Hey guys, sorry I missed the post on Friday. This week, to celebrate the release of Guts & Glory: The American Civil War in paperback on Tuesday, I’m posting a chapter from my other Guts & Glory book, Guts & Glory: The Vikings. In case you guys have missed out on this, I’m in the process of working on a series of books that focus on specific events – the next is World War II, and last week I started writing one on the American Revolution. The whole undertaking is really challenging, but it's also a lot of fun and I’m really happy with the way they’re coming out. Anyway, it would really help me out a ton if you guys checked them out. The Civil War one is like $4 or something on Amazon, which is kind of intense considering it took me a year to write it, but I think it’s probably worth the price of a latte to have a cool, non-boring book about the pivotal event in American history. If you do check it out, and you think it's cool, I'd also really appreciate it if you'd leave me a review on there as well.
Anyways, that’s my shill. Now here’s a chapter I wrote about an insane Viking Queen.
Just because they weren’t always leaping from the decks of burning longships swinging their mighty broadswords swords wildly at a mob of terrified, fleeing French peasants, it doesn’t mean that Viking women weren’t some of the toughest, most independent, most ferocious, and most utterly ruthless human beings on the planet. Hailing from the most feminist-liberated civilization on the planet, Viking women owned property, had rights, built structures, managed farms, and basically ran the show in Norway, Denmark, and Sweden while their big strong husbands were gone for months or even years at a time on their epic raids. The self-reliance and strength required to keep your family alive in a harsh, sub-zero tundra environment surrounded by Vikings made the Norse women fierce bold, and daring… and more than a match for their axe-swinging husbands and sons in matters of personal courage and intellectual toughness.
Of those daring, no-nonsense Norse women, none was more fierce – or notorious – than the infamous Gunnhild, Mother of Kings. Wife, mother, and daughter of powerful Viking ruler, two-time Queen of Norway, well-spoken political animal, and a woman so despised for her cruelty that saga writers portray her less like a historical figure and more like a wicked witch from an antiquated fairy tale.
Sources differ on where Gunnhild came from, but the best guess is that she was a daughter of Gorm the Old, a powerful Viking king who had spent his apparently-exceptionally-long life conquering most of the small kingdoms of Denmark and uniting them into one land. Gorm was basically the Harald Fairhair of Denmark, and by the time both those guys were done killing everyone who disagreed with them the entire Viking lands had gone from being a bunch of tiny nothing kingdoms to two really powerful ones – Norway and Denmark. Naturally, the best thing to do was to unite those two countries through marriage. So Gorm the Old’s daughter Gunnhild was sent to Norway, to marry Harald Fairhair’s son Erik. This would, in theory, unify the land under one Viking King, and everyone would live happily ever after forever in one happy sing-along filled with helmets and axes and burning and destruction.
Unfortunately, things don’t usually work out that way.
For starters, Princess Gunnhild was not your typical glass-slipper-wearing Disney princess with a Dentyne smile and one of those little waves the beauty queens do on TV. Sure, she was legendarily beautiful, eloquent, and really fun to talk to at parties, but she was also calculating, ambitious, and deadly. According to one (heavily-unreliable) source, she’d spent part of her life living in a hut near the North Pole learning magic from two Finnish sorcerers only to have them murdered once she’s become more powerful than them. While the whole witchcraft and magic thing was probably bogus, it is true that Gunnhild didn’t take talk-back from anybody, and she didn’t hesitate to go for the jugular to get what she wanted.
Gunnhild’s husband was a nice, handsome prince named Erik Bloodaxe. Yes, Bloodaxe.
Erik was the favorite son of King Harald Fairhair, and after Fairhair retired from being King in the late 920s he passed the throne off to Erik and Gunnhild, who were crowned King and Queen of Norway. Of course, as I mentioned before, Harald Fairhair had a lot of kids, and this king/queen thing didn’t sit well with all of Erik’s TWENTY half-brothers, all of whom wanted that crown for themselves. When Harald died a couple years later, Erik’s brothers all decided they were going to do something about it.
Luckily for Erik Bloodaxe, he had a secret weapon – his wife. Queen Gunnhild, working secret back-room treaties, buying off corrupt politicians, and outright hiring professional assassins and poisoners, immediately went to work making sure nobody even dreamed of taking the Crown of Norway from the head of her beloved husband. One by one, and for various reasons, Erik Bloodaxe’s half-brothers began passing out of history. One of them tried to make an alliance against Erik, so Gunnhild had him locked inside his own house, which was then set on fire. Another brother picked a fight with Erik over a land dispute, so Gunnhild paid a witch to poison him. She got one brother deported to England. Another was completely discredited and abandoned by his own followers.
