The Eleventh Century

The Eleventh Century


In Denmark at the beginning of the eleventh century, Swein Forkbeard stood out as the undisputed ruler. Since his assaults on London in 994 and the ensuing raids on southern England, that country must have been frequently in his thoughts. From a Viking point of view, conditions were not unfavourable for realizing these dreams of conquest. Athelred Unraed had committed a tactical error – which has been described as a political crime, and which was certainly a political betise – by ordering the massacre of all Danes in his country, an event which occurred on 13th November 1002, Saint Brice’s day. The massacre, in which Swein Forkbeard’s sister, Gunnhild, was murdered, aroused violent anger, and Swein launched two punitive expeditions in 1003 and 1004 into Wessex and East Anglia. Other raids followed in the ensuing years, although not under Swein’s direct leadership. From 1009 the Danish raiders in England were commanded by Thorkel the Tall (perhaps a brother of Earl Sigvald, of Jomsberg) who eventually came into Athelred’s service. Then, in 1013, Swein Forkbeard resumed command and with fleet and army launched a rapid and skilful campaign. In a short time he overran Athelred’s kingdom and then advanced on London, now defended by Thorkel the Tall. The city held out, and Swein decided to waste no time besieging it, but turned on Wallingford in order to secure his hold on Wessex, and from there went on to Bath. Then London surrendered and Athelred fled to his brother-in-law, Duke Richard II of Normandy, with whom his wife Emma had already taken refuge. Thorkel the Tall remained in England, but with a force so far inferior to Swein’s as to cause him no further anxiety. Swein’s task was now accomplished, and he was generally accepted as the sovereign of England. But on 3rd February 1014, he died suddenly at Gainsborough.

The immediate consequence of his death  was that the Anglo-Saxons/Englisc nobles in England turned again to Athelred in Normandy, and made a pact that, under certain conditions, Athelred should return home and resume the battle against the Danes. The Danish leader in southern England was now Canut, Swein’s son, who had been campaigning with his father in England while his elder brother, Harald, stayed in Denmark. He was undertaking a big task for such a young man, made the more arduous by the fact that Athelred’s bellicose son, Edmund Ironside, was now one of England’s commanders. In these circumstances Cnut decided to return to Denmark in order to raise, with his brother Harald’s aid, fresh forces for a decisive attack on the English. He was in luck. For one thing, he was unexpectedly joined by Thorkel the Tall, who for some time had been in Athelred’s service and was a most experienced warrior and a valuable ally, more because of his cunning than the strength of his fleet. Perhaps best of all was the active support of his brother-in-law Earl Eric of Norway.

In 1015 Edmund Ironside, acting against his father’s wishes, seized power in the Five Boroughs, and therefore in the Danelaw. Shortly after Cnut and his brother Harald arrived with a large fleet off the south coast, and found facing them Edmund Ironside and Eric of Mercia – the latter a most unreliable character who, during subsequent developments, changed sides more then once. Battles between the rival forces had varying results, with Cnut making good progress in Wessex, and (via Mercia) also in Northumbria, where  the Anglo-Saxon earl was deposed and replaced by the Norwegian earl, Eric. Then Cnut, avoiding the Danelaw, where Edmund was too strong, went back through Mercia to Wessex and prepared for a summer offensive against London, where Athelred died there in April 1016, and Edmund was chosen by the Londoners as his successor. Before Cnut had time to cordon off the city, Edmund broke out, and reconquered Wessex; upon which Cnut, leaving a force to besiege the capital, went after Edmund. Edmund, however, proved to be a good a warrior and strategist as his opponent, and, after Cnut’s failure to capture London, Edmund defeated him in a battle at Otford gaining the upper hand to such an extent that the opportunist Eadric of Mercia changed his affections from Cnut to Edmund. This proved a doubtful gain: in the following October the two armies fought a pitched battle at Ashingdon in Essex; here at a most critical moment Eadric and his forces fled, transforming an impending victory for Edmund into a heavy defeat.

Both sides were by now exhausted and the time was ripe for a settlement. This was reaached when they met on an island in the River Severn and in most solemn surroundings concluded a treaty, whereby Edmund was to have Wessex, and Cnut the rest of England, including the unconquered London. Hardly was this peace concluded, when the brave Edmund, who had lived up to his nickname ‘Ironside’, died suddenly!, in November 1016. (he was assassinated by Eadric or someone else on his instigation). The consequence was that Wessex now acknowledged Cnut, who this became king of whole England. Under him Earl Eric ruled in Northumbria, Thorkel the Tall in East Anglia, and the treacherous Eadric, who was soon assassinated at Cnut’s instigation, in Mercia. To begin with Cnut assumed direct rule of Wessex himself, but soon afterwards divided this province (and Mercia as well) into smaller earldoms.

