There are some Viking figures who are very well-known. From a historical perspective, Cnut the Great was famously a king of England and Denmark amongst others whilst Harald Hardrada (‘the ruthless’), who met his end at the Battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066, has become to some the archetypal Viking warrior.
From a legendary perspective, recent TV blockbusters have made Ragnar Lodbrok and his family widely recognised Vikings. Yet there are some much less well-known figures who nevertheless played a crucial role in Viking history.
Very well-known in modern Norway, Óláfr Haraldsson is the patron saint of the country. However, he is probably much less familiar elsewhere. Óláfr was king of Norway in the early 11th century but he was later involved in a war with Cnut the Great over who should be king there.
This eventually led to a civil war and his death in battle at Stiklestad in Norway in 1030. That might seem like a very unsuccessful end to his reign but soon after his burial, he was associated with a number of miracles.
As the stories took hold, Óláfr became an increasingly highly regarded individual. Eventually, he was canonised by the Church. Over time, the Vikings as a whole evolved from being strong supporters of pagan religion to becoming firmly convinced Christians.
The recognition of one of their own as a Christian saint was a significant step in this process. Within decades of Óláfr’s demise, churches dedicated to him had sprung up across Europe. An unlikely end for a king who was dethroned by his own people.
Aud the Deep-Minded
Aud the Deep-Minded was a prominent female Viking from the later 9th century. She was the daughter of another famous Viking of the period, the wonderfully named Ketill Flatnose. In some ways, she is a classic case study of just how peripatetic Vikings of her time were.
At one stage she was married to the Viking king of Dublin, Óláfr the White. After he died, she then went to Orkney and finally to Iceland, then a new Viking colony, taking with her a group of slaves that she brought with her from Scotland.
In Iceland she played an important role in establishing what was in effect a Viking republic that would survive in this unusual political state (for the time) for several centuries. Also a Christian, on her death she ordered that she should be buried between the high and low-water marks on the shores of the ocean, there being no consecrated ground as yet on the island.
On the other hand, the early 9th-century Danish king Godfrid was very much a convinced supporter of the old religion. His main claim to fame was that he was able to stand up to the most powerful ruler of his day, no less a figure than the mighty Charlemagne.
Charlemagne had launched fierce raids against the people of the ‘Old Saxons’ in Germany, forcing them to convert to Christianity. Godfrid refused to kowtow to him. Though plans were put in place to force Godfrid to submit – plans which included the deployment of war-elephants in northern Europe – they eventually came to nothing.
Instead, a negotiated peace between Charlemagne and Godfrid was agreed, the first known example of such an international arrangement that involved a Viking ruler. Godfrid died in 810 and after his death his fledgling state in Denmark started to unravel. It would be well over a century before a more permanent state of Denmark would become firmly established.
Fans of the Last Kingdom will know of the Viking leader Guthrum, but others might be less familiar with him. Guthrum was the leader of a large Viking army that attacked the kingdom of Wessex in the 870s, a campaign that finally ended with his defeat at the hands of Alfred the Great at Edington in 878.
In the aftermath of that epic battle, Guthrum entered into an agreement with Alfred, under the terms of which he would be baptised and leave Wessex for good. Guthrum then changed his modus operandum, becoming a peace-time leader of the Viking kingdom of East Anglia rather than the fierce warrior he had been before.
He died in around 890, having seemingly managed his new role rather well. As such he became something of a prototype for later Viking rulers.
One man whose name is widely forgotten was Bjarni Herjólfsson. Bjarni was a settler in Iceland who sailed back to Norway and then made the return trip. Arriving in Iceland, he discovered that his parents had moved on to Greenland in his absence, so he decided to journey there to join them. However, bad weather took him off course.
Eventually he became totally lost before, during a break in the weather, he caught a glimpse of a strange land that no other Viking had seen before. Then his nerve failed him, and he sailed off without investigating further. He eventually made it back to Greenland where he set up home permanently.
Without knowing it, Bjarni and those with him had become the first Europeans to sight North America. Telling others of his discovery, adventurers like Leif Eriksson proved to be bigger risk-takers than Bjarni, and a small Viking settlement was set up on Newfoundland.
This proved to be non-viable and was later abandoned. All this took place half a millennium before Columbus and his epic journey and it is one of history’s great ‘what if’s’ to wonder what might have happened should the Vikings have been more successful in their efforts to establish a colony in North America.
W. B. Bartlett has worked across the globe in almost twenty countries and has spent time in over fifty. He is the author of many history books for Amberley including titles on the Titanic, Medieval History and Dam Busters. Vikings: A History of the Northmen will be published on 15 November 2021.