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The wild life of the Vikings..........

Jelling   Denmark









runic stones in Jelling

The Jelling Church

The Jelling Mounds







Adoption of Christianity in Denmark



Fighting at the Southern Borders of Denmark 800-1000.

When Charlemagne defeated the Saxons, the Danish King Gudfred became afraid of the dangerous new neighbour. He blocked the peninsula of Jutland from Østersalt to Vesterø by means of a rampart, the very long Dannevirke, raided in Frisland with his fleet, and threatened Charlemagne to visit him in Achen, but Gudfred was murdered in 810. Then peace was obtained near the Eider, the border river.




In the time to follow quarrels broke out between two branches of the Danish Royal Family. One of the kings, Harold, often visited Louis the Pious, who supported him, and he therefore converted to Christianity in 826.

Ansgar arrived in Denmark as part of Harold´s retinue. The Carolingian realm disappeared in 843, and a particularly German domain emerged. It was weak until Henry the First became its leader and put it into shape. He started up the fight against the heathen neighbours: the Magyars, the Slavs, and the Danes.

In the Southern part of Jutland ruled King Gnupa, a Swedish Viking. Together with his Danish warriors he raided the German coasts, but Henry went against him, made him pay taxes and forced him to convert to Christianity in 934.

However, two runic stones placed near Slien show that Gnupa was barrow buried. Possibly he was defeated and killed when fighting Gorm the Old. According to the legend Queen Thyra, his wife, had rebuilt the Dannevirke. Therefore she was called “Danmarksbod” or “Danebod” (the Jelling Stone).

Emperor Otto the Great lived at peace with Denmark, but when he died in 973, Harold Bluetooth used his death as an excuse for a raid into Germany. This was avenged the following year by Otto the Second, who crossed the Dannevirke after having set fire to it. When he died, he left behind a chief together with many warriors in the uninhabited land between the Eider and the Dannevirke, the so-called “Markgrevskab Slesvig.” But a few years later the Danes took back this strip of land, as Emperor Conrad the Second waived his right to it to Canute the Great (Knud den Store).


Denmark is Christianized.

The peaceful coexistence with Germany, which at times stopped the Vikings from raiding, helped introduce Christianity to the Nordic countries. Until shortly before the year 1000 the German influence was all important, at first because of the Nordic trade connections with Dorestad in Frisland, later because of Germany’s dominant political power, and because the Nordic church was originally organized as a branch of the German church.

However, the influence of the English church grew considerably during the periods of Sweyn Forkbeard (Svend Tveskæg) and Cnut the Great (Knud den Store) in Denmark, and during the times of Olaf Tryggvason and Olaf the Saint in Norway.



He was a Frank from the Picardy, who had moved from his hometown monastery of Corbie to the newly founded monastery of New Corvey in the land of the Saxons. He worked tirelessly to propagate the Christian faith. In his dreams he often thought he heard God’s bidding to go and live among the heathens. Therefore he happily followed Harold to Denmark in 826. But Harold was untrustworthy, and was soon expelled forever. Therefore Ansgar achieved very little in Denmark, but was much more successful once he moved to Sweden.

On an island in Lake Mälaren a church was built. After he came back he was made Archbishop of the Danes, the Swedes, and the Wends. His see was in Hamburg, but it was a long time before he could restart his conversion of the Danes.

The Viking raids became more intense, even Hamburg was destroyed by the Danish fleet, and Ansgar only just managed to save his life. Soon he made Bremen his hometown. But then the Frankish Empire joined together, so that the Danish King Haarik had to negotiate a peace treaty with his neighbour, Germany, and as Ansgar behaved as the envoy of the German king in Denmark, he won the trust of Haarik by his honourable behaviour.

The King allowed the building of a church near Slesvig. His successor, Haarik the Younger, presented Ansgar with land for a church in Ribe. Religious communities were formed in the most important trading towns in Denmark, and in this way the propagation of faith was increased. The churches were granted the right to ring their bells, which dismayed the heathens, who believed that the sound of the bells would scare away the land pixies. The missionary work in Sweden was taken over by others, but they failed.

