Who Were the Viking Kings?

As part of my ongoing Viking research, I was looking through references in our sources to Viking kings to try and work out who they are. One surprise was that the answer is relatively few; and these can be generally split into a relatively small number of categories. One of these are figures about whom we know nothing, like the Kalbi of the Annals of Xanten or the Oscytel of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. One of the two other main categories are ‘people who are definitely related to the royal families of ninth-century Denmark’. The other, I have come to believe, is ‘people who are probably related to the royal families of ninth-century Denmark’, and that’s what I want to try and argue today.

 So, first things first: families? Yes, families plural. The most famous king of ninth-century Denmark was King Godefrid (r. -810), who is one of the few people who was able not only to fight Charlemagne but to win, at least until he was murdered by a retainer. Godefrid’s successor was not any of his sons – of whom he had at least five – but his brother’s son Hemming. Hemming lived for only a couple of years, dying in 812, whereupon the succession was disputed between a man named Siegfried, another nephew of Godefrid (probably from a different brother); and a man named Anulo. With Anulo, we appear to have another reigning family, as the Royal Frankish Annals call him a nephew of a man named Harald. Harald is not named as a king in the Annals, but implicitly seems to have been one; perhaps the historical prototype of the legendary Danish king Harald Wartooth. In any event, Anulo was also the nephew of one of the more immediate kings, either Godefrid or Hemming, in my money the latter. (In fact, my specific conjecture is that a Danish noble named Halfdan, who was almost certainly Anulo’s father but who is not named as any relative of Godefrid when he appears in the late ninth century Poeta Saxo under 807, was married to a sister of Hemming.) Both these men died in the following battle, but Anulo’s brothers Harald Klak and Rognfrith both became kings. So far, so good – more internal politics within Denmark follow, but for our purposes we will focus on this royal family, the sons of Halfdan, until right near the end.

Our first stop are kings in Frisia. These are very clearly part of this royal family, not least because we’ve already met one of them: the first Danish leader granted land in the region was none other than Harald Klak. He was followed by probably the most famous ruler of Viking Frisia, Roric of Dorestad, who was probably but not entirely certainly Harald Klak’s nephew. Roric was also, on occasion, entitled king – but he too ruled in Denmark. After a protracted internal struggle, a son of King Godefrid named Horic I ruled the Danes for several decades. In 850, though, his position came under threat: two of his nephews (unnamed in the annals) attacked him and he was forced to partition his realm. This seems to have opened the floodgates: a different nephew (whom we’ll come back to) attacked Horic in 854 and in the ensuing fighting Horic and his two co-reigning nephews were killed. In the aftermath of this, in 855, Roric and his brother Guthfrith tried to gain royal power in Denmark for themselves. They didn’t succeed at that time, but in 857 Roric was able to exploit the youth of the eventual winner Horic II and gain a portion of Denmark for himself; from this point, he was called king. Later, in the 880s, another King Guthfrith was granted Roric’s benefice in Frisia by Charles the Fat. Our sources don’t say that Guthfrith was Roric’s relative; but they seem only to have been aware of first-degree kinship, and the onomastics, royal title, and similar area of operations make it likely that Guthfrith was also related to the Danish royal family.

 That’s relatively straightforward, but I think there’s a bigger connection that can be made. Starting in the mid-ninth century, a dynasty known to historians as the Uí Ímair (which is an Irish phrase meaning ‘descendants of Ivar’) ensconced themselves in Britain and Ireland. Their most famous member was, as you might expect, called Ivar, the historical prototype for the legendary Ivar the Boneless. However, Ivar was not the only one of his family gallivanting around the Irish Sea in the ninth century.

Let’s start by establishing who Ivar’s family were. The Fragmentary Annals of Ireland, an eleventh-century source comprised of pseudo-historical saga material on one hand and older chronicles on the other, says that Ivar was brother to a man named Olaf, who appeared in Ireland in 853 to subjugate the Irish Vikings on behalf of his father, the king of Laithlinn. This has been challenged, but I don’t think these challenges are particularly convincing: this relationship is stated in a couple of ways in the non-legendary portion of the material and although there is room for doubt, I find it convincing. (Less convincing but still possible is the ascription of a third brother, Asl; this figure is historical and associated with Olaf and Ivar, but that he was their brother is only mentioned in one of the more legendary-leaning portions of the Fragmentary Annals.) The Ivar of the Irish annals is almost certainly the same man as the Ivar of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. The Chronicle refers in 878 to an (unnamed) brother of Ivar and Halfdan, indicating that Ivar was also brothers with that Great Army leader, who was the first Viking ruler of Northumbria. (This reference has also been questioned on the grounds that the construction of the sentence is peculiar; but the Chronicle is a good contemporary source and I am uncomfortable with arguments that presume we know how our sources should be written better than their actual authors.) Olaf, Ivar, Halfdan and – if he was their brother – Asl are all called kings.

