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Ælfgyva, The Mystery Lady of The Bayeux Tapestry

For many years the presence of a lady known as Ælfgyva on the Bayeux Tapestry has baffled historians. No one knows who she is or why she is depicted on the tapestry. Today’s guest, Paula Lofting, spends most of her free time researching the 11th century (and writing great books set in the period). She has her own theories as to who the mystery lady was. I suggest you sit back and enjoy the ride as Paula guides you through this rather convoluted story!

PL Becca Marshall

courtesy Becca Marshall

There was a plethora of women called Ælfgyva/Ælfgifu amongst the women of 11th century England. King Cnut’s first consort and the mother of his sons, Harald and Swein, was known as Ælfgifu of Northampton. Her father, Ælfhelm, had been executed and her brothers blinded during Aethelred’s reign, so her hatred of the ‘unready’ king must have made it easy for Cnut to win her, and her relatives, over.

Cnut wasn’t content to have one woman. No, he had to have two. Greedy chap, I hear you say. Well, it was fashionable to have an official wife and a handfasted wife. For the sake of continuity, Cnut decided to hook up with King Æthelred’s widow, Emma of Normandy, who’d been forced to change her name on marriage to Æthelred and be known as, – yes, you’ve got it – Ælfgifu. Emma, however, seems to have preferred her own name, and to avoid confusion as we go on, I’ll refer to her as Emma, no matter what her Anglo-Saxon name was.

The Ælfgifu on the Bayeux Tapestry appears in one scene where it says, Here Ælfgyva and a cleric. In the scene, the priest, or monk, is touching her face, signifying a collaboration with her. But it isn’t the priest that draws the eye: it’s the two naked men at the bottom. Question is, who is this Ælfgifu?  

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Our lady of the day being touched by a priest

Having made studies of the various primary and secondary sources, I believe that the woman on the Tapestry is Ælfgifu of Northampton, as J Bard McNulty (1980) first identified her. Why do I believe this? Because Ælfgifu of Northampton became the subject of a scandal when she was accused of presenting Cnut with two sons that were neither his nor hers. One was rumoured to be the son of a workman and a serving maid and the other, the son of a priest and the same serving maid – or maybe Ælfgifu herself.

In the Tapestry scene featuring Ælfgifu the pictures at the bottom depict a naked workman with a monkish style haircut, his genitals exposed as he works with a hammer and wood. In the next scene, the naked man mirrors the stance of the cleric who is touching her face. The scene comes just after a scene depicting Harold and William meeting, and maybe it is there to illustrate what the two men talked about, namely an old scandal involving a royal consort and a priest. Whatever the case, it is the only scene of its kind in the tapestry.

Whether there is any truth to the scandal, around 1030 Cnut sent Ælfgifu with their son Swein to Norway to govern on Cnut’s behalf. This may have been to keep her out of Emma’s way. No doubt the two women would have been directly at odds with each other. After all, Emma agreed to marry Cnut on the surety that her children with him would take precedence over Ælfgifu’s in the succession.

Ælfgifu’s heavy-handed taxation did not endear her to the Norwegians. She and Swein were ousted after some years. Nothing more was heard about her after 1040 and it is thought that she had died in Denmark after her son Swein.

Not everyone agrees with the above interpretation. Historian Eric Freeman states that he believes, owing to a 14th century legend, that Emma of Normandy is the woman being portrayed disgracefully on the Tapestry. I am unsure as to how and why a 11th century scandal may have only emerged in the 14thcentury, but whatever the case, it goes thus:

Edward, the king, believing that his mother had entered into sexual relations with a Bishop Ælfwine, (or a Bishop Stigand) sent her into a monastery and had the bishop locked up. Shown in a heroic light, Emma offered to prove the Bishop’s innocence by ordeal by hot iron, but Robert, the Bishop of London, threw more coal on the fire by announcing a list of her sins which included conspiring to murder her son, Alfred, and defaming her other son, Edward himself. Emma was ordered to undergo the ordeal and survived, the tale transforming into some sort of miraculous legend, with Edward begging forgiveness and mercy of her and restoring all that he had taken and more. There is no contemporary evidence for this strange story, beyond illustrating the strained relationship between Emma and her son.

Emma had always had a reasonably good relationship and reputation with the English whilst she was wed to Cnut. In Normandy, however, her reputation was sullied by her second marriage. After all, she put aside her sons from her marriage to Æthelred (a marriage arranged by her brother, the duke of Normandy) and abandoned them in Normandy, dissolving any Norman ambition of future successions to the English crown.

Then Cnut died. Emma’s reputation and power did not suffer overmuch—at least not while her son by Cnut, Harthacnut, was king. But when her son by Æthelred, Edward, succeeded to the throne, things changed. Unsurprisingly, Edward’s view of her was coloured by her abandonment of him in his adolescent years for a man who essentially caused the downfall of his father. Edward removed all Emma’s wealth and assets and basically told her to stop prying in England’s affairs and lead a quiet life in Winchester. Emma seems to have done so, right up until she died in 1052. No indications of a passionate affair with a bishop, no detailed account of an ordeal by hot iron, just an older abandoned woman living out what remained of her life.

There is another reason to discount Emma as the scandalous Ælfgifu on the Tapestry: her great-nephew William of Normandy. His claim on the English crown was tenuous at best and depended entirely on his kinship—via Emma—with King Edward. Therefore, with Emma being integral to William’s claim to the crown, it would hardly seem a good idea to represent her on the Tapestry in this way. William was already a bastard; he needed all the ‘decency’ in his backstory he could get.

William had no relationship with Ælfgifu of Northampton. She was not a person whom he would have greatly regarded, so the embroiderers would not have worried too much about stitching her and her clerical (potential) lover onto the tapestry.  Due to the lack of info stitched onto the tapestry regarding the scene, it seems this was a well-known scandal of the day. In other words, it was anecdotal to the time and it fits far better than the story of Emma.

In conclusion, I have no doubt that the mystery lady on the Bayeaux Tapestry is Ælfgifu of Northampton—but that does not mean we should necessarily assume she was involved in a scandal. After all, gossip back then was probably as vicious as it can be now!


Thank you for that, Paula! Now, as I stated already at the beginning, Paula’s love of the 11th century isn’t restricted to researching the period – she also writes. So far, she has published two books about Wulfhere of Horstede and his complicated life in which marital issues, war and an infected blood-feud figure prominently.  I have recently read the second book in her series, The Wolf Banner, and this is my review:

PL WBThere are a couple of things that are very apparent when reading Ms Lofting’s The Wolf Banner: the author knows her history inside out and the author loves her chosen period. This results in a vibrant historical setting, little details of everyday life blending together to create quite the time travelling experience. While reading Ms Lofting’s book I am transported to the 11th century, walking side by side with her characters.

