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Hunding's Saga - 44: Yuletide Endgame With Jarl Ulf Checked by Knut - King Wins by Knight Sacrifice?

Updated on May 18, 2019

An unwise move...

Chess kings head to head - Did Ulf accuse Knut of cheating at chess before witnesses in Roskilde?
Chess kings head to head - Did Ulf accuse Knut of cheating at chess before witnesses in Roskilde? | Source

It was Yuletide at Knut Sveinsson's garth near the Roskilde Fjord and outside the snow sat thickly on the ice-laden waterfront.

'Your move, my Lord king', Jarl Ulf looked levelly into his king, Knut's eyes. He looked down at the board, and back at the king, now seemingly unaware of Ulf even being there.

'I know, Ulf. I know... I am thinking', Knut answered absently. More than a game hung on what he said or did now.

Hunding sat forward beside Eirik of Hladir on one of the long benches, watching the king play chess with Jarl Ulf. This was a game he had never seen being played before. Nine-men's Morris and Hnefatafl he had seen both at Jorvik at the Yulefeast, and when with Tofig at his father's hall. But chess? He was about to say something, when Eirik mouthed the words, "Stay still". Knut searched the board for something and Ulf looked on as his king sat puzzling over a ruse, a wry smile spreading across his lips. Knut looked up as he moved a piece and Ulf's smile went, a look of hopelessness there instead.

'I think that is check', Knut savoured Ulf's discomfort.

'How can it be?' Ulf stared at his king's rook on the back file. His queen on the next held his own king tightly. There was no way out.

'You think I cheated, perhaps?' Knut looked into Ulf's eyes, testing.

'That is not what I said, my Lord King', Ulf looked up in fear from the board.

'Or maybe that is what you thought? It is how it sounded before witnesses', Knut smiled thinly. He now had the jarl in a tight corner and looked as though he enjoyed the moment. Was this payback for Ulf siding with the Svear king Anund Jakob at the Helgeaa, the Holy River, not many years before?.Knut looked up and around those watching and probed, 'Would you not say so, Eirik?'

'It did sound that way, Lord', Jarl Eirik answered. Seated a little way off in a carved armchair, bearded chin in his hands, he wondered where this would lead. There was little love lost between them. Ulf had found himself on the wrong side a few summers since. His wife Gunnlaug - Knut's sister - had died soon after giving birth to his son. At that time he had been far away leading a Svear fleet against his king. By the time Knut showed he had forgiven him - or had he? - Ulf was now back at Roskilde. Knut had married off his older sister Astrid to him, although no-one knew why, and she had borne him two further sons, Beorn and Svein. She was with child now for the third time. His first son, the one Gunnlaug had wanted to name Hunding but agreed in the end to name Ivar, was a fine young lad. He chattered sometimes unstoppably to all and sundry. Now Ivar played boisterously with his half-brother Svein on the hall floor near the hearth, tumbling in the short straws nearby, shrieking.

'My Lord king, I am sorry!' a maid came to bundle the two little lads away but Knut held up his hand.

'They are no trouble, Thyra. Leave them be but bring them a little way away from the hearth before they burn themselves on the stones', Knut ruffled Ivar's hair when he ran to him, and told him not to play too roughly with Svein, 'He is much younger than you, child. Look after him and he may one day be helpful to you'.

Ivar looked across the table at Hunding, who winked at him,

'Your son is growing well, Jarl Ulf', Hunding smiled.

'Aye -' Ulf looked up at Hunding. He had not heard rightly what it was Knut's shipmaster had said. Then suddenly Ulf stood, thinking this a good time to take his farewell from Knut's company and nodded, looking down at Ivar, 'Aye, he is just like his father, eh?'

Knut looked sharply up at the jarl, across at Eirik and asked Thorkell, seated on his right,

'Did I say anything about not wanting another game, Thorkell? Ulf', he looked up at the jarl, 'do not be so foolish as to think that by leaving like this I will forget. You know me better than that, I hold no grudges. Play another game. I swear I did not cheat, as God is my witness - as if I would! Best of three, eh?'

Ulf nodded, ready to sit again, but dithered. It was not like him to dither, but now he had second thoughts. Knut stared up at him and shook his greying head.

