Danelaw Years - 8: Danes at Large, Danes at Home - Heroes, Kings and Legends
Worthy of a king's ransom, a king's war helm for a leader of note... But which one?
The Danes and Denmark are linked strongly with the English, the Irish and the Normans.
We have had several Danish monarchs rule over England as a whole, parts of England and parts of Ireland. We have had high-born nobles, one of whom rose to be king, princes and princesses who have married into the royal family from the time of James VI of Scotland who married Anne and was given Orkney and Shetland instead of a dowry. Another Queen Anne, of the Stuart line wedded a Danish prince, Joergen (George), who was created Duke of Cumberland. In Victoria's reign her heir Edward - as Prince of Wales - wedded Alexandra, princess of Denmark.
We know less of the Danish kings before Svein Haraldsson, nicknamed 'Forkbeard', and we know even less of Danish folk-heroes from the Viking Age and before. If I were to mention Harald Gormsson you might know he was known as 'Blue-tooth'; what if I raised the subject of Holger Danske? (Who?) Exactly! Let me roll them out for you and we'll see if you remember them at a later date.
Starting with a 6th Century king of the Danes or Geats/Gotar,
Hygelac, was a leader of one of the first chronicled 'Viking' raids. At some time between AD516-534 Hygelac was killed by the Franks during an unsuccessful attack on the lower Rhine. The raid is mentioned variously, including in Gregory of Tours' 6th Century Historiarum Libri X (commonly: A History of the Franks) and in the 8th Century epic version of the Beowulf poem.
King Godred/Godfred. This fine fellow reigned from around AD804 to AD810, although we do not know exactly how long he had been king before Charles 'the Great' conquered Lower Saxony and threatened the still pagan Denmark. Nor is it known what Denmark's exact boundaries were at the time. He is likely to have ruled over the Vik across the water in southern Norway as well as much of what we consider to have been Danish territory. We do not know for certain that Charles had the conquest of Denmark in mind, but Godred would have been alarmed by the off-chance that the Franks would come storming in through southern Jylland (Jutland). He brought together an army at Hedeby on the Baltic side of the peninsula near Slesvig and sent out an envoy to ask Charles to talks. Charles did not show for the talks. In AD808 Godred's Danes attacked the Abodrites (one of the Wendish tribes near the southern Baltic shore), who were Slav allies of the Franks. The trading haven of Reric was burnt down and its merchants were evacuated to Hedeby. He fully expected a reaction from the Franks and had the Danevirke reinforced and lengthened. With the southern end of the Jylland peninsula protected Godred attacked Frisia with a strong fleet of two hundred ships in AD810 and imposed tribute of one hundred pounds of silver. The Frisians would have expected the Franks to defend them and in the Frankish Royal Annals Godred was accused of trying to over-run Frisia and Lower Saxony, then advancing on Aachen in the heartlands of Frankia. As it was Godred was slain by one of his own retainers that same year. His successor, nephew Hemming, began his reign by making peace with Charles.
Hoerik was king of the Danes from AD813, a second son of Godred. Hoerik and three brothers seized power in AD813, expelling the kings Hemming, Reginfred and Harald Klak. Under pressure from the Franks the brothers took back Harald as joint king in AD819. However the agreement broke down and Harald was ousted again in AD827. By the 830's Hoerik was the only one of the brothers left and reigned alone. Tensions rose with the Frankish Louis 'the Pious' after Harald's second expulsion, but Hoerik was careful not to draw the Frankish king's wrath upon himself. In AD836 and AD838 Hoerik went so far as to execute Danes who had raided Frankia. Nevertheless after the death of Louis in AD840 Hoerik adopted a stronger stance against the Franks and sent a great fleet to sack and burn Hamburg in AD845. He ignored the demands of Lothar and his brothers Luis II and Charles 'the Bald' to restrain the Danes' raiding. Despite his poor relations with the Franks he tolerated the missionary St Ansgar and showed some interest in Christianity, although he was never officially converted.
In AD850 Hoerik was obliged to share the kingdom with two nephews. Another nephew, Guthrum returned from overseas in AD854 to seek a share of the kingdom for himself. Guthrum had most likely spent his years in piracy and brought a large fleet to pursue the point. A savage civil way followed, during which many in the royal family apart from himself and his nephews were slain. Denmark was unsettled after this for a hundred years.
