The Tenth Century



The early part of the tenth century seems to have been a lean time for the Danes. Their protracted conflicts in France and England, especially the serious defeats which they suffered in Brittany in 890 and at Louvain in 891, had sapped their strength, so that when the Swedes attacked southern Denmark about 900 the Danes were unable to put up an effective defence. The king of Denmark at that time was Heigi (if he is not a mythical figure). He was defeated by ‘Olaf, who came from Sweden and took possession of the Danish kingdom by force of arms’. Our authority for this is Adam of Bremen, who records it in 1075, quoting as his source his contemporary, the Danish king, Swein Estridsson. The Swedish Olaf ruled over southern Denmark for some time with his sons Gnupa and Gurd, and they were succeeded by Gnupa’s son Sigtryg. Gnupa’s wife Asfrid set up two rune-stones in memory of Sigtryg, which have been found not far from Hedeby at the head of the Slie Fjord in Slesvig inscription (together with the testimony of Adam of Bremen) offer ample proof that a Swedish royal house reigned in southern Denmark for a generation. We next hear of Gnupa in 934 when, as we shall see, he was involved in conflict with the Germans. In the light of what has been said in the last chapter about European trading conditions, it is not surprising that the Swedes were anxious to control Hedeby. It was the connecting link between the North Sea and Baltic trade. The Swedes could now combine the two activities, and even extend them to their own great centre, Birka, on Lake Malar.

How were the Danish Vikings in northern France faring in the years just before and after 900? Historical sources are very reticent on this matter. The St Vaast Annals cease about 900, and the monks of Reims. Flodoard, does not begin his narrative until some twenty years later. Dudo, the canon of Saint-Quentin, who a hundred years wrote his fulsome panegyric on the dukes of Normandy, is not always reliable. What is certain, however, is that Rollo, later to become the first Duke of Normandy, spent the first decade of the century with his Vikings fighting battles in the Seine valley with varying turns of fortune. His nationality is uncertain: Dudo declares he was a Dane, but Scandinavian sources call him a Norwegian. His army was no doubt predominantly Danish Rollo established himself firmly in northern France, and in spite of occasional setbacks and defeats was not easily got rid of. It is most probable that he was the real ruler of Normandy for some time before the Frankish king, Charles the Simple, made it over to him on condition that Rollo swore him allegiance and protected Normandy against further Viking attacks. Rollo’s official elevation to the dukedom, which took place at St Clair-Sur-Epte in 911, marks an important stage in the history of France; Rollo kept his promises to Charles and defended the country against his  compatriots. He settled his men on the land to cultivate it and stood by Charles in subsequent troubles. When turbulence racked the King’s territories. Rollo, in alliance with his Norwegian friends the Vikings of the Loire, kept order in Normandy until Charles could re-establish his authority.

In this way the dukedom of Normandy sprang up as a Scandinavian colony on the banks of the lower Seine, extending in the north-east to Picardy (at the River Bresle), and in the south-west to Brittany (at Saint-Malo), while just across the Channel lay the tempting and prosperous south of England. Rollo’s duchy comprised approximately the modern Departments of Seine Inferieure, Eure, Calvados, Manche, and most of Orne. The place-names of the provinces bear ample testimony to its Scandinavian origin, especially neat the Seine, the waterway along which the Vikings arrived. There are numerous village names with the Norse second elements -tofte, -garde, -lond, -torp, and others have as their first elements Norse personal names such as Thorbjorn, Asmund, Ulf, and Ragnar. Rollo was baptized as early as 912, and by that time the great Viking invasions of Frankish territory were over. One or two smaller raids occurred in the tenth century, but in general Rollo and his successors made themselves widely respected.

In England, during the first decades of the tenth century, the Danish Vikings did not fare at all well. Edward, the eldest son of Alfred the Great, was a stubborn and skilful warrior who, in alliance with his sister Athelflaed (called ‘the Lady of the Mercians’), now successfully made war on the Danelaw. His strategy was to establish and garrison a number of strongholds which served as bases for attacks on the enemy. The Danes were driven back, suffering one defeat after another; no reinforcements from their homeland were forthcoming. In the north of England also the Danes were hard pressed, sometimes by the Anglo-Saxons, and sometimes by Norwegians and Britons penetrating from north-west England and Scotland. By 918 the losses and the withdrawals of the Danes had become so considerable that the Anglo-Saxons were masters right up to the Humber. In the north the Norwegian Rognvald, who had come from Ireland and had captured York, was forced in 920 to make a hasty peace with the invincible Edward who, after his sister’s death in 918, had added the whole of Mercia to his kingdom.

