Christianity among the Vikings

Of the three Scandinavian peoples in the Viking Age, it is the Swedes who most successfully remain hidden behind the swirl and chaos of history. Among the Svear and Gautar the art of skaldic poetry was not cultivated to anything like the extent it was among Norwegians and Icelanders; and in the centuries following the Viking Age no Swedish Snorri Sturluson or Saxo Grammaticus took it upon himself to write their early history. What the Swedes did have, by way of compensation, was a culture of raising rune-stones to commemorate the dead, and sometimes the living, to a degree that far exceeds anything in Norway or Denmark. The little we know of Viking Age Swedes derives largely from the histories and poems composed by other Scandinavians in which their kings and leaders play a part, from Rimbert’s ‘Life’ of the ninth-century missionary Anskar, and from what can be gleaned from the inscriptions on these rune-stones. The dramatic flourishing of the fashion, from the middle of the tenth century to its decline around the beginning of the twelfth century, has been attributed to the renown of King Harald Bluetooth’s Jelling stone, in Jutland in Denmark; but it was among the Swedes that the art reached its apotheosis. About 2,500 examples from the period have survived in Sweden, compared with some 220 in Denmark, a mere handful in Norway and none at all in Iceland.

Where the Ingvar stones are most evocative of our conventional ideas about the Viking Age is in their terseness and monumentality; the carving of an eagle’s head on one stone intensifies its aura of Heathen exoticism. But it stands guard alone, heavily outnumbered by the references on at least eleven other stones to the Christian God, as well as the Christian crosses carved on several of them. The saga’s depiction of Ingvar as an exceptionally pious Christian is an obvious exaggeration, but there is no reason to doubt that he and the majority of his party were baptized men. And yet, to a much greater degree than among either the Danes or the Norwegians, both of whom were by this time irrevocably members of the community of Christian peoples in Europe, Christianity among the Swedes was still struggling to establish the exclusive dominance which its dogma required. Perhaps it was that the territory was more remote; or that the spiritual centre of the whole cult of the Aesir was located at the temple in Gamla Uppsala (Old Uppsala) in Sweden.

The rapidity and scale of the conversions carried out under Harald Bluetooth in Denmark, and Olaf Tryggvason and Olav Haraldson in Norway, owed everything to the fact that they were native kings. Adam of Bremen quotes Sven Estridson, who succeeded Magnus the Good as king of Denmark in 1047, as advising the Hamburg-Bremen Bishop Adalbert against carrying out a plan to undertake a great missionary journey through the Scandinavian lands, on the grounds that ‘the Heathens are more willing to be converted by someone who speaks their own language and who observes the same customs as themselves, than by foreigners who object to their way of life’. By the middle of the eleventh century, no such determined, native, missionary king had yet risen among the Swedes, though there had been kings, like the Emund mentioned by Adam of Bremen, who were favourably disposed towards Christianity; and Erik Segersäll, or ‘the Victorious’, whose victory in 988 over Styrbjørn Starke, in a battle near Uppsala, is referred to on rune-stones. Ingvar’s saga makes the credible claim that Erik was the great-grandfather of Ingvar the Far-Travelled.

It is with Erik Segersäll that the more or less continuous history of the kings of Sweden begins. Adam tells us that he was baptized in Denmark, but reverted to the old religion on his return to Uppsala. On his death in about 995 he was succeeded by his son Olof Sköttkonung. Olof was the first known king to rule over both the Svear and the Gautar of the Mälardalen and Västergötland regions of Sweden. He was also the first Swedish king to be baptized who did not later revert to Heathendom, and the first to practise the other major innovation associated with Christian modernity besides writing in Latin, the minting of coins to be used as coins and not as hack-silver to be judged by weight. He married Estrid, the Christian daughter of an Obodrite prince, who bore him a son, Jakob. He also had three children by his mistress Edla. His name ‘Sköttkonung’ probably derives from the fact that his profit from the battle of Svolder in 1000, at which Olaf Tryggvason of Norway was killed, was control over the Bohuslän district, on the eastern side of the Vik, which he ruled as Sven Forkbeard’s tributary king. Other explanations on a stimulating roster of possibilities that depend upon different translations of the first element of his nickname include the ‘sheet-’ or ‘lap-’ king; an interpretation that may suggest a caesarean birth; the possibility that he spent some time in Scotland; and that, as the first Swedish king to mint coins, he was remembered as ‘the tax king’.

