Immigration and a good reputation. Or, what modern politicians could learn from King Edgar.

This is an article that I wrote in April during the run-up to the general election. Having tried and failed to interest any editors in publishing it, I shelved it in frustration. Although it has perhaps lost a little of its timeliness, it still has some contemporary relevance. Anyway, I say Edgar deserves some love.  

King Edgar might not be a household name these days, but he has a just claim to being one of the most successful and impressive of the Anglo-Saxon kings of England. He is mostly famous for his nickname ‘Pacificus’ (normally translated ‘Peaceful’ or ‘Peaceable’), conferred on him in the 12th century in recognition of having presided over what was then imagined to have been a golden age of peace and plenty. In reality, he was a fairly tough customer (as all successful medieval kings had to be). The epithet ‘pacificus’ can equally well be translated as ‘the Pacifier’ (banish all thoughts of a dummy-wielding Vin Diesel), and the Welsh Annals record several brutal raids on Welsh territory during Edgar’s reign. As the current Russian government understands all too well, starting trouble beyond the borders can be a good way to foster national feeling within them. But he wasn’t just a Putin-style hard-man: he had a long-term economic plan as well, standardising weights and measures and reforming the currency to make a uniform national coinage a functioning reality. He also enforced an unprecedented period of peaceful stability within England and invested heavily in a naval deterrent (comprising, according to later accounts, an improbable 4800 war-ships); he was tough on crime too, travelling tirelessly throughout his realm to enforce justice.

EdgarMost famously of all, he ensured that power over the whole of Britain was consolidated in an Anglo-centric political executive (himself) by forcing all the other kings and princes of Britain to subject themselves to the humiliation of rowing him in a barge along the river Dee. Different Norman historians give varying lists of the kings and princes involved in this very public abasement, but probably present were Kenneth II of Scotland, Malcolm of Strathclyde, Maccus Haroldson of Man and the Hebrides and Iago ab Idwal Foel of Gwynedd. Whilst Edgar may have needed the support of these British princes to keep English borders secure, there is no doubt about who was top banana. It is a model of British federalism that might well unsettle the leaders of this island’s separatist parties (hard though it is to cast any English politician in the role of a latter day Edgar).

Edgar was, in other words, what to the later medieval mind summed up a ‘Good King’: he enforced justice, brought prosperity, upheld the church and taught those pesky Scots and Welsh who – quite literally – was boss. And yet, he was remembered in his own time as a deeply flawed ruler, almost exclusively on account of his attitudes towards immigration.

But one misdeed he practised too widely: he loved foul foreign customs and brought heathen habits into this land too firmly, and he enticed outsiders and lured dangerous foreign-folk into this country (Anglo-Saxon Chronicle ‘D’).

Attitudes towards foreigners in Anglo-Saxon England were not always (by modern standards) enlightened. When the Vikings sacked the monastery of Lindisfarne in 793, Alcuin of York – writing at the court of Charlemagne – took the opportunity to castigate English monks for their adoption of foreign hair-cuts: this symbolised moral and spiritual degeneracy of the grossest kind; and, frankly, with that sort of provocation, it was no wonder that God had sent a horde of horrible heathens to put them all to the sword. The pillaging might have been regrettable, but at least a good lesson about tonsorial rectitude was being taught. Archbishop Wulfstan of York (d. 1023) was particularly bigoted in this regard, and is thought responsible for the thunderous caveat appended to Edgar’s otherwise glowing obit in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle quoted above. In the 12th century, William of Malmesbury elaborated on Wulfstan’s sentiments by explaining how the English had picked up the despicable foreign habits of drunkenness (from the Danes), effeminacy (from the Dutch) and ferocity (from the Germans).

