Transcriber's note: Ten minor typographical errors have been corrected in this text version.
Historical Tales The Romance of Reality
By CHARLES MORRIS
Author of "Half-Hours with the Best American Authors," "Tales from the Dramatists," etc.
IN FIFTEEN VOLUMES
J. B. LIPPINCOTT COMPANY
PHILADELPHIA AND LONDON
Copyright, 1908, by J. B. LIPPINCOTT COMPANY.
HOW KING ROLF WON HIS BRIDE 9
RAGNAR LODBROK AND HIS WIVES AND SONS 19
HAROLD FAIR-HAIRED FOUNDS THE KINGDOM OF NORWAY 31
GORM THE OLD, DENMARK'S FIRST KING 42
ERIK BLOOD-AXE AND EGIL THE ICELANDER 49
THE SEA-KINGS AND THEIR DARING FEATS 60
HAAKON THE GOOD AND THE SONS OF GUNHILD 69
EARL HAAKON AND THE JOMSVIKINGS 78
HOW OLAF, THE SLAVE-BOY, WON THE THRONE 89
OLAF DETHRONES ODIN AND DIES A HERO 98
OLAF THE SAINT AND HIS WORK FOR CHRIST 108
CANUTE THE GREAT, KING OF SIX NATIONS 121
MAGNUS THE GOOD AND HAROLD HARDRULER 132
SVERRE, THE COOK'S SON, AND THE BIRCHLEGS 145
THE FRIENDS AND FOES OF A BOY PRINCE 160
KING VALDEMAR I. AND BISHOP ABSOLON 169
THE FORTUNES AND MISFORTUNES OF VALDEMAR II 176
BIRGER JARL AND THE CONQUEST OF FINLAND 186
THE FIRST WAR BETWEEN SWEDEN AND RUSSIA 196
THE CRIME AND PUNISHMENT OF KING BIRGER 202
QUEEN MARGARET AND THE CALMAR UNION 211
HOW SIR TORD FOUGHT FOR CHARLES OF SWEDEN 217
STEN STURE'S GREAT VICTORY OVER THE DANES 226
HOW THE DITMARSHERS KEPT THEIR FREEDOM 236
THE BLOOD-BATH OF STOCKHOLM 241
THE ADVENTURES OF GUSTAVUS VASA 252
THE FALL OF CHRISTIAN II. THE TYRANT 271
THE WEST GOTHLAND INSURRECTION 283
THE LOVE AFFAIRS OF KING ERIK 296
GUSTAVUS ADOLPHUS ON THE FIELD OF LEIPSIC 310
CHARLES X. AND THE INVASION OF DENMARK 319
CHARLES XII. THE FIREBRAND OF SWEDEN 326
THE ENGLISH INVADERS AND THE DANISH FLEET 343
A FRENCH SOLDIER BECOMES KING OF SWEDEN AND NORWAY 349
THE DISMEMBERMENT OF DENMARK 358
BREAKING THE BOND BETWEEN NORWAY AND SWEDEN 362
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS.
THE OLD BRIDGE AT OEREBRO, ONE OF THE MOST ANCIENT TOWNS OF SWEDEN. Frontispiece.
HOUSE OF PARLIAMENT, NORWAY 35
HOME OF PEASANTS, NORWAY 50
BUSY FARMERS IN A HILLSIDE FIELD ABOVE ARE, SWEDEN 80
A NORDFJORD BRIDE AND GROOM WITH GUESTS AND PARENTS. BRIGSDAL, NORWAY 95
NORWEGIAN PEASANTS 115
NORWEGIAN FARM BUILDINGS 135
LINKOPING FROM TANNEFORS 165
VILLAGE LIFE AND HOMES IN SWEDEN 190
MORNING GREETINGS OF NEIGHBORS, SWEDEN 210
GRIPSHOLM CASTLE, MARI 220
SKURUSUND, STOCKHOLM 230
SKANSEN RIVER 242
THE FAMOUS XVI. CENTURY CASTLE AT UPSALA, SWEDEN 256
NORWEGIAN CARRIAGE CALLED STOLKJAEM 285
ARMORY AND COSTUME HALL OF THE ROYAL MUSEUM, SWEDEN 300
STATUE OF GUSTAVUS ADOLPHUS 312
THE RETURN OF CHARLES XII. OF SWEDEN 340
KRONBERG CASTLE ON THE SOUND, DENMARK 348
THE BOURSE, COPENHAGEN, DENMARK 360
HOW KING ROLF WON HIS BRIDE.
