Wednesday, 25 October 2017

One For The Family Album

For a change, a longer one, but ancient history, about Eric Bloodaxe one of the leading figures in Viking history who left his mark. He is still remembered in Castleford in Yorkshire, which should tell you enough.

What's in a name?

Eric Bloodaxe is probably one of the best-known names in Viking history, at least in the British Isles. The favoured son of Harald Finehair, who was credited by the Viking sagas (composed mostly in Iceland, in the 13th century) with the unification of Norway, he became king of Western Norway after his father. However, when his younger brother Hakon claimed the kingship with the support of Athelstan of Wessex, Eric moved to the British Isles.

There he divided his time between raiding in Scotland and around the Irish Sea, establishing himself as ruler of the Viking kingdom of Northumbria. His death in 954 brought the independence of Viking Northumbria to an end, but his sons later succeeded in establishing themselves as kings in Norway.

Eric is mentioned briefly in a number of contemporary or near contemporary sources, and he also left visible traces of his own - in the coinage issued in his name at York. He also features in a number of later sagas, along with his wife Gunnhild, who is generally portrayed as an evil witch.

The sagas use the 'Bloodaxe' nickname, and this is generally seen in the context of his Viking raids in Scotland, and his glorious end as the last independent king of Northumbria. Like his near contemporary, Thorfinn Skullsplitter of Orkney, the name Eric Bloodaxe conjures up an immediate image of the archetypal Viking warrior; huge, hairy and heroic, and the proud owner of a large axe.

More careful examination of Eric's story suggests that things were rather more complicated. Despite his reputation as a warrior, Eric apparently abandoned Norway to his brother Hakon without a fight, and he was subsequently driven out of Northumbria at least twice.

The sagas represent him very much as a henpecked husband, and the likely origin of his nickname is both murkier and less glorious than the obvious explanation of his prowess in battle. So what do we really know about Eric Bloodaxe?

Exile to England

Extensive excavations at the Coppergate, York, have provided us with a good understanding of what Jorvik (York) would have been like at the time of Eric's rule.  Our knowledge of Eric's life in Norway relies exclusively on the sagas, which are unreliable for the early tenth century. However, although we have to be sceptical of all the details provided by the sagas, there is nothing inherently unlikely in their broad outline of events.

Together with the sagas, there are two Latin accounts of the history of the kings of Norway. Like the earliest of the sagas, they were written in the late 12th century, and there are some textual relations between the Latin histories and the Icelandic sagas. However, the Latin texts are both briefer and less fantastic than the great kings' sagas of the early 13th century.  Eric was the favourite, and probably the oldest, of the many sons of King Harald Finehair of Norway.

The saga tradition credits Harald with a round total of 20 sons, as well as the unification of Norway. Modern historians now agree that Harald's kingdom was more limited, and probably confined to the west and south-west, although he may have exercised some power in other areas through alliance with other rulers.  Eric secured the succession by gradually murdering all of his brothers.

Harald's kingdom was not sufficient to provide much of an inheritance for so many sons, and Eric secured the succession for himself by gradually murdering all of his brothers in turn. It was probably this that earned him his nickname. While the sagas call him 'Bloodaxe', one of the Latin texts calls him fratris interfector (brother-killer), so it seems likely that 'blood' in this context refers to family, just as today we refer to 'blood relations' as distinct from relations by marriage or adoption.

Eric's rule in Norway was apparently harsh and unpopular, and his kingship was challenged by his one surviving brother Hakon. Hakon is said to have been brought up in England at the court of Athelstan, and this fits well with Athelstan's recorded policy of fostering the sons of potential allies. Hakon sailed to Norway to claim his inheritance, and Eric fled to England. According to the sagas, he was welcomed by Athelstan, because of the the friendship between Athelstan and Harald Finehair, and was made sub-king of Northumbria under Athelstan's authority.
Invader or Guest?

The suggestion that Eric first became king of Northumbria at Athelstan's invitation seems at first sight to conflict with English and Irish sources. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and various Irish Chronicles, Eric was taken as king by the Northumbrians in 947 or 948, some years after Athelstan's death, and in defiance of Athelstan's brother Eadred.

Certainly the saga tradition is confused on some points. It places Eric's death in the reign of Eadmund, who ruled between Athelstan and Eadred, and does not recognise the existence of Eadred at all. However, confusion between two very similar names does not mean that everything is wrong.

It is also important to note that while there is no mention of Eric in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle during the reign of Athelstan, there is no mention of who did govern Northumbria on Athelstan's behalf during the later part of his reign, so it could just as well have been Eric as anybody else.

There is also some circumstantial evidence to support the saga accounts. A later chronicle by William of Malmesbury recalls diplomatic relations between Athelstan and Harald Finehair, which fits with the saga tradition. There is also a reference to Eric in an account of the life of a Scottish saint, Caddroe, probably written in the late tenth century.