By the late 990s these coins, minted in his name by English moneyers in Sigtuna, bore Christian motifs, suggesting that King Olof was baptized earlier rather than later in his life, and almost certainly not as late as the 1008 given in the legendary ‘Life’ of St Sigfrid from the beginning of the thirteenth century, which ascribes his baptism to an English bishop Sigfrid, known as the apostle of Sweden. An intriguing suggestion that offers to settle a number of the problems connected to the dating of Olof’s baptism, as well as the identity of the man who baptized him, proposes that the ‘Anlaf’ who raided in England with Sven Forkbeard in the early 990s, and whom the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle tells us was baptized at Andover in 994, was not the Norwegian Olaf Tryggvason at all but the young Olof Sköttkonung. Archbishop Sigeric of Canterbury was urgently involved in raising the money used to pay off the Viking armies in 994, and it was very likely he that baptized ‘Anlaf’ at the ceremony in Andover that year. A subsequent confusion over the names ‘Sigfrid’ and ‘Sigeric’, as well as the ‘Sigurd’ mentioned by Snorri Sturluson in his reference to the event, may have become embedded in the traditions relating to Olof Sköttkonung’s baptism. The uncertainties are entirely characteristic of Swedish history of the period.

Adam of Bremen, who greatly admired Olof, tells us that at some unspecified point in his rule he proposed to pull down the temple at Uppsala as part of a campaign to convert the whole population of his regions, but that the Svear who formed the dominant majority in the coastal east remained as firmly attached to their Heathen beliefs as ever and would not allow it. In a solution that would probably not have appealed to Thorgeir Ljosvetningagodi in Iceland, Olof’s authority was limited to control of the Götar of the Västergötland region in the west of the country, the region of present-day Gothenburg, which had been converted in the second half of the 990s and become a point of entry for missionary priests travelling in Sweden: ‘If he wished to be Christian himself he might choose the best part of Sweden and have full power there. He might build a church and introduce Christianity. But he must not force people to abandon the old faith. Only those who wished to should be converted.’ It seems that the arrangement was followed and as a possible result – for the chronology is uncertain – a bishopric was established at Skara in Västergötland in about 1013. Snorri adds that Olof’s long and futile attempt to exploit the volatile situation in Norway at this time led him to neglect and finally lose his tributary rights over tribes on the other side of the Baltic, and that this was another factor in the dissatisfaction that led to his demotion.

For the last years of his reign, Olof ruled only over Västergötland, as a tributary king under his young son Jakob. As the name indicates, Jakob, too, was a Christian, but not one overly imbued with the missionary imperative. In an inversion of the practice we have become familiar with over the centuries of dealings between Christians and Heathens, Jakob adopted the local and traditional name ‘Anund’ at the request of his Heathen subjects, who made it a condition of his rule. On his death in 1050 he was succeeded by his half-brother, Emund the Old, also called Emund the Mean, also a Christian. At about the same time, and as a reminder of how far Sweden still was from anything approaching a modern monarchy, Christianity was introduced into the province of Jemtland in north-central Sweden, with Norway on its western border, by a local chieftain about whom very little other than this is known. The documentation is the inscription on the Frösö stone, the most northerly rune-stone in Sweden:

Austmaðr, Guðfastr’s son had this stone raised and this bridge made and he made Jamtaland Christian. Ásbjôrn built the bridge, Trjónn (?) and Steinn carved these runes.

Scholarly debate over the conversion of the Scandinavian peoples has long concerned itself with the competing claims to decisive involvement of German bishops associated with the archbishop of Hamburg-Bremen, and of missionary priests and bishops from England sponsored by Olaf Tryggvason and Olav Haraldson. Adam of Bremen writes that Emund the Old was baptized but that he was not much interested in religion, an ingenuous observation that may have been occasioned by the fact of Emund’s open opposition to the German political influence in Sweden that the power of the Hamburg-Bremen see in Scandinavia entrained. He seems to have rejected the see’s attempts to establish itself at Sigtuna, in Mälardalen, and to have driven its prospective bishop out of the country, on the grounds that there was already a bishopric in Mälardalen, complete with incumbent. Adam complains that this ‘unofficial’ appointee, Bishop Osmund, ‘led the newly converted savages astray with his false teaching’. Indeed, in the deaths of all the members of Ingvar’s expedition Adam saw only God’s just punishment for this particular effrontery.

