[…] that mighty
maker of men
ruled the land from beneath
his helmet of terror;
the king reigned,
rigid of mind,
over rainy shores.
Within a year of Athelstan’s death, Olaf Guthfrithsson was back in York, claiming power for himself apparently unopposed. He swiftly set about exerting his authority across Northumbria and extending his reach even further south, sacking Tamworth (Staffordshire) and annexing the towns of northern Mercia. This new Viking realm didn’t last long, however. Olaf died in 941, possibly during a raid on Tyninghame in Lothian.2 It was mere months before Athelstan’s brother – the new King Edmund – came north to ‘liberate’ the so-called ‘Five Boroughs’ (Leicester, Lincoln, Nottingham, Stamford and Derby).
These events are celebrated in a poem in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle which describes the forceful subjection of the ‘Danish’ population of northern Mercia to the heathen ‘Norsemen’ – the latter term being used to describe the Dublin-derived Vikings who were now back in power in York.3This narrative of unwelcome subjugation may be a fiction of sorts – it seems likely that some, at least, of the folk of northern Mercia would have been perfectly happy (or at least ambivalent) about swapping rule from Wessex with rule from York. But it does point to an interesting perception that was developing in England about the role of ‘Danes’ in English society. They were still evidently regarded as an ethnically distinct group and retained a distinctive legal status;4 these ‘Danish’ English were presumably also distinguishable from the ‘English’ English by dress or dialect. But, while they were still Danes, they had briefly become – from a certain Anglo-Saxon perspective – ‘our Danes’. This paternal attitude to England’s immigrant communities was politically expedient in the 940s, but ultimately it would not last. The way a society treats its ethnic minorities can often reveal a great deal about a nation’s political priorities and the challenges it faces, and things were no different in tenth-century England – the young nation was soon to be stress-tested to breaking point.
Those calamities, however, lay in the future. More immediately pressing was the bewildering cast of players who now began to agitate for the Northumbrian throne. The chronology of this period is confused (and confusing). Some of the individuals are indistinct to the point of vanishing altogether, and there is general disagreement among historians about the sequence and veracity of the events recorded. Nevertheless, the following paragraphs offer a summary which, if concise and complex, is not, I hope, misleading.
The claim of the West Saxon dynasty over Northumbria was weak. It had never, before the reign of Athelstan, been subject to southern kings, and its people were naturally mindful of their own distinct customs and cultural heritage. Since 866, this sense of Northumbrian particularism had been overlaid by a stratum of Scandinavian settlement and culture which – while it had changed much in the kingdom – had not fundamentally shaken its independence. Significant elements of the old Northumbrian hierarchy had survived – not least its ecclesiastical magnates, particularly the bishops of Lindisfarne and York – and there is a sense in which the Northumbrian elite were willing to accommodate Viking rulers, provided that they were able to offer a bulwark against the imperial ambitions of Alfred’s descendants. Naturally, however, the political aspirations and calculations of factions within Northumbria meant that the individuals and dynasties ascendant at any one time could change rapidly, particularly when the political dynamics were being destabilized by the suddenly inflated power of the English kingdom to the south and – to a lesser extent – by the Scottish kingdom to the north.