'Ulf - Ulf, sit and play another game! It is the Yuletide, drink, eat, play!' Knut held his hands out wide, a pawn hidden in either closed hand. Eirik slid along on the bench to let him back in, by the board. Hunding shifted with him and looked up askance at the jarl. The king sniffed, looked up and told Ulf, joking, 'Sit, for God's sake, you make my hall look untidy!'

'Sit, play for God's sake!' Ivar echoed and eveyone laughed, even Ulf. He ruffled young Ivar's fair hair - oddly white-blond, although he and Gunnlaug had reddish hair. Hunding's hair was white-blond, but Ulf had no thoughts about that right now. He was being boxed into a corner by the king because he had uttered the unthinkable. Those who crossed Knut were known to suffer somehow, sometimes with their lives. Ulf had already crossed Knut - grievously - yet was still alive to tell the tale, so far.

Ulf sat and took the black pawn from Knut's right hand. Heads turned toward them both again and Hunding's thoughts strayed away from the game, to that summer, years ago, when Ulf had taken sides with the West Norse and Svear kings in southern Skaane. With Knut had been many of his Aenglish nobles. Hunding, Tofig, Herjolf and Eirik had been in the thick of the fighting on Hunding's ship, 'Braendings Slange'. With them had also been the earl. Younger than Hunding by perhaps ten years, Earl Godwin had nevertheless shone with his fighting skills, as had Knut's other Aenglish nobles. He had saved Knut from death with a deft swing of his shield against oncoming axe-blows and Knut had rewarded him well.

Godwin had already been wedded to Knut's young sister Thyra, but she and the child she carried had died in childbirth. Knut next gave Godwin Ulf's sister Gytha as a bride. He wanted to do right by this southern Aenglish earl for saving him, despite losing the fight. Skuli had almost lost an arm, too, when one of Ulf's men brought down his sword on the steersman's right arm as he kept Hunding's ship steady.

Now Ulf sweated for his life. Having brought the king's wrath on himself he was losing again.

'You could have done better than that, surely?' Knut browbeat Ulf on losing his second knight in a rash move, taking one of the king's pawns. 'A knight for a pawn?'

Ulf shrugged and played on, until losing a bishop he gave up the game and tipped his king over,

'I was not thinking right'.

'You were not, were you? Do you want to try again and forget that game?' Knut wanted to be seen as a good sportsman and, after all Ulf had been a friend from long ago despite their 'spats'. 'Have some more mulled wine and cheer up, friend'.

Ulf held his cup out to a passing maid to be filled and Knut stood, took the pitcher from the woman and poured Ulf's wine himself.

'Never let it be said I bear grudges', Knut laughed, slapped Ulf's right shoulder and poured the rest of the ale into Eirik's and Hunding's beakers. 'On the morrow we can pray for the Lord's forgiveness, tonight we sin and make merry!'

The evening wore on, more men came into the hall and the king showed himself as the good host on this cold, frosty Yule Eve. Ale washed down food, mead was poured for the nobles and the noise grew. Ivar and Svein were allowed to stay up until they fell asleep and were carried by Ulf and Eirik to bed. The two men came back to the benches and forgot about the game earlier in the day when Knut's anger was aroused. All thoughts about 'later' left them and they joked and laughed with Thorkell - who had also crossed Knut at one time - and Hunding.

Yuletide came and went. Everyone went about their usual winter business and everything went on as ever. Ulf had not been seen all morning, this the first Sabbath day after the Yule feast.

'Have you seen Jarl Ulf?' Thorkell asked Hunding in the afternoon.

'I have not, no. Is he not with the king and his kindred in their garth?' Hunding looked up from where he sat with his mulled ale, well away from the door.

'I heard the Lady Astrid ask after him', Thorkell shrugged, 'that is all'.

'Is he not in the church?' Tofig offered. He had come in just then and been yelled at for not pulling the door to behind him quickly enough. 'I know he goes there

'We will doubtless soon be wiser as to where he is', Thorkell shrugged again.

Eirik strode through the door just then and before the howling began called out to Thorkell,

'Jarl Ulf is dead!'

'What?!' Thorkell could not believe his ears. 'What did you say?'

No-one else could believe what they had been told. Hunding stood, ashen.

'What is it, Hunding? Do you know something?' Eirik asked.

'I had a dream on the night he played that game with the king', Hunding seemed to be in a dream. 'There was blood - and a cross. I could see a shape on the flagged floor of a church. Roskilde's church!'