As early as 1018 Cnut made it clear that he wanted England to be regarded and treated not as a colony, but as an independent kingdom with himself as its chosen ruler. He took two important measures to demonstrate this. He dismissed the great fleet and sent it back to Denmark. paying off its men with the biggest danegeld ever levied in England – 10,500 pounds of silver from London itself and 72,000 pounds from the rest of the country. He retained for himself a small personal fleet of some forty ships, which was later reduced to sixteen. Next he summoned a national assembly at Oxford, where it was agreed that the new constitution should be an acceptance on oath of the laws of king Edgar’s time. Soon after, Cnut’s brother, King Harald, died childless in Denmark, and in 1019 Cnut returned to his homeland, partly to assume the throne there, partly to ensure that no new Viking raids against England should be mounted. Having achieved both these objects he was soon back in England, where, for reasons we do not know, he outlawed Thorkel the Tall, who returned to Denmark. it was soon apparent to Cnut, however, that it was far to dangerous to have as an enemy a man with such powerful connexions as Thorkel had in Denmark, and in 1023 Cnut returned to that country and was reconciled with Thorkel. The terms of agreement reveal the strength Thorkel wielded: these were that Thorkel should govern Denmark in Cnut’s absence, and that each of them should adopt the other’s son as a foster-child (i.e. as a hostage). After Thorkel’s death (probably in 1024) his place in this curious pact was taken by Earl Ulf, who was married to Cnut’s sister Estrid; thus the only son of Cnut and Emma (Emma was the wife of Athelred the Unready), Hardacnut, became Ulf’s foster-child.

About this time Cnut was threatened by a new danger, this time from Norway. Here one of Harald Finehair’s descendants, Olaf, son of a Norwegian noble Harald Grenski, was making trouble. In his youth he had gained experience in Viking raids on England, under Thorkel, as well as in service with Duke Richard of Normandy. While Earl Eric was in England he saw his chance to seize control of Norway; he began in the south, and by 1016 he had defeated Eric’s brother Earl Swein in Trondelag in the north of Norway. Thereafter Olaf Haraldson, later called St. Olaf, was master in Norway, although he made many enemies who, displeased with his rigorous rule, frequently appealed for help to Cnut in England. Cnut, however, had his hands full, and decided to defer his settlement with Norway. This gave Olaf a respite, which he was not slow to take advantage of.

His natural ally was Sweden, whose ruler king Onund Jacob, a son of Olaf Skotkonung, was most concerned about the change in the Scandinavian balance of power which would result if Denmark, England, and Norway were all under one king; and Onund’s interest in the situation was increased by the fact that his sister was married to Olaf. The year 1026 was chosen for their joint attack on Cnut, and Olaf and Onund were counting a good deal on the strained relations which had developed between Cnut and his brother-in-law Earl Ulf, to make the latter a potential ally. As the place of battle the Swedes and the Norwegians chose the mouth of the River Helge in eastern Skane, and to this rendezvous came Onund’s ships from the north-east and Olaf’s from the west, followed by Cnut’s fleet which came from the Lim Fjord across the Kattegat. Seldom has such an important battle been reported in such contradictory accounts. The Swedes are said to have held their own, but all the military and political consequences of the battle point emphatically to Cnut as the victor; the Swedes were checked, Olaf returned to Norway, and Denmark was no longer threatened by them. A rune-stone of this period from Jutland, set up over a man called Full, perhaps refers to this battle in the words ‘who met his death east across the sea, when kings were fighting’.

Shortly after this battle, the tension between Cnut and Ulf was resolved by Ulf’s murder at Roskilde at the instigation of Cnut, who atoned for the deed by bestowing large estates on Ulf’s widow, his own sister Estrid. At Easetr 1027 Cnut was in Rome for the coronation of Conrad II as Holy Roman Emperor, and was recieved as one of the world’s leading monarchs. He made friends with Conrad, and came to terms with him about the southern borders of Denmark. All that remained for him to do was to secure his North Sea empire, where the only remaining problem was Norway.

Here Olaf Haraldsson still reigned, although he was now in open conflict with the Norwegian nobles, one of whom he had killed. The situation was ripe for intervention, and in 1028 Cnut brought a combined Danish and English fleet into action, landing at a number of places along the Norwegian coast, and taking the entire country without a blow being struck. Olaf retreated to the Oslo Fjord and from there fled east to Gardariki (Russia). Cnut now summoned a parliament at Trondheim (Nidaros), and there proclaimed his son Hardacnut as king of Denmark, and Earl Eric’s son, Hakon, as king of Norway.

In the winter of 1029 Cnut left Norway, taking with him a suitable number of hostages to ensure that the peace was not disturbed. Nevertheless, there were disturbances and during the same year Hakon was drowned whilst visiting England; in his place Cnut installed his young illegimate son, Swein, as the ruler of Norway, though under the guidance of the boy’s mother Alfgifu. She, however, failed in her attempts to introduce the Danish systems of taxation and justice into Norway. Almost before she had begun her unsuccessful government of the country there was a sensation event: Olaf Haraldsson, at the head of an army, returned via Sweden to regain Norway. he was defeated by the peasants of Trondelag in the famous battle of Stiklestad in 1030 (of which more later). Soon after this the Norwegians seem to have regretted their hostility towards Olaf, the zealous, though harsh, champion of Christianity. Such an intense national feeling developed against Alfgifu and her son that they were compelled to retire first to southern Norway in 1033 and later, in 1035, to Denmark. The successor to the Norwegian throne was Magnus, the son of St. Olaf, who had been brought home from Russia by Norwegian nobles.