In 924 Edward died and was succeeded by his son Athelstan, another brave warrior, who in 927 conquered the whole of Northumbria and York as well. Ten years later he met the combined forces of his enemies in the north and north-west, led by Olaf of Dublin, and defeated them at a place called Brunanburgh, which has never been located. Athelstan became one of the greatest kings of Wessex and England, becoming the first king of all England; King Harald Finehair sent to him an embassy with the gift of a magnificent Viking ship. When Athelstan died in 939 he was ruler of Wessex, Mercia, Northumbria, York, and the Danelaw, and parts of Cornwall. In the 940s his brother and successor, Edmund, ran into severe trouble, and was involved in battles with Norwegian invaders from Dublin. At this time the Danes appear as bitter enemies of the Norwegians whom they resisted in alliance with the Anglo-Saxons. In 945 Edmund was murdered by a returned outlaw, and his brother Eadred inherited the throne. A few years later the Norwegian Eric Bloodaxe appears on the scene as king of Northumbria and later of York, battling against, among others, one of the Dublin kings. He was ousted, in 954, and his domains taken over by Eadred, who died childless the following year. For some years to come England was untroubled by Vikings, and at this point we turn to consider what has happening in Denmark itself.

In the thirties of the tenth century Swedish rule in southern Denmark was drawing to a close. It was not the Danes who were mastering the Swedes, however, but the Germans. In 934 the Swedish king of Hedeby, Gnupa, attacked the coasts of Friesland: an unwise venture which evoked immediate retaliation by the German king, Henry the Fowler, who raided Hedeby, defeated Gnupa, and forced him to accept baptism. Two years later Henry died. Adam of Bremen (quoting Swein Estridsson as his authority) gives the following account of the end of Swedish rule in Denmark: ‘When he [Sigtryg, son of Gnupa] had reigned a short while, Hardegon, son of Swein, who came from Nortmannia can mean either Normandy or Norway, so it is impossible to say where this Hardegon came from, or who he was. Swedish rule came to an end soon after 936, and the next dynasty of kings of Denmark was connected not with Hedeby-Slesvig, but with Jelling in South Jutland.

At Jelling, about 940, lived the first known king of this line, Gorm the Old, and his queen, Thyri, whose runic memorial stone honours her as Danmarkat bot, which means ‘Denmark’s restorer’ – a distinction which tradition attributes to Thyri’s improvement of the great rampart, the Danevirke, along the southern frontier. The inscription reads: ‘King Gorm made this memorial to his wife Thyri, Denmark’s restorer.’ Hans Brix has read the inscription so that the phrase ‘Denmark’s restorer’ referred to Gorm himself, but philologists in general do not accept this. Gorm was a pagan, and a wooden burial chamber was built in a huge mound at Jelling as a double grave, doubtless for him and his wife. Connected with this mound, which still exists, the Danish archaeologist Dyggve has traced a large triangular plot of ground framed by upright stones marking a consecrated place. It can be assumed that Gorm died sometime in the 940s; we know no more of him. Of his famous son Harald Bluetooth we know much more, because under him Denmark regained its former strength. However, this recovery did not begin immediately. To start with, there was clearly a strong German influence in Denmark, which revealed itself in the establishment of Denmark’s first three dioceses. Adaldag, the German Archbishop of Hamburg, became Primate of the kingdom. Thus Christianity was officially introduced to Denmark about the middle of the tenth  century, when Harald himself was still a heathen. In due course, no doubt under German pressure from Otto I, Harald was baptized by the priest Poppo, who, in the presence of Harald, endured the ordeal by fire as a demonstration of the power of Christianity. This must have occurred about 960. About this time too, Harald took up arms against Norway, incited by his sister Gunnhild, widow of the Norwegian king Eric Bloodaxe who had been exiled to England. Gunnhild wanted to recover the throne of Norway from her late husband’s younger brother, Hakon. Harald Bluetooth agreed to help in this project, but at first had no success. Hakon not only drove him back but took the offensive, and in 957 raided Jutland and Skane and even took possession of the whole of Zealand. After this episode the tide turned in Harald’s favour; he drove the Norwegians out of Denmark, invaded Norway, and in a decisive battle in Hordaland defeated and killed Hakon; shortly after 960 he was sole monarch of both countries.

