The King Lives! Scandinavian Legends of Hastings and Svolder

Tradition (and most chroniclers) tell us that on 14 October 1066, the Anglo-Saxon army saw their King, Harold Godwinson, killed on the field of battle. It was a moment upon which the battle hinged for, seeing their leader dead, the Anglo-Saxons fled the field, pursued and killed by the Normans in their unruly rout.  But is all as it seems? There is also a tradition that Harold in fact survived the battle and, deciding the loss of the kingship was God’s will, devoted his life to God as a hermit (or anchorite). Well, if I am being honest, all is as it seems and, removing the debate about exactly how Harold died, it is pretty clear he did not walk away from the battle. But such legends are a bit of fun and it is not entirely uncommon to find them attached to kings who enjoyed a certain amount of popular support, and who ‘apparently’ lost their lives and kingships in battle (and had no known burial place). Indeed, I have previously written about Olaf Tryggvason’s death at the naval battle of Svolder, and he too is reputed to have survived his fully-armoured plunge into the open ocean, and thereafter journeyed on pilgrimage to Jerusalem. What we see with both men is an element of hagiography creeping into accounts of their defeats, in which martial loss is divinely ordained, thus necessarily turning temporal defeat into spiritual victory. It speaks to a kind of cultic reverence (and nostalgia) among their supporters. Continue reading The King Lives! Scandinavian Legends of Hastings and Svolder

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Blood Eagles, Fatal Walks, and Hung Meat – Assessing Viking Torture

An act of torture is rarely an act of finality in feud cultures – the family of the tortured man, whether he survives or not, will rarely allow such a deed to stand without vengeance. For that reason, it is rare to find examples of torture in saga literature (excluding perhaps the King’s sagas – that Olaf Tryggvason could be a bit intense). This means that, where saga authors do relate occasions of deliberate mutilation, they stand out within the literature and gain a certain amount of infamy.

So today’s is a brief(ish) post, a kind of follow up to our article on the body in law, looking at the logistics of some of the more famous acts of brutality from saga literature (both from a physical and literary perspective): the ‘fatal walk’ of the Viking Broðir in the aftermath of the Battle of Clontarf, Hrafnkel Freysgoði and his men being strung up by their heels and, of course, the infamous blood-eagle. What we will see in these instances of torture is that, even where the act is physically possible, the sheer unlikeliness of the deed and the manner in which these violent interludes are deployed by saga authors recommends them more as literary tropes than genuine deeds. Which is not to say that brutality did not occur in the Viking settlement cultures of Iceland, Ireland, and Britain during the period, or even that these accounts have origins in cultural memories that evolved over time but, in this article, I want to focus on the acts as written.

Disclaimer: I will only be as graphic as what is written in the saga texts, but there are descriptions of disembowelment, evisceration and bodily torture.

Continue reading Blood Eagles, Fatal Walks, and Hung Meat – Assessing Viking Torture

When Justice Cost an Arm & a Leg – The Mutilated Body in Medieval Anglo-Scandinavian Law

The breaking of a body is a powerful act. In the medieval world, it was a matter of life or death. A mutilated body marked out its victim for social censure and, critically for a labour-based society, if the injury impacted the ability of the victim to work, it marginalised their social function and forced them to rely on communal charity. Thus, such an act was both a punishment of great impact when performed within the context of law, and a matter demanding compensation of money or blood when performed outside of the law. With that in mind, today I am going to home in on the body in law and in particular the dichotomy of mutilation as a transgression of the law and as a tool of the law. In doing so I am going to focus on Anglo-Saxon law, and the Icelandic Grágás as representative of Scandinavian law.  I promise to try keep it interesting and provide some feuding, some torture, and some storytelling (alongside wergild legislation and evolving legal cultures) – look out for men being hung by holes cut into their heels toward the end! Fun right? Continue reading When Justice Cost an Arm & a Leg – The Mutilated Body in Medieval Anglo-Scandinavian Law

Relighting the Fire of the First Crusade: Warriors, Priests, and the Holy Lance of Antioch

From its emphatic beginnings at Clermont in 1095, to its ultimately dramatic and triumphant conclusion at Jerusalem in 1099, the First Crusade was an arduous journey of devotion, determination, survival, and some would argue, divine intervention.