Further to the setting, Ms Lofting adds a well-developed plot and an interesting cast of characters. Not all of these characters are likeable – notably Wulfhere’s wife Ealdgytha is very difficult for me to warm towards, no matter that the woman has her fair share of woes – but then that is how it is in real life as well. The protagonist is Wulfhere, thane of Horstede and sworn to serve King Edward the Confessor. Other than doing his duty by his lord Wulfhere has a somewhat infected situation at home and a bitter feud with his nearest neighbour to handle. Plus there are all his children, from his eldest daughter Freyda to Tovi, the son who is treated like an enervating afterthought by both his parents.

Ms Lofting does an excellent job with Tovi who very quickly grows into the character I care the most about. Some scenes involving this young boy and his parents are quite heart-breaking, and I can only hope we will see more of Tovi as the story progresses.

The personal lives of Wulhere and his family are interwoven with the political events of the times. King Edward, Harold Godwinson, the Welsh king Gryffud ap Llywellyn, the ever-present Danes – they all affect the narrative, culminating in vivid—I would even say excellent—battle scenes with Wulfhere in the thick of things.

The Wolf Banner is a sequel to Sons of the Wolf and to fully enjoy it I recommend the reader starts at the beginning. Likewise, The Wolf Banner does not conclude all the stories begun in it. For that we must await the next instalments of the saga.

At times, I feel the novel would have benefited from some abbreviation—this is a very long book and some pruning would, in my opinion, have enhanced the narrative. But this is a minor quibble: all in all The Wolf Banner is a gripping read, offering quite the insight into pre-Conquest England.

About the Author:

PL PaulaWriting has always been a lifelong ambition for Paula. A prolific reader, she loved to spend weekends buried in a book. Earliest influences such as Rosemary Sutcliffe, Leon Garfield, Charles Dickens, inspired an interest in history and a longing to write historical fiction. However, this ambition was reluctantly put on hold due to life events.

Her début novel, Sons of the Wolf eventually materialised, followed by the sequel, The Wolf Banner. These are stories set in the years leading up to the Norman Conquest of England. She is now working on Book 3 in the series, Wolf’s Bane.

History is a great love of hers and her interest in the subject goes beyond that of the keyboard. She also enjoys Anglo-Saxon re-enactment with Regia Anglorum, also a great source of research for her writing.

Twitter – @paulalofting

Facebook –

Paula’s books can be found on Amazon!


A very wicked woman

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The not-so-paragon Eve…

Not all medieval women were paragons of virtue. Not all that surprising as I’d hazard the paragons among us were as much of a minority back then as they are now, but still.

Today’s protagonist falls in the category, mean, cruel and generally bad-ass, at least if we’re to believe her near-contemporary Orderic Vitalis, who has nothing good to say about her in his chronicle. Orderic is generally considered a trustworthy source, but when approaching today’s formidable Mabel, one should keep in mind that Orderic was a monk at an abbey generously endowed by Mabel’s hereditary enemies, ergo we should take some of what he says with a pinch of salt. Still, no smoke without fire, and while Orderic may be exaggerating, this particular lady is not one I’d present my back to after a heated quarrel as she might very well be tempted to sink a dagger in it.

Mabel de Bellême probably had her contrary character from her father. William de Bellême , known as William Tavalas I, comes down to us as being as rapacious and ambitious as all of his family with the added qualities of cruelty and sinfulness. Supposedly, this gent was so irritated by his wife’s piety that he had her strangled on the way to church.

How this affected his little daughter, Mabel, we don’t know. It does seem to have horrified his son, Arnulf. Some years later, William added to his list of sins by imprisoning, mutilating and blinding a certain William fitzGiroie, this due to an infected feud between the two men. Even worse, he took the opportunity to imprison fitzGiroire when he was attending William Tavalas’ second wedding.

Somehow, fitzGiroie survived his torture and retired to live out his days in a convent. His sons promised revenge, and Arnulf, who clearly inherited his character from his pious and strangled-to-death mama, was so disgusted he ousted his father in 1048 and forced him into exile. For some odd reason, Mabel chose to accompany her father into uncertainty and penury (well, everything is relative) rather than stay with her goody-goody brother. Says a lot about her character, albeit that at the time she can’t have been more than a teenager.

Father and daughter ended up as charity cases with the powerful Montgomerie family. William decided to bargain with what he had, which is how Mabel ended up betrothed to the eldest Montgomerie son, Roger, in return for William promising she’d inherit his lands upon his death. A somewhat worthless promise at the time, seeing as Arnulf was in control of the Bellême lands and honours. However, William was the rightful owner, and I suppose he (and the Montgomeries) gambled on him somehow regaining control.

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Something Mabel  did a lot – at least ten babies

Fortunately for everyone involved (except poor Arnulf), Arnulf died very soon after exiling his father. William was restored, the value of Mabel as a bride spiked, and Roger was quick to convert the betrothal into a marriage, thereby adding considerably to the Montgomerie lands. Maybe having a termagant in bed was worth it, or maybe he had Mabel well and truly tamed in the privacy of their solar. Or maybe they liked each other, seeing as they would go on to have ten children. They do seem to have shared certain traits, such as ambition, ruthlessness and greed, but Roger is rarely vilified for these qualities, while Mabel, according to Orderic, was an unnatural, evil woman who’d go on to bequeath all her nasty attributes to her eldest son, Robert, known as a singularly cruel man.

Roger Montgomerie was one of William the Conqueror’s most trusted men—this long before he’d earned the epithet Conqueror and still struggled with being nick-named the Bastard Duke. When William concentrated on pacifying his new realm after 1066, he entrusted Roger with helping Matilda rule Normandy. This Roger did well—he seems to have done most things well—which is why he ended up as the Earl of Shrewsbury.

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A lady with her spindle – not for our Mabel

Upon William Tavalas’ death, Mabel became the Dame de Alençon, de Séez, and Bellême. Together with her husband, Mabel now controlled a sprawling collection of lands, all the way from southern Normandie and Maine to England. Life, one could say, was good, and with so much stuff to administer, Mabel should not have had time for mischief. Not so. Mabel, according to Orderic, greatly enjoyed being a pain in the nether parts. In particular, she enjoyed needling the powerful Church and the various religious establishments that were slowly expanding their hold on the land.

Mabel was no fool: to challenge the religious institutions outright would be to court serious danger, not only from the Church itself but also from her husband’s overlord. William the Conqueror was one of those complicated characters who combined an outward show of personal piety with a ruthless approach to anyone who threatened what he considered his. Mabel therefore decided on a subtle approach, whereby she would descend on an abbey complete with a HUGE entourage, and stay for several days as their guest, thereby depleting their stores. Her favourite target was the Abbey of Saint-Evroul (where Orderic would, some years later, become an oblate), and when the abbot dared protest at her extended visits, she threatened to return with an even larger retinue.