 Ansgar again visited the church at Mälaren and improved the small religious community. His highest wish was to become a blood witness for God’s Kingdom, but he was left unscathed and died in 865. Ansgar’s successors in Hamburg-Bremen did not have his power.

The feeble beginning of a religious community in Sweden soon vanished. In Denmark Christianity did not get the necessary support from Germany, which at the time was weak. However, some Danish chiefs converted when raiding in the West. Germany finally grew strong enough to support missionaries during the reigns of Henry the First and Otto the Great.

Gorm the Old (died in 958 or 959) and Thyra Danebod were both barrow buried according to heathen custom. But their son, Harold Bluetooth (died in 986) won the day for Christianity. He is said to have been a man who was ready to listen, but who took his time before giving his own opinion. He had been King for more than twenty years before he converted.

In these years the new faith spread rapidly, and the Archbishop of Bremen-Hamburg ordained the first Danish bishops (in Slesvig, Ribe, and Aarhus). More and more people believed that Christ was a stronger God than Odin and the old land pixies.

Around 965 Poppy, a clergyman, offered to prove the truth of the new faith by carrying red-hot iron in his hands without damaging them in an ordeal by fire. According to the ideas of the time he proved that the new God was the strongest. Harold then converted to Christianity.
The worshipping of the old Gods ended in the royal castles. He built a church in Roskilde.





On the stone he erected for his parents at Jelling Harold Bluetooth by right calls himself for “the Harold who christened the Danes.” He tried to pave the way for the new faith beyond the borders of his kingdom. He started the conversion in Viken because he was the ruler of Norway for several years.


The Foundation of the Norwegian Kingdom


The unification of Norway took place from Viken, where the mountains were low and the valleys wide, and therefore the closer they were to the Danish and Swedish realms, the easier was unification.

Around the year 800 The Danish kings had governed parts of Viken, and the king who founded Norway most likely descended from the powerful Danish royal family.

In Viken and its surroundings Harold Fairhair (Harald Hårfager) possessed large counties. From here he went to Dovre and conquered the counties of the Trondelag (Trøndelag). The area around Trondheim (Trondhjem) was from now considered the most important part of the country.

In Western Norway, however, Harold met long lasting resistance, and it was only crushed when in 872 he defeated the united chiefs of the local counties in Havrsfiord. Norway was now united under one king. But many mighty chiefs would not accept his sovereignty. They migrated to the Scottish Islands, and when Harold went west and subjected them, they sailed on and founded independent communities in Iceland. Harold Fairhair’s influence in Norway was based primarily on the huge land areas he had acquired when taking the lands of the people who had migrated.

It is believed that he seized more than 800 farms in his time. He wielded his power over the chiefs and demanded taxes, which until then had been unknown to the Norwegians. The chiefs found the taxes an insufferable attack on their proprietary rights. In a few counties the royal power was delegated to earls. On the whole Harold Fairhair managed to persuade the old chiefs to support him and in return he presented them with royal estates, and they were then called high sheriffs (Lendermænd). So the high sheriffs were the king’s servants as well as the heads of the old Ætte aristocracy. Their reputation rested on the latter function, and when the country had a weak leader, they immediately became as independent as before Harold’s day.

In 930 Harold had ruled for more than 60 years, and he decided to give his country to his sons in such a way that Eric Bloodaxe became the lord paramount.

Erik and his Queen Gunild had several brothers killed, and they caused hatred due to their extreme imperiousness and bloodthirstiness, and were driven away. The youngest brother Haakon was appointed king.

Haakon Adelstensfostre (935-960) was so called, because he had been raised by King Æthelstan in England, had been taught the Christian faith and had tried to convert his countrymen, but failed. In the end he even participated in their offerings and ate horse liver. He was beloved by the people. He is said to have put up beacons on top of the mountains to warn his people when enemies were threatening. When the beacons were lit, warnings could travel all over Norway in just one week. In 960 he was killed at Stordøen by Erik Bloodaxe’s sons.

The poet (skjald) Øjvind composed a splendid poem about him highlighting how the Gods paid tribute to him upon his arrival in Valhalla.


