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 One

In Which Our Intrepid Hero Has an Idea

Once upon a time (for all good stories begin then), there lived a man. His name was Authun, and he lived in the Western Fjords of Iceland. Although this isn’t a fairy tale, it begins much like one. Authun was a poor farmer’s son, and his family was just his mother. Authun was probably much like any other typical Norseman. He had fair hair, pale skin and blue eyes and was probably over five and half feet, which was about average back then.

Fortunately, though, our hero and his mother have a good friend, a farmer named Thorstein, who gave Authun a job on his farm. A steady job, but Authun dreamed of other things. Of going on the ships which left every year for lands over the seas. But he was poor, and couldn’t afford to leave his mother.

Most importantly, though, Thorstein had a friend in Norway. This friend, called Thorir, owned a fine ship, which he used to travel across the Northern seas.

Thorstein, Thorir and Authun struck a deal. Let’s say that Authun is about twenty years old and we’re approximately in the year 1054. This seems reasonable, yes?

Anyway, back to the deal. Authun worked for Thorstein for a winter, and in exchange, he would get to join Thorir’s crew on the return to Norway.

And so that’s what happened.

The following spring, Authun collected all the money he had, put enough for hopefully three years aside for his mother, and got on the ship. And so they sailed away to Norway.

They spent a lot of the summer there. Traders and merchants from the south came north, bringing news and gossip too. Authun heard tell of a Jarl in somewhere called Northumbria wanting fighting men. Some man called Macbeth had killed the Jarl’s nephew.

Before the summer reached its end, Thorir and his crew, Authun included, set off again, across the seas. They went westwards again, although not to Iceland. This time they went further, to the land only relatively recently discovered. They went to Greenland.

Since they arrived so late in the year, they stayed the winter there. It was a harsher winter than any Authun had known in Iceland. Authun wondered why it was called Greenland. It wasn’t very green – quite white, in fact – and it looked rocky. Not easy farming land. But so it was. Norsemen had begun settling there just over fifty years previously, encouraged by Eirik the Red.

Not much is known of the visit to Greenland, except that in the following spring, Authun made an interesting purchase.

For the sum total of all of the possessions which he owned after the summer spent working on Thorir’s farm, Authun gained an ice-bear.

When asked why he wanted the bear, Authun simply shrugged and said, “I shall give it to King Sweyn.”

At which all the others wondered. King Sweyn was the King of Denmark. He was King Harald of Norway’s best frenemy. And to get to Denmark, Authun would have to first go to Norway. And try to get the bear, which was essentially a really valuable treasure, through to a hostile land.