Anglo-Saxon England and Welsh Armed Forces Against the Vikings




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


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



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.


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



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.

The great raid of Hastein and Björn Ironsides




The greatest of all Viking expeditions to Spain was led by two of the most famous of all Viking leaders, Björn Ironsides and Hastein. Björn was later believed to be one of the many sons of the legendary Ragnar Lodbrok. When he was a child, Björn’s mother was supposed to have given him a magical invulnerability to wounds for which he earned the nickname ‘Ironsides’. Hastein was the wily Viking chieftain who later proved to be such a thorn in the side of Alfred the Great. Björn and Hastein left their base on the Loire in 859 with a fleet of sixty-two ships to raid along the coast of Galicia and Asturias. Finding local resistance too strong, the Vikings moved on to pillage the emirate’s west coast. Here they evidently enjoyed greater success. The emirate’s coastguards captured two longships scouting ahead of the main fleet and found that they were already full of treasure, provisions and captives. The fleet suffered another defeat when it landed at Niebla near Huelva in south-west Spain. The fleet next put into the mouth of the Guadalquivir, perhaps with the intention of sacking Seville for a second time, but it was confronted by the new Moorish fleet. The Vikings had no answer to its incendiary weapons and they fled after several longships were burned. The Viking way was always to move on if resistance proved too strong in one place, knowing that they would eventually catch somewhere off-guard. Finally, at Algeciras, a few miles from Gibraltar, they achieved complete surprise, taking and sacking the town and burning its main mosque.

Björn and Hastein took their fleet through the Straits of Gibraltar into the Mediterranean. Though Vikings had never plundered in the Mediterranean before, the sea was no stranger to piracy, and Italy and Francia suffered frequent raids by Arab and Moorish pirates based in North Africa. The Vikings landed first on the African coast, at Nakur in the vicinity of modern Melilla. Local forces put up only a little resistance before fleeing and the Vikings plundered freely for a week, capturing the harem of a local ruler, which was later ransomed by the emir of Córdoba. The Vikings also captured some black Africans, who they described as blámenn (‘blue men’), who had probably been brought to North Africa by Arab slave traders. The Vikings found them so exotic that they kept some of them. They were eventually sold again as slaves and finished up in Ireland. From Melilla, Björn and Hastein returned to Spain, plundering the coast of Murcia and then the Balearic Islands. Returning to the mainland, the Vikings continued north along the Mediterranean coast, sacking Narbonne and then setting up a winter camp on an island in the Camargue, a marshy delta of the River Rhône. In the spring, Björn and Hastein sailed over 100 miles up the Rhône, sacking Nîmes, Arles and Valence. After the Franks defeated them in a battle, the pair judged it wise to head back to the open sea and sailed east along the Côte d’Azur to Italy.

Hastein’s mistake

According to a colourful but surely legendary account by the Norman monk Dudo of St Quentin, Björn and Hastein landed at the Ligurian port of Luni and mistook it for Rome. Luni had enjoyed modest prosperity in the Roman period as a port for exporting the pure white Cararra marble from the nearby Alpi Apuane, but by the ninth century it was little more than a village and the scant ruins that remain today make it hard to imagine that anyone could ever have mistaken it for Rome. But why spoil a good story? The glory-hungry Vikings were determined to capture the most famous of all cities. Judging the city’s defences to be too strong to storm, Hastein came up with a plan to gain entry by a ruse. Viking emissaries approached the townspeople, telling them that they were exiles seeking provisions and shelter for their sick chieftain. On a return visit the emissaries told the townspeople that their chieftain had died and asked permission to enter the city to give him a Christian burial. The unsuspecting townspeople agreed and a solemn procession of Vikings followed their chief’s coffin to the grave at which point Hastein, still very much alive and fully armed, leapt out of the coffin and slew the city’s bishop. In the resulting confusion, the Vikings sacked the city. When he was told that he had been misinformed, and that he had not after all, sacked Rome, Hastein felt so disappointed that he ordered the massacre of Luni’s entire male population. This story was repeated by many later Norman writers and the same ruse was attributed to later Norman leaders such as Robert Guiscard, Bohemund of Taranto and Roger I of Sicily. It is evidence that medieval warriors admired cunning as much as bravery and skill at arms. The Vikings moved another 60 miles down the Tuscan coast to the mouth of the Arno, sacking Pisa and then, following the river upstream, also the hill-town of Fiesole above Florence. After this the Viking fleet disappears for a year. Björn and Hastein must have wintered somewhere and it may be that they sailed into the eastern Mediterranean to raid the Byzantine Empire. Late Arabic and Spanish sources claim that Vikings raided Greece and Alexandria. If they did it was probably Björn’s and Hastein’s fleet.

The fleet reappears in 861 when it passed through the Straits of Gibraltar again, this time homeward bound. The straits are only 9 miles wide so the chances of the Vikings slipping through unobserved were slim and the Moorish fleet was ready and waiting for them. Of Björn’s and Hastein’s remaining sixty ships, only twenty escaped the ambush the Moors had prepared for them. Björn and Hastein may have been unaware that a strong surface current flows constantly through the straits from the Atlantic into the Mediterranean Sea. During the Second World War, sixty-two German U-boats entered the Mediterranean undetected by riding this underwater current with their engines turned off. Not one was ever able to get out again against the current. Björn and Hastein may have had the same problem, their slow progress against it giving the Moors plenty of time to intercept them.

Undaunted by this disaster Björn and Hastein continued raiding as they sailed homewards. Just before they left Spanish waters, they raided the small Christian kingdom of Navarre and sacked Pamplona. In a spectacular coup they captured its King Garcia I, and ransomed him for the incredible sum of 70,000 gold dinars (approximately 679 pounds /308 kg of gold). The survivors of the expedition returned to the Loire in 862 very rich men. After the expedition, Björn and Hastein split up. Björn headed back to Denmark, perhaps intending to use his wealth and reputation to launch a bid for the throne. He never made it and died in Frisia after losing everything in a shipwreck. Hastein stayed on the Loire: he still had a long and profitable career ahead of him.

