Viking Warrior Women

A number of women warriors show up during the Viking age. There is not a wealth of information available about each one, but the very fact that the literature is peppered with so many of them sends a message. Unfortunately, the tales have been taken from their Norse roots and rewritten through a Christian lens, which spins many of them as cautionary tales to be heeded by good Christian women. Jo Stanley, in an essay about Viking women in her book Bold in Her Breeches, claims that “society was being persuaded that lethal, wild, vengeful, and free-roving ways of living should be given up and that women should accept a meek and home-based role, and a Christian one at that.”

The Norse and Icelandic sagas, passed down orally but eventually written down, offer another option to explore the Nordic view of women, although the stories were almost certainly meddled with by Christian scholars, whose work reflected contemporary worldviews rather than true accounts of the Viking age. They do not for the most part cover pirate women, instead relating the tales of Aud the Deep-Minded, who was known as a settler; Freydis, the sister of Leif Erikson; and other women. Viking women wove tapestries, which have newly been the subject of research: textile as text. Stories told in cloth, although they do not always feature women, are presented from a woman’s perspective and are a compelling window into the mind of the storyteller. The stories that exist about these women may have been put down with a clear agenda in mind, but the reader is free to imagine what the authors left out and to attempt to construct another version of these tales, one free of religious or political motive.

In book 3 of the Gesta Danorum, the reader is presented with Sela, who we are told is a “skilled warrior with experience in roving.” Her brother, Koll (sometimes called Koller or Kolles), king of Norway, is jealous of the pirate Horwendil’s (or Orvendil) success and wants to eclipse him in popularity. (It is telling that a king could feel envy for the life of a pirate.) Koll sets off with his fleet to find Horwendil, and eventually the two run into each other. Rather than decimate their fleets in battle, the two men decide to settle their difference in single hand-to-hand combat. They promise to fight with honor and bury the loser as befits his station. When Horwendil bests Koll, he decides (for reasons not given in the narrative) to chop off another limb of their family tree and fight Sela, too, who is called in some translations “a warring Amazon and an accomplished pirate.”

Why was Sela in close proximity to the fight? Was she sailing in Koll’s fleet at the time? Did Koll choose her as a sort of second in the duel with Horwendil? Saxo’s account leaves out all these details. Some versions of the story claim that Sela and Koll were bitter rivals, one on each side of the law. Whether or not they disliked each other, it is generally agreed that both siblings were slain by the pirate Horwendil, although the lavish funeral rites bestowed on Koll are not mentioned in Sela’s case.

Book 8 offers another case of sibling rivalry—this time between Tesondus (also known as Thrond) and his sister Rusla. In some translations, Rusla is called Rusila, although Rusila appears to be a different maiden who, along with her sister Stikla, fought King Olaf for his kingdom. Rusla is also sometimes linked to the mythological figure Ingean Ruadh (the Red Maiden). Tesondus had lost the crown of Norway to the Danish king Omund, which galled Rusla to no end. She could not bear to see her beloved country taken over by Danish rule, and she was annoyed that her brother seemed content to let it happen. So she decided that if her brother was not going to take any action, she would have to do it herself. Rusla declared war on her people who had declared allegiance to the Danes. Omund was not pleased with this dissension and sent a unit of his best soldiers to put an end to her rebellion. Rusla destroyed the Danish contingent, and that gave her a brilliant idea. Why not aim a bit higher than independence from the Danish? Why not take over Denmark and rule both nations herself instead?

Fortune turned her back on Rusla, whose invasion of Denmark did not go well, forcing her to turn tail and run to save herself and her troops. As she retreated from the Danes, she ran into her brother, whom she overpowered in short order, stripping him of all his ships and troops but refusing to kill Tesondus himself; that decision would prove to be her fatal mistake. King Omund sent his fleet to Norway to attack Rusla’s fleet, and again she was defeated by the Danish forces. As she retreated for a second time, her brother Tesondus attacked and killed her. Some stories claim that he beat her to death with oars. For taking care of Rusla for him, Omund gave former rival Tesondus a governorship.

This story has more meat to it than Sela’s story, but there are not enough details to satisfy the reader’s curiosity. What was Rusla’s life like before she took to the sea? Did she regard the repulsion of Danish forces as her patriotic duty or a splendid adventure? When Omund’s forces followed her back home to Norway for a second battle, did she realize that she would not beat them? Did surrender ever cross her mind? And why did she spare Tesondus’s life? Could she have believed that, when their places were reversed, he would do the same for her?

Book 8 also tells of three women longship captains, who, although they had the bodies of women, had been blessed with “the souls of men.” Wisna, Webiorg, and Hetha were all fighters by land as well as sea. Each woman receives only a few lines of text devoted to her. Wisna is said to have been made a standard-bearer in battle and then to have lost her right hand in combat. Webiorg felled a champion before being killed in battle, and Hetha was appointed the ruler of Zealand (part of modern-day Denmark). Although there is almost no information about these women, the scanty tidbits are juicy enough to pique the reader’s interest.

While it may be initially surprising that this warrior culture, packed to the hilt with testosterone-laden images and heroes, had so many women warriors, a look at the religious structure at the time reveals that women were always, at least symbolically, part of battle. Yggdrasil, the tree of life, was the center of the Norse world. At the tree’s roots lived the Norns, mythical women who shaped the destinies of humans and even gods. These women were similar to the Fates of ancient Greek mythology. The powerful male gods, such as Thor and Odin, were subject to the whims of the Norns. In their hands they held life, death, and everything in between. It seems that, in Norse mythology, women ran the world.

Besides the Norns, Norse mythology also includes the Valkyries. These attendants of Odin moved among the Viking battlefields, selecting who would live to fight another day and whose battle was permanently ended. Among the slain, they also chose who would go on to glorious Valhalla, the big dining hall in the sky where warriors prepared to help Odin during Ragnarök, which is the Viking end of the world. The unselected dead were escorted to Fólkvangr, a field of the afterlife ruled over by goddess Freyja. The Valkyries are portrayed as beautiful and noble, helping weary warriors to their final destination, but they are also sinister—some early tales show them gleefully cackling while weaving a tapestry of fate made of human entrails and severed heads. They exist in various permutations across many pre-Christian traditions but have remained in Western popular culture almost exclusively as Viking Valkyries. These women, existing alongside men and performing a vital part of the battle rituals, demonstrate an acceptance by the Old Norse that women did have a part to play in war.

Modern research suggests that Valkyries were neither male or female but a third unnamed gender, which had masculine attributes while being physically female. Original depictions of Valkyries support this assertion and are a far cry from the sexy, undeniably female bodies shown in art today. Mortal Viking women seem to share this mix of masculine traits and feminine bodies, much more so than originally thought. Marianne Moen’s study of grave sites suggests that the positioning of grave sites and grave goods suggests a smaller difference between men and women than originally believed. She cites Cedrenus, an author from 970 BCE, who witnessed a battle between the Rus and the Byzantines and claimed that the Byzantines were surprised by the number of women they found among the dead on the battlefield. Even the traditional roles held by women, keeper of the keys or lady of the house, may have been more public (male) than private (female) than previously thought due to the role of houses in trade; a Viking woman would have been more like a store or factory manager than a housekeeper, since houses were used as trade centers by the Vikings. Moen’s research presents some new possibilities for understanding Viking life that are worthy of continued study.

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A major pirate woman from this era was Ladgerda (also called Lagertha). Book 9 of the Gesta Danorum tells her story, which starts inauspiciously. According to Saxo Grammaticus, Swedish king Frey kills a Norwegian king and, in an especially cruel move, puts the dead king’s womenfolk into a brothel so that they might be publicly humiliated. Ragnar of Denmark is moved by the women’s plight and goes to Norway to break them out—and cause some havoc for the Swedish king Frey. When the news of Ragnar’s coming reaches the brothel, many of the women dress as men, sneak out, and join his army. One of them is Ladgerda, who “fought in front among the bravest with her hair loose over her shoulders.”

Ragnar must have been shocked upon arriving at the brothel. He expects to be hailed as a strong and handsome hero by the bound and nearly nude women, who would weep in gratitude for his selfless rescue plan. Instead, he finds an armed team of warriors already in place, ready to aid him. Even if he weathered that change of plans, he would have been really surprised to discover that his fierce new comrades were actually the very women he was meant to be saving. It was enough to knock any man down a few pegs, but it appears Ragnar did not worry too much about it; he was too busy engaging in a furious battle—with the women’s help, of course.

Ragnar and the women win the skirmish. Afterward, taking a leaf from the fairy-tale playbook, he goes on a hunt, asking everyone he can find who the mystery woman was: the one who had caused him to “gain the victory by the might of just one woman.” When he discovers that she is Ladgerda, who is not only brave and gorgeous but also of noble birth, he resolves to woo her. She is unimpressed with him but seems to know that rejecting him outright is not particularly safe, so she allows him to woo her as she installs a vicious dog and a bear in front of her dwelling to protect herself from any unwanted visitors (namely, suitors). Ragnar, apparently unable to take a hint, goes to her, kills the bear, chokes the dog, and grabs Ladgerda in his arms. The two marry and have three children.

