Kingdom of Vikings - Introduction
Updated: Feb 5, 2021
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Kingdom of Vikings - the Rise and Fall of Norway.
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Iceland, 1230 A.D.
In 1230 AD, on the obscure island of Iceland, a middle aged Norse huscarl sat down and began to write. His name was Snorri Sturlason. Though he was a warrior, he was also a poet and author. He enjoyed a wealth of knowledge, for he had collected all the oral lore concerning the epic tales of his forefathers. Snorri knew this history better than anyone. Gifted by lyrical flair and good memory, he had now been requested by the King of Norway to write the epic sagas of the Kings. If he could write down the origins of the Vikings, the great deeds and acts they accomplished while still alive and the forging of their Kingdoms – he would immortalise them. These stories are rich in both charm and dread. They follow the valiant Kings of old who dwelled in the Northern mountains and seas, and decided to carve out a Kingdom there, and call it the land of the Northmen. Through the beauty of Norse rhyming, the stories of these men had so far been recorded in an endless amount of poems. Snorri’s innovation was to translate them into written sagas. This book’s innovation is to translate the sagas into a modern recollection of how the Vikings and their descendants forged the throne of ancient Norway.
The story of how the Kingdom of Norway was forged is perhaps one of the most fascinating, adventurous, and riveting stories in history. It weaves together the lives of twelve grand figures; spans five centuries of war and peace; and covers the edges of Siberia to the woodlands of Canada, the icebergs of the Arctic to the desert sands of Africa. Norway was not built in a day, nor by one single person. It was forged slowly, being borne out of the wild Viking era, and hammered into maturity through the middle ages.
Norway is an ancient land. Its origins are clouded by myth and mystery. Its tall and majestic mountains have witnessed many untold events. But the mountains do not share their secrets, so it is up to us to uncover them. We must therefore collaborate with both medieval and contemporary historians; Viking poets and current-day archaeologists; to illuminate the truths of how this Northern outpost was made a Kingdom. What we are left with is a comprehensive set of life stories, told in a captivating and visually compelling manner, that does justice to both the medieval sagas and the scholarship of history.
This is a real game of thrones. The titans described in this book all left a unique footprint on this Northern, Viking kingdom – but they made major sacrifices to achieve it. The story of the Kingdom of Norway is riddled with cunning geopolitics, fierce battles, notorious raiding, and bitter betrayal. However, it also displays grand statesmanship, unyielding loyalty and friendship, love affairs and powerful marriages, sacrificial courage and stirring valour on the battlefield. Thus, the following story fills us with a range of emotions - dread, charm, and inspiration – while also sparking our intellectual curiosity.
The Norwegian archaeologist Thor Heyerdahl was known for his unconventional approach to history and myths. He stirred a lot of interest when he claimed that the story of the Norse god Odin – told in Snorri Sturlason’s Heimskringla and Poetic Edda – was real, not fiction. He therefore took Snorri seriously, the same way Snorri took the old legend of Odin, seriously.
According to Snorri, Odin was not a fantastical, invented figure – but a real person. Odin was the King of an ancient people, residing somewhere in modern-day Caucasus, with the pride of their tribe being the splendid Aas citadel (Åsgard). With the invasion of Roman legions, they fled and migrated North, eventually settling in Scandinavia. Odin was wise and strong, and when he died, he was so dearly loved that his followers began worshipping his spirit. This began the Odin-cult, or the Norse religion (also called Asatru – the faith of Asgard). Norsemen, therefore, refers to these Scandinavian peoples who followed the Norse religion and culture.
Odin’s ruling dynasty would be called the Ynglings (modern scholars suspect the name originates from Scythlings, or Scythians). All members of Odin’s deified family became rulers over the Scandinavian lands, forming different Norse tribes (Jutes, Zealanders, Suedi, Gothic, Trondic, etc). Some went South-West to settle in modern-day Denmark. Some stayed in Uppsala in Sweden. Others decided to cross the awe-inspiring Northern mountains and settle along the stretched, barren coastline of modern-Norway. Here they dwelled for centuries – developing villages, merchant towns and agricultural farmlands.
To the Romans, this Northern region of Scandinavia was both mysterious and obscure. However, they knew that its inhabitants had much in common with other Germanic peoples they had encountered in central Europe. Tacitus, the Roman historian, investigated the Germanic tribes in 98 A.D and wrote down his assessments. He emphasised that they had a strong culture of individual freedom and communal customs. “…and good customs are here more effectual than good laws elsewhere,” Tacitus noted. They were deeply suspicious of Kings and absolute rulers. In their rule of thought, the King ought to serve the people, not the other way around. However, should there be war, they regarded it as a duty and an honour to die fighting for their leader.