There is no doubt that Cnut the Great was a powerful personality. He was not his father’s son for nothing. There was a streak of violence in him which not infrequently revealed itself; but first and foremost he was a statesman of profound acumen. So far as his principal kingdom, England, was concerned, he worked towards two ends: first, to consolidate god relations with the Church; and second, to cultivate the principle that this government was a continuation of the national Anglo-Saxon government of King Edgar’s time. He was intentionally-minded as well; he prudently secured Denmark’s southern frontiers, and towards the end of his life arranged a diplomatic marriage between the Emperor Conrad’s son and his own daughter Gunnhild. He safeguarded and improved the pilgrim routes from England and Scandinavia to Rome, and developed amicable relations with the ruler of Aquitane. The only power with which he failed to get on good terms was Normandy, where Richard II, who died in 1026, was succeeded a  year later by the ambitious Robert, who was not well disposed towards Cnut.

Whether Cnut really expected his north Sea empire, comprising three widely separated countries, to survive him, it is not possible to say. Even a man of Cnut’s determination found extreme difficulty in ruling this unison. It was hard, for example, to eradicate from the Anglo-Saxon mind the feeling that he was a foreign conqueror, when he was obliged on practical grounds to surround himself with his ‘housecarles’, a Scandinavian bodyguard whose strict discipline made them extremely efficient. The process of assimilation might have been   completed if Cnut – who in any case had promulgated a comprehensive law code for England – had lived longer; but he died in 1035, and almost at once the process of disintegration began.

Two sons were now candidate for the English throne. One was the Danish King Hardacnut; the other was Harald Harefoot, one of Cnut’s sons by Alfgifu. In 1035 Hardacnut was in Denmark, Harald in England, and both mothers, Emma and Alfgifu, pressed their respective sons’ claims in England. After a period of turmoil Harald was made King of England in 1037 (though without a coronation or anointing), and Queen Emma, Hardacnut’s ,other, was exiled to Flanders. Cnut’s North Sea empire was thus split again, although Hardacnut in Denmark still nursed his ambition for the English throne. This he showed in 1040, by sailing to his mother in Flanders with a strong fleet, on his way to attack Harald Harefoot; but Harald died suddenly and Hardacnut now succeeded without difficulty to the throne of England. However, at the same time he lost control of Denmark, which was taken from him King Magnus of Norway. A Danish attempt soon afterwards to overthrow the new regime – led by Swein, a son of Earl Ulf and Cnut the the Great’s sister, Estrid – ended in complete failure. Moreover, Hardacnut was not fated to enjoy the English throne for long: he died in 1042, and was succeeded by his half-brother (whom he had presumably nominated), Edward the Confessor, son of Athelred II.

With Hardacnut’s death the period of Danish rule of England came to an end, but it was far from the end of Danish Viking raids on the country. As we shall see, not even the French- Norman Conquest/Crusade of 1066 put a stop to them.

In Denmark the Norwegian Magnus occupied the throne; and under him Swein Estridsson ruled as Earl of Jutland. He was with Magnus when he crushed a powerful Wendish army in South Slesvig. In the middle of the 1040s, St. Olaf’s half-brother, Harald Hardrada, returned from Byzantium and presented to Magnus his claim to a share in the Norwegian throne. At the same time he formed an alliance with Swein Estridsson, who had now broken with Magnus and was living in exile in Sweden (where he had been brought up in the royal house, and from which he still received support). Magnus and Harald came to terms, and agreed to share the royal powers in Norway. Just as things began to look really black for Swein Estridsson, Magnus was killed (in 1047) by a fall from his horse. Swein immediately had himself proclaimed King of Denmark in Jutland, and there now followed a trying period of seventeen years (with an interval in the 1050s) during which Harald Harddrada attacked Denmark in  a series of raids which Swein was unable to ward off. Yet, although he was continually defeated, he showed an uncanny knack of surviving all set-backs, having great toughness and persistence. At long last, in 1064, peace of a sort was reached with Harald, who was preparing an attack on England where he was killed two years later. Swein was able to turn his attention to the rebuilding of his country and to the policy of the Danish church, which was striving for independence from both Germany and England. He remained an astute and capable sovereign of Denmark right up to his death in 1076, by which time the Viking period was over.