Gorm 'the Old' was the son of a little-known Harthaknut Sveinsson, according to the historian Adam of Bremen - Harthaknut had unseated the Svear Olaf dynasty that had ruled the Danes in the early 10th Century - and reigned from around AD936-958. The range of Gorm's kingdom is unknown but probably included the whole of the Jylland peninsula. He was a pagan, unlike his father, and told Unni, Archbishop of Hamburg-Bremen in no uncertain terms what he could do with his mission to Denmark in AD936. Before Gorm's death in AD958 his son Harald had been co-ruler for several years, and allowed the mission back again. Gorm was buried in an imposing burial mound at Jellinge in Jylland. Timber-dating shows the wood used to build the chamber in the mound had been felled in the year of his death. Gorm's remains were later translated to a church Harald had built at Jellinge. Parts of Gorm's skeleton show him to have been about 1.72 metres tall (about 5'-10"). He had been suffering from osteoarthritis of the lower spine and died probably in his 40's.
His son, Harald Gormsson, 'Blue-tooth', had ruled with his father for some years before he was made king in his own right. His authority was likely to have been effective only in Jylland, but by the end of his reign in AD987 he had brought together the islands and Jylland into one cohesive unit. Earlier Danish rulers had ruled indirectly through subordinate chieftains, but by extending and improving the kingdom's defences, and in garrisoning the chain of forts Harald wielded greater direct power. By an alliance with Hakon Sigurdsson, the jarl of Hladir, Harald furthered Danish control over Norway by AD970.
Harald was converted to Christianity by Bishop Poppo in AD965, and a rune stone was erected at Jellinge to mark the event. Harald was the first Scandinavian king to further Christianity within his kingdom. Later in his reign he made Roskilde on Sjaelland his capital.
In AD974 Danes raided in northern Frankia. The Emperor Otto II deemed Harald had instigated the raids and invaded Denmark. For all Hakon supported him, Harald was obliged to submit to the emperor in AD975. Hedeby was occupied for the following seven years in a bid by Otto to ensure no more raids would be made on his territory. A rebellion led by his son Svein 'Forkbeard' deposed Harald in AD987. Mortally wounded, Harald withdrew to the Jomsviking fort of Jumne (Wolin in Poland) and died of his wounds soon after in AD988.
Now for some equally colourful heroes of the Danes, and I shall start with Hastein, a later 9th Century Viking leader (around AD859-92), who was active around the River Loire, in the Mediterranean and around the coast of Britain. The early 11th Century Norman scribe Dudo of St Quentin wrote luridly of Hastein as being cruel, harsh, ferocious, wild, lawless and much else. He was an all-round archetypal Danish Viking leader. He led a noted Viking expedition from the Loire and plundered around the western Mediterranean in AD859-62. Algericas in Iberia, Mazimma in morocco, Narbonne, Nimes and Valence (around 200km inland on the Rhone) in southern Frankia and various sites to the west of Rome were amongst those places sacked. In Dudo's largely fictitious writing Hastein took Luna on the mouth of the Tiber for Rome and wished to take it. Taking the city to be too well defended for his men to take, he would employ a ruse. Some of his men called on the townsfolk to ask for food and shelter for their ailing leader. By return they next told the town's dignitaries that their chieftain had died and had asked for a Christian burial. Agreement was reached and the Danes followed pallbearers to the site of the grave, where Hastein came to life and leapt out of his coffin. Beneath him had been the Vikings' weapons and they set about the townsfolk. The city was sacked during the melee that followed. On being told he had not taken Rome, Hastein is said to have been so disappointed he had all the townsfolk slain. The tale was told again by subsequent Norman writers and the same ruse was said to have been used by Robert 'Guiscard', Bohemond of Taranto and king Roger I of Sicily.
Hastein ended his Mediterranean 'spree' by raiding Pamplona in northern Iberia bedore going back to the Loire. Here he proved a thorn in the side of Bretons and Franks alike. He is likely to have been behind attacks on Brittany (in AD866), Bourges (AD867), Orleans (AD868) and Angers (872-3). In AD869 Duke Salomon of Brittany paid Hastein 500 cattle to protect the grape harvest. Under threat of a crushing defeat at the hands of Louis III of the West Franks Hastein agreed to abandon raiding in the Loire valley in AD882 and withdrew to the Channel coast. In AD890-1 Hastein raided around Flanders and in AD892 he showed with a large fleet in the Thames estuary. A year later Hastein's stronghold at Benfleet in Essex was assaulted by the West Saxons sent by King Aelfred whilst he was away plundering. His woman and two sons were taken hostage, his ships destroyed. Aelfred sent Hastein's wife and sons back to him because one of the boys was his own godson, the other being Ealdorman Aethelred's godson. The baptismal links show this was not the first Wessex had known of Hastein. According to William of Jumieges Hastein died in Normandy.