As told by Orderic, this is when the abbot rebuked her for her wicked ways, suggesting she cease them before they brought her great pain. Mabel just laughed, but that self-same evening, she was afflicted by a terrible, terrible pain. As per some, the pain centred round breasts, so when she stumbled upon a nursing infant, she insisted on placing said child at her breasts. The baby nursed, Mabel felt immediate relief, and the baby died. No major loss, according to Mabel: peasant brats were of no major importance.

It seems that this incident made Mabel somewhat wary of inflicting her presence on religious houses. Besides, she had other fish to fry, notably the personal vendetta of her family against the heirs of fitzGiroire, the man who her father had tortured so cruelly. Already back in the early 1060s, Mabel and Roger succeeded in convincing Duke William to seize the fitzGiroire lands and hand them over to Mabel. Obviously, this did not go down well, and the fitzGiroire heir, Arnold de Echauffour, protested loudly. So loudly, in fact, that in 1063 Duke William relented and was all for returning the lands to the rightful owner.

“What? Take my lands?” Mabel spluttered, almost choking on her wine. “Over my dead body!”
“If we’re going to be correct, they’re really his lands,” Roger said.
“Once mine, always mine,” Mabel retorted. She considered just what to do for some days, before concluding that the solution was simple. Kill Arnold and the problem would go away.
“We can’t just ride in there and cut him down,” Roger protested. “Duke William would nail my balls to the closest church door for breaking his peace!”
“Well, we can’t have that,” Mabel said, pursing her lips. “I’ll find another way. Maybe, if we’re fortunate, God will strike him down.”
Even Roger raised his brows at that…

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Jezebel – Mabel’s role model? (Yet another vilified female, IMO)

Mabel wasn’t about to wait for God to intercede. Instead, she resorted to that most classic of female murder weapons: poison. On one occasion when Arnold was visiting (and one can’t help but wonder why he’d do that—unless, of course, he’d been lured there with promises of discussing the return of his lands) Mabel doctored his goblet of wine. Unfortunately for her, Arnold wasn’t thirsty. Instead, Roger’s younger brother Gilbert drank the poisoned brew—and died. I imagine this sparked heated discussions in the privacy of the solar.

“My brother! Damn it, woman, you’ve murdered Gilbert!”
“That’s what you get for hogging the visitor’s cup.” She sidled closer. “I didn’t mean to, you know that. I liked Gilbert.” Her fingers slipped inside her husband’s shirt, tugging at his chest hair. “But those lands of his won’t come amiss, dear husband. There will be a new babe come spring.”
“Huh!” He slid her a look. “Truly? A new babe?”

One failure was not enough to stop Mabel. Soon enough, she’d sunk her claws into one of Arnold’s servants, promising him gold and gratitude everlasting if he’d only do this teensy-weensy little favour for her: poison his master. Which he did, thereby ridding Mabel’s world of the hated Arnold.

Now, before dismissing this story out of hand as being the figment of Orderic’s heated imagination, it might serve to remember that Orderic does have a reputation for telling things as they were—and that one of his fellow monks was the son of the murdered Arnold. Plus, Orderic’s father had served Roger Montgomery for his whole life, so Orderic did have access to very good sources.

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Seems like a thing Mabel would do…

With advancing age, one could have hoped Mabel would mellow. Very little indicates she did, remaining as rapacious as ever well into middle-age. In 1077, she went after the lands of one Hugh Brunel, sending her men-at-arms to drive him from his home. Hugh fled, but promised retribution. Mabel probably laughed. What on earth could Hugh do to her, Dame de Alençon, de Séez, and Bellême in her own right, Countess of Shrewsbury and Lady of Arundel through her husband? Turns out she underestimated Hugh…

In late 1079, Mabel was enjoying a warm bath in one of her castles when out of nowhere several men broke into her room.

“Remember me?” Hugh said, drawing his sword. And just like that, he cut her head off before fleeing the castle with his brothers.

An apt end to an evil woman according to Orderic, who goes on to quote her epitaph, adding a sour comment along the lines that whoever wrote it was doing her friends (and husband) a favour rather than portraying the lady in question correctly.

Sprung from the noble and the brave,
Here Mabel finds a narrow grave.
But, above all woman’s glory,
Fills a page in famous story.
Commanding, eloquent, and wise,
And prompt to daring enterprise;
Though slight her form, her soul was great,
And, proudly swelling in her state,
Rich dress, and pomp, and retinue,
Lent it their grace and houours due.
The border’s guard, the country’s shield,
Both love and fear her might revealed,
Till Hugh, revengeful, gained her bower,
In dark December’s midnight hour.
Then saw the Dive’s o’erflowing stream
The ruthless murderer’s poignard gleam.
Now friends, some moments kindly spare,
For her soul’s rest to breathe a prayer!

Assuming Ordric has things right, I somehow think breathing a couple of prayers would not suffice to give Mabel’s soul rest. Alternatively, the epitaph has it right and Orderic, otherwise so credible, had personal reasons behind his character assassination. We will never know, will we? Still, I do believe that a lady who has her head chopped off by “revengeful Hugh” must have done something to deserve it.

What if? A speculative exercise

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Henri II – died of a lance in his eye. But what if…

One of the more enjoyable pastimes a history buff can indulge in, is the “what if” game. What if Francisco Pizarro had been murdered by the Incas? What if Henri II of France had not had his eye penetrated by a lance? What if Julius Caesar had survived the plot to kill him? Or if Judas had said “nope, not interested,” and turned his back on those thirty silver pieces? What if Troy hadn’t fallen, laughing their heads off at the idiotic Greeks who thought they were stupid enough to pull that wooden horse through their gates? Or, to open the door on one of the more heated debates within the historic community, what if Richard III had won at Bosworth?

This year, one of the more recurring what if’s will relate to the year 1066. If Harold had won, if William had hit the dust, then what?

Obviously, none of us know. But many of us enjoy to speculate, becoming more and more animated as the waves of discussion rise and crash around us. The only thing we do know is that if events in the past had not happened, things would have been different. Not necessarily worse. Not necessarily better. Just different.