At one time very many centuries ago, we cannot say just when, for this was in the days of the early legends, there reigned over Upsala in Sweden a king named Erik. He had no son and only one daughter, but this girl was worth a dozen sons and daughters of some kings. Torborg she was named, and there were few women so wise and beautiful and few men so strong and valiant. She cared nothing for women's work, but was the equal of any man of the court in riding, fighting with sword and shield, and other athletic sports. This troubled King Erik very much, for he thought that the princess should sit in her maiden chamber like other kings' daughters; but she told him that when she came to succeed him on the throne she would need to know how to defend her kingdom, and now was the time for her to learn.
That she might become the better fitted to rule, she asked him to give her some province to govern, and this he did, making her queen of a third of his kingdom, and giving her an army of stout and bold warriors. Her court was held at Ulleraker in Upland, and here she would not let any one treat her as a woman, dressing always in men's clothing and bidding her men to call her King Torborg. To fail in this would be at risk of their heads. As her fame spread abroad, there were many who came to court her, for she was at once very beautiful and the heiress of a great kingdom. But she treated all such with laughter and contempt. It is even said that she put out the eyes of some, and cut off the hands and feet of others, but this we do not like to believe. At any rate, she drove away those who troubled her too much with lance and spear. So it was plain that only a strong and bold man could win this warlike maiden for his wife.
At that time King Goetrik who ruled in Gothland, a country in southern Sweden, had sent his younger son Rolf to be brought up at the court of his foster-brother King Ring of Denmark. His elder son Kettil he kept at home, but did not love him much on account of his pride and obstinacy. So it happened that when Goetrik was very old and like to die, he decided that Rolf, who was very tall and strong, and very fit and able, should succeed him, though he was the younger son. All agreed to this, even Kettil, so Rolf was sent for and made king of Gothland, which he ruled with skill and valor.
One day Rolf and Kettil, who loved each other as brothers should, were talking together, and Kettil said that one thing was wanting to the glory and honor of Rolf's rule, and that was a queen of noble birth and goodly presence.
"And whom have you in mind?" asked Rolf.
"There is Torborg, the king of Upsala's daughter. If you can win her for wife it will be the greatest marriage in the north."
To this advice Rolf would not listen. He had heard of how the shrewish Torborg treated her suitors, and felt that wooing her would be like taking a wild wolf by the ears. So he stayed unmarried for several years more, though Kettil often spoke of the matter, and one day said to him contemptuously:
"Many a man has a large body with little courage, and I fear you are such a one; for though you stand as a man, you do not dare to speak to a woman."
"I will show you that I am a man," said Rolf, very angry at these words.
He sent to Denmark for his foster-brother Ingiald, son of King Ring, and when he came the two set out with sixty armed men for the court of King Erik in Upsala.
One morning, about this time, Queen Ingerd of Upsala awoke and told King Erik of a strange dream she had dreamed. She had seen in her sleep a troop of wolves running from Gothland towards Sweden, a great lion and a little bear leading them; but these, instead of being fierce and shaggy, were smooth-haired and gentle.
"What do you think it means?" asked the king.
"I think that the lion is the ghost of a king, and that the white bear is some king's son, the wolves being their followers. I fancy it means that Rolf of Gothland and Ingiald of Denmark are coming hither, bent on a mission of peace, since they appear so tame. Do you think that King Rolf is coming to woo our daughter, Torborg?"
"Nonsense, woman; the king of so small a realm would show great assurance to seek for wife so great a princess as our daughter."
So when Rolf and his followers came to Upsala King Erik showed his displeasure, inviting him to his table but giving him no seat of honor at the feast. Rolf sat silent and angry at this treatment, but when Erik asked him why he had come, he told him courteously enough the reason of his visit.