The Rule of Harold Bluetooth

When Erik Bloodaxe died as a refugee in England, his three sons found shelter with Harold Bluetooth, who preferred the eldest son, Harold Graafel. In 960 they won the Norwegian kingdom assisted by Denmark. They were Christians, and demolished the temples of the people of high estates, but also they awakened the dislike of Harold Bluetooth when they wanted to liberate themselves from his sovereignty. Their enemy, the Trondheim man Haakon from Lade, whose father Erik’s sons had burned to death, went to the Danish king and they conspired against Erik’s sons.

Harold Graafel was lured to Denmark and killed, and then Harold Bluetooth went to Norway and was crowned king. He decided to govern Viken himself. Earl Haakon became Lord of Trondheim and its surroundings, and also Harold Bluetooth’s earl in the western Norwegian counties.

In 976 Norway’s unity and independence again came to an end. As soon as Earl Haakon felt safe behind the Norwegian mountains, he no longer wanted to be subjected to the Danish King.

Though he was worshipped in Denmark, he worshipped the Norse Gods, and his warriors again turned to offerings. Then Harold Bluetooth sent his well -known Jomsvikings against him. They met in Hjørungavang. Harold prayed to the heathen Gods and offered them his son. Harold Bluetooth’s warriors were defeated, many were killed, and so was Earl Sigvald.


The Jomsvikings

Harold Bluetooth’s rule stretched as far as to the coast of Vendland, where  he ordered his herdsmen to stay and control the mouth of the river Oder at Jomsborg. The legend has it that Palnatoke founded Jomsborg because he hated Harold, but it is not true. The Jomsviking society was famous all over the Nordic countries because of its strict laws, and because the warriors were not afraid of death. One of the first earls at Jomsborg was Styrbjörn, the Swedish king’s son, who attacked his father’s brother, the Swedish King Eric the Victorious. In the battle of Fyrissletten near Uppsala Eric dedicated the army to Odin. However, the army became delirious and they fled the King. A group of Scanian runes commemorate this battle. The runes were put up to honour the men who did not flee when at Uppsala.

Harold Bluetooth made many enemies in his later years, among other things because he used force to convert people, and many pagans rose in protest and hailed his son Sweyn Forkbeard as their king. Harold Bluetooth was killed in this battle, and his faithful Jomsvikings brought his body to Roskilde Church.


Norway is Christened

After the battle at Hjørungavåg Earl Haakon thought himself secure, but his cruelty and lasciviousness annoyed the Norwegians. The farmers rose against him, and he had to hide in a pigsty, where his own thrall, Kark, killed him in 995.

Such were the circumstances when one of Harold Fairhair’s family members, Olaf Trygvesson, came to Norway. He had no difficulties being accepted as King of the whole kingdom. He was impulsive, easygoing and friendly, and he was most skilful in the use of weapons and sports. He was a man who knew what he wanted.

Furthermore, he had lived an exceptional Viking life. In England he had become baptized, and was now an eager convert. He attacked the heathen temples and built the first churches in Norway.

If the people were not baptized voluntarily, he would force them by means of weapons. However, the countrymen of Trondheim stuck to their old Gods for very long. To support his power Olaf founded Nidaros (present day Trondheim), and established a see and a royal castle there.

He promised the countrymen to watch their sacrifices. When the people were ready, he went ahead and beheaded the picture of Thor himself. At the same time his herdsmen killed one of the greatest chiefs, and Olaf yelled to the angry men,  “Let us not give blood sacrifices using thralls and old people. No, take your women and the most skilful men and give them to the Gods.” Many ordinary people became scared, and were baptized. In that way Olaf broke men for Christianity.

In the year 1000 five years after his crowning he was killed in the Battle of Svolder. A huge league had formed against him. Among his enemies were Earl Haakon’s sons, Sweyn Forkbeard, whose wife Sigrid the Haughty hated Olaf wholeheartedly because he had scorned her, and Olof Skötkonung, the King of Sweden. On the battleship “The Long Serpent”(Ormen den Lange”) Olaf and his men defended themselves for a long time (among the warriors was young Einar Thambarskelfir). At last Olaf had to leap into the sea and disappeared forever. The conquerors divided Norway between them. The earls Eric and Sweyn, Haakon’s sons, came to govern the largest areas, partly in their own names, but also in the names of the foreign kings. Viken became Danish. The Norwegian kingdom was dissolved, and the situation was like before the time of Olaf.  