In the 940s, the simmering potential for chaos seems finally to have bubbled over, precipitated by the deaths in rapid succession of Athelstan and Olaf Guthfrithsson. The secret deals and back-stabbing that resulted can only be seen obliquely in the sources that survive, but the political meltdown that resulted is all too apparent. Olaf Guthfrithsson was replaced as king in York by his cousin, Olaf Sihtricsson (also known as Olaf Cuarán, or Olaf Sandal). This Olaf was the son of Sihtric Cáech who had ruled in York before the previous Olaf’s father, Guthfrith. At the same time, however, another son of Guthfrith – Ragnall (OE Rægnald) Guthfrithsson – also seems to have been in Northumbria pressing his father’s (and deceased brother’s) claim. At some point in all of this, a man called Sihtric (not the same man as the second Olaf’s late father) was causing coins to be minted in Northumbria in his name. (The coins are the only evidence of his existence; he is not otherwise mentioned anywhere in the historical record.) According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, however, in 944 King Edmund (like many a bemused student of the Viking Age) had had enough of these shenanigans, and ‘brought all Northumbria into his power, and caused two kings to flee, Olaf Sihtricson and Rægnald Guthfrithsson’.5
Edmund was an energetic ruler, and swiftly got on with giving the people of Cumbria a hard time, ceding territory (possibly won from the kingdom of Stathclyde) to the new Scottish king Malcolm in a diplomatic move presumably intended to normalize relations on the Anglo-Scottish border. (Malcolm succeeded his father, Constantín II, who abdicated in 943, though he lived for another nine years. Constantín was at least sixty-four when he died, but is likely to have been considerably older, and had reigned for forty-three years; the Old English poem, The Battle of Brunanburh, set in 937, describes him as har hilde-rinc – ‘the hoary (that is, old/silver-grey) warrior’. Silver-haired he may have been, but he had managed to outlive his English nemesis, Athelstan, by fourteen years.) Edmund’s firm hand did not, however, bring an end to the turmoil in Northumbria. In 946 Edmund also died (stabbed by a chap called Liofa – described by John of Worcester as ‘an atrocious robber’6 – at Pucklechurch in Gloucestershire) and the new English king, Eadred, a younger brother of Athelstan and Edmund, was obliged to extract pledges of allegiance from the Northumbrian worthies. The north, however, had become ungovernable, and in 948 Eadred was heading there again. He had received the news that the Northumbrians, having renounced their oaths to him in 947, had invited another man to be their king.
His was a name to conjure with: Eric, son of King Harald Finehair of Norway, known to us as Eiríkr Blóðøx – Eric Bloodaxe.
The sources for Eric’s earlier life in Norway are all late and are frequently contradictory, but all agree that he was a violent and belligerent man. As the idea of the Viking has percolated through the British psyche, Bloodaxe, over the course of the twentieth century, became emblematic of the domestic Viking; never mind that he was (at least nominally) a Christian and that he lived more of his life as a king than as an outlaw. His (nick)name is enough: it presents with effortless economy, with two short, emphatic syllables, the image of the screaming berserker with the wild beard and the bloodstained battle-axe, eyes rolling and mouth frothing with a lust for battle and a mania for death. The explanation for his nickname, however, was not simply the frequent doing of bloody deeds; those were so commonplace during the Viking Age (and not just on the part of ‘Vikings’) that it can hardly have raised an eyebrow, let alone inspired an epithet. No, what apparently set Eric apart from his peers were cruelty and kin-slaying. The twelfth-century Norwegian historian Theoderic the Monk described him as fratris interfector – ‘brother-slayer’. When taken together, the range of sources for Eric’s life suggest that Eric, alongside his wife Gunnhild (who, we are told, was a wicked, manipulative and beautiful enchantress – a literary trope for which human society apparently has an inexhaustible patience), was responsible for the deaths of no fewer than five of his brothers: five rival sons of King Harald Finehair bumped off in the pursuit of his own ruthless ambition.7
That ambition – to succeed his father and become the undisputed king of Norway – was ultimately fulfilled. Eric ruled as king of Norway for three years during his aged father’s dotage and two after his death. But his fratricidal tendencies were to pay dividends of another sort. The end of Eric’s reign in Norway was brought about by yet another of Harald’s many sons – Haakon the Good, also known as Haakon Aðalsteinsfóstri (‘Athelstan’s foster-son’). Haakon was, according to the Old Norse saga tradition, raised as an Anglo-Saxon prince in the court of King Athelstan. English sources make no mention of this, but it is perfectly plausible. Fostering of this sort among aristocratic families seems to have been common, an accepted way of forging diplomatic and quasi-familial bonds, and the sagas record that Haakon governed Norway in a fashion far more typical of Anglo-Saxon kings than of their Norwegian counterparts.8 When Haakon, with his legitimate claim to the Norwegian throne and powerful English connections, arrived in Norway, he provided Eric’s many enemies with the perfect banner to rally behind. When the inevitable showdown came, Eric didn’t even put up a fight.