It is this achievement which King Harald Bluetooth, with justifiable pride, stressed on the stone he set up at Jelling in commemoration of his parents, King Gorm and Queen Thyri, and in his honour. This, the famous Greater Jelling Stone, is a remarkable work of art, decorated with intricate carvings in which the figure of Christ crucified and a great lion surrounded by interlaced, ribbon-like ornament, occupy dominant positions. Its runic inscription reads: ‘King Harald had this monument made in memory of his father, Gorm, and his mother, Thyri. Harald who won all Denmark and Norway and made the Danes Christians.’ This memorial has been called ‘the Danes certificate of baptism’, and certainly the consolidation of Christianity in Denmark was the most lasting of King Harald’s three great achievements.

Unrest soon began to develop in Norway. Harald Greycloak (a son of Eric Bloodaxe) held power for some time, but the banished Earl Hakon whose father, Sigurd, Grey-cloak had had burned alive, sought refuge with Harald Bluetooth, and they succeeded in killing Greycloak in a battle on the Lim Fjord in Jutland. Norway was now divided, Earl Hakon settled in thecnorth as an independent ruler, and governed the west as liegeman to Harald Bluetooth, while in southern Norway Harald himself was king. This was the situation immediately after 970. Then, however, a serious danger confronted Harald Bluetooth, coming this time from the south. In 974, in revenge for Danish attacks on Holstein, the German Empeor, Otto II, assaulted the Danevirke and Hedeby. King Harald summoned assistance from Earl Hakon but, even then, could not keep Otto at bay. Otto penetrated the Danevirke and mastered the whole district, establishing there a strongly garrisoned fortress. This defeat produced quarrels between Harald and Earl Hakon, disputes deepened by the fact that Harald had insisted on the latter’s being baptized. The result was that Hakon assumed independence in his part of Norway, while Harald’s rather weal efforts to subjugate him from southern Norway proved fruitless.

To add to Harald’s troubles, his son, the violent and virtually heathen Swein Forkbeard, now began to assert himself, although Harald was still nominal ruler of Denmark. The Danesturned on the Germans in the south, breaking their power. In 983 the fort which Emperor Otto II had built near the Danevirke was carried by a ruse and burned down, and after that Hedeby was besieged. Two rune-stones from the Hedeby region commmemorate warriors killed on that occasion. One inscription refers to the time ‘when men sat round [besieged] Hedeby’; the other stone, also naming the Hedeby battle, proclaims itself erected by King Swein – which must refer to Swein Forkbeard who, presumably as his father’s deputy, commanded the Danish forces in this battle. Soon afterwards an open breach occurred between Swein and Harald, and the latter escaped wounded to a Viking stronghold – possibly built by himself – on the Baltic coast of Germany; Jumne or Jomsborg, where Wolin now stands. And here the great Harald died about 986, ‘wrongfully wounded and banished for the sake of Christ’, as the pious Adam of Bremen writes He was buried not in Jelling but in his own church of the Holy Trinity in Roskilde. In Jelling, Harald had previously erased his father Gorm’s heathen sanctuary, by raising over its southern end a great memorial mound, and had, as it seems, prepared a transfer (translatio) of his parent’s remains from the wooden chamber of the northern mound to a Christian burial place.

Swein Forkbeard was a powerful and ambitious ruler. Without being a Christian himself he tolerated Christianity and supported the bishop of Jutland, Odinkar, but for political reasons only. His first action, after securing the southern border of Denmark, was to attack Norway, an effort in which he was assisted by the Joms-Vikings from Wolin, led by Earl Sigvald; but the attempt failed. Earl Hakon won a decisive sea battle at Hjorungavag in western Norway, which must have taken place about 990. There is also an unauthenticated story to the effect that Swein Forkbeard waged unsuccessful war against the Swedish king, and Eric the Victorious, who occupied parts of Denmark, and that Swein was captured by Slavs and finally ransomed at great cost. In the final decade of the tenth century, Swein Forkbeard’s attentions turned towards England.