When the Romans neared the borders of modern-day Denmark, they clashed fiercely with the Jutes, who then rallied the other Norse tribes under the lordship of King Dan (who most likely gave Denmark its name) and assaulted the Romans. The Romans fled and would never return.
However, though the Romans would not return to Scandinavia, the Scandinavians returned to them. In the 5th century A.D, Saxons and Anglers - two tribes hailing, according to the legend, from Odin’s people – swept across Britannia and claimed it for themselves. They would be known as the Anglo-Saxons and would rule England for hundreds of years. Other Germanic tribes – Franks, Goths, Suedi, Vandals – stormed through the Western Roman Empire and destroyed it. The classical world was shattered. Europe began a new era.
The Franks settled in modern-day France and would inherit a lot of traditions, laws, and institutions from the ancient Romans. In many ways, they regarded themselves of the inheritors of the Roman legacy. By the early 700s, their King, Charles the Great (or Charlemagne from the Latinised Carlo Magnus), created a vast Christian Empire that pushed back into the old Northern territories – perhaps too deep. As his Frankish troops ventured into Denmark, they made the same mistake the Romans had done seven centuries before and clashed fiercely with the pagan peoples. The Franks called them Nortmenn or Northmen – a Nordic Germanic people who had never left their ancestral lands nor changed their customs. Very little was known about them.
So, who were these Norse peoples? The Franks knew they were very shrewd tradesmen. They had used to trade with ancient Romans before, but also with distant peoples (for instance, a Buddha statue dating 500 A.D has been found in modern-day Sweden, suggesting a complex network of trade routes). They also fought fiercely with other Norse clans to expand their holdings, avenge their ancestors, or raid each other’s wealth. The only cause that seemed to unite them was when a foreign intruder (non-Norse) invaded – then, they quickly rallied to inflict terrible madness upon their common foe.
Middle Earth - the World of the Viking
“These ships are not loaded with cargo but with hostile wild men…I am not frightened that these pirates will hurt me. But it pains my heart to think that they have sometimes, in my lifetime, dared to attack our coasts, and I am struck with fear to imagine what evil they will bring to my successors and their subjects.”
Charlemagne, when witnessing Viking ships entering his harbour.
In 793 A.D, a group of Norse raiders, known as Vikings, attacked and plundered the famous monastery of Lindisfarne – one of the finest centers of Christendom in Britannia. For the Christians, it was an unbelievable sacrilege. For the Vikings, an easy loot. Since the monasteries were packed with gold, yet undefended, Vikings repeatedly returned to sack them. This was the beginning of the so-called “Viking Age” – a period that took its name from the Norse word viking, meaning raider. Unfortunately for the Europeans, this age would last for a long time.
European kingdoms struck back with force, but instead of intimidating the Vikings, they only provoked them. Returning to their shores in year 865 were not bands of brigands – but entire armies. The so-called Great Heathen Army, led chiefly by Ivar the Boneless, invaded England and destroyed anything in its path. For a moment, they held almost all of England, making York their headquarters. Though they were subsequently beaten, new waves of Viking invasions continued to plague Europe. In France, Ragnar Lodbrok and others besieged Paris. In the Mediterranean, Vikings wrecked town after town, sacking cities like Lisbon, Cadiz, Seville, Algeciras, Narbonna, Luna, Pisa, Fiesole, and Pamplona. They sacked the lucrative trading center Durestad four times, incurring a devastating blow to central Europe. These Northmen (Normans in Frankish) seemed unstoppable.
However, they did not come just to plunder – they also came to settle. For some debated reason, the Norsemen embarked on a massive exodus out of their ancestral lands and swept across Europe to find better land. It was as if the events that led to the destruction of the Western Roman Empire (5th century A.D) were repeating themselves. Norsemen settled in Northern France (Normandy), Ireland, England, across the islands of the North Sea, in Frisia (in modern-day Germany), Sicily and across Eurasia. Here they carved in their own, new Kingdoms and Earldoms, and their Norse culture soon began influencing the European. Not only did languages exchange words and grammar rules, but traditions, art and worldviews merged.
The consequences of this process are undeniable: it led to the development of new ideas, cities, and even new countries. For instance, they were the founders of the Russian state – chief Ruric from Sweden founded the Rus kingdom in Novgorod, creating a dynasty that would rule all the plains from the Gulf of Finland to the Crimean Peninsula. It became the first organised authority on these wide plains and morphed into the Kievan-Rus Empire, marking the beginning of the history of Russia. On Ireland, the Norse Vikings founded the city of Dublin, developing a Viking-kingdom on Ireland that would rule the Irish sea for centuries.