A few words now about England. in the 1060s two serious campaigns were launched from Scandinavia: the first in 1066 just before the French-Norman Conquest-Crusade, was from Norway, headed by the Norwegian king Harald Hardrada. We will return to this later when we survey conditions in Norway. The second campaign, in 1069, was started from Denmark, by the shrewd Swein Estridsson, who eagerly though he wished to renew Swein Forfbeard’s and Cnut the Great’s conquests of England, was not disposed to commit all his forces to such a venture; it was too risky for him. He compromised by dispatching against England a fleet of 250 vessels commanded by his brother Asbjorn. Three of Swein’s sons took part in this campaign, which was also joined by many Norwegians, Arriving off the coast of Kent the fleet turned north along the coast to the mouth of the Humber, where the army went ashore and was joined by a large Anglo-Saxon/Englisc force which had been mustered in the hope of overthrowing William the Conqueror. The combined armies marched upon York, which the small Norman garrison promptly set on fire. The invading armies won a victory, and had they been better led, they might well have altered the course of history; but they took to plundering and, when a rumour arrived that Duke William was approaching, the Danes went back to their fleet and entrenched themselves in the Isle of Axholme. William therefore turned upon the Anglo-Saxon/Englisc army, and while he was so engaged the Danes advanced on York again and captured it. William then decided to leave York alone for the time being, but set about methodically laying waste large areas of Yorkshire by fire and destruction, so as to drive away the inhabitants and prevent future risings against him in those parts. He applied this ruthless ‘scorched earth’ policy against Mercia and Northumbria – again to ensure that future invasions should attract no local support. Meanwhile, the Danish fleet lay in the mouth of the Humber, and here King Swein himself arrived from Denmark in 1079. In the spring, Danish and Anglo-Saxon/Englisc forces captured Ely and Peterborough, but during the summer Swein and William the Conqueror/Crusader reached an agreement, for which william probably had to pay a consideration. Ely was given up by the Danes and Swein returned home with the fleet the same year.

After his death in 1076 Swein Estridsson was succeeded by his five sons in turn. The second of these, Cnut (later called St. Cnut) planned, in conjunction with his father-in-law, Count Robert of Flanders, and the Norwegian king, Olaf Kyrri, to conquer England. A large fleet was assembled in 1085, in the Lim Fjord, in Jutland; but there it could sail a rebellion broke out in Denmark, in the course of which Cnut was killed. With him perished the last threat of Scandinavian invasion of England.


In Norway, as we have seen, conditions after the crucial battle of Svold enabled Swein Forkbeard to hold supreme sovereignty over the whole country, and exercise direct rule in the south, while under him Earl Swein governed Vestland, and Earl Eric Trondelag. These earls were the sons of Earl Hakon. This arrangement displeased many, particularly the young and ambitious chieftain, Olaf, son of the south Norwegian noble, Harald Grenski. After the death of Swein Forkbeard in 1014, and while his son Cnut, together with Earl Eric, had more than enough to do in England, Olaf returned to Norway, made rapid progress in the south (his native soil) and in 1016 attacked and defeated Earl Swein in a great naval battle at Nesjar in the mouth of the Oslo Fjord. For the next decade he was king of Norway, and proved a harsh ruler who made many enemies, not least by his zealous advocacy of Chistianity in opposition to traditional forms of religious worship. Olaf, expecting an attack from Cnut the Great, allied himself with the Swedish monarch Onund Jacob, and this led to the battle, already mentioned. of the three kings at the River Helge, in which Cnut triumphed. Olaf remained in Norway, for the time being in conditions of constant unrest, and when at last Cnut the Great moved against Norway in 1028 with his massive Anglo-Saxon fleet, Olaf had to give way and flee. He went to russia but, as early as 1030, he returned home via Sweden, where Onund Jacob helped him with forces and equipment. Olaf, who was soon to give up his material nickname ‘the Stout’ in favour of the more spiritual St. Olaf, marched west through Jamtland, in north Sweden, determined to regain his lost kingdom of Norway. Since in  centuries to come Olaf was to be regarded by Norwegians and by their church as their greatest sovereign and saint, we will now consider this crucial campaign in Norwegian history in some detail.

Anyone travelling today in Jamtland, westwards along the ancient route from Sweden to Norway, will pass the little island of Froso (the isle of the god Frey) which stands in the middle of Lake Stor (Storsjon), the holy lake of the Jamt people. On it is an open-air amphitheatre, beautifully situated; a grass-clad slope falls towards the west, and far below lies the tiny stage, across and above it the eye looks west over the lake, over the low blue hills until it is held by the distant barren mountain range of Kolen, which marks the gateway to Norway. On this open-air stage there is often performed nowadays the musical drama Arnljot, which takes a theme from St. Olaf’s campaign. Arnljot was a Swedish warrior, mentioned by Snorri, outlawed for killing at the holy Thing place of Froso. He volunteered to join Olaf, became a Christian, and fell fighting under Olaf’s banner at the great battle of Stiklestad. The open-air pageant affords modern travellers in northern Sweden an excellent introduction to the saga of Olaf.

Trondelag is accessible from Sweden by three routes, as in Olaf’s time. These all start near a great mountain 4,500 ft/1,371m high, called Areskutan, a mass which projects between the valleys and affords, towards the east, a view over half Jamtland. From here King Olaf set out for Norway, wuth an army of probably 2,000 men. Snorri records that he chose the middle one of the three routes, that which nowadays passes numerous mountain huts and crosses the Kolen range down into the Norwegian Inn valley south of Stiklestad. On the Norwegian flank of the Koren near Sul they met a peasant who complained to the King that the soldiers were trampling down his crops. From now on, the Kingpredicted, the fields would give a splendid yield, and so it proved! When Olaf crossed the Kolen he saw, in a vision, the whole of Norway laid out before him. Then he went to meet his fate on the battlefield he chose himself, Striklesatd.

