In the Eleventh Century North Sea

For a change, I thought I’d share with you a Norse story. But first, some context is needed because I’m going to make the assumption your knowledge of Scandinavian history is sketchy at best. My apologies if this is incorrect.

So, the story is an English translation of an Old Norse short story. It’s about an Icelander and a polar bear (or “ice bear” in the literal translation). The translation, and thus any embellishments, is mine. I take full responsibility for any mistranslation.

But before the story begins, the first part of which I shall post in a day or two, the historical context. For it is a “true story”, honest. It’s true in the sense that it might have happened; that the main character, Authun, might have lived; and that the two Kings certainly did, and at the same time. It’s not uncommon for reality to be a bit blurred in the “historical” sagas and for kings to be living when they shouldn’t.

The main characters are:

Authun – a poor Icelander

King Harald Hardrada – King of Norway

King Sweyn Estridsen – King of Denmark

The events take place somewhere in the 1050s. Authun’s background is, perhaps, unnecessary, since he seems to be in the role of ‘local boy made good’.

The two kings, though, are more fun. They have an interesting history.

I shall start with Harald Hardrada. You may know of him. He died in 1066, at Stamford Bridge, defeated by Harold Godwineson, two weeks before Harold was defeated at Hastings. Harald Hardrada (or “Hard-Ruler”) was the much younger half-brother of a previous King of Norway, Olafr, who became the Norwegian King-Saint after being killed in battle in 1030 (and Norway passing into the hands of Knut the Great of Denmark).

Now, really, Harald shouldn’t have been become King of Norway. Not only did Knut the Great have sons, but so too did St Olafr. Knut’s son Svein and his mother were unpopular regents of Norway, so the throne passed to Magnus, Olafr’s son. After Olafr’s death, you see, Harald had gone abroad. To Byzantium. Where he became quite rich, fighting in the Varangian Guard (the Byzantine Emperor’s personal bodyguard, largely made up of Norsemen), and plundering the empire when emperors died. Of which three did during his sojourn in the south.

While he’s busy getting rich there, Sweyn’s story. Through his mother Estrid, he was the nephew of Knut the Great. Apparently he had a limp, but this didn’t stop him from becoming a decent military leader. However, Knut’s son Harthaknut was King of Denmark after Knut’s death. He didn’t last long, and then Magnus (remember him?) managed to wrench Denmark into his control. Compensation for the death of his father, you see. Sweyn bided his time and rose to the rank of Jarl (Earl) under Magnus.

Anyway, having become quite rich, Harald returned to Scandinavia in the 1040s. Magnus had, by now, also become King of Denmark. After making a pact with Sweyn Estridsen and harrying the coast of Norway, they persuaded Magnus to split Norway with Harald. And to agree to let Sweyn have Denmark when he was done with it.

Fortunately for the pair of them, Magnus died in 1047. Somehow. The jury’s still out on precisely how, since reports vary from illness to falling overboard and drowning to falling off a horse.

But the end result is that Norway has Harald and Denmark has Sweyn. You’d think this was the end of this tale, wouldn’t you? Except it’s not. Of course it’s not. Otherwise I wouldn’t be telling all this, since Authun’s story is a decade later.

Because Harald decided that he wasn’t happy being just King of Norway. He wanted Denmark as well. In fact, as is seen in 1066, he wanted England too. He wanted what Knut had. A North Sea Empire. Because, you know, being King of one country, and having all that lovely Byzantine treasure, just isn’t enough for one man.

So the really important fact that you’ll need to remember while reading about Authun and his bear in a few days’ time is this. Denmark and Norway are at war. Harald and Sweyn are no longer friends.

But don’t worry. All of this short history will be there for your referencing convenience. Or, you know, Wikipedia.

3 thoughts on “In the Eleventh Century North Sea

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