Another colourful character was Havelok the Dane. Not so much a famed Dane known to the Danes themselves, he is the mainstay of the Lay of Havelok the Dane, an English romance written around AD1200 in Lincolnshire. Havelok is the rightful king of the Danes robbed of his inheritance by a usurper and he comes to the Danelaw. After many scrapes he weds an heiress to the throne of England and takes back his own kingdom, finally bringing together England and Denmark under one rule. The tale has no basis in fact, but echoes the history of the Danelaw and the drawing together in Knut's time of the dual kingdom. An entertaining but not great piece of writing, the Lay is one of a few works in vernacular English to survive the period.
Holger Danske is a legendary figure of the Arthurian ilk. In Danish folklore Holger sleeps in the deep dungeons of Kronberg castle at Helsingoer (Elsinore in Hamlet), or in countless Iron Age barrows around the kingdom. In times of Denmarks distress, and only old men and untried lads are left standing, Holger will rise from his slumbers and lead the Danes in battle. The legend of Holger comes not from Scandinavian sources but from French mediaeval epic verse known as chansons de geste. Known in French as Ogier, he is said to be a son of King Gaufrey (Godred/Godfred). He has been raised a Christian at the court of Charles 'the Great' and becomes a mighty warlord, bringing death to the Saracens (Moors). He is bewitched by the elfin Morgana, taken to Avalon to dwell with King Arthur. Ogier, or Holger, is the archetypal follower of Carloman, Charles' younger brother who died in AD771. Ogier's surname 'de Danemarche' may have originated to the matches of the Ardennes rather than Denmark. Tales of Ogier from the French chansons came into Icelandic, Castilian, Catalunian and Italian folklore.
Ivar 'the Boneless' is better known to Danes as a famed, semi-legendary Viking known from 12th and 13th Century Danish and Icelandic sources. Pinpointing Ivar is difficult, not least for his reputed father Ragnar 'Lothbrok'. We are back in the land of legend. The most likely historical figure is Ivar, the leader of the Danes' Great Army' (Angl. 'micel here', pron. 'mickel herre') in mid-9th Century attacks on Wessex, East Anglia and Northumbria. He has also been (less likely) associated with Ivar I, a Norse king of Dublin (around AD871-3). The nickname, used in the 1140's, may come from a 9th Century tale about a blaspheming Viking whose bones shrivelled and brought about his death after plundering the monastery of Saint Germain near Paris.
*Denemearce pronounced 'Dennemarche' (a 'March' being a border holding, as in 'The Welsh Marches' and 'Marcher Lords', i.e., defenders of the English boundary)
Land of legend, land of heroes
Back in the day...
There had been enmity, jealousy and greed between the folk of the Northlands. Men fled the kingdom of the West Norse in the reign of Harald 'Harfagri' (Fair-hair). They fled his taxes, imposed to pay for the establishment of a new order. They fled to dangerous, wind and ice-plagued lands to live their own lives as they saw fit. Meanwhile, to the south the Danes had fiercer antagonists. The Franks wanted to expand their empire beyond the cowed Lower Saxons around the Rhine and Scheldt deltas. The kingdom of the Danes seemed attractive, and with a foothold in Scandinavia, who knows?... Maybe the whole of Scandinavia? They had to be stopped, somehow - anyhow. Godred spoke to his allies amongst the West Norse hersir, the land-holders. They raided around Britain to show the Danes had allies who would not shrink from raiding Christian sites of worship, to take the Franks' eyes off Jutland (to begin with). After all, the defences that crossed the base of Jutland, the Danevirke, were never meant to hold off the million men the Carolingian kings could throw at it.
As it was, the Frankish empire weakened. Divided between the sons of Charles 'the Great' (Charlemagne), the former might became a shadow of itself. The Danes came into their own and one day a Dane would hold as much land as the great Charles in his prime. That man would be Knut Sveinsson.
The homeland, twixt Franks and Swedes or West Norse
A thorough-going piece of writing by Peter Foote and D M Wilson that encompasses art, poetry, transport, weaponry and settlement amongst other subject matter linked with Norse and Viking development in the known and unknown world - North America and Greenland - with diagrams, drawings, photographs (my own copy from 1979 is all black & white), as much as you could want for your research.
How much do you know of the Danish Vikings?
As opposed to the West Norse (Norwegians) who settled in Northern and Western Britain, the Danes settled largely in the east. Is this where you/your forbears stem from?
© 2012 Alan R Lancaster