He arrived there with his mercenaries a few days ahead of the enemy, determined to break the nobles and peasants of the Trondelag. Their army, led by the great land-owners Kalf Arnason and Thori Hund, was much bigger than Olaf’s – a factor which determined the result of the battle. Stiklestad, as Brogger noted, was the first land battle known to the history of Norway. All though the ninth and tenth centuries major engagements took place at sea; Harald Finehair, St. Olaf’s great-grandfather, conquered Norway from his ships. Land engagements there had been, but on a small scale. The strategy of a land battle followed this pattern: both sides let off a hail of arrows – as dense as possible ‘so that the sky was darkened’. After this volley (the discharge of artillery, so to speak) came the hurling spears, and finally the hand-to-hand melee, with sword and axe. Snorri relates vividly and tersely the progress of the battle of Stiklestad. The narrative contains such unforgettable incidents as the death of Thormod, Olaf’s skald, in the ‘field hospital’ after the battle. He pulled an arrow out of his chest, saying dryly: ‘Well has the king fed us; I still have fat around the roots of my heart!’ (2) King Olaf, Snorri tells us, had carefully selected higher ground, from which he led such a vehement charge that it almost carried him to victory; but numbers began to tell, and before long King Olaf was hemmed in and fell under his banner, slain by blows from all the Vikings; three main weapons: sword, spear, and axe. His half-brother, the 15-year-old Harald Hardrada, who was to become the last and perhaps the fiercest of all the Viking kings, was ‘blooded’ on this bitter occasion, but managed to escape after the battle, Stiklestad was fought on 29th July 1030. When Snorri declares that the sun was darkened during the battle we must correct him; the eclipse of the sun did not take place until the following year.

Norwegian historians have disagreed violently on the nature and significance of this battle. Earlier scholars asserted that Olaf’s enemies in Norway were the nobles and land-owners, and his supporters the peasants and commoners; they idealized Olaf as a man motivated by faith in the future of his country and willing to give his life for this belief. Authorities of later generations, however, maintain that Olaf’s friends were the lesser nobles who joined him against the great nobility like the earls of Lade. They find no particularly idealistic motives in OLaf, but rather a passion for revenge and a Viking unruliness. He promised his troops, who were by no means all Norwegians, rewards of land and property in Norway when victory had been achieved. Olaf’s last battle were certainly not fought in the cause of religion; in fact, Christians were represented in the army of Trondelag peasants which defeated him at Stiklesatd, and indeed a Danish bishop harangued them before the fight began. By that time Norway was already Christian; Olaf’s campaign cannot be considered a crusade against a heathen horde. We get nearest the truth perhaps by regarding the men of northern Norway as the natural defenders of Trondelag – and therefore, of the realm of Norway – against a Viking king bent on revenge.

Snorri’s Saga of St. Olaf does not disclose any saintly qualities in its hero. He seems no more sympathetic a character than most Viking leaders – certainly less so than Olaf Tryggvason. Yet shortly after Stiklestad the legend developed which transformed Olaf the Stout into St Olaf. There is talk of miraculous cures, etcetera. At this point the Church took a hand in the game. It was on the verge of a notable accession of strength in Norway, and its rising fortunes could be strengthened by a saint, especially one of royal blood. The Church certainly contrived to get such a one in Olaf, and the result may be calculated by the estimate that 200 years later there was a priest in Norway for every 150 inhabitants – 2,000 of them in all. St Olaf was a powerful factor in the church’s attainment of such power. Near Stiklestad lies the old royal estate of Haug, and some time after the battle Olaf’s son, the young king Magnus, was discussing the fight with tow chieftains, Einar Thambarskelfi and Karl Arnason. Snorri relates what happened: ‘Go eith me,’ said Magnus, ‘to the battlefield and show me where my father fell.’ Einar answered. ‘You had better ask your foster-father, Kalf, for he fought there that day!’ When they came to the place Kalf said, ‘Here he fell,’ ‘But where were you then, Kalf?’ ‘Here,’ said Kalf, ‘where I now stand!’ Magnus’s face darkened: ‘So your axe could reach him?’ ‘But it did not touch him,’ Cried Kalf – and he leapt on his horse and galloped away. The same night he fled the country, as Thori Hund, the other great leader of the peasants, had done some time before. Now King Magnus (the Stout), married to the daughter of the Scottish king, Malcolm. He exercised his powers not only over the Orkneys themselves but also over Caithness, the Hebrides, and the Isle of Man.

In Ireland in 1012 Brian Boroimhe (Irish: ‘tribute’), the supreme monarch, fell foul of the king of Leinster, who allied himself to another of Brian’s under-kings, Sigtrygg Silkybeard, the Norwegian ruler of Dublin, Sigtrygg, fearing that Brian Boroimhe would recapture Dublin, called upon Sigurd Digri for aid. A fierce and bloody battle was fought at Clontarf, on 23rd April 1014, in which the Irish prevailed but both Brian Boroimhe and Sigurd Digri died on the battlefield. Dublin itself was not attacked and Sigtrygg, who had not himself taken part in the battle at Clontarf, continued to reign as King of Dublin for many years. Incidentally, he was the first monarch in Ireland to mint coins. Sigtrygg, like his father, ended his life a penitent monk in the monastery of Iona.