The daring nature of Björn’s and Hastein’s expedition secured their reputations as legendary commanders but the cost had been very high: less than a third of those who had set out three years earlier had made it back. This must have given other Vikings pause for thought for, though they continued to raid the Iberian Peninsula until the early eleventh century, there was no return to the Mediterranean. The Straits of Gibraltar had proved to be a dangerous and unavoidable bottleneck for any fleet trying to get into or out of the Mediterranean and in the future the Vikings kept well clear. The Moors defeated major raids in 889, 912 – 13, 966 and 971. The raiders in 889 got as far as Seville before they were defeated, once again, on the fields of Tablada. The survivors of the raid settled in the surrounding countryside and many subsequently converted to Islam. This was the only known Viking settlement in Iberia. During the course of their expeditions to Iberia, Vikings may have accidentally discovered the Atlantic island of Madeira. The evidence for this comes from an unusual source, the DNA of Madeiran house mice, which indicates that they were introduced to the then uninhabited island from Northern Europe, probably as stowaways, some time between around 900 – 1050.

An embassy to the king of the Majus

There probably were also more peaceful contacts between the Vikings and the Moors. There was strong demand in the Emirate of Córdoba and in the Moorish states in North Africa for Frankish, Slavic, English and Irish slaves, and many of these would have been supplied either directly or indirectly through middlemen by Viking slave traders. Many of the younger male captives were destined to be castrated: al-Andalus was famous as the main supplier of eunuchs to the Islamic world. In 845, after the Viking attack on Seville, the emir Abd al-Rahman sent an embassy led by al-Ghazal to visit the king of the Majus with gifts for him and his queen. Al-Ghazal described the land of the Majus as an island, three days journey from the mainland. There were other islands in the vicinity, which the king ruled too. Before his audience, al-Ghazal insisted that he should not be asked to kneel before the king. This was agreed, but when he arrived at the king’s hall he found that the entrance had been lowered so that he would be forced to enter on his knees. The perfect diplomat, al-Ghazal resolved the difficulty by lying on his back and pushing himself in, feet first. This would very likely have impressed rather than irritated his hosts, who would have recognised something of themselves in his determination not to be humiliated. The king’s wife Noud took a fancy to al-Ghazal and seduced him, assuring him that the Majus did not suffer from sexual jealousy and that women were free to leave their husbands at will. Al-Ghazal was correct that Scandinavian women had the right to divorce, but as for the absence of sexual jealousy, this was wishful thinking. A wife’s adultery was usually taken very seriously by her husband and in some parts of Scandinavia he had the right to kill both her and her lover if they were caught together: he may actually have mistaken a favoured concubine for a queen. It is not known which king al-Ghazal visited. If he had mistaken the Jutland peninsula for an island he may have visited the Danish king Horik. Alternatively, he may have visited a Viking warlord in Ireland, possibly Turgeis, whose wife was called Auðr, which is not too different to Noud. The purpose of al-Ghazal’s embassy is not stated either but it was almost certainly to do with trade – slaves if he had gone to Ireland, furs from the northern forests if he had gone to Denmark.

Ultimately the Vikings had no great impact on the Iberian Peninsula. Their raids were bloody and destructive but both the Christians and the Moors were able to contain them. As a result, the Vikings did not act as a catalyst for change by upsetting the local balance of power as they did in so many other places that they raided. Writing in the 1150s, the Andalusian geographer al-Zuhri summarised the Vikings as: ‘fierce, brave and strong, and excellent seamen. When they attacked, the coastal peoples fled for fear of them. They only appeared every six or seven years, never in less than forty ships and sometimes up to one hundred. They overcame anyone they met at sea, robbed them and took them captive’. So, just another bunch of barbarians.

The Carolingian and Ottonian Forification

Vikings – To Paris!

In general, there is little evidence of change or advances in fortification in northern and central Europe during the period between the collapse of the Roman Empire and the ninth century. The infrastructure of the Roman world did not exist and many of the Roman city walls fell into disrepair. In places walls were deliberately demolished, either for a ready supply of dressed stone or to make way for new structures. Settlements often moved to sites near the former Roman towns but outside the walls, as in the cases of York and London. Nevertheless, many of these returned to the former Roman sites in the ninth and tenth centuries, and in some places the Roman walls were still defensible. In 946 they proved too much for the combined armies of King Louis IV and King Otto I, who abandoned their siege of Senlis (defended by the troops of Hugh Capet, later the first Capetian king of France) after deciding that an assault would be too costly. In 985 King Lothar (of France) had to use an arsenal of machines and a siege tower to overcome the third-century walls of Verdun. In the previous century the same walls had saved the city from sack by the Vikings.

During the Viking Era fortification became much more widespread and previously undefended trading emporia were given defenses. An obvious explanation for this might be the advent of large-scale raiding by the Vikings and later the Magyars. Italy was also part of the Frankish world after 774 and suffered heavily from Saracen raids and later invasion. Undoubtedly this was a contributory factor, but there is evidence of a change in attitude in the Frankish Empire before the ninth century. The Carolingians made a conscious effort to imitate Rome, and this included Roman architectural styles, and their conquests brought them into close contact with Byzantine fortifications in Italy, themselves descended from the Roman model.

The Franks needed new forts to secure their hold on conquered territories. In areas formerly controlled by the Romans, such as southern Germany, earlier fortifications were certainly reused and repaired, but the defenses of these sites have often been difficult to date, if they have been researched at all. Former Roman villae were also used both by the Agilolfing dux Tassilo (r. 747–788) and by his Frankish successors in Bavaria. Until very recently it was wrongly assumed that Frankish and Slavic fortifications could be differentiated on the basis of style, the assumption being that the Franks built more advanced defenses from stone. Many of the early fortifications on the eastern frontier with the Slavs were of similar type to their enemies’. The construction of what became a deep belt of fortresses began in the Carolingian period and continued under the Ottonians. In Germany during the tenth century a huge building programme was begun under the Saxon dynasty. This may have been initiated by Henry I’s Burgenordnung of c. 925, although it has proved very difficult to link any known fortifications with it. The style of fortification on the eastern frontier varied. One object was certainly defense of rural settlements against raiders, particularly the Magyars, but also the Slavs. In the reign of Otto II similar defenses were organized on the comparatively short Danish frontier.