What if 51Vntz2MXOLOne of my favourite “what if” books is Making History by Stephen Fry. In this book, a certain young man travels back in time to ensure Adolf Hitler is never born. How? He poisons the water source that serves Hitler’s parent’s home, and wham, just like that, little Adolf never sees the light of the day. Our hero congratulates himself: he has rewritten history to the better. But has he? Without revealing too much of the plot, let’s just say that no, he hasn’t. Hitler rose to power as a consequence of the political winds blowing at the time. He managed to hit the right time, the right place to spout his racist, ultra-nationalistic nonsense. Had Hitler not been around, someone else would have filled the gap, and what if this person was smarter than dear old Adolf? Same agenda, same ultimate goal, but totally different tactics. Maybe very successful tactics…

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William, as per a medieval depiction

Fortunately, we will never know just what such a person could have accomplished, but it’s important to keep in mind that most of the historical people who’ve left such a huge imprint on history have done so due to having been there at a certain point in time. Yes, obviously certain qualities are required – in William the Conqueror’s case, it helped that he was determined and ruthless, that he lived with the conviction (or pretended to) that the English crown was his by right. He must also have been very capable and innovative. I know the people in the Harold camp don’t like to hear this, because in history, Harold is the tragic hero who died on the battlefield after having had the terribly bad luck of first having to fend off Harald Hardrada and treacherous brother Tostig, then turn right around to rush down and fight William.

Except, of course, that the successful among us rarely blame bad luck for anything. They rely on meticulous planning, on a careful assessment of the situation, and a capacity to act quickly and forcefully. Maybe Harold should have handled Tostig differently. Maybe he was inept at building the alliances required to hold both Hardrada and William at bay. Because seriously, a king cannot rely on luck, can he?

It is my personal opinion that William has been somewhat unjustly treated by those of us who love our history. Not that he necessarily was a person I’d invite for tea and cake, but the man is quite often represented as evil incarnate, caring nothing for the people he subjugated. Yes, he committed various heinous deeds, but it seems to me that what we cannot forgive him for – ever – is that he won over our golden-haired hero, the affable, easy-going, handsome, upright Harold. Where William is depicted as dour and cold, little given to casual endearments or jollification, Harold comes across as the life and soul of the party, a man as loved by men as by women. Except that he wasn’t, was he? Not all Anglo-Saxon nobles felt Harold Godwinson was the best thing since sliced bread.

EHFA Bayeux_Tapestry_scene57_Harold_deathHad William lost the battle of Hastings, he’d have been no more than a footnote in history. England would have developed down a different path, a path without Henry II, Thomas Becket, Edward III, without Simon de Montfort and Henry III’s magnificent Westminster Abbey. No War of the Roses, no Henry VIII (no major loss, IMO). Would English as we speak it have existed? Would Shakespeare’s works ever have seen the light of the day? We will never know. After all, William did win, and all we can do is speculate. But when we do, we should keep in mind that there is no guarantee that a future forged by Harold Godwinson would have been better. It would just have been different. Very different.


1066-TUD-OutNowI have the honour of being one participant in a collaborative effort dedicated to highlighting the potential “what if’s” in the momentous year 1066. Our book, 1066 Turned Upside Down, has just hit the “etailers” and offers nine different perspectives on William, Harold and all the rest. We have played at being nornes, snipping fate’s threads and retying them as we see fit 🙂 Have we had fun? Oh, yes! And all of this for less than £2 – seriously that’s not even one family-sized muffins at Starbucks and comes with the benefit of zero calories.

The authors are:

Helen Hollick, author of multiple historical and pirate novels, including Harold the King
Joanna Courtney, author of the Queens of the Conquest series
Anna Belfrage, Historical Novel Society Indie Award Winner 2015, author of the Graham Saga
Richard Dee, fantasy author of Ribbonworld 
G K Holloway, author of 1066: What Fates Impose
Carol McGrath, author of The Daughters of Hastings trilogy
Alison Morton, author of the Roma Nova thrillers
Eliza Redgold, author of Naked, a novel of Lady Godiva
Annie Whitehead, who writes about Mercia and Saxon England
with an impressive foreword by writer and actor, C.C. Humphreys

The fabulous cover art is by Cathy Helms of Avalon Graphics

Bringing God to the Vikings

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Female bellicose person

In those faraway times when the Scandinavian region spawned bellicose Vikings at a horrifying rate, most of Europe was already adequately christened. Not so Norway, Denmark or Sweden, where the ancient religion honouring Odin, Thor and Frey was alive and kicking well into the second millennium. Adam of Bremen, writing in the 11th century, has left us with a detailed description of the heathen temples in Uppsala (just north of Stockholm, these days Uppsala is the home of the Swedish Archbishop), complete with dripping human sacrifices and the bloodied statues of the gods. Seeing as Adam never saw these temples, we may need to add a pinch of salt or two to his descriptions, but still…

While both the Norwegian and Danish kings converted to Christianity in the tenth century, the Swedish kings were far more obdurate, laughing at the idea of replacing their powerful, lusty gods with that milksop, The White Christ. Turning the other cheek was to a Viking with any sense of self-respect an idiotic concept, and the “do unto your neighbour” part was not at all aligned with the idea of raiding and ravaging – although, to be fair, Swedish Vikings did less of the raiding and ravaging than their Norwegian and Danish brethren, no matter how nominally Christian they were.

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Thor (M E Winge) Not a milksop!

Clinging to old faiths when everyone else is embracing the new can become a liability. Trade can be affected, treaties tend to be difficult to push through, and quite often Sweden found itself defending its corner alone, against its (more or less) Christian neighbours. The king in Sweden during the first decades of the second millennium was Olof Skötkonung, step-son to Sven Tveskägg (Svein Forkbeard) and, one would assume, under this particular king’s influence.

Sven had since some time back become Christian – his dad, Harald Bluetooth, embraced Christianity out of political reasons, hoping the Church would back his determined efforts to impose one religion (guess which) and one king (guess who) on the Danish. The contemporary Norwegian king, Olav, was not only Christian, he was also firmly on his way to his future sainthood although this didn’t stop him from dismembering people who refused to accept the new God, or from continuing his raiding expeditions when he felt the urge to fill his coffers, or to do some disembowelling on the side when people didn’t toe the line. Surrounded by these prime examples of Christian kings, Olof Skötkonung fell for peer pressure. He decided to convert, and sent to England for an adequate converter.

At the time, the Anglo-Saxon influence on the Nordic countries was huge. (Well, it still is; a bunch of enthusiastic Anglophiles the lot of us, if we’re going to be frank. I challenge you to meet a Swedish person who cannot quote extensively from Monthy Python) Yes, it was Sven Tveskägg who conquered England, not the other way around, but as a consequence, learned men and skilled craftsmen from England came in growing numbers to Scandinavia.

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Olof Skötkonung on a coin

Our early churches were staffed with English clerics, our budding administration was developed by intrepid Anglo-Saxons, even that new fad (new from a Nordic perspective) minting coins, was overseen by English immigrants. Actually, the organisation of the Scandinavian mints seems to have been a monopoly, with one Englishman by the name of Godwine popping up in Denmark, Norway and Sweden to set up new mints, each such mint producing coins very obviously modelled on Anglo-Saxon coins, complete with picture of English King Aethelred (I kid you not) on one side and a cross on the other. On top of all this cultural exchange, we have Gloucester-born Saint Sigfrid, the man responsible for bringing the word of God to the Swedish King.