Edgar, however, took a pragmatic and conciliatory approach to the presence of large numbers of foreigners in his realm: the peace for which he became famous was ensured by fleets of Viking long-ships, paid for out of the royal finances through English taxes. We don’t know exactly how the Anglo-Saxon population felt about the pressure placed on employment by large numbers of migrant workers filling these public sector jobs. If Wulfstan’s judgement is reflective of wider feeling, they were becoming increasingly cheesed off – not least because the kinsmen of these particular migrants had a track record of brutalising peaceful monks and civilians all over the British Isles. But, by the late tenth-century there was also a status quo to recognise. Scandinavian integration into English society, particularly in the north and east of the country, had produced a mixed society where language and culture had fused to form a distinctively Anglo-Scandinavian population that looked across the North Sea as readily as it looked south to Winchester, London and Canterbury. Edgar, culturally sensitive ruler that he was, understood that local interests and national cohesion could be jointly served by recognising a degree of devolved authority in the north, the midlands and in East Anglia. In his fourth major law-code, Edgar promised that ‘there should be in force amongst the Danes such good laws as they best decide […] because of your loyalty, which you have always shown me’. The areas where this principle applied were to become known as the ‘Danelaw’ – literally the region where Danish laws were recognised.

The king enforced his vision of a united nation with vigour. In 969, Eadgar cyning het oferhergian eall Tenetland (‘King Edgar ravaged across all of Thanet’), apparently because the locals there had roughed up some Scandinavian traders. Displays of xenophobia on England’s estuarine outposts have a long history, but a thousand years ago the reaction of central government was swift and robust. According to the Norman historian Roger of Wendover, the king was ‘moved with exceeding rage against the spoilers, deprived them of all their goods, and put some of them to death’. The EDL would have been out of luck in Edgar’s England.

After Edgar’s death, the political consensus and authoritarian grip that he had established in England slackened. By the reign of his son, Æthelred, things had gone very wrong indeed. Archbishop Wulfstan was an advisor to king Æthelred, and – perhaps unsurprisingly – anti-foreigner sentiment reached a high-water mark during his reign. In 1002 this resulted in a notorious piece of populist policy when Æthelred decreed that ‘the Danes who had sprung up in this island, sprouting like cockle amongst the wheat, were to be destroyed by a most just extermination.’ It may have been a welcome initiative, and certainly was enthusiastically taken up in Oxford; there an angry mob chased a group of Danish towns-folk into the church of St. Frideswide’s before barring the doors and burning it down. Mass killings of unarmed men in Oxford and Dorset, discovered in the archaeological record, may also reflect the increasingly intolerant and violent spirit of the times. Outrages like these may not have been the direct cause of the increasingly determined Danish invasions of the following decade, but they certainly can’t have done very much for improving international relations.

It played out badly for Æthelred and for England. By 1013 a Danish king (Svein Forkbeard) sat on the English throne, and his son (Cnut) and grandsons would call themselves kings of England until 1042. The divisions that Æthelred’s policies and the subsequent Danish takeover caused within English society arguably paved the way for William of Normandy’s swift conquest of the country in the decade after 1066. Æthelred died a broken king in 1016, and was later lumbered with the epithet unraed (‘the ill-advised’), a sobriquet which tarnishes the reputations of others – including Archbishop Wulfstan. Edgar pacificus, by contrast, for all his love of ‘foul foreign customs’, bequeathed a far more robust nation to his heirs. His attitude to England’s immigrant communities was perhaps instrumental to ensuring a period of peace and prosperity, and his reputation as a good king was rooted in part on his deft handling of England’s local identities and cultural diversity. It is a lesson that those on both the right and left of English politics would do well to learn – pandering to populist sentiment can bequeath a bad odour to posterity.

The Tale of King Harald is a true story…

But what does it mean for a story to be ‘true’?