In Ireland during the rest of the century there was a succession of skirmishes and affrays between the Norwegians and the Irish, from which no outstanding personality emerged. Towards the middle of the eleventh century, however, the Orkneys provide us with just this in Thorfinn the Mighty, a descendant of King Malcolm of Scotland. Embroiled at this time in a quarrel with a relative, Rognvald, whom he managed to kill. Thorfinn was for the next twenty years the great earl of the Orkneys, until, by the time of his death in 1064, he had become acknowledged ruler of the whole of north-west Scotland.

The Isle of Man also had its strong ‘king’ (about 1080-95) in the Icelandic-born Godred Crovan, who succeeded in extending his rule to Dublin and Leinster. On three occasions at the ned of the century a king of Norway visited there old Viking stamping grounds. This was Magnus Barefoot, son of Olaf Kyrri, who brought the Orkneys, the Hebrides, and the Isle of Man under Norway. he fell in 1104 during a campaign in Ulster.


The further development of the independent Icelandic Christian state in the eleventh century can be told briefly. The adoption of Christianity went smoothly, for the people, as we know, had chosen it of their own free will. It may be assumed that the heathen sanctuaries soon disappeared and were replaced by simple turf-built churches. In the eleventh century Iceland had three eminent Christian administrators of a single family; father, son, and grandson. The first of these was Gizur the White, who was present at the decisive meeting of the Althing in 1000, when Christianity was accepted. He sent his son, Isleif, to Germany for an ecclesiastical training; and in 1056 Isleif was consecrated by bishop Adalbert of Bremen to be Iceland’s first native bishop, with his see at Skatholt. He died in 1080, worried (the story goes) over the manifold difficulties which beset a bishop. His son, Gizur, followed as bishop (1082-1118), and proved well endowed with wisdom, persuasiveness, and authority. He was evidently one of those admirable prelates in whom physical and spiritual strength and courage are matched. During his time, it is said, there was peace throughout Iceland; people could move about without weapons; and so  great was Gizur’s prestige that ‘everyone, young and old, poor and rich, women and men, did as the bishop ordered’. This period of tranquility, which lasted not only throughout bishop Gizur’s time but throughout most of the eleventh century, cannot be entirely attributed to be achievements of a few men. What other factors operated it is difficult to say, for there was no lack of trouble both before and after. Iceland’s constitution, established in 930 on a Norwegian pattern, had an Althing consisting of the legislative assembly presided over by the law-speaker, and a judiciary divided into four groups, one for each quarter of the island, supplemented after the year 1000 by an appeal court. In spite of this the country had not enjoyed peace. The authorities responsible for legal decisions had not the powers to ensure that they were implemented. Thus in the century or so from 930 the country had been racked by blood feuds and strife. Then, for another hundred years there followed the period of peace, and after that the strife and bloodshed of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries It is time, however, to leave Iceland for the most remote of Scandinavian colonies, Greenland.

Though sources do not always agree, it is said that Leif, son of Eric the Red, visited Olaf Tryggvason in Norway in the autumn of 999. There he was baptized, and ordered by the king to return to Greenland and straightway preach and proclaim the Christian faith. For this mission he was given two assistants. Leif accepted the task without enthusiasm, and soon found that his evangelism displeased his father, who presumably never accepted Christianity. His mother, on the other hand, was allowed to build a small chapel where she and the other converts could gather for prayer. Thus Christianity was introduced to Iceland and Greenland almost simultaneously about the turn of the century, though it was not until the twelfth century that Greenland had its own bishop.




One final Viking achievement must be recorded, one which occurred in the remotest confines of the Norwegian ‘sphere of influence’:  the discovery of North America. According to the sagas, Bjarni Herjolfsson and his associates left Iceland for Greenland in the year 986, but lost their course on the journey and three times sighted land, though they did not go ashore. The first land they saw was a well-wooded coast and so was the second; but their third landfall was a rocky island with glaciers.

Some time later Leif Ericsson bought Bjarni’s ship and left Greenland, probably in 992, with thirty-five men to find and explore the land which Bjarni had discovered. He first found the glacier island, and between the shore and the ice there was nothing but stone; the island, which he named ‘Helluland’ (‘Stone land’ or perhaps ‘Slateland’), seemed to him to be ‘without any good qualities’. Next he reached a flat and forested land which Leif named ‘Markland’ )’Forestland’); and two days later they came to an island on which they found abundant grass and sweet dew. Between this island and a headland they entered a strait in which their vessel grounded on a sandbank at low tide. They freed the ship at high water, and brought it into a river, deciding to winter there, since there was good timber available from the adjacent maple forest, for building their huts. In the rivers and the sea they found salmon bigger than they had ever seen before; there were no frosts in the winter, and the grass scarcely withered at all. Day and night were of much more equal duration than in Greenland and Iceland. On the shortest day the sun rose at the eytarstathr, and set at the dagmaalastathr – whatever these terms may mean.