Depending on what sources you read, Sigfrid was the Archbishop of York, or he wasn’t. Adam of Bremen describes him as an English Benedictine monk, no more, no less. Mostly it’s Swedish sources citing him as an archbishop – I guess it made Olof feel more comfortable about his conversion if someone high up the hierarchy did it – but personally I doubt such a distinguished prelate would have left all behind to set off across the North Sea. Seriously, Olof Skötkonung’s immortal soul wasn’t that important.

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Not Sigfrid – but deffo a monk

Let us therefore assume Sigfrid was a lowly Benedictine monk commanded to bring the word of God to this heathen king. I don’t think he did handstands at the thought of leaving comfy and civilised England for the barabaric north. But with a sigh and a rustle of his heavy woollen habit he bowed to the will of his superior and started packing. Among the things he brought with him were his three nephews, rather oddly named Unaman, Sunaman and Wineman.

Off Sigfrid went to Sweden and the eagerly awaiting king. In 1008, Olof Skötkonung was baptised a Christian, and in gratitude to Sigfrid, he named the Benedictine monk bishop of Växjö – or maybe he was being pragmatic, Sweden wasn’t exactly littered with men of God, and the little settlement of Växjö needed a bishop. Whatever the case, Sigfrid blessed the king and rode off into the dark forests that covered most of Sweden at the time, making for the non-descript hamlet of Växjö.

Olof Skötkonung now had a tricky situation on his hands; while the southern parts of his kingdom were mostly Christian, the northern parts of it weren’t – and not too keen on having a silly bugger who had become a Christian as a king. After all, real men had no time for a wimpy weakling like the Christ, they wanted gods that roared and drank and fornicated – as real men should. Olof wasn’t about to push the issue. Instead, he told his subjects that he had no business dictating what beliefs a person should hold, as long as the beliefs in question didn’t threaten his rule. A happy compromise for everyone, and Olof could spend the last decade of his life bringing modernity to his backwards country , like issuing the first coins with aforementioned Godwine’s help, and endowing a church or two, complete with a literate priest.

Sigfrid döper hedningar

Sigfrid doing his thing…

Meanwhile, Sigfrid was enjoying a sequence of successful conversions. Step by step, he worked his way through the forests, baptising as he went. At his heels trotted his faithful nephews, and pretty soon Sigfrid preached to a sizeable congregation come Sundays. His new followers were dazzled by this educated Englishman, and even more by the church silver he adorned his simple church with. They listened avidly as he told them stories from the Bible, with, I assume, a predilection for the somewhat bloodier stories in the old Testament – the one about Jezebel and the dogs would have gone down well.

One day, Sigfrid was called away on the king’s business. Reluctantly, he left his growing congregation, comforted by the fact that his three godly nephews would keep them on the straight and narrow. Unaman, Sunaman and Wineman did as well as they could, but they were not as revered as Sigfrid, and one dark night some of the more recent converts broke in to steal the church silver. The nephews protested, raised their arms up high and prayed and preached, telling the thieves to stop this stupid behaviour. The robbers, stressed by these talking Englishmen, chopped their heads off, mid-sentence, so to say.

Sigfrid returned to find his church ravaged and his nephews gone. Well, he found their bodies, hastily buried, but their heads had gone up in smoke, something that had Sigfrid very worried as how were his poor, faithful nephews to face Resurrection without their heads? (Valid question; one that must have worried all those poor blokes that were beheaded and quartered in the centuries to come) Sigfrid instigated a one man head-hunting team, looking under every bush, every rocky outcrop in the vicinity. But the forests were vast, three heads were ludicrously small – think grains of sand in a desert, although not as well camouflaged – and no matter how much he looked, he couldn’t put Unaman, Sunaman and Wineman together again. Until the night he went walking along the shores of a nearby lake, bemoaning the loss of his beloved nephews.

Suddenly, Sigfrid saw a light come dancing over the darkened water. Hang on; there were three lights moving towards him, and as Sigfrid was a devout man who did not fear death, he remained where he was as the lights approached him. Clearly, Sigfrid was an early upholder of that very English “stiff upper lip” approach to life. Me, I would have run screaming into the woods, which goes to show I lack Sigfrid’s fortitude – which is why he is a saint and I am not.

Anyway, there was Sigfrid, staring as the wandering lights started to hover over the surface a short distance away. He took off his shoes and waded towards them, and “poof”, just like that, the lights were extinguished. Instead, Sigfrid came upon a huge barrel in the water.

In that barrel were the three missing heads, still talking thirteen to the dozen. On and on they went about God’s mercy and capacity to forgive. Sigfrid wept and swore vengeance, upon which one of the heads said “it is already done.”
“Yes,” added the second head, “the Lord has seen it done.”
“Upon the heads of their grandchildren shall vengeance be heaped,” said the third head. (Not entirely fair, in my opinion)


St Sigrid, holding the barrel with his nephews’ heads

I will leave it up to each and every one of you to decide whether you believe in this story of decapitated talking heads. What is, however, undisputable, is the enormous impact of English people on the budding Nordic states. When excavating the ancient parts of Lund, at the time Scandinavia’s largest town, time and time again the archaeologists stumble over English names, English craftsmanship, English coins. The Scandinavian church was equally “Anglified”, the courts of the Scandinavian kings teemed with English advisors. And just so you know, Sigfrid isn’t the only Englishman sanctified for bringing the word of God to this remote corner of the world – but he’s the only one to come complete with his own personal ventriloquist act.

Obviously, a post about Vikings in the eleventh century has been inspired by my collaboration with several wonderful authors on the book 1066 Upside Down. My contribution will feature a young girl who hedges her bets when it comes to the gods – after all, both Thor and Jesus have their uses.

This post is a substantially modified version of a post originally written for the English Historical Fiction Author’s blog. 

This Matilda never waltzed


A 19th century depiction of Matilda. No, she probably did not look like this…

Today’s protagonist was small, determined, well-educated and pragmatic. And no, she never waltzed, seeing as she lived long before Richard Strauss set bow to strings – or Australia was “discovered”. (And if you don’t get that reference, I’m sorry. Me, I grew up with an Australian headmaster which is why I can sing about billabongs and swagmans in my sleep.)