The Viking threat posed an altogether different problem than frontier raids by the Slavs, not least because the Vikings were capable of penetrating well inland up navigable rivers. An interesting solution to this problem was attempted by Charles the Bald. Carroll Gillmor suggests that the idea may have struck him when he built a bridge across the Marne to block the retreat of some raiders. When he held an assembly at Pitres in 864 he ordered the building of fortifications on the Seine to prevent the Northmen from passing further upriver. The idea was a bridge with powerful fortifications of wood and stone at each end. The site was Pont-de-l’Arche. Excavation has revealed a square enclosure with 270 meter-long sides on the north bank. Originally there was a clay rampart, but this was cut away to place a line of 4.5-meter tree trunks, which were then faced with stone on the outer side. Unfortunately there is no way of knowing the height of the work, as it was leveled in the later Middle Ages. The earth and timber rampart with stone facing was no more advanced than many fortifications had been in the Iron Age, but a more serious problem may have been that it was built very slowly and not properly garrisoned, despite the king’s demands. Another work was built at Les Ponts-de-Cé on the Loire, but that seems to have been ineffective as well. Elsewhere Charles did contribute to the defense of the realm. In his reign and those of his successors Carloman and Charles the Fat, many old walls of towns were repaired and new fortifications built round monasteries, including St. Bertin, which subsequently saw off a Viking attack in 891. However, it was not only the king who began to build forts, although this was supposed to be a royal prerogative. Although Charles had ordered the destruction of private fortifications at Pitres, he was unable to prevent unauthorized construction and a dangerous trend (from the royal point of view) had begun.

Similar measures against Viking attacks were taken on the Rhine and Meuse in East Francia after Danish attacks in 863, 880–881 and 884–885. Town defenses were strengthened, the royal palace at Nijmegen was given ramparts, and a castle was built by Duke Henry at Duisburg. In Flanders, more or less an independent polity at this time, Bruges and Ghent were fortified by Count Baldwin. Most interesting in this region, however, are five ninth-century circular earthworks with palisades on the islands off the coast of Zealand–Flanders. They had two roads across the site, meeting at the middle, and varied from 144 to 265 meters in diameter. Since no occupation layer was found, they were probably refuges. Only Middelburg on Walcheren survived this period to become a settlement. In the central Netherlands another unusual fortification was the Hunnenschans, a late Carolingian meter-high horseshoe-shaped earthwork with a palisade, enclosing an area 100 meters in diameter. In 2007 a further earthwork was discovered at Appel, just to the west, while to the south is another, Duno, with a roughly semicircular series of banks and ditches. Both appear to have been tenth century. There are uncertainties about the excavation and recording of data at Duno and Hunnenschans, but Appel at least seems to have had links to the counts of Hamaland and bog-iron production.

Fortifications also proliferated in the tenth century throughout the kingdom of Germany, and not only in the Slavic frontier zone, where there were hundreds of them. Many continued to resemble earlier Saxon, Frankish and Slav fortifications, while some were simple palisaded enclosures. Fortifications built by nobles often followed a similar pattern to royal ones, if on a smaller scale. There can be no doubt that there was a strategy of “defense in depth” on the eastern frontier. The East Frankish and German rulers were well aware that individual fortifications had a limited capacity to hinder the movement of enemy forces, just as they knew that it was difficult to stop enemy forces from “crossing the frontier.” Periods of intense construction of fortifications on the frontier appear to coincide with preparation for or consolidation of advances into Slavic territory, especially by the Ottonian kings, or anticipated trouble from the east.4 However, it has to be borne in mind that there were other reasons for fortification building. The kings of the Saxon Ottonian dynasty were keenly aware of the need to project their image and power as kings and emperors, and one way of doing this was to build imposing structures. Other powerful landowners also built fortifications for the same reasons; even if they were not able to compete with the German kings, they could still imitate them and compete with each other.

Many German scholars trace the origins of the “classic” medieval fortress types to the eleventh century, although the disappearance of many earlier fortifications has distorted the picture somewhat. The larger fortresses in Germany, often known as hohenburgen, had inner and one or more outer enclosures, not dissimilar in principle to many earlier German and Slavic fortifications. Whenever possible they were constructed on higher ground. However, a new development was the appearance of the Bergfried, a free-standing tower, either on the most vulnerable side of the main enclosure as an additional defense, or in the center of the enclosure and unattached to it. Usually the Bergfried was tall and slender and lacked windows; it was not designed for permanent habitation, but as a last resort if the main or outer defenses were overrun. Increasingly these fortifications were built or rebuilt of stone. According to Adam of Bremen, the archbishop of Hamburg planned to encompass the entire town of Hamburg with stone walls, but he died having built only a fortified stone structure with towers and battlements. This was certainly a response to the threat from the Slavs, which had increased after the revolt of 983. In 1008 Henry II also fortified Bamberg with walls, outworks and a strong tower. By contrast, the defenses at Meissen were probably made of wood, as the Slavs attempted to set light to them in 1015. Others were smaller, ringforts or square palisaded enclosures with or without a ditch. They too frequently included a Bergfried. Alternatively, towers could be built entirely on their own. Most were built of wood in this era, but stone towers were constructed on similar principles both before and after 1100. These towers were more common in low-lying areas, where they also fulfilled the function of watchtower.

The most significant change in fortification style in the eleventh century was the development of what we now call the motte-and-bailey castle, which originated in West Francia. It consisted of two elements, a mound (motte) surrounded by a ditch, on which some form of tower or fortified house was usually built, often with a palisade around its base, and an outer yard (bailey) enclosed by a palisade and ditch. The bailey was usually large enough to enclose several buildings and animals if necessary. Sometimes there was more than one bailey. In our period the defenses were almost invariably of wood. The main strength of these castles was their earthworks and ditches with their steep banks: the wooden fortifications alone would not have presented a serious obstacle, but the whole structure was very difficult to assault, although the wood was obviously vulnerable to fire in the right conditions. In addition, the castles were relatively cheap and easy to build and did not require a skilled labor force. However, medieval accounts suggesting that mottes could be thrown up in a few days either exaggerate the ease of building or refer to very small mottes. Larger ones may have taken many months to build.

