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Vikings Valhalla 1.8: Trust No One

The Norway scenes in this episode are mostly invention, based loosely on saga material.

For your edification, here is a very simplified account of historical events in Norway from 1000 to 1030 pulled from The Oxford Illustrated History of the Vikings by Peter Sawyer:

In the year 1000, Swein Forkbeard defeated Olaf Tryggvasson, King of Norway, at the Battle of Svold where Olaf T. died. Forkbeard’s allies, the Norsemen Erik of Lade and his brother Sven Hakonsson began joint rule of Norway, with Forkbeard as their overlord. To seal the alliance Erik married Forkbeard’s daughter Gytha.

When Forkbeard died in 1014, Olaf Haraldsson took advantage of it by attacking Norway and defeating the Hakonsson brothers at the Battle of Nesjar. Sven Hakonsson soon died, and his brother Erik joined Cnut in his conquest of England and was made Earl of Northumbria. Meanwhile, Olaf ruled as king in Norway.

Question: Was the Battle at Kattegat in this episode based on the Battle of Nesjar, and is Jarl Haakon of Kattegat meant to be a stand-in for Erik Hakonsson? Answer: I don’t know.

Moving forward with history, in 1026 Cnut fought the kings of Norway (Olaf) and Sweden (Anund Jacob) at the Battle of the Holy River. Nobody really knows who “won”. It’s complicated, but Olaf was still ruling in Norway. In 1028 Cnut expelled Olaf from Norway by bribing the Norwegian chieftains to abandon him. Cnut appointed Hakon son of Erik Hakonsson Earl of Northumbria as his agent to rule in Norway. When Hakon died in a shipwreck Olaf returned with an army and faced Cnut again at the Battle of Stiklestad in 1030. At this point Cnut’s 27-year-old son by Ælfgifu of Northampton entered the picture in Norway.

In this episode of Vikings Valhalla we saw Swein Forkbeard (who died in 1014) arrive in Norway with Cnut’s and Ælfgifu’s son, who looks about 17 years old. How does this relate to history? I don’t know. It might help if we knew in what year Cnut’s son was about 17. Most historians think he was born in 1013 which would make him 17 in 1030. I believe he may have been born as early as 1011, which would make him 17 in 1028. So, when this scene is set is up for grabs, but whether it was 1017, 1028 or 1030–Forkbeard was dead.  

Much of what we know about Norway is pulled from the Heimskringla Saga, and the dates in that saga are a confusing mess. So the events that take place in Norway in this show are a lot like that saga. Don’t try to keep things straight. Just sit back and enjoy the battles.

There is plenty of invention going on in the London scenes as well. Emma appears to have lost Swein Forkbeard’s support, and Team Ælfgifu is in control. It tickled me to see Emma’s brother Duke Richard arrive in London to fetch Emma home to Normandy. While his arrival in England at any time would have been highly unlikely, it’s possible that there was some kind of communication between Richard and Cnut regarding the fate of Emma’s sons at the time of Cnut’s marriage to the queen. As Emma and her sons sail from London the boys look almost like twins, although Edward would have been 7 years older than Alfred.

As for Ælfgifu, portrayed with relish by Polyanna McIntosh, she was in fact a member of a powerful Merican family, and historian Timothy Bolton describes her as “a powerful and ruthless Anglo-Saxon noblewoman who played a number of significant roles in the English and Scandinavian political scenes.”1   Certainly that is how she is portrayed here as she convinces the Mercians that she understands the intimate needs of Cnut and of Mercia, and so can represent the Mercians at court. Something akin to this no doubt happened a couple of decades later, and this event is being modelled on that. I had to laugh when she commiserated with the Mercians, saying soothingly, “I know you aren’t happy with a Viking king,” and Godwin snapped at them, “You weren’t happy with a Saxon king. You were never happy!” I can’t help liking this Godwin, wonderfully portrayed by David Oakes.  I was especially intrigued by Ælfgifu’s suggestive invitation to Godwin to join her for some wine. It made me wonder if a) the rest of this scene was edited out and b) if the showrunners had read my first 2 books.

For this huge fan of Queen Emma, the face-off between Cnut’s wives was a delight. The showrunners set it up beautifully, and I’ve watched it several times, gloating as Emma smoothly pulls the rug out from under Ælfgifu. Although much of the focus of future episodes will have to be on the Vikings, I hope that we haven’t seen the last of these two rivals.

In the final scenes over in Norway, Olaf is on the run. Harald and Freydis are making their way from Kattegat along the cliffs, heading we know not where, although I could take a guess. Swein Forkbeard has landed his fleet (Forkbeard is dead, you know. He died in 1014. Just sayin’) and we’re left with a cliff-hanger moment as young Swein inadvertently runs into a grieving and maddened Leif Eriksson. I hope Swein knows how to duck.

Now, if you want more Anglo-Saxon vs Dane mayhem, Season 5 of THE LAST KINGDOM airs on March 9. Thank you, Netflix!

1 “Ælfgifu of Northampton: Cnut the Great’s Other Woman,” Nottingham Medieval Studies, 2007.



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