Lest the reader worry that Ladgerda suffered an ignoble fate, be assured that the story is not over. Her husband leaves her for another woman, apparently realizing at last that a wife who puts out wild beasts to keep men away might not be that into him. However, when Ragnar gets embroiled in a civil war back home in Denmark, he sends to Norway for help. Guess who rides in and saves the day? Ragnar’s ex-wife, Ladgerda, who turns the tide of the battle with her 120 ships, ensuring a victory for Ragnar. However, the reunion of the old lovers is not a sweet one—after the battle, Ladgerda stabs her former husband with a spearhead she has concealed in her dress. She then wipes the blood off herself and claims the Danish throne, for, as Saxo Grammaticus tells us, “this most presumptuous dame thought it pleasanter to rule without her husband than to share the throne with him.”

Ladgerda’s story includes many more details than do the accounts of most of the other women who are featured in the Gesta Danorum, but it still does not feel like enough. Her actions demonstrate clearly just how she felt about being forcibly married, abandoned, and then summoned to help her ex-husband. But what happened in between all these episodes? What became of this remarkably gutsy woman? Some scholars have pointed out the similarity of her tale with the story of the goddess Thorgerd, the subject of several myths. If Ladgerda is in fact a goddess and not a mortal woman, her story makes a bit more sense. She alone among the warrior maidens is able to get the better of a man who desires her and rule a kingdom. She is the only one who gets a happy ending. A little pagan divine intervention might have been the only way for a Viking woman to come out on top in this collection of stories about bringing wild women in line with Christian values. Goddess or mortal, Ladgerda’s pluck, skill, and ambition make her an irresistible heroine.

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Vikings in the West

A map showing the areas where Viking raiders and their descendants commonly settled. The true scope of their influence is of course impossible to record, as generations of Vikings became assimilated into the local cultures of England and Normandy.

A map showing the Danelaw, a region of England controlled by the Danish Vikings under an 886 agreement made with Alfred the Great. Like Viking Scandinavia, the Danelaw was politically fragmented and it was not destined to last. By the mid-tenth century the Anglo-Saxons had won the territory back.

There were two things that made the Viking raids stand out among the rest: first, they were pagans; and second, their attacks came from the sea. It is this combination that prompted the bewildered and terrified accounts from monks who were otherwise seeking a life of spiritual solitude on remote, rocky coastlines. For Christians, the Viking attacks were incomprehensible sacrilege – but the warriors themselves did not have the slightest understanding of monasteries, or the curious, defenceless men inhabiting them.

The terror was carried by the Viking longship: the most lethally efficient weapon of the Medieval era. The image of the sleek ship, sailing swiftly into shore laden with bearded warriors howling for blood, retains a dreadful fascination. But the raids were never the product of a coherent Viking policy; instead they belonged to the warrior ideology that promoted adventure, warfare and the forging of lasting reputations. The Vikings were great opportunists who often had no idea where they were sailing to or what they would find when they arrived. Instead, they would form a plan when they landed, based on whatever circumstances the local situation presented. This could mean a smash-and-grab raid, taking local inhabitants for ransom or slavery, or setting up a trading emporium. Later, the Viking raids extended to invasion, migration and settlement.

Invading Wessex and Mercia

With Northumbria and East Anglia under Viking control, only the kingdoms of Mercia and Wessex were left to be conquered. But standing in the way of the Great Heathen Army was King Æthelred and his younger brother Alfred. The legendary Alfred first made a name for himself by taking sole command of the Wessex army at the 871 Battle of Ashdown. This nearly ended in his death when he rashly ordered a premature charge of his warriors at the Viking front line. But Alfred was saved by the timely appearance of Æthelred (late for battle because his prayers overran, according to legend) and his mounted reserves. This was fortunate indeed for the fate of England: Æthelred died in the same year and Alfred was crowned king of Wessex.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reports that thousands of Vikings were killed at Ashdown and their army put to flight, but after resting in East Anglia the Vikings won two major victories against the armies of Wessex at the battles of Basing and Meretun. The Viking numbers had also been bolstered by Guthrum, the leader of a new “Great Summer Army”, and now he and Halfdan’s Great Heathen Army (Ivar had returned to Dublin to seek out opportunities there) combined against one of the two remaining English kingdoms still resisting them: Mercia.

The invasion of Mercia was swift and merciless, and in 874 the Vikings installed a puppet king at Repton, the Mercian seat of power. Now the Great Summer Army led by Guthrum prepared for a full assault on Alfred’s Wessex. At first the invasion was something of an anti-climax. The Vikings attacked Wessex’s border and then marched around its fortifications to set up a camp in Dorset. With his kingdom breached, Alfred hastily sought a peace treaty, but it was soon broken and more military manoeuvres and diplomatic initiatives followed. In the end Alfred paid the Vikings to go away, and Guthrum withdrew to overwinter in Mercia.

Guthrum, however, was not finished. He was still intent on conquering Wessex, and to dismember the state he would first have to cut off its head. Guthrum knew that Wessex’s powerbase lay with its leader, Alfred. Alfred was Wessex: while he was alive men would still rally to him. So, during Christmas 878 Guthrum went straight for the kingdom’s beating heart:

878. In this year in midwinter after twelfth night the enemy army came stealthily to Chippenham, and occupied the land of the West Saxons and settled there, and drove a great part of the people across the sea, and conquered most of the others; and the people submitted, except King Alfred.”

Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, translated by Rev. James Ingram

With Alfred having escaped, Guthrum had missed his chance for an easy conquest. While Alfred was alive he was a threat, as the young king proved. Hiding in the marshes of Somerset, Alfred had no option but to conduct a type of guerilla warfare against Guthrum, now the oppressor of Wessex.

Alfred would mount sudden, surprise attacks and then fall back into the shadows of the swamp. It was here that the legendary story of Alfred burning the cakes originates. The story describes a disguised Alfred taking refuge in a forest cottage. Here it was, brooding in his darkest hour over the fate of his kingdom, that Alfred burned the cakes that the mistress of the house had asked him to watch over. Alfred accepted his sharp rebuke, and the episode represented the king’s lowest moment and the turning point in his campaign against Guthrum.

In the spring of 878, Alfred was joined by men from Somerset, Hampshire and Wiltshire, who were fresh from sowing their crops and ready for battle. This new army, which was a force large enough to rival Guthrum’s own, marched towards the Viking base at Chippenham, the place of Alfred’s ousting during the midwinter. The two armies would face each other a few miles south of Chippenham, on a slope of land near Edington.

Two-nation State

By cutting a deal with the defeated Guthrum, Alfred had forged the way for a two-nation state: one Anglo-Saxon and one Viking. In 886, the borders of these kingdoms were formalized. The Viking kingdom, or “Danelaw”, would occupy the north of England; the territory roughly south of the Rivers Thames and Lea was Anglo-Saxon. Alfred immediately set about building “burghs”, or fortified towns that his people could take refuge in during times of attack. Alfred’s agreement with Guthrum was shrewd. However, it did nothing to address the rest of the Viking population outside the Danelaw and many new bands of raiders soon tried their luck on Alfred’s shores.

The largest of these armies came aboard a fleet of 250 ships. It landed in Kent and confronted Alfred in a series of engagements before being chased into the Midlands and dispersing. Other Viking fleets were discouraged by Alfred’s new navy, which saw off another Viking force in 893. To many marauding Vikings, England at this time must have simply seemed like too much trouble. Instead, they turned their attention across the English Channel to the land of the Franks.

Svein Estridsson’s 1069 attacks on England were a classic example of Viking improvisation. Svein departed Scandinavia with invasion in mind and the possibility of whipping the newly oppressed Anglo-Saxon inhabitants into a countrywide rebellion. When this proved too difficult, Svein was happy to be paid off with the same silver and gold his predecessors sought nearly 300 years earlier at Lindisfarne. With Svein, however, the great Viking raiding tradition came to an end.

Raiding had brought a floodtide of wealth into the Viking homelands, which both encouraged and enabled their expansion overseas. Before the raids began, Scandinavia had been an insular, isolated society formed far away from wider view. At its peak a few centuries later, Viking influence stretched from America in the west to Constantinople in the east and the Mediterranean in the south. In this time, the Vikings had ruled over realms in Russia, Normandy and England; they had colonized Greenland, Iceland, the Faroe Islands, the Shetlands, Orkney and the Isle of Man; they had built settlements from Newfoundland to Kiev; and Viking blood flowed through the veins of Europeans everywhere as the warriors and their families became assimilated into native populations.

Viking berserkers

Individual Viking warriors known during the eighth through eleventh centuries for their ferocity.

A sixth-century bronze matrix depicting berserkers. Berserkers were associated with shape changing or the wearing of animal skins, such as the wolf costume shown here.

The berserkers were the semi-mythological Viking warriors who foamed at the mouth and fought with a strength and frenzy that made their foes tremble with fear. It is the berserker that has given us the popular image of the Viking warriors. Some, however, dispute that they even existed. Still, stories about berserkers litter the Icelandic sagas, where they are both venerated as the most powerful of all Viking warriors, and also despised as ugly, unreasonable psychopaths.

The word “berserker” may stem from “bare of shirt”, for going into battle without armour, or “bear-shirt” because of the animal skins that they wore. In the sagas, berserkers were also often associated with shape changing, and could take the form of a bear or wolf, or at the very least assume the qualities of these beasts before they went into combat. In Haraldskvæði, a skaldic poem about Harald Finehair, his berserkers are called “wolf-skins” and in battle they “bear bloody shields and red with blood are their spears when they come to fight.”