The first versions of this tale were written down in in the middle ages in a number of different hand-written texts. The oldest of these was compiled in around 1220 in a manuscript called Morkinskinna, which means ‘mouldy skin’ (the parchment it was written on was made of vellum, made from the stretched and dried skin of a calf). The most famous version, however, was written by an Icelandic chieftain and historian called Snorri Sturluson around 1230. Snorri was a remarkable man. As well as twice being elected to Iceland’s highest official post – Lawspeaker (Lögsögumaður) – he wrote a number of works about traditional Scandinavian poetry and mythology, but also a sprawling compendium of King’s Sagas (tales) called Heimskringla (the circle of the world). Harald’s Saga forms a small part of this great work. Snorri was very careful to present what he thought were true accounts of the lives of the kings of Norway. He made great use of earlier histories – like Morkinskinna – and often used fragments of poems (called skaldic verse) which were written during the lifetime of the Norse kings, and remembered long afterwards.

In the case of King Harald, we have a little more to go on. He was mentioned in histories written in the Byzantine Empire where he was described as a Varangian with a prominent rank in the Imperial army. His invasion of England is also described in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. So we know he existed, and the broad outlines of his life as presented by Snorri seem more or less accurate. However, poems in praise of kings are rarely even-handed, and some of the details seem improbable and are rather similar to folk-tales told about other kings. Most telling of all is that some of the stories sound very much like the boasting of a man in later life about the glories of his youth, at a time when no one could contradict his version of events. If this is so, we can expect some of these stories to contain a degree of exaggeration.


Audun and the polar bear in the hall of Harald Hard-ruler


The version of Harald’s story that is written in this book [The Tale of King Harald] is fairly true to Snorri’s account of Harald’s life in Heimskringla. In some places I have added details taken from earlier sagas, especially Saint Olaf’s Saga (the tale of Harald’s half-brother who died at the Battle of Stiklestad). The tale of Audun and the polar bear is taken from a short story written about Harald and preserved in Morkinskinna, and a few details have been added from other sources that mention Harald and the period in general. Much of the dialogue is adapted from the saga, but by no means all of it. The biggest changes I have made are to the length of various sections of the narrative. In Heimskringla, Harald’s time with Yaroslav is told on a single page, and much of chapter 2 has therefore been fleshed out with other details of the period taken from other sources. On the other hand, chapters 3 and 4 present a greatly compressed version of Snorri’s story-telling. In particular, the politics of Norway and Denmark during Harald’s reign have been simplified.

I don’t think Harald would have minded these minor changes. For a Viking, the most important ambition was to live long in memory; I am sure he would be pleased to know that his legend continues to be told.

[This post is an extract from The Tale of King Harald: The Last Viking Adventure, which is available from Amazon and The British Museum]

Vikings: hearts of darkness?

The tidal current runs to and fro […] crowded with memories of men and ships it had borne to the rest of home or to the battles of the sea. Hunters for gold or pursuers of fame, they all had gone out on that stream, bearing the sword, and often the torch, messengers of the might within the land, bearers of a spark from the sacred fire. What greatness had not floated on the ebb of that river into the mystery of an unknown earth! … The dreams of men, the seed of commonwealths, the germs of empires.

Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness (1899).

Here, surely, we have a passionate and evocative description of the Vikings: bold adventurers stepping forward onto the world stage, ready to set a blaze on four continents and pave the way for the nations that would rise in their wake. In fact, this passage, taken from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, describes the explorers, buccaneers, settlers and merchants – ‘the dark ‘interlopers’ of the eastern trade, and the commissioned ‘generals’ of the East India fleets” – who had set out from the Thames from the 16th to the 19th century, laying the foundations of the British Empire and changing the world forever. But striking similarities between the Vikings and the British of the early modern and modern age underlie this coincidence of images: societies alienated in politics and religion from their closest neighbours and rivals, possession of a technological edge at sea, bravery, curiosity, a lust for gold and a willingness to use violence and brutality to whatever end. It was a comparison that the Victorians were not slow to identify, though they saw the comparison in a generally positive light.

…much of what is good and true in our laws and social customs, much of what is manly and vigorous in the British Constitution, and much of our intense love of freedom and fair play, is due to the pith, pluck and enterprise, and sense of justice that dwelt in the breasts of the rugged old sea-kings of Norway!

