Eric Bloodaxe

Summary

Erik Haraldsson or Erik Blodøks or Blodax (Norwegian: Eirikr Blodøks, English: Erick Bloodaxe in English annals of the time, c. 885 – 954) King of Norway (929 – 934) and twice King of Northumbria (947 – 948) and (952 – 954) was the son of Harald Horfagre the general of the Norwegian dynasty and Ragnhilde Eriksdatter. Historians have used little historical data in order to draw their conclusions about Erik, there is confusion between the sources related to a Northumbrian king and the saga sources about Erik of Norway a chieftain who ruled the Norwegian Westland in the 930s. Norwegian sources of the 12th century have identified the two persons as one, and modern historians have followed the same path after the relevant article by the historian Collingwood (1901). This identification was later rejected by historian Clary Downham who claimed that the 12th century Norwegian Sagas were based on English sources. This view did not ultimately prevail in the scholarly historical community.

Modern sources used different elements such as the Anglo-Saxon chronicle, Eric’s monetary system and Scandinavian poetry. These ambiguities cannot be justified when we consider the great wealth of Sagas sources on Eric which we find in the biographies of his father Harald Hordfare and his brother Haakon the Agatha. The ambiguities about his identification with Erik of Northumbria make the 11th-century Norwegian sources more unreliable. The nickname “Blondax” or “Blond-ax” is double and of dubious origin, most likely used in the 10th century or perhaps later when he became the focus of legend. The sagas explain that it derives from his bloody battles with his brothers for dominance in Norway, Theodoric mentions about his violent character because of his attitude towards his brothers. Other Sagas in turn report that it relates to his warlike character as a Viking raider.

Historical inaccuracies regarding his identification as King of Northumbria

The Anglo-Saxon chronicle succinctly describes him as the son of Harald. In the early 12th century, John of Walkester mentions that Eric Blodax was associated with the rulers of Northumbria. The Norse histories and the Icelandic Sagas respectively mention the King of Northumbria as the son of Harald. Scandinavian poetry confirms this information although there are several doubts about the reliability of the verses. Another Harald known at this time was Aralt-mac-Sitrik (died 940) king of Limerick and father of Makus and Goffred. This can be related to the fact that the two brothers together with a certain Eric were kings of the Hebrides, in a letter addressed to Pope Boniface VIII Edward I of England mentions that a certain Eric king of Scotland was his vassal. In the 19th century some writers such as Charles Plummer (1851-1927) mention that Eric was the son of Harald I of Denmark and identify him with a son of Harald named Hiring. The only source on this subject was the account of Adam of Bremen who writes that : “Harald sent his son Hiring to England with an army, when he later subdued the island he was betrayed and killed by the Northumbrians”, the names however are not identical.

Childhood

More details about Erik’s family tree are contained in the 12th and 13th century Icelandic and Norwegian sources, which are limited and, according to many historians, considered unreliable. Harald Horfagre is mentioned as a polygamous and fertile king who had 16 to 20 children. The mother of Erik Blodax although she was considered anonymous most of the Icelandic sagas state that she was Ragnhild Erikstadter daughter of Erik king of southern Jutland. The possibility that Harald had married a Danish princess exists in Norse verse, but it is uncertain whether her name is in the original composition. Snorri Sturlusson states that Harald had 11 wives before Ragnhilde, this contradicts information that Eric was Harald’s older brother. All the information, however, concludes that Haakon the Agathus was Eric’s younger half-brother and heir. According to Snorri Sturluson and the Sagas of Egil, Eric spent most of his childhood with the Viking warlord Thorir and his son Roald. In his teenage years he is described as being extremely strong and brave, he began his intense devotion to piracy, four years plundering the coasts of Denmark, Germany and the Baltic, another four years of Scotland, Wales, Ireland and France. The Sagas of Egil describe that through the river Dvina he plundered the port of Perm.

Marriage with Gunhill

The Life of St. Cathroe of Metz (written around 1000) gives the most up-to-date information about Eric and his wife. It mentions :

“The King of Cumbria led Cathroe to an area between Carlisle and Leeds, on the border between the kingdoms of Cumbria and Scandinavia, then a nobleman named Guderick led him to York to King Eric who had a wife who was a relative of Cathroe”.