Instead, Eric fled to England where, according to Snorri Sturluson’s Heimskringla, he was accommodated by King Athelstan and deputed to rule in Northumbria; from there, it was said, ‘he raided Scotland and the Hebrides, Ireland and Bretland, and so increased his wealth’.9 Most of the Scandinavian sources broadly agree that Eric was active in Northumbria during the 930s. It is certainly possible that he held some sort of power in Northumbria during Athelstan’s reign (we know very little about what exactly was happening in the region during this period), and it is also possible that he was involved in the power politics of the 940s; if this was the case, however, English sources make no mention of it. Whatever the truth, and whatever path he had taken to get there, by 948 Eric emerges into the contemporary historical record for the first time as the man chosen by the Northumbrians to be their king. Unfortunately for him, however, like his previous experiments with executive power, Eric’s kingship was not an unqualified success. Immediately after he had been invited to take the throne, in 948 a peeved King Eadred sent an army north to show the Northumbrians who was boss, burning down Ripon Minster before heading back south. The Northumbrians, however, presumably on Eric’s orders, ‘overtook the king’s army from behind at Castleford, and a great slaughter was made there’.10 This, perhaps not surprisingly, displeased Eadred considerably, and proved to be a spectacular political blunder. ‘The king became so enraged’, the chronicler of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle A text explains, ‘that he wanted to raise an army and utterly destroy. When they heard that,’ the chronicler continues, ‘they [the Northumbrian bigwigs] abandoned Eric and compensated King Eadred.’11 It is a revealing comment, one which strongly indicates where the true backbone of Northumbrian independence lay.
A poem, composed in the tenth century (part of which is reproduced as the epigraph to this chapter), pictures Eric at York, brooding and sinister, his barren soul mirrored in the poet’s evocation of the Yorkshire countryside: rain-wracked and storm-weathered. One can imagine him, with panic gripping York as word of the king’s rage came north, holed up in his royal hall – taciturn, uncompromising, isolated – waiting for the political realities to come crashing down on his head. It is harder to imagine, however, how the city itself appeared in Eric’s day. By the tenth century the Roman walls had been buried under an earthen bank with a corresponding ditch on the outer side, probably with a wooden palisade wall on the top and perhaps equipped with timber gate towers and walkways. There may have been stone towers too – the eleventh-century church tower of St Michael at the North Gate in Oxford was originally a free-standing masonry tower incorporated into the defensive circuit of the burh;12 it is similar to York’s oldest standing building, the eleventh-century tower of the Church of St Mary Bishophill Junior.
However, the vast hulking mass of York Minster, the great gothic cathedral that squats at the centre of the city’s web of narrow streets and alleyways, was constructed between the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries (obliterating, in the process, much evidence for earlier churches and other buildings on the site). York Castle, or the surviving part of it (Clifford’s Tower), is also a product of the late thirteenth century. Likewise, the walls of the city, though the lower courses in many places retain the Roman masonry, were rebuilt and renovated in stone in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries before their restoration in the nineteenth.
Thus to the untrained eye it appears – despite the picturesque antiquity of the city – as though nothing of Viking Jorvik remains to be seen. But it’s there, fundamental, an endoskeleton of words and roads that the intervening centuries have hung their flesh upon. Nearly all of the roads of York that predate the Norman Conquest are (or were) named with the suffix ‘-gate’, from the Old Norse gata (‘street’). Often the prefixes – which are sometimes Old English, sometimes Old Norse (often impossible to determine given the similarity of the languages), and sometimes Middle English or modern – provide clues to particular trades or notable characteristics of these places over time: Coppergate, for example, means the street of the wood-turners (that is, cup-makers from ON koppari); Micklegate is the big street (‘main street’ is a better translation); Goodramgate is the street of Guthrum, a fine Scandinavian name. These roads follow what are almost certainly lines that were set in the ninth or tenth centuries, and the width of the houses and shop-fronts on these thoroughfares still preserves the dimensions of the plots of land that, divided by wattle fencing, were once occupied by the Viking Age townsfolk.13
Some of these plots have been excavated, most extensively so at Coppergate in digs carried out between 1967 and 1981. What these revealed was a city that, even as Eric Bloodaxe brooded in his hall, was undergoing an economic boom. Leatherwork and textile production, ironwork and copperwork, cup-making and carpentry, bone- and antler-craft, minting, amber-shaping and glass-recycling were all taking place with high intensity in the tenth-century city, many on an apparently industrial scale: moulds and crucibles for the mass production of jewellery and dies for coin production have been found and the sheer quantity of iron slag and wooden cores from cup- and bowl-making indicates production on a scale far beyond the domestic. Raw and manufactured goods were arriving from overseas – amber from the Baltic, silk from Byzantium, pottery from the Rhineland – and local produce was presumably exported via the same trading connections. Scales and large numbers of weights bear testament to the flourishing market that had developed at this commercial-industrial hub on the River Ouse – a major cog in the engine of North Sea trade.