According to this, Caddroe visited Eric and his wife in York, and from other details in this account, the visit seems to have taken place around 940-41. Certainly it must have taken place some years before Eric's first appearance in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

The evidence of Eric's coinage is ambiguous. The first of Eric's two coin types is of a standard Anglo-Saxon type used by Athelstan, Edmund and Eadred. The same moneyers issued coins for the Anglo-Saxon kings and the various Viking rulers of Northumbria, and Eric's first type could equally well date from the late 930s or the 940s.

Conquest and Reconquest

The sword design is copied from an earlier type from Viking Northumbria. Eric's use of this design may have been designed to promote his image as rightful ruler of an independent Northumbria.

The kings' sagas tell us that Athelstan made Eric ruler of Northumbria to protect the land against 'Danes [ie Scandinavians] and other marauders', and Egil's saga tells us specifically that his role was to defend the land against the Scots and the Irish. Again, this is completely consistent with the broader picture of Athelstan's reign.

The expansion of the authority of the kingdom of Wessex posed a threat to all the smaller kingdoms in the British Isles, and Athelstan faced a repeated alliance between native rulers such as the kings of the Scots and Strathclyde with Viking rulers of the Dublin dynasty. Northumbria changed hands frequently during the 940s as different factions tried to control the kingdom.

The kingdom of Northumbria provided a useful buffer zone for both Athelstan and the Scots, and both were anxious for it to be controlled by allies. In this context the appointment of Eric as sub-king would make perfect sense. What is certainly clear is that Northumbria changed hands frequently during the 940s, as different factions tried to control the kingdom.

On Athelstan's death in 939, the kingdom was seized by Olaf Guthfrithsson of Dublin, and thereafter the kingdom was contested between Athelstan's successors Edmund and Eadred on the one side, and kings of the Dublin dynasty on the other.

While both the Anglo-Saxon and the saga accounts agree that, after Athelstan's death, Eric was acting on his own account, rather than as a sub-king for the Wessex dynasty.  It seems clear that Eric's brief periods of rule c.947-8 and c.952-4 were the result of his ability to contest the kingship of Northumbria with his rivals.

And indeed the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle tells us that on both occasions he was 'taken as king' by the Northumbrians. It is equally clear, however, that he lacked the force to maintain his position in the face of opposition from both Dublin and Wessex.

The end of the story

A battle reconstruction: Eric's defeat and death at Stainmore in 954 brought an end to the independence of Viking Northumbria.  While the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle makes it clear that Eric was periodically driven out by rivals, the sagas tell us that Northumbria was not wealthy enough to support Eric and his following, so he often went raiding in Scotland and around the Irish Sea.

Although this may well have been partly a desire for plunder, it also fits with Eric's ongoing contest for power with the kings of the Dublin dynasty, who had influence all around the Irish Sea area.

Both English and saga sources agree that Eric was killed in battle. The sagas tell us that Eric was accompanied by five kings from the Hebrides and the two earls of Orkney. This receives some support from later English chronicles, although no such details appear in contemporary sources.  Later sources also tell us that Eric was killed in an ambush by Maccus, son of Olaf.

 This Maccus is otherwise unknown, but the name Maccus does appear in the dynasty of the kings of Man, probably an offshoot of the Dublin dynasty. It is also possible that Maccus was a son of Olaf Cuaran, king of Dublin, and Eric's rival as king of Northumbria in the late 940's.  Eric's death at Stainmore in 954 brought an end to independent Viking rule in Northumbria.

In either case, Maccus would appear to have been acting at least partially on behalf of Eadred of Wessex, who was apparently using the established tactic of setting one Viking leader against another. And whoever Maccus was, Eric's death at Stainmore in 954 brought an end to independent Viking rule in NorthumbriaThis is sometimes taken as the end of the first Viking Age, although Viking raids on England resumed in the 980's.

However, raiding and settlement in Ireland, Scotland and Wales continued throughout the period in between, so this date is only significant in a purely English context.  A final note on Eric is provided by the skaldic poem Eiríksmàl ('The Lay of Eric'), which describes Eric's heroic entrance into Valhalla and his welcome by the gods after his death at Stainmore.

However, since this seems unlikely to be a reliable eyewitness account, it adds little to our understanding of the historical figure behind the legend of Eric Bloodaxe.

There could be a gene or two in your DNA that is shared with him, it might explain a lot.


  1. "There could be a gene or two in your DNA that is shared with him, it might explain a lot."

    Indeed it could. I recently bought a new axe and we always enjoy a visit to Northumbria.

  2. This story is all very well, but how complete is it when there's no mention of Uhtred of Bebbanburg . . . .