R M Ballantyne, Erling the Bold: A Tale of Norse Sea-Kings (1869)

But just as the legacy of Empire is constantly being re-evaluated, so too is the impact of the Vikings on the people with whom they came into contact, and the darker side of both has frequently been at the foreground of contemporary thought. The Vikings were happy to acquire goods by plunder and extortion when it was expedient, and to open up new markets for trade by the sword. Evidence from Viking military camps in Britain suggests that trade and manufacturing could go hand in hand with raiding and conquest: perhaps an early equivalent of ‘gun-boat diplomacy’. And just as the early wealth of the British Empire was founded on the horrors of the slave trade, so too were slaves a major trading commodity for Vikings. Written sources give a sense of some of the misery experienced by people subjected to early medieval human trafficking:

Stumbling the survivors
Scattered from the carnage,
Sorrowing they fled to safety,
Leaving the women captured.
Maidens were dragged in shackles
To your triumphant longships;
Women wept as bright chains
Cruelly bit their soft flesh.

Valgard of Voll, c. AD 1000–1100, quoted in ‘King Harald’s Saga’, Heimskringla (c.1230) by Snorri Sturlusson, 1179–1241; translation by M. Magnusson and H. Pálsson in King Harald’s Saga (Penguin Books, London, 1966, 2nd ed. 2005).

Viking slave shackles excavated in Dublin and Germany bear a startling similarity to those used in the transportation of Africans to the Americas and West Indies in the 18th and early 19th centuries by British slave-traders, such as these in the International Slavery Museum, Liverpool. But at the same time, the rapacity and technological edge that made the Vikings so feared were also to effect lasting change on a continental scale. Settlements in Ireland, Russia and Ukraine played a pivotal role in the development of urban civilisation in those regions, and the influx of trade goods and silver from the east contributed in no small way to the economic development of European markets. New settlements and cultures grew out of Viking exploration, sometimes where none had existed before. The birth of an Icelandic nation was to give Europe its oldest living parliamentary system and lead to an extraordinary flowering of medieval literature in the shape of the Icelandic sagas. The legacy of the British Empire remains highly controversial. But it is even more problematic trying to judge the Vikings by the standards of 21st-century morality. As with all stereotypes applied to large groups of people, labelling the Vikings as heroes or villains, raiders or traders, distorts history and oversimplifies complex phenomena. The Vikings were many things in equal measure, and their diversity of expression, activity and ethnicity is a defining aspect of what Vikings: life and legend seeks to explore.

[this was originally posted on the British Museum website in April 2014]

Vikings in Russia

Scandinavians traditionally do rather well at the Winter Olympics – for perhaps obvious reasons – but their Viking ancestors would have been no stranger to some of the delights of Sochi. Skis were used and valued in the North. Earl Rognvald I of Orkney boasted that (among several other skills) he could ‘glide on skis’, and the god Ullr was also associated with skiing. In fact, he has been taken as a sort of unofficial patron of the winter ski community, whose members often wear medallions depicting the god – there would no doubt have been a good number of Ullr talismans among the skiers in Sochi.

And, while the bob-sleigh may have been unknown, sledges of various kinds are certainly known from Viking burials, including a particularly beautiful example that was found in the famous boat burial from Oseberg in Norway.

What is perhaps most surprising of all – at least to those brought up with a Western European education – is that the Vikings (possibly even skiing Vikings) were working their way up and down the river systems of Russia and Ukraine more than a thousand years ago, at the same time that their kinsmen were raiding the coastlines of England, Ireland and France. Objects now on loan to the British Museum for the BP exhibition Vikings: life and legend indicate the extent of Scandinavian settlement from the Baltic to the Black Sea, and the far-flung contacts established by the eastern trading network, including glittering hoards of silver coins and jewellery from Gnezdovo and Lyuboyezha in Russia.