Various reasons have been suggested for the spread of motte-and-bailey castles in the eleventh century: for instance, that they were used widely by the Angevin counts as defense against Vikings, that they arose as a result of “feudalization” (the fragmentation of power and the growth of fiefdoms), and even that the design may have been Viking in origin, hence its widespread use in the territory they were granted, Normandy. Since there is no evidence whatever for such a design in Viking Scandinavia, the last explanation is improbable. Even if correct, the argument that motte-and-bailey castles appeared precisely where fiefdoms did in the feudalization process, in northern Europe, gives a reason for the spread of castles, but not the appearance of a new type of castle. According to D.J. Cathcart King, the earliest known example of the motte-and-bailey design was at Les Rues-des-Vignes (medieval Vinchy), Nord-Pas-de-Calais, known of from 979. Fulk Nerra and Geoffrey Martel, who reigned as counts of Anjou 987–1040 and 1040–1060, used various types of fortification, as often to secure control of territory they had gained as much as to defend their frontiers against Vikings and neighboring lords. They constructed stone towers as well as ringforts and mottes. The deciding factor was probably the speed at which they had to be constructed. The strategy of constructing forts rapidly after an initial advance into enemy territory and then improving them later was used by the Normans in England. Nevertheless, on the continent the simple ringfort continued in use, although some were converted with the addition of a motte. During the Norman conquest of England it seems that ringworks were often built first and converted to motte-and-bailey castles later.

Bernard Bachrach has highlighted Fulk Nerra’s strategy of building each castle no more than 35 kilometers from the nearest—in other words, within a day’s ride. In England and Wales this strategy was particularly useful to Duke William for securing control of a hostile territory. Each motte-and-bailey castle built by the Normans after their invasion was designed so that a small number of occupants could control the immediate district or estate and be safe from attack, but were also within reach of relief from neighboring castles. In addition, the appearance of the castle would have had a powerful intimidating effect on the English. An interesting aspect of William’s castle-building is that most of the sites were new, and in many regions such as Somerset it seems that the old Anglo-Saxon burhs were initially avoided. The most likely reason is the Norman perception of them as centers of resistance, where large concentrations of hostile people were available to attack any garrison. This was not unreasonable, as the fate of the garrison at York in 1069 showed, although there the English had Danish help. The break-up of old estates and the creation of new ones also meant that central locations for control of estates changed, to places where castles were needed by the new landowners.



Harald Hardrada

Olaf the Stout’s half-brother, Harald, would be known in later life as Harald Hardraada – if Aethelred had been Unraed, ‘ill-advised’ then Harald was ‘severe in counsel’, ‘hard-ruling’ or simply Ruthless. His life was the pinnacle of the Viking Age, his infamous defeat the beginning of its end. Harald’s story also unites many of the separate strands of the Viking experience. Although his main area of interest was Norway, his travels took him throughout the world known to the Vikings, as far south as the coast of North Africa. One source even claimed, however doubtfully, that he ventured in search of Vinland, and even beyond, to the ‘dark failing boundaries of the savage world’. Although a man of ‘noble birth’, he spent much of his life as a mercenary, and much of his reign in a ‘war’ with Denmark that often seemed little more than a succession of pirate raids. Although he was one of the most well-travelled of Vikings, his raids and battles for a dozen years were fought not against foreigners, but against fellow Scandinavians. His last campaign united his destiny firmly with that of England.

We are fortunate in that Harald’s remarkable life has been recounted in several works, most notably Snorri Sturluson’s saga, which itself records poems about his deeds that had been sung in his presence. Snorri wrote about all Norway’s early kings, but on Harald he is particularly rich in detail and anecdotes. Two of Harald’s closest companions, Halldor Snorrason and Ulf Ospaksson, who fought at his side and even shared his brief incarceration in a Byzantine jail, were the descendants of notable Icelandic families. In later life, Halldor would return to his native land and insist on regaling the assembly there with tales of his time with King Harald, a habit that fixed many of Harald’s adventures firmly in the mind of other skalds. Snorri Sturluson was one of Halldor’s descendants, and much of his biography of Harald in Heimskringla draws, we may assume, on tales told and retold in his own family.

Harald grew up in Norway, and was occasionally visited by his half-brother Olaf. By the time Olaf commenced his campaign against Canute in 1030, Harald was 15 years old, still quite young by Viking standards, and certainly not expected to serve in Olaf’s army. Harald, however, accompanied Olaf’s forces, perhaps as an observer. Heimskringla reports his argument with Olaf on the eve of the battle of Stilkastad, with Olaf suggesting that he was too young to fight, and Harald protesting that he was old enough to lift a sword, even if the hilt had to be tied to his wrist.

Olaf relented, and Harald was among the men to hear Olaf’s pre-battle address, a reminder that the bulk of his forces comprised hardened soldiers, while the Canute loyalists they faced were primarily conscripted farmers. Although Olaf was outnumbered, he was still confident that he could win, and called upon almighty God to ensure an outcome ‘that He deems right for me.’ Despite predictable pleas to the Christian god for aid, Olaf’s pre-Stilkastad speech shows the Viking mind still very much in evidence – he advocated a quick and terrifying charge, hoping to cause the less seasoned enemy soldiers to flee before they realized the inferior numbers of their attackers. His speech also made it clear that his grab for the crown was inspired by the traditional desire for more land – when all the talk of God had passed, he assured his men that their true rewards would not be in heaven, but paid in land and chattels taken from the vanquished.

Heimskringla reports Olaf’s final moments, as he and his henchmen were approached by Thorir the Hound, a warrior supposedly shielded from harm by ‘the mighty magic of Finns.’ As Olaf’s henchmen fell, the king stood alone against a crowd of enemies, notably Thorir, Thorstein Shipbuilder and Finn Arnarson, who between them hacked him down. Thorir reported that contact with Olaf’s blood caused his own wounds to heal. It was the first of several miraculous events associated with Olaf in the afterlife, leading to his later canonization.

The boy Harald, grievously wounded in the battle, was borne to safety by Rognavald Brusason from the distant Orkneys. Rognavald managed to smuggle the injured boy away to a remote house in the forests, and ensure that he was tended until he was able to travel farther afield. Needless to say, Harald’s saga stresses that he did not run away, but had to be dragged from the battlefield by his associates, gravely wounded. Such behaviour befits a glorious hero, although a poem supposedly written at the time by Harald himself is notably lower key, makes no reference to wounds, and instead mentions Olaf’s brother creeping ‘. . . from wood to wood with little honour now.’