'Where was Ulf found?' Thorkell swung round to find Eirik behind him.

'At the altar of Roskilde Church!' Eirik answered agape at Hunding.

'Where is the Lady Astrid?' Thorkell wheeled to speak to one of the hall maids.

'I believe she must be in her rooms. Shall I see one of her maids to warn her?'

Eirik shook his head at the maid,

'Best speak to the king first. Do you know where he is?'

The maid curtsied and turned for the door that led to the king's rooms. Before she could reach the door Astrid burst in,

'Where is Ulf? Show me to my husband!' Eyes reddened with weeping, she can have only only just been told, Hunding thought.

'He is in the church!' Eirik answered, 'By the altar - but someone must see to it that he is cleaned first'.

'Why would I worry if he is covered in blood?!' Astrid yelled loudly on her way out through the main door. 'He is my husband, is he not?'

There was almost a riot in the hall, men called out for the hue and cry and the king strode in.

'Quiet!' Knut yelled above the hubbub. 'What is happening here - why all this noise for God's sake?'

'Jarl Ulf has been slain', Thorkell gripped the king to calm him.

'Slain - in the church?' Knut strode out with a train of men after him, Eirik of Hladir, Thorkell 'Havi', other nobles, Hunding and Tofig. The road outside was thronged and the great church was ringed perhaps five deep by men, women and children. The noise was deafening as Hunding followed the others.

Inside the church Astrid wept loudly, kneeling by Ulf's lifeless corpse, balled fists held at her sides. Two maids stood helplessly behind her, also weeping. The king's huscarls stood guard around the jarl, stopping anyone but the king and his nobles. Hunding and Tofig were kept back behind crossed spears, with only the jarl's feet in sight behind two of the huscarls.

'Raise the hue and cry!' Knut came back with Thorkell and Eirik. The huscarls hustled everyone out through the church doors and Hunding found himself out in the snow again with Tofig. The king came to speak with Hunding, 'Eirik tells me you had a dream about this, is that right?'

'I did, my Lord king', Hunding answered truthfully. 'I saw little, however. All that came to me in my dream was blood, the shape of a dead man on a paved floor and a cross against the light of candles'.

'Nothing more?' Knut pressed.

'Nothing more, my king', Hunding nodded and Knut gripped his sword arm.

'His wounds look as if made by swords', Thorkell added.

'More than one sword?' Knut gaped. 'Raise the hue and cry - kill the swine who did this!'

Astrid was brought out of the church by her maids, still shaking, followed by a praying monk. Men brought out the shrouded jarl on a long board a little later. Nothing was seen of Ivar or Svein yet, so Hunding gathered they were with their maid.

'Hunding?' Tofig shook him. 'Hunding, are we going with the men to search for the killers?'

'Not unless we are told to by either Eirik of Thorkell', Hunding answered.

Next - 45: Hunding Befriends Ivar

Roskilde near the fjord shore as the town would have looked in the days of Hunding
Roskilde near the fjord shore as the town would have looked in the days of Hunding | Source
See description below
See description below | Source

Knut (or Cnut) came into his own on taking the throne of England in 1016 after battling through the year with Aethelred's son Eadmund 'Ironside'. When Knut's older brother Harald died soon after Knut held both kingdoms. In AD 1030 he supported a successful rebellion in Norway against Olaf Haraldsson. So now he had much of Norway as well. He invested son Svein as regent there, son Harold held the reins in England when his father was absent. Importantly, Knut was one of the electors in 1027 at the coronation of the Holy Roman Emperor Conrad II in Rome, a European ahead of his time.

When Knut died in AD 1035 he was interred in Winchester's old minster, his son Harthaknut joining him seven years later, and Emma a few years after that.


Gamesmanship was the big thing amongst Norsemen, east from Russia and Sweden to west in Ireland, the Northern Isles, Iceland or even Greenland. Wherever they went gaming pieces have been found, Nine Men's Morris, Hefatafl (the King's Table) and Chess were widely played by the 13th Century - the last gasp of the Viking Age when the Scots took the Northern Isles in default for Queen Margaret's dowry (another Queen Margaret, the first was queen to Malcolm III, 'Canmore') when King Christian failed to pay up.

© 2012 Alan R Lancaster


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