Adam’s condemnation of the ‘false teaching’ of both the king and his bishop may relate to a tradition that Emund provoked the German missionaries in Sweden with his attraction to eastern forms of Christianity, and a recent theory from Sweden on the origins, dating and significance of the so-called ‘Lily-stones’ suggests that the influence from Constantinople on the arrival of Christianity in Sweden may well have been underestimated. These stone rectangles carved with stylized lilies, a familiar image of the resurrection, are among the earliest examples of Christian art known from Västergötland. Their original purpose is not known, but they are believed to have been used at some point as gravestones. The prevailing view is that they were influenced by English and German religious art and were carved in about 1100, at about the time the first stone churches were built. The radical hypothesis behind the new theory is that Viking Age Swedes who joined the Varangian Guard as the emperor’s personal bodyguard were compelled to accept baptism before enrolment, and that the Christianity these returning Varangian mercenaries brought back with them when they returned to Sweden was accordingly neither the Hamburg-Bremen variety nor the Canterbury, but the Greek Orthodoxy of the Byzantine empire. The stones were then made to the commission of these homecoming warriors around 1000, thus a full century earlier than the date traditionally given for them, by local stonemasons whose influences were from the east. Finds of a number of other objects associated with eastern Christianity, such as resurrection eggs, as well as the occurrence of Greek crosses on rune-stones, can be used to support the theory. Its most dramatic proposal, however, is that Heathendom as a ‘state religion’ had effectively disappeared from Sweden as early as about 1000, and that when Adam of Bremen writes of conflict between ‘Heathens’ and ‘Christians’ and of attacks on ‘Heathen temples’, he is referring to a Swedish version of the conflict between the Catholic and the Orthodox Churches that was raging on the larger stage outside Scandinavia at this time. On this analysis, Adam’s ‘Heathen priests’ were the Catholic Church’s Orthodox competitors, and his ‘Heathen temples’, on the same analysis, the first churches to be built in the country in the late tenth and early eleventh centuries – rectangular wooden buildings, often elaborately decorated, with staves set directly into the ground. The break between the Catholic and the Orthodox Churches that occurred in 1054 finally compelled the triumph of Roman Christianity among Swedes and the theory proposes that a century of Greek Christianity in Sweden was thereafter edited out of Swedish history. If further evidence emerges in support of this then the history of Christianity in Sweden will have to be rewritten. In the eleventh century that history has to be put together from some notoriously unreliable sources, but as things stand the general picture suggests that the Heathendom which Christianity struggled to overcome was the original, native version rather than imported, Byzantine Christianity.

Emund, son of Edla, a mistress of Olof Sköttkonung, proved to be the last of his line. Following his death in 1060, his son-in-law, a Västergötland earl named Stenkil, became king. Stenkil was an active promoter of Christianity who did not share his father-in-law’s hostility to the archbishopric of Hamburg-Bremen, and it was probably he who established the see at Sigtuna, near the site of the great Heathen temple with its statues of Thor and Odin and Frey. Since at least the time of Anskar’s mission in 829, the major trading centre in the east of Sweden had been Birka, but by the end of the tenth century its role had been taken over by Sigtuna, as rising land-levels made the old town increasingly inaccessible from the sea. Though Stenkil facilitated the work of Adalvard the Younger, the next German bishop to be appointed to the see, he prudently advised him against carrying out a plan to burn down the temple at Uppsala, predicting that he and his associate Egino would certainly be killed in revenge and he himself driven from the country as the sponsor of the men responsible for the act. Instead, the two bishops turned their attention to Götaland and the lesser violence of destroying Heathen images there. With Adalvard’s death, however, the work of conversion was once again held up. Adam of Bremen tells us that his successor, a bishop named Tadiko from Ramelsloh, was a man too fond of his food who was more concerned ‘to curb hunger at home than proselytize abroad’.

Our knowledge of the events following the death of Stenkil in 1066 is, if anything, still more hazy than it is of events preceding it. Though Stenkil founded a dynasty that endured until the 1120s, it did not re-establish itself with any certainty until 1080 and the long reign of Inge the Old. The intervening twenty years see the appearance of a number of pretenders and phantom kings, whose existence is attested only in sagas with little claim to historical credibility. Even where doubt surrounds the very existence of these kings, the roles and actions ascribed to them in the legendary material seem to sound clear echoes of an intense phase of religious conflict in Sweden, in which Heathendom mounted a last and ultimately doomed campaign of defiance against the engulfing tide of Christian religious culture.