"I know how fond you Goths are of a joke," said Erik, with a laugh. "You have a way of saying one thing when you mean another. But I can guess what brings you. Gothland is little and its revenues are small and you have many people to keep and feed. Food is now scarce in Gothland, and you have come here that you may not suffer from hunger. It was a good thought for you to come to Upsala for help, and you are welcome to go about my kingdom with your men for a month; then you can return home plump and well fed."
This jesting speech made Rolf very angry, though he said little in reply. But when the king told Queen Ingerd that evening what he had said she was much displeased.
"King Rolf may have a small kingdom," she said, "but he has gained fame by his courage and ability, and is as powerful as many kings with a wider rule. You did not well to mock him."
The next day Erik, thus admonished, begged Rolf's pardon, saying that the ale had made him speak foolishly, and thus he became reconciled with his guest. As for Rolf's desire to win his daughter, he would first have to gain Torborg's consent, which would be no easy matter. The king promised not to interfere but would do no more.
Soon after this Rolf and his men arrived at Ulleraker, reaching there when the whole of Torborg's court were assembled in the great hall. Fearing a hostile reception, Rolf took wary precautions. He choose twelve of his stoutest men, with himself and Ingiald at their head, to enter the court with drawn swords in their hands. If they were attacked, they were to go out backward fighting, but they were bidden to conduct themselves like men and let nothing alarm them. The others remained outside, keeping the horses in readiness to mount.
When the party entered the hall, Rolf at their head, all there were struck with his great size and noble aspect. No one assailed them and he walked up the hall, on whose high seat at the front he saw what seemed a tall and finely formed man, dressed in royal robes. Knowing that this must be the haughty princess whose hand he had come to seek, he took off his helmet, bowed low before her, and began to tell what brought him to her court.
He had scarcely begun when she stopped him. She said that he must be joking; that she knew his real errand was to get food and that this she would give him; but he must apply for it to the chief of the kitchen, not to her.
Rolf had not come so far to be laughed out of the court, and he sturdily went on with what he had to say, speaking to her as a woman, and demanding her hand in marriage. At this she changed her jesting manner, her cheeks grew red with anger, and springing up, she seized her weapons and called upon her men to lay hold upon and bind the fool that had dared affront their monarch. Shouting and confusion followed and a sharp attack was made on the intruders, but Rolf put on his helmet and bade his men to retire, which they did in good order. He walked backward through the whole hall, shield on arm and sword in hand, parrying and dealing blows, so that when he left the room, though no blade had touched him, a dozen of the courtiers lay bleeding. But being greatly overmatched, he ordered his men to mount, and they rode away unscathed.
Back to West Gothland they went and told Kettil how poorly they had fared.
"You have suffered a sore insult and affront at a woman's hand," said Kettil, "and my advice is that it be speedily avenged," but Rolf replied that he was not yet ready to act.
Torborg had not taken the trouble to ask the name of her wooer, but when she learned who it was she knew very well that the matter had not reached its end and that her would-be lover would return stronger than before. As she did not want him or any man for husband she made great preparations for an attack, gathering a large body of warriors and having a wall of great strength and the finest workmanship built round the town. It was so high and thick that no battering ram could shake it, while water-cisterns were built into it to put out the fire if any one sought to burn it. From this we may judge that the wall was of wood. This done, Torborg made merry with her court, thinking that no lover in the wide world would now venture to annoy her.
She did not know the kind of man she had to deal with in King Rolf. He had fought with men and fancied he was fit to conquer a woman. The next summer he had a battle with Asmund, son of the king of Scotland, and when it was over they became friends and foster-brothers and went on viking cruises together. Next spring Rolf armed and manned six ships and, taking Kettil and Ingiald and Asmund with him, set sail for Upsala. He proposed now to woo the warrior princess in another fashion.
Queen Ingerd about this time dreamed again, her dream being the same as before, except that this time there were two white bears, and a hog which was small but spiteful, its bristles pointing forward and its mouth snarling as if ready to bite anything that came before it. And the bears did not look as gentle as before, but seemed irritated.