Leif now divided his company so that some stayed by the camp, while others went to reconnoitre the surrounding districts. One evening a man called Tyrki, a German, one of Eric the Red’s old friends and Leif’s foster-father, was reported missing. They started a search and came across him near at hand. He was clearly in a state of great excitement – babbling in his German mother-tongue, grimacing, and rolling his eyes. He had found vines and grapes, he said, and he would certainly know, as he was born in a country where vines were common. The next few days they collected grapes, cut vines, and felled timber, loading all this on to their ship; and in the spring they broke camp and sailed home from the land which they christened Vinland (‘Wineland’). On their way back they rescued some ship-wrecked men from a rock, and safely reached Brattahlid, Eric the Red’s farm at Ericsfjord in Greenland. Elsewhere it is told that after his voyage Leif was called Leif the Lucky.

The sagas continues with the tale of Leif’s brother Thorvald, who, borrowing Leif’s vessel, sailed away with thirty men and safely reached Leif’s huts in Wineland, where they settled down for the winter. The following summer they explored the west coast of the country, which they found very beautiful, with forests, white sandy beaches, numerous islands, ans shallow waters. On one island they came across a kind of wooded shed, but otherwise found no sign of human activity. In the autumn they returned to their base at Leif’s hut, and they spent the next summer in exploring the east and north coasts. Their keel broke in a storm while rounding a headland, and after fitting a new on they set up the broken one on the headland which they called Kjalarnes (‘Keelness’). Continuing their journey to the east they came upon wooded fjords, and lay alongside a promontory so beautiful that Thorvald exclaimed, ‘This is a fair land; here I will establish my farm.’ On the beach, however, they came across three skin boats with nine men, and a fight developed in which eight men out of the nine were killed. Son afterwards they were attacked by a large number of men in skin boats, and these Skralingar shot at them but finally fled. Thorvald, however, was wounded by one of the arrows and died from his injuries. They buried him on the promontory, as he asked, erecting crosses at his head and feet; and called the place Krossanes (‘Crossness’). They then retuned to Leif’s huts for the winter. They collected grapes and timber for cargo; and when spring came they sailed for home, reaching Ericsfjord ‘with great tidings for Leif.

Another narrative tells how the Icelander Thorfinn Karlsefni ventured to Wineland with three ships and 160 men. They first reached ‘Stoneland’, and after that ‘forestland’, and then, after sailing along strange, long, sandy beaches, reach the promontory with the ship’s keel, ‘Keelness’. Near here they turn up a fjord and dispact two scouts – two Britons, man and wife, noted for their speed in running – these return three days later with grapes and self-sown wheat. They continue into another fjord with an island at its mouth, where there nest so many birds that a man can hardly put a foot between the eggs. A powerful current flows round the island and so they name the fjord Straum-fjorthr and the island Straumey (straumr: ‘current’). They winter here with their cattle. There is enough grass, but little food for human beings. In their hunger they pray to God: one of their company, Thorhall the Hunter, on the other hand, appeals to Thor. A whale is stranded near by, of a variety unknown even to Thorfinn Karlsefni, who was knowledgeable about whales. It proves to be uneatable, and they all become ill and throw the whale meat back into the sea. As spring comes they manage on bird’s eggs, hunting, and fishing; but by this time Thorhall the Hunter is discontented and anxious to return to Greenland, and therefore he sets off taking one ship and nine men. They are driven by a westerly gale to Ireland, and there Thorhall dies. Thorfinn’s party sail south for a long way, until they reach a river running through a lake into the sea; only at high water can they get into the river. They call the place Hoop. Here on the low ground grows self-sown wheat, and on the higher ground vines; and every brook teems with fish. At high water-mark they dig pits, and when the tide ebbs find halibut in them. The forest abounds with animals of many kinds, and they decide to spend winter here, where no snow falls and cattle can be left out of doors all year round. Now they encounter the inhabitants of the country, the ‘Skralings’ and at first barter peaceably with them, giving them red cloth and milk (which was unknown to the natives) in return for furs. A quarrel, however, arises as a roaring ox frightens the natives, who now arrive in their hordes in skin boats, terrifying the Scandinavians by flinging grest stones, sewn into painted skins, from tall poles. men fall on both sides; the Skralings fight with slings and stone axes, and are astonished at the iron axes of the Scandinavians. After this Karlsefni decides it is to dangerous to remain in the land of Hoop, and, abandoning the idea of settling, returns to Straumfjord half-way between Hoop and Keelness. Leaving most of his people there, he takes one ship north to look for Thorhall and after a vain search returns to winter at Straumfjord where a son, Snorri, is born to him. Next spring they all return home via Markland, where they capture and take along with them two Skraling boys. One of their vessels, which turns out to be worm-eaten, founders, but Karlsefni’s own ship finally reaches Ericsfjord in Greenland.

The last story in the Wineland sagas tells of Freydis, a violent Viking women who was an illegitimate daughter of Eric the Red. She sets out on a voyage to Wineland in two ships, accompanied by two Iceland brothers, Helgi and Finnbogi. They reach Leif’s huts in Wineland, where they winter, but here trouble breaks out. Freydis carries out a plan to murder both brothers, and, moreover, with her own axe cuts down all the women. Early next summer she returns to Greenland.