After Eadred’s death in 955 there was a prolonged period of peace in England lasting at least a quarter of a century. Eaderd’s handsome successor, Eadwig, ‘the all-fair’, died young, and his brother Edgar became king. His coronation was delayed, but when it did take place, at Bath in 973 , the solemn ceremony of the anointing was combined with an event of great splendour. Acting as oarsmen in the king’s boat were Scandinavian and Celtic princes, and Edgar adopted the proud tile of ‘King of England and ruler of the kings of the islands and the sea’. He is known to have allowed the Danelaw some degree of autonomy. With his death in 975 the peace was broken and bad times returned again. His eldest son, Edward, a violent and turbulent prince (who nevertheless was later recognized as a saint), was murdered after only four years of rule by the retainers of his half-brother Athelred. (or possibly by his mother’s as the king was murdered at the entrance of his step-mother’s home at Corfe in Dorset, after breaking away from the hunt on the heath to visit them and have to have a drink, the English had murdered their own liege lord the King of England! at what price?). So this young man, weak, inconsistent, haunted by the guilt of his brother’s murder (for which he was certainly not responsible), became king, to be nicknamed Athelred Unread – Athelred ‘No-counsel’. An irresolute ruler was the last thing that was needed now because the Viking raids were resumed and intensified. (no doubt the Vikings knew what had happened and a weakening of the resolve of the country giving them the opportunity to raid). Between 980 and 982 there were minor descents on the south and west coasts, but from 988 onwards the attacks were heavier, and were made not only by the Danes but, particularly in the west, by the Norwegians as well.

The year 991 was a particularly disastrous one for England, for then began the fatal method of buying-off the Vikings by payments of danegeld – thousands of pounds of sliver year by year which brought no more then temporary respite . In reality the Vikings sailed from place to place and sold local peace for cash payments. In the south the Normans observed with sympathy and interest this successful policy of their Scandinavian relatives and, indeed, made their harbours available to them if necessary. This form of support was checked by a papal negotiator, who made a treaty between the English and the French, ratified at Rouen in March 991, though this proved short-lived. In the same year the Vikings raiders on English shores included the famous Norwegian chief Olaf Tryggvason (by then already baptized). When he arrived on the Thames in 994 he was accompanied by the Danish king, Swein Forkbeard. With a joint fleet of about  a hundred longships, and presumably at least two thousand men, they attacked London; but the city  beat off the assault, and the Vikings had to be content with plundering south-east England and finally accepting sixteen thousand pounds of silver to leave. Olaf Tryggvason left for good to take up the task of conquering Norway; Swein Forkbeard returned to England – though not for about nine years. His return will be discussed later. Meanwhile the Viking raids along the south coasts of England continued intermittenly throughout the 990s.


In Norway too, the tenth century brought troubled times and varying fortunes for the different rulers, interspersed occasionally with periods of peace and progress. In the 30s, three years before his death at a great age, Harald Finehair resigned his throne to his son Eric Bloodaxe, who was evidently more Viking than king. He retained the throne for only a few years and preferred, when his youngest brother Hakon, Athelstan’s foster son (later called ‘the Good’), was recalled to Norway, to leave the country without a blow being struck. He went to England, where he twice held thrones, but was killed shortly afterwards. His widow, the Danish Gunnhild, Harald Bluetooth’s sister, returned to Denmark and, as mentioned above, incited the Danes to attack the Norwegian king, her brother-in-law, Hakon Athelstan’s foster son. In the second of these attacks, in 960. Hakon was killed. He had proved a good monarch, he drew up legal codes – the laws of the Gulathing and the Frostathing – and organized a militia, which enabled him to retain only a small personal guard of armed men and yet be assured of support in cases of sudden attack. He was sensible enough to refrain from forcing Christianity upon completely heathen peasants. All in all he seems to have deserved the title ‘the Good’.