Rivals, both named Erik, engaged in a struggle for the succession so bloody that Adam of Bremen, our only reasonable source for the period, says that most of the leading men of the country were killed, including the two Eriks. The violence precipitated another crisis for the Christian Church as the bishops appointed to the sees at Skara and Sigtuna stayed in their homes in Germany in fear for their lives rather than travel. Halsten, a son of King Stenkil, was then chosen as king; but nothing is known of his reign other than that it was brief and that he was driven out and replaced by a certain Anund, whom the Swedes had invited from Russia, and whose reign turned out to be equally short. Adam gives as the reason for his rejection his refusal, like Håkon the Good in Norway over 100 years earlier, to enact to the full the role of a Heathen king at the Thing meeting. After so many decades of Christian influence and Christian institutional presence in the Mälaren region, the trenchant nature of the demands made of their king invites the suspicion that these Svear were still a largely syncretic people, who continued to ignore the Christian demand that the old gods be rejected as part of the acceptance of the new one. It may be eloquent of the tensions in the region that, in 1066, a Heathen reaction among the Obodrites, from the coastal region of what is now northern Germany, between Denmark and Poland, led to the killing of the Obodrite ruler and the destruction of all three Obodrite bishoprics, and that it took the institutional Church over fifty years to re-establish itself there.

Håkon, known as the Red, as obscure as any of his immediate predecessors, seems to have succeeded Anund. We know nothing of his reign and can only presume that he was, if not Heathen himself, then at least tolerant enough of Heathen practices to go through the required motions at the sacrificial ceremonies. If, as seems likely, he remained in power for much of the 1070s, then a relatively long reign in such volatile times probably does indicate flexibility in the matter of religious faith and, most pertinently, in religious practice.

Of the circumstances of his death nothing is known, only that the succession of King Inge the Older saw the return of the Stenkil dynasty and a renewed attempt to impose Christianity or, equally, to eradicate Heathendom. A letter from Gregory VII, dated 4 October 1080 and addressed to ‘the glorious king of the Svear’, expresses the pope’s satisfaction at the conversion of Inge’s people to Christianity. A second letter in the following year addressing ‘I and A’ – only initials are used – as ‘the glorious kings of the people of Västergötland’ is a likely indication that there was a period of joint rule in which power was shared between Inge and his brother Hallsten. Ominously for the stability of the region, the letter concerned the payment of tithes to the Church. There seems to have been more turbulence, obscure but certainly of a religious nature, in which Eskil, the English bishop of Strängnäs in Södermanland, was stoned to death after an incident in which a Heathen ceremony was disrupted and the altar destroyed. The scene might have been Birka, the year 845, the murder that of Anskar’s chaplain Nithard.

Now history, literature and myth once again dissolve into each other. At the Assembly in 1084 Inge, like Anund before him – though confusion in the sources may well have conflated the two kings – is said to have refused to enact the king’s part in the ceremonies. Sven, Inge’s brother-in-law, who may only have been the fictional or symbolic creation of the compiler/author of the legendary, thirteenth-century ‘Saga of Hervar and Heidrek’ that tells the story, rose to address the enraged Heathens and promised that, if they would elect him king, he would carry out the sacrifices required of a king. Sven was duly elected. The saga then describes a scene in which Sven led the Assembly in a ritual repudiation of Christianity as a horse was led out, sacrificed, cut up and its flesh passed around to be eaten. By common assent, the rituals of sacrifice to the old gods were reintroduced, and King Sven acquired a nickname – ‘Blotsven’, or Sven the Sacrificer.

Orkneyinga Saga turns aside from its main concern with the doings of the earls of the Northern Isles to describe Earl Håkon Paulson’s visit to Sweden in the time of King Inge and offer a rapid résumé of what happened after Sven came to power. ‘Inge was forced into exile and went to West Götaland, but eventually managed to trap Sven inside a house and burnt him there.’ Back on the throne again, Inge was able to press through the re-introduction of Christianity to the Svear. Finally, in about 1090, he presided over the long-postponed destruction of the great Heathen temple at Uppsala. With that, the last true refuge of Odin, Thor, Frey, Freyja and the rest of the Aesir was gone.