She interpreted this dream to mean that Rolf was coming again to avenge the affront he had received, and that the fierce hog must stand for Kettil, of whose character she had been told.
When Rolf now arrived King Erik received him with honor, and again agreed to remain his friend, no matter how stormy a courtship he might have. From Upsala he set out for Ulleraker and sent a herald to Princess Torborg, asking speech with her. She presented herself at the top of the wall, surrounded by armed men. King Rolf renewed his suit, and told her plainly that if she did not accept his proposal he had come to burn the town and slay every man within its walls.
"You shall first serve as a goatherd in West Gothland before you get any power over me and mine," answered Torborg haughtily.
Rolf lost no time in assailing the walls, but found them stoutly defended. The Swedes within poured boiling water and hot pitch on their assailants, threw down stones and beams, and hurled spears and arrows from the wall. For fourteen days the siege continued without effect, until the Goths, weary of their hard fighting and the mockery of the defenders, began to complain and wanted to return home. The townspeople derided them by showing costly goods from the ramparts and bidding them come and take them, and ridiculed them in many other ways.
King Rolf now saw that he must take other measures. He had a cover constructed of boards and brushwood and supported by stout beams, making a strong roof which was set against the wall and defied all the boiling water and missiles of the Swedes. Under its shelter a hole was dug through the wall and soon the Goths were in the queen's citadel.
To their surprise they found it empty. Not a soul was to be seen, but in every room they found well-cooked food and many articles of value.
"This is a fine capture," said Kettil. "Let us enjoy ourselves and divide the spoil."
"Not so," said Rolf. "It is a lure to draw us off. I will not rest till I have the princess in my power."
They sought the palace through and through, but no one was there. Finally a secret passage was discovered, leading underground, and the king entered it, the others following. They emerged in a forest where they found Torborg and all her men and where a sharp battle began. No warrior could have fought more bravely than the man-like princess, and her men stood up for her boldly, but they gradually gave way before the onset of Rolf and his tried warriors.
Rolf now bade Kettil to take Torborg prisoner, but not to wound her, saying that it would be shameful to use arms against a woman. Kettil sprang forward and gave the princess a sharp blow with the flat of his sword, reviling her at the same time with rude words. In return, Torborg gave him so hard a blow on the ear with her battle-axe that he fell prostrate, with his heels in the air.
"That is the way we treat our dogs when they bark too loud," she said.
Kettil sprang up, burning with anger, but at the same moment Rolf rushed forward and grasped the warlike princess in his powerful arms, so that she was forced to surrender.
He told her that she was his prisoner, but that he did not wish to win a wife in the viking manner and that he would leave it to her father to judge what should be done. Taken captive in his arms, there was nothing else for her to do, and she went with him to Upsala, where King Erik was delighted at Rolf's success. As for the warlike princess, she laid down her arms at her father's feet, put on a woman's garments, and seemed glad enough to have been won as a bride in so warlike a manner and by so heroic a wooer.
Soon after this the marriage took place, the festivities being the grandest the court could afford and lasting for fourteen days, after which Rolf and his followers returned home, his new queen with him. The sagas say, as we can well believe after so strenuous a wooing, that afterwards King Rolf and Queen Torborg lived a long and happy life.
RAGNAR LODBROK AND HIS WIVES AND SONS.
The old sagas, or hero tales of the north, are full of stories of enchantment and strange marvels. We have told one of these tales in the record of King Rolf and Princess Torborg. We have now to tell that of Ragnar Lodbrok, a hero king of the early days, whose story is full of magical incidents. That this king reigned and was a famous man in his days there is no reason to doubt, but around his career gathered many fables, as was apt to be the case with the legends of great men in those days. To show what these tales were like we take from the sagas the marvellous record of Ragnar and his wives.
In East Gothland in the ancient days there lived a mighty jarl, or earl, named Herroed, who was descended from the gods. He had a daughter named Tora, who was famed for her beauty and virtue, but proved as hard to win for a wife as Princess Torborg had been. She dwelt in a high room which had a wall built around it like a castle, and was called Castle Deer, because she surpassed all other women in beauty as much as the deer surpasses all other animals.