Berserkers are often recorded as being immune to injury or having “weapons glance off them”. It is unclear if this is to do with the animal skins they may have worn or a greater tolerance to pain achieved by entering into a frenzied state. This state is often described as a fit of madness, a fury known as “berserkergang”.

Berserkergang seized men with a chill that caused shivering, chattering of the teeth, a hotheadedness and a red swelling of the face. The berserkers then entered a great state of rage, where they howled like animals, bit the edges of their shields and attacked anything that moved. A berserkergang warrior was scared of nothing and would cut down anyone who stepped in his way – friend, family or foe.

An incident where a berserker fails to recognize his family is told in Egil’s Saga. In the story, Egil’s father Skallagrim is taken by a berserkergang – called a “shape-strength” – as he played a ball game with his son and another boy, Thord:

Thord and Egil were set against Skallagrim in the game; and he became weary before them, so that they had the best of it. But in the evening after sunset it began to go worse with Egil and his partner. Skallagrim then became so strong and he caught up Thord and dashed him down so violently that every bone was broken and he died. Then he seized Egil. Now there was a handmaid of Skallagrim’s named Thorgerdr Brak, who had nursed Egil when a child; she was a big woman, strong as a man, and of magic cunning. Said Brak: ‘Dost thou turn thy shape-strength, Skallagrim, against thy son?’ Whereat Skallagrim let Egil loose, but clutched at her. She broke away and took to her heels with Skallagrim after her. So went they to the utmost point of Digraness. Then she leapt out from the rock into the water. Skallagrim hurled after her a great stone, which struck her between the shoulders, and she never came up again.”

– Egil’s Saga, translated by W.C. Green

According to Hrólf’s Saga, the great strength and immunity from pain experienced by the berserker was immediately followed by a depleted state, where the warrior was “so powerless that they did not have half of their strength, and were as feeble as if they had just come out of bed from a sickness. This lasted for about a day.” One way of killing a berserker, according to the sagas, was to wait until his fury had left and then attack him in the enfeebled state that followed. In the sagas, berserkergang was a condition that could seize men without warning. At other times it came over a warrior just before combat. There are many theories about how warriors harnessed the power of a berserkergang. Alcohol, hallucinogenic mushrooms or self-induced hysteria have all been suggested. It has also been hypothesized that warriors underwent a ritual, which included a sacrifice to Odin and the drinking of wolf or bear blood.

It is known that Harald Finehair used berserkers as shock troops within his army, and other Viking kings employed them as personal bodyguards. It may be that these elite warriors were able to induce berserkergang at the required moment through ritualistic means. Reports of berserkers in battle variously describe them as fighting naked, or dyed in blue or covered in bear or wolf-fur – the latter was known as ulfheðnar, or “men clad in wolf skins”. However valuable berserkers were within the theatre of conflict, outside of it they were often described as a blight on society. The Viking warrior code demanded loyalty and fidelity to one’s leader and comrades; berserkers, on the other hand, were known to turn indiscriminately on their friends and loved ones.

Outside of their role on the battlefield, the sagas often record berserkers as brutish murderers and sex offenders who lived outside the rules of Viking society. They are described as looking like trolls, with “black eyes and eyebrows joined up in the middle”, and being “more like monsters than men.” It is perhaps no wonder that as Viking Scandinavia converted to Christianity, berserkergang became unacceptable. In 1015, Erik Bloodaxe banned berserkers and made the practice of berserkergang punishable by outlawry. Later, the duels known as holmgang were also prohibited. This prevented berserkers challenging a warrior to a duel so he could take his property and women. The Icelandic Egil’s Saga records such an incident:

Gyda went to Egil and said: ‘I will tell you, Egil, how things stand here with us. There is a man named Ljot the Pale. He is a Berserk and a duellist; he is hated. He came here and asked my daughter to wife; but we answered at once, refusing the match. Whereupon he challenged my son Fridgeir to wager of battle; and he has to go tomorrow to this combat on the island called Vors. Now I wished, Egil, that you should go to the combat with Fridgeir’ … On the morrow Fridgeir made ready to go, and many with him, Egil being one of the party. It was now good travelling weather.

They soon came to the island… Soon came thither Ljot and his party. Then he made him ready for the combat. He had shield and sword. Ljot was a man of vast size and strong. And as he came forward on the field to the ground of combat, a fit of Berserk fury seized him; he began to bellow hideously, and bit his shield… Ljot sprang swiftly to his feet. Egil bounded at him and dealt at once a blow at him. He pressed him so close that he was driven back, and the shield shifted from before him. Then smote Egil at Ljot, and the blow came on him above the knee, taking off his leg. Ljot then fell and soon expired. Then Egil went to where Fridgeir and his party stood. He was heartily thanked for this work.”

– Egil’s Saga, translated by W.C. Green

There are few recorded accounts of berserkers from the mid-eleventh century onwards. Like all pagan traditions such as spell casting and shape changing, berserkergang was considered a dangerous heathen practice that had no place in Christian society. Berserkers, alongside the god Odin they were dedicated to, disappeared from view.

The Danish Kings of England

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The most famous of these Scandinavian kings is Cnut or, as most of us know him, Canute. Even today, the story of his vain attempt to turn back the tides over a thousand years ago is still told (although this story is based on a misunderstanding), but what else do we know about him and his eighteen-year rule of England? Cnut’s father was the Danish king Svein Forkbeard and his mother was probably the widow of Erik the Victorious of Sweden. He had one older brother, Harald, who became king of Denmark upon his father’s death in England in 1014. Cnut was with his father, Svein, when he died at Gainsborough in Lincolnshire, but although Svein had just driven the English king, Æthelred II, into exile and had received the surrender of ‘the whole nation’, Cnut was forced to fight on in the confusion that followed his father’s death. Early in 1017, this young Danish prince was crowned king in London’s Westminster Abbey. There was certainly a degree of luck involved in Cnut’s capture of the throne: the English king Æthelred II died during the battle for his throne, and the machinations and eventual defection of Eadric Streona, a powerful Mercian noble, seriously weakened the rule of Æthelred’s son and successor, Edmund Ironside. Following Eadric Streona’s flight and a Danish victory at the unknown place called Assandun, Edmund came to terms with Cnut at Olney near Deerhurst in Gloucestershire, agreeing to give a substantial slice of his kingdom to the Dane. In the same way that Alfred the Great had given land to the Viking leader Guthrum, Edmund offered and Cnut accepted control of Mercia. But just over a month after this meeting, Edmund died and Cnut lost no time in claiming the entire kingdom for himself. That he was able to make good this claim shows very clearly, however, that Cnut owed his victory to more than luck. He saw off the threat of several rival claimants to the throne: Edmund’s sons and wife were exiled; Edmund’s brother, Eadwig, was exiled and then murdered; and Cnut married Emma, Æthelred’s widow and the mother of Edmund’s young half-brothers, Edward and Alfred, who had fled to the safety of their uncle’s court in Normandy. Cnut managed to neutralize politically the most powerful of his remaining opponents through a skilful blend of diplomacy, bribes, threats, and outright violence: the Viking leader, Thorkell the Tall, who had fought for Æthelred II against Cnut’s father was given the earldom of East Anglia and, ultimately, the position of regent in Denmark; while the treacherous Eadric Streona was first given Mercia and then conveniently murdered at the Christmas gathering at Cnut’s court in 1017, along with three other prominent nobles.

Although we might expect this victorious Viking to set about plundering further wealth from his newly conquered kingdom and to run it as some kind of military protectorate, Cnut appears to have done everything possible to avoid alienating his new subjects and disrupting political life any more. To this end, the new law-codes he drafted with the help of the Anglo-Saxon archbishop of York, Wulfstan II, were to all intents and purposes identical to those of Æthelred, and contained the promise to observe zealously the laws of Edgar established in the mid-tenth century. At the same time, most of Cnut’s army was disbanded, eliminating the need for heavy taxation of his new kingdom and providing an important psychological step in helping to restore a sense of normality to English political life. The men that Cnut gathered around him at court included English nobles, although many of these were new men who owed their rise to power and therefore their loyalty to Cnut. The most famous of these was Godwine (d. 1053), who was given the prestigious earldom of Wessex by Cnut in the early 1020s and who, before his death, was said to have ‘been exalted so high, even to the point of ruling the king [by then Edward the Confessor] and all England.’ Godwine married Cnut’s Danish sister-in-law, Gytha; his daughter Edith married king Edward the Confessor in 1045; and his son Harold became, however briefly, king of England in 1066. The family provides an outstanding example of the mixed Anglo-Scandinavian aristocracy that emerged during Cnut’s reign, with three of Godwine’s and Gytha’s children bearing Scandinavian names (Swein, Harold, and Tostig), and four of them bearing Old English names (Edith, Leofwine, Gyrth, and Wulfnoth).

Such was Cnut’s concern to set his throne on a firm footing that he wrote two open letters to his people explaining his absences from England in 1019 and 1027 – an unprecedented move by an English monarch, which underlines the importance Cnut attached to popular support for his reign.

 

Then I was informed that greater danger was approaching us than we liked at all; and then I went myself with the men who accompanied me to Denmark, from where the greatest injury had come to you, and with God’s help I have taken measures so that never henceforth shall hostility reach you from there as long as you support me rightly and my life lasts.

