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Ethelred the Pious

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Background: The axe is shouldered


Bloodaxe family conquests by 950

Erik Bloodaxe was no less a legend in his own time than in ours, and no less for his deeds than for his name. Once the acknowledged king of Norway, he was unseated in 935 by his brother Haakon, with the help of the Norwegian royalty and nobility who had resented Erik's heavy-handed rule. Unfazed, Erik left for England, specifically the turbulent Kingdom of Østangeln, to plan another conquest. He amassed an army in Østangeln and the Orkneys and conquered the old Viking city of Dyflin (Dublin), re-establishing the Kingdom there.

Erik and his son, the powerful warrior Harald Greycloak, fought ceaselessly against the surrounding Irish statelets, forcing their neighbors to acknowledge Erik's supremacy on the island. Harald's prowess in battle and the presence of his influetial mother, Erik's wife Gunnhild, seemed to make Harald's position as Erik's heir quite secure.

However, Erik had an illegitimate son whom he also favored, Haeric, also called Erik. In 946, Erik supplied his son with ships and men to make his own name, common for landless illegitimate sons. The younger Erik embarked on an incredible voyage of conquest, subduing the kingdoms of Man, Ongelsey, and Kernow, the last of which was ruled by Vilhalmer/William, son of Hrolfr the Northman. Erik next proceeded to unseat the King of Østangeln himself. The younger Erik's victories earned him the epithet "the Mariner" and positioned him as a dangerous rival to his half-brother Harald.

The axe is sharpened

While the elder Erik lived, his two sons jockeyed for power while maintaining appearances of family loyalty. Erik the Mariner intervened in the politics of the great Kingdom of Jorvik. He married his daughter Halla to Thorkell, nephew of the King, in 953. The next year, the king died. Erik the Mariner invaded Jorvik to secure his son-in-law's election to the throne. The most powerful rival, a cousin Olaf, retreated to his lands in Spain.

Harald, meanwhile, gained strength in Ireland. In 952 he fortified the hill at Tara, hoping to make his father's symbolic High Kingship a permanent institution. By 960 or so he (with his mother) was governing Dyflin for his aging father.

Erik Bloodaxe finally died in 964. The skalds all agreed that a man so steeped in war hardly deserved to live so long. Harald Greycloak immediately claimed the kingship, supported by all the thanes of his Irish lands. His half-brother refused to submit as he had to his father. In response to this act of insolence, Harald prepared for war.

Erik the Mariner was too sure of himself. His western lands - Ongelsey, Man, and the Hebrides - were vulnerable to attack from Dyflin and difficult to defend from his base in Østangeln. Harald attacked the islands and quickly secured the submission of their sub-kings. Erik turned to his son-in-law Thorkell of Jorvik for aid, while Harald's mother Gunnhild appealed to allies in Orkney and in distant Denmark. All the islands prepared for a wide-spanning war.

The axe swings

Gunnhild traveled to Orkney, where Thorfinn Skullsplitter ruled as Jarl with his brother Arnkel. She promised to restore their former rule over some of the Hebrides in exchange for joining the war against Erik. A fleet from Orkney sailed against Østangeln in 965.

But Erik was not called the Mariner for nothing. Sailing out to meet Thorfinn, he sank the greater part of the Orkeyish fleet and forced the Skullsplitter to retreat. In days Erik outfitted a retaliatory expedition and sailed north to Orkney, hoping to obtain the quick surrender of his half-brother's ally. Erik failed to force a landing in the isles and fell back to the shore of Katanes (Caithness), where he and his men wintered.

In the spring of 966, Arnkel attacked Erik's positions in Katanes and was defeated. Erik had won, but his position was not strong enough to demand Orkneyjar's outright submission to him. He settled for a promise of neutrality in the war and the establishment of his rule in those parts of the northern Hebrides that Harald had returned to Orkney.

Satisfied, Erik returned to Østangeln. He met with his son-in-law Thorkell of Jorvik, and they discussed the possibility of invading Ireland and dividing up Harald's conquests. Thorkell owed his position to Erik and saw in this new war the chance to make a name for himself, especially after his failed attempt to conquer Galisja, Spain, from his cousin in 964. He invaded the Isle of Man in 967 while Erik sailed - for the second time - against Kernow, ruled by Sub-king Donyarth in vassalage to Harald. The Cornish were used to the ritual of surrender and homage to whatever Viking warlord happened to be sailing through, so by 968 Erik was using Kerno as a base to attack his brother's lands in Ireland.

The axe falls

The Skullsplitter had been no help at all, so Harald and Gunnhild looked elsewhere for an ally. They appealed to Dub, King of Alba. Alba was probably the most powerful kingdom in the British Isles. Celtic and Christian, Alba had been able to weather the Viking attacks that had brought down the rest of the archipelago, and since 900 the Scots and Vikings had been content to largely ignore one another. But in 967, Dub had an interest in helping Harald defeat Erik. Harald promised Dub all the islands off his coast should they win - Man, the Hebrides, even the Orkneys. Dub began constructing a fleet to attack the Hebrides and Man.

The Christian fleet took two years to complete. During that time, both Erik and Thorkell tried repeatedly to seize Dyflin and end the war. They failed every time. Erik was equally unsuccessful diplomatically; he was unable to find any powerful Irish chieftans, Celt or Norse, willing to turn against Harald. When it became clear that the Scots were preparing for war, Thorkell became a much less willing ally. He left his base on Man and returned to tend to his northern borderlands, gearing up for a Scottish invasion.

