Mists of Time: Knut the Great

The Viking Age period began with sporadic incursions and ended with full-scale invasions.

Fifty years before Harald Hardrada, the last Viking, died at Stamford Bridge, a Nordic invasion took the throne of England. This year, 2016, is the 1000th anniversary of that conquest.

Knut of Denmark was the son of Sweyn Forkbeard and grandson of Harald Bluetooth, who had managed to oust Aethelraed in 1013. His mistake then was simply that Aethelraed was exiled, not killed, and when Sweyn died the following year, he came back. Knut, whose brother Harald inherited Denmark’s crown, was elected King by the Vikings and Norsemen of Danelaw, but the English nobility chose to bring Aethelraed back from exile.

Knut, returning to Denmark, marshalled his forces and returned for invasion in 1015. Lots of battles were fought for over a year, with Aethelraed’s men led by his son Edmund Ironside.

And then, in April 1016, Aethelraed died. Edmund kept fighting, but Knut defeated him that October. Didn’t kill Edmund, but they came to an agreement, dividing England into Danelaw (Knut’s) and Wessex (Edmund’s). Edmund died a month later. Maybe it was battle-wounds, maybe it was murder. Not quite sure, but Knut became King of all England. He was crowned at Epiphany 1017.

Six months later, he married Aethelraed’s widow Emma, and he used his base in England to build a North Sea Empire, taking Denmark when his brother died in 1018 and Norway in 1028 when Olaf of Norway’s jarls deserted him and he fled the field. Olaf was killed two years later in 1030 when he attempted to reclaim his crown. Knut also laid claim to parts of Sweden – as far east as Sigtuna.

Knut died in 1035, and his Empire broke up. Within ten years, England was ruled again by the House of Wessex, by Edward the Confessor, son of Aethelraed and Emma.

Authun and the Bear, Part Three

In which our Intrepid Hero gets to Denmark

A few days later, Authun began the journey south. He negotiated again with a merchant to be taken with his bear east of Oslofjord to Denmark. He had, by now, exhausted his few remaining coins and when he disembarked the merchant ship, he was forced to beg, borrow or steal food for himself and the bear, who was now becoming really rather hungry. Authun was looking more and more tasty as food became scarcer.

As Authun and the bear along Danish roads, they came to the home of King Sweyn’s steward, a man named Áki. Authun begged some food of him, for the bear if not for himself.

“I want, you see, to give the bear to King Sweyn,” he explained.

Áki considered Authun and his bear. “I can sell you food and lodging, if you’d like?” he offered.

“I have nothing to give you in exchange. I gave everything that I might present this bear to the king,” Authun said.

“Well then,” replied Áki, “I can give you lodging for tonight and enough food to get you to the king’s halls, in exchange for half the bear. Remember that without this food the bear will surely die before you reach the king and then you would have nothing,” he added warningly.

Authun hesitated. He knew that Áki was right – the bear would surely die, or eat somebody, if it wasn’t fed soon – and yet, he disliked the idea of exchanging half of it for bed and board. And would Áki demand the front half or the rear? Or the head and back or the legs? How would the bear be divided?

However, after his deliberations, Authun found himself in accordance with the steward’s suggestion, dismissing the problem of dividing the bear as a problem to be solved by the king. Áki agreed reluctantly that Sweyn should adjudicate on this matter.

The next day, Áki led Authun and the bear to King Sweyn’s halls. Authun was apprehensive now that he had reached his destination. It had seemed such a good idea in Greenland, his plan, but in the presence of the tall (but not as tall as Harald), clearly strong man to whom he was presented, he felt a moment of panic. He was slightly surprised to see that Sweyn walked with a limp. No word of this had reached Iceland and naturally Authun had not imagined that this king, of whom report spoke well, might not be less than a great warrior.

Sweyn Estridsen put most of his weight on his good leg. He tried not to let the puzzlement which he felt show on his face, in which he was largely successful. He wondered who this man might be, who accompanied his steward with a bear. At least, he presumed it was a bear. Somehow in his travels he had never seen such a creature, although men spoke of the great lumbering animals in tones of awe and fear.

As his steward and the unknown man came to halt before him, Sweyn asked: “Who are you?”

The unknown man seemed to seek reassurance from Áki before replying, “I am an Icelandic man, lord; my name is Authun. I come now from Greenland, via Norway, with this bear, which I had intended to present to you as a gift. I gave all my possessions for it, but now there is a great problem which I am struggling to solve: I own only half of the bear. Due to unforeseen circumstances, I was forced to sell half of it to this man in exchange for food and lodging last night, to prevent the bear from starving.”