In the letter that he sent following a visit to Rome in 1027, Cnut seems even more anxious to justify his absence from England and to inform his subjects of his achievements on their behalf, his concern suggesting that all was not well at home:

I make it known to you that I have recently been to Rome to pray for the remission of my sins and for the safety of the kingdoms and of the people which are subjected to my rule […] I therefore spoke with the emperor [Conrad] and the lord pope and the princes who were present, concerning the needs of all the peoples of my whole kingdom, whether English or Danes, that they might be granted more equitable law and greater security on their way to Rome, and that they should not be hindered by so many barriers on the way and so oppressed by unjust tolls; and the emperor and King Rodulf [of Burgundy] consented to my demands […] Now, therefore, be it known to you all, that I have humbly vowed to Almighty God to amend my life from now on in all things, and to rule justly and faithfully the kingdoms and peoples subject to me and to maintain equal justice in all things; and if hitherto anything contrary to what is right has been done through the intemperance of my youth or through negligence, I intend to repair it all henceforth with the help of God […] And therefore I wish to make known to you, that, returning by the same way that I went, I am going to Denmark, to conclude with the counsel of all the Danes peace and a firm treaty with those nations and people who wished, if possible for them, to deprive us of both kingdom and life.

Looking at the documents that have survived from Cnut’s reign, it is very easy to forget that Cnut was a Scandinavian conqueror who had no hereditary claim on the English throne. Interestingly, many of the Norse skaldic poems composed at his court, which must have been intended for a Scandinavian audience, emphasize both his right to the English throne and his godliness (see, for example, Hallvarðr Háreksblesi’s Knútsdrápa). Cnut clearly saw skaldic poetry as an important form of propaganda, legitimizing his rule of the kingdom he had conquered by force. The poets who composed these stanzas recognized the importance of these issues to their king.

His reign was a time of stability for many of his English subjects, who were now spared the threat of Viking attacks and the punitive taxes needed to fund defences against the raids. This is clearly seen in the fact that there is no indication of any serious rebellion or popular opposition to his rule, such as that which followed the Norman Conquest of 1066. Rather ironically, Cnut’s control of England instead coincided with a period of political turmoil in Scandinavia, as Cnut sought to extend his control over his Scandinavian neighbours. In a remarkable turnaround, the king of England was no longer preoccupied with defending his kingdom from Viking attacks; he was attacking them in their homelands of Norway and Sweden. And he appears to have enjoyed some, admittedly short-lived, success, for in the 1027 letter to his English subjects, Cnut describes himself as ‘King of England, Denmark, Norway, and part of Sweden’.

However, the North Sea Empire that Cnut carved out for himself rapidly disintegrated following his death at Shaftesbury in Dorset on 12 November 1035, during the short and turbulent rules of his two sons and successors, Harold I Harefoot and Harthacnut. Harold and Harthacnut had different mothers – Harold’s mother was the Mercian noble lady, Ælfgifu of Northampton, whom Cnut had married before he became king of England, while Harthacnut’s mother was Cnut’s Queen, Emma of Normandy. The two half-brothers were bitter enemies and, immediately after their father’s death, there was a battle for power. Harold won the first round in this contest, and was crowned king of England in 1036, while Harthacnut was securing his throne in Denmark, where he had been brought up. Here, Harthacnut was preoccupied with an invasion by the Norwegian king Magnus the Good and, in 1036, was forced to sign a peace treaty in which Harthacnut renounced all Danish claims to Norway, recognized Magnus as king of Norway and, most humiliating of all, made Magnus Harthacnut’s heir (incidentally, it was this treaty that Harald Hard-Ruler later claimed gave him the right to the English throne, and which triggered the (unsuccessful) Norwegian invasion of 1066).

Although he had the support of Earl Godwine of Wessex in England, Harthacnut’s absence in Denmark meant that he was unable to press his claim to the throne over that of his half-brother, and he only succeeded to the English throne following Harold’s death from a mysterious illness in 1040. One of the first acts of his reign was to have Harold’s body dug up and unceremoniously thrown into a bog. In contrast to his father’s reign, Harthacnut’s rule in England was short and unpopular: he levied a tax of 21,000 pounds of silver to pay for the expansion of his fleet from 16 to 62 warships, and he was accused of murdering Earl Eadulf of Northumbria. Danish rule over England came to a rather inglorious end just two years after Harthacnut’s succession: he died at a wedding feast on 8 June at Lambeth in present-day London where, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, he was seized by convulsions as he drank. Who poisoned him is not known, but there was certainly no shortage of discontented candidates. Harthacnut was succeeded by his half-brother, Edward the Confessor (d. 1065), the son of Æthelred II and Emma. Edward, who had been bought up at the Norman court, was keen to cut off all links with the Scandinavian past, and even forced his Norman mother, Cnut’s widow Emma, into political obscurity amid rumours that she had promised to support an invasion by Magnus of Norway. Yet the Anglo-Scandinavian Godwine family, who had enjoyed an extraordinarily rapid rise to fame under Cnut, remained powerful despite Edward’s attempts to reduce their influence. He had them exiled following a dispute in October 1051 but was reluctantly forced to welcome them back in 1052. Only Edward’s cousin (once-removed, through Emma of Normandy), William, was able to finally remove the Godwines from power and to reorient English politics away from the North to Normandy in the South in the bloody conquest of 1066.

While a good deal is known about Cnut’s reign and those of his two sons, the history of Viking rule in the Danelaw over 100 years earlier is much more shadowy and elusive. As early as 876, one of the leaders of the ‘Great Heathen Army’, Halfdan, is said to have taken some of his warriors and settled in Northumbria (north-east England), where they set about the very un-Viking-like activities of ‘ploughing and providing for themselves.’ This is the first recorded Viking settlement in England, but little more than these bare facts are known, as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle was more concerned with the continuing atrocities performed by Viking armies further south than with the peaceful ploughing by Viking farmers in the far north of the country. Clearly, however, Halfdan must have wielded some political power in the area where he settled. The most likely candidate for Halfdan’s seat of government is York, the capital of the kingdom of Northumbria, which had been captured by the Great Army in 866-67 and whose warring kings, Ælla and Osberht, had both been killed by the Vikings. York certainly became the most important seat of Scandinavian power in northern England in the following years, and the first definite reference to a Scandinavian king of York was made by The Chronicle of Æthelweard, which noted the death of a king called Guthfrith (also known as Guthred) on 24 August 895. Guthfrith seems to have become king of York at some point between 880 and 885, and was converted to Christianity around 883. Like Cnut, he enjoyed the support of the Church – in this case, the important monastic community of St Cuthbert, which had relocated from the vulnerable monastery of Lindisfarne to Chester-le-Street in County Durham. It may seem startling to us that these monks had such short memories and were willing to support a Viking usurper, whose countrymen had wreaked such bloody havoc upon their holy monastery of Lindisfarne less than a hundred years previously. But, in the complex web of political rivalries in the north, it seems that ethnicity never mattered as much as we might suspect. What was important was that political and economic privileges were secured for the monks, and a Viking king, dependent on the monastic community for his power, was much less likely to interfere than the Saxon kings of Wessex, who were currently adding the non-Scandinavian areas of Mercia to their own kingdom and were threatening to swallow up the rest of England.

Coins minted in York provide the names of two kings with Scandinavian names, who probably ruled York shortly after Guthfrith: Cnut and Siefrid. These coins, with Latin legends and modelled on the coinage of the kings of Frankia, provide an important illustration of how, already, these conquerors were absorbing and adapting west European customs to their own advantage. No Scandinavian king minted his own coinage in Scandinavia until around 995, and these early coins in Denmark, Norway and Sweden were essentially copies of Anglo-Saxon ones, but the new Viking kings of York recognized the enormous propaganda value of circulating their own proclamation of victory and power. Every time someone used one of these coins, they were reminded who was king of York. The names of the people who produced these coins, which were normally given on the reverse of the coin, were predominantly Anglo-Saxon or Frankish during the early years of Viking power in York, which demonstrates the conquerors’ dependence on the expertise of native or ‘imported’ craftsmen at this point – as well as these craftsmen’s co-operation with their new rulers. This was to change dramatically over the following century and, by around 1000, some three-quarters of moneyers had Scandinavian names. At the time of the Norman Conquest, all moneyers operating in York had Scandinavian names – a clear testimony to the popularity these names had enjoyed in the town following its capture by the Great Army in 866.

Although York was remote from the West-Saxon court, the Viking rulers of the north were inevitably drawn into the political struggles of the south. Indeed, it is likely that they encouraged them and tried to use them to their own advantage. Perhaps one of the most significant threats to the rule of the kings of Wessex in the period after the Scandinavian settlements was reported in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle entry for 899. Æthelwold, the nephew of King Alfred the Great, revolted against his newly crowned cousin, Edward the Elder, and was accepted as king of Northumbria by the Danish army. The young prince was later also acknowledged as leader by the Vikings in Essex and incited East Anglia to rebellion before being killed by Edward the Elder’s army. His threat to Edward’s throne, rather than his alliance with Vikings, was probably the greater of his crimes and in its description of Æthelwold’s death one version of the Chronicle, compiled at Winchester in the heartland of Wessex, stresses that it was Æthelwold who had incited the Scandinavian king of East Anglia, Eohric, to hostility. Interestingly, the so-called northern version of the Chronicle has slightly different wording at this point, and simply states that the Scandinavians had chosen Æthelwold as their king. To the southerners, emphasizing Æthelwold’s treachery was the most important fact because he was so close to the throne that he could pose a real threat. A number of other significant facts underlie the Chronicle’s account of Æthelwold’s defection: clearly there was serious political unrest in Wessex and the Scandinavians in the north of England were quick to take advantage of it. Interestingly the Chronicle still describes the Scandinavians of Northumbria as a Danish army, an alien force to be reckoned with, despite its earlier talk of ploughing and settling down. Were the descendants of Halfdan’s army still really organized into an army over twenty years after they settled in Northumbria, or did the court-based chronicler want to play up the treachery of Æthelwold and the threat that Northumbria posed to Wessex in order to justify and glorify Edward’s actions and achievements? The Anglo-Saxon word for army is here, and as late as 1013, when describing Svein Forkbeard’s campaign of conquest in England, the Chronicle refers to the Scandinavian settlers of the Danelaw in this way:

And then Earl Uhtred and all Northumbria immediately submitted to him [Svein Forkbeard], and all the people in Lindsey, and afterwards the people of the Five Boroughs, and quickly after, all the raiding army [here] to the north of Watling Street.