Whatever the circumstances surrounding his escape, the fugitive Harald rejoined Rognavald and a handful of other men by picking his way across the mountains that formed the spine between Norway and modern Sweden. With Scandinavia closed to them and their fortunes in decline, the last supporters of Olaf sought refuge with their relatives in Russia.

Saga sources are suspiciously reticent concerning the next three or four years. Although there are hints of wars and campaigns, and glories won, even Snorri whisks through the Russian years in barely a page. The Russian Primary Chronicle, however, fills the period with a series of internal and external conflicts among the Rus, into which a band of job-seeking Vikings would have fitted quite snugly.

Vladimir, the son of Saint Olga, had died in the year of Harald’s birth, and his domain was now ruled by his son Jaroslav the Wise. Jaroslav’s rise to power had been precarious, involving conflicts with several of his siblings, but he had secured his position with the aid of Viking mercenaries. Now he shared power with a handful of his surviving brothers, and already plotted to seize their lands when the opportunity arose. With Pecheneg tribesmen on the offensive again, Jaroslav was more than willing to take on new recruits, particularly those with whom he had a family connection – his wife Ingigerd was Olaf’s sister-in-law. Dates are difficult to match, but it would seem that the arrival of Harald and his fellow exiles was contemporary with the final moves in Jaroslav’s grab for sole rulership of the region. By 1036, with the help of his new recruits, Jaroslav was the sole master of the Rus domains.

For the teenage Harald, his service in Russia was the true test of his military abilities. He fought on Jaroslav’s behalf for several years, against rebellious tribes in Poland, Estonia and regions beyond. He also developed a close relationship with Jaroslav himself, such that Jaroslav may have even conceded that he might make a good choice of son-in-law. That, at least, is how Harald seems to have understood it; a closer reading of the sources rather suggests that Harald’s request for the hand of Jaroslav’s daughter Ellisif was gently declined. The young Viking was assured that he might be an ideal candidate, once he had gained further experience and, more pointedly, regained his lost wealth and inheritance.

Harald’s saga paints the tale as one of frustrated romance, but although it is an entertaining fiction, there are no star-crossed lovers here. Harald offered Jaroslav a deal, and Jaroslav simply named his price – Ellisif was around ten years old at the time, giving Harald a small window of opportunity to find the required wealth and fortune – by the time she reached her late teens, he could reasonably expect her father to have found another husband for her. Returning to Scandinavia was still out of the question, so he took the next best option: Byzantium.

Ever since Vladimir had first sent a company of Viking warriors to the aid of Basil II, the emperors of Constantinople had come to place great reliance on the barbarian recruits. The Vikings, known in Constantinople as Varangians, formed an indispensable part of the empire’s military might. They were, of course, expendable, but also highly reliable in battle. Sworn to serve the emperor himself, and without land-holdings that might influence their willingness to obey orders, they were often more trustworthy than local troops, who were too often riddled with factionalism and partisanship for other potential emperors.

Nevertheless, the Varangians were often uncontrollable. One Byzantine writer left an unhappy account of his attempts to lodge in a room near their quarters, where the noise made it impossible to sleep. The Varangians traded on their fearsome reputation, and revelled in their indifference to the high-level ceremonial they were there to guard. A slang term seemingly common among the Byzantine nobility referred to them as ‘wine-bags’, denoting disgust with their consumption of alcohol.6 The relics of the Byzantine world still bear the scars of their passing, from the runic graffiti that was carved into a lion in Athens’ Piraeus harbour, to the name ‘Halfdan’, etched into a balcony in Constantinpole’s cathedral of Saint Sophia, presumably by a Varangian bodyguard tired of standing through yet another interminable Greek Orthodox ceremony.

Power in Constantinople lay in the hands of Basil the Bulgar-Slayer’s niece, the Empress Zoe, who was to be the wife of three emperors, the adopted mother of a fourth, and eventually a ruler in her own right. When Harald arrived in Constantinople, he did so around the time of the accession of Zoe’s second husband, Emperor Michael IV. Taking the assumed name of Nordbrikt to avoid association with the ruling dynasy of Norway, Harald joined the Varangians as an officer, leading a squadron of men who knew his true identity. He was first assigned to clear up a series of pirate attacks in the eastern Mediterranean, leading a Viking fleet against these Arab raiders. Although Harald may have sailed in longships, extant sources specifically refer to his vessels as galeidir (‘galleys’), so it may also be the case that the Vikings were forced to use Byzantine ships in their naval battles.

Harald did not take well to a subordinate role, clashing often with his superiors, particularly the Byzantine general George Maniakes. Although the Muslim raiders had been able to defeat Byzantine shipping, they were no match for Vikings honed by several generations of raiding in northern Europe, and were soon retreating to their strongholds. The Varangian assault continued on land, and as the leader of a detachment, Harald is thought to have fought in Asia Minor, possibly accompanying a mission to Jerusalem itself, where he may have stood watch during the restoration of the Holy Sepulchre, and supposedly bathed in the waters of the river Jordan. This journey was made possible by a newly signed 30-year treaty between Byzantium and the Fatimid Caliphate, although some of the sagas preferred to report it as a military victory for Harald. Snorri’s account is not even sure if Harald fought in Anatolia or Libya.

Harald, it is said, took part in ‘eighteen fierce-fought battles’ in Serkland, ‘the land of the Saracens’, a term which then unhelpfully encompassed everywhere from north Africa to Turkey. The years 1038–41 supposedly saw him campaigning against Saracens in Sicily, and Lombard invaders in southern Italy. By this point, he had risen high enough in the ranks to be given command of two battalions – his own Viking followers and a group of Normans. Not all of Harald’s soldiers were party to his secret, although rumours seem to have been rife – sagas report attempts by suspicious soldiers to unearth the true name of the mysterious Nordbrikt.

