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Harbard the Ferryman & the Embarrassment of Thor – On the Presence of Odin or Loki in Hárbarðsljóð

Hárbarðsljóð is a flyting poem from the Poetic Edda, in which Thor is challenged to battle wits with a ferryman named Harbard (Hárbarðr) for passage across an inlet. Interestingly, Harbard gets the better of the exchange, ultimately denying Thor passage and sending him around the bay on land. By which we may surmise that Harbard is not a simple mortal to have bested a god in a flyting and confidently sent him away.

In fact, it is something of a trope within Old Norse/Icelandic mythological and legendary literature for gods to travel the world in disguise. There are possibly two figures within the Norse pantheon best known for this trick. Loki, variously appearing as a salmon, a mare and, possibly, an old woman, also noted for disguising himself and Thor as a bridesmaid and bride (respectively) in the famous wedding-feast sequence from Þrymskviða. Loki certainly has form for embarrassing Thor and, of all the gods, he is the most noted for flyting, courtesy of his exchange with the gods Asgard after gate-crashing a feast in Lokasenna. (Both Þrymskviða and Lokasenna also form part of the collection known as the Poetic Edda). Yet Loki’s disguises almost invariably involve shape-shifting. The old ferryman is far more in line with the trope of the Odinic wanderer – Odin-as-vagabond, wandering the worlds of Norse mythology and meddling. And, among his varied roles, Odin does perform as the god of (good) poetry). Cases have been made for Harbard being either of these gods in disguise, and that is what I intend to look at today – the elements of the poem that correlate with other representations of Odin and Loki and thus point to Harbard’s true identity. (Spoiler – it’s Odin).

Thor and Harbard discourse over the inlet, Franz Stassen, from Die Edda:
Germanische Götter- und Heldensagen,  Hans von Wolzogen, Leipzig, 1875 [1920].

But first, I suspect you have some questions such as: ‘What is a flyting poem?’ and, ‘What is the Poetic Edda?’ Our readers have varied grounding in Old Norse literary studies, so some of you will know the answer to these questions, yet as this is the first time I have written on either topic for the blog, I will first provide this context. I am, however, going to assume a certain level of knowledge regarding Thor, Odin, and Loki – my primary focus here is on the literature and the history of the literature and, while Norse Paganism is an abiding interest, I want us to keep our attention on the narrative and structure of Hárbarðsljóð.

The Poetic Edda

There are two works generally referred to as Edda. The first, usually known as either the Prose Edda or the Younger Edda is attributed to a single author – Snorri Sturluson. Snorri’s Edda is an early 13th century work comprised of four books and, despite being referred to as the Prose Edda, contains a great deal of verse and even didactic material relating to the composition of poetry. This Edda covers a great deal or Norse mythology and cosmology and preserves a great deal of what we know about Norse Paganism and, though Snorri can be accused of Christianisation and euhemerism, we owe him a great debt of gratitude.

What we are interested in though is the Poetic Edda – an anonymous collection of poems in Old Norse pertaining to mythological and legendary material. Primarily contained in a volume known as the Codex Regius (Árni Magnússon – GKS 2365 4to), the Poetic Edda has something of a confusing life. Firstly, nothing is known of the manuscript until 1643 when it came into the hands of Bishop Brynjólfur Sveinsson who, in line with contemporary thought, decided that this volume represented the source material for Snorri’s Edda. It was at this time given an erroneous authorial attribution and understood to be a coherent single work. This notion was perhaps understandable as the Codex Regius contained the full texts of a number of poems cited or only partially quoted by Snorri. In reality, it is rather more complicated than that. The Codex Regius was, in fact, compiled in the late 13th c., around fifty years after Snorri authored his Edda. Further, considering the corpus of eddaic poetry as a whole, in some instances the fragmentary quotations within Snorri’s Edda are our the earliest extant recording. However, for clarity’s sake, let’s now ignore Snorri entirely.

What we have in the Poetic Edda is a collection of poems that were composed in various periods and, unsurprisingly given its interest in pre-Christian religion, many of them likely predate the Christianisation of Scandinavia in composition. While the majority of these, as noted, are found in the 13th c. Codex Regius, some poems found within modern editions of the Poetic Edda are drawn from separate manuscripts – notable among these, AM 748 I 4to, which along with the Codex contains our focus text, Hárbarðsljóð. Now, I won’t try to tie a date to Hárbarðsljóð, simply because, trying to date any of these poems is fraught with difficulty. Most authorities cannot agree on a dating methodology, no less specific dates for each individual composition – suffice it to say that Hárbarðsljóð certainly predates it’s 13th c. textual record.

GKS 2365 4to 12v-13r
Facing pages of Hárbarðsljóð in the Codex Regius – the entire of the poem is only four pages in length (GKS 2365 4to f.12v – 13r).


Flyting should be easier to explain. The words ‘Old Norse poetry-slam’ come to mind, but that would be deeply unprofessional, so let’s go for something else.

Flyting is in fact far from unique to Old Norse or Scandinavian cultures and can be found in Old English and Irish literature, through to high-medieval tales, Shakespeare and, one could argue, into modern poetry and rap ‘battles.’ At its most basic level, flyting is an exchange of verse insults, with those insults normally designed to attach themselves to rumour and innuendo, thereby questioning the recipient’s ability to function as a normative member of society. Essentially, that means things such as parentage, sexual-normativity, personal bravery, largesse and other intangibles would be called into question. Such accusations could be particularly damaging in medieval society where proof to counter such slander was not easy to obtain. How does one prove instances of past bravery? Or ability to perform sexually? Or parentage? It was enough of a problem that Iceland legislated against slanderous verse, with punishment set a three years’ outlawry.

Lokasenna – Loki’s Mocking, a flyting exchange with the gods, W.G. Collingwood, from The Elder or Poetic Edda (trans. Olive Bray), London: Viking Society, 1908.

There are some superb examples of Old Norse flyting, with particularly fine exchanges found in Lokasenna – which I have already mentioned, the Icelandic family saga Bandamanna saga, and, of course, Hárbarðsljóð. In Hárbarðsljóð we see Harbard referring to Thor as a knave, a trouserless peasant, the god of serfs, strong but cowardly, and finishes with ‘go where the fiends will get you.’ All the while, Harbard compliments his own sexual prowess and bravery, while questioning Thor’s own. Thor certainly has the worst of the exchange, succumbing to exclamations of shock as opposed to witty retorts, but he nonetheless calls Harbard variously a peasant, a pervert, and a man-ling, ending with ‘I’ll reward you for refusing to ferry me, if we ever meet again.’

(A note that, given the sexual nature of much of the flyting, I strongly recommend the Larrington translation from the reference list. The older translations tend to self-censor).

Identifying the Ferryman

Thor was travelling from the east and he came to an inlet. On the other side of the inlet was the ferryman with his ship Thor called:

  1. Who is that pipsqueak who stands on that side of the inlet?

He answered:

  1. Who is that peasant who calls across the gulf.

And just like that, with little introduction, no attempt at civility between the two men, 60 verses of flyting have begun.

Thor faces Harbard in a flyting exchange, W.G. Collingwood, from The Elder or Poetic Edda (trans. Olive Bray), London: Viking Society, 1908.

We have already established that Harbard is unlikely to have been a mere mortal, yet he is unrecognised by Thor. So is he a god in disguise, or something else? While there are other creatures that resemble people and the Æsir gods in Norse mythology, such as the Vanir (gods), the Jötnar (giants), and the varied elves and dwarves, this is not one of those. The figure on the other side of the inlet is deeply intimate with Thor’s doings – indeed, so much so that Harbard frequently references events for which we have no other record. While the deeds that Harbard claims to himself are at the very least the deeds of a legendary hero if not the deeds of a god. Here we see a combination of common tropes within the literature – the god in disguise, and Thor’s inability to adapt to other’s subterfuge.

Now, it is not difficult to see why some commentators thought that Harbard was the trickster God Loki. Not only does Lokasenna represent the best-known example of flyting in Norse literature, but there are some distinct parallels between what Loki says to Thor in Asgard, and what Harbard says to Thor at the inlet. In verse 48, Harbard says:

Sif has a lover at home, he’s the one you want to meet,

then you’d have that trial of strength which you deserve.

This is a reasonably standard bit of insult verse – Harbard is accusing Sif, Thor’s wife of infidelity and naming Thor a cuckold. Nowhere else in the Old Norse corpus is Sif recorded as being unfaithful to Thor, except in verse 54 of Lokasenna where Loki says to Sif:

I alone know, as I think I do know,

your lover besides Thor,

and that was the wicked Loki.