This fact combined with the information provided by the latest Sagas proves that Eric’s wife was of British or Scottish descent. According to the last Sagas of Egil, which were written in the 13th century, Eric’s wife was called Gunhill, mother of kings. The name is mentioned in Egil’s last Sagas which was based on an earlier poem which did not contain the name of Gunhill so historians conclude that it is a later introduction. However, the Sagas reports are unanimous on the fact that Eric had a wife named Goodhill. The earliest Norwegian Sagas describe her as the daughter of the Danish king Gorm the Old, the most recent ones name her father Ozur, originally from the northern Norwegian province of Halogkaland. The hostility of the Icelanders towards Gunhild probably stems from the fact that she left the Danish royal court. There is no unanimous agreement which could solve this problem, an early estimate was that the King of York was named Olaf Sithrikson whose second wife was Irish. Clare Downham recently dismissed the fact that Eric of Northumbria was the same person as Eric Blondax. There are also many possibilities that he was not monogamous but used two wives at the same time.

Bloody victory in Norway against his brothers

The Norwegian sagas mention countless sons of Harald Horfagre who clashed fiercely over the succession to the throne of Norway, the conflict between Erik and his younger brother Haakon Agathos being particularly intense. Erik violently killed two of his brothers, Ragnwald King of Adeland and Bjorn Farman, King of Vestfeld. Some texts state that Harald Horfagre allowed his son Eric Blondax to rule with him in the last years of his life. Erik then succeeded his father after his death, slaughtered the combined forces of his half-brothers Olaf and Sigurd, and became absolute ruler over all of Norway. At the same time his younger and more famous brother Eric Haakon was residing safely in the court of West Saxony, having been brought up at the court of Ethelstan in England. Eric Blodax’s reign was violent and despotic forcing the Norwegian aristocracy to turn against him, at the same time Haakon returned to Norway and was enthusiastically received by the aristocracy, Eric was forced to flee to Britain. Snorri Sturlusson states that Haakon’s successes were mostly realized thanks to the support he had from Sigurd, Earl of Land.

The determination of the length and reign of Eric could not be fully defined chronologically because of the great confusion among historical sources.

Transition to England

The Norwegian Sagas show great differences in the way Eric Blodax went to England when he was exiled from Norway. The Theodoric records his arrival in England and his reception by King Ethelstan of England, his brief reign and subsequent death. Similar Norwegian stories report that he went directly to England where he was received by his half-brother Haakon, baptized a Christian and given the government of Northumbria by Ethelstan. When his reign became hated he went on an expedition to Spain in which he was killed. Agripe finally says that he went to Denmark to his wife’s homeland which he could use as a base to win over his supporters.

The latest Sagas make extensive reports about Eric’s activities in Norway and Northumbria where he raided extensively. The county of Orkad which was a former Viking base had been conquered by Erik’s father, the literary verses mention the marriage of Ragheild’s daughter to his son Thorfin Arnfin who was a future Earl of Orkad but had not set foot on the islands himself. The Sagas of the Orcadians which were written around 1200 mention Eric Blodax’s presence in the Orcadian Islands and his alliance with the brother governors Arnkel and Erland but before he was overthrown in Northumbria by Olaf. The majority of the latest Sagas however states that Eric sailed directly to the Orcas, subdued the earls and established a military base in order to campaign for his next targets such as the Hebrides, Scotland and England. His alliance with the Orcadian rulers was ratified by the marriage of Raghild’s daughter Raghild to the future Earl of Orcadia Arnphin son of Thorfin. The fact that Eric became King of Northumbria is an indisputable fact despite the fact that historical sources are few and disputed, the most reliable information historians base on the Anglo-Saxon chronicle.

Northumbria under British control

Northumbria was at the centre of the conflict between the West Saxon kings and the Dublin kings of Imer’s descendants, the battles were constant and the region was constantly changing hands. Northumbria finally came under English occupation (927). The Battle of Brunanbury (937) in which Ethelstan and his half-brother Edmond defeated Olaf III of Dublin consolidated his hold on the region, this is also shown in the royal decrees issued in the period (937-939) in which Ethelstan is shown as king of all Britain. Ethelstan died (939), his half-brother and successor Edmund I of England who was only 18 years old was unable to maintain his control over Northumbria. Soon afterwards a new king from the Ui Immer dynasty made York his seat. According to the Irish Chronicle, Edmond’s old rival Olaf Guthfrithson joined his cousin Amlaib Quaran in York, Olaf Guthfrithson died in 941, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle places his death in 942. Amlaib Quaran with popular support from Northumbria was elected the new king of the country and shared his throne with his nephew Ragnald son of Goffred.