Snorri’s account describes in detail some of Harald’s most cunning ruses – but one must be wary because these stories were already clichéd in Harald’s time. Harald, we are led to believe, used the old ‘incendiary bird’ trick to set fire to the roofs of a besieged town, a ploy credited to a Dane in Saxo, to Saint Olga in the Russian Primary Chronicle, and even to Guthrum in his attack on Cirencester during his war with Alfred the Great. If it was such a cunning plan, why is that up to five other cunning planners get the credit for it elsewhere? Similar doubts arise concerning Harald’s infiltration of a church by means of a mock funeral, springing from his coffin, sword in hand, to the understandable surprise of the congregation. The same story, or rather the same plot occurs twice in Saxo, and in three other authors. It is notable that these incidents do not occur in the extant verses of Harald’s personal skalds – his poets describe him as tough and brave, but not cunning.

A more trustworthy account, chiefly for its businesslike recitation of facts, was found in 1881, in a Byzantine manuscript that turned up in the archives of a Moscow church. Written in the 1070s by someone who claimed to have served with Harald himself, the Advice to an Emperor confirmed that a Harald (in Greek, Araltes), brother of Olaf (Julavos) had come to Byzantium with 500 men, fought on the empire’s behalf in Sicily and Bulgaria, served faithfully and was eventually granted the honorary rank of spatharokandates (‘troop leader’ – hardly the generalship implied by his saga). In time, this Harald asked leave to return to his homeland. When this was refused, says the anonymous account, he stole away.

The Advice to an Emperor is not clear on why he should have done so, although the saga evidence presents several possibilities. Harald was still in his mid-twenties, at the height of his powers, and, if we are to believe the insinuations of some authors, now cut a figure dashing enough to catch the eye of the Empress Zoe. Her husband, Michael IV, made Harald an official of the court, and within a few months he had supposedly risen to be leader of the palace guard. But Harald’s promotion brought him closer to the intrigues that surrounded the throne. Michael IV announced his intention to put down an uprising in Bulgaria, despite his advanced years and an agonizing case of gangrenous gout. Thanks partly to his Varangian cohorts, but chiefly to internal struggles among the rebels, he was able to return to Constantinople in triumph.

But the Bulgarian campaign was the last hurrah for the dying Michael IV. Abdicating and retiring to a monastery, he left the empire in the hands of his nephew Michael Calaphates – Michael the Caulker, whose father had worked in the Constantinople shipyards. Enthroned as Michael V, the new emperor began by paying lip service to Zoe, and to his uncles, all plainly intending to use him as a puppet ruler. But the new emperor soon flexed his imperial muscles, abhorring the long courtly rituals that formed part of his daily routine – as a commoner, he must have felt immensely out of his depth amid the rarefied protocols of Constantinople. He dismissed many of the associates of the former Emperor, including the Varangian Guard itself. For reasons unclear, this led to Harald’s imprisonment. The most romantic explanation, supplied by Snorri Sturluson, whose ancestor Halldor was Harald’s cellmate, was that Harald had fallen out with Zoe. One is a fairytale excuse involving his refusal to send her a lock of his hair. Another, more dramatic, involves Harald’s decision to marry Maria, a lady-in-waiting to Zoe. Zoe reputedly flew into a jealous rage, refusing his request and throwing him in jail.

It is, however, likely that Harald’s fall from grace was associated with more worldly, and historically verifiable, matters. The secret of his true identity (if it ever was a secret in the first place) was finally out, as was the news that his enemy King Canute was dead in England, and that Canute’s sons were fighting over his domains. Meanwhile, St Olaf’s son Magnus the Good had seized Norway (or at least, his ‘supporters’ had done so in the name of the boy, who was still only 11 years old), and Canute’s son Harthacanute had enough problems elsewhere to grudgingly acknowledge his right to the territory. In other words, Norway was back in the hands of a kinsman of Harald’s, and Harald regarded Magnus’s birthright as one that deserved to be ‘shared’ with him. Accordingly, it was time for him to return to his native land. It may well be that it was only at this point that it became clear how much gold and treasure Harald had embezzled during his sojourn in the south. He had regularly sent large amounts of valuables, some legitimately acquired, some pilfered, back up the rivers of the Rus to his putative father-in-law Jaroslav the Wise.

Whatever the real reason for his imprisonment, it became a subject of Viking legend, thanks perhaps to Halldor’s apparent habit of ceaselessly retelling it in his dotage. Harald and his fellow prisoners had to contend with a snake in their cell, a tale that grew gradually taller, until other sources had him fighting a dragon, and even a lion. Reportedly, they were also rescued by the intercession of the spirit of St Olaf, who appeared to a Byzantine noblewoman and instructed her to rescue the prisoners – perhaps this is the Maria mentioned in some sources. It is more likely, however, that Harald’s release was occasioned by his sometime tormentor, the Empress Zoe. Banished to a convent by her rebellious foster-son Zoe fought back in April 1042, inciting the populace to a riot. Several buildings were damaged during the unrest, and one of them may have been Harald’s prison. Harald and his closest Varangians joined the mob, while other Vikings remained loyal to the new emperor, leading to a battle of Viking upon Viking in the streets of Constantinople. With the tide turning in favour of the rebels, Harald’s men dragged Michael Calaphates from his hiding place. Their instructions were to symbolically render him unfit to rule. In the brutal traditions of Byzantium, this required mutilation, and the sagas report that it was Harald himself who blinded the former emperor with a hot iron. Unfortunately, in doing so the sagas also manage to get the emperor’s name wrong, somewhat compromising their value.

However, someone certainly did blind the former emperor, and in the aftermath, the elderly Zoe took a third husband, who was enthroned as Constantine IX. But the Golden City had lost much of its lustre for Harald, and nobody was safe at the palace. Constantine himself was soon at odds with his aged wife, and Zoe’s sister Theodora already had a faction building around her. Meanwhile, Harald’s former superior, George Maniakes, had fled to Italy, and was threatening to march on Constantinople with an army of his own. Friend and foe were no longer clearly delineated, and it seemed likely that further service to Constantinople would be a thankless task with diminishing returns. It was time for Harald to leave, but his permission was refused.


Action shot general in front of varagians

George Maniakes – Strategos attacking a Syrian horseman in the foreground, while Harald Hardrada and his Varagians await the enemy.

