By James Turner
While Harald Hardrada was gaining fame and fortune in Byzantium, much was changing in Norway and Scandinavia.
Following his dramatic exit from Byzantine service, Harald took refuge in the court of his ally and mentor Grand Prince Yaroslav the Wise of Kyiv. No doubt Yaroslav’s subsequent invasion of Byzantine territory was bolstered, if not directly inspired by, the information Harald passed on to him about the current disposition of the imperial military and the precarious state of courtly politics. More directly relevant to our current purposes, during this brief period of respite, Harald married Yaroslav’s daughter Elisiv, a clear sign that both men envisaged a bright, almost certainly royal future for Harald. We must take care, however, not to let our focus on Harald and his incredible journey from exile to mercenary warlord to royal claimant obscure the equally remarkable nature of the rise to power of his nephew, King Magnus the Good.
Magnus was the illegitimate son of a domestic slave and Olaf II, a practically self-appointed king who for all his successes and herculean efforts only ever received tepid support from the Norwegian nobility. Prior to Olaf’s machinations, Norway was a cultural and geographic rather than a political entity, its edges blurring and melding as induvial lords and petty kings reached their own accommodations with their Scandinavian neighbours. Olaf took care to enhance his legitimacy as king and polish his rather grubby claim to the Norwegian throne with constant allusions to the region’s legendary past; yet even cloaked in the guise of liberation and restoration his attempts to unify Norway were met by alarm by many of the elite.
Distrusting and resentful of Olaf’s attempts to impose authority over them, substantial elements of the aristocracy evidently preferred the more distant and looser grip of Danish overlordship to Olaf’s energetic but imperious centralizing efforts. Consequently, when Cnut the Great invaded Norway in 1029, his army was bolstered by his Norwegian allies, while Olaf’s support quickly melted away compelling him to flee into exile. When Olaf returned to reclaim his throne in 1030, having heard of the premature death of Cnut’s principal ally and proxy ruler, Haakon Ericsson, he was confronted by a formidable coalition of Norwegian nobility and as we have previously discussed was ultimately slain at the Battle of Stiklestad.
Yet the adolescent Magnus was not only able to reclaim the Norwegian throne but somehow also contrived to become king of Norway’s traditional overlord and oppressor, Denmark. Like his uncle Harald, Magnus’ career is a rich example of how the tumult and growing pains of eleventh-century society created opportunities for radical change and demonstrated why it is such a fascinating and rewarding period in which to study the development of medieval globalism. After the eleventh century, the bones of Europe to be were largely set, but at this point its shape and boundaries were fluid and alive with possibilities. It was an era of adventurers and opportunists in which even the most obscure and unlikely candidates could forge kingdoms and claim states.
We have, way back at the beginning of this series, previously discussed the circumstances behind Olaf’s elevation to sainthood and the validity of his reputation as a great Christian proselytizer. To recap briefly, while the nature of the historical sources available to us sadly makes it all but impossible to gain significant insights into Olaf’s personal piety, it is clear that he cooperated with the church in the formalization and establishment of several bishoprics within Norway. Of course, the reorganization of Norway’s Christian communities and the imposition of a Church hierarchy was a political as well as spiritual matter which greatly benefited Olaf by giving him access to the administrative apparatus and infrastructure necessary to effectively exert authority within the kingdom and capitalize upon the dioceses’ financial resources. Indeed, it seems that Olaf limited these centralizing activities to areas that were already predominantly Christian and left the remaining pagan communities within Norway relatively undisturbed rather than risk provoking their ire through a campaign of conversion.
Whatever the extent of his personal piety to modern eyes, Olaf’s saintly status is badly dented by his decision to engage in a sexual relationship with an enslaved individual. Historians, including myself, have looked at various medieval dynasties and sought in vain to find a pattern or the shadow of purpose in their selection of royal mistresses. It transpires that kings seldom, if ever, entered extramarital sexual liaisons in search of political advantage and that broadly speaking the main factors were simply proximity and accessibility. Certainly, both criteria applied to Magnus’ mother, Alfhild who was a household slave of Olaf’s wife, Queen Astrid Olofsdotter, probably occupying a role roughly analogous to that of a lady in waiting. Details on Alfhild’s early life are sparse, beyond her status as an Englishwoman and it is possible that she was first enslaved and sent to Scandinavia during the flurry of warfare and raiding that marked Sweyn Forkbeard and his son Cnut’s attempts to secure the English throne. That she was evidently judged to be a suitable servant and companion for a Queen might suggest that she had performed a similar role in England or that she was herself a member of the minor nobility.
