Tag Archives: Vikings

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.

FordGrettir2
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

References:

  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.

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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.

Background

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

References:

  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.

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

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 

See our bibliographies on the Viking World and Chronicle Editions

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

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

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

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

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

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