Once again, the sources are unclear. They paint a picture of Harald fleeing the city in his galley, successfully making it past the chain that blocked the Bosphorus strait at the entrance to the Black Sea. An accompanying Viking vessel was not so lucky, and had to be abandoned at the barrier. Harald was supposedly accompanied by the mysterious Maria, although he later set her ashore and left her behind – was she a hostage to secure his safe exit from Byzantium, or a true lover who had a sudden change of heart? It is far more likely that Harald’s real reason for such a dramatic exit was his wealth; Byzantine customs would have exerted a heavy levy on his treasure, and any gold in his possession was not supposed to leave the city at all.

Harald escaped successfully from Byzantium, and sailed back up the eastern river roads to the domain of Jaroslav the Wise. Some writers romanticize his return as the princely wooing of a blushing bride, but even the sagas cannot hide the pragmatic elements of his marriage to Princess Ellisif. Jaroslav had demanded proof of wealth, and Harald had successfully earned, plundered and embezzled an amount so large that, in the words of Snorri ‘no one in the northern lands had seen its equal in the possession of one man.’ Even in the surviving poetry Harald himself wrote about his wife-to-be, he referred to her as a ‘gold-ringed goddess’.

Jaroslav permitted the exiled prince to marry his daughter in the winter of 1045. The following spring, Harald sailed up the last of the river-roads to the Gulf of Finland, and then back to Scandinavia itself. He was, as his later actions made clear, determined to win a kingdom at any cost, although not overly concerned about which kingdom it was.

St Olaf’s son Magnus now ruled Norway. The sons of Canute had given up on Norway while they fought over England, and now both of them were dead. Magnus did, however, already have a new enemy in Svein Estridsen, Canute’s nephew. Magnus had attempted to buy him off in 1042 by acknowledging him as the ruler of Denmark, but Svein almost immediately mounted a challenge on Norway itself. He was swiftly beaten back and hiding out in Sweden where his path crossed with the returning Harald. Somehow, these two dangerous and untrustworthy men reached an agreement that they should unite against a common foe. If Magnus was going to claim to be the ruler of Norway and Denmark, Harald and Svein would prove him wrong in a time-honoured fashion – they went a-viking.

For all their claims of nobility and kingship, Harald and Svein were still raiders at heart. Their policy of demonstrating Magnus’s unsuitability to rule comprised a series of Viking raids on the coasts of Denmark itself, proof if proof was ever required that the Vikings excluded no one when choosing their victims. With a force of warriors from all over Scandinavia, the Harald-Svein fleet terrorized a kingdom that Magnus claimed to control.

But Harald was a mercenary Viking with mercenary ambitions, and his alliance with Svein was opportunistic. His saga reports a series of intrigues that led him to question his former alliance, though they are all likely to have been later attempts to put a human face on a harsh reality – Harald realized he stood a better chance of getting what he wanted if he switched sides.

In one saga account, Magnus’s advisor, confidante and, perhaps, regent was Astrid, the widow of St Olaf and sister of the Swedish king. Astrid’s involvement brought heavy support from the Swedes, and a sense of continuity. Unfortunately for her but handily for the saga-writing gossip, she was not Magnus’s natural mother – that honour went to Alfhild, a former chambermaid. Alfhild, it is said, wasted no time in reminding Astrid who the king’s mother actually was, while Astrid for her part was quick to remind Alfhild that she was the queen, and that Alfhild had been nothing but a serving wench until Olaf had bedded her. With such feuding behind the scenes, someone at Magnus’s court sent word to Harald the Ruthless, in the name of King Magnus, that it was unseemly for two relatives to be quarrelling. He offered Harald half his kingdom, a joint kingship, if Harald agreed they pool their resources, and put his Byzantine gold to use in strengthening Scandinavia.

This, of course, was what Harald was after all along, but his saga biographers would not dare suggest that he accepted. Instead, they pre-empted him from going back on his word by suggesting that news somehow reached Svein of the secret negotiations. Heimskringla reports a tense dinner conversation between him and Harald, in which small talk turned all too quickly to umbrage. Purportedly, the men were discussing their most valuable possessions, which for Harald was his ‘magical’ banner Landwaster, a flag of some unknown material (probably Byzantine silk) said to guarantee victory to whoever bore it in front of his army. Svein, it is said, scoffed that he would believe such a claim when he saw Harald win three battles against his kinsman King Magnus. It was the word ‘kinsman’ that caused the argument – Harald thought that Svein had made too great a point of reminding him that he was fighting a member of his own family. In the heat of the moment, he even implied that the world would be a better place if he and Magnus were not enemies at all. Svein countered by musing about Harald’s habit of only keeping those parts of promises that suited him best. Harald had the last word, crowing that Svein had kept more promises to Magnus than Harald had broken.

That night, Harald returned to his ship at anchor, telling his men that he was suspicious about Svein’s intentions. Sure enough, Harald wisely slept elsewhere that evening, while a would-be assassin clambered on to his ship and buried an axe where he would otherwise have been. The treaty with Svein was at an end, conveniently through Svein’s actions, not Harald’s betrayal, thereby saving honour in the eyes of his biographers, and Harald sailed for a conference with his estranged nephew.

Magnus granted him half the kingdom of Norway, and subordinate status – in all matters of protocol, Magnus was to be considered the superior. Harald agreed, and discovered all too soon why his nephew was so keen to make a deal. When the time came for them to examine their finances, Magnus revealed that he was bankrupt.

The co-rulers embarked on a consolidation of the kingdom along the northern coasts of Norway – better described as the extraction of protection money in order to establish their rulership. Svein hid out on the coasts of Sweden, sailing to Denmark when he was sure he would be unopposed, and demanding similar tribute from the local inhabitants. Denmark was still his, whatever the rulers of Norway might say. Meanwhile, Harald and Magnus were not the happiest of allies. They had already almost come to blows over a parking spot – Harald’s men having berthed their ship in a harbour slot designated for the superior king. Knowing well enough that he could not afford to give a single inch to Harald, Magnus drew up his own ships ready for battle. Harald backed down, commenting that Magnus was being petty, and noting that ‘it is an old custom for the wiser one to yield’. Even in defeat, he still managed to have the final say. Had Magnus lived, it is likely that he and Harald would have exchanged more than unkind words. However, Magnus died while on campaign in Denmark in 1047, leaving Harald as the sole ruler of Norway, and the overlordship of Denmark still open to question.