Her father, who was very fond of her, gave her as a toy a small and wonderfully beautiful snake which he had received in a charmed egg in Bjarmaland. It proved to be an unwelcome gift. The snake was at first coiled in a little box, but soon grew until the box would not hold it, and in time was so big that the room would not hold it. So huge did it become in the end that it lay coiled in a ring around the outer walls, being so long that its head and tail touched.
It got to be so vicious that no one dared come near it except the maiden and the man who fed it, and his task was no light one, for it devoured an ox at a single meal. The jarl was sorry enough now that he had given his daughter such a present. It was one not easy to get rid of, dread of the snake having spread far and wide, and though he offered his daughter with a great dower to the man who should kill it, no one for a long time ventured to strive for the reward. The venom which it spat out was enough to destroy any warrior.
At length a suitor for the hand of the lovely princess was found in Ragnar, the young son of Sigurd Ring, then one of the greatest monarchs of the age, with all Sweden and Norway under his sway, as the sagas tell. Ragnar, though still a boy, had gained fame as a dauntless warrior, and was a fit man to dare the venture with the great snake, though for a long time he seemed to pay no heed to the princess.
But meanwhile he had made for himself a strange coat. It was wrought out of a hairy hide, which he boiled in pitch, drew through sand, and then dried and hardened in the sun. The next summer he sailed to East Gothland, hid his ships in a small bay, and at dawn of the next day proceeded toward the maiden's bower, spear in hand and wearing his strange coat.
There lay the dreaded serpent, coiled in a ring round the wall. Ragnar, nothing daunted, struck it boldly with his spear, and before it could move in defence struck it a second blow, pressing the spear until it pierced through the monster's body. So fiercely did the snake struggle that the spear broke in two, and it would have destroyed Ragnar with the venom it poured out if he had not worn his invulnerable coat.
The noise of the struggle and the fierceness of the snake's convulsions, which shook the whole tower, roused Tora and her maids, and she looked from her window to see what it meant. She saw there a tall man, but could not distinguish his features in the grey dawn. The serpent was now in its death throes, though this she did not know, and she called out:
"Who are you, and what do you want?"
Ragnar answered in this verse:
"For the maid fair and wise I would venture my life. The scale-fish got its death wound From a youth of fifteen!"
Then he went away, taking the broken handle of the spear with him. Tora listened in surprise, for she learned from the verse that a boy of fifteen had slain the great monster, and she marvelled at his great size for his years, wondering if he were man or wizard. When day came she told her father of the strange event, and the jarl drew out the broken spear from the snake, finding it to be so heavy that few men could have lifted it.
Who had killed the serpent and earned the reward? The jarl sent a mandate throughout his kingdom, calling all men together, and when they came he told them the story of the snake's death, and bade him who possessed the handle of the spear to present it, as he would keep his word with any one, high or low.
Ragnar and his men stood on the edge of the throng as the broken head of the spear was passed round, no one being able to present the handle fitting it. At length it came to Ragnar, and he drew forth the handle from his cloak, showing that the broken ends fitted exactly. A great feast for the victor was now given by Jarl Herroed, and when Ragnar saw the loveliness of Tora, he was glad to ask her for his queen, while she was equally glad to have such a hero for her spouse. A splendid bridal followed and the victor took his beautiful bride home.
This exploit gave Ragnar great fame and he received the surname of Lodbrok, on account of the strange coat he had worn. Ragnar and Tora lived happily together but not to old age, for after some years she took sick and died, leaving two sons, Erik and Agnar, who grew up to be strong and beautiful youths. Ragnar had loved her greatly and after her death said he would marry no other woman. Nor could he comfort himself at home but began to wander abroad on warlike voyages, that he might drive away his sorrow.
Leaving Ragnar Lodbrok to his travels, let us take up the strange story of another fair maiden, who was to have much to do with his future life. She was named Asloeg and was the daughter of King Sigurd Fafnisbane, of Germany. Soon after she was born enemies of her father killed him and her mother and all of his race they could find. Her life was saved by Heimer, foster-father to her mother, who to get her away from the murderers had a large harp made with a hollow frame, in which he hid the child and all the treasure he could find.
