Eric Bloodaxe: The Viking so nice, he ruled England twice

Hail Vikings, Normans, and enthusiasts.

Eric Bloodaxe, though much mystery still surrounds his life, was probably one of the best-known names in Viking history, especially through the geographical locations of what is now collectively known as The United Kingdom.

Eric was the favoured son of Harald Finehair (King of Norway), who was credited by the Viking sagas, predominantly the Íslendingasögur, which is essentially the Icelandic version of the Edda.

With Norway desiring unification, he became king of western Norway after his father. However, when his younger brother Hakon claimed the kingship with the support of Athelstan of Wessex, Eric moved to the British Isles to essentially claim another royal accolade in what we now know as modern day England.

There he divided his time between raiding in Scotland and around the Irish Sea, and establishing himself as ruler of the Viking kingdom of Northumbria.

His death in 954 brought the independence of Viking Northumbria to an end, but his sons later succeeded in establishing themselves as kings in Norway.

Though the historical mentions to Eric are sometimes vague and broad in their accuracy, he did leave visible traces of his own - in the coinage issued in his name at York. During each period of his reign over Northumbria, a different coinage was minted and issued, showing historians and archaeologists though his reigns were short, he had still made enough of an impact upon the land to have personalized currency.

He also features in a number of later sagas, along with his wife Gunnhild, who is generally portrayed as an evil witch, but this will be a story for another time.

The sagas use the 'Bloodaxe' nickname as his name in Old Norse was Eiríkr blóðøx, and this is generally seen in the context of his Viking raids in Scotland. He is also extremely well known as being the last independent Viking king of Northumbria. Like his near contemporary, Thorfinn Skullsplitter of Orkney, the name Eric Bloodaxe conjures up an immediate image of the archetypal Viking warrior; tall, huge beard, braver than a bear and the proud owner of a large axe.

Though it is very easy to make assumptions through these stereotypes, examination of Eric's story suggests that things were rather more complicated.

Despite his reputation as a ruthless, sibling murdering warrior, Eric apparently abandoned Norway to his brother Hakon without a fight, and he was subsequently driven out of Northumbria at least twice. The sagas represent him very much as a henpecked husband, and the likely origin of his nickname is both murkier and less glorious than the obvious explanation of his prowess in battle.

So what do we really know about Eric Bloodaxe? The truth is very little. Additionally, to add to the confusion, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles tell very little, if anything about Eric and latin sources are varying stories to that of the Sagas. The truth probably lies somewhere in between these historical documents.

Our knowledge of Eric's life in Norway relies exclusively on the sagas, which are extremely unreliable for the early tenth century. However, although we have to be sceptical of all the details provided by the sagas, there is nothing inherently unlikely in their broad outline of events.

Together with the sagas, there are two Latin accounts of the history of the kings of Norway. Like the earliest of the sagas, they were written in the late 12th century, and there are some textual relations between the Latin histories and the Icelandic sagas. However, the Latin texts are both briefer and less ‘creative’ than the great kings' sagas of the early 13th century.

Eric was the favourite child, and probably the oldest, of the many sons of King Harald Finehair of Norway.

The saga tradition credits Harald with an estimated total of 20 sons, as well as the unification of Norway. Modern historians now agree that Harald's kingdom was more limited, and probably confined to the west and south-west, although he may have exercised some power in other areas through alliance with other rulers.

Harald's kingdom was not sufficient to provide much of an inheritance for so many sons, and Eric secured the succession for himself by gradually murdering all of his brothers in turn.

It is suspected that these brutal actions are what earned him his nickname. While the sagas call him 'Bloodaxe', one of the Latin texts calls him fratris interfector (brother-killer), so it seems likely that 'blood' in this context refers to family, just as today we refer to 'blood relations' as distinct from relations by marriage or adoption.

This is certainly not a sibling I would have enjoyed growing up with, well, that’s if I made it to an age that would be considered ‘grown up’.I am skeptical of the world on the best of days, and having a murderous, sociopath of a brother would definitely have kept me awake late at night.

Eric's rule in Norway was apparently harsh and unpopular, and his kingship was challenged by his one surviving brother Hakon. Hakon is said to have been brought up in England at the court of Athelstan, and this fits well with Athelstan's recorded policy of fostering the sons of potential allies.

Though the Vikings were not Christian entirely at this point, even the Anglo-Saxons could see the benefits in forming alliances with strong Norse cultures.

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