The sons of Eric Bloodaxe, now returned from England, among them Harald Greycloak, who became King of Norway and proved a sharp contrast to Hakon the Good, in both character and actions. He was harsh to great and small alike. He was so hostile to heathen sacrificial practices that he sought to suppress them by force, and his reign was accompanied by storm, failure of crops, and famine. Greycloak did not rule for long; as mentioned above he was slain on the shores of the Lim Fjord in Denamrk, fighting  against Earl Hakon who, with Harald Bluetooth’s aid, avenged the murder of his father, Sigurd. After this event, which occurred about 970, Norway was divided into three parts. We have seen the sequel to this division: how Harald Bluetooth, assisted by Earl Hakon, was defeated by the Germans at the Danevirke, and how enmity subsequently developed between Bluetooth and Hakon. Earl Hakon returned to his domain the heathen he always was, and some years later, at Hjorungavag, successfully beat off an attack on western Norway by the Joms-Vikings. He finally met his end when Olaf Tryggvason, the most picturesque figure of all the Norwegian Vikings, returned from England in 995, newly confirmed in his Christian faith by the English king at Andover, and fully determined to conquer and convert Norway. Earl Hakon was murdered by one of his own servants, and Olad proclaimed king by the people of Trondelag. His problem now was to weld together the long straggling territories of Norway. What happened up at Trondelag in the north was very different from what might be done or said in the south and south-west, especially in Olaf’s own homeland, the province of Vik.

In his endeavours to unify and consolidate, Olaf came up against the demands and pretensions of the Danish king, Swein Forkbeard, who asserted a traditional Danish supremacy over southern Norway. It was inevitable too that Earl Hakon’s two sons, Eric and Swein, should become Olaf”s bitter enemies. Olaf Tryggvason seems to have been more warrior than diplomat. In any event he failed to prevent Swein Forkbeard from winning over to his side, by a series of skilful marriage alliances, the Swedish king, Olaf Skotkonung, son of Eric the Victorious. He married one of Earl Hakon’s sons, Swein, to Skotkonung’s sister; and the other, Eric, to his own daughter; and to round-off the relationship Swein Forkbeard himself married Skotkonung’s mother, the widow of his one-time enemy Eric the Victorious, thus creating a cleverly spun web of alliances.

His quarrel with Olaf Tryggvason came to an end at the naval battle of Svold in the year 1000. It is disputed whether the location for the battle was in the Oresund, or off the Baltic coast of Germany. There were two aspects to Olaf Tryggvason’s situation. One was his failure to hold together his supporters – he was betrayed both by those in Norway and by Earl Sigvald, leader of the Joms-Vikings. The otehr was his superb personal bravery. Despite his huge longship, the Long Dragon – the biggest warship ever seen in the north – Olaf’s fleet proved too weak. He was defeated and killed by a superior force. Swein Forkbeard now became overlord of the whole of Norway, although the two earls Eric and Swein, who had been his allies, exercised authority under him in the north of the country.

This, then, was the situation about the year 1000 in Norway and Denmark. Let us look at what took place in the tenth century in the Norwegian sphere of interest in the west, in the old Viking hunting grounds along the Atlantic coasts and islands, and, to begin with, at what happened in Ireland and in the Irish, Scottish, and English areas. We completed our last survey of these regions with the Irish conquest of Dublin in 901. This was a hard blow to the Norwegians. From their bases in the north of England, especially in Northumbria, they prepared their revenge. They struck back, twice in fact – in battles at Confey in 916, and Climashogue in 919, where the Irish were defeated in a gruesome massacre – and by these victories secured the control of great parts of Ireland for over half a century. This was the period when the dynasty flourished in the kingdom of Dublin, a dynasty which included such famous names as Sigtrygg, his son Olaf Cuaran, and Gudrod. it was during Olaf Guaran’s time. says in Irish chronicler, that Ireland was really penetrated by Norwegian influence: ‘There was a Norwegian king in every province, a chief in  every clan, an abbot in every church, a sheriff in every village, a warrior in every house’, a most effective way of billeting. Besides controlling much of Ireland, Olaf Cuaran, like Sigtrygg, fought extensively in north and north-west England. Christianity now spread among the Norwegians in Ireland; Olaf Cuaran himself died as a monk, in 981, in the monastery of Iona. The year before this the Norwegians suffered a heavy defeat at Tara – the first Irish victory of any importance for many years. With this the Irishmen’s fortune improved, and in Brian Boroimhe they found a ruler of remarkable political as well as military prowess. Shortly after 1000 he managed to secure the secure the sovereignty of all Ireland, including Dublin.