This is in the main what the sagas tell about Wineland. Earlier scholars tended to be sceptical of this material and to reject the whole story as fiction, but this attitude has now been abandoned. In its place there is recognition of the truth that is hidden behind these tales, namely, that the Norsemen of Greenland, somewhere round the year 1000, really did discover and explore an extensive non-arctic country which can only have been part of the North American continent. But where was it? Where did Wineland lie? much has been written on the subject, though there is no generally accepted conclusion; there is not enough evidence – nautical, astronomical, or anthropological – in the sagas to pin-point the locality of Wineland. Nor has North America provided any archaeological material which will stand up to critical examination. To my mind, there is no reason whatsoever to doubt that the Norse colonists of Greenland did find America at the close of the Viking period or in the Middle Ages, and did endeavour to establish a permanent foothold there. In the latter effort they evidently did not succeed. America, unlike Greenland and Iceland, was not uninhabited when the Norsemen discovered it, but had a population which was apparently hostile – for which it is certainly not to be blamed, considering the behavour of the Scandinavians! The sagas make it clear that the men from Greenland made serious efforts to colonize North America, but that the task was too much for them. The lines of communication with their home bases were too extended and the bases themselves too weak. However, the attempt may be regarded as a final expression of Viking adventurousness and energy. It failed because the source of energy was too distant and too weak; otherwise world history might have developed differently in several ways.

It would be interesting if we could trace Wineland by locating the sites of Leif’s huts, or finding remains of other Norse houses like those which have been excavated in great numbers in Greenland by the Danish archaeologist Paul Norlund – for example, the ruins of Eric the Red’s own farm at Brattahlid. Such discoveries would confirm the presence of Norsemen in America long before the days of Columbus. It would be worth while conducting a systematic search for such evidence, along the treeless Atlantic coast of North America, by aerial survey from low-flying and slow-moving planes, on the lines of those carried out by Danish archaeologists in Greenland.


Of Sweden’s political history in the eleventh century little is known as sources are scarce. We have already mentioned Olaf Skotkonung who, with Danish and Norwegian aid, fought Olaf Tryggvason at Svold in 1000, and his son Onund Jacob who, in company with Olaf Haraldaaon, was defeated by Cnut the Great in 1026. both these Swedish kings were Christians, and so, too, was King Stenkil forty years later. It must not, however, be assumed that Sweden as a whole adopted the Christian faith in the early part of the eleventh century: on the contrary, religious strife seems to have continued after 1100. Of the three Scandinavian countries, Sweden was the last to give up its paganism. As we shall see later, the pagan temple at Uppsala was flourishing when Adam of Bremen wrote in the 1070s.

The Swedish ‘sphere of influence’ in Russia had changed much during the eleventh century, The two Rus Khaganates of Novgorod and Kiev was amalgamated into a single Christian West Russian Empire, in which Swedish elements gradually gave way to Slav, and where Byzantine influence was continually increasing. The eastern trade-route along the Volga had lost its importance, owing to the fall-off in the production of silver in the Caliphate of Baghdad; from the Swedish point of view the major trad-route was now the Dnieper, leading to the Black Sea and Byzantium. The Eastern Roman Empire in Constantinople recruited a bodyguard of Scandinavians – the Varangians – of which Harald Hardrada had been a member; and the word ‘Varangian’, which had formerly signified a merchant guarantor, now meant a Viking warrior. These Swedes got as far as Athens. The big marble lion found in the harbour of Puraeus, and now set up in Venice, has a Swedish runic ribbon curving round its shoulders, though the inscription on it has unfortunately weathered away.

In late Icelandic literature we are told of an outstanding Viking feat – an expedition launched from Sweden, around 1049, against Mohammedan countries in the East (‘Serkland’) led by Yngvar the Far-Travelled, Edmund’s son. His campaign is commemorated on a number of rune-stones from Uppland, Sweden (the so called ‘Yngvar stones’), but there are no reliable records of it. During the reign of St. Vladimir and his son Jaroslav (who was married to Ingigerd the daughter of Olaf Skotkonung) in the first part of the eleventh century, the KievEmpire was powerful enough to make the Dnieper route safe against attacks by eastern nomads.

Later two factors combined to weaken the West Russian Empire based on Kiev: the Crusades brought oriental trade directly across Europe, instead of by the more devious route of the Russian waterways; and the Asiatic nomads – the Kumans – increased their raids upon the west, so that the Dnieper toute became increasingly dangerous. However, when we look back on the achievements of the Rus, we cam truly say that it was Swedish activity that created the following Russian towns: Novgorod, Izborsk, Polotsk, Byelosersk, Rostov, Murom, Smolensk, Chernigov, and Kiev.

This extensive development of the eastern routes by Swedish merchants and warriors in the eleventh century had a profound effect upon Sweden itself, as archaeological evidence shows the many thousands of Arab coins found in Swedish soil – the Kufic dirhems – must nearly all have been brought along the Volga; they belong to the ninth and tenth centuries, and, significantly, there are scarcely any from the eleventh. By that time the Volga route had become increasingly insecure, and the Baghdad caliphate had lost its silver mines to eastern invaders. On the other hand Sweden obtained a substantial share of the English danegeld from the end of the tenth century and throughout the first half of the eleventh; thousands of Anglo-Saxon coins of this period have been found in Sweden, especially in Gotland.