And the population of York was growing too. Plots were becoming increasingly heavily utilized as the century wore on, more and more of the available space given up to timber buildings until the walls of each unit were almost touching its neighbour on either side. Rubbish pits were dug in backyards over and over again, to accommodate the sewage and the food waste, the industrial by-products and the general detritus. In the most waterlogged parts of the city, near the river, decomposition would have been slow and inefficient, parasites breeding in stagnant meres of mud and excrement. Ground level was rising by up to three-quarters of an inch every year (over the course of the tenth century an increase of between 3 and 6½ feet). The monastic writer Byrhtferth of Ramsay, writing at the end of the tenth century, put the population at 30,000. This may be an exaggeration, but the numbers were still high. Extrapolating from the density of settlement and the number of stray finds (principally of coins and pottery), as well as from the number of turds found preserved in the Viking Age soil, has enabled population estimates to be made in the region of 10,000–15,000, a 500 per cent increase on the population of pre-Viking York.14 Gut worms were endemic and half of women died before they reached thirty-five (without childbirth to contend with, men could hope to hit fifty if they were lucky). In short, this was a society experiencing all of the typical problems of rapid urbanization: overcrowding, filth, disease, infestation.
It was also a city on the make. By 1066 it was easily the second largest in Britain (after London) and the hammers that smashed out thousands of silver coins in the names of Northumbria’s Viking kings were working the city’s abundant flow of silver into symbols of royal power and civic prestige. Even without evidence of coin production we would know that the coinage was produced in York from the legend that many of the coins bear: ‘EBRAICE’ (from ‘Eboracum’, the Latin name for the city). What is less clear is how much of this hustle and bustle was driven by Scandinavian immigrants and how much by native Northumbrians, or even whether such distinctions were noticed or considered important. The archaeology is equivocal – new trading links with Scandinavia certainly opened up, and new styles of object became fashionable. Shoes in a typically Scandinavian style, for example, started to be manufactured in the tenth century. But, crucially, traditional Northumbrian footwear remained in vogue, indicating that not only the expertise but also the market for both styles remained available and viable.15 Thus the evidence can be argued from multiple perspectives. The only certainty is that tenth-century York was booming, and Scandinavian contacts and culture were playing a leading role.
Not that this made much difference to the political theatre playing out in the early 950s, except perhaps to raise the stakes for the players involved: York had become an attractive prize to kings of any stamp. The Northumbrians themselves, however, were fickle and – from a southern perspective – incorrigible. In 949 they recalled Olaf Sihtricsson to rule over them, but he didn’t last long. In 952 Olaf was out, and Eric was back in.16 This time, however, Eadred seems to have decided to apply pressure where it really mattered in Northumbria, hauling the archbishop of York to the stronghold at Jedburgh because, apparently, ‘he was frequently accused to the king’. Nobody knows what threats and promises the king made to the archbishop there, but in 954 Eric was expelled from York for the second and final time; it can be no coincidence that the archbishop, in the same year, was finally restored to his lands by King Eadred. For the third time in his life, Eric Bloodaxe found himself in political exile.
This time, however, there was to be no comeback.
What is the worth of a king, he wonders, who has been driven out by his own subjects, hunted like a wolf’s head over the mountains? He needs ships, and men. Perhaps he will go to Ireland. He doesn’t know what welcome he might receive there – perhaps he will find kinsmen among the Dubliners, or someone to whom his name still means something, still carries weight. He is tired, mud-splattered, shoulders hunched, his horse slipping on wet stones in the pass. Turning in the saddle, he looks back at the column of dejected men behind him, fewer now he thinks than when they left York.
‘Niþings,’ he murmurs; ‘cowards, oath-breakers.’