So here Loki is stating that he alone knows who Sif’s lover is, and that is himself. Yet to identify Loki with Harbard on this logic, we must assume that the events of Lokasenna take place after the meeting in Hárbarðsljóð. The flyting in Lokasenna takes place before a gathering of the gods and thus the accusation exposes the secret, the rumour thus becoming a tool for any who wish to denigrate Thor. Moreover, Harbard’s verse implies that the lover is someone other than Harbard himself.

What else may speak to Loki as Harbard? Well there is the reference in verse 26 to Thor and Loki’s journey to Útgarðr in Jötunheimr. One of the more famous tales of Norse mythology, the gods and their companions are terrorised by Skrýmir, a giant so large that the group sleep the night in Skrýmir’s glove, thinking it a building:

Thor has quite enough strength, and no guts;

in fear and cowardice you were stuffed in a glove,

and you didn’t then seem like Thor;

you dared in your terror neither

to sneeze nor fart in case Skrýmir might hear.

Likewise, in verse 60 of Lokasenna, we have Loki telling Thor:

Your journeys in the east you should never brag of before men,

since in the thumb of a glove you crouched cowering, you hero!

And that was hardly like Thor.

This is certainly open to the same accusation as that previously quoted. Loki was with Thor in the glove, thus he is able to claim a unique position as an eye-witness, making the accusation difficult to counter. As Loki reveals the secret of Thor’s cowardice in front of all the gods, it becomes available for all to use who wish to taunt Thor. Though it should be noted that we do have full accounts of the Útgarða-Loki narrative, and in these Thor is represented as uniquely courageous – the only one of the group not fearing the rumblings of the giant.

Skrýmir and his glove, with Thor poised to attack, by Friedrich Wilhelm Heine (1882)

There are various other reasons that Harbard has been identified with Loki. A number of other lines like those above hold clear similarities between the flyting of Harbard and Loki; the detailed knowledge of the deeds and misdeeds of other deities is very characteristic of Loki; so too is the apparent willingness to twist those deeds to mock and embarrass. Yet this is an argument that has not stood the test of time, and I must give a quick reminder that we are dealing with a literary corpus. The similarity between the verses quoted above speaks to inter-textual borrowing and may owe as much to a laziness in composition as a genuine attempt by the composer to create an inter-woven narrative in which Loki and Harbard are the same person, or in which Harbard is making use of the rumours spread by Loki in Lokasenna. We don’t often like to accuse medieval authors or the development of oral narrative of laziness though, so let’s stick to ‘inter-textual borrowing.’ Yet it is not unusual nor extraordinary within medieval texts to find similar sentiments and similar lines delivered by different characters. Indeed, with a tradition such as eddaic poetry in which the verse narrative had a period of significant oral development before being committed to the page, it is reasonably common to find that while independent narratives have evolved, famous or well-known verses may remain intact with them.

Harbard is, in fact, Odin in disguise. While a simple comparison of like-verses may point to Loki, the deeper implications of the allusions within the verse point clearly to Odin. There are many indications as to who we are dealing with: in verse 16 Harbard is a war-god wreaking slaughter, in verse 18 a cunning seductor, but let’s look briefly at verses 20 and 24 as most representative of Odin.

Mighty love-spells I used on the witches,

those whom I seduced from their men;

a bold giant I think Hlebard was

he gave me a magic staff,

and I bewitched him out of his wits.

Loki may be a trickster with powers to wreak havoc, but Odin has more tangible powers as the god of sorcery and knowledge. Both elements of this verse are far more representative of Odin than Loki: the use of magic to gain advantage, and the use of cunning to gain power and knowledge. Within the corpus of Old Norse literature, Odin does not shy away from using magic to his own ends, even to seduction and rape as seen in the particularly dark tale of Rindr (told in full in the Gesta Danorum, but only alluded to elsewhere). Odin is similarly morally suspect in his pursuit of knowledge; indeed, I would suggest that is one of his defining characteristics within the mythology. Odin favours the acquisition of knowledge by means of craft and guile and gives little consideration for those who lose in such exchanges. Thor’s response to this verse is representative of how markedly he differs from his father: with an evil mind you repaid him for his good gifts. Odin/Harbard replies by saying each is for himself in such matters.

This is not, however, the most definitive example of the differences between Odin and his son as god-figures within Hárbarðsljóð, that comes in verse 24:

I was in Valland, and I waged war,

I incited the princes to never make peace;

Odin has the nobles who fall in battle,

And Thor has the breed of serfs.

In the first half of that verse we once more see Harbard as a war-god, inciting battle and pitting princes against one another. These men will die in the battles Harbard (let’s just call him Odin at this point) instigates and perpetuates, and dying in battle they will be called to feast with Odin in Valhalla until Ragnarok. The second half of that verse is perhaps the most interesting as it is almost a summation of the characters of the two gods as displayed throughout the flyting. Thor lacks subtly – he provides simple responses and fails to recognise allusion or even recognise his father, though he is in his usual ‘disguise.’ Thor is thus portrayed as simple and straight forward, and assigned to him are the simple-folk – the serfs. Odin in contrast is portrayed as witty, powerful, and morally ambiguous, and assigned to him are the nobles. Undoubtedly Odin intends these lines as an insult. By referring to only a noble class and a slave class, he places himself among the nobles and Thor among the slaves. However, if we take the hyperbole out of Odin’s delivery and imagine that his cult primarily comprised of the noble and warrior classes, while Thor’s cult was most popular among farmers, labourers and common classes, this does match our archaeological and literary evidence for the cults of both gods. In this verse more than any other does the Hárbarðsljóð author most clearly allude to Harbard being Odin.

Ultimately, however, Harbard’s name reveals all. Hárbarðr means grey-beard and, identifying his various cognomens in the poem Grimnismál, also found in the Poetic Edda, Odin finishes verse 49 with the line Gǫndlir oc Hárbarðr með goðom: [they called me] Gondlir and Harbard among the gods. It is apt. As he says near the opening of Hárbarðsljóð: I am called Harbard, I seldom conceal my name. It is Odin, the grey-bearded wanderer, calling himself Grey-Beard, who sits across the inlet taunting his son. Why I could not tell you. Odin does not always need a reason to meddle. Was it a test? Was it just for fun? Was it a punishment? I’ll leave that to your own speculation.

-Matt Firth


  1. Feature image: Thor faces Harbard in a flyting exchange, W.G. Collingwood, from The Elder or Poetic Edda (trans. Olive Bray), London: Viking Society, 1908.
  2. Olive Bray, ed. and trans., The Elder or Poetic Edda, London: Viking Society, 1908. [Bilingual]
  3. Carolyne Larrington, trans., The Poetic Edda, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996. [Translations drawn from this text]
  4. Jónas Kristjánsson, Eddas and Sagas, translated by Peter Foote, Reykjavík: Hið íslenska bókmenntafélag, 2007.
  5. Rory McTurk, ed., A Companion to Old Norse-Icelandic Literature, Oxford: Blackwell, 2005.
  6. Gustav Neckel, ed., Edda: Die Lieder des Codex Regius, 1983 – Titus online version [Old Norse-Icelandic]
  7. Margaret Clunies Ross, A History of Old Norse Poetry and Poetics, Cambridge: Brewer, 2005.
  8. Benjamin Thorpe, trans., The Poetic Edda, reprint, Lapeer: The Northvegr Foundation Press, 2004 (1907). [Translation]

If you liked this post, follow this blog and/or read the following blog posts:

Berserks, Revenants, and Ghost Seals – Surviving a Saga Christmas

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

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

Monsters and the Monstrous in the Sagas – The Saga of Grettir the Strong

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Death, Treachery, & a Victory Against the Odds: Sir Thomas Dagworth & the Battle of la Roche Derrien

The Hundred Years’ War highlighted significant changes to both the nature of warfare, and to status and standing within late medieval English society. Prior to the more than century long conflict between England and France, the noble knight was both a symbol of chivalry and prestige, in addition to being the undeniable might and power of the battlefield. In a relatively short space of time, medieval military tactics took a substantial transformation. Continue reading Death, Treachery, & a Victory Against the Odds: Sir Thomas Dagworth & the Battle of la Roche Derrien

Art, Allegory, and the Authorship of the Bayeux Tapestry

Depicting the Norman Conquest of England, its causes, justifications, and political context, the Bayeux Tapestry is one of the most immediately recognisable, and most complex sources of European history.  Importantly, granted the location of its conception, the overt concerns of the Tapestry’s narrative are the religious and political interests of Latin Christian Normandy in the late 11th century.  However, it would be a mistake to characterise the Tapestry as mere Norman propaganda – the allegory, analogy and imagery used by the collaborators of the work have given it complexity beyond a simple chronology of events. It is this complexity I want to focus on today, with a particular interest in the authorship of the piece (in so doing I will, to a large degree, be treating the Tapestry as a historical document).