So why did these Scandinavian Vikings travel so eagerly away to foreign territories? One theory holds that, in the face of enhanced trade with Europeans that produced more wealth, the population grew too large for the scarce Northern resources to support. Other claim there was a climate crisis in Scandinavia that worsened the prospects for food production, sending large sways of the population abroad. Many therefore migrated to foreign lands that had better farming opportunities. Regarding this, England was the jewel. The endless meadows of Britannia proved irresistible for the Norsemen. For centuries they would attempt, and achieve, to become Britannia’s masters.
Norsemen valued the spirit of adventure. They were curious, and courageous. Any opportunity to defy the will of the waves by crossing the sea, find a distant land and engage in risky violence or mysterious exploration, ought to be taken. After all, they had only a limited time on Midgard –Middle Earth – before they had to enter the Spiritual domains of the gods. They longed for a good legacy to leave behind, hence the Norse proverb “cattle die; comrades die; and you die too. But the words of a legacy lives forever.” They probably also sought the favour of the gods, who, in Norse religion, rewarded brave souls by various means. Upon a Norseman’s death on the battlefield, the heroic warrior could be taken into Valhalla – the hall of the slain – where the dead would feast and wrestle with Odin until the end of time. Good farmers or merchants could enter the home of Frey, the god of wealth. Those who lived without accomplishments entered the dull world of Hel – where absolutely nothing worthy of remark happened. Thus, the afterlife would be spent with the gods until Ragnarok – the final battle and the end of the world. This mythology certainly promoted adventurism by means of war, exploration, or trade. It lacked a clear definition of good and evil, but still included a set of virtues that all Odin-worshipping Norsemen pursued. It emphasised ambition, boldness, strength, ingenuity and, sometimes, slyness.
The importance of gifts in Norse culture was also a strong incentive for the Vikings to go abroad. Their society evolved around it the giving and receiving of gifts. The man who had the largest collection of precious items was always followed. This chief would give gifts to his subjects, and in exchange, his subjects would give him loyalty. If a chief ran out of gifts, he would lose the loyalty of his men. This was expected. The more exotic the items were, the greater value they had. Chiefs who were considered good were therefore often described as “generous” and “eager givers” in saga literature. Throughout this book, we shall see many examples of the strategic value of riches.
Riches come either through trade, or through war. But the latter involved high costs and risks. For this reason, contrary to popular belief, the majority of Norsemen were traders, not Vikings (raiders). Their interest for the outside world greatly increased as the years passed by, and chiefs made sure to promote trade by investing in the development of trading cities, like Kaupang in Norway, Ribe and Hedeby in Denmark. A vast and impressive trading network emerged, which is yet another explanation for the rising wealth in Scandinavia. Controlling the trade routes towards the North became very important to the early kings in the region.
To the Far North, the Norsemen taxed Samis and orbited closely around the North Pole to trade with Inuits for their immensely valuable furs, hides and walrus ivory. Heading East, they crossed into Arkhangelsk and Siberia. On the long rivers of Dniepr and Volga, the Norsemen sailed to reach the Silk Road, Persia, Mesopotamia, Syria, the Holy Land, and the Byzantine world. Norse merchants were found in markets across Spain, Italy, France and even Africa. As we shall later discover, goods originating across the Atlantic also found their way into Scandinavian homes. This amazing, global network made the Norsemen truly international. Wealth like spices, silk, glass, metals, and Persian silver, flooded into the North like never before. The Norsemen in turn exported various furs and hides, wheat, honey, feathers, falcons, whalebone, walrus ivory, amber and slaves.
The Norsemen owed much of their success to their technologically advanced ships. The development of this new type of ship building, was one of the major contributions that made the Viking era possible. They exploited Europe’s many rivers, using them as highways, easily fleeing from enemies in a quicker pace than other ships. The ingenious longboats were ideal for both open oceans and narrow rivers. They were slim and fast, but also robust. They were also light, so that Vikings could carry them on-land if necessary.
With such a static system of profitable trade routes, competition over the control of these routes naturally became a defining element. The Dniepr and Volga rivers were monitored by the Rus Norsemen, who taxed bypassing merchants and earned a fortune. The same tax was imposed on merchants travelling along the Norwegian coast, the North Way. Therefore, competition among the tribes and clans along the North Way was fierce. They constantly attempted to enlarge their naval territories at the expense of their neighbours, and thus reap great wealth in trade taxes and tariffs.