In northern England, and particularly in Northumbria, the Norwegians had greatly strengthened their positions, against both the English and the Danes, during the tenth century, largely as a result of the leadership of such warriors as Rognvald and Sigtrygg (who died a Christian). After 926, however, Northumbria was incorporated into England. Olaf Cuaran  later invaded north-west England, to be beaten finally, as already related, at the battle of Brunanburh in 937. In the 940s he and Eric Bloodaxe were alternately kings in York; teh came a long period of peace in England under King Edgar. Before we leave this resume of Norwegian influence in English, Irish, and Scottish regions, mention must be made of Sigurd the Stout, mightiest of the Orkney earls, who became the sovereign of all Scottish and Irish islands, including the Isle of Man, whose tenth century stone crosses display a significant mixture of motifs, and traditions – Norwegian and Celtic, pagan and Christian.

South towards France, from Ireland and the Irish Sea, went the Norwegian Vikings in the tenth century as they had done before. Reference has already been made to the part the Norwegians played in colonizing Normandy – Rollo may have been a Norwegian. On the Ile do Groix, off the south coast of Brittany, one monument of Norwegian activity along the Atlantic coasts has been found in the shape of a burial mound erected over a Norwegian Viking about 900. The mound contained relics of a cremation: a ship, shields, weapons, household articles, tools, fragments of gold and silver thread that had been interwoven in cloth, and various other things. On this spot some far-voyaging Viking, perhaps form Northern Ireland, had died and been buried with heathen rites. During an Irish raid on a Norwegian settlement at Limerick in 968 there were captured, according to the chronicler, ‘the Vikings’ most treasured possessions; their beautiful foreign saddles, gold and silver, exquisite woven cloth of all colours and kinds, satins and silks in scarlet and green’. It sounds like a treasure hoard where the Vikings stored the spoils captured in raids upon the Orient and Spain.

The Norwegians were also active in the Loire region during the tenth century, as we know from their alliances with Rollo’s Vikings form the Seine. We also know of raids on the Spanish peninsula in the 960s : on the territory around Lisbon and on Asturias, where the pilgrim shrine of Santiago do Compostela was attacked. Evidence of contacts with the Arabs in the western Mediterranean has been provided by finds in western Norway of Arab silver coins minted in southern Spain and Africa. There is no doubt that the Norwegians’ penetration was extensive.

We must not overlook the North Atlantic ‘sphere of interest’. In the first place, Iceland. On the evidence of the Landndmabok the emigration to Iceland was coming to an end about 930; each family arriving on the island needed to claim and settle a substantial piece of land. Iceland was a strange country – some parts good, some parts bad – it was treeless, and most difficult to cultivate, but it had tracks of good grassland. Birds and eggs were plentiful on the rocks, there was an abundance of fish in the rivers, no lack of seals and whales along the shores, and driftwood was plentiful on the beaches. Large flocks of sheep were gradually spreading in the interior, and one man, it is said in the Landndmabok, began counting his sheep, but had not the patience to continue when he reached 2,400. The number of horses, too, increased as time went on.

Some of the more important early settlers set up their own law courts, but it soon became necessary to organize justice on a wider scale, and it is said that a man called Ulfljot was sent home to western Norway to study methods of law and justice. Three years later he returned to Iceland, and in 930 the Althing was set up, and Ulfljot became Iceland’s first Lagsogumathr (law speaker). The annual session of the Althing was held in the summer in a place called Thingvellir in the south-western part of the island. Here the people gathered to hear the laws proclaimed to lodge their suits, to worship their gods, to display their skills, and to buy and sell. Several local Things were established over the island.

