In today’s post, we are taking a deeper dive into a character I personally find fascinating: Gunnhild (aka Gunnhild, Mother of Kings, or in Old Norse, Gunnhildr). A woman who appears in the sagas as mysterious, cunning, driven, ambitious, and so much more.
Who is Gunnhild?
Gunnhild’s true identity and personality are shrouded in mystery. We do know that she was the wife of Erik Haraldsson (aka Erik Bloodaxe), who is the son of the infamous Harald Fairhair and the man who at one time or another, ruled in Viking Age Norway, the Orkneys and eventually, Northumbria. The earliest reference to a wife of Erik Bloodaxe comes from the Life of St Cathróe of Metz. Written in ca. 1000 (just after Gunnhild’s death), it states that Cathróe “was led to king Erichius in the town of York, because this king had as wife a relative of the godly Cathróe.” This means that she was of “Cumbrian” or Scottish descent, which makes little sense when compared to later writings. But perhaps it is true…
Historia Norwegiæ (written ca. 1160 and 1175 AD) describes Gunnhild as the daughter of Gorm the Old, King of Denmark. This union makes more sense, for there was much strife between the two lands at the time. A union between the two realms through a prince and princess might help improve trade between the nascent kingdoms, have a calming effect on the raids that were commonplace at the time and give Gorm more muscle in dealing with both the Germans to the south and the petty kings on the islands to the east.
Snorre Sturlason’s Heimskringla (written ca. 1230 AD) tells a more sinister tale of Gunnhild. In Snorre Sturlason’s work, Gunnhild is the daughter of Ozur Toti from Halogaland, a district far to the north in Norway. Erik finds Gunnhild in the home of two sorcerers on an errand to Finnmark. There she is being taught in the ways of witchcraft. Erik ignores this warning, for he has never seen a woman of greater beauty. On Gunnhild’s urging, Erik kills the sorcerers, takes her home and marries her.
Life with Erik
It is interesting to ponder why Snorre’s account differs so drastically from the account written a mere generation or two before. Perhaps he is playing a game of political propaganda to smear the memory of Gunnhild? But then again, perhaps not, for the writer of Historia Norwegiæ is not kind to Gunnhild either.
“After ruling for a year, and pleasing no one on account of the excessive arrogance of his wife, Eiríkr was deprived of the kingdom by his brother Hákon, foster-son of Æthelstan, king of England, with the agreement of the chief men of Norway.”
In ca. 946 AD, the youngest son and bastard child of Harald Fairhair — a teenager known as Hakon (or Haakon) — drives Erik Bloodaxe from Norway. With their family and followers in tow, Gunnhild and Erik head to the Orkneys, where events become less clear.
According to the sagas, Erik is taken as king in the Orkneys before turning his prow towards bigger opportunities in England. Some say that soon after their arrival in the Orkneys, King Athelstan of England offers the seat of Northumbrian to Erik and Gunnhild. This seems unlikely, as Athelstan is the foster father of Hakon and sent the prince home to take the Norwegian throne from Erik. Other accounts say Wulfstan, Bishop of York, sent the invite in 947, which makes more sense since Wulfstan opposed the rule of another Norse leader named Olaf Sitricson. Erik drove Olaf from the land, only to be driven away in 948 by Eadred of Wessex. By 952, Erik and Gunnhild are back in York (Jorvik) and by 954, Erik is dead.
The Bloodaxe line and its successors live on through Gunnhild. Marrying her daughter to the jarl (earl) of the Orkneys, Gunnhild and her sons return to Scandinavia. With Norway in their sights, their first stop is the court of Harald Bluetooth, the son of Gorm the Old and her supposed brother. There she drums up support for their eventual campaign against the man who drove them from their home, Hakon the Good. They are received well and given land, ships, and men. Whether this is proof that Gunnhild is a kinswoman to Harald is unclear, but it seems to be so.
The Ambition of Gunnhild
It is here that we see Gunnhild’s ambition in full light. Time and again, Gunnhild pushes her sons to battle Hakon the Good for supremacy of Norway. Three battles the men fight against each other until finally, her sons succeed in defeating Hakon. Two of her sons (Guthorm and Gamle) fall in these battles, but Gunnhild pushes on. The reason for this is that the defeat of Hakon has only won her sons the rule of the west of Norway, and she wants it all. To get it, her sons must defeat Jarl Sigurd in Trondheim and Hakon’s nephews, Trygvi Olavsson in the Ostfold and Gudrod Bjornsson in the Vestfold. Through crafty political alliances, cunning, and a little luck, she and her sons first kill Jarl Sigurd, then both Trygvi and Gudrod. She then pushes her sons to go after the male offspring of both Trygvi and Gudrod.
Gunnhild’s Betrayal and Death
In ca. 971 AD, King Harald Bluetooth of Denmark and Norway’s Jarl Haakon (the son of Jarl Sigurd) kill Gunnhild’s most powerful son, Harald Greycloak, who rules in Norway. The death of Greycloak leads to a civil war between Jarl Haakon and the surviving sons of Erik and Gunnhild, but Haakon prevails and drives Gunnhild from the land once again. She flees back to the Orkneys with her remaining son, Gudrod (and perhaps Ragnfred as well).
According to the Jómsvíkinga saga, Gunnhild is lured to Denmark in ca. 977 AD and is killed at the orders of King Harald Bluetooth by being drowned in a bog. The Ágrip and Theodoricus Monachus’s Historia de Antiquitate Regum Norwagiensium contain versions of this same account.
Though we will never truly know what Gunnhild was really like, she is a character that conjures so many thoughts and interesting storylines. She is a writer’s dream and one I hope to write about more in the future.
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