Then he wandered far as a travelling harper, letting the child out when they came to solitary woods, and when she wept and moaned silencing her by striking the strings of the harp. After long journeying he came to a cottage in Norway called Spangerhed, where lived a beggar and his wife. Seeing a gold bracelet under Heimer's rags, and some rich embroidery sticking from the harp, the beggar and his wife killed him during the night and broke open the harp. They found in it the wealth they sought, but the discovery of the pretty little girl troubled them.
"What shall we do with this child?" he asked.
"We will bring her up as our own, and name her Kraka, after my mother," said his wife.
"But no one will believe that ugly old people like us can have so fair a daughter."
"Let me manage it," said the wife. "I will put tar on her head so that her hair will not be too long, and keep her in ragged clothes and at the hardest work."
This they did and little Asloeg grew up as a beggar's child. And as she kept strangely silent, never speaking, all people thought her dumb.
One day, when Asloeg was well grown, Ragnar Lorbrok came that way, cruising along the Norway coast. The crew was out of bread and men were sent ashore to bake some at a house they saw in the distance. This house was Spangerhed, where Kraka dwelt.
She had seen the ships come up and the men land, and was ashamed to be seen by strangers as she was, so she washed herself and combed her hair, though she had been bidden never to do so. So long and thick had her hair grown that it reached to the ground and covered her completely.
When the cooks came to bake their bread they were so surprised at the beauty of the maiden that they let the loaves burn while looking at her, and on being blamed for this carelessness on their return to the ship said they could not help it, for they had been bewitched by the face of the loveliest maiden they had ever gazed upon.
"She cannot be as lovely as Tora was," said Ragnar.
"There was never a lovelier woman," they declared, and Ragnar was so struck by their story that he sent messengers ashore to learn if they were telling the truth. If it were so, he said, if Kraka were as beautiful as Tora, they were bidden to bring her to him neither dressed nor undressed, neither fasting nor satisfied, neither alone nor in company. The messengers found the maiden as fair as the cooks had said and repeated the king's demand.
"Your king must be out of his mind, to send such a message," said the beggar's wife; but Kraka told them that she would come as their king wished, but not until the next morning.
The next day she came to the shore where the ship lay. She was completely covered with her splendid hair, worn like a net around her. She had eaten an onion before coming, and had with her the old beggar's sheep dog; so that she had fulfilled Ragnar's three demands.
Her wit highly pleased Ragnar and he asked her to come on board, but she would not do so until she had been promised peace and safety. When she was taken to the cabin Ragnar looked at her in delight. He thought that she surpassed Tora in beauty, and offered a prayer to Odin, asking for the love of the maiden. Then he took the gold-embroidered dress which Tora had worn and offered it to Kraka, saying in verse, in the fashion of those times:
"Will you have Tora's robe? It suits you well. Her white hands have played upon it. Lovely and kind was she to me until death."
Kraka answered, also in verse:
"I dare not take the gold-embroidered robe which adorned Tora the fair. It suits not me. Kraka am I called in coal-black baize. I have ever herded goats on the stones by the sea-shore."
"And now I will go home," she added. "If the king's mind does not change he can send for me when he will."
Then she went back to the beggar's cottage and Ragnar sailed in his ship away.
Of course every one knows without telling what came from such an invitation. It was not long before Ragnar was back with his ship and he found Kraka quite ready to go with him. And when they reached his home a splendid entertainment was given, during which the marriage between Ragnar and Kraka took place, everything being rich and brilliant and all the great lords of the kingdom being present. It will be seen that, though the Princess Asloeg pretended to be dumb during her years of youthful life in the beggar's cottage, she found her voice and her wits with full effect when the time came to use them.
