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
There he divided his time between raiding in
and around the Irish Sea, establishing himself as ruler of the Viking . His death in 954 brought
the independence of Viking kingdom of Northumbria 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
. He also features in
a number of later sagas, along with his wife Gunnhild, who is generally
portrayed as an evil witch. York
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 . 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. Northumbria
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 at least twice. Northumbria
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?
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
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
Together with the sagas, there are two Latin accounts of the history of the kings of
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 . Norway
The saga tradition credits Harald with a round total of 20 sons, as well as the unification of
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. Norway
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
harsh and unpopular, and his kingship was challenged by his one surviving
brother Hakon. Hakon is said to have been brought up in Norway at the
court of Athelstan, and this fits well with Athelstan's recorded policy of
fostering the sons of potential allies. Hakon sailed to England Norway to claim his inheritance, and Eric fled
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 England
under Athelstan's authority. Northumbria
Invader or Guest?
The suggestion that Eric first became king of
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. Northumbria
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
on Athelstan's behalf
during the later part of his reign, so it could just as well have been Eric as
anybody else. Northumbria
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
, 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. York
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
and Eric's first type could equally well date from the late 930s or the 940s. Northumbria
Conquest and Reconquest
The sword design is copied from an earlier type from Viking
Eric's use of this design may have been designed to promote his image as
rightful ruler of an independent Northumbria . Northumbria
The kings' sagas tell us that Athelstan made Eric ruler of
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. Northumbria
The expansion of the authority of the
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
changed hands frequently during the 940s as different factions tried to control
the kingdom. 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 kingdom of Northumbria
changed hands frequently during the 940s, as different factions tried to
control the kingdom. Northumbria
On Athelstan's death in 939, the kingdom was seized by Olaf Guthfrithsson of
and thereafter the kingdom was contested between Athelstan's successors Edmund
and Eadred on the one side, and kings of the dynasty on the other. Dublin
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
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
with his rivals. Northumbria
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
. While the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle makes it
clear that Eric was periodically driven out by rivals, the sagas tell us that Northumbria 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
dynasty, who had influence all around the Irish Sea
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
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
dynasty. It is also possible that Maccus was a son of Olaf Cuaran, king of Dublin Dublin, and Eric's rival as king of in
the late 940's. Eric's death at Stainmore
in 954 brought an end to independent Viking rule in Northumbria . 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
. This is sometimes
taken as the end of the first Viking Age, although Viking raids on Northumbria resumed
in the 980's. England
However, raiding and settlement in
Ireland, Scotland and 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 Wales 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.
There could be a gene or two in your DNA that is shared with him, it might explain a lot.