He is always looking back: listening for sounds of pursuit, watching for the carrion birds that herald the approach of pursuing armies. But he sees only the grim clouds and the grey land, the stones and the heather, the dull mud; a world rinsed of colour. He pulls his cloak, damp and heavy, tightly around himself, turns towards the wind that drives the rain into his face, and carries slowly on.
It is bleak on Stainmore, treeless and rugged, a high wind-scoured upland that reaches 1,370 feet above sea level; there is no protection up here from the Atlantic weather that comes billowing from the west. When I went there it was foul, a cold driving rain forcing me back into the car to sit miserably in a lay-by on the side of the A66, the busy trunk road connecting Carlisle in the north-west to Catterick in the east, by way of Penrith and Barnard Castle, heavy freight thundering past on its way across the Pennines. A few minutes in the elements were quite enough for me, but for Eric in 954, trying to break west for the sea, there would have been no rest and no respite. Perhaps there would have come a moment up here when he saw the land drop away to the west, the blue fells marching on the horizon, the westering sun dazzling him as it dipped below the slate-grey clouds – a beacon of white light offering the promise of salvation. If it did it might have lightened his heart for a moment – held out the hope of a new life and refuge, an opportunity to find the time and space to plan his political renaissance. Perhaps he saw himself coming back this way, at the head of a glorious host, a king of kings. But perhaps he didn’t even make it as far as I did.
It is unclear how Eric died, but it was not from internal parasites. He likely had them (as everyone who spent any time in York probably did), and a perennially itchy arsehole can only have contributed to his bad mood. But the sources, though they differ wildly in most respects, are in agreement on one key issue: that Eric Bloodaxe died a violent death. The Norwegian so-called ‘synoptic histories’ – Ágrip af Nóregskonungasögum (‘A Synopsis of the Sagas of the Kings of Norway’) and Historia Norwegiæ – record a tradition that Eric died raiding in Spain, the least plausible explanation of how he met his end.17 Other sources agree that Eric died in Britain, but the manner of his death, however, remains far less certain. According to the Anglo-Norman historian Roger of Wendover, ‘King Eric was treacherously killed by Earl Maccus in a certain lonely place which is called Stainmore, with his son Haeric and his brother Ragnald, betrayed by Earl Oswulf; and then afterwards King Eadred ruled in these districts.’18 Oswulf was the quasi-autonomous ruler at Bamburgh in the north of Northumbria, and was to become Earl of Northumbria under Eadred when Eric was dead. In this version of events we can see Eric dying with a dagger between his ribs – bleeding out the last of Northumbrian liberty on a lonely moor, friendless and betrayed, his ertswhile companions turning their mounts back to York to tell Oswulf that the dark deed was done, the last impediment to his own ambition now removed.
The sagas, however, tell a different story; a story of how King Játmundr (Edmund) ‘mustered an invincible army and went against King Eiríkr, and there was a great battle […] and at the end of that day King Eiríkr fell and five kings with him’.19
In the Norse mythological cycle, the death of the gods at Ragnarök represents the tragic, heroic, final stand of a world doomed to die. Of all the deaths and endings it is the death of Odin that is the most poignant, the one that speaks most clearly to the contradiction at the heart of the human condition. Odin may be the darkest of the gods, but he is also the most like us. He has watched the ebb of time across the ages, the rise and fall of kings and nations, the petty hurts and feeble triumphs of humanity. And despite knowing it to be futile, that ultimately he must fight the wolf and fail, he has prepared carefully for that day, selecting and curating the champions who will fight beside him when the last sun rises over the battle-plain. The einherjar, they are called, the glorious dead, doomed to die on earth in battle in order that they may fight again, one last time. It is this bloody-mindedness – the obsessive quest for wisdom though it brings no peace, the desire to gain knowledge of a future that cannot be circumvented, the relentless preparation for a doom that cannot be avoided – that reminds us of our own self-defeating consciousness, the knowledge of mortality that defines our humanity.