A similar situation could be found in Sweden, a land divided between the Swedes and Geats (or Gots). According to the old texts, Denmark had technically stood united under King Dan, but then split again. It was not reunited until 936, under Gorm the Old’s reign. Gorm’s son, Harald Gormsson “Bluetooth”, led Denmark to become a mighty Norse kingdom, exerting great influence over Viken in Norway and clashing heavily with the Anglo-Saxons in England. However, Harald Bluetooth also converted from Norse paganism to Christianity – a remarkable moment.
Christendom and Norse paganism had stayed at war since Charlemagne’s invasion of pagan Saxony (772 AD). Despite these hostilities, the Christian faith itself gained traction in Scandinavian societies. The brave missionary St. Ansgar – the Saint of the North – founded Christian communities in Denmark and Sweden. Priests and monks from Ireland spread the Scriptures along the North Way. At first, the Norsemen tolerated Christian activity. Some agreed to be baptised - but it soon became complicated. As Christianity began spreading rapidly through the work of the missionaries, Norsemen felt threatened. It was more than a question of religion – this was a question of culture and worldviews. A culture clash was enveloping.
Kingdom of Vikings
It is in this environment that we begin our journey through the thrilling lives of the men who forged the Kingdom of Norway. It was with this worldview, this history of war and conflict, this knowledge of seas and lands, that the first Viking chiefs originated the idea of a united country and would give their lives to realise it. The implications this had on Northern Europe (and beyond) were substantial – but furthermore, the life stories it contained are some of the most exciting and dramatic ever recorded. We may open this book by thanking Snorri Sturlason, the old Icelandic warrior and author, along with all the countless other saga-writers, for putting these tales on paper and saving them from being lost in memory or myth. Thanks to them, we now have a rich set of biographies at our disposal, including intriguing details and vivid stories.
This book intends to re-tell these stories but through a modern lens. It maintains the lively storytelling of Snorri Sturlason and the old saga-writers, but it adjusts its narrative to accommodate for modern scholarship. The chapters, each covering a life of a significant figure, describe the life events in a concise and easily understandable manner, while keeping an entertaining tone to make room for the reader’s imagination.
Sometimes, dramatic moments are often prefaced by “according to the sagas” or similar, to specify that the exact quotes or details of the episode are directly taken from the sagas. These short biographies are therefore sourced both directly from medieval sagas and contemporary ballads (of witnesses), and from assessments by modern historians. The bibliography of each chapter can be found at the end of the book.
Can we trust the sagas and medieval sources? They were written in the 1200s, so they covered events ranging 300 to 50 years before them. Despite being far closer to the original events than we are today, many modern scholars have chosen a very sceptic approach to the sagas. Academic scrutiny is, of course, important, but the sagas have arguably been often proven to be quite accurate. At least, the brunt of their narrative is usually confirmed as legitimate.
We must remember the efficiency of oral lore – the style the Vikings used to record and transmit information and stories. Witnesses of notable events would use a common syntax and rhyming scheme to record the events in kvad – poems or songs. This is known as skaldic poetry. The rhyming made them easy to remember, and they were sung or repeated on many occasions to spread them to others. It was important they were sung correctly, to maintain the details of the lyrics. This is why each Viking King or lord usually had several court poets or skalds in his staff, so they could begin recording what they witnessed. Some would, of course, have a favourable bias to their employer – but many skalds also composed poems to insult or criticise chiefs and Kings. Snorri and other saga-writers used these songs and ballads, but also reviewed other manuscripts written before their time, and inspected local knowledge and memories. The combination of all this produced the sagas. Let us hear how Snorri Sturlason himself defends his texts in his own preface:
“In this book I have had old stories written down, as I have heard them told by intelligent people, concerning chiefs who have held dominion in the northern countries…Some of this is found in ancient family registers, in which the pedigrees of kings and other personages of high birth are reckoned up, and part is written down after old songs and ballads which our forefathers had for their amusement. Now, although we cannot just say what truth there may be in these, yet we have the certainty that old and wise men held them to be true.”
This book – Kingdom of Vikings - consists of two parts. The first covers the founders and first Kings of Norway under the Viking Age (795 to 1066). The second covers the forging and maturation of the Kingdom as it enters the Middle Ages (1066 to 1280) – an era of unprecedented growth in the Kingdom, but also brutal conflict and notorious civil wars. The Kingdom of Norway was borne out of the Viking Age. It was hammered together by Viking Kings. This legacy was very dear to all the Kings who took upon themselves the throne of Norway. All strived to honour it, and many battled to attain it. This is the heart of the historic Norwegian culture and identity. It was, and is, a nation carved out in the Far North of the world. Norway is the Kingdom of Vikings.
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