Magnus was born sometime around 1024. He was apparently born prematurely, a small sickly infant who was judged unlikely to survive. Tradition has it that with the king absent and fearful that the babe would die unbaptized, the Icelandic skald and royal court poet, Sigvatr Þórðarson, stepped in as god-father naming the child Magnus in an apparent allusion to Charlemagne. While Sigvatr Þórðarson was almost certainly the court poet of Olaf II and composed many works praising and shamelessly exaggerating the king’s achievements, the evidence for his involvement in Magnus’ life is more questionable. The idea of the wise and cultured scholar mentoring a promising young prince along the path of the great and the good is an emotive and relatively common trope whose mobilization would have appealed to the intended audience of the Heimskringla and other saga sources. Achilles had Chiron, Alexander Aristotle, Arthur Merlin and Magnus Sigvatr.
It is certainly plausible Magnus was named and baptized in the king’s absence due to fears regarding his fragile health, kingship was after all a highly demanding and strenuous trade that almost requires its participants to be everywhere at once. However, it is equally likely that Olaf’s dynastic circumstances inspired a keen interest in the birth of a new child. Likewise, deliberately naming one of his potential heirs after the widely celebrated Charlemagne could well have been an attempt by Olaf to rearticulate his determination to forge a unified Christian kingdom and establish his dynasty as unquestionably and unambiguously royal. If Sigvatr had high hopes for Magnus’ future greatness, then the same could certainly be said of his father.
Olaf’s only other child was a daughter, Wulfhild, born to Queen Astrid in 1020. That the illegitimate son of a slave was judged a more suitable primary heir than his true-born daughter may appear incongruous to readers. In actuality, the legal relegation and social stigma that later came to characterize and define illegitimacy only really started to develop at the tail end of the eleventh century. Prior to that, the line between legitimate and illegitimate was far more blurred and open to negotiation, with bastards routinely succeeding as partial or even primary heirs. One of the reasons the aristocracy of late eleventh century Europe was more amenable to the changing definitions of marriage proposed by Church reformers, which led to the strict demarcation of legitimacy, was that it allowed the aristocracy to more closely control and plan the distribution of a family’s inheritable resources.
It was a system which locked aristocrats into permanent and indissoluble unions which likewise created unavoidably acknowledged links of affinity and association between the couples’ respective families and therefore heavily incentivized members of aristocratic families to seek only the most advantageous of unions. Prior to this, these elite marriages tended to lack connotations of commitment and could be set aside in an attempt to jockey to further political advantage. While a more fluidic system than the one that took hold in the early twelfth century, both contain the same central impulse to extract as much political capital as possible from their martial or pseudo martial unions. Historians have therefore argued that the most important consideration in aristocratic marriage, which both trumped and later came to exert an important influence upon the formation of legitimacy as a construct, was the importance and range of a potential heir’s maternal connections.
Queen Astrid came to her marriage with impeccable royal credentials, which was particularly important to Olaf given the shaky nature of his claim to the throne of Norway which, as we have seen, rested upon the support of a regional clique of nobles and tenuous claims regarding his descent from the kings of Norway’s semi-mythical past. She was the daughter of King Olof Skötkonung of Sweden who had been an ally of Cnut the Great and his family, fighting a protracted series of border wars with Olaf before military setbacks and the rumblings of political dissent within Sweden compelled him to make peace with Olaf.
Following Olaf’s death in 1022, Astrid maintained her paramount importance within Olaf’s political and dynastic strategy, with her half-brother, King Anund Jacob, becoming a close ally of Olaf as they worked in tandem to challenge Cnut’s hegemony within Scandinavia. A particular notable manifestation of this cooperation came at the Battle of Helgeå in 1026 in which Olaf and Anud combined their two forces in an attempt to ward off a naval invasion by a combined army of Cnut’s Danish and English subjects. The alliance inflicted heavy casualties upon the Anglo-Danish host but was forced to withdraw when it became clear just how badly they were outnumbered.
Clearly then, there is simply no comparison in terms of maternal connections between Wulfhild, as the legitimate daughter of Queen Astrid – a member of the Swedish royal house, and Magnus the illegitimate son of a domestic slave. Magnus occupied such an important place within his father’s plans for the future of the kingdom and was, as we shall see, recognized by the Norwegian nobility as his father’s primary heir simply because of his gender. For all the importance of Wulfhild’s bloodline and her potent political connections, contemporary social mores and the default assumption that any woman would be controlled by her husband excluded her from engaging meaningfully with contemporary mechanisms of rulership. All three of the Scandinavian monarchs that reined at the time of Magnus’ birth, Olaf, Cnut and Olof were not only forced to contend with one another but also faced large-scale rebellions launched by the petty kings and nobles they ruled over.