The capacity to think, to remember, to dream, to prepare against whatever the future holds – all of it leads inevitably to the only certainty that the universe can provide: that all things fade and all things fail. And yet, like Odin, we struggle on heedless of the long defeat, wading against the tide that one day will overwhelm everything. It was acceptance of this harsh reality that permeated Viking warrior culture, shaping its mentality and appetite for adventure – the willingness to stare death and defeat in the eye, knowing that to carry on is futile and that failure is assured, yet determined to fight on regardless, to struggle until the last breath is spent. It is in that struggle – internal, ethical – that true bravery lies; and there, precisely there, eyeball to eyeball with death unflinching, was the place where legends could be born that might outlast the living.
This desire to be remembered – to secure true immortality in the stories told after death – was the force that drove composition of eulogies and praise-poems, the contemporary material on which so much of our knowledge of Viking kings is ultimately founded. When Eric died, his wife was said to have commissioned a poem that commemorated his life and his deeds. The result, Eiríksmal, pictures the arrival of the great king in Valhöll, ‘the hall of the slain’, to take his place among the einherjar, the heroes of the past – with Sigmund and his son Sinfjǫtli – and sit by Odin’s side. There he would enjoy the pleasures of the hall that are described in the eddic poem Grímnismál and by Snorri in Gylfaginning: to feast on the hog Saehrimnir who replenishes his flesh every evening; to fight the endless duels with the other einherjar, battling without hurt; to drink the mead that flows unending from the udders of the goat Heidrun, brought by valkyries in gilded cups: a warrior’s paradise, filled with all the pleasures of a macho life.20
The poem, only the beginning of which survives, is cast as a conversation between Odin, the legendary poet Bragi, Sigmund and Eric himself.
O: ‘What kind of dream is this, that I thought that a little before daybreak I was preparing Valhǫll for a slain army? I awakened the einherjar, I asked them to get up to strew the benches, to rinse the drinking cups, [I asked] valkyries to bring wine, as if a leader should come. I expect certain glorious men from the world [of the living], so my heart is glad.’
B: ‘What is making a din there, as if a thousand were in motion, or an exceedingly great throng? All the bench-planks creak, as if Baldr were coming back into Óðinn’s residence.’
O: ‘The wise Bragi must not talk nonsense, though you know well why: the clangour is made for Eiríkr, who must be coming in here, a prince into Óðinn’s residence. Sigmundr and Sinfjǫtli, rise quickly and go to meet the prince. Invite [him] in, if it is Eiríkr; it is he I am expecting now.’
S: ‘Why do you expect Eiríkr rather than other kings?’
O: ‘Because he has reddened his blade in many a land and borne a bloody sword.’
S/B: ‘Why did you deprive him of victory then, when he seemed to you to be valiant?’
O: ‘Because it cannot be known for certain when the grey wolf will attack the home of the gods.’
S: ‘Good fortune to you now, Eiríkr; you will be welcome here, and go, wise, into the hall. One thing I want to ask you: what princes accompany you from the edge-thunder [battle]?’
E: ‘There are five kings; I shall identify for you the names of all; I am myself the sixth.’21
Eiríksmal, unlike the detailed descriptions in Grímnismál and Gylfaginning, dates to the Viking Age itself. It offers a vivid and immediate depiction of Valhöll and the relationship between Odin, his champions, and his messengers, the valkyrjur, the ‘choosers of the slain’ – the spirits of death and conflict who haunted the battlefields of the Viking imagination. In the courtly poetry of Eiríksmal, valkyries were already undergoing the transformation that would see them become cleaned-up icons of femininity – servile cup-bearers and entertainers for the exclusive clientele at Valhöll, the precursors of the romanticized visions of nineteenth-century painters and the buxom Wagnerian parodies of popular imagination. But for most Vikings these lesser deities would have been possessed of wilder and more savage personae, terrifying war-spirits with names to chill the soul: Tanngniðr (‘teeth-grinder’); Svava (‘killer’); Skǫgul (‘battle’); Randgniðr (‘shield-scraper’); Hjalmþrimul (‘helmet-clatter’); Geirdríful (‘spear-flinger’) …22
In 954, when the valkyrjur came shrieking from the heavens, screaming over the corpse-strewn Stainmore Pass to harvest the souls of the dead and dying, we must picture them coming, not from the clear, crisp skies of Norway or Denmark, nor even from the cold skies above Iceland’s ashen peaks, but from the drear, leaden clouds of Yorkshire – come to claim Northumbria’s last king.