The first thing that the audience watching VIKINGS VALHALLA needs to do is to throw away the historical timeline because that is what the script writer, Jeb Stuart, has done. Let me give you some examples: The opening scene takes place in England in 1002 when, the show tells us, Æthelred was England’s king and, over in Denmark, Canute was on the throne. Trouble is, it was Canute’s father Sven Forkbeard who was the king of Denmark in those years. Canute would have been, at most, 12. But when we meet Canute later in Norway, he’s played by a strapping and heavily bearded Bradley Freegard, who looks to be – what? 35? Even older? And before we meet Canute we are introduced to Harald Sigurdsson aka Harald Hadrada (Leo Suter) and Olaf Haraldsson (Johannes Hauker Johannesson) who appears to be a combination of two Olafs: Olaf Haraldsson (aka St. Olaf) and Olaf Tyrggvason (d. 1000). Both Harald Sigurdsson and Olaf Haraldsson were kings of Norway, but much later—say, 30 and more years later, and not at the same time, of course. Harald wasn’t even born yet in 1002. We also meet Leif Eriksson (Sam Corlett), who was at least alive in 1002 and who was indeed supposed to have been visiting Norway around this time and who was converted to Christianity by Olaf Tyrgvasson (not Olaf Haraldsson). We meet Leif and his sister Freydis (Frida Gustavsson) as they’re sailing from Greenland to Norway, and they give us a good look at how much fun it must have been to go sailing in the North Sea on a Viking ship during a storm. Not.
Okay. So, back to history. What Jeb Stuart is doing is taking some big names in Scandinavian history, throwing them into a pot, stirring them up, and ladling them into this show. One reviewer I read suggested that viewers keep Wikipedia open while they’re watching Valhalla, which made me laugh. But honestly, I don’t recommend it. With all those Haralds and Olafs you’ll only get confused. Just try to follow the interpersonal relationships without trying to figure out if they’re historically accurate. For the most part, they’re not. You can still enjoy the show. Just don’t take it too seriously history-wise.
So let’s look at what is historically accurate. The episode begins with the St. Brice’s Day Massacre. Yes, this happened on November 13, 1002. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle “The king gave an order to slay all the Danes that were in England…because it was told the king that they would beshrew him of his life, and afterwards all his council, and then have his kingdom without any resistance.” How many Danes were killed is unknown, but the massacre became legend, with gruesome details added (possibly invented) as the story was told and retold. Nevertheless, there were Danes who were trapped and burned in Oxford’s St. Frideswide’s Church, and two mass graves have been found from about this time which archaeologists suggest may have been ships’ complements of viking raiders caught up in the St. Brice’s Day event. In fact, a charter signed by King Æthelred mentions that the Danes were in the land “like cockles amongst the wheat”, and the show actually has Æthelred say that. I was impressed. (Cockles are a kind of weed.)
Did the St. Brice’s Day Massacre spark revenge by the Danes? That could well be true. Supposedly, one of the women killed was Sven Forkbeard’s sister who was living in England at the time with her husband Pallig. Scholars have theorized that Sven’s repeated attacks on England over the next decade were spurred by vengeance for the murder of his sister. What is misleading in this episode is that the event as shown here appears to be ethnic cleansing. But according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle it was a response to a perceived threat—that the Danes intended to kill the king and his council. Whether the threat was real or not is anyone’s guess today. Certainly viking raiders from outside England had been hitting the kingdom for years, and the king was looking for ways to halt them. But what happened on St. Brice’s Day merely threw fuel on the fire.
The fleets that Swein would lead in 1013 and that Cnut would lead in 1015 were drawn from all over Scandinavia, as shown here; but while some of their men would have been eager for vengeance and some for glory, most of them were out for plunder.
It’s true that Olaf Haraldsson was violently Christian, as he’s presented here. He eventually forced Christianity upon Norway, but he wasn’t even converted until 1013 so, again, the timeline is off.
I enjoyed hearing Canute extolling Ragnar Lothbrok in front of that viking crowd. Actually, I believe that Canute claimed to be descended from Ragnar’s son, Ivar the Boneless and so, presumably, from Ragnar, assuming Ragnar actually existed. That’s debatable. The mention of Ragnar and Lagertha, and the setting of the fictional Kattegat in Norway is a surely a way of linking this series to the earlier VIKINGS.
There’s been no sign Emma of Normandy yet. She’s still in the wings, awaiting her big moment. She is, of course, the one really solid link to the earlier series. She was the great grand-daughter of Rollo.
I love a good story for its entertainment value, but I most appreciate when history (as best we can know it) is also provided to caution the viewer of liberties taken with timelines and context. Ms. Bracewell’s comments are very much appreciated.
Thank you! I’m really enjoying watching and writing about this series.