Throughout the Viking Age, kings had founded towns. Hedeby’s rise to prominence as an international trading centre began when the Danish king Godfrid compelled the tradesmen and merchants of Reric to relocate there in 808. Ribe, a little south of Jelling and on the west side of the Jutland peninsula, seems to have been founded at about the same time. Birka thrived for two centuries as the main trading centre in Sweden before the merchants moved their activities to Sigtuna. The cultivation of Kaupang, for a century and a half the major trading centre in southern Norway, and the goal of Ottar the merchant’s long journey along the west coast of Norway, was probably the work of Danish kings such as Godfrid. Trondheim is believed to have been founded by Olaf Tryggvason in about 997, and Oslo’s transformation from small settlement to large town began in the middle of the eleventh century and was the work of Harald Hardrada.

The origins of Lund in Skåne are obscure, but the church that was built there in about 990 was almost certainly the work of King Sven Forkbeard. By the turn of the century, Lund had a markedly cosmopolitan character, as a Christian centre, as the site of what would later become the largest mint in Scandinavia, and as the home of a large community of foreign artisans and craftsmen. Both Sven and his son and successor Cnut conceived of Lund as a kind of ideally modern Scandinavian town. Paradoxically perhaps, in view of their military activities in the west, this involved for both the cultivation of a pronounced anglophilia. Sven’s appointment of an English bishop to his church, Gotebald, was an early indicator of this.34 After his death in England in 1014, Sven was buried in York. The author of the Encomium Emmae Reginae (‘In Praise of Queen Emma’) tells us, however, that he had previously chosen a burial site for himself in Lund, and in due course his remains were disinterred and taken over the sea to be reburied in the church built by himself. Recent excavations have revealed what seems to have been a grave beneath the floor of the church. It was empty, probably because Sven’s remains were removed when the church was pulled down to make way for a stone church. The circumstances sound a poignant echo of the transfer, some fifty years earlier, of the remains of his grandfather, Gorm the Old, from the North Mound at Jelling to a Christian grave beneath the floor of the Jelling church. Pre-mortem funeral and burial arrangements may have been a family tradition among the Jelling kings. As we speculated earlier, the empty South Mound at Jelling was possibly intended by Harald Bluetooth as his own grave, with the circumstances of his death somehow making this impossible.

Following Sven’s death, Cnut continued to develop and expand Lund. According to Adam of Bremen, it was Cnut’s bold ambition to make the town ‘as important as London’. As well as employing English bishops in his church, he imported moneyers and designers from England, like the Leowin who signed the elegantly carved penholder found during the excavations of 1961. A moneyer with the same name was employed at the Lund mint around the turn of the tenth century and may well have been the same man. Also found was a walking stick, the intricate carvings on its handle in the form of a snake or dragon in the so-called Winchester style. Ulfkil, the maker’s name, is etched on to the stick in runes, and the name is also found among the Lund moneyers active in the middle of the eleventh century. Across a large central area of the city, shards of Viking Age pottery have been found that are unique to Lund and to London.

Lund’s growing status presently demanded something more imposing than Sven’s original wooden church and the larger stone church that replaced it was built by about 1050. In about 1060 the see of Lund was established, and its first incumbent was an English bishop, Henrik. Adam of Bremen who was, we must remember, writing a house-history of the archbishopric of Hamburg-Bremen, describes him as a drunken sybarite who choked to death on his own vomit. At about the same time as Lund was established, a German bishop named Egino was appointed to a second Danish see at nearby Dalby, and he took over at Lund on Henrik’s death. By Adam’s account a much more pious and learned man than his predecessor, Egino struck up an alliance with his colleague Adalvard at Sigtuna that, in the name of missionary Christianity, stretched right across geographical Sweden and ignored its political divisions. As we saw earlier, the two had to be dissuaded by King Stenkil from a plan to burn down the Heathen temple at Uppsala.