As Authun explained the problem to Sweyn, it was evident to all that Sweyn’s brow was becoming ever darker and more forbidding. When Authun ceased speaking, the king turned to Áki and demanded, “Is what he says true?”

“Er, yes, lord, it is true,” he replied uncomfortably.

“You, whom I have raised to become a great man, thought that it was right to obstruct or hinder a man who tried to bring me a great treasure, who gave all he had to own it, and whom even King Harald, who is my enemy, considered it right to give him safe passage to our land? Think then how fair it is on your part to prevent this man from carrying out his intention! You deserve that I should have you killed! But this I shall not do. Instead, you must leave this land immediately and I never wish to set eyes on you again within my borders! You are banished henceforth.”

Áki had blanched at Sweyn’s tone from the start of this speech, but now that he understood his punishment to be exile rather than death, he seemed positively relieved and scrambled to run from the room before he incurred Sweyn’s wrath any further. The crowd of men which had gathered around out of curiosity parted easily as Áki hastened to the doors.

Sweyn turned back to Authun. “But to you, Authun, I extend such thanks as if you had presented me with the whole bear, and I bid you to stay here with me in my court.”

Without any understanding of the complexities of keeping bears, Sweyn was delighted with the gift which Authun had presented him. Authun was pleased merely that his imagination and impulse had not led him astray now that he had finally arrived at Sweyn’s court. He gladly accepted the king’s offer to stay in the royal halls, a guest of the king.

“I know! Just the thing with which to reward you, Authun: you shall have Áki’s lands, now that he no longer needs them,” Sweyn pronounced.

“Um, thank you, lord,” said Authun, hoping that he never annoyed the king.

The following spring, after spending a very happy and profitable summer and winter in Denmark at the king’s court, Authun came before the king.

“Lord,” he began, “I wish to leave your court and I have come to ask your permission to do so.”

Sweyn was astonished. He had not expected the Icelander to wish to leave his presence so soon. He was therefore somewhat slow to respond to Authun’s request, but when he did, it was merely to pose a question. “But what will you do, if you will not stay with us?”

“I have the intention to travel south,” said Authun, meaning, of course, Rome (but where else is south?).

Comprehension dawned on Sweyn’s face. “If you were not intending so noble a destination, then I would be exceedingly displeased by your desire to leave us, but since you intend to go south, then am I glad to allow you to go.”

Authun gratefully prepared for his journey south, aided by the king, who made many arrangements for the travels. He also bade Authun return to his court once he had completed his pilgrimage. Before he left the Danish court, King Sweyn bestowed upon Authun a great many coins to aid him on his travels.

