Let me begin with the Norway plot and then put it aside while I deal with events in England.
Almost everything that happens in Norway is invented. Kattegat itself is invented and I suppose that having this imaginary place as the tie-in between this series and VIKINGS! makes the showrunners feel that they have license to make up whatever they want about it. Fair enough. Watchers should just remember that Kattegat is a place apart. It’s like Never Never Land.
As for Uppsala, yes, there was a very large temple there. And yes, there was very probably conflict between the pagan Norse and the Christian Norse throughout this period, and yes Christian Olaf—later St. Olaf–was a major player in that. Yes, the temple at Uppsala was burned down, but it was in the late 11th century after all the historical figures we’re seeing here were dead. And it was not burned down by Jarl Kåre. Jarl Kåre is an invention, like Jarl Haakon and Kattegat.
Did Harald Hardrada join his older half-brother Olaf to challenge Cnut for the throne of Norway? Yes, at the Battle of Stiklestad in 1030. Harald was 15. The struggle for the control and unification of Norway was actually ongoing for the first half of the 11th century, and control of Norway went back and forth between the Norwegians and the Danes. Alliances switched back and forth as well. The history is complicated by the fact that much of it is conflicting as its drawn from sagas, eddas, and chronicles written long after the events took place. My own understanding of it is limited.
But we know a lot about what was going on in England, and I just want to say that there are way too many kings in this episode. We have Cnut as King of England and Denmark. We have Edmund as King of Wessex. We have Swein Forkbeard as king of Denmark but acting as king of England. And by the way, Cnut had an older brother named Harald who was actually King of Denmark from 1014 to 1020, only he’s been replaced here by Ælfgifu who was never queen of Denmark.
So let me do some clarifying: Swein Forkbeard was dead by the time his son Cnut conquered England in 1016/17, so Swein never sat on a throne beside either Edmund Ironside or Queen Emma. And it puzzles me why the showrunners decided to use Swein at all in this episode. A much better choice would have been Thorkell the Tall. He was powerful, he had a huge fleet, he’d helped Cnut conquer England, and he was the Viking that Cnut left in charge early in his reign when he had to leave England to take care of business in Denmark. Also, Thorkell was at least alive, as opposed to Swein who by this time was dead and buried in Roskilde. Go figure.
As for Earl Godwin, he absolutely did not kill King Edmund Ironside. In fact, one of the stories that seeps down through the centuries is that Eadric Streona murdered Edmund to gain Cnut’s favor, adding to Eadric’s list of betrayals; so the showrunners are using that tale and simply inserting Godwin into the Eadric role. Only, the story of Edmund’s murder is likely apocryphal, and it’s more gruesome than the way it’s been portrayed here. (You don’t want to know.) The rumor of his murder probably started because Edmund’s death on Nov. 30, 1016 was pretty convenient for Cnut. If Edmund had lived it’s very likely that he and Cnut would have eventually gone to war again, throwing England once more into chaos. It’s far more likely, though, that Edmund died of wounds that he suffered at Assandun. Sepsis was deadly and not uncommon. Almost 200 years later it would kill King Richard the Lionheart. Nevertheless, when the character of Swein Forkbeard tells Emma that Edmund’s death was crucial to Cnut’s power and hers – that’s true.
It disturbs me, though, that this murder pits Godwin against Emma, who suspects him of the murder and isn’t happy about it. It also throws plenty of shade on Godwin’s character which I feel is unwarranted. Swein rewards him for the act; and while Godwin early on became Cnut’s most trusted advisor, he was rewarded with an earldom because of his good counsel and skill in battle, not because he murdered Edmund. That’s the kind of thing that Æthelred would have done, and Cnut was trying very hard not to repeat Æthelred’s mistakes.
Yes, King Cnut married Queen Emma in 1017. In fact, there are 5 different historical accounts of how that marriage came about, and none of them agree. The way this series presents their relationship is just as good as any that’s come down to us from the 11th and 12th centuries.
Cnut’s earlier handfast marriage to Ælfgifu was part of an alliance between her family and the Danes when they invaded in 1013. She was considered a concubine, and the Danes and even the English at this time had no problem with this kind of relationship; it meant that her children could inherit even if Cnut later married someone else in a ceremony blessed by the church. Ælfgifu no doubt had a problem with it when Cnut took another wife, and Emma certainly had a problem with that first marriage. The two women were rivals for power, and this would play out in the politics much later when their sons by Cnut were grown up. But we don’t know what their personal interaction would have looked like at this time. We don’t even know where Ælfgifu was, but I doubt that she had a fleet at her disposal. The showrunners are simply playing chess here with 2 queens and filling in the historical blanks with their own story. It makes for a good drama.
Did you notice the very short scene with Emma and her sons in her bedchamber? She is playing with them, but when there’s a knock on the door, she hides them. It shows her awareness of the peril they are in, and it’s confirmed when Edmund is murdered with Swein’s tacit approval. Emma’s children, like Edmund, are royal sons with claims to the English throne, and even though they’re children they are a threat to Cnut’s rule. They are also a threat to Ælfgifu’s sons’ claims to the thrones of Denmark and England. That’s historically accurate. Queen Emma had to be pretty canny about forging alliances. She’s decided that she can trust Cnut, but can she trust this Swein?
And Emma for sure can’t trust Ælfgifu. First wife makes that clear with a threat: “Surely you know that if a wolf is roaming your halls and warming itself by your fire, it must be considering you its dinner.”
I love it that Emma immediately goes to Swein who says, “I have troubles,” and she responds dryly, “Yes, I’ve just met them.”
Now, we know that by 1017 Emma’s sons had been sent to her brother in Normandy, but we don’t know exactly how that came about. So once again, the showrunners are filling in historical blanks.
By episode’s end we have “Team Emma & Swein-Who-Really-Wasn’t-There” facing off in England against “Team Ælfgifu & Godwin-Who-Wasn’t-This-Sinister”; we have Cnut somewhere in Denmark fighting off the Wends, which he probably wasn’t; and we have 15-year-old Harald looking 30 if he’s a day and rushing to help his brother Olaf grab the throne of Norway. The showrunners are very careful not to tell us when this is all taking place because it happened over 15 years; and I doubt that any of this will be resolved in the next episode. Stay tuned.