Dorothy Whitelock notes that the word here seems to be ‘used in the sense of the organised inhabitants of an area of Danish settlement.’ Clearly, almost 150 years after the first Scandinavians settled in northern and eastern England, the colonists were no longer the soldiers of a Viking army, but memories of their ancestors lived on in English minds.

The episode of Æthelwold’s rebellion neatly demonstrates that the Viking Age in England was more than the straightforward clash of Scandinavians and English: there was north-south rivalry and, more particularly, conflict between Wessex and the rest of England as Alfred the Great’s descendants sought to unite the country under their own rule. In the north of England, this brought them into conflict with the Scots as well as the Vikings. Edward’s ‘reconquest’ of the Danelaw was a campaign to strengthen his own position rather than an idealistic or ethnically driven crusade to put England under English kings again – the fact was that the kings of Wessex had never before held power in northern England. The presence of the Vikings in the north provided a convenient excuse and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to extend southern power into the north, where longestablished English dynasties had been driven out by the Scandinavians and where the new rulers were not yet properly or securely established.

As the Æthelwold episode and the ‘reconquest’ show, however, the Viking kings of York were not the only force to be reckoned with in the Danelaw – East Anglia, the Five Boroughs of Leicester, Nottingham, Derby, Stamford, and Lincoln, and areas of the present-day counties of Cambridgeshire, Bedfordshire, Hertfordshire and Northamptonshire had each been occupied by different ‘armies’ which recognized different leaders and rulers, some of whom are named in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’s account of the reconquest of the Danelaw. Many of these men bore the title of jarl, the Scandinavian word for earl, or hold, a lesser noble, but some are called king: for example, Eohric of East Anglia who was killed in 904 with Æthelwold; Eowils and Halfdan of Northumbria who were killed in the Battle of Tettenhall in 910; and an unnamed king killed at Tempsford in 920. The geopolitical fragmentation of the Danelaw is also reflected in the way that Edward and his sister, Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians, won territory from the Vikings bit by bit: the southern part of Danelaw (Cambridgeshire, Bedfordshire, Hertfordshire) had fallen to Edward and Æthelflæd by 914; East Anglia was brought under English control in 917; the reconquest of the Five Boroughs was accomplished in the period 917-920; while, despite the capture of York by Æthelflæd in 918, the southern part of Northumbria, the old kingdom of Deira, remained intermittently independent until the death of its last Scandinavian king in 954.

Anglo-Saxon England and Welsh Armed Forces Against the Vikings

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The core of an army in Anglo-Saxon England was the king’s military household, whose members served their lord in return for reward, by the seventh century increasingly given as landholdings. Nobles and royal officers had their own households, which could be summoned to the army. Young warriors served a form of apprenticeship in these households before they married and settled on their lands. In another parallel development with Francia, changes occurred in the methods of raising armies in England in the eighth and ninth centuries. At the time when the Viking “Great Army” appeared in England there may have been a problem with increasing amounts of land being donated to the Church, both by kings and by aristocratic families. In the late seventh century Bede had claimed that this was diminishing the amount of land providing warriors in Northumbria. It may be that ecclesiastical land was held by the family in perpetuity, rather than being dependent on good service to the king. Alternatively, many earlier landholdings were also held in perpetuity, but the granting of them by charter, which made them “bookland,” enabled a lord to bequeath it to a person or persons of his choice rather than being compelled to divide it amongst his inheritors.

Charters of late eighth-century Mercia and Kent make it clear that there were three common obligations to the king: fortress work, bridge work, and military service. Church lands were obliged to provide labor services such as repair of fortifications and bridges, even if they were exempt from military service. Whether any were totally exempt is unclear. Kings like Offa of Mercia began to specify in their charters that Church lands were not exempt from military service, in order to maintain their military manpower. Offa used the obligations to create a network of forts and probably the Dyke on the frontier with Wales as well. By the ninth century these charter practices had spread to Wessex. It seems that it was around the end of the eighth and the beginning of the ninth centuries that kings began to specify the amount of military service required from a given amount of land: for instance, a Mercian charter of 801 says the owner of a thirty-hide estate should provide five men to the army, in other words one man per six hides, or more likely the owner and five men, one man per five hides. The five-hide unit is referred to in early eleventh-century tracts on social status as a designation of thegnhood. It also appears frequently in the listed military service requirements in the Domesday Book of 1086, but the variations it records in military obligation between shires tell us that this was not a universal standard throughout England. Notably, the five-hide shires largely correspond with those of Wessex and western Mercia. Given these variations, it seems unlikely that the obligations of Edward the Elder’s time were identical to those of Edward the Confessor’s, even if there was considerable continuity.

Many of the Wessex charters purporting to be ninth-century are forgeries. However, the reference made in many of these to two decimations of land by King Æthelwulf in 845 and 855 may have a basis in truth, as the ASC and Asser’s Life of Alfred also refer to the 855 decimation. The object was to provide a tenth of his lands to the Church, but probably also to give lands to thegns, who were the mainstay of his army. He, Alfred and Edward the Elder almost certainly built upon the one man per five hide requirement when they reorganized the military defenses and forces of Wessex and Mercia. Both Asser and Hincmar of Reims say that Church lands were exempt from military service in Æthelwulf’s kingdom. It is likely that the increasing Viking threat brought about some of these changes in the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. When they overran most of Northumbria, East Anglia, and a large part of Mercia, and almost defeated Wessex as well, the Vikings gave the impetus for even more far-reaching reforms by Alfred of Wessex. The basis was the construction of a series of burhs, so that no one lived more than a day’s journey from one. Each had an administrative district that was to provide its garrison and maintain its defenses. The Burghal Hidage, a document which dates from the reign of Alfred’s son Edward the Elder, indicates that each hide was responsible for defending and maintaining approximately 4 feet of wall. This appears to correspond well to the length of many of the known burh ramparts and their districts. In all likelihood the system, which Edward and his sister Æthelflæd extended into Mercia as they reconquered land from the Danes, was little changed from that instituted by Alfred after his victory at Edington (878).

Alfred also wished to have an army available at all times. According to the ASC: “The king had divided his army into two, so that there was always half at home and half out, except for those men who had to hold the burhs.” The entry is made under 894, but the reform, if it was more than a temporary arrangement, was presumably carried out before this and after Edington. It is more likely to mean a division of the army into three, rather than the two parts normally envisaged, in which case a man liable to service would spend a third of the year on his land, a third garrisoning the burh of his district and a third with the field army. As Guy Halsall points out, apart from making a reasonable demand on the thegn’s time, this would enable the assembly of the field army straight from the burhs, rather than from innumerable individual landholdings. This would save time and mean that the men of each district were already familiar with each other and had probably trained together in preparation for field service. The ASC entry of 917 mentions burhs as assembly points for armies. While garrisoning the burhs men could also carry out fortress and bridge work. Both the ASC and Asser mention on several occasions that these men rode horses. This is additional evidence that these men were a select levy (fyrd). The levy of one man per hide of the Burghal Hidage must have been something else, perhaps called up in situations of imminent danger. Alternatively, they functioned as a “support force” for the real warriors, sequestered on the basis of the burghal system. Each man was supposed to provide twenty shillings for two months’ maintenance in the event that he was called up: this was presumbly the payment raised from the five hides for the support of the warrior (the ‘man’), perhaps on the basis of one per hide. Æthelstan’s Grately law-code states that “each man” should have two mounted men per plow (sylh). The latter would have been a heavy burden, even if the sylh referred to is equivalent to the Kentish sulung of the Domesday Book, which was two hides, rather than a single hide or even less. Again it may refer to the support for the “man” (warrior), who needed to be mobile to keep up with the army. Æthelstan needed to respond to threats further afield and more often than any of his Anglo-Saxon predecessors.

Even the warriors who remained “at home” might be called upon to fight if their lands were threatened. The Vikings were a mobile enemy who could strike at various points along the coast with little warning. In late 893 three ealdormen, Æthelred of Mercia, Æthelhelm of Wiltshire and Æthelnoth of Somerset, raised the garrisons and the “king’s thegns who were at home near the burhs” to attack a Viking army encamped at Buttington by the River Severn. The problem is that the terminology used by those who wrote our records is rarely precise enough to tell us exactly who was being called up to fight—for instance, the other folc who joined the garrison of London to defend it in 895 need not be read as “common folk,” but as men required to do service as soldiers who were not “on duty” at the time, or as commoners who aided in various capacities other than combat. London appears not to have been included in the Burghal Hidage, perhaps because it was on the boundary between former kingdoms. Despite the problems and uncertainties, we can be sure that it was the wealthier men who were expected to serve as warriors. Thus the military system required the service of a large proportion of the male population of England, but the fighting was (preferably) done by a minority. As in the case cited in Germany above, when “support troops” did encounter the enemy they were not up to the task. For instance, ceorls working on a fortification proved totally incapable of defending it against the Vikings in 893.