Olaf II the Saint (Olav den Digre)

He was related to Harold Fairhair, and had fought in England, Normandy and other places. In 1015 he arrived in Norway and declared himself king. He chased away the earls, who no longer forced the Christian faith on to the common people, and therefore many again returned to their old beliefs. But Olaf continued Olaf Trygvesson’s work and made Norway Christian.

In every community (fylke) he built a church, gave land to it, and asked the farmers to care for the priest. Soon he had travelled so far that “there was no far-off valley or far-off island where there lived heathen men.” His rule was tough and ruthless, and he was a strong-willed man. He wanted to fulfil his own ideas of a great kingdom.

He would not accept the self-determination of the Earls of Lade and made the most powerful men his enemies, especially Einar Thambarskelfir and  Kálf Arrason. Many of the displeased chiefs went to Cnut the Great in Denmark, and when Olaf in return raided Zealand and Scania, Cnut avenged himself by gaining the trust of even more Norwegian earls. He took Norway without any fighting. Almost abandoned by everybody Olaf fled together with his small son Magnus to Gardarige in 1028, and when he returned, he was killed at the Battle of Stiklestad in 1030 by a peasant army.

The men of Lade, who had hated Olaf’s strong rule, became just as dissatisfied with the powerful rule Cnut imposed on them through his son Svend and his mother Ælgifu, and very soon they began to look at Olaf in a very different light. They ended up placing his casket on the high altar in Nidaros Cathedral. Olaf’s worst enemies, Einar Thambarskelfir and Kálf Arrason, set off for Gardarige and brought back Magnus, who was declared King in 1035. Cnut the Great died without having tried to recover Norway. Many pilgrims were already then travelling to Olaf the Saint’s silver casket. It was he who christened and united Norway.  

Sweyn Forkbeard (985-1014)

Shortly after Harold Bluetooth’s death Sigvald and his Jomsvikings used trickery to take Sweyn prisoner, and consequently the Danes had to pay ransom to free their young King. From that time Sweyn felt that there was a stain on his character. He tried to improve his reputation by restarting his Viking raids on England. He left Denmark to its own devices, and Eric the Victorius therefore made himself master there.

The English king, Æthelred the Unready, could not protect his country and had to pay tribute to the Vikings with a tax called Danegeld (Danegæld). After some years Sweyn returned to Denmark with large treasures and won back the country.

Two big runic stones for slain retainers confirm the rough fight Sweyn fought against the Swedes at Hedeby. He then took part in the Battle of Svolder and renewed Denmark’s right to rule Viken.


He was the first Danish king to strike coins



The Conquest of England

In 1002 Æthelred began to kill all Danes in the Anglo Saxon part of England as he could not continue paying Danegeld. But this only brought back to life the Danish desire for revenge. For many consecutive years the English coasts were raided until in 1013 Sweyn Forkbeard conquered all England within three months. The following year he died in England as his warriors’ much beloved king.

In Denmark his son Harold became King, whereas the army in England crowned the other son Cnut. The English again drew their weapons under Æthelred’s son, Edmund Ironside, and Cnut had to get hold of more fighting men from Denmark. In the following fights both Æthelred and Edmund died, and Cnut was crowned  King of England. In 1018 he also became King of Denmark when his brother Harold died.  

Cnut the Great (1018-1035)

He governed a greater land area than any other Danish king before him. Besides Denmark and England he took part of the Wendish coast. Olaf II the Saint and Anúnd Jacob (Olof Skötkonung’s son) felt threatened and attacked Denmark while Cnut the Great was in England.

Cnut, however, soon decided to go home, and the enemies had to flee although they succeeded in defeating him at Helgeaa. The two kings went back home immediately and Cnut the Great departed on a pilgrim tour to Rome, but after his return he destabilized Olaf’s power, sailed to Norway and became King of Norway from 1028-1035. The mightiest rulers of Europe considered him their equal although he mostly resided in England.  Up till then he had mostly been a Viking King, but he changed and took upon him the great task of reconciling the two peoples of the country with each other. He married Æthelred’s widow Emma, made peace with the English bishops, killed off the most wilful dominating noblemen by tricks and violence and sent the Danish Vikings home well loaded with treasures. Thus he succeeded in bringing peace to the country.