The Gaelic storm hit in the middle of 969. Dub and his fleet sailed to the Hebrides and then to Man, burning the Viking ships. Although inexperienced in seafaring, their overwhelming numbers were too much for Erik's small, seasoned forces. Dub sailed home in triumph with plans to Jórvik itself in the coming months.

However, Alba did not rest during Dub's absense. His succession to the throne had always been disputed by a number of relatives. Dub returned to find his cousin Cuilen securely on the throne with all the nobles supporting him. Cuilen had his cousin placed under arrest and later beheaded.

Cuilen thought Dub a fool for provoking the Jórvikish kingdom, a move he felt would lead to endless war with few lasting gains. He met with Thorkell in a field near their border and agreed to switch sides. Far better that the three kingdoms of Great Britain (Alba, Jórvik, and Østangeln) should band together and conquer the upstart in Ireland, Harald. Early in 970, three armies, led by Erik, Thorkell, and Cuilen, landed in Ireland. Harald Greycloak appeared to be out of luck.

The axe is bloodied

There was one option left for the heir of Bloodaxe. Gunnhild was descended (or claimed to be) from the long-dead king of Denmark, Gorm the Old. She would now appeal to her distant cousin, Denmark's current King, Harald Bluetooth. She begged him to come to her aid, offering all sorts of honors and lands should he agree. He did. Gunnhild sailed into Dyflin at the head of a vast fleet of ships lent by the king.

After driving the invaders off of Ireland, Harald Greycloak decided to go after his brother's very base: Østangeln. With the Danish help, he was able to secure a number of towns and fortresses there. In 972, Harald Bluetooth himself arrived from Denmark with additional troops. His gamble seemed to be paying off, and he stood to seize a fine prize in England.

By 973, the Haralds had conquered Østangeln and driven Erik off the island. Harald Greycloak swore the requisite oaths of loyalty to Harald Bluetooth of Denmark. Harald B now had a foothold in England. He pressed on to the important trading city of Lundun, for decades considered "shared" between Jorvik and Østangeln. His forces took it after a long siege. To stem the tide, Thorkell met with the Haralds in December. In return for peace, he paid a hefty ransom to the victors. Harald Bluetooth received not only Lundun, but Essex and Kent as well. The growth of the Danish Empire had begun.

Cuilen, a cautious ruler, did not like the prospect of facing Dyflin and Denmark alone. He returned home, bringing with him all his forces, holding on to only Man and the southernmost Hebrides - conquered by his late cousin back in 969.

The axe is sheathed


The British Isles after the war

The Haralds pursued Erik to his refuge in the Orkneys, which he fled in 974. A compulsive wanderer, he went to Iceland and later Greenland, where he died c. 980.

Harald Greycloak was secure in his Irish kingdom that he had helped conquer and enlarge in his youth. He also bore the title Sub-King of Østangeln, although there he was little more then a vassal of Harald Bluetooth in Denmark.

Although the war had begun as a succession crisis between two pagan Vikings in England and Ireland, the real winner turned out to be Christian Denmark. Harald Bluetooth gained two new territories in the British archipelago, Orkney and Østangeln, both of which were larger than they had been a decade earlier. Harald set the stage for his successors' great empire in England.

The Celtic states of Britain came through the war shaken but intact. Alba had in fact gained territory, while Kernow managed, once again, to slip through the cracks of power and hang on to its independence, if only for a little while.

The other winners of the war were the skalds and their audiences, who for centuries thereafter would be entertained and amazed by the sagas written about it. The Saga of Erik the Mariner is considered the finest example of Ongellseyan poetry, and many other fine epics emerged from Ireland, England, Man, and Orkney. Erik's reputation traveled with him to Iceland and Greenland, where even more fantastical accounts of the long war were composed and later written down.


I. Background

A. Erik Bloodaxe conquers Dublin
B. Harald Greycloak campaigns in Ireland
C. Haeric/Erik the Mariner gathers fleet, conquers Ostangeln in vassalage to father

II. Early conflict

A. Harald succeeds to throne of Dublin
B. Erik refuses to submit
C. Harald raids Erik's lands on the Irish Sea

III. The war widens

A. Orkney campaign
1. Gunnhild gains Jarl of Orkney's alliance
2. Orkneyish fleet sails against Ostangeln, defeated
3. Erik sails to Orkney
4. Erik re-establishes control in northern Hebrides
5. Unsuccessful raid against Alba on return journey
B. Jorvik brought into conflict
1. Erik and Thorkell attack Kernow, Man, Ongelsey
2. They raid Irish coast
C. Alba brought into conflict
1. Harald makes overtures to K. Dub of Alba
2. Dub invades Man & Hebrides
3. Dub's cousin Cuilen seizes throne of Alba; kills Dub when he returns.
4. Pact between Cuilen, Thorkell and Erik. Invasion of Ireland.

IV. Denmark

A. Gunnhild goes to Harald Bluetooth of Denmark. Harald B offers aid to Harald Greycloak.
B. Conquest of Ostangeln
1. Harald G conquers Ostangeln with Danish ships
2. Harald G submits to Harald B
3. Erik flees to and takes over Orkneys & Hebrides
4. Harald B arrives and conquers Lundun; Peace with Jorvik
C. Alba withdraws from war; holds onto Man & S. Hebrides

V. End

A. Erik the Mariner driven out of Orkney, heads for Iceland, later Greenland
B. Harald Greycloak king of Dublin in his own right, Sub-King of Ostangeln as vassal of Denmark
C. Orkney confirmed as Danish vassal
D. Man and S. Hebrides in Scottish hands
E. Kernow again slips through the cracks

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