The Viking Age: Harald Bluetooth - the Builder King?

This week, I am diving a bit deeper into Harald Gormsson (also known as Harald Bluetooth), one of the more industrious kings of the Viking Age.

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Harald was born in ca. 928, in the town of Jelling in Jutland, Denmark. He was the second son of Gorm “the Old” and his wife, Thyra. His older brother, Knut, was said to be King Gorm’s favored son. Where Knut was tall, strong and handsome, Harald was the polar opposite - short and thin. It appears, though, that the two brothers got along, at least in terms of their joint raids on the West. It was on one of these raids that Knut met his end, though accounts vary as to how and where exactly he died.

Knut’s death left Harald as the next in line to Gorm’s throne, which he took in roughly 958 upon his father’s death. At that time, the “kingdom” of the Danes was much like that of the Swedes and Norwegians. Rather than a unified realm, it was a land split into multiple “clans” and regions, each owing allegiance to their own kings. Gorm seemed to control much, if not all, of Jutland, but the islands were another matter. It was to these (and to the shores even farther north) that Harald now turned his attention when he took the throne.

Harald was roughly thirty when he became king, and he proved to be a highly energetic and ambitious ruler. Much of his energy went into his military campaigns. During the next twenty plus years, he not only subjugated the smaller clans and islands to form a unified Denmark, but through shrewd support of Erik Bloodaxe’s sons, managed to capture much of the Norwegian kingdom as well. All this while fighting off the Germans under Otto I who threatened his kingdom from the South -- a threat that may well have led Harald to accept Christianity in order to reduce the threat of German invasion.

He also spent much time and resources on his building projects, which were done as much to protect himself as to help him maintain order throughout his growing kingdom. Those projects began with the completion of a massive burial mound for his father, which mirrored the mound his father had constructed for his wife, Thyra. Harald had stones placed around the burial mounds to construct a 370-meter-long Viking stone ship, and around the entire site he had built a massive oak palisade.

In roughly the 960s, to protect himself from the Germans, Harald expanded and fortified the defensive earthwork and wood “wall” along his southern border known as the “Dannevirke”, which stretched across the neck of Jutland close to the German border. He also constructed another wall further south called Kovirke in the 980s. It is also said that he reinforced the defensive wall around Denmark’s main trading town Hedeby and, at the same time, he safeguarded the harbour with a boundary of stakes.

While the efforts mentioned above seemed to be more defensive in nature, Harald also embarked on more offensive-minded construction projects. In roughly the late 970s, he built a number of circle, or ring, forts across the lands he had so recently conquered. So far, eight ring fortresses from his reign have been unearthed, but there is speculation that more may have been built. There is no doubt that the Viking fortresses were built for military purposes, but some have also suggested that they may have served some administrative function as well as been used by Harald Bluetooth when he traveled around Denmark.

A ring fort from Harald's reign.

A ring fort from Harald's reign.

Given the size of the construction projects, King Harald must have had access to massive resources, from wealth to manpower. How he organized such projects, who he used to engineer such projects, and what manpower he used (slaves or otherwise) is all unclear. Regardless, it is clear that he had the ability to start and finish these projects well and quickly, and that speaks to Harald’s energy, shrewdness and authority.

Harald was ultimately done in by his own son, Sweyn Forkbeard, who wanted no part of his father’s Christianity and whose greed for power and control led him to denounce his father and fight him for the realm. The rebellion began ca. 986 and culminated with Harald’s death around that same time. The stories of Harald’s death vary depending on which saga you read, but most generally agree that he ultimately died in Jomsborg from his wounds. He was buried in Roskilde, though his grave has never been found.

On a side note, it is unclear why Harald had the nickname “Bluetooth.” One rumor suggests he had a bad tooth that had turned black or a dark blue color. Another rumor is that he loved to eat blueberries or licorice. Regardless of its meaning, that blemish did nothing to hold Harald back in his many pursuits.

Thanks for reading. And as always, please feel free to leave any comments below.