Today I’d like to spend time with Matilda of Flanders, a petite woman who seemingly so inflamed her future husband, William of Normandy, that he refused to take her “no” to his suit.
“I’m not about to marry the bastard son of a tanner’s daughter,” Matilda reputedly said, while reminding the bastard duke that she had royal blood – the blood of Charlemagne, of the Capets and of the House of Wessex, no less. As per the legend, William rode all the way to her home in Lille, gripped her by her braids and dragged her to the room, and subsequently beat her – hard. When her father, enraged by William’s behaviour, threatened to bring down his entire military might on the young duke, Matilda apparently told him not to – she’d decided to marry her abuser. This begs the question if Matilda may have been an early practitioner of S&M – or if this legend should be discarded as ridiculous. I lean towards the latter.

Frank Cadogan Cowper: Vanity, 1907.

…or this, however glorious (Is that a pillow on her head?)Frank Cadogan Cowper: Vanity, 1907.

In general, at the distance of close to 1 000 years, it is impossible to ascertain why Matilda married William. Once again, legends claim she had her heart stuck on handsome Brictric, a Saxon thegn with impressive landholdings in present day Gloucestershire. Brictric supposedly spurned her advances, so maybe she was on the rebound when she accepted William. Or maybe – and much more likely – her father saw the benefit of hedging his bets: through his sister, Baldwin had blood-ties to the Godwinson family. Through his daughter, he could ensure he was also allied with William, thereby ensuring his Flanders would retain a strong alliance with England no matter who sat on the throne.

Matilda and William were related within the prohibited degree, and the pope initially refused to consider giving them a dispensation. In this, Pope Leo IX was probably not guided so much by piety as by the pressure exerted by the Capet kings of France, who did not want the growing power of Normandy further strengthened by an alliance with Flanders.

Despite the pope’s refusal to allow the marriage, William and Matilda married in 1051 or so. Whether this caused either of them spiritual angst, we do not know, but we do know they were ably served by other devout churchmen such as Lanfranc (future Archbishop of Canterbury) which may indicate they felt their souls were in good hands anyway. But just to be on the safe side, William and Matilda founded two religious establishments in Caen, which resulted in a delayed papal blessing of their union.

Matilda Anthony_Frederick_Sandys_-_Queen_Eleanor

…or like this. (This is supposedly Queen Eleanor by A.F.A Sandys – she probably didn’t look like that either)

At the time of their wedding, William was young, powerful, and surprisingly tall for his time, a couple of inches short of six feet. She, on the other hand, was only around five feet tall, thereby always having to crane her head back to look her substantially taller husband in the eye. We have no idea how either of them looked beyond their respective heights, but the somewhat biased Norman chroniclers describe Matilda as delicately beautiful. Huh: I think there was little of the delicate in this lady, no matter her stature.

Women of lofty lineage like Matilda were not raised to sit in a corner and embroider, now and then batting their eyelashes at their husbands. Well, ok: they probably did embroider, and for their own sake I do hope they batted the odd eyelash or two, but their purpose in life was not merely decorative. No, ladies like Matilda were educated to manage. They were taught to read accounts, they were handed keys and responsibilities, were expected to oversee the sheer logistic endeavour of keeping their (huge) household fed and clothed. Women like Matilda were their husbands’ partners – albeit not entirely an equal partner, at least not legally. So however petite, our Matilda was no retiring violet – rather the reverse.

Personally, I think Matilda and William were a match made in heaven and William seems to have been genuinely fond of her. Once married, he held himself to his wife, and there are no indications he ever took a mistress – William the Bastard left no bastards behind. She gave him at least nine children, and where William was constantly consolidating his power through one skirmish after the other, Matilda busied herself with educating their children and strengthening the overall administration of the Duchy.

Matilda BayeuxTapestryScene37

The Normans preparing for the invasion of England (Bayeux Tapestry) 

Whether or not she encouraged her husband in his ambition to claim the English crown, we don’t know. She, however, came with an impressive pedigree, so maybe she hankered after a crown to cap those glorious bloodlines. We do know that she gifted her husband with the ship that was to carry him across the Channel. Maybe she presented him with a little token to carry with him into battle – an embroidered garter or such – although truth be told, neither William nor Matilda come across as being the sentimental type.

Leighton-God_Speed! (1)

Godspeed by Leighton

I dare say she prayed for him – invading a country is always a perilous undertaking. I imagine she waved him off, wishing him “Godspeed” and standing straight and tall for as long as he could see her. So off William went, and no matter the heroic stand of Harold II and his men, the Normans won the day, very much due to that innovative addition to armed forces, the cavalry. William was in the midst of the fighting – he was no coward, and had grown up having to defend what was his by right through the might of his sword.

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The Normans invade (Bayeux Tapestry)

While William concentrated all his attention on pacifying his new won kingdom – and yes, it was more a question of hammering the defeated Saxons to the ground with a bloodied mail gauntlet than bringing them over with diplomacy and a silken touch – Matilda ruled his duchy. She did so competently, in between maintaining control over all of their children. To Matilda, England must have offered a gilded opportunity to further the interests of her sons: while one of them was destined to be Duke of Normandy, one of her other sons could now look forward to ascending a throne. Plus, in one fell swoop her daughters became very attractive brides, daughters not only to a duke, but also to a king.

I imagine Matilda rather enjoyed ruling Normandy – she does not seem to have been in a hurry to join her husband in England. However, in May of 1068 she finally crossed the Channel and was crowned Queen of England. At the time, she was pregnant with her fourth son, the future Henry I, which sort of indicates William had been doing some travelling back and forth to be with his lady wife.

Matilda was to spend most of her remaining years in Normandy rather than in England, but now and then she acted regent in her husband’s stead. On one such occasion, she supposedly decided to avenge herself on the unfortunate Brictric, the Saxon thegn who chose to laugh off her ardent if youthful professions of love. (Well: as per the romantic legends…) Brictric was stripped of his lands and thrown into prison, where he subsequently died. The more pragmatic version of this story is probably that Brictric, being a Saxon, was considered a major risk to William’s crown, and so he was imprisoned, his extensive lands ending up under Norman control. Whatever the case, the outcome was the same for poor Brictric: he died in chains.

By all accounts, Matilda was a devoted mother – and she was particularly fond of her eldest son, Robert. This the apple of her eye had not been gifted with all that many impressive qualities beyond evident fighting skills, being a youth who preferred pleasure to duty. Love, however, is blind, and while Matilda probably loved all her children, Robert had that extra space in her heart – maybe precisely because he couldn’t quite live up to the expectations of his father.

Matilda 150px-Bayeuxtapestrywilliamliftshishelm

William as per the Bayeux Tapestry

Once William had established himself as king of England, he decided that Robert would inherit Normandy, while England would go to one of the younger sons. Obviously, Robert was less than pleased: a king ranks higher than a duke, and was he supposed to kow-tow to his brothers? Besides, why did dear old dad ALWAYS side with pesky Will junior and Henry? No; Robert felt unjustly treated, and decided it was time he showed some initiative – which is why he rebelled against his father in 1077. Those of you who know your history will know this is not the only time an English royal son has rebelled against his king and father – some generations down the line, Henry II would face an equally painful experience, when three of his sons, aided and abetted by their mother, rose in rebellion.