Whatever the exact functioning of the system, what we do know of it does not suggest a mass peasant levy. There are no signs of exemption for harvesting periods and the like, which suggests that the levy was not primarily made up of those who labored on the farms. The need to cultivate the land cannot have been the primary reason for leaving some of the men subject to the levy at home for half the year, as this would still have seriously depleted the agricultural labor force when it was most needed. The idea was presumably that some thegns remained at home to keep order and ensure that normal farming activities could be maintained without internal disorder or external attack. At the same time the system ideally provided a fighting force that was sufficiently large as a field army, but not so large that it could not be provisioned for any length of time.

Alfred’s (or Edward the Elder’s) reforms represent an attempt to exact military service from a wide class of landowners. As in the case of the contemporary Franks, in the burhs and on campaign the troops are likely to have been commanded by officers of the royal household. The reform therefore represents a significant shift from a system in which the king was largely dependent on the highest nobility, who were summoned by him and then turned up with their households and any other men they chose to bring, which they then commanded. We know that there was some opposition to Alfred’s reforms: in the 870s there had been some who preferred to submit to the Danes, and there must have been many landowners who were displeased with the measures he took after Edington. It was presumably the scale of the threat to Wessex that enabled Alfred to carry out his reforms, which may have involved seizure of Church property as well.

Alfred’s reforms did not make the king less dependent on the nobility, but created a greater bond between many of them and his court. Those who served the household directly were provided for and in return would have owed service. Others may have been granted land in return for service. All this increased the status of the king. However, as Richard Abels made clear in his work on lordship and military obligation, many nobles were “sub-contracted” to raise fyrdmen in districts where they, and not the sheriff or other exactor of royal service, had jurisdiction. One such was the Bishop of Worcester, who held one hundred of three hundred hides at Oswaldslow in this way “by a constitution of ancient times” when the Domesday Bookwas compiled. Elsewhere abbots and other churchmen, as well as thegns, had similar rights, if generally over less lands and inhabitants.

There were thus two groups of fyrdmen: those who held their land of the king by book-right and had rights of jurisdiction by royal favor, and those who held land as a loan from another lord or under his seignory. The first category of fyrdman was heavily punished for not attending a summons by the king, usually with loss of his possessions. Although the word fyrdwiteappears in the Laws of Ine, it is not clear what this means, and no reference to it as a fine for failure to perform fyrd service (or as a commutation of it) imposed by the king occurs before Cnut’s time. Thereafter the term appears only rarely, suggesting that its use was infrequent. The second category of fyrdmen was not directly the king’s concern: all that concerned him was that the lord who was obliged to provide a certain number of men per hide fulfilled this provision one way or another. Abels emphasized that the situation in Worcestershire may not have been typical of England as a whole, but there are indications that it was similar to some other shires, if not necessarily the majority. There would have been important consequences of such a system—firstly, many of the king’s most important lieutenants would have had to command their own contingents in the battle line and could not have stayed close to the king, and secondly, a considerable number of those provided by lords with their own jurisdictions may have been mercenaries, paid for to make up the quota for their hides, but not necessarily levies of the hides. Such commands would also have perpetuated the existence of regional contingents that had a distinct identity and perhaps ancient privileges as to position in the battle line. John of Salisbury claimed that the men of Kent held the right to strike the first blow, and the men of London the right to protect the king.

The “men of London” may in fact have been the housecarls. This group of warriors has attracted a great deal of attention, without any certainty as to who they actually were and how they served the king. They have been seen as a form of military brotherhood like the Jomsvikings (in any case of doubtful historicity) or as an early standing army. Alternatively, it has been suggested that there was little difference between them and other thegns. There is no doubt that the term “housecarl” is of Scandinavian origin, and that Cnut’s conquest altered the nature of the king’s household. Even in Domesday Book sixteen of the eighteen thegns recorded as landowning housecarls had Scandinavian names, but this does not necessarily mean that that a new type of guard corps was imported wholesale to help Cnut maintain his rule over a conquered land. The question may simply be one of a change in terminology, as we know that previous English kings maintained royal thegns, for which “huskarl” may have been a translation. Domesday Book may similarly have used “housecarl” simply as a synonym for royal thegn. Like Cnut, his predecessors as king had sometimes had to use their followings to enforce their rule, and some of these were Scandinavians, at least at the courts of Edgar and Æthelred II. If not quite to the same extent as in heroic poetry such as The Battle of Maldon, chroniclers such as Asser probably gave a somewhat idealized view of the relations between Anglo-Saxon kings such as Alfred and their followings, representing them in terms of gift exchange rather than the hiring of soldiers. The import of men from “outside” had advantages, as they had no link to vested interests in the kingdom.

Housecarls, perhaps like the royal thegns before them, appear to have had a special relationship with the king and his immediate entourage. For instance, the “housecarls of her son the king” protected Queen Emma in 1035, and they were used to impose taxes by King Harthacnut in Worcestershire in 1041. As such they were provided with high-quality equipment, would have been well trained and must have lived within close proximity of the court. In this sense they were an elite and may have received a royal stipend, but their status need not have differed significantly from earlier royal household thegns who served as soldiers.

The Welsh

Despite the great outpouring of material that stresses supposedly pan-Celtic traits in warfare, religion and culture generally, it is debatable whether the remaining Celtic-speaking regions of the Viking Era—Ireland, the Pictish and Scottish kingdoms, Strathclyde, Wales, and Brittany—had much more in common with each other than they did with their Germanic neighbors, except their linguistic affinity. The evidence for military organization in all these regions in the early Middle Ages is sparse, but there is enough to show that there were many similarities with Frankish and English kingdoms.

The military household of the Welsh kings was the teulu, rendered familia in Latin, like the households of their English and later Norman neighbors. In early sources such as the Triadsand the Gododdin, we also find gosgordd: if not the same as the teulu, it may have been the household generally as opposed to the personal bodyguard. Here the term teulu will be used to mean “household.” As in the case of other early medieval households, the size of the teulu must have varied. Literary references sometimes give numbers in the hundreds, while the Brut says that Gruffudd ap Llywelyn lost 140 men of his teulu in 1047, clearly not all of them. However, even if this was not an exaggeration, it must be noted that he was a ruler of exceptional power (in Wales) at this time. Earlier sources give lower numbers—for instance, the ASC mentions that Brocmail of Powys fled the field at Chester with his fifty men. At Mynydd Carn in 1081 Trahaearn ap Caradog was killed alongside twenty-five of his teulu when many had already died in the battle, which indicates a similar strength.

Like the households of other Viking Age rulers, the teulu could include men of all ages and social rank, including leading nobles, with the probable exception of unfree bondmen. The members had horses, although their equipment may have varied according to wealth, and many had “squires,” such as the daryanogyon (shield-bearers) who attended uchelwyr, the aristocracy. These positions became offices, and were certainly of pre-Norman period origin. The teulu could also include foreigners, hostages from the households of other nobles or rivals, and, like the Frankish households, sons of nobles sent to receive training. Gruffudd ap Cynan seems to have employed an exceptional number of Irishmen, but it is not certain that these were thought of as teulu members: for instance, they are probably the “pirates” blamed for excessive ravaging in the Life of St. Gwynllyw.

The person responsible for mustering the teulu was the penteulu (head of the teulu), who was supposed to accompany the king at all times except when sent on a specific errand. Naturally, the office of penteulu had great prestige and the laws list many privileges, including a larger dwelling than others and a share of the proceeds from judicial proceedings paid to the king. Other members were appointed subordinate commanders of the llu, the military levy, should it be summoned. The teulu maintained the tradition of the comitatus, and Welsh poetry reflects the same traditions as Old English “heroic” poetry—it was supposed to stand by its lord to the last, as indeed Trahaearn’s seems to have done at Mynydd Carn. On the other hand the Triads describe the two war-bands which abandoned their leaders on the eve of battle as earning everlasting infamy. Since the teulu was also supposed to follow its lord even if he rebelled, this gave any lord the power to mount a rebellion, with consequent disruptive effects on Welsh society. A Welsh ruler had to secure the support of his nobles (uchelwyr)—as elsewhere in Europe, whatever the laws said about a king’s rights to summon his nobles and their followings, their support had to be earned. Many Welsh rulers ran into trouble while trying to impose their will on their subject lords. In 984 Einion ab Owain of Deheubarth was killed trying to do so.

As noted, the usual word for the general levy was llu, but a variety of other terms were used for “army,” such as byddin. Usually the levy was drawn only from certain districts, but Gruffudd ap Llywelyn may have been able to assemble a host from the whole of Wales at the height of his power, if this is what John of Worcester meant by “his whole realm.” Numbers are almost impossible to assess. Historia Gruffudd vab kenan gives figures that appear realistic, the highest being in the hundreds. Davies estimates his army as something under 1,000 in 1075, as he is said to have had 160 men of Gwynedd and numerous foreigners (perhaps 500), especially Irish and Danes, and suggests that the rival armies at Mynydd Carn were each over 1,000 men. Earlier, at the height of his power in 1055, Gruffudd ap Llywelyn had enough men to trouble the English and to force Edward to assemble the host of all England.