But before we begin on authorship and authorial intent, it is perhaps worth noting that, in form, the Tapestry was not entirely unique.  Remnants of similar artworks have been found in the Scandinavian countries.  Sweden, Norway and Iceland all preserve embroidery fragments dating between 900 – 1200. Literary evidence in turn points to the existence of such narrative embroideries, the Liber Eliensis of Ely cathedral in the 12th century mentions the bequethal of a hanging woven upon and embroidered with the deeds of [Byhrtnoth] and, in a separate event, notes the theft of a very valuable and famous hanging from the cathedral by rival monks. Despite our lack of extant examples, it seems likely that a tradition of narrative textiles existed throughout Western Europe.  Although, perhaps we could take this a little further. Aside from the Tapestry, the extant physical examples are exclusively Scandinavian.  As such, the evidence points to a tradition of narrative embroidery that was endemic to the Scandinavian world.  England had been a part of the Scandinavian world for over a century prior to the Conquest, with an increasingly Anglo-Norse population ruled by Scandinavian kings prior to the start of the Tapestry’s narrative.  Likewise, the Duchy of Normandy had significant Scandinavian influence in its genesis.  With Norman and Anglo-Norse authors, the decision to tell the history of the Conquest through textile art would not have been unusual.  It is from this cultural tradition that the Tapestry was born.

Nonetheless, the Tapestry is unique in form as a surviving history of the Conquest, though the narrative and themes of the Tapestry reflect those of other, near-contemporaneous, literary sources relating the story.  Yet unlike these, no single author can be attributed to the creation of the Tapestry, it was a collaboration of patron, designer and artisan.  Each party had their own contributions that can be teased out from the frequently ambiguous motifs of the Tapestry.  Its visual nature, as a piece of textile art, allowed its authors to adapt symbolic imagery to convey narrative tropes, familiar to a receptive, and likely illiterate, 11th century audience.

So, let’s have a think about the motivations behind the creation of the Tapestry. It was not created to record the political history of Normandy and England from 1064-1066. Neither was it created to provide an official Norman account of the Conquest. It was created to satisfy its patron – as that great Anglo-Saxonist, Frank Stenton stated:  the designer […] could do no other than follow the tale most acceptable to his patron. This creates an interesting dichotomy of authorship.  The patron commissioned the Tapestry, but did not create it. As such, though the interests of the patron informed the Tapestry’s creation and the narrative it wove, the subtleties of designer and artisan provide the narrative with depth and expression.

Taking each of our collaborators in turn, I am going to look to our patron first. The commissioning of the Bayeux Tapestry has traditionally been attributed to Odo of Bayeux, William of Normandy’s brother. This provenance would mean the Tapestry is one of the earliest sources recording the Norman invasion of England, made within memory of the Conquest. Yet, without direct evidence for the authorship of the Tapestry, the identification of its patron needs to be ascertained from the narrative of the Tapestry itself.  A brief study of the case for Odo of Bayeux commissioning the Tapestry will begin unravelling the motives for the Tapestry’s creation.  The argument rests upon the fact that the Tapestry assigns him a role within the overall narrative that exceeds his role in other accounts of the Conquest. Odo makes four appearances in the tapestry and is named three times in the inscriptions. Two appearances are at significant points in the narrative: the commissioning of the Norman fleet (scene 15), and the rallying of the troops at the Battle of Hastings (29). While this prominence is unlikely, it can be justified by Odo’s station as bishop, vassal and brother to Duke William.  This cannot be said of four minor characters named in the Tapestry of which three were vassals of Odo.  Significantly these men do not feature in any chronicles of the event, and Odo is not given prominence in other early records of the Conquest.  Most notably, the Kentish monk Eadmer makes no mention of Odo in his Historia Novorum.  While paralleling the moralistic themes of the Tapestry, Historia Novorum is Anglo-Saxon in tone and either slighted Odo, or Odo’s contributions to the Conquest were not sufficient to warrant note outside Norman sources.  The Bayeux Tapestry had definitive purpose in providing prominence to Odo and his men.  It was created for display at Odo’s cathedral in Bayeux, and was designed to appeal to an audience that was to view the Tapestry and remember and recognise the contribution of its leaders to the Conquest.

(Scene 15) Odo at the commissioning of                   (Scene 29) Odo rallying the troops                     the Norman fleet

In addition to providing prominence to the Bishop of Bayeux, the Tapestry provides prominence to Bayeux itself. One of the key events preceding the Conquest was the swearing of an oath by Harold Godwinson to Duke William, pledging his support for William’s claim to the English throne.  However, Harold went on to claim the English throne, despite his oath, giving the Normans the moral justification to mount the expedition to England.  The idea that the Normans were a tool of God’s retribution on a perjurious usurper is attested in numerous contemporary sources, and hinges on Harold’s oath.  Aedmer, who could be expected to support the Anglo-Saxon claim to the throne, casts the Norman victory as an indictment of Harold’s perjury, the miraculous intervention of God, who by punishing Harold’s wicked perjury shewed that He is not a God that hath any pleasure in wickedness.  The Norman chroniclers, William of Jumieges and William of Poitiers, also make the oath central to their histories and promote the allegory of the Conquest as righteous judgement.  The Tapestry is part of the same narrative tradition, depicting Harold taking an oath to William in Bayeux, over the holy relics held by the cathedral (11).  The only chronicler to place the oath at Bayeux was Wace, writing 100 years later in his role as a canon of Bayeux Cathedral. In contrast, William of Poitiers places the oath at Bonneville, located within his own diocese, while Orderic Vitalis, who wrote somewhat later and was openly critical of Odo, placed the oath at the Norman capital of Rouen.  The location of the oath is unimportant to the moral allegory of the Tapesty, and even to the literal outcome of the Conquest.  Each author was using this aspect of the narrative to their own provincial objectives, in the case of the Tapestry, providing prominence to Bayeux and its bishop.  Odo is placed in the centre of momentous events, the pivotal moment of the narrative centring on his cathedral, and the home of the Tapestry.

Scene 11: Harold swears an oath to William over the relics at Bayeux Cathedral

Yet the Tapestry is more than a simple attempt by its patron to show the justice of the Norman cause and his central role in the events – it is important that the contributions of designer and artisan not be overlooked. While the dual interests of the Tapestry’s patron as both religious figure and Norman partisan provided the allegory we have noted – God’s retribution upon a usurper – the weaving of this moral allegory throughout the Tapestry speaks to the clerical training of its designer.  Trained to read scripture, clerics were taught to interpret events in a religious and moralistic light, and it is likely the designer provided an outline of text, events and figures on the linen that was to become the Tapestry before the artisans went to work. The designer was clearly literate with religious interpretation of history, and literate with the language of the church. Interestingly though, and deepening the dichotomy of authorship, factors such as orthography, letter form and the expertise available indicate that the designer, and his artisans, were English, likely based in Odo’s post-conquest acquisition, the Earldom of Kent. With this in mind, it is just possible to see the hands of the Tapestry’s creators independent of its patron. Though the narrative certainly perpetuates the Norman narrative of Conquest, the designer did not deviate from the main history in order to pontificate upon the virtues of the victors – he even passes over details recorded elsewhere that would have demonstrated the morality of the Normans. The Tapestry’s English authors may have been embroidering to satisfy their patron, but they were not going to do so at the cost of English dignity. Indeed, I would argue that the Tapestry takes something of a ‘middle road.’ Generally speaking, the narrative tends to eschew individual heroism; Harold, for example, is depicted as heroic but morally flawed, while the text inscriptions have been described as studiously non-committal. The result is that both the conquered and conquerors as depicted as men of merit and valour and, as such, the Tapestry provides a vital link between the views of both peoples.

Which brings us to audience. The decision to use a textile medium to depict the events of the Conquest was directly related to audience. Odo likely commissioned the Tapestry for display at Bayeux cathedral in time for its consecration in 1077. The display of the tapestry in a public setting enabled the literal and allegorical narrative of the Conquest to be conveyed to an illiterate audience. In this, the Tapestry was somewhat akin to oral history in its ability to reach a larger audience, and relay both the narrative and the implications of the Conquest more immediately than written chronicles.  Indeed, the Tapestry likely fostered an oral tradition, with the Latin text enabling churchmen to narrate the events of the Tapestry for visiting pilgrims.  As an aspect of this, the Tapestry’s depiction of Harold’s oath (11) would have drawn the pilgrim’s attention to the significance of the relics they had come to see.  Meanwhile, the parishioners of Bayeux would have a constant reminder of the primacy of their bishop, cathedral and relics in grand political events.  In creating the Tapestry, its authors distinctly targeted an audience separate from the chronicles recording the events of 1066.  The chronicles were aimed at a literate, educated audience, while the Tapestry used established traditions of iconography to recount events to an audience conditioned to understand the underlying religious, visual motifs of the embroidery.