Eventually, with brothers dropping off all over the place, things got so out of control that all of the sons of Harald Fairhair raised armies and fought it out in a huge battle on a giant snowy field near Erik’s palace. Four separate armies, each commanded by a Fairhair son, met on the field in a swirling, bloody melee that left thousands of brave Vikings dead on the field. From the rubble, smoke, destruction, and carnage, only one side emerged victorious – that of Erik Bloodaxe and his wife Gunnhild.
Erik Bloodaxe’s nickname doesn’t just come because his weapon was
almost always completely soaked in blood – it came because he
took the axe to his own flesh-and-blood.
Things went great for a while. Erik Bloodaxe and Queen Gunnhild ruled with an iron fist, kept the jarls in line, eviscerated anyone who challenged them, and still found time to have nine kids together somehow.
Well, I guess it turns out that even though tyranny is fun if you’re the tyrant, it didn’t really work for the jarls of Norway, and after a couple years of suffering under Erik and Gunnhild those guys went looking for help. They found Hakon the Good, the young boy Gunnhild had sent away to be raised by King Aethelstan of England, and asked him if he wanted to be King of Norway. Hakon said sure, returned to Norway with a sword named Quernbiter (because it was so sharp it could cut through a quern, or sharpening stone) and a loyal group of followers, and Erik’s now-bitter jarls and soldiers deserted him almost immediately. Erik Bloodaxe fought Hakon the Good in battle, was defeated, and had to flee Norway.
Queen Gunnhild, driven from her palace by traitors, seethed with rage. She would get her revenge. She swore it.
Gunnhild and Erik Bloodaxe went to England, where they settled in York, the Viking-controlled city that had been captured from the English by Ivar the Boneless. Gunnhild helped establish Erik as the Viking King of York, where he ruled for the next decade or so, issued coins, and spent his summers leading military campaigns to ravage the English, Scottish, and Irish countrysides of goods and supplies. When the people of York threw him out and put some other guy on the throne, Gunnhild and Erik regrouped, attacked, and re-captured the Kingdom back.
It was a dark day in 954 AD when word came to Gunnhild that her beloved husband, Erik Bloodaxe, had been killed in battle with the English, and the armies of England were marching towards York. The Queen gathered her children, commissioned a boat, and headed to the Orkney Islands, a small series of islands off the coast of Scotland where her daughter was married to a powerful jarl named Thorfinn Skull-Cleaver. Thorfinn took Gunnhild in, and she immediately began strategizing her next move.
From this point on, Gunnhild Mother of Kings becomes somehow even more intense. First, she organizes treaties and alliances between Thorfinn and powerful jarls both in England and Norway. She encouraged bands of adventure-hungry Viking raiders to launch attacks up and down the coast of Norway to destabilize Hakon the Good’s rule, promising the pirates rewards if she ever regained the throne. She reached out to her brother, King Harald Bluetooth of Denmark, for reinforcements and support. She trained her son, Harald Greycloak, in the arts of leadership and strategy.
After biding her time for seven long years, Gunnhild was ready to make her move.
She arrived off the coast of Norway at the head of a gigantic fleet of warriors of every walk of Viking life – Thorfinn Skull-Cleaver’s Orkney men, jarls from York, Danish troops on loan from Harald Bluetooth, and mercenary Viking pirates she’d contacted on remote islands, all unified in one invasion armada. When they landed, they were joined by Norwegian forces that had been loyal to Erik, or who had been promised money and power in the new reign of Gunnhild.
When King Hakon the Great of Norway met Harald Greycloak on the field of battle in 961, Hakon was outnumbered six to one. He fought hard, and bravely, but it wasn’t enough. The battle turned, and Hakon was killed – not just by an arrow, but by Gunnhild’s dark magic, if you want to believe all the legends.
The real force behind the throne of King Harald Greycloak, Queen Gunnhild Mother of Kings ruled Norway as a tyrant for nine long years. Land and wealth was seized from disloyal jarls, military raids were launched against would-be usurpers, and all who opposed her were wiped out with extreme brutality.
As you can imagine, this sort of thing doesn’t last forever, and Gunnhild Mother of Kings was deposed yet again in 970, when another guy named Hakon got mad that Gunnhild set his dad on fire and raised an army to fight her. Supported by the oppressed nobles of Norway, Hakon took his forces into battle with Harald Greycloak, defeated him, killed the King, and Gunnhild was forced to flee to the Orkneys once again.
Gunnhild went back to work trying to reclaim her throne, but another invasion by her other sons in 971 was defeated by Jarl Hakon. Hakon, not interested in keeping Gunnhild around to thwart him at every turn, made a deal with Harald Bluetooth of Denmark, and Harald sold out his own sister to secure a sweet treaty with Hakon. When Gunnhild returned to Denmark in 974, Harald had his now-elderly sister arrested, and sentenced her to death by having her drowned in a bog. These things happen.