Authun and the Bear, Part Two

In Which Our Intrepid Hero Journeys South

Thorir waited for a favourable wind before rounding up his crew, complete with Authun and his bear, to make the journey back across the northern seas to Norway. Again, their journey was good, even with the added danger of the bear onboard.
When they reached Mœr and Thorir’s farm, they unloaded the ship’s cargo. When the southern merchants come and bartered, Authun negotiated with one in order to get himself and the bear at least to the southern fjords of Norway.
Unfortunately for Authun, when he arrived in the south of Norway, he discovered that Harald was in residence in the region. However, Authun remained undeterred in his determination to take the bear to Denmark. The merchant brought his ship to the shore and the crew dragged it inland. Authun led his bear behind him as he found and hired a place to stay while he worked out how to cross the straits between Norway and Denmark.
In his court, not far away (relatively speaking), Harald was surrounded by his retinue, celebrating the mid-summer. Not long after Authun had agreed a hire for a temporary shelter, the man with whom he had struck the deal was to be found in Harald’s halls. With the quantity of mead flowing, it was not long after that when a rumour of a valuable bear in his realm reached Harald’s ears. That an Icelandic man had brought such a treasure merely served to increase Harald’s desire for the creature. After all, an Icelander was essentially still subject to the Norwegian crown, wasn’t he? Harald had occasionally seen brown bears during his youthful travels through the Finnish and Slavic lands, but he had only ever heard tell of white bears before.
He demanded to meet the man who boasted in his cups of having seen and stood beside such a creature. The man, Thorkell, was brought before Harald. Thorkell, although not small, was dwarfed by Harald, whose head seemed to stretch towards the heavens, his yellow hair tumbling in untidy braids over his broad shoulders. As far as could be determined, he favoured braided hair to keep it from entangling with his beard and moustache, which drooped over his chin down his chest.
“Is this true that I’ve heard? Is there a white bear in your hut?” Harald asked of the man, now quivering at his feet, mostly because of the mead he had poured down his throat than because he feared his king. He was, it’s true, somewhat in awe of Harald; the king had a notoriously fiery temper and his eyebrows gave the appearance of sceptical disbelief, one permanently higher than the other. Not an encouraging demeanour. So Thorkell gibbered incoherently. He had not expected to be called upon to corroborate his possibly slightly exaggerated, alcohol-fuelled boasts, and certainly not to his chieftain. There was good reason that Harald had earned the sobriquet ‘Hard-Ruler’ (or ‘Hardrada’).
“Well, man? Speak!” roared Harald, volatile as a volcano. He brought his drinking horn down heavily onto the table. Thorkell winced.
“There’s, there’s a man with a bear. From Iceland. He’s renting my hut,” he gulped tripping over his words as he rushed to say them, hoping to avert the king’s wrath.
“Well, I want to see this man,” Harald stated calmly, his voice implacably determined. “Bring him here.”
“Yes, lord, straight away, lord,” Thorkell gabbled, his nose hitting his knees as he bowed and scraped before the king. He hurried backwards out of the hall in a bid to fulfil Harald’s orders as quickly as was humanly possible. Harald sent several men to ensure that Thorkell carried out the promised actions.
At Thorkell’s hut, Authun proved reluctant to accompany him back to Harald. He thought it inadvisable to leave the bear alone. However, eventually he was persuaded, Thorkell’s agitation offering a greater argument than any which he expressed.
Authun was brought before Harald as soon as they returned to the hall. They greeted one another with courtesy and respect. Almost, it was a warm greeting, if such can be had between men who have never met before. Harald smiled benignly.
“Is it true that you have with you a wild bear of immense value?”
It seemed to Thorkell, who hovered uncomfortably in the background, that Harald was being uncommonly pleasant, as if he feared that he would scare Authun. Authun stood proudly before the king, his head held as high as it could be, his back straight.
“Yes, it is true. I do own such a beast,” Authun replied clearly.
“If I was to pay you the sum which you paid for the bear, would you let me have it?” Harald asked.
Thorkell thought that the question sounded curious, idle, even, as if Harald had only just considered the matter.
“I will not, lord,” Authun answered. Again, his voice was clear and unwavering.
“What if,” Harald asked, “I give you twice the price which you paid? Would you let me have the bear then? That would, after all, be much more in your favour then, especially since you gave all you own for that bear, from what I heard.”
“I will not, lord,” Authun repeated steadfastly.
“Well, would you give me the bear then?” Harald demanded, exasperated. In his mead-addled brain, Thorkell thought that his king sounded quite desperate and, with some stretch of the imagination, Harald could almost be said to be begging Authun for the bear.
“No, lord,” Authun said, almost regretfully.
“But what on earth do you intend to do with the beast?” the king asked, by now confused.
“Um,” began Authun, suddenly aware of the danger in which he now found himself but unable to tell bare-faced lies to the man nicknamed ‘Hard-Ruler’. He hesitated, trying to find the best way of explaining his intentions to Harald. “Um, I have the intention to go to Denmark and present it to King Sweyn.”
King Harald’s men stared at Authun. Thorkell suddenly recovered his composure, despite the alcohol, for here was a man upon whom Harald was more likely to bring down his wrath. Harald wanted the bear, was prepared to pay vast sums to own the creature, and the man who did own it refused to sell it on the grounds that he wished to give it to Harald’s greatest enemy.
“Can it really be that you are a man so ignorant that you have not heard of the war which exists between us and Denmark? Surely in Iceland you have heard! Or do you honestly think that your luck is so great that you will manage to get to Denmark, unscathed, with such a valuable gift, even though others, on more urgent errands, don’t?” Harald exclaimed, scornfully.
Authun replied: “Lord, I know it is in your power to allow me safe travel or not, but surely nothing agrees between us but that which we had earlier intended.”
Harald considered him carefully. “Hmm. Well, if I allow you and your bear safe travel to Denmark, then you must return to me and tell me how King Sweyn rewards your gift and may it be that you are fortunate in your endeavour.”
“That I promise you that I will do,” Authun vowed.
At this, Harald called for someone to bring Authun a horn of mead and the midsummer festivities continued.