At which point it is worth sounding a note of caution and recalling the idiom coined by the great scholar of medieval art, Emile Mâle: the old craftsmen were never so subtle as their modern interpreters.  The Tapestry authors used imagery to convey ideas and individual components of the narrative through devices of allegory and analogy.  Already rich in emblematic meaning, it is easy to find allegory where the authors intended none. This has led to wide ranging interpretation of individual scenes within the narrative. Yet, in searching for meaning in the creation of the Bayeux Tapestry, it is important to read the tapestry as an ensemble: border, text and narrative scene together.

The visual representations in the Tapestry have three readily accessible layers of narrative.  The often terse Latin inscriptions provides a basic narrative that needs to be located within the larger story.  This story is provided by the main pictorial plates which provide the full narrative of the events of the Conquest, imbued with allegory appropriate to a Norman, Christian audience.  Finally, the borders provide analogy and depth of message to the narrative, either commenting on individual scenes, or alternatively providing general commentary on the overarching moral theme.

A closer look at scene 6 will show the manner in which these layers are used to develop the narrative:  Harold is in the custody of Guy of Ponthieu, who receives word from Duke William to send Harold to him. The brief Latin inscription states Here a messenger comes to Duke William; Here Guy took Harold to William, Duke of Normandy.  The narrative panels give greater detail, the previous scene had shown the arrival and capture of Harold in Guy’s territories.  Under the first inscription a messenger arrives at William’s court telling him of the event, William then organises Guy to transfer Harold to his custody, which takes place under the second part of the inscription.  In the lower border, between the two inscriptions there is a deer, caught between two packs of hunting dogs.   Caught between Guy and William, the deer is analogous of Harold’s circumstance.  The scene needs to be read comprising all its component parts to provide the audience a full picture of events.

Scene 6: William is informed of Harold’s capture and organises Harold’s transfer into his custody.

The Tapestry is not always so easily read.  Ambiguity was a narrative device adopted by the designer and his artisans, the dichotomy of authorship allows multiple readings of the Tapestry’s iconography. This ambiguity is displayed in the authors’ analogous use of fables throughout the Tapestry’s borders.  In scene 2 there is a representative depiction of the fable of the lamb, drinking upstream from the wolf.  In the fable, the wolf tries various rationalisations to justify eating the lamb; however, when the lamb rebuts all of these, the wolf simply eats the lamb anyway. The moral is that the greedy will always take what they want – usually interpreted in line with the Norman condemnation of Harold’s usurpation.  Yet if it is understood that the Tapestry’s creators were English, the fable could equally be read as an indictment of William’s actions in conquering England.  Accustomed to reading allegory in visual narrative, conqueror and conquered could read the analogy in the light of their own cultural context.

Scene 2: Fable of the lamb and the wolf depicted in lower border.

Contributing to the difficulties in reading the narrative is the very form of the Tapestry.  The nature of the object necessitates a linear history, however the designer breaks the flow of the story at various points.  Famously, scene 13 reverses the order of the death and funeral of Edward the Confessor. This is not simply an anomaly, the movement of the characters changes in line with the reversal of events.  The narrative reversal supports the Norman view of Harold as a usurper by visually separating his elevation as king from the internment of the last legitimate Anglo-Saxon king.  The highly ritualised scene of procession is moving away from the events of Harold’s coronation and the omens after his crowning.  This funeral scene anticipated Edward’s future saintliness, living on in death and not following the progression from life to death depicted in other deaths in the Tapestry. The representation of Edward as a saintly king benefitted both Anglo-Saxon and Norman views of events, and the narrative break at his death segregates the Anglo-Saxon past from the Norman future.

Scene 13: The death and funeral of Edward the Confessor – scene is in reverse chronological order.

So where to finish up? Designed to be central to Bayeux cathedral, just as Bayeux cathedral was central to the narrative, the Tapestry would have been seen by an audience who would be reminded of the prominence of their leaders in world events and in God’s plans. It was a remarkably simple idea – a visual representation of the Norman view (or Odo’s view) of the Conquest for a largely illiterate audience – Norman propaganda. Yet the Tapestry is a fundamentally complex document that, in its authorship, in its inter-weaved allegory, analogy and imagery, displays a contrast between Norman patron and Anglo-Saxon artisans. No doubt the Norman refrain that they were God’s tools in visiting his justice upon a wayward and perjurious king resounds loudly through the Tapestry narrative, but the Anglo-Saxons scarcely appear as a wayward and perjurious people.

-Matt Firth


  1. Feature image: Scene 15  Bayeux Tapestry
  2. Eadmer, A History of Recent Events in England: Historia Novorum in Anglia, trans. Geoffrey Bosanquet, London, Cresset Press, 1964.
  3. Suzanne Lewis, The Rhetoric of Power in the Bayeux Tapestry, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1999.
  4. Liber Eliensis, trans. Janet Fairweather, Woodbridge, Boydell Press, 2005.
  5. J. Bard McNulty, The Narrative Art of the Bayeux Tapestry Master, New York, AMS Press, 1989.
  6. Lucien Mussett, The Bayeux Tapestry, Woodbridge, Boydell Press, 2005.
  7. Orderic Vitalis, The Ecclesiastical History of England and Normandy, trans. T. Forester, London, Henry G. Bohn, 1853.
  8. Gale Owen-Crocker (ed.), King Harold II and the Bayeux Tapestry, Woodbridge, Boydell Press, 2011.
  9. Wace, Roman de Rou, trans. Glyn S. Burgess, Woodbridge, Boydell Press, 2004.
  10. William of Jumieges, Gesta Normannorum Ducum, trans. Elisabeth Van Houts, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1995.

If you liked this post, follow this blog and/or read the following blog posts:

A Case of Clerical Fraud – King Æthelstan and Malmesbury Abbey

The King Lives! Scandinavian Legends of Hastings and Svolder

Shrouded in Rumour – The Lost Childhood of King Æthelstan

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

See our bibliography on Chronicle Editions

A Case of Clerical Fraud – King Æthelstan and Malmesbury Abbey

The Norman Conquest changed the character of the English church. Anglo-Saxon clergy were ousted, churches and cathedrals began to be built on a much larger scale, the king wielded direct influence over the church, and it marked a period of monastic expansion that saw the number of clergy and religious houses expand fourfold.  Yet despite these changes, it remained that, in Anglo-Norman England, many individual institutions had their origins in the pre-Norman period. Given the fierce competition for land that accompanied the arrival of a new nobility and many new religious houses, these abbeys and churches had a useful tool: the ability to lay claim to a region as the bequeathal of a long-dead Anglo-Saxon king. However, if the religious house in question did not have an extant charter or writ (diploma), and only held the land by right of tradition, how did they prove their ownership? Easy. They created a new one, and believe me, clerical fraud was rife. So, in today’s post we will look at one such example of a fraudulent charter. Known as S 436 and purported to date to 937, the charter we are looking at records King Æthelstan’s gifts of land at Wootton, Bremhill, Somerford, Norton and Ewen to the brothers at Malmesbury Abbey. Continue reading A Case of Clerical Fraud – King Æthelstan and Malmesbury Abbey

Berserks, Revenants, and Ghost Seals – Surviving a Saga Christmas

Christmas in the Icelandic sagas is not always pleasant. Perhaps a shipload of berserks will arrive at your isolated farmstead intent on rape and slaughter. Or maybe the undead have become active, killing your shepherds or overrunning your mead-hall. Or, worst-case scenario, are trolls haunting the landscape and ghost seals haunting your floorboards? These are all tales I will be exploring today as we look at the dangers of a saga Christmas.

It is a curious thing that such ill-deeds occur on Christmas in the sagas and there appears to be two reasons for this. The first is didactic. Bad things happen to those who fail to celebrate the festival – for example, things do not end well for the berserks who decided to undertake a raid on Christmas Eve. The second follows from this, and reflects an inherent tension between Christianity and paganism that exists within many Icelandic sagas. The saga world is one in which Christianity was a relatively new player and, in these narratives, there is a recognition that paganism was still active in society, as was belief in creatures of pre-Christian origin, and there is an apparent desire to repress both. This is certainly true of the sagas we are looking at today: the events of both Eyrbyggja saga and Grettis saga occur within a Christianised or Christianising Iceland and, more importantly, the authors of both wrote within a thoroughly Christian milieu.