In a political sphere of such volatility, in which even the strongest and most successful of rulers were so vulnerable, the ability to directly participate in war and successfully embody their culture’s martial ideals and idiosyncrasies were essential inalienable aspects of leadership. As we shall see, if Wulfhild or her mother felt any resentment regarding Magnus’ prominence within the royal household and his eventual recognition as Olaf’s primary heir, it evidently didn’t prevent them from maintaining a close political association. Indeed, it is possible that Astrid, who would ultimately throw her support behind Magnus’ candidacy for her late husband’s throne, was grateful that Mangus’ presence prevented her own daughter from becoming a prize in a conflict between competing Norwegian magnates. No doubt this concordant was heavily influenced by their long association and shared familial affinity since Magnus was raised alongside Wulfhild as a fully acknowledged member of the royal household.
When, as we have discussed earlier, Olaf II was forced to flee in the face of Cnut’s invasion, he was accompanied by his family, the diminished royal party wintering with their allies in central Sweden. From there, it seems that Astrid and Wulfhild attached themselves to her brother’s household while Olaf and Mangus travelled onwards the court of Grand Prince Yaroslav of Kyiv who was married to Astrid’s sister Ingegerd. Evidently the queen and princess were safe enough sheltering with their royal Swedish relatives while Olaf and Magnus were compelled to seek shelter with an ally further afield. Indeed, it is easy to see why the increasingly hegemonic and powerful Cnut would view the presence of the deposed king and his most plausible male heir within the court of one of his neighbours as a provocation. Upon their arrival in Kyiv, Olaf failed to persuade Yaroslav to support him militarily, possibly as a result of the Grand Prince’s own conflicts with the freshly established kingdom of Poland and his ongoing struggles with his rebellious brothers. Nevertheless, father and son were made welcome within the court of the Kyivan Rus and when Olaf departed on his ill-fated attempt to reclaim his throne, Magnus was left under Yaroslav’s protection.
When news of Olaf’s death in battle reached Kyiv, it was accompanied by an influx of Olaf’s exiled supporters and diehards, including another potential royal claimant, Magnus’ uncle Harald Sigurdsson. As we have seen, Yaroslav wasted little time in putting the young but freshly blooded Harald to work by implanting him in the leadership echelons of one of the bands of Scandinavian mercenaries and exiles within the Grand Prince’s employ. In this capacity Harald played an active part in Yaroslav’s devastating invasion of Poland and his attempts to curb the activities of his brother, Mstislav Pechneg’s allies. When Harald departed with his fledgling warband to seek employment with the Byzantines, the nine- or ten-year-old Magnus was left in Kyiv to be raised in a manner befitting his heritage and station alongside other young royal exiles, Andrew of Hungry and the English princes Edward and Edmund. He would not have long to languish.
Cnut and Sweyn
Somewhat fittingly, Magnus’ extraordinary rise to power was inextricably linked to the death of Cnut and the flagging fortunes of his suddenly fractured dynasty. Through a pragmatic mix of careful diplomacy and naked violence, by the time of his death in 1035, Cnut the Great was King of Denmark, England, Norway and in his own words, some of the Swedes. Cnut’s power was personal rather than institutional or systematic in nature, cutting across different regional and cultural affinities. It rested in a large part upon cultivating relationships with local powerbrokers, with royal authority stretching only as far as Cnut or one of his proxies were able to enforce it. The size of Cnut’s hegemonic domain, welded together through personal charisma and the liberal application of military force, exacerbated many of the characteristics of post-Carolingian medieval kingship such as the reliance upon allies embedded within localities and necessitated the adoption of an at least partially itinerant lifestyle. The highly personal nature of Cnut’s rule over such large and disparate territories posed certain challenges to his successors which were further compounded by their dynastic circumstances.