There are indications that Archbishop Wolfstan of York played an important political role during the reign of Amlaib. Edmond then (942) forcefully conquered Mercia and five major provinces of Danelaw, authors wrote many chivalric novels in modern times to commemorate his exploits. Amlaib responded in the same year with an attack on Tamworth but both he and Wolfestan while marching to Leicester were hard besieged by Edmond and managed to escape at the last moment. Negotiations then ensued and peace was made between them, Amlaib became an ally of Edmond, however when Northumbria passed back into the hands of the West Saxons Edmond drove out the Viking rulers. The chronicler Ethelwind was clear in that it was Wolfstan and his ruling earl who were driven out and forced to submit to Edmund.

King of Northumbria

In the same year Edmond raided Cambria and gave its administration to Malcolm I of Scotland, the Irish annals report that Amlaib returned to Dublin (945). Edmond did not manage to live much longer as he was killed in battle the following year (946). Edred of England succeeded his brother Edmond I to the throne (946), the English rule in Northumbria then proved unstable as they were loyal to the Scots, Edred called on the Scots to swear an oath of allegiance to him. He then invited Archbishop Wulfstan to swear an oath of allegiance but English rule in the area was not accepted by the inhabitants. The chronicle states that the Northumbrians violated their oaths (947) to Edred by electing Eric as their king. Edred campaigned in Northumbria to punish the rebels, burning the ministry in Ripon that had been founded by Wilfrid. Edred’s forces suffered significant losses at the Battle of Castleford but he managed to maintain control of the situation, the nobles feared the Saxon king so they were forced to disown Eric and accept Edred as their king again (948). The annals of the kings of Alba record that Malcolm I of Scotland raided Northumbria (949) south of the River Lee carrying many cattle and prisoners. Edred placed Olaf as king of Northumbria again but according to the annals in 952 “The Northumbrian nobles sent Olaf into exile making Eric son of Harald their king again” The Ulster Chronicles at the same time report the victory of the foreign powers i.e. the Norwegians over the natives such as the Welsh and Scots. The sources for the second period of his reign are quite unclear, most likely he re-conquered Northumbria at the head of Viking warriors but the second period did not last long either as in 954 the Northumbrians drove him out for a second time.

Reports on the Archbishop

Eric’s relationship with Archbishop Wulfstan, the cleric who played an important role during the reign of King Amlaib in the early 940s, is quite unclear. According to reports, Wulfstan was the leader of the political group that restored Eric to the throne of Northumbria; Edred’s campaign in Northumbria when he burned the ministry in Ripon was reportedly aimed at the archbishop, who was his permanent enemy. The lists of Anglo-Saxon statutes reveal the periods during which Wulfstan was at Edred’s court as a diplomatic representative between the two kings. In the period 938 – 941 between the Battle of Brunanbur (937) and the recovery of the five provinces (942), Wulfstan does not appear in the royal charters; he only began to appear transiently after the negotiations of 942. The absence of the archbishop’s name in Eric’s first reign (947 – 948) demonstrates the gaps in the sources for this period. In the period 950 – 954 very few charters were issued to enable us to draw firm conclusions, although his name is mentioned in 950 it is not in any of the 5 charters issued in 951, he probably returned to Amlaib. In the second period of Eric’s reign (952 – 954) he is reported to have been brought to trial probably on the charges of King Edred. After Eric’s second deposition the name of Wulfstan appears not as archbishop was reinstated but this time based in Dorchester instead of York. The inference is that during this time Wulfstan had been persuaded by Edred to withdraw his support for Eric.