The last time the British Museum put on an exhibition about the Vikings was in 1980, and at that time the cold war meant there was little academic contact between east and west. It was simply impossible to secure loans from museums on the other side of the iron curtain, and many new discoveries were never reported in the west. This was compounded by the official Soviet policy on the origins of the Slavic-speaking countries of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus that minimised the role of Germanic-speaking Scandinavians in the development of urban life in those nations.

Times have changed, however, and the role of the Vikings – particularly those from Sweden – is increasingly recognised as an important one in the development of a new culture in Eastern Europe, a people known in the Byzantine Empire and Islamic world as the Rūs. Vast quantities of Islamic silver travelled up the rivers of Russian and Ukraine in exchange for amber, slaves and furs, leaving a trace in Viking-Age silver hoards found far from their eastern origins.

It wasn’t just objects that travelled the river routes. The exhibition will also display objects from the graves of men and women who died in Russia and Ukraine and who chose to identify with a Scandinavian heritage through the style of their clothing and the decoration on their weapons. Discoveries of amulets depicting small figures suggest that some even brought their gods with them to new lands.

Perhaps Sochi 2014 wasn’t the first time that Ullr had travelled to the Black Sea coast.

[this was originally posted on the British Museum website in February 2014]

The Vikings are coming …

Several years ago I worked at the Tower of London. Spending long periods of time within a building of such age, I would often start to wonder about how the area would have looked before the castle was built. Every morning I would pass the remains of Roman walls at Tower Bridge station, walls that were repaired and refortified by King Alfred the Great in response to the very real threat of Viking raids from the river. Blotting out the great hulk of HMS Belfast, Tower Bridge and the modern office blocks that now crowd the banks, I would try to imagine the awe and the terror that a Londoner would have felt a thousand years ago, standing on the city walls, watching the carved and gilded prows of dragon ships silently gliding up the Thames. Viking fleets and armies raided and besieged the city on numerous occasions, and the river has given up dozens of weapons that might have ended up there as a result of those conflicts.

Exactly 1000 years ago, in January 1014, people living in England would have been looking to the year ahead with a great deal of uncertainty. A Danish Viking, Svein Forkbeard, sat on the English throne. He had taken it by force only a few weeks previously, having forced the submission of the English nobility and towns. He would die, suddenly, on the 3rd of February. But a fleet of Danish ships still lay menacingly off the English coast, and on board one of those ships was Svein’s son, Cnut, later to rule England as part of the greatest north sea empire the world would ever know.

This January, a Danish warship – Roskilde 6 – has returned to England and has taken up residence in the new Sainsbury Exhibitions Gallery at the British Museum, my current place of work. Happily, the dark days of the eleventh century are behind us, and the team from the National Museum of Denmark (NMD) who accompanied the ship to London have not (so far) demanded any tribute or burned any villages. In fact, getting the ship here has been part of a long period of close collaboration between the BM and the NMD (and Berlin State Museums, where Roskilde 6 will head next on its travels).

The Danish team of conservators and technicians, led by Kristiane Straetkvern, have been responsible for the conservation and analysis of the surviving timbers of Roskilde 6 (approx. 20% survives of the original ship), and for constructing the extraordinary stainless steel frame in which the timbers are displayed. This is a breathtaking work of modern design in its own right. The frame has been precision engineered in dozens of individual pieces which can be loaded into a single container for shipment and reassembled under the expert handling of the NMD’s installation team. The timbers are packed flat in their own climate controlled container.

The finished installation is a wonderful marriage of modern Scandinavian design and engineering with one of the greatest technological achievements of the Viking Age: at over 37 metres long, Roskilde 6 is the longest Viking ship ever discovered and would have been massive even by the standards of around AD 1025, its probable date of construction. It would have taken huge amounts of manpower and raw materials to construct the ship, resources only available to the most powerful of northern rulers. It may even have been built by Cnut himself…

[this was originally posted on the British Museum website in January 2014]