A note that, though the word for Christmas in the texts is synonymous with the English ‘Yule,’ a word with pre-Christian origins reflecting pre-Christian religious rites, it should not be in doubt that what is referenced within these tales is the Christian festival. As such, I won’t be touching upon pre-Christian festival of Yuletide (and its origins), though I just read a rather good article on the topic from Brute Norse.

For two of the three stories, we will be spending time with Grettir Ásmundarson – in fact one of the stories has been covered in our post on Monsters and the Monstrous in the Sagas, so I’ll only look at that briefly. But as we are Grettir-heavy, let’s have a little chat about the lad. Grettir fills a role in the Icelandic pantheon of heroes not unlike that filled by Heracles (Hercules) in Greek mythology. In detail, the parallels are not necessarily obvious – for example, in contrast to Heracles, Grettir is not a demi-god, and the gods are not explicitly active in his life. But fate is. Grettir and Heracles are both fate-bedevilled heroes, outcast from society due to socially transgressive behaviour, who in their exile cleanse the landscape of otherworldly creatures. Neither is directly guilty of the crime for which they are exiled – Heracles was cursed by Hera, while Grettir was wrongly accused of a hall-burning – yet it is society’s belief in their extraordinary personal prowess that makes the extraordinary nature of the alleged transgressions so believable. In neither case does the hero learn humility, and both men go on to be a burden and a boon to society as they continue to transgress cultural norms while relieving society of the creatures that haunt it. Now I won’t push this comparison further (frankly, it requires some more thought); however, I hope that places Grettir within a more familiar context for many people.

An Icelandic Heracles – the outlawed Grettir defeats a bounty-hunter, by Henry Justice Ford (1901).

Grettir’s heroic antics often have a correlating episode in Beowulf – but I dealt with the Grettir-Beowulf relationship in Monsters and the Monstrous in the Sagas, so head there for that.

And now. How to deal with the monsters of Christmas like an Icelandic hero…

A Murder of Berserks and a Murderous Grettir

Strictly speaking, our first monsters are monstrous humans. We have a collection of berserks. These men are angry at a recent law banning duelling. Duelling was a problematic activity, according to the saga, as berserks were wont to challenge noblemen, not as a measure to compensate a wrong, but as a measure to gain the nobleman’s goods or women. A lucrative business that was now banned, as were berserks themselves. One of the men instrumental in passing this law was Thorfinn, a man that was hosting our hero Grettir at his island farmstead, and the berserks were out for revenge.

Now Thorfinn left for the Christmas feast with thirty freed men; it was very entertaining and enjoyable there. Now Christmas Eve came; the weather was clear and calm. Grettir was out for the greater part of the day and saw ships sailing up and down along the coast, for everyone was visiting each other wherever a party had been arranged … Then Grettir saw a ship rowing to the island; it wasn’t very big and it was set with shields from stem to stern; the ship was painted above the water-line. They rowed strongly and made for Thorfinn’s boat-shed, and when the ship ran aground the men on it jumped over the side. Grettir counted these men and saw that there were twelve of them. They didn’t look very friendly to him.

Left in the house with Grettir was Thorfinn’s wife and daughter, and eight farm-hands – on paper not a group likely to stand long against a group of marauding berserks. Grettir recognises this, and also recognises that the berserks were unlikely to be there for a cup of tea and chat. So Grettir aims for subterfuge – pretending to work with the berserks, making them welcome in the house, getting them nice and drunk, and showing them around Thorfinn’s stores. It is at this point that Grettir locks them in a storeroom and rushes back to the house to find weapons (it is also only now that members of the household realise Grettir was not truly siding with the berserks).

Grettir snatched [a] helmet and spear and fastened [a] cutlass at his side and went out quickly. The mistress called to the farm-hands and told them to go and help him, such a fine fellow as he was. Four of them ran to get weapons, but the other four didn’t dare go anywhere near.

[The berserks] managed to break down [a] partition and so got out into the passageway and from there out to the steps; then the berserk fury came upon them and they howled like dogs. At that moment Grettir reached them; he thrust the spear with both hands at the middle of Thorir’s body just as he was going to come down the steps, so that it went straight through him. The head of the spear was both long and broad. Ogmund the Bad was following close behind Thorir and pushed him forward against the thrust so that it pierced right up to the barbs; then the spear came out between Thorir’s shoulders and so on into Ogmund’s chest. They both fell down dead from the spear. Then each of the others jumped down from where they stood on the steps. Grettir attacked them one at a time, sometimes striking with the cutlass, sometimes thrusting with the spear, and they defended themselves with pieces of wood that were lying on the ground and anything else they could get hold of; it was very dangerous to fight them because of their great strength, even though they had no weapons. Grettir killed two of the Halogalanders there in the yard … Six of the vikings fell there, and Grettir was the slayer of them all. Then the other six fled; they got down to the boat-shed and went into it; then they defended themselves with oars … Grettir killed two in the boat-shed, but four got out past him. Then each pair went off in different directions; he chased the ones that were nearer [and] in the end Grettir killed them both; he was then terribly tired and stiff, and it was well on into the night. The weather became very cold and there was drifting snow. He didn’t care then to go looking for the two vikings that remained; now he went back to the farm.

What a guy! And don’t worry – the remaining berserks were found dead the next day, so we have closure. It is worth noting that this event occurs while Grettir is in Norway under a minor outlawry from Iceland (3 years’ exile – this predates his major outlawry). This means that Grettir is yet to establish his reputation, but clearly he is on his way.

So the lesson here? Be wary of unexpected Christmas visitors, and keep your cutlass close to hand.

A Dozen Ghosts (Draugr), the Men Who Sued Them … and a Ghost Seal

We’ll leave Grettir to enjoy a rare taste of good fortune and step across to Eyrbyggja saga – the saga focuses upon the intrigues of the Snæfellsnes region of Iceland from its settlement up to the immediate conversion era. It is perhaps most interesting for the author’s clear interest in the pre-Christian rituals and folklore of Iceland (though he is absolutely a Christian who preferences Christian characters). It is fair to say that as collective body of literature, the sagas may promote Christianity, but tend to retain and advocate respect for their pre-conversion culture and ancestors – this is rarely better displayed than in Eyrbyggja saga.

EreDwellersCountryMap (1)
The Snæfellsnes region of Iceland, from the William Morris Archive (note: William Morris’ translation is not used in this article).

So it’s Christmas time and the family wants to visit. But they’re dead.

This has to be among most interesting, the oddest, and the best stories in all the sagas…

It all starts in the summer in which Christianity was adopted as the religion of Iceland at the Alþing. A wealthy Hebridean-Norse woman named Thórgunna came to Iceland with some (apparently textile) fineries rarely seen on the island. She is rather protective of these items and, falling ill, she requests of a man named Thórodd that her bed and bedding be burned should she die. He promises, she dies, but he doesn’t follow through, and then things get weird. As he and some helpers transport Thórgunna to Skàlholt for burial they decide to stop the night in Stafholtstungur, though the farmer does not offer them hospitality. Not to worry, Thórgunna has it sorted. She rises from her coffin, completely naked, helps herself to the farmer’s stores, and begins preparing dinner for her coffin-bearers. The farmer suddenly decides to offer the full hospitality of the house. Thórgunna takes full advantage and the visitors ate their food and no one found fault with it although it had been prepared by Thórgunna

But we have only just begun and, as the coffin-bearers return to Fróðá (where all this is happening), ill-omens begin to appear. Death soon follows. At the start of winter, a shepherd mysteriously fell ill and died. Not one to let death keep him down, soon after he attacked a man named Thórir as he returned from the toilet during the night. Thórir died shortly after and joined the shepherd in his posthumous nocturnal activities. By the time Advent had begun, four more men joined them in death and in terrorising the small community.

But life in winter in Iceland was tough and the business of living could not be dissuaded by the undead. Shortly before Christmas Thórodd had need to head to his store-house on the island of Nes to collect some dried fish and he and his retinue of six had need to spend the night…

That same evening, after Thórodd had gone and the fires had been lit, it happened that people came into the room and saw a seal’s head coming up out of the fire-pit. One of the women saw it first when she came in. She grabbed a cudgel which was in the doorway and struck the seal on the head; but the blow only made the seal rear up even higher, and it stared up at Thórgunna’s bed-canopy.