Eric’s politics in Northumbria

Eric’s reign in Northumbria appears in his monetary policy, on 3 February 2009 31 coins minted in York appear with his name on them. These coins appear in two different forms in those where the king’s name is written horizontally in two lines and those where the king’s name is written in a circular form around his symbol. The two types of coin probably correspond to the two periods of his reign without excluding the possibility that they were issued in the same period. The sudden appearance of Eric in the chronicle is puzzling without providing any further explanation, the chronicles of the life of the Scottish saint Cathroe of Metz provide more interpretation of the case. St Cathroe a Scottish saint with a Celtic name visited a king named Eric on his way from Strathclyde and Cambria to Leeds bound for the land of the West Franks. King Eric had settled and married in the area, he was on good terms with his neighbours, the saint claimed to be related to Eric’s wife and to Difnval III King of Strathclyde and Cambria, there was a form of alliance between the two kings. Cathroe’s residence is placed in the period 940-943 in which Constantine II left the kingdom of Scotland to Malcolm. The biggest problem regarding the identification of Eric occurs in that it is impossible according to the information provided by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and the Norse verses that Edmond was in 946 king of all Britons. More information is given around the subject by the 12th century Irish Sagas which were compiled to highlight the exploits of Kellahan mac Boadahan, king of Munster and his descendants, in one of these poems “Eric, king of Iceland” rules the Hebrides. The information, however, is probably not true, it corresponds to the fact that the next Viking who ruled the Hebrides was Goffred mac Ahrilde one of Harald’s sons, succeeded by his son Ragnall who is referred to as “king of many islands”.

Murder

The chronicles don’t give more information since the cases of Amlaib and Eric seem more like northern cases without Saxon intervention. After an account of William the Conqueror’s invasion of Scotland (1072) Simeon of Durham reports that Eric was driven out and murdered by his son Onlaf Macus. The historical sources of Roger of Wendover in the 13th century state :

“King Eric was killed by treason by Count Macus in a lonely place called Steinmore with his son Haerick and his brother Ragnald, the treason was committed by Count Osulf, then Ethelred of England reigned in those parts.”

Steinmore was located in Cambria until the 1974 administrative reform in a pass in the Pennine Mountains and on the border between Cambria to the west and Durham to the east. At the same point the mountains were crossed by an old Roman road heading from York to Catterick and then from Catterick to Carlisle, Eric followed the same route as that followed by St Catharine. The Earl of Oslef who betrayed Eric was from North Northumbria, the area of the former kingdom of Vernicia, and clearly benefited from the assassination because the following year he was referred to as the Earl of Northumbria. After the fall of Eric, Northumbria was ruled by earls who were vassals of the English King Edred, Earl Osulf was the first earl to be appointed. The identity of Eric Macus’s assassin is unknown, his name is of Celtic Irish origin but was at that time strongly prevalent in Scotland. Attempts to link Onlaf’s father to Amlaib Quaran have no historical basis.

Historical views on the death of

Eric’s death has raised many questions among historians, Snorri Sturluson reports that Eric and five other Norwegian kings were killed in battle at an unnamed location in England. According to the Agrips and Norwegian history, Erik died in battle in Spain when he was dethroned by Northumbria. Most modern historians conclude that he was murdered at Steinmor. Modern historians such as Frank Stendon (1880-1967) mention Eric’s presence in battles to regain his kingdom from the usurpers. Finnur Johnson (1858 – 1934) presents an alternative view relating Spain to “Stan” the root of Steinmor. The information agrees that Eric was murdered in exile after being overthrown from power. He seems to have headed north across Cambria where he was murdered by Macus who was an employee of Osulf, the possibility that he was betrayed by chroniclers such as Roger of Wendever is unclear. Osulf probably was in charge of the former king’s safe passage through the territory in which he ruled under his escort.

An epic Norse poem written about Erik’s death describes his arrival in Valhalla and his dialogues with other mythical heroes such as Odin who was delighted with him because he won many lands with his sword, when asked why he was deprived of his earthly glory he replied that the future was uncertain. Many have concluded that the epic poem was written in Old English. However modern scholars have concluded that there is little chance that it was written in that language. The date of composition remains equally a great enigma as opinions vary, some say it was written shortly after Eric’s death for himself others for Haakon’s successor Agathos. Despite the fact that the poem written for him was purely pagan there are many possibilities that Eric may have been baptized a Christian. There are no sources for his actual religious beliefs, it is reported that he was accepted into Christianity by Bishop Wulfstan who was at great enmity with Ablai Quaran.