The Viking Age was drawing to a close. The initial conditions for the Viking invasions had waned – Scandinavian settlers had colonized Iceland and points beyond, while the coastal defences of medieval Europe were now significantly stronger. After almost 250 years of raiding and counter-raids, the 1040s find the people left behind in Scandinavia much as the original Vikings had left them – farmers and fishermen, preyed upon by belligerent crews of raiders.

The participants, however, would not have seen it that way. Svein, now ‘collecting tribute’ rather than raiding, had convinced many of the Danes that he was the one with the power to do them and others harm and hence protect them. One such supporter, in an apocryphal but evocative tale, was Thorkel Geysa, a landowner on the Danish coast who refused to believe that Harald the Ruthless would return. Thorkel joked that Harald’s fleet, if it existed, was so feeble that he imagined his own daughter Dótta could fashion anchors out of cheese sufficient to hold it fast.

Such unwise words put Thorkel’s farm right at the top of Harald’s hit list. As King Harald’s Saga puts it:

It is reported that the watchman who first caught sight of King Harald’s fleet said to Thorkel Geysa’s daughters, ‘I thought you said that Harald would never come to Denmark.’

‘That was yesterday,’ replied Dótta.

The daughters of Thorkel Geysa were carried off in chains, and only returned to their father after the payment of a heavy ransom. And so the raiding went on, in a seemingly endless round of pillage and counter-pillage that taxed the poetic skills of the most verbose skald. Eventually, in 1049, Harald sent home his ‘farmer army’ of conscripts, retaining only his professional soldiers and pirates for a terrible assault on Hedeby, at the heart of the Danish trade system. With Hedeby burning behind him, his treasure-laden fleet was pursued by an angry Svein. Heimskringla recounts Harald’s desperate attempt to delay his vengeful pursuers as they gained on him, throwing first plunder, and then prisoners into the sea behind him as a distraction.

Harald’s campaigns in this period were aimed at consolidating the deal he had made with Magnus. Their agreement, much as Harald had tried to bend the rules, was that they would be co-rulers of the region until one of them died, at which point the other would be the sole inheritor. This suited Harald very well with Magnus gone, but some of Magnus’s subordinates were less willing to accept it. Paramount among the objectors were the troublesome inhabitants of Trondheim. While they were allies of Magnus, there was no love lost between them and Harald – although Harald only professed his belief in Christ when it suited him, the earls of Trondheim were unrepentant pagans, and refused to recognize his authority.

This, anyway, is how the pious Snorri would have us understand it – the nominal Christian, relative of the saint, builder of churches is preferable in the long-term to the devout pagan, at least in hindsight. However, while religion often featured in the conflicts in Norway, it was not necessarily the reason, but an excuse. Unrest in Harald’s Norway had less to do with religion than it did with the unwelcome redistribution of wealth.

Einar Paunch-shaker was someone strongly in favour of redistributing wealth in his own favour. Once an enemy of the rulers of Trondheim, he was now married into their dynasty. For years, Einar had collected taxes in Trondheim as Magnus’s representative, but kept the money for himself – better this, Magnus must have reasoned, than the conflict that would otherwise ensue between the ‘king’ of Norway and the fractious earldom. While Harald made a show of finishing the building of Trondheim’s church to St Olaf, begun by Magnus but left unfinished at his death, Einar mounted a publicity stunt of his own, sailing into town with a flotilla of nine ships and several hundred men, daring Harald to find some cause to call him to heel. Harald, however, merely observed the force arriving from his balcony, and said:

Einar of the flailing sword

Will drive me from this country

Unless I first persuade him

To kiss my thin-lipped axe.

The round of feud and counter-feud, posturing and slander was about to begin again, but Harald was not known for his patience. Einar was a typical man of Trondheim, highly reluctant to accept the authority of whoever called himself the king of Norway, and ready to prove it with a show of force, if necessary. In most cases, this attitude manifested itself at local assemblies, where Einar loudly boasted of his adherence to the letter of all laws. In matters where Harald’s own decisions were subject to ratification by an assembly of local farmers, Einar would often argue a case for rejecting Harald’s rulings. The message he sent to southern Norway was clear – in Trondheim, it was he, not Harald who was in charge.

The uneasy peace between him and Harald continued for some time, until an occasion when a thief came to trial at the local assembly. Since the thief was one of his own men, Einar was presented with a difficult situation – he could act like Harald, and do whatever he liked, or he could behave as he had always boasted he did, and leave the sentencing to the assembly. Einar overstepped his position by liberating the accused man. Before long, he was summoned to give an account of himself before Harald, and arrived with a heavily armed company. Einar, it seems, was expecting more bluster and posturing, but Harald’s patience had run out. Without waiting for an explanation or warning, Harald’s men cut Einar and his son Eindridi down where they stood. Doubly leaderless, the Trondheim opposition soon melted back to their farms, Einar’s widow Bergljót, lamented that her relative Hakon was not present to bully the men of Trondheim into an act of revenge: ‘Eindridi’s killers would not be rowing down the river now if Hakon had been here on the bank.’

The slaying of Einar may have removed a potential opponent, but it created considerable ill feeling towards Harald in the region. It also initiated a feud, which threatened to run out of control. Already, Bergljót had sent messengers to Hakon Ivarsson, detailing Harald’s crimes against her family, while Harald was assembling an army in southern Norway.

But Harald had also made political matches in keeping with his new interests. Ellisif, the bride he had laboured for ten years to win from Jaroslav the Wise, was replaced in his affections by Thora, the daughter of Thorberg Arnarson. Ellisif remained Harald’s official wife in Christian eyes, but it was Thora who shared his bed. While Ellisif might have been a trophy wife, and represented a useful eastern alliance, Thora brought alliances closer to home. Her uncle Finn Arnarson was powerful enough in the Trondheim region to intercede on Harald’s behalf, brokering a deal in which Harald would compensate Hakon for his crimes. It was the political scandal of its day – a king with a reputation for ignoring the law when it suited him, suddenly forced to attend, or at least appear to attend to the ruling and judgements of a council of farmers. However, Finn was able to secure a deal ‘out of court’ as it were, by approaching Hakon in private and making him an offer. Finn pointed out that Hakon’s situation was going to cost him dearly. If he came out against Harald openly, it would be seen as a revolt – he would either lose and thereby lose his life, or win and be coloured ever more as a traitor.