Yes, the impetus for all this otherworldly activity really is Thórodd’s broken promise to burn Thórgunna’s bed sheets. And yes, this is a spectral seal…

One of the farm-hands came over and started hitting the seal, but with every blow it rose higher until its flippers emerged. At that the man fell down senseless. Everyone there was paralysed with horror. Then young Kjartan rushed up and lifted up a huge sledge-hammer and struck the seal on the head with it; it was a powerful blow, but the seal only shook its head and looked around. Kjartan kept hammering away at the head and the seal went back down like a driven nail; he kept on hammering until the seal had sunk down so far that he could pound the floor flat over its head. And so it went on throughout the winter: all the ghosts feared Kjartan the most.

But our Christmas story does not end with the ghost seal, not even remotely. Sailing back to Fróðá from the island where the above events occurred, Thórgunna finally metes out her posthumous revenge and Thórodd and his crew drown at sea. The saga is unclear why the heroic young Kjartan was not among the dead – he was clearly on the island to hammer the seal-head, but he is also clearly the host of the funeral-feast. But is it really a funeral feast when the men who died show up to partake in the event? They push the living away from the fire and taking up all the heat until the fire burned to ash. So it went on throughout the entirety of the Christmas period and, not to be outdone, once the guests for the funeral feast departed, Thórir and his own five companions, covered in soil, joined Thórodd’s crew each night. Thus, whether the fire was lit in a different room or two fires were lit, the undead still came taking up all the space around the fires and warming themselves.

The resolution to the situation is stunningly Icelandic – at the time a famously litigious culture. Kjartan summons the undead to court, accused of trespass and deprivation of life. These were properly formulated court-cases: a jury was appointed, testimony given, cases argued, and verdicts given. As sentences were passed on each of the defendants, the draugr responds to effect of: I sat here while the sitting was good, and left to never return. It is also of note that Kjartan finally burned Thórgunna bed-clothes. (To hear about this episode in fuller detail it is worth listening to the Eyrbyggja saga episode of the Saga Thing podcast).

What a Christmas! The saga tells us that of the thirty people who began their winter in Fróðá, only seven remained at the end – whether dead or fled.

So I guess that our main lesson here is to keep your promises, be wary of curses, and don’t let Christmas stand in the way of a good court case…

Glam the Revenant

This is a story I have covered in detail in Monsters and the Monstrous in the Sagas – so do look there for a full analysis, but let’s take a brief look at this fun Christmas story.

A wealthy farmer named Thorhall has a haunting problem on his farm, and had a problem getting shepherds to work for him. So enters a Swede by the name of Glam who declares: ‘I’m not afraid of ghosts, and I will find it the less boring.

That’s bad choice number one. Bad choice number two was having breakfast on Christmas Eve after Thorhall’s wife informed him: ‘It is not the custom for Christian people to eat on this day, for tomorrow it is the first day of Christmas, and so it is obligatory to fast to begin with today.’

Glam replied: ‘You go in for a lot of superstitions that I see no point in. I do not know that people are any better off now any more than then when people didn’t bother with such things. I thought ways were better when people were said to be heathens, and I want my food and no messing about.’

The farmer’s wife said: ‘I know for sure that it will go ill for you today if you go ahead with this wicked act.’

Glam told her to get the food straight away, said that otherwise things would be the worse for her. She dared nothing other than do what he wished. And when he had finished he went out, and was in rather a nasty mood.

Glam would not return alive. His corpse was found the following day, killed by whatever monsters haunted the farm. Yet his body could not be moved, and it would shortly be found that Glam had become a far worse monster than anything that had bother Thorhall in the past. The final straw is the following Christmas Eve when Glam’s replacement goes out shepherding (presumably having observed the fast), and is himself killed by Glam. From this point Glam’s reputation grows and it is this that brings Grettir Ásmundarson, monster-slayer extraordinaire, to the farm to test his strength. Grettir leaves victorious, but cursed – that however is not a Christmas story…

Lord Grettir and Glam
Glam the revenant, John Vernon Lord from Icelandic Sagas, Vol 2, The Folio Society, 2002.

Obviously the moral here is to conform to local custom, no matter how odd. And it is interesting that the Grettis saga author notes Glam’s refusal to fast on Christmas Eve as the main driver behind his demise. A similar remark is made by the Eyrbyggja saga author just as Thórodd set out for his island store-house – It was coming up to Advent, but in those days people in Iceland did not observe the fast.

It seems that, for out authors, Christmas was a time when the pagan and Christian worlds were most at odds. The Grettis saga author in particular records Grettor as also having killed a troll-wife on Christmas (once again covered in Monsters and the Monstrous in the Sagas), defeating another berserk in a separate incident on Christmas Eve, and killing a fearsome and surprisingly intelligent bear another Christmas. Grettir does his best monster-slaying at Yuletide. Overwhelmingly the authors give the impression that not only of an entrenched paganism in post-conversion Iceland, but that there was a naivety to Christian practice. The sense of the amusing Eyrbyggja saga narrative is that people didn’t quite know how to do the Christmas thing properly, After all, that incident was set only a year after conversion. Yet the intent of the authorial voice should not be doubted – the monsters of a pagan past were intruding on one of Christianity’s most holy festivals, and Christian Icelandic heroes were beating them back.

So we’ll leave it there and, with Christmas upon us remember: keep your promises, be wary of strangers, tolerate family traditions, and keep cutlass handy…

-Matt Firth


  1. Feature image: A witch places a curse upon a log that will bring Grettir’s downfall, but also result in the outlawing of sorcery – Henry Justice Ford (1901).
  2. Jesse L. Byock, Medieval Iceland: Society, Sagas, and Power, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990.
  3. Hermann Palsson and Paul Edwards, trans., ‘Eyrbyggja saga,’ in The Icelandic Sagas, edited by Magnus Magnusson, volume 1, London: Folio Society, 1999, pp. 275 – 384. [Translations drawn from this text].
  4. Jónas Kristjánsson, Eddas and Sagas, translated by Peter Foote, Reykjavík: Hið íslenska bókmenntafélag, 2007.
  5. ‘The Saga of Grettir,’ in Three Icelandic Outlaw Sagas, edited and translated by J. M. Dent, London: Viking Society for Northern Research, 2004. [Translations drawn from this text].

 If you liked this post, follow this blog and/or read the following blog posts:

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

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

Monsters and the Monstrous in the Sagas – The Saga of Grettir the Strong

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

See our bibliographies on the Viking World and Chronicles and Editions.

A Traitor’s Banquet – The Blood Feast of Roskilde

In 1146 Denmark descended into chaos and civil war upon the abdication of King Erik III (r. 1137 – 1146). He was the first Danish King to abdicate and, with no legitimate son to inherit the throne, the kingdom did not have the political stability to ensure a smooth succession. Sources written after the civil war, in the knowledge of the turmoil his departure created, judge Erik as a weak and short-sighted ruler. We however will not judge him too harshly. After abdicating Erik took himself off to a monastery and was dead within months – it seems likely he was incapacitated by illness, and it was this that forced him from the throne.

Enter Sweyn III, Cnut V, and Waldemar I. All three men were of direct descent within the Danish royal line, and each had the backing of a faction of the Danish elites as they sought to become sole king of Denmark. The support each enjoyed was legitimising and, in separate ceremonies, all three were crowned king – to this day, despite the fact that they ascended the throne in the same year and reigned concurrently, they are all considered Kings of Denmark. The status quo of three independent kings of Denmark lasted a decade, the kings variously allying or warring as they sought to gain control of the kingdom. Invariably it ended in treachery, at the infamous Blood Feast of Roskilde. The three men had arrived at an agreement to split the kingdom among themselves and met in celebration for a feast at Roskilde in 1157. By the end of the night one king would be a traitor, one would be a corpse, and one would be in exile. The youngest of these men, a noble son who would go on to become *spoiler* King Waldemar the Great, does not wish us to forget this injustice, the greatest treachery of the civil war.

I wish it to be known to everyone, present and future, that certain traitors, who were enjoying a pleasant meal with me and were engaging me in friendly conversation, without warning sought to run me through with naked blades, unarmed as I was and not fearing any such thing. But God’s mercy was with-out end, without help from anyone it protected me and with great power pulled me out from the midst of armoured men.


We do need some background to this story to understand why these three men were fighting for the throne, and it is hideously complicated. In fact, it requires a diagram. (If you are mainly here for the murder and treachery, I won’t be offended if you skip this section)! We will start with the kingship of Sweyn II (r. 1047 – 1076) – a man of prodigious fecundity. Though we do not know precisely how many children Sweyn had, it was a least twenty, five of whom would succeed to the Danish throne.

