Viking Age: The Wars at Home

Much has been written about the Scandinavians going viking, and how those raids evolved from attacking vulnerable targets and collecting booty and slaves, into the conquest and colonization of kingdoms. These attempts at conquests repeat themselves throughout Western Europe, e.g. in Scotland, in the Orkneys, in Ireland, in Iceland, in France, etc., as the map below shows. With this post, I wanted to bring your attention back to the home front, where the strife between the Scandinavians followed a similar pattern.

Viking Expansion (c/o Brilliant Maps)

Viking Expansion (c/o Brilliant Maps)

While the records are sparse, we do have some clues of Scandinavians batting each other for dominion of their respective areas. Prior to the 800s, much of the soon-to-be realms were smaller areas carved out by clans and families. As a result, there were many kings in what would soon become Sweden, Norway, and Denmark. Those kings battled each other for land, for wealth, and for dominion, and little by little, they gained territory. Harald Fairhair is the perfect example. He started his “career” in eastern Norway, and slowly conquered each fylke (district) until he became the sole king of what would eventually be called Norway.

Battle of  Hafrsfjord , where Harald Fairhair won control of Norway

Battle of Hafrsfjord, where Harald Fairhair won control of Norway

It was in the 800s and 900s that some of the more powerful kings of the various areas began to look at their Scandinavian neighbors. Whether that was because they felt stable at “home” and wanted more, or because they felt threatened and needed to look elsewhere, is anyone’s guess. We see this happen in Sweden and Denmark, where Adam of Bremen tells us in the AD 890s that a well-liked king named Helgi was followed by Olaf “who came from Sweden and seized royal power by force of arms.” At the time, the Swedes had already expanded their reach and their trading routes to the east, so controlling Jutland and its valuable port at Hedeby made sense.

Olaf’s two sons, Chnob and Gurd, took the throne after their father’s death, only to be deposed by Hardegon (or perhaps Hardaknut) Sveinsson, who came from “Nortmannia”. Given Adam’s mention, but it is not unreasonable to assume that Hardegon came from another realm (perhaps Norway, and maybe as a result of Harald Fairhair’s conquests?) and that his son, Gorm, took the throne in ~AD 935.

Viking battle

Viking battle

By AD 950, Gorm was dead and his son, Harald Bluetooth, was king. Like Harald Fairhair in Norway, Gorm had done much to depose the smaller kings in his own realm. We believe that his son Harald expanded Gorm’s kingdom, and that by AD 950, he was the sole king of Jutland, Zealand, Odense, and part of the western coast of what is now Sweden. At some time around then (between AD 950-960), Hakon “the Good” attacked Denmark. This, however, did not seem to be an attempt to conquer or colonize Denmark. Rather, this seemed to be retribution for the Danish attacks on the coastline of his own realm, which suggests that either rogue sea kings were attacking his kingdom from Denmark or something more concentrated and organized was happening. Perhaps it was both.

To add complexity to the situation, Erik Bloodaxe, the prior king of Norway who Hakon had deposed, died in England in AD 954. It is believed his sons left England at that time and went to Harald Bluetooth’s court in Denmark. It is not hard to believe that some of Erik’s sons, who would be in their 20’s at that time, had not already left England to go viking. Were their attacks on the coastline of Norway the reason for Hakon’s attacks on Denmark? We have no way of knowing.

Regardless of when they actually appeared, we know that Erik’s sons sought help from Denmark’s Harald Bluetooth in conquering Norway in ca. AD 954, and that Harald agreed to support Erik’s sons in this effort. Harald must have seen this as a safe way to expand his kingdom, while focusing his own efforts on keeping his people and the Saxons to his south at bay.

Battle of Fitjar

Battle of Fitjar

Of the ensuing Danish-Norse “war”, Heimskringla tells us of three battles between Hakon and the sons of Erik: the Battle of Blood Heights, a battle at Rastarkalv, and a battle at Fitjar. At the end of it, Erik’s oldest son, Harald, ruled Norway in the name of the Danish king. That arrangement would remain until Hakon’s great nephew, Olaf Tryggvason, returned to take Norway for himself.

In studying the Viking Age, it is easy to lose sight (in the face of all of the attacks across Western Europe) of what was happening at home for the Scandinavians. Hopefully, this post shines a little light on just how tumultuous the home front was.