Cnut the Great changed the role of the many retainers “Tingmannalid” that Æthelred had kept on as protection against the Vikings. He had them work for both countries and introduced new laws, the “ laws of the Wends.” He who betrayed his king would be expelled from the nobles and become a miser, and he who was unfriendly would be seated in an inferior place at table. Cnut himself was the first to break the law by killing one of his retainers. However, he accepted the decision of the noblemen and paid a huge fine. He was a friend of the church, and they supported him in his work for peace; he also gave valuable gifts to the monasteries.

The Activities of Cnut the Great are less known in Denmark. The Danish church was strengthened in his time. The huge bishopric was divided at the foundation of a new see in Lund (Sweden). Many new clerics came to Denmark, and the first monasteries were established. When Cnut was in England, an earl ruled Denmark. For some years Ulf Jarl, his sister Estrid’s husband, was regent.

It is said that when the people became dissatisfied with Cnut’s frequent periods of absence, Ulf had young Harthacnut (Cnut and Emma’s son) crowned as King. Cnut then had Ulf killed in Roskilde Church and was too proud to do penance. In many of his acts Cnut appears to be cruel, bloodthirsty, and vindictive, but his Viking temper also knew repentance and humility. In two letters to his people he honestly confesses that he had often acted wrongly, but he promises God to live a righteous and pious life in the future. On the other hand he also feels his divine mission, and authoritatively he commands both country and church.


The Last Kings of the Viking Era (1035-1066)

In 1035 shortly after the Norwegians had chosen Magnus as their King, Cnut died in England and was succeeded in Denmark by Harthacnut (1035-1042), and in England by another son. When Harthacnut wanted to attack Norway, the chiefs of both countries decided that the young kings would have to keep peace, and that the survivor would inherit the whole kingdom.

At the death of his brother in England Harthacnut therefore ruled over both Denmark and England, but in 1042 he suddenly died himself. The kingdom of Cnut the Great was thus dissolved, and England went back to the Anglo Saxon royal line.

In Denmark Magnus became King. Magnus had much of his family’s roughness, but as time went by he grew milder and won the nickname “the Good.” In Denmark he is remembered for his victory at Lyrskov Heath over a large Wend army that had crossed the border.

Ulf Jarl’s son, Sweyn Estridsson, who Magnus made an earl in Denmark, revolted against him, but lost the fight and therefore looked for support from his friends in Sweden, from where he repeated his raids.

Harald Hardrade, a half-brother of Olaf the Saint, who had been chieftain in Miklegard, came home to Norway, and Magnus had to share his kingdom with him. Before his death in 1047 Magnus decided that Sweyn would be King of Denmark, and Harald of Norway.

Harald Hardrade (1047-1066) would not let go of Denmark and from Oslo, which he had founded, he made many raids against Sweyn Estridsson, but at last had to recognize him as King of Denmark.

Harald was harsh and strict and had mighty Einar Thambarskelfir killed. He was the last in a long line of kings, who had spent their childhood and youth in foreign countries, and he was the last Viking King. He was slain on a raid when attacking England.  


The Results of the Viking Era 

Denmark consisted of three areas: Scania (including Halland, Bornholm, and perhaps Bleking), Zealand (including Lolland-Falster and Møn), and Jutland (including Funen) as far as the Eider river.

Each of these areas had their own Courts of Justice and their own laws (in the towns Lund, Ringsted, and Viborg). Jutland was divided into various districts. The most important tie between the areas was the power of the kingdom related to the Courts.

In Denmark it seemed to give recognition either to be one of the king’s men or to belong to an important and independent family of landowners. Kingship was inherited within the king’s family, but the people demanded the right to choose between the heirs to the throne.

Christianity had spread to all corners of the country except for some remote areas like Bleking and Bornholm. They were christened in the following decades.  


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