The story of how Iceland became Christian is as dramatic as everything else in the history of the saga island. It began with several unsuccessful endeavours at the end of the tenth century. First in 981, the Icelander Thorvald returned to the island accompanied by a Saxon priest called Fridrek. Their ardent missionary efforts, however, ended in killing, outlawry, and their banishment from Iceland. The zealous, fanatical Olaf Tryggvason sent missionaries to Iceland on two occasions. First he dispatched Stefini in 987 ; but Stefini seems to have been a man of Olaf’s vehement temper, for he too was chased off the island. Olaf’s next missionaries, in 997, were an Icelander and a German (Thangbrand) who, after some initial progress, found themselves involved in killing and banishment, At last came success. Two Icelanders, Hjati Skeggjason, and Gizur the White, arrived from Norway. They began boldly by pulling down a shrine to the gods, and then with a crowd of followers went to the Thing and proclaimed Olaf Tryggvason’s message, calling upon the islanders to accept Christianity. At that moment a volcanic eruption occurred, and was promptly interpreted as a sign of the wrath of the ancient gods. A skirmish developed, but the law speaker, Thorgeir, in whose hands the case was placed, proved himself master of a difficult situation. On the third day he called the people together and warned them sternly of the division that would destroy them, if they could not reach agreement. The people understood the issues involved and, says the Icelandic source.

it was then agreed by law that all should become Christians, and that all who were not baptized must become so ; but certain ancient laws were retained, such as the practice of exposing children and the eating of horseflesh. Sacrifice in  secret to the old gods was also permitted, but if witnessed by others incurred the sentence of banishment from the island for a period of three years. A few years later this relic of heathen practice was abolished.

The decision to retain secret sacrifice for a time may seem naive, but it no doubt served as a safety valve. Thorgeir, himself a heathen, knew exactly what he was doing. This remarkable occasion, probably unique, on which an entire people, although a small one, decided to change its religion, suggests that the situation was ripe for such a radical change of faith, and that the traditional religion had lost its power. In this simple yet dramatic manner Iceland adopted Christianity in the year 1000.

About a hundred years before this incident took place, Greenland was discovered by a Norwegian called Gunnbjorn. His visit was involuntary : he was sailing from Norway to Iceland, but was blown off his course and sighted eastern Greenland presumably only at a distance. He felt no temptation to get to know it better, and on his return to Iceland he called it Gunnbjorn’s Skerry. Almost a hundred years were to elapse before that land was again reached. In 982 a man called Eric the Red, born in Jaeren in Norway, was outlawed from Iceland for three years for committing a murder. He decided to spend his period of banishment travelling, not to the south or the east, but in a westerly direction, to take a closer look at these rocks, which people still talked about. So he found Greenland, and it must be presumed that with his companions he worked his way south down the icebound and impenetrable eastern coast of the great island, rounded Cape Farewell,  and eventually reached the more accessible and hospitable south-westerly part of the island. Somewhere here the daring band of men wintered, and in the following summer made a camp at a fjord which Eric the Red consequently named after himself. He went farther along the west coast towards modern Godthaab, ‘giving names to many places’. He stayed in the country two more winters, and then, his banishment over, returned to Iceland from his resourceful expedition. Wishing to return to the discovered country accompanied by as many people as possible, Eric named it Greenland, hoping that this attractive name would induce people to go with him. He succeeded, for there were many in Iceland still anxious to travel, possibly because there was already a dearth of land there. So in the following summer, with a fleet of twenty-five vessels carrying the emigrants, their women, and domestic animals, they set out ; and in 985 or 986, after a hazardous journey, a small majority reached their destination. We may assume that further colonization occurred rapidly in the succeeding years. Greenland and Iceland were alike, offering more or less the same means of livelihood, and the climate there was approximately the same as it is at its best today (i.e. milder than in the later Middle Ages). Eric the Red chose to settle at the head of Eric’s Fjord, where he built his farm (Brattahlid) which was excavated by the Danish archaeologist Poul Norlund, in 1932.

At an early stage the colonization of Greenland was concentrated in two large and separate districts, the ‘Eastern Settlement’ in the south, where Brattahlid and the Thing-place Gardar were located (near modern Julianehaab); and the ‘Western Settlement; in the north, south of modern Godthaab, Danish archaeological investigations have unearthed the remains of some two hundred farms or holdings in the Eastern, and about a hundred in the Western Settlement; quite a substantial total, though not all these places were established in Eric’s time. Agriculture was never widely practiced in Greenland, and the people lived off their domestic animals (cows, horses, sheep, pigs, and goats) and off the products of these animals (butter, milk, meat, and cheese), as well as from hunting and fishing, Eric the Red’s farm in Brattahlid, where he lived for the rest of his life, consisted of a house with several rooms, built of stone and turf, and a great hall (with a well in the middle), round which were the stables and stores. Thick walls of turf kept out the biting cold, and a little farther up in the mountains were the barns and sheepfolds.

