five Boroughs) and southern Northumbria (Yorkshire) as well as southern Ireland (Cork, Waterford, Wexford, Limerick and Dublin). Clerical chroniclers in England frequently referred to the 'Danes' raiding in the 8th Century when in fact they were from further north. Frankish writers used the term 'Northman' and 'Dane' freely.
Danevirke - the 30km long defensive system of ramparts and ditches that stretched across the southern neck of Jylland near Slesvig. There was a north-south road through Jylland known as the haervej that cut through the defences near Hedeby on the eastern side of the peninsula. Although the Danevirke (lit. 'Dane-works') were meant to keep invaders out of Denmark, they did not mark the southernmost frontier in the Viking Age. That lay around 20km to the south on the River Eider.
The Danevirke was built over a period of time, the earliest phase being the North Wall, the Main Wall and the East Wall, having been dendrochronologically dated to the late third decade of the 8th Century. Frankish Royal Annals tell of King Godred building a wall across the neck of Jylland, broken by only one gateway to let traffic through. Godred's wall has not been located with certainty, but it might have been the Kovirke, a rampart to the south of the main defensive system with a breach thought to be the aforementioned gateway.
A third building stage began in the mid-9th Century. The main wall was built up to 10 metres. The trading haven of Hedeby was fortified with a semi-circular wall and the Linking Wall was built to link Hedeby with the main wall system. Parts of the Linking Wall have been dated back to around AD951-961, meaning this phase was overseen by Harald 'Blue-tooth, who reigned from AD958-987.
The Danevirke was not nearly as effective a defensive system as the Danes would have liked. The Franks under Louis 'the Pious' invaded in AD815, then seized and held by the Franks in AD974-983. The system was lengthened several times in the 11th and 12th Centuries against the Slavs as well as their southern neighbours. At the height of its importance Valdemar 'the Great' had sections rebuilt in brick. Re-alignment of the frontier in the 13th Century led to a decline in the importance of the Danevirke and it fell to ruin. It was last used in AD1864 when the Prussians invaded on the pretext of a succession dispute.
Kanhave Canal - a kilometre long waterway on the Danish island of Samsoe that links the natural haven of Stavnsfjord on the east of the island with the sea in the west. The canal was 11 metres wide with a capability to handle ships of up to 1.25 metres draught. These were generous measurements for the time. Timber revetments were used to keep the canal walls from collapsing. In dating these facilities, it was found they would have been built around AD726. The reason for the canal is likely to have been military. Samsoe is strategically positioned at the mouth of the Store Baelt, the strait leading from the Kattegat to the Baltic. The canal would have enabled warships to intercept enemy vessels passing either side of the island. By its size, this great engineering feat points to the emergence of a centralised kingdom of Den mark in the early 8th Century.
Coinage and trade
Aethelred's lack of foresight and wise counsel brought the Danes to England early in the 11th Century under Svein Haraldsson, 'Forkbeard'. Eventually in 1013 he brought younger son Knut with an army to Gainsborough. Svein died the year later and Aethelred came back to confront Knut with a new army. Knut returned to Denmark and came back with a new fleet, taking the kingship after a short war with Aethelred and his son Eadmund 'Ironside'. Knut would become one of northern Europe's strongest kings - ever, and 'European statesman' of an earlier mould. W B Bartlett guides you through the era
© 2012 Alan R Lancaster