Sweyn himself was the son of Estrid Svensdatter, daughter of the Danish King Sweyn Forkbeard, and sister to Cnut the Great, and it was through this lineage that Sweyn II held a claim to the Danish throne. As this claim was passed through the female line, it is often considered the start of a new dynasty which bears her name – the House of Estridsen.  We will gloss over the five years of Norwegian rule over Denmark that immediately preceded Sweyn’s kingship, and our diagram of Danish Kings will pick up in 1047, continuing through to the three claimants of the civil war.

The Danish Succession (1047 – 1146)

Danish succession

This should give you an idea of the line of succession and the relationships between our three antagonists. I have tried to keep things simple and, as such, there are some nuances missing here. For example, Erik III’s paternal line descended from the Norwegian ruler Magnus the Good who held the Danish crown prior to Sweyn II, and thus Erik held a claim to the kingship from both parents. Of more importance, the kingship was, in principle, elective. This explains why a succession of brothers took the crown instead of it passing to the young sons of the elder siblings, why the kingship passed through the female line twice, and why an illegitimate son could make a claim to the throne. But this ‘elective principle’ should be taken with a grain of salt. The electors were an exclusive circle of elites, all the candidates for the kingship were drawn from the same family, and the crown invariably passed to the next ‘of age’ male in the line of succession. Indeed, if we consider that Waldemar, as the legitimate grandson of an elder brother, was considered by most chroniclers to have the primary claim to the throne, it seems clear that ideas of primogeniture had begun to permeate the Danish court. (Though I should also note that, as Waldemar emerged the victor of the civil wars, our sources tend to be deeply pro-Waldemar and thus make deliberate attempts to play-up his legitimacy). With all these nuances and caveats explained, and the picture duly complicated, I don’t want you to be in any doubt that this is essentially a family squabble, pure and simple. Cnut V, Sweyn III and Waldemar were cousins, all great-grandson of Sweyn II, and all thought they were deserving of the family inheritance.

Now, I have to admit that that all got far more complicated than I anticipated when I started writing. Clearly the politics of Denmark leading into the civil war are convoluted, but hopefully the outline I have given you will put you in good stead to watch the entertainment as Sweyn, Cnut and Waldemar vie for supremacy, culminating in the dramatically named Blood Feast.

The Blood Feast of Roskilde

I will let the twelfth-century Danish historian Sven Aggesen open proceedings, as Sven provides a succinct summary of the narrative as it has been passed down to us:

And when he was dead, [Cnut], the son of Magnus … was made king at the Viborg assembly, and Sven … was put on the throne by the Scanians. And while they were engaged in numerous battles, Waldemar, the scion of holy blood … gained possession of his father’s fief and gave assistance to both in turn, as if he stood between them.

However, after a long time, a council was held in Lolland, and the rulers decided to divide the kingdom into equal thirds and to confirm the treaty by an oath. But the treaty did not remain firm for long, as the outcome of the arrangement showed. For after the council had been held, the three we have mentioned came together that autumn in the city of Roskilde for a feast, and they dined first with King [Sweyn]. The peace and trust between them had been broken, and he had prepared a trap: he plan[ned] to kill [Cnut] and [Waldemar] that evening after vespers by means of commissioners previously instructed. When the lights had been snuffed, they slew [Cnut] and crowned him with martyrdom; but while they were trying to run [Waldemar] through with a naked sword, he was seriously wounded in the thigh, but God’s grace preserved him and he escaped. However, as soon as he had recovered somewhat from the pain of his wound, he set out for Jutland and gathered together an army. Sven, who was king of Scania, hastened after [Waldemar], king of Jutland, and they joined battle at Grathe. Nor was the victory long in doubt, for Sven was beaten, and killed by the hand of a peasant. And so the glorious victor, King [Waldemar], gained possession of the kingdom.

Let’s walk through what Sven tells us here with the help of some other chroniclers. The Blood Feast and, more broadly, the Danish civil war is covered extensively in other chronicles – most comprehensively by Saxo Grammaticus in his Gesta Danorum, but also within the Chronica Slavorum of Helmold of Bosau, the Knýtlinga saga of Óláfr Þórðarson (?), and in collected minor historical treatises and diplomatic texts. I will be relying mainly on Saxon to augment Sven’s account, though aspects of the other sources will also help with context.

Sven’s first paragraph covers a decade of civil war in a couple of sentences. Here the factionalism and independent coronations I noted above are on display. Each man is declared king by his own followers – Sweyn and Cnut are the older of the cousins and it is perhaps a little unsurprising that Waldemar, fifteen at the time of Erik III’s abdication, took a back seat. For a fifteen year-old claimant to the throne during a civil war, staying alive was rather an impressive feat and Sven indicates that Waldemar supported each of his rivals as it best suited him. Indeed, Saxo informs us that, in the early years of the civil war Sweyn was ascendant and well supported by Waldemar, whom he rewarded with a dukedom in addition to his patrimony. Cnut however wooed Waldemar to his cause through a marriage alliance and, at the time of the Blood Feast, Cnut and Waldemar were very close indeed. Which is not to say that Waldemar did not remain on friendly terms with Sweyn, and it was in fact this friendship that doomed Cnut on that fateful day in Roskilde.

Which moves us on to Sven’s account of the council and the division of the kingdom. But first I should briefly note the kind of pro-Waldemarian propaganda we are invariably dealing with. Sven’s description of Waldemar as the scion of the holy blood makes his opinion pretty clear and, as we lead up to the Blood Feast, Saxo makes sure that he proclaims Sweyn’s duplicity at every moment. We are not supposed to be in doubt that Sweyn is the bad guy, and that Waldemar is a paradigm of virtue. However, in Saxo’s account there is a naivety to Waldemar’s virtue, a naivety which to which much of what occurs can be attributed. It was Waldemar who brought Cnut to meet with Sweyn at Lolland, and it was Waldemar who convinced Cnut to attend the feast at Roskilde despite his clear distrust of Sweyn. In the lead-up to the Lolland treaty, Sweyn had sought to return Waldemar to their former alliance, however the faithful Waldemar declared that you’re wasting your time if you go on trying to shatter the sympathy between Cnut and myself. Sweyn responded disingenuously that he had no such intent, merely a desire to establish peace with both of them, an interaction which resulted in the treaty. Having thus convince Waldemar of his integrity, the now twenty-six year-old Waldemar in his naivety was further able to overcome Cnut’s distrust of Sweyn, convincing him to attend the feast at Roskilde. Leading him into the lion’s den.

According to Saxo, this was no spur of the moment plot. One of Sweyn’s soldiers, Detlev, was prepared in advance and looking for a moment to undertake the nefarious deed, even seeking to put Cnut at his ease with friendly interaction. Shortly after, Sweyn removed himself from the hall, leaving Cnut and Waldemar alone with his men, preparing to assassinate the rival kings. Then the attack began. Waldemar, sensing the impending attacked, leapt from his chair and, wrapping his cloak about his hand fended of blows, though Detlev managed slice open his leg as he fled, bursting through his opponents and out the door. Turning his attention to Cnut, Detlev stabbed him in the head. Cnut was caught as he fell by one of Waldemar’s key advisors and a man destined for greatness, Absalon, the future Archbishop of Lund. But this was a harrowing moment for the young cleric. A man named Dobik stood over then, attempting to avenge Cnut, but he was struck down. Another of Cnut’s confederates, Konstantin, sought to lead Absalon from the hall, but he too was killed before Absalon, in the gloom, managed to bluff his way past the guards at the door. Yet Absalon was still pursued, and even trapped by a band of men as he sought sanctuary at the cathedral of the Trinity, before other men bravely rescued the cleric. Thus, with both the future sole king of Denmark and the future Archbishop of Lund escaping the slaughter, Saxo declares: In this way Fate preserved the future pillar of our fatherland, unwilling to let the hope of Denmark’s restoration disappear completely. And that hope did not disappear. The Blood Feast had occurred on the 9th of August, and on the 23rd October Sweyn and Waldemar met in a final battle at Grathe Heath, from which Waldemar would emerge victorious. And the restoration began immediately as, with the loyal Absalon by his side, Waldemar united Denmark, brought the country into the Wendish Crusades, and began a period of territorial expansion that would earn him the sobriquet ‘the Great.’