Back in 831, the see of Hamburg had been created to civilize the peoples of the north by bringing Christianity to them. We saw that, as a result of the Viking sack of the settlement in 848, Hamburg had been joined to Bremen and relocated there, with its missionary aims unchanged. Some two and a half centuries later, it would seem, the job was done, with the Danes, Swedes and Norwegians formally enrolled as members of the union of Christian peoples. And yet, in what should have been the hour of its greatest triumph, the see endured the bitter humiliation of having its authority over the region removed. The so-called ‘investiture controversy’ began when Pope Gregory VII, determined to reform a Church that turned a blind eye to clerical marriage and simony and to free it from the corrupting influence of the political world, neither notified nor sought the approval of the German King Henrik IV on the occasion of his consecration as pope in 1073. His reforming programme would put an end to royal control of the appointment of bishops, but Henrik defied him and continued to select bishops over whom he knew he had control. Rebuked by Gregory, he convened a synod of bishops at Worms in 1076, which obediently deposed his turbulent pope for him. Gregory responded by excommunicating Henrik, suspending his royal power and releasing his subjects from their oath of allegiance to him. Henrik feared the move might precipitate a rebellion among his nobles, and in the extraordinary aftermath to this exchange walked barefoot across the Alps, wearing the hairshirt of a penitent, in search of an audience with Gregory at Canossa, and of his pardon. For three full days the pope kept him waiting and fasting in the snow outside the gates of the fortress where he was lodged before granting him an audience. Though Gregory revoked the excommunication, he upheld his deposition of the king as the lawful ruler of Germany. Henrik remained intransigent, and in 1080 Gregory lost patience with him and again excommunicated and deposed him, recognizing his rival Rudolf as the lawful king of Germany. Henrik’s response was to appoint the first of that flock of anti-popes that would keep the institutional Church in a state of disarray for much of the next two centuries.

Gregory died in 1085, but Henrik had had himself crowned Holy Roman Emperor the year before by his anti-pope, Clement III, and the investiture controversy continued to sully the relationship between Henrik and Gregory’s successors for years to come. For most of this crisis, Archbishop Liemar at Hamburg-Bremen had sided with the king against the reforming pope. In choosing to send his letter of congratulation and Christian welcome directly to King Inge in Sweden in 1080, Gregory had delivered a deliberate snub to the archbishopric on this account. His letter to Inge the following year, on the requirement to pay tithes to the Church, reflected his urgent need for both new friends and new sources of funds, and a feeling that both might be found among the newly converted peoples of the north.

For a long time Hamburg-Bremen had held the moral right to exercise institutional authority over the Church in Scandinavia, but with the support of its leaders for the German king and emperor in his struggle with the papacy it disappeared. Along with Lund’s burgeoning status as a Christian and royal centre in the far north of Europe, this led the papacy presently to take full account of the fact that the people of the north were now firmly committed to a modern, Christian civilization. Hamburg-Bremen was an irrelevancy and the Scandinavian Church could now be trusted to manage its own affairs. The first archbishopric with responsibility for all Scandinavia was established at Lund in 1103, with Asser as its first incumbent. New archbishoprics established at Nidaros in Norway in 1153 and Uppsala in 1164 moved the institutional Church ever further north. In St Olav, the Norwegians had had their patron saint since about 1034. The Danes, who had accepted Christianity at the monarchical level some sixty years earlier, had to wait a little longer for theirs. In 1086 Cnut II of Denmark was planning an invasion of William the Conqueror’s England with a fleet which, somehow, never quite managed to leave the waters of the Limfjord. It was almost as though the memory of how such things were done was fading. Before it had returned he was dead, murdered by his enemies in the church of St Alban, in Odense. As St Cnut he was canonized in 1101. The canonization of the first saint-king of the Swedes was, in view of their enduring reluctance to join the fold, a suitably confused and ambiguous affair. In about 1155 Erik of Sweden, later known as ‘the Holy’, led an expedition into the southern tip of Finland. Brief and without discernible result, the spirit of the age nevertheless identified it as a crusade following his death in 1160 outside the church at Uppsala, allegedly against overwhelming odds and after a session at prayer inside the church. Erik was thereafter venerated as a saint by a local church anxious to achieve parity with its neighbours in the north, but his canonization was never official, for the papacy was persuaded by other stories that told of a drunkard who had met his death in a drink-fuelled brawl, so much so that in 1172 Pope Alexander III actively tried to forbid Erik’s veneration.

But in the context of the Viking past of these Scandinavian kings, perhaps the starkest symbol of the demise of one culture and its replacement by another was the adventure of the Norwegian King Sigurd, known as Jorsalafarer, the Jerusalem Traveller, who led a crusade to the Holy Land in 1108 and was the first European ruler to do so. When he returned to Norway three years later he brought back with him a splinter of the True Cross, given to him by Baldwin of Boulogne, first ruler of the Christian kingdom of Jerusalem. It was the most prized Christian relic of the age. We can be sure that Sigurd’s Viking forefathers, had they come across it during a raid on a church, would have tossed it without a second thought into the flames of the fire they started on their way out.

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