In the case of Robert, Matilda was as guilty as Eleanor of Aquitaine of aiding and abetting – in the sense that she sent Robert money and jewels so as to keep him adequately clothed and fed and mounted and armed. I imagine she felt some dismay when her eldest son used her gifts to unleash mayhem in the county of Vexin, going to such lengths that William and Philip of France formed an unlikely – and short-lived – alliance to bring Robert down. And when William found out that Matilda was helping Robert – well, I guess that was not a happy conversation, even less so when a year or so later Robert unhorsed his father and almost killed him.

Matilda J W E Doyle A_Chronicle_of_England_-_Page_109_-_Robert_Wounds_His_Father (1)

Robert wounding William (by J W E Doyle, A Chronicle of England)

Matilda was stuck between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, she loved her son. On the other, she must have cared for her husband as well. He definitely cared for her, so much so that he did not punish her for supporting their rebellious Robert. For her sake, he agreed to a truce with Robert in 1080, and father and son exchanged the kiss of peace before the beaming Matilda. In view of subsequent events, I suspect both men had their fingers crossed.

Fortunately for Matilda, she was never to experience the further fall-out between her family members. In 1083, Matilda fell ill, lingering for months before she died in November. Her husband was at her bedside when she passed away. Did he cry? The William that has come down through history most definitely wouldn’t. Depicted as cruel and ruthless, this is a winner who did not succeed in rewriting history to present himself in pleasing colours. Was he all nice and fluffy? No way. Did he have a penchant for walking over dead bodies to reach his goals. Absolutely. But he was also genuinely pious, he was a capable leader and – his saving grace – I do believe he loved his wife, thereby adding a layer of humanity to the cold-hearted bastard. So maybe he did weep, clasping her cold hand in his. We will never know.

Matilda of Flanders never danced a waltz, never swooned as she twirled to The Blue Danube, and I bet she did not marry for love. She married for influence and power, she married to ally her house to the bright and rising star that was William, Duke of Normandy. Genetically, she couldn’t have made a better choice: he would fundamentally change the course of history, and their descendants would go on to become an endless sequence of English – and European – kings.

(Matilda will figure in some of the alternative history stories in “1066 UpsideDown”. Obviously, so will her conquering hubby… Read more HERE!)

A king, a famine, an epithet

Back in the good old days, kings were elected rather than born to the ermine. Okay, so I’m talking the really, really good old days, well before our distant ancestors had left their pagan beliefs behind, a time in which being the king was not only a secular but also a religious role.

Obviously, being king came with its perks even back then – why else would anyone want to become king? – but there were some aspects to this ancient kingship that were rather disturbing. Especially if you were the king. But more of that later.

Today, I’d like you to meet a king we know very little about – and this despite him not being from the really, really old times. But he was elected – albeit based on his parentage. At most, today’s protagonist is a foot-note in history. We do know he was Danish. We know when he died – maybe. We know who his daddy was, but there are some doubts as to who his mother was. Daddy was something of a ladies’ man, putting it mildly.

Other than that, we know his name. And that he had a baker’s dozen of brothers. And quite a few sisters. Plus, of course, we know he was the king of Denmark for some years.

Over the centuries, kings have often been given epithets. Richard Lionheart has quite a ring to it. Suleyman the Magnificent was obviously a dude with great dress-sense, Charles the Bold reasonably rode at the head of his army, and John Lackland was something of a failure – or a wronged son. And then we have today’s protagonist: Olof Hunger. Yes, I know: doesn’t quite have that royal ring to it, does it?

Olof Rekonstruction Jellingestenen Vikingeskibsmuseet, Denmark

The Jilling Stone, reconstructed. Photo: Vikingskibsmuseet, Denmark

So who was this man, and how on earth did he come about his particular epithet? Well, people, let us take a few steps backwards, more precisely to 965 A.D. when Harald Blue-tooth (and one cannot help but wonder, can one?) converted to Christianity. We know the exact date for this momentous event because Harald, not a man given to humility, erected a huge rune stone – the Jilling stone – to commemorate his christening. We know it was momentous because to this day a descendant of Harald sits on the throne of Denmark, so obviously God was more than pleased by the conversion of this heathen Viking king.

Harald had a son called Sven Forkbeard. No love lost there, as I hear it… Some even say Sven forcibly ousted his father from both Denmark and Norway. Mostly though, Sven is famous for being a gigantic burr up the English King’s arse, bringing over his eager Viking raiders to despoil England over and over again. At some point, Sven decided he might just as well take over England and while the Anglo-Saxons were less than thrilled at the prospect, Sven was not only a determined man, but a man possessed of an extremely efficient army. Plus it helped that the man facing him was Ethelred the Unready – his name says it all, really.

Anyway: Sven defeated Ethelred in 1013, proclaimed himself king of England and promptly died in 1014. The Anglo-Saxons exhaled in relief and Ethelred was yet again the undisputed king (hmm) of England. Except, of course, that Sven had not only spent his years conquering other nations; he had also found the time to make babies.

Olof H 800px-Knut_der_Große_cropped

Knut (?)

One of those babies was Knut (Canute) who invaded England in 1015, determined to make himself king of England. In 1016, he succeeded, partly due to his warmongering skills but just as much because Edmund Ironside, the heir to the Anglo-Saxon kingdom, up and died.
Now, while Knut had been busy in England, his brother Harald had ruled Denmark and Norway. Also in Denmark was Knut’s sister Estrid, married to the by all accounts rather impressive Ulf Jarl. Harald died young, and soon enough it was Ulf Jarl who was acting the regent for Knut in Denmark and Norway, while his wife gave birth to several sons and daughters.

As an aside, at one time Estrid was proposed as the bride of Robert I of Normandy, which could potentially have led to her presenting the Duke of Normandy with a legitimate heir. Instead, Robert made his bastard son William his heir… Neither here nor there in this post, and by now I suspect you’re thinking this extended genealogy is starting to read a bit like the Bible, but please note the lack of “begat”.

Knut died too young – but that may just be my opinion. Once this strong and competent ruler died, his extended empire fell to pieces. In Norway, Knut’s son Sven Knutsson had been king for some years but was now ousted by a certain Magnus. In Denmark, Estrid and her son – yet another Sven – decided to join forces with Magnus in return for Sven Estridson being proclaimed the Danish de facto ruler. And in England, Knut’s other two sons squabbled over the throne. Eventually, both of them died young and without heirs, which was how the English crown ended up on Edward the Confessor’s head.