It’s all a little neat though, isn’t it? Waldemar was on good terms with Cnut, a relative both by descent and through marriage, so what would the two men have done if they had defeated Sweyn? Split the kingdom? That kind of arrangement has traditionally been a poor one with one of the kings dying shortly after. However, if Waldemar was able to control the narrative, he could scarcely have come up with a better one to absolve himself of ill-deed. His ally was murdered through treachery, he himself was wounded and fled, pursued by the traitor. Finally, turning to face his pursuer, by the grace of God, he was granted victory.

After eleven years of civil war, it was all over in the space of a month and, if we are to believe the chroniclers, Waldemar achieved this rapid victory by a mix of good luck, circumstance, and divine intervention. While I could never prove this, as our sources almost universally follow Waldemar’s narrative, I would contest that Waldemar’s victory was of his own making. It was Waldemar who acted as a go-between for the other kings, it was he who brought Cnut into Sweyn’s clutches, and it was he who somehow ‘miraculously’ escaped the Blood Feast. Was this in fact pre-arranged with Sweyn? It seems likely to me that Waldemar played Cnut and Sweyn off against each other, convincing each of his support, and taking the opportunities to eliminate them as they arose. The quote by Waldemar at the top of this article, in which he exhorts us to remember the treachery of that day, is our most contemporary account of events. Waldemar was creating his own narrative and, given his really quite extraordinary success as a king on the years to come, it seems likely the chroniclers were happy to follow. So who was the real traitor at the Blood Feast of Roskilde? Certainly it was Sweyn and his men that hewed down King Cnut V, but perhaps they too were mere pawns in the hands of the man who would become one of Denmark most extraordinary and accomplished kings, Waldemar the Great.

-Matt Firth


  1. Feature image: The Blood Feast of Roskilde – each king is labelled by his name and Cnut can be seen being cut down. MS Sächsische Weltchronik, Forschungsbibliothek Gotha, Memb. I 90, f. 131v.
  2. Eric Christiansen, The Works of Sven Aggesen, Twelfth-Century Danish Historian, London: Viking Society for Northern Research, 1993. [English translation abridged by me].
  3. Lars Kjær, ‘Feasting with Traitors: Royal Banquets as Rituals and Texts in High Medieval Scandinavia,’ in Rituals, Performatives, and Political Order in Northern Europe, c. 650-1350, edited by Jezierski et al., Turnhout: Brepols, 2015, pp. 269 – 294.
  4. Hermann Pálsson and Paul Edwards, Knytlinga Saga: The History of the Kings of Denmark. Odense: Odense University Press, 1986.
  5. Saxo Grammaticus, Gesta Danorum,edited by Karsten Friis-Jensen and translated by Peter Fisher, 2 vols, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2015.

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

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

Sweyn Forkbeard, Olaf Tryggvason, and the Kingship of Norway

Viking Identity & Christianity – The Performed Violence of Olaf Tryggvason 

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Creating a Saint – King Edmund the Martyr & the Great Viking Army

Riddled with spears, clinging to his faith, King Edmund of East Anglia was beheaded on 20 November 869 at the orders of Ivar Ragnarsson ‘the Boneless.’ Or at least that is what the tenth-century Passio Sancti Edmundi, Regis et Martyris of Abbo of Fleury would have us believe (note that I am using the Old English redaction of the text by Ælfric of Eynsham as my source). Unfortunately, as great as story as this is, it is just that, as story. The martyrdom of Edmund is an excellent example of late Anglo-Saxon hagiography and, particularly, of the cults of Anglo-Saxon Royal saints I have written about previously (Æthelberht of East Anglia, Kenelm of Mercia, Edward the Martyr). Yet there is something different about Edmund – Æthelberht, Kenelm, and Edward were all young kings, killed in their youth and innocence as a result of political machinations and their naivety. Though they do not suffer what is traditionally considered a martyr’s death – death in defence of their Christian faith – they are accorded a martyr’s death by virtue of their innocence. This ambiguity does not exist in Ælfric’s account of Edmund’s death. Edmund, according to Ælfric, tells Ivar’s messenger, who was sent to demand the capitulation of the East Anglian king: I will not defile my clean hands in your foul blood, because I follow Christ who sets us such an example; and I will happily be killed by you, if God ordains it so. Edmund intended to die a martyr’s death at the hands of the heathen vikings, and so he did. Continue reading Creating a Saint – King Edmund the Martyr & the Great Viking Army

The Battle of Winwæd and the Rise & Fall of Pagan Mercia

The Battle of [the] Winwæd in 655 is a little known and sparsely recorded battle, yet one of critical importance to the social, political and religious evolution of the various Anglo-Saxon kingdoms from the seventh century. While the death of the pagan king of Mercia, Penda, and significant numbers of his allies was not enough to permanently arrest Mercian political ascendency, it is often considered to be the catalyst for the decline of Anglo-Saxon paganism. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle:

In this year [655] Penda perished and the Mercians became Christians. (Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, C-Text).

In this year [655] Oswiu killed Penda at Winwædfeld and 30 princes with him, and some of them were kings. One of them was Æthelhere, brother of Anna, king of the East Angles. (Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, E-Text).

Continue reading The Battle of Winwæd and the Rise & Fall of Pagan Mercia

Cnut the Great, the Conquest of England, and the Puzzle of London

In 1016, the young Danish prince who was to become Cnut the Great, King of England, Denmark, and Norway, laid siege to the city of London as part of the campaign that saw him crowned King of England by 1017. London was one of very few English cities of European significance – a trading port, an economic and administrative hub, and population centre. And, in 1016, it was also the centre of Anglo-Saxon resistance to Cnut’s campaign of conquest.  Throughout Cnut’s English offensive, London was a base for the Anglo-Saxon king Æthelred II (‘the Unready’) and, after Æthelred’s death, the city unilaterally declared his son Edmund, king of England in the face of Cnut’s aggression. Despite the capitulation of Wessex and the declaration of Cnut as king by a gathering of leading nobles and clerics in Southampton, the city continued to hold out against the Danes. Indeed, the siege did not end in Danish victory, but in treaty and settlement. As such, the resistance of the independent minded Londoners had implications upon how Cnut would conduct juridical, financial and religious policy in relation to the city. Cnut could not allow the city to exert that kind of autonomy unchecked. However, the Danish king had ambitions of establishing an Anglo-Scandinavian Empire and London was strategically important in that vision. Valued for both its continental connections and its wealth, Cnut could not afford to stunt London’s economic life through punitive repression. The Danish king’s early years were then characterised by a series of carefully balanced retributive policies that were designed to remove London’s agency for rebellion, while not crippling it as an established economic and commercial centre. It is these punitive measures that this article will focus on – it should be noted that later in his reign Cnut did adopt a more conciliatory approach to the city.

This post is based on Matt’s published article which can be read in full: ‘London Under Danish Rule: Cnut’s Politics and Policies as a Demonstration of Power,’ Eras Journal, Volume 18, No. 1. Continue reading Cnut the Great, the Conquest of England, and the Puzzle of London

Monsters and the Monstrous in the Sagas – The Saga of Grettir the Strong

Monsters and otherworldly powers are a real danger to the Icelandic saga-hero. Many an Icelander has to deal with ghosts, with trolls, with the undead, or contest with witch’s curses. There are few who have to deal with more monsters than Grettir Ásmundarson (also know as ‘the Strong’), a historical outlaw with a mythologised past. Today I am going to look at three episodes of Grettir’s fighting monsters as he works to clear Iceland of its monstrous inhabitants. Grettir is not always loved or loveable, but he performs a function in a newly Christianised Iceland that other men do not seem able to perform. Grettir alone stands against to monsters. Or rather, Grettir is the only one who seeks them out, as we shall see in each case – the fight against the undead mound-dweller Kar the Old; the famous battle with the revenant Glam; and a fight to the death with a troll-wife and her ‘friend.’ And these are but a sampling of the monsters and monstrous available in Grettis saga! I will be looking at some of the similarities between the tales, the function of the tropes, and what I think the author is up to. However, my main focus today will be on storytelling and, while this is a rather long article, I anticipate it will be an entertaining one! Continue reading Monsters and the Monstrous in the Sagas – The Saga of Grettir the Strong

Death for Dinner: The Battle of Auberoche and French Tactical Ignorance

The power and efficacy of the longbow as a significant weapon of medieval warfare is evidenced most aptly in the infamous battles of the Hundred Years’ War; Crécy, Poitiers, and Agincourt being the most notable examples. However, its successful use in warfare, particularly by the English (and their Welsh subjects, whose involvement we shouldn’t forget), predates both the Hundred Years’ War itself, and significantly the Battle of Crécy within the war. Continue reading Death for Dinner: The Battle of Auberoche and French Tactical Ignorance

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

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