The introduction of Christianity to Greenland, and the Norse discovery of America, were both effected in 1000, by one and the same man: Leif Ericsson, the son of Eric the Red. We shall return to him later.


Sweden at the beginning of the tenth century was as strong as Denmark was weak – hence the Swedish occupation of parts of southern Denmark at that time. We know from Wulfstan’s account that not only Gotland but also Oland, and Blekinge were under Swedish rule. This sphere of Swedish domination was now extended to south Slesvig, where a Swedish prince settled at Hedeby and controlled its transit-trade. Between Wulfstan’s description, which makes no mention of Swedish rule in southern Denmark, and Hardegon’s eviction of the Swedish King Sigtryg from Hedeby shortly after 936, there is a period of about forty years representing the span of Swedish domination of southern Denmark. How large an  area of Denmark the Swedes occupied is not known. Significant perhaps is the distribution in Slevig and the southern Denmark islands of a place-names type with a personal name as its first element, and the second element -by. This type is common in the area around Lake Malar, which suggests that the Swedish domination was not a local conquest with mercantile aims, but a real attempt at colonization and permanent settlement. It is, however, unlikely that a short stay of less than fifty years should have left such lasting traces – unless one assumes that the Swedish population remained in south Denmark after the fall of its kings.

On political conditions and events in Sweden itself in the early tenth century the sources say very little. Two rune-stones from Skane describe in similar terms a battle at Uppsala which ended in a defeat for the Danes. One of them says of Toki ‘he did not flee at Uppsala but fought as lang as he had weapons’. This information, combined with what is revealed by later Icelandic sources, suggests that the Swedish kingdom of Uppsala under Eric the Victorious was violently attacked by the Danes, and by Eric’s nephew, the famous Viking Strybjorn, who sought the Swedish throne, but that Eric won a decisive victory in the battle fought on the plain of Fyris, near Old Uppsala (1) Sweden fought another famous battle soon afterwards: the battle of Svold, where, as related earlier in this chapter, Eric’s son, King Olaf Skotkonung, and his allies defeated Olaf Tryggvason.

When we come to consider Sweden’s enterprises abroad in the tenth century – whether these were in waging war or developing commerce – we find, as we did earlier, that her expansion lay primarily to the east. Yet she undoubtedly took an active part in several developments in western Europe: for example, there were Swedes with Rollo in Normandy. Russia was the main centre of Swedish activity abroad in the tenth century. The great Volga route through the Khaganates of the Bulgars and the Khazars was still navigated by Swedish merchants; and by a lucky chance an Arab eyewitness noted what he saw of the doings of the Rus in the Volga regions. This was Ibn Fadlan who, shortly after 920, was special ambassador of the Caliph of Bagdad to the Khaganate of the Bulgars, and stayed for some time in their capital, Bulgar. His spirited narrative describes his strenuous journey via Samarkand and Bokhara, and recounts how, on the Volga, he met Rus traders and their women, whom he discusses in a lively and vivid manner.

Judging from the quantity of Arab coins found in Swedish soil, the stream of silver from Arab sources in the southern parts of Central Asia dwindled during the tenth century and stopped altogether at the beginning of the eleventh. The silver mines were worked-out, and commerce found other routes. For the Swedes in Russia, this meant a more extensive use of the western trade-routes, especially that along the Dnieper to the Black Sea and Byzantium. In two treaties, from 911 and 944, between the Rus and the Byzantines there appear several Scandinavian names – more in 911 than in 944. The impression emerges that the Swedes were gradually becoming assimilated with the Slavs.

In 965 the prince of Norgorod, Svjatoslav (or Sveinald), conquered the Khazar stronghold of Sarkel. Of his two sons, Vladimir (or Valdemar) was given Novgorod, while Jaropolk received Kiev. With the help of reinforcements from his Swedish homeland, Vladimir advanced on Kiev in 980, and succeeded in killing his brother. The two Rus Khaganates were now combined, and Kiev became the capital of a Rus kingdom which extended over the whole of western Russia, from the Dnieper to Lake Ladoga. Vladimir was baptized in 987, and became an ardent Christian. After his death, in 1015, he was proclaimed a saint. During his reign the friendly connexions with Byzantium were maintained.