Although Wales was never unified, it did undergo a process of reduction of the number of kingdoms in the early medieval period, as happened everywhere in Europe. Several scholars have found evidence of a change in military organization around the beginning of the Viking Period: for instance, the abandonment of some political centers, including hill-forts. In poetry of this period there are hints that free men (eillion) were being called up for service. In the laws supposedly codifed by Hywel Dda (d. 950) freemen have to attend musters and pay duties. Not all the codes imposed this duty on free men, and while some spoke of a “levy of the land,” this must in practice have been selective, as in Anglo-Saxon England. Presumably the king called up those he needed. The Brutiau claim that Maredudd ap Bleddyn gathered “about four hundred kinsmen and comrades and a teulu of theirs” for a campaign in 1118. The same source makes one of the very rare references to a general levy (of Meirionnydd) in 1110, which may even have included bondmen. With the exception of one referred to in the Life of St. Cadog (a fifth-century saint), all general levies are recorded as meeting with defeat. Bondmen had certain duties to construct encampments for the king’s men and to provide pack-horses (and supplies?), but it is unclear whether they were expected to fight or not.

In Wales mercenaries (alltud—“aliens”) were certainly used in many armies. Apart from the Irish mentioned above, John of Worcester mentions Viking mercenaries employed by Gruffudd ap Llywelyn in his attack on England in 1055. The laws also mention the billeting of armed foreigners on the local populace.

There is little evidence that Church lands were exempt from military service in Wales. There are hints that the early medieval clas church functioned in a similar way to the Church in Ireland, its senior men maintaining retinues and providing military service. Given the amount of land owned by the Church and the limited resources available to any ruler, exempting it would have made the raising of forces almost impossible. Most claims to exemption are made in later saints’ lives and many of these are dubious.

The Battle of Largs

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Detail from William Hole’s mural of the Battle of Largs, in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery.

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Reconstructed chieftain’s longhouse at Borg in the Lofoten Islands, Norway. Housing both people and livestock under one roof, the longhouse was the typical Viking Age dwelling.

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It was the growing power of the kings of Scotland that finally brought Norse influence in Man and the Hebrides to an end. Around 1200, the Scots seized the island of Bute and signaled their intention to become a power in the Isles by building a state-of-the-art castle at Rothesay. The Scots king Alexander II (r. 1214 – 49) entered into negotiations with Håkon IV (r. 1217 – 63) to buy the Hebrides from Norway. The negotiations came to nothing. Håkon had restored political stability to Norway after years of civil wars and had adopted his own expansionist policy, which aimed at uniting all the Norse Atlantic colonies under his rule: giving up part of his kingdom was not part of his plan. Frustrated, in 1249 Alexander decided to seize the Hebrides by force, but his campaign was abandoned after he fell ill and died on the island of Kerrara, off Oban. Alexander’s son Alexander III (r. 1249 – 86) made a second offer to purchase the islands in 1260 but when this was rebuffed he sent the earl of Ross to invade Skye. Another Scottish force seized the island of Arran. Lurid accounts of Scots atrocities and the political chaos in the isles convinced Håkon that he needed to intervene personally to restore royal authority in the area. Apparently, at the height of his power – Greenland and Iceland had just submitted to Norwegian rule – Håkon set sail for the Hebrides in July 1263 with what was claimed to be the most powerful fleet ever gathered in Norway. King Magnus Olafsson of Man and Dugald MacRory, whose lands had been ravaged by the Scots, both greeted Håkon warmly when he landed on the Isle of Skye. Other chiefs and petty kings, opposed equally to both Norwegian and Scottish domination, were less enthusiastic and only submitted after Håkon’s forces wasted their lands. By late summer Håkon had thoroughly cowed the Hebrides and he moved his fleet to Lamlash Bay on Arran in the Clyde estuary, where it was well-placed to strike into the heartland of the Scottish kingdom. Alexander III sent a party of Dominican friars to negotiate with Håkon, but this was just a delaying tactic. The Scots deliberately drew out the negotiations, making offers that they knew would be unacceptable, waiting for the onset of autumn to force Håkon’s withdrawal. Some bored members of the Norwegian army carved their names in runes on the wall of a local cave to entertain themselves while they waited. When Håkon became impatient of making any progress he sent sixty ships to sail up Loch Long to Arrochar. From there, their crews dragged the ships across a narrow isthmus into Loch Lomond, whose shores they plundered for weeks. The rest of Håkon’s fleet anchored off the Cumbrae Islands, close to the Ayrshire coast.

At the end of September the weather turned bad. Ten ships returning from the raid on Loch Lomond were wrecked in a storm and on the night of 30 September/1 October a supply ship and a longship were driven ashore on the Scottish mainland at Largs, now a small seaside resort town. When day broke, the Scots tried to seize the beached ships but their crews fought them off until the main Norwegian fleet arrived and chased them away. The next morning King Håkon came on shore to supervise the recovery of the ships. While this was proceeding a large Scots force arrived and fierce fighting broke out as it tried to surround an isolated Norwegian scouting party on a hill overlooking the shore. The outnumbered Norwegians began to run back towards the ships in disarray, suffering many casualties, but they somehow managed to regroup and counter-attack. The Scots fell back under the unexpected assault, gifting the Norwegians enough time to reach their ships and escape. The Norwegians waited at anchor overnight and in the morning recovered their dead and sailed for home. The Battle of Largs had been in reality little more than a skirmish but, with the benefit of hindsight, it came to be seen as a decisive Norwegian defeat.

As he sailed north back through the Hebrides Håkon must have felt that his great expedition had been in vain. King Alexander’s delaying tactics had worked perfectly, he had reached no diplomatic agreement that would prevent the Scots interfering in the Isles and he had been forced to withdraw without even fighting a proper battle. He must have been painfully aware, too, that his authority over the chiefs and petty kings of the Isles would last no longer than it took him to sail home to Norway. Shortly after he arrived in Orkney in early November, Håkon was taken ill and, sending most of his fleet home, he took up residence for the winter in the bishop’s palace at Kirkwall. Håkon’s condition steadily deteriorated and he was soon bed-ridden. As the king lay dying, he gathered the shades of his Viking ancestors around him. He could not sleep, so to help the long winter nights pass more easily, Håkon asked his attendants to read him all the sagas of the kings of Norway beginning with the legendary Halfdan the Black, the father of Harald Fairhair. Shortly after he had finished listening to the saga of his grandfather King Sverre, Håkon lost the power of speech and three days later, in the early hours of the morning on 16 December, he died aged fifty-nine: he was the last Norwegian king to lead a hostile fleet into British waters.

Within a few months of Håkon’s death, Alexander led a fleet to the Isle of Man and forced King Magnus Olafsson to become his feudal vassal. When Magnus died in November 1265, leaving only an illegitimate son called Godred, the rule of Norse kings over Man came to an end. Alexander also sent fleets to plunder and burn their way through the Hebrides. Håkon’s successor, his son Magnus VI (r. 1263 – 80), concluded, rightly, that trying to maintain sovereignty over Man and the Isles would cost far more than they were worth. By the Treaty of Perth in 1266 Magnus gave up all claims to the Kingdom of Man and the Isles in return for a payment of 4,000 marks (approximately 20,000 pounds of silver), an annuity of 100 marks, and a Scottish recognition of Norwegian sovereignty over Orkney and Shetland. It is thought that Norse language in the kingdom died out soon after the Scottish takeover.

It proved to be just as hard for the kings of Scotland to control the Isles as it had been for the kings of Norway. The Scots easily crushed a Manx rebellion under Godred Magnusson in 1275, but in 1290 the Isle of Man was occupied by the English. Thereafter the island changed hands several times before passing permanently to the English crown in 1399. The Gaelic chieftains of the Hebrides defied pacification and in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries the area was effectively autonomous under the MacDonald Lords of the Isles, who ruled from Finlaggan Castle on Islay. The lords maintained their authority with fleets of galleys called birlinns, direct descendants of the Vikings’ longships from which they differed only in having a stern-post rudder in place of a side rudder. Even after the lordship collapsed in 1493, the Hebrides remained turbulent and they did not finally come under firm government control until after the crushing of the 1745 Jacobite rebellion. The Scots king James VI (r. 1567 – 1625) even considered genocide as a way to bring the islands under effective royal control.

The cession of the Kingdom of Man and the Isles to Scotland left Orkney and Shetland as the last Norse possessions in the British Isles. Although the islands were ruled by Scottish earls after 1236, their Norse character remained unaltered. In 1380 Norway and its Atlantic possessions came under the Danish crown through a dynastic union. The Danes took little interest in the islands until 1468 when King Christian I arranged the marriage of his daughter Margaret to the Scottish king James III. The cash-strapped Danish king could not afford to pay his daughter’s dowry and so offered the Orkney Islands to King James as surety for a loan of 50,000 Rhenish guilders. The following year Christian added Shetland to the bargain for an additional 8,000 guilders. It was Christian’s firm intention to redeem the islands as his agreement with King James included guarantees to preserve Norwegian law and customs, but the money was never paid so the arrangement became permanent. In 1471 King James abolished the earldom and annexed the islands as crown lands. The following year the bishopric of Orkney passed from the control of Nidaros to St Andrews. Gradually the islands became more Scottish in character. In 1611, Norwegian law was abolished and Norn, the local Norse dialect, finally died out in the eighteenth century, supplanted by English.