In Denmark, Estrid and her son bemoaned the sad changes in their status. Gone was the mighty Danish empire, instead all that was left was Denmark, and even here Sven Estridson ruled only on behalf of someone else. This did not please either Estrid or Sven. After all, was not Sven the great-grandson of Harald Blue-tooth? It irked them both to be subservient to King Magnus – by all accounts a nice chap, seeing as he’s gone down as Magnus the Good.

Olof Hunger Harald_landing_in_York_01

Harald Hardrada as per Matthew Paris – when he set off to invade England where he bit the dust

A golden opportunity arose when Magnus famous uncle, Harald Hardrada returned from his extended stay in Constantinople. Harald was as rich as Croesus, a veteran of wars all over the place, and quite determined he should be the king of Norway. Magnus did not agree. Sven Estridsson, however, decided to side with Harald, and faced with both his uncle and his false Danish jarl, Magnus had no option but to agree to share his kingdom with Harald.

In all this upheaval, Sven chose to declare Denmark independent and spent the coming two decades in constant warfare with Harald. Mostly, Sven Estridson got his arse whipped. Mostly, he fled to Sweden to lick his wounds. And mostly, he refused to give up. Eventually, Harald tired of all this and recognised Denmark as a separate kingdom. Sven Estridson had arrived, people. At long last, the family of old Blue-tooth had reclaimed the Danish throne.

Sven Estridson was quite the chick-magnet. He liked women, they liked him, and despite being a married man – and a devout Christian, friendly with none other than Adam of Bremen – he happily fornicated with a number of mistresses, which resulted in a nursery chock-full of babies, of which 14 were sons.

Olof Hunger svenestridsson3_517121daddf2b322d4b92af0

Sven Estridson as depicted on the pillar of Roskilde Cathedral which contains him…(Photo Per Erik Tell)

Sven doesn’t seem to have had any surviving children with his wife, but then there is some confusion as to this wife, who in some chronicles is Gunhild, daughter of the Swedish king, in others Gunhild, the widow of the Swedish king. It has been suggested that Sven first married Gunhild the daughter but that she died young and that he then hastily moved over to marry the mother – which would explain why the Church expressed serious disapproval. In fact, Sven was threatened with excommunication unless he divorced his wife, and being so devout he hastily did so. Gunhild was therefore returned to Sweden where she in the fullness of time founded a monastery. Sven returned to frolicking with his concubines.

Of Sven’s many sons, five were destined to become kings of Denmark, and the most famous of his sons is yet another Knut, older brother to our Olof. When Knut became king, he was determined to rebuild the Danish empire, i.e. re-conquer both Norway and England. Strangely enough, his people were less than thrilled at the thought, and even less at the substantial taxes Knut levied to afford such a venture.

Now, if Sven Estridsson was devout, Knut was even more devout. It was Knut who insisted the bishops should have a voice in his council, it was Knut who began the building of the Cathedral in Lund, it was Knut who ordered his days round his prayers. So, on one side he was a meek lamb of God, praying diligently for the well-being of his soul, on the other he was as ambitious as his forebears, eager to make his mark on the world.

Olof H Christian-albrecht-von-benzon,_the_death_of_Canute_the_Holy

Murder of Knut – Christian Albrecht von Benzon

No matter how people protested under the more than doubled tax-burden, Knut would not relent: the money was needed, and he would have it. At long last, this led to rebellion, and soon enough Knut was fleeing for his life. He took refuge in a little church, certain that no one would kill him on holy ground. Turns out he was wrong, and so Knut was killed while kneeling in prayer before the high altar.

Immediately, people began to proclaim Knut a saint – one of his brothers, Erik, proved quite the PR wiz and managed to whip up quite the fan-base. An anointed king to be killed while at prayers – a forceful image that had the pious weeping. The leaders of the rebellion were not quite as impressed and hastened to crown Knut’s next-in-line brother. Olof. Yup, here we have him. At last. It is 1086, and he has just been crowned king of Denmark, while already people were claiming that miracles were occurring at his recently deceased brother’s tomb.

Olof was no major fan of Knut or his hair-brained schemes, which was probably why he was so quickly acclaimed as king. In actual fact, Olof and Knut had never been on good terms, and it is likely Olof would have been among those protesting against all those taxes. At the time of Knut’s death, Olof was in exile – or imprisoned – in Flanders, where Knut’s father-in-law ruled, but that did not stop people from pointing finger at him and calling him a fratricide.

As to what Olof thought of his brother’s purported sanctity, we don’t know. What we do know is that his short reign was plagued by year after year of failed harvests, and the people of Denmark starved as they had never starved before. A sign from God, the priests said. This was God punishing the Danish people for killing that godliest of kings, Knut the Holy. Olof’s subjects believed in this, muttering that this was God telling them Olof was unfit to be king, a severe come-down from the saintly Knut. Plus, of course, there were the supicions that Olof had somehow been involved in Knut’s death.

Behind his back, they started calling him Olof Hunger, and they ate bark and grass, they ate more bark and still the crops failed. And failed. And failed again. In some places, people were heard to say it was time to go back to the old ways – the really, really old ways – where a king could be sacrificed to pacify the gods.

In 1095, Olof disappeared. Well, obviously he didn’t disappear as in ‘poof’ and he was gone, but we don’t know what happened to him.


Is this what happened to Olof? A willing  royal sacrifice (Carl Larsson, Midvinterblot)

Lurid legend has it that Olof was carried off and willingly allowed himself to be disrobed and placed on an altar, there to have his throat sliced open, his blood the price demanded by God to lift the curse of failing crops. Hmm. Very much hmm. But whatever the case, Olof was no longer around, and to this day no one knows where he was buried – or even if he was buried. This is particularly strange when one considers that all other Danish kings since Harald Blue-tooth are accounted for. All of them. (And the majority lie in Roskilde Cathedral, which, BTW, is well worth a visit) So maybe there is some truth in the story that says Olof’s body was cut up in parts and buried in various corners of his kingdom so as to wipe away the blood-guilt. Ugh. But, as Saxo Grammaticus puts it, “willingly he gave himself to loose the land of its bad luck and begged that all of the guilt would fall upon his head alone. So offered he his life for his countrymen.” Poor Olof Hunger, remembered only for a sequence of famines!

Strangely enough, no sooner was Olof gone, but the famines were gone as well. And as to Knut, in 1096 he became Knut the Holy. Imagine that: a taxman made a saint!
Addendum: some things run in families, they say, which may be why Knut’s son, Charles the Good, also was murdered while at prayers, in his case down in Flanders (he was never elected king of Denmark). Likewise, when Knut’s younger brother became king, he had a son whom he named Knut in honour of his uncle. This Knut was to become the first Duke of Schleswig-Holstein and was also murdered and canonised.

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