The Cross of Roer

To the north of the A66 area of Steinmore stand the remains of a stone structure in the form of a cross of that period called ‘Roer Cross’, from where it was moved to the Bow Museum (1990). The two sides of the shaft had decorative figures which the cartographer John Speed (1552 – 1629) reported in 1611 as showing inscriptions. Collingood concludes that it is an Anglo-Scandinavian cross which dates to about the 10th century, no burial finds were found, most of the early evidence is that it was a boundary between Cambria and Northumbria. In the late 19th century William Slater Calverly (1847 – 1898) reported that the structure was created in later times, it looks more like a gravestone linking the carvings to funerary inscriptions, the final conclusion was that it was a burial monument on the site where Eric was murdered. The church rejected the view but Collingwood also concluded that there is a good chance that the view that it is a monument is valid. The figure of Erik in the Norwegian Sagas is a curious combination of history, folklore and political propaganda. He is portrayed as a cruel and ruthless Viking warrior, his brutality leading to many temporary successes which nevertheless made him quite hated. Snorri Sturluson describes him as a tall, handsome, brave warrior but a violent, cruel and miserable character. The Agrips and Norwegian Sagas on the other hand tried to justify his brutality thanks to his wife’s bad advice.

Conflict with Egil

One of the richest sagas associated with Eric Blodax which survives from the 10th century relates to the great hatred of the king and his wife Gunnhilde for the great Viking warlord Egil Skallagrimson. Egil killed one of the king’s defenders, Gunheald never forgave him and asked his two brothers to kill both him and his elder brother with whom they were on good terms. Egil did not fall into the trap and killed the two brothers which made the queen’s hatred much greater, the events took place before Harald Horfagre’s death and the murder of Eric Blondax’s brothers by him to secure his throne. Eric put a price on Egil’s head but he managed to escape, before he did he killed Ragnald son of Eric Blodax, then cursed the king and queen by putting a horse’s head on a stake and said:

“I challenge all the spirits of the land to never be able to find their dwelling place until King Eric and Queen Gunheild leave the country.”

He then placed the stake on a rock, repeating the same curses. Guhild, on the other hand, cast a spell on Egil to be always depressed and restless. Eric Blondax met Egil when they were together in England, Eric condemned him to death. Egil from prison composed a eulogy poem for Eric himself which he recited just before his execution, Eric when he heard it was so thrilled that Eric spared his life and forgave him for killing his son. Poole Anderson a Danish-American author wrote a fictional work about the Mother of Kings with references to Gunhild with fictional elements and real events in their attempts to regain the throne of Norway after a long conflict with Egil.

Sources

  1. Έρικ Χάραλντσον
  2. Eric Bloodaxe
  3. ^ Woolf, Pictland to Alba, p. 187
  4. ^ Collingwood, “King Eirík”, pp. 313—27; Downham, Viking Kings, p. 116, n 48, for details of previous debate; Downham, “Erik Bloodaxe – Axed?”, p. 73; Woolf, Pictland to Alba, p. 187
  5. ^ Downham, “Erik Bloodaxed – Axed?”, pp. 51—77; Downham, Viking Kings, pp
  6. ^ Woolf, Pictland to Alba, pp. 187—8
  7. ^ In two or three centuries of oral transmission, such poems and individual verses could have been adapted and rearranged to suit other needs. Roberta Frank’s verdict is that “[h]istory may help us to understand Norse court poetry, but skaldic verse can tell us little about history that we did not already know.” “Skaldic Poetry.” In Old Norse-Icelandic Literature, ed. Carol J. Clover and John Lindow. Ithaca and London, 1985. pp. 157–96: 174.
  8. 1,0 1,1 1,2 1,3 1,4 Darryl Roger Lundy: (Αγγλικά) The Peerage.
  9. Woolf, Pictland to Alba, p. 187
  10. Downham, “Erik Bloodaxed – Axed?”, pp. 51—77; Downham, Viking Kings, pp
  11. Woolf, Pictland to Alba, pp. 187—8
  12. ^ a b c Woolf, Alex. From Pictland to Alba, 789–1070. The New Edinburgh History of Scotland. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007
  13. ^ a b Collingwood, W.G. “King Eirík of York.” Saga-book of Viking Club Society for Northern Research 2 (1897–1900)
  14. ^ a b c Downham, Clare (2004). “Eric Bloodaxe – axed? The Mystery of the Last Viking King of York”. Mediaeval Scandinavia 14
  15. ^ Snorri Sturluson, Heimskringla, ed. Finnur Jónsson, Snorri Sturluson. Heimskringla. Nóregs konunga sögur. Copenhagen, 1911; tr. Lee M. Hollander, Snorri Sturluson. Heimskringla: History of the Kings of Norway. University of Texas Press
  16. ^ Nóregs konungatal ed. Kari Ellen Gade
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