Who was their father? The Fragmentary Annals name Ivar and Olaf’s father a couple of times as a man named Guthfrith, and at one point there is a longer genealogy given:

Guthfrith -> Guthfrith Conung [i.e. king] -> Ragnar -> Guthfrith -> Ivar

This genealogy has been generally dismissed, except maybe the name of the final Guthfrith, Ivar’s father. However, I think there are grounds for taking it seriously. Again, this material is found in the annalistic rather than the legendary portions of the Fragmentary Annals, and the early-to-mid tenth-century source from which it is derived would have been within memory of Ivar’s generation. Moreover, taking it seriously produces some remarkable synchronicities between Irish and Danish history.

Guthfrith Conung’s nickname, I would suggest, derives from the memory of a particularly impressive king who, from the generations, we might expect to have reigned around the year 800. Obviously, this would be King Godefrid (‘Godefrid’ and ‘Guthfrith’ are in fact the same name). Now this is interesting. There actually was a Viking chief named Ragnar who attacked Paris in the mid-840s, but I think it’s unlikely this was Ivar’s grandfather, largely because we have an eye-witness report from an ambassador to Denmark who saw the audience between Ragnar and Horic I of Denmark after his return from Paris. Horic I was definitely a son of Godefrid and it seems unlikely that the ambassador, or anyone else at the time, would have not mentioned the relationship given how touchy the Franks were about Horic’s apparent refusal or inability to prevent Viking raids. More interesting are the events of the 850s. As we’ve noted, in 850 Horic was attacked by two of his nephews, neither of whom the sources name. If one of them were the putative Guthfrith Ragnarsson – i.e. Ivar’s father – then the course of Irish history in the following years takes on a new light.

I mentioned that the first appearance of the Uí Ímair comes in 853, when Olaf, son of the king of Laithlinn, appears to subjugate the Irish Vikings. These events have become caught up in the controversy over where Laithlinn was: in Scotland or in Norway? This controversy has been remarkably bitter given that there are only four contemporary mentions of Laithlinn (and I’m normalising the spelling below): one in 848, when the king of Laithlinn’s deputy Jarl Thorir was killed in battle; the mention of Olaf’s being the king’s son in 853; an Old Irish poem where a monastic author is relieved at a stormy sea because it makes the voyage impassable to ‘the fierce warriors of Laithlinn’ and another Old Irish poem referring to an army coming over from Laithlinn in 866. Personally, I think that both Scotland and Norway are barking up the wrong tree. In response to Jarl Thorir’s death, a Viking fleet showed up in 849 on behalf of the ‘king of the Foreigners’ – i.e., the Vikings. The similar-sounding but unrelated word which replaced Laithlinn, Lochlann, generally denotes ‘Norway’, at least by the latter part of the eleventh century; but it can also just mean ‘generically Viking’, and I think that Laithlinn means the same thing – ‘king of Laithlinn’ and ‘king of the Foreigners’ are synonyms. The Irish authors didn’t know much about Scandinavia at all, and so used these general terms. But the king of Laithlinn, I think, did have a location: the mid-ninth century Danish kingdom.

In this reading, the ‘King of Laithlinn’ of 848 and the ‘King of the Foreigners’ in 849 is Horic I. It may well be that the Irish victories against the Vikings in 848 were one of the factors which made him look vulnerable to attack by his nephews in 850. In any case, when Horic’s nephews became kings, their position was not secure. A renewed wave of Viking attacks across Europe in 850-852 suggests that political losers were fleeing Denmark and engaging in raiding activity to gather political and financial capital; an 852 reference in the Annals of Fulda to Harald, probably the brother of Roric of Dorestad, fleeing to Louis the German and living in Saxony sometime earlier strongly suggests that the court had been purged of potential rivals from within the royal family. (Notably Roric too sought a benefice in Frisia – it looks like both men wanted a base close to the Danish kingdom to exploit instabilities in it. Harald was actually killed in 852 by the ‘wardens on the Danish March’ and I wonder if it might be because they suspected that he might go a-viking the same way Roric had a year or two before…) In 852, Guthfrith, son of Harald Klak, seems to have made a brief attempt to assert power in Denmark before going out and plundering the West Frankish kingdom. In this context, Olaf’s appearance on the Irish scene in 853 has the clear aim of reasserting royal authority over the Irish Vikings and of gaining resources to shore up Olaf’s father’s power in the Danish kingdom. This should be seen in the context of the civil war which killed Horic in 854. This war probably also killed Olaf and Ivar’s father as well – the Annals of Fulda and the Vita Anskarii say that the attrition amongst the Danish elite was serious, and the Annals of Saint-Bertin refer to the deaths of Horic’s co-kings.