In keeping with of doctrine of striking accommodations with members of the regional aristocracy whenever possible, Cnut married Ælfgifu of Northampton 1014 during his father Sweyn’s paradigm-shifting invasion of England. Ælfgifu was the daughter of Ealrdorman Ælfhelm, a prominent aristocrat who held sway over much of southern Northumbria. However, the family was not on the best terms with the English royal centre who treated them with the deepest suspicion, resulting in Ælfhelm’s death in 1006 and the blinding of Ælfgifu’s brothers. Cnut’s marriage to Ælfgifu not only allowed him to exercise authority and influence within Northumbria but also signalled to other marginalized elements of the English aristocracy that the Danes were willing to work with them to address and revenge their grievances with the house of Wessex. In addition to the political advantages Cnut could derive from the marriage, it also proved to be highly successful in the more traditionally dynastic sense, producing to sons, Sweyn and Harold in short order.
However, in 1017 seeking to further consolidate his hold upon freshly conquered England, Cnut announced he was putting aside his marriage to Ælfgifu, remember at this stage in the eleventh-century marriage was not yet widely accepted as a sacrament and did not have the connotations of permeance that Church reformers would later invest it with. Instead, Cnut was to marry Queen Emma, the widow of King Æthelred the Unready and the daughter of Duke Richard I of Normandy. While the young Sweyn and Harold were far from disinherited, it was now clearly understood that Harthacnut, Cnut’s son with Emma born in 1018 and any subsequent children born to the royal couple were to be afforded a higher status than the sons of Ælfgifu.
Were Ælfgifu’s male family members more politically active – that is to say not dead or blind – it would have been possible that Cnut’s repudiation of their marriage could incite dissent and rebellion. Instead Ælfgifu was compelled to accept the new arrangement but remained a member of Cnut’s inner circle from where she continued to advocate for the rights and interests of her sons. Another interesting complication of Cnut’s second marriage was that Prince Edward and Alfred, Emma’s sons with Æthelred were now Cnut’s stepsons. Although practically speaking they were already beyond his effective reach, having found shelter with their Norman relatives.
In the mid-1020s Cnut began to anchor his sons within the constituent parts of his hegemonic realm in order to more effectively exercise and preserve royal authority during his long absences from any particular kingdom. Harthacnut, who was almost paradoxically both the king’s youngest but most senior son, was sent to the family’s heartland territories to rule Denmark as a co-king under the guardianship of Cnut’s brother-in-law, Ulf in 1026. Unfortunately for Cnut, Ulf attempted to use the young Harthacnut as a puppet king, who would under his guidance rule without recourse to his father. In response to this usurpation, Cnut invaded Denmark the following year, executing Ulf and leaving Harthacnut in power under the supervision of a council of more trustworthy advisors.
However, this incident didn’t dissuade Cnut from his policy of dynastic decentralization and in 1030, following the battle Battle of Stiklestad and Olaf II’s death, he appointed his son, Sweyn, to rule over Norway as his principal proxy and allowed Ælfgifu to accompany him as his primary advisor. Meanwhile Harold, often referred to as Harold Harefoot for reasons which remain obscure, was dwelling in England. Its unclear if Cnut ever envisaged him taking a role in the governance of England or if it was merely where the prince happened to be dwelling. Whatever the case, later events would demonstrate he had not been idle during this time, having cultivated relationships throughout the newly establishing Anglo-Danish aristocracy.
While Harold was acquiring allies, Sweyn and Ælfgifu’s heavy-handed attempts to establish authority in Norway had begun to arouse the anger of the local aristocracy. Rather than attempting to woo the Norwegian Jarls and lesser nobles, mother and son seem to have ruled primarily through the application of military power, using their cadre of Danish followers to extort and bully their subjects. The very same nobles who had been unwilling to recognize or submit themselves to the authority of Olaf II now found themselves obliged to meet the far more onerous demands levied, unvarnished by courtesy or custom, by the Danish. The resentment generated amongst the Norwegian nobility by the cupidity and mismanagement of Cnut’s chosen proxies gradually curdled into dissent and rebellion.
For this resistance movement to effectively crystalize it required a royal figurehead, a wholly Norwegian king to contrast with Cnut’s Danish and English deputies and around whom supporters could rally. In 1035 two of Norway’s most powerful and influential noblemen, Einar Thambarskelfir and Kálfr Árnason journeyed to Kyiv in order to fetch Magnus. As Olaf II’s only son, Magnus was the most plausible and obvious royal candidate while his tender age, lack of prior political engagement and exiled status made him palatable across an aristocracy accustomed to both bitter feuding and a high degree of autonomy. The piquant irony of these two nobles conspiring to raise Magnus to the throne is that both had been leading figures in the aristocracy’s struggle against Olaf, even serving as senior battlefield commanders at the Battle of Stiklestad. In light of their shifting allegiances, it seems probable that both Thambarskelfir and Árnason had initially hoped to come to some arrangement with Cnut and serve as his proxy ruler within Norway in the same semi-autonomous manner as the Jarls of Lade had previously. Instead, they found themselves shunted aside and isolated under the exploitive and heavy-handed rule of Sweyn and Ælfgifu.