Continue reading Relighting the Fire of the First Crusade: Warriors, Priests, and the Holy Lance of Antioch

Kingship in the Viking Age – Icelandic Sagas, Anglo-Saxon Kings, & Warrior Poets

The Germanic king or lord as the dispenser of treasure, the ‘giver of rings,’ is a familiar image. The reason it is familiar is that it permeates that famous Anglo-Saxon epic poem, Beowulf. In the opening lines of the poem, we are introduced to Scyld Scéfing, a man known for violence against his enemies, and his gifts of treasure to his friends, a man of whom the poet says þæt wæs gód cyning (that was a good king). His son in turn is a chip off the old Scyld and, no less vigorous in war or generous in his gifts, has the loyalty of his men, being praised as léofne þéoden, béaga bryttan (beloved prince, ring giver). Later in the poem, just as Beowulf himself is about to benefit from such kingly largesse at the court of Halfdan, a king of the Scylding line, Halfdan is referred to as sinc-gyfan (treasure/ring giver). All these terms are kennings – evocative poetic metaphors common to Old English and Old Norse poetry – and the Beowulf author is implying that gift giving and Kingship are the same thing.  There were, of course, many other elements to cultural perceptions of successful kingship in the Anglo-Scandinavian world, but those are for a different day. In this article I am going to take the lead of the Beowulf poet and concentrate on the king as ‘giver of rings.’ Continue reading Kingship in the Viking Age – Icelandic Sagas, Anglo-Saxon Kings, & Warrior Poets

Crusaders on the Baltic Shore – The Livonian & Estonian Crusades (c. 1198 – 1290)

The Eastern Baltic was unlike any other region where Rome sanctioned Crusade. The Northern Crusades cannot be cast as either a purely political expansion of territorial borders, or a purely religious expansion of the word of God. The territories under pagan control acted as a non-Christian buffer between Western and Eastern Christianity and, while the crusades were ostensibly directed at their conversion, for Latin Christendom, it was critical that they converted to the right type of Christianity. In the eyes of both Orthodox and Latin Christians, the pagan tribes of the Baltic shore did not so much represent aberrant religious groups needing conversion, as the inhabitants of lands that were strategically critical to the territorial and religious ambitions of both Eastern and Western Christianity.  It is not surprising then to find that, in the Baltic lands of eastern Europe, the crusading ideal evolved to match the unique conditions of the region, combining conversion, conquest, and commerce in a manner peculiar to the Northern Crusades. Continue reading Crusaders on the Baltic Shore – The Livonian & Estonian Crusades (c. 1198 – 1290)

Sweyn Forkbeard, Olaf Tryggvason, and the Kingship of Norway

Dressed in armour, watching his fleet fall to his Danish rival, King Olaf I Tryggvason of Norway threw himself into the sea, sinking to his death and denying his enemies the pleasure of killing him. The death of Olaf (r. 995 – 1000) at the Battle of Svolder returned the Norwegian crown to Sweyn Forkbeard the king of Denmark (r. 986 – 1014), and the Danish hegemony. The Norwegian crown had fallen under the tenuous control of the Danish Kings c. 971 during the reign of Sweyn’s father, Harald Bluetooth. Thus, when Sweyn seized the throne of Denmark at the expense of his father in 986, he also ostensibly assumed the throne of Norway. Continue reading Sweyn Forkbeard, Olaf Tryggvason, and the Kingship of Norway

Crusaders on the Baltic Shore – The Wendish Crusade (1147 – c.1185)

In 1147 Pope Eugenius III declared a crusade against the pagans of the Eastern Baltic, the first papal call to holy war not explicitly aimed at reclaiming Christian territories from Muslim rule. Instead, Eugenius’ decree gave the Latin Christians of Northern Germany and Scandinavia mandate to aggressively expand their borders into the lands of the Wendish Slavs on the northern frontier of Christendom. It would become a mandate with a long afterlife – once the northern borders of Christendom were opened to the crusading ideal, they remained open for three centuries. In the Slavic lands of North-Eastern Europe, the Scandinavian kingdoms and northern states of the Holy Roman Empire had seen opportunity for political and economic expansion; any intent Rome may have had in establishing the Northern Crusades as a vehicle to win souls to Latin Christianity was subordinated to regional politics.