I think this presents a decent, if circumstantial, case that the Uí Ímair and the kings of Denmark were related. There is one more interesting overlap to note. After the 850s, Frankish interest in the Danish kingdom itself waned dramatically. One of the few notices – and essentially the only detailed one – comes from the Annals of Fulda, which under 873 notes that the kings of Denmark, Siegfried and Halfdan, sent messengers to Louis the German asking for his protection. The implication is that they had not been on the throne for very long, and it is unlikely they stayed on the throne for very long either. Siegfried is generally supposed to be the King Siegfried whom Charles the Fat besieged at Asselt in 882 and to whom he gave vast sums of money to go away. Siegfried did go away, but he returned in 885 at the head of the fleet which besieged Paris in the famous siege of 885-886. After the siege was lifted, Siegfried raided in the West Frankish kingdom some more before going to Frisia where he was killed – so say the Annals of Saint-Vaast – shortly after autumn 887. This is interesting, because we have reports of an (unnamed) son of Ivar ravaging Lismore in 883 – precisely the one time that we can’t see our Frankish Siegfried active, and the only appearance of a son of Ivar in the Irish annals until 888, when the Annals of Ulster record the death of Siegfried, son of Ivar, by his kinsmen. This is interesting, because the deaths of King Siegfried and of Siegfried Ivarsson appear to match up. The slight difference in date is quite explicable by 1) the fact that the Saint-Vaast annalist doesn’t say that Siegfried died in autumn 887, just sometime after it; and 2) the news would have taken a little time to get to Ireland – it would be quite feasible for Siegfried to have been killed at the very end of 887 and for the report of his death to have reached Ireland in time for the 888 annal. Moreover, the circumstances are intriguing: Siegfried was killed by his kinsmen, and Frisia had been in the hands of members of the Danish royal family for decades at this point. Siegfried’s quondam comrade King Guthfrith, the last man known to have held it, was killed in 885; but there could well have been relics of the family hanging around in the area.

In short, I think there is a reasonable case to be made that the Uí Ímair were offshoots of the family of King Godefrid of Denmark, which means that most of the Viking kings we can place in the ninth century were all related to each other. Before I finish up, I’d like to talk about a few of the others, notably the kings of East Anglia and the early Rus’ princes. The first Viking king of East Anglia was Guthrum. The nephew of Horic I who led the civil war which ended up killing Horic was also called Guthrum, and the two men have been held to be identical, for instance in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry. Personally, I think the language of the annals implies that Horic’s nephew Guthrum died; but it is interesting that the only other king of East Anglia whose name we know was Eohric = Horic. Onomastics suggest there could be come connection. On a similar, but even more conjectural note, the first three princes of Kievan Rus’ were called Rurik (Roric), Igor (Ivar) and Oleg (Helgi). We have already seen Rorics and Ivars in action, and Helgi is the same name as a c. 900 king of Denmark named by Adam of Bremen. Given just how shadowy the early Rus’ rulers are, I don’t want to propose anything concrete, but the overlap is interesting…

You may be asking, at this point: so what? In fact, if most Viking leaders given a royal title in our sources whose background we can ascertain or hypothesise about were related to one of the existing Danish royal families, that has a number of important implications. However, this post is going long, so we will have to park it for now. Look forward to a post on social status and rank within the Viking world shortly down the line!

4 thoughts on “Who Were the Viking Kings?

    1. Thanks! I’m glad you enjoyed it 🙂
      Thank you also for the link to Stephen Lewis’ work. I actually had his (AFAIK still unpublished) piece on Halfdan in mind when talking about the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle above. In general, I think he’s too much of a splitter for my taste here (although too much of a lumper elsewhere, e.g. in his identification of the Frisian viking Rodolf with Ubba)…

      Liked by 1 person

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