Viking Navigation

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The Norse Greenland colony was medieval Europe’s most remote outpost. To reach it from the European continent seafarers needed to cross almost 2,000 miles of open ocean. At the time, only the Malays in the Indian Ocean and the Polynesians in the Pacific undertook longer oceanic voyages, but they did so in warmer and more predictable seas. In the Icelandic sagas, Viking seafarers seem to show an almost casual confidence in their ability to make long open sea voyages but in reality Viking navigation was not an exact art. Viking skippers recognised this and whenever they could they hugged the coast, keeping a safe distance offshore to avoid shoals and reefs, and navigating using landmarks on shore. At night, or if bad weather was setting in, they would seek a safe anchorage, rather than risk getting lost or running aground in darkness or poor visibility. Danes and Swedes, who sailed mostly in the North Sea and the Baltic, very rarely had to sail out of sight of land: Norwegians, setting out for Shetland, the Faeroes, Iceland or Greenland had no choice. When they had to make an open sea crossing, Viking navigators used a technique known as latitude sailing. Leaving his home port, the navigator would sail north or south along the coast to reach a point he knew to be on the same latitude as his intended destination. He would then wait until there was a favourable wind blowing in the right direction and head out onto the open sea and try to follow a heading due east or west to his destination.

In European waters, at least, Viking navigators were heirs to a vast body of seafaring lore and sailing directions that had been passed down orally from generation to generation for centuries. Navigation was a specialised occupation and the leiðsagnarmaðr (pilot) might be the only professional seaman on a ship. This did not mean he was the captain: the ship’s owner was always the captain irrespective of how competent a sailor he was. Successful navigators were experts at reading sea and weather conditions, interpreting the movements of wildlife, which could reveal the direction of land, and observing the positions and altitudes of the sun and stars to determine latitude accurately. However, in common with all navigators before the eighteenth century, Vikings had no means of determining their longitude. The best they could do was to estimate their position based on their speed and direction of travel. It is not known how Viking navigators estimated speed, as there is no evidence for use of the ship log before the fifteenth century, but the evidence of the sagas shows that they could do this with tolerable accuracy. In conditions of poor visibility even the most experienced navigators could suffer from hafvilla (‘confusion’), that is completely losing their bearings. This was most likely to happen when a ship was becalmed for a long period in fog, when it could drift imperceptibly far off its course on the ocean currents.

A navigator’s most reliable guide was the Pole Star, which, north of the Tropics, is always above the horizon and always points due north. The Pole Star is also a reliable indicator of latitude. As the still point around which the other stars rotate, the altitude of the Pole Star remains constant all night and, when viewed from any fixed location, remains the same all year round. From night to night a navigator could estimate the height of the Pole Star above the horizon: if it was higher than the previous night, the ship had sailed further north; if it was lower, the ship was further south. In summer in high latitudes the Pole Star could be invisible during the night long twilight. At such times navigators had to rely on the sun, which is due south at noon, for directions. The height of the sun at noon can also be used to determine latitude, though in this case higher means further south, lower means further north. Through observations like these, Norse navigators knew that Cape Farewell in Greenland (59º 46′ N) was almost at the same latitude as Bergen, the main port in western Norway (60º 4′ N). Sailing directions in one copy of Landnámabók advised navigators heading to Greenland to sail a slightly more northerly course, approximately 61º, in order to avoid the Shetland Islands, which share the same latitude as Bergen. A ship from Bergen should first sail north along the coast to Hernar (60º 36′ N), then: ‘sail west but keep far enough north of the Shetlands so that these islands are barely visible in clear weather. One should stay far enough south of the Faeroes so that their steep and high mountains are just halfway up over the horizon. In addition, one should stay far enough south of Iceland so that you can’t see land but just the coast-bound birds. When you reach the east coast of Greenland you should keep a lookout for landmarks and follow the current west around Cape Farewell to the villages on the south-west point.’

The sailing directions do not rely on latitude sailing alone: the navigator is expected to know important landmarks and understand the movements of seabirds. These could provide important clues about the direction of land. During the breeding season (April-August), which was much the same as the Vikings’ sailing season, seabirds feed at sea but return regularly to land to feed their young and to roost at night. Different birds range further to feed than others. Kittiwakes may travel over 100 miles from land to feed, while smaller seabirds such as puffins and guillemots rarely travel more than 6 miles. Observing the flight of seabirds in the morning and evening gives reliable indications of the direction of land. In poor visibility, the presence of puffins and guillemots would also give early warning that land was very close. Some navigators took caged birds with them. When Floki Vilgerdarson set out for Iceland he took three ravens with him. When he released the first, it flew away in the direction of the Faeroe Islands, their last port of call. When he released the second, it circled round for a while before returning to the ship. When he released the third, it flew away straight ahead and by following in that direction Floki found land.

There were many other environmental clues for the navigator who knew how to read them. Whales have regular migration routes and feeding grounds. For instance, there is one south of Iceland, roughly halfway between the Faeroe Islands and Greenland. A build-up of cloud on the horizon may indicate the presence of land. If the sea suddenly slackens in a storm it may be a sign that the ship has sailed into the lee of an island hidden by rain, fog or darkness. The colour and clarity of the sea can provide further clues about a ship’s position. Rivers wash silt into the sea, sometimes clouding it for miles offshore. A seafarer sailing to Greenland would expect to see ice floes when he approached its coast.

Navigation aids

Viking navigators were under no illusions about the dangers of seafaring and it is likely that for many the most important navigation aid was a Thor’s hammer amulet, the thunder god Thor being a protector of travellers and seafarers. Compasses or lodestones were unknown to the Vikings but they may have used other simple navigation aids. One of these was the sounding line, which the Vikings are thought to have adopted from the English late in the Viking Age. This was simply a rope with a weight tied on to one end that was lowered from the ship into the sea to measure its depth. It was especially useful in the shallow shoally waters of the Baltic or southern North Sea. English navigators liked to keep about 10 fathoms (60 feet/18.3 m) of water under their keels when coasting.

Vikings may have used two other navigation aids, the so-called sun stone, and a sun compass. The sun stone is mentioned in a small number of saga sources and is supposed to have been a crystal that was used to locate the position of the sun on overcast days. The Story of Rauð and his Sons describes the use of the sun stone on land:

‘The weather was thick and snowy as Sigurd had predicted. Then King Olaf summoned Sigurd and Dagur to him. The king made people look out and nowhere could they see a clear sky. Then he asked Sigurd to tell where the sun was at that time. He gave a clear assertion. Then the king made them bring the sun stone and held it up and saw where light radiated from the stone and thus directly verified Sigurd’ s prediction.’ (trans J. E. Turville-Petre, Viking Society for Northern Research 1947.)

The sun stone is thought to have been the transparent crystalline form of calcium carbonate known as Iceland Spar, which is known for its polarising qualities. However, modern experiments indicate that the polarising effect is not strong enough to locate the sun’s position under a heavy overcast and works only under a clear sky or light overcast when the sun’s position can be seen with the naked eye anyway. No sun stone has ever been found in a Viking context but one has been recovered from an Elizabethan shipwreck off the Channel Island of Alderney, though this does not prove that it was being used for navigation.

The existence of the sun compass rests on even more slender evidence than the sun stone. In 1948, excavations of a Norse monastery at Narsarsuaq on Uunartoq Fjord in Greenland uncovered half of a small wooden disc, around 2¾ inches in diameter (7 cm) with a hole in the centre and equidistant notches cut around the edges. When complete, there were probably thirty-two notches. The surface of the disc is incised with lines, some of which are parabolic. It is these parabolic lines that have led to the disc being interpreted as part of a sun compass. If the disc had at its centre a gnomon, then these parabolic lines might represent the course of the sun’s shadow through the day. These devices are easy to make and would have been a useful aid to latitude sailing. If the course of the sun’s shadow was plotted onto the disc at the port of departure, a ship’s latitude relative to the starting place could easily be determined by measuring the length of the sun’s shadow daily at noon. If the shadow falls short of the line, the shorter shadow shows that the sun is higher in the sky, meaning that the ship has sailed south relative to its starting point. If the shadow crosses the line, the longer shadow shows that the sun is lower in the sky, meaning that the ship has sailed north relative to its starting point. Because the altitude of the sun varies with the time of year as well as with latitude, the device would have been absolutely accurate only on the day it was made and it would have become increasingly unreliable the longer a voyage was, limiting its usefulness. Another limitation is that the compass has to be held absolutely level while a reading is being taken – no easy thing in a small ship on a choppy sea. Floating the compass in a bucket of water might have solved this problem, but only if some way could be found to stop it spinning. The disc may simply have been part of a child’s toy or was perhaps a ‘confession disc’, similar to those used by Icelandic priests to count the number of people taking confession. In any case, the monastery at Narsarsuaq was built after the end of the Viking Age, so even if the disc was part of a sun compass, it is not evidence that they were used by Vikings.

It is possible that by the end of the Viking Age, navigators had access to written tables of astronomical observations. An Icelander called Oddi Helgasson (c. 1070/80–c. 1140/50), whose knowledge of astronomy earned him the nickname Star Oddi, compiled a chart showing the direction of sunrise and sunset through the year from different harbours in Iceland, which enabled navigators to take directions. It is very likely that such knowledge was also transmitted orally, from one generation of navigators to the next.