Continue reading Crusaders on the Baltic Shore – The Wendish Crusade (1147 – c.1185)

The Walls of Carcassonne: Power and Wealth in Defensive Architecture

Throughout the medieval world it wasn’t exactly difficult to work out who the powerful and wealthy members of society were, you just had to look for the biggest buildings. Medieval fortifications were, to put it simply, an expensive and often audacious symbol of power. Continue reading The Walls of Carcassonne: Power and Wealth in Defensive Architecture

Shrouded in Rumour – The Lost Childhood of King Æthelstan

It is frequently claimed that the Anglo-Saxon King Æthelstan was the illegitimate son of King Edward the Elder and a concubine. This persistent rumour has become a part of Æthelstan’s mythos as the first King of England, but it is one with little historical support. The fact is, we know nothing definitive about the childhood of the rex totius Britanniae and, given his pivotal role in the tenth-century political transition of Anglo-Saxon England into a single kingdom, this is incredibly frustrating.

Continue reading Shrouded in Rumour – The Lost Childhood of King Æthelstan

Wicked Queens and Martyred Kings – the 794 Beheading of S. Æthelberht of East Anglia

Murdered (or executed) by Offa of Mercia in 794, the passio of King Æthelberht of East Anglia is an obscure tale that has so many twists and turns in its narrative transmission that divining a plausible account of the event is near-impossible. Indeed, even apart from his death, Æthelberht remains an elusive character in eighth-century Anglo-Saxon history and, were it not for some few coins he minted having survived the centuries, his kingship would be difficult to locate historically. Continue reading Wicked Queens and Martyred Kings – the 794 Beheading of S. Æthelberht of East Anglia

Saladin and the Lionheart: A call to Jihad and the Siege of Acre

The history of medieval times is overflowing with epic tales of skirmishes, battles, and sieges; one could say, medieval history is simply rampant with violence. The seemingly obvious response to this for the kings, lords, and nobles in medieval times, was the construction of fortified sites; towers, castles, palaces, and even so far as entirely walled cities. Although the nature of fortifications may appear inherently defensive, they were commonly constructed as a means of supporting an invading force. Continue reading Saladin and the Lionheart: A call to Jihad and the Siege of Acre

Danish Invasion, Viking Violence, and Cnut’s Mutilation of Hostages at Sandwich

By 1028, Cnut the Great had brought England, Denmark, and Norway into a vast North Sea hegemony under his kingship. It was an unrivalled achievement that granted Cnut the political clout to deal with the Holy Roman Emperor and Pope as equals. (Despite this, his legacy in the English-speaking world is as an eccentric who attempted to halt the waves – go figure.) Yet only fourteen years earlier, Cnut had been a landless Danish Prince, fleeing England upon the death of his father and before the wrath of the vengeful Anglo-Saxon King Æthelred II (the Unready). Continue reading Danish Invasion, Viking Violence, and Cnut’s Mutilation of Hostages at Sandwich

Easter in Athelney – King Alfred and the Great Viking Army

As Alfred (r. 871 – 899) led the remnants of his gathered followers into the Somerset fens in 878, it was unlikely that the celebration of the death and resurrection of Christ was foremost among his concerns. The Viking force under the leadership of Guthrum had stealthily entered the Kingdom of Wessex during the winter and, surprising a likely de-militarised region (winter being outside the usual campaigning season), began to conquer the kingdom, forcing the inhabitants into hiding. Continue reading Easter in Athelney – King Alfred and the Great Viking Army

Medieval History from Alfred the Great to The Battle of Castillon