Prevailing upon Grand Princess Ingegerd to release Magnus into their custody, the duo whisked him away to Sweden where, in what was surely a prearranged and highly choreographed piece of political theatre, his status as King Olaf’s heir and successor was proclaimed by his stepmother, Astrid. At the same time, he received the backing of Astrid’s brother, King Anund Jacob of Sweden. Now with a surfeit of ambitious guardians and advisors, the eleven-year-old king crossed into Norway at the head of a combined Norwegian and Scandinavian host, determined to recapture the very kingdom his father had tried to claw into existence. Half a decade of repression had stoked an ember of cultural unity amongst Norway’s elite who now saw Olaf’s attempts to construct a central royal authority illuminated in the contrasting light of Danish repression and tribalism.
It appears that Sweyn was blindsided by the upswell of rebellion that followed Magnus’ assumption of the Norwegian throne. His followers were routed and overwhelmed in short order, and he fled to the safety of Denmark and the court of his half-brother, Harthacnut, only to die soon after in unknown circumstances. Another stroke of fortune for Magnus and his followers was the sudden death of Cnut the Great late in 1035 which precluded a coordinated response against the Norwegians from across the breadth of the late king’s hegemonic empire. In keeping with his greater prestige and status, Harthacnut was proclaimed King of Denmark and England but the ongoing war in Norway, the prosecution of which he had taken over following Sweyn’s death, prevented him from travelling to England to secure his hold on power.
Instead, his mother Queen Emma attempted to rule as regent on his behalf, only to be driven into exile in Flanders when Harold Harefoot and his Anglo-Danish supporters seized the throne. With Harthacnut deprived of English support, the war in Norway unspooled at a frenetic pace. By 1040, the sixteen-year-old Magnus had conclusively triumphed in Norway. Saga sources suggest that Magnus was preparing to invade Denmark before the war-weary Norwegian nobility persuaded him to bring Harthacnut to the negotiating table, although the Saga’s were more concerned with imbuing their subjects with laudable qualities that would appeal to their audiences than capturing political and historic nuances. Additionally, the extent of the young king’s independence from his cadre of advisors at this juncture is highly questionable.
Whatever the exact circumstances, Magnus and Harthacnut came to an agreement in 1040 which ended hostilities between the two and recognized Norway as an independent kingdom. In exchange for agreeing to cede his claims on Norway, Harthacnut secured the borders of Denmark and was able to concentrate on reclaiming the throne of England in light of his half-brother Harold’s death earlier that year. This goal was duly achieved and peace was maintained for a period of two years until Harthacnut also died following a wild bender at the wedding of one of his retainers. In response, Magnus advanced the claim that he had been made Harthacnut’s heir as part of their agreement in 1040 and began the annexation of Denmark. With the death of all of Cnut’s sons, Danish resistance to Magnus’ rule was centred around Sweyn Estridsson the great king’s maternal nephew and the son of Hartacnut’s former guardian Ulf. This Sweyn led a spirited resistance against Magnus and his followers even entering into an alliance with their traditional enemies, the Wends, but he was eventually defeated and brought to an accommodation with the invaders.
By 1045 the child king and his supporters had in the span of ten years completely reversed the political situation in Scandinavia. Triumphing or outlasting the fractious heirs of Cnut Magnus had unified Norway under his rule, emulating and surpassing his father’s legacy. The Norwegians had not only won their independence from the Danes but turned the tables on their former overlords. Magnus the Good had little time to rest upon his laurels, however, for the eastern horizon cast the oncoming shadow of his uncle Harald Hadrada, Harald the severe, who was determined to claim his share of their family’s royal destiny.
James Turner has recently completed his doctoral studies at Durham University before which he attended the University of Glasgow. Deeply afraid of numbers and distrustful of counting, his main research interests surround medieval aristocratic culture and identity.
Click here to read more from James Turner
If you are interested in reading more about this important figure, see also the new book The Last Viking: The True Story of King Harald Hardrada, by Don Holloway. You learn more about this book from the publisher’s site, or purchase this book on Amazon.com | Amazon.ca | Amazon.co.uk
Top Image: Our illustration is by Julia Lillo
Comments & Reviews