She was now the queen of a great kingdom, and lived for many years happily with her husband Ragnar. And among her children were two sons who were very different from other men. The oldest was called Iwar. He grew up to be tall and strong, though there were no bones in his body, but only gristle, so that he could not stand, but had to be carried everywhere on a litter. Yet he was very wise and prudent. The second gained the name of Ironside, and was so tough of skin that he wore no armor in war, but fought with his bare body without being wounded. To the people this seemed the work of magic. There were two others who were like other men.
Since the older brothers, the sons of Tora, had long been notable as warriors, the younger brothers, when they grew up, became eager to win fame and fortune also, and they went abroad on warlike expeditions, fighting many battles, winning many victories, and gaining much riches.
But Iwar, the boneless one, was not satisfied with this common fighting, but wanted to perform some great exploit, that would give them a reputation everywhere for courage. There was the town of Hvitaby (now Whitby, in Yorkshire, England), which many great warriors had attacked, their father among them, but all had been driven back by the power of magic or necromancy. If they could take this stronghold it would give them infinite honor, said Iwar, and to this his brothers agreed.
To Hvitaby they sailed, and leaving their younger brother Ragnwald in charge of the ships, because they thought him too young to take part in so hard a battle, they marched against the town. The place was ably defended, not only by men but by two magical heifers, their charm being that no man could stand before them or even listen to their lowing. When these beasts were loosed and ran out towards the troops, the men were so scared by the terrible sound of their voices that Ironside had all he could do to keep them from a panic flight, and many of them fell prostrate. But Iwar, who could not stand, but was carried into battle upon shields, took his bow and sent his arrows with such skill and strength that both the magic heifers were slain.
Then courage came back to the troops and the townsmen were filled with terror. And in the midst of the fighting Ragnwald came up with the men left to guard the ships. He was determined to win some of the glory of the exploit and attacked the townsmen with fury, rushing into their ranks until he was cut down. But in the end the townsmen were defeated and the valiant brothers returned with great honor and spoil, after destroying the castle. Thus it was that the sons of Kraka gained reputation as valiant warriors.
But meanwhile Kraka herself was like to lose her queenly station, for Ragnar visited King Osten of Upsala who had a beautiful daughter named Ingeborg. On seeing her, his men began to say that it would be more fitting for their king to have this lovely princess for his wife, instead of a beggar's daughter like Kraka. Ragnar heard this evil counsel, and was so affected by it that he became betrothed to Ingeborg. When he went home he bade his men to say nothing about this betrothal, yet in some way Kraka came to know of it. That night she asked Ragnar for news and he said he had none to tell.
"If you do not care to tell me news," said Kraka, "I will tell you some. It is not well done for a king to affiance himself to one woman when he already has another for his wife. And, since your men chose to speak of me as a beggar's daughter, let me tell you that I am no such thing, but a king's daughter and of much higher birth than your new love Ingeborg."
"What fable is this you tell me?" said Ragnar. "Who, then, were your parents?"
"My father was King Sigurd Fafnisbane and my mother was the Amazon Brynhilda, daughter of King Budle."
"Do you ask me to believe that the daughter of these great people was named Kraka and brought up in a peasant's hut?"
The queen now told him that her real name was Asloeg and related all the events of her early life. And as a sign that she spoke the truth, she said that her next child, soon to be born, would be a son and would have a snake in his eye.
It came out as she said, the boy, when born, having the strange sign of which she had spoken, so that he was given a name that meant Sigurd Snake-in-Eye. So rejoiced was Ragnar at this that he ceased to think of Ingeborg and all his old love for Kraka, or Asloeg as she was now called, came back.
The remainder of the lives of Ragnar and Asloeg and of their warlike sons is full of valiant deeds and magic arts, far too long to be told here, but which gave them a high place in the legendary lore of the north, in which Ragnar Lodbrok is one of the chief heroes. At length Ragnar was taken prisoner by King Ethelred of England and thrown into a pit full of serpents, where he died. Afterwards Iwar and his brothers invaded England, conquered that country, and avenged their father by putting Ethelred to death by torture. Iwar took England for his kingdom and the realms of the north were divided among his brothers, and many more were the wars they had, until death ended the career of these heroes of northern legend.
HAROLD FAIR-HAIRED FOUNDS THE KINGDOM OF NORWAY.
To the far-off island of Iceland we must go for the story of the early days of Norway. In that frosty isle, not torn by war or rent by tumult, the people, sitting before their winter fires, had much time to think and write, and it is to Iceland we owe the story of the gods of the north and of the Scandinavian kings of heathen times. One of these writers, Snorri Sturlasson by name, has left us a famous book, "The Sagas of the Kings of Norway," in which he tells of a long line of ancient kings, who were descended from the gods. Here are some of their names, Aun the Old, Ingjald Ill-Ruler, Olaf the Wood-Cutter, Halfdan Whiteleg, and Halfdan the Swarthy. There were others whom we need not name, and of these mentioned the names must suffice, for all we know of them is legend, not truth.
In those times there was no kingdom of Norway, but a number of petty provinces, ruled over by warriors who are spoken of as kings, but whose rule was not very wide. Most powerful among them was Halfdan the Swarthy, who was only a year old in 810 when his father was killed in battle.
He lived for many years, and he and his wife Ragnhild had strange dreams. The queen dreamed that a thorn which she took out of her clothes grew in her hands until one end of it took root in the ground and the other shot up into the air. It kept on growing until it was a great tree, so high that she could barely see its top. The lower part of it was blood-red, higher up it was bright green, and the spreading branches were white as snow. So widely they spread that they seemed to shade the whole country of Norway.
King Halfdan did not like it that his wife had such strange dreams and he had none. He asked a sage why this was so, and was told that if he wanted to have dreams as strange he must sleep in a pig-sty. A queer recipe for dreams, one would think, but the king tried it, and dreamed that his hair grew long and beautiful and hung in bright locks over his shoulders, some of them down to his waist, and one, the brightest and most beautiful of all, still farther down.
When he told the sage of this dream, the wise man said it meant that from him was to come a mighty race of kings, one of whom should be the greatest and most glorious of them all. This great hero, Snorri tells us, was supposed to be Olaf the Saint, who reigned two hundred years later, and under whom Christianity first flourished in Norway.
Soon after these dreams a son was born to the queen, who was named Harold. A bright, handsome lad he grew to be, wise of mind and strong of body and winning the favor of all who knew him. Many tales which we cannot believe are told of his boyhood. Here is one of them. Once when the king was seated at the Yuletide feast all the meats and the ale disappeared from the table, leaving an empty board for the monarch and his guests. There was present a Finn who was said to be a sorceror, and him the king put to the torture, to find out who had done this thing. Young Harold, displeased with his father's act, rescued the Finn from his tormentors and went with him to the mountains.
On they went, miles and leagues away, until they came to a place where a Finnish chief was holding a great feast. Harold stayed there until spring, when he told his host that he must return to his father's halls. Then the chief said:
"King Halfdan was very angry when I took his meat and ale from him last winter, and now I will reward you with good tidings for what you did. Your father is dead and his kingdom waits for you to inherit. And some day you will rule over all Norway."
Harold found it to be as the Finn had said, and thus in 860, when he was only ten years old, he came to the throne. He was young to be at the head of a turbulent people and some ambitious men there were who sought to take advantage of his youth, but his uncle guardian fought for him and put them all down. Harold was now the greatest among the petty kings of Norway and a wish to be ruler of the whole land grew up in his soul.
Here comes in a story which may not be all true, but is pretty enough to tell. It is to the effect that love drove Harold to strive for the kingdom. Old Snorri tells the story, which runs this way.
King Erik of Hoerdaland had a fair daughter named Gyda, the fame of whose beauty reached Harold's ears and he sent messengers to win her for himself. But the maid was proud and haughty and sent back word:
"Tell your master that I will not yield myself to any man who has only a few districts for his kingdom. Is there no king in the land who can conquer all Norway, as King Erik has conquered Sweden and King Gorm Denmark?"
This was all the answer she had for the heralds, though they pleaded for a better answer, saying that King Harold was surely great enough for any maid in the land.
"This is my answer to King Harold," she said. "I will promise to become his wife if for my sake he shall conquer all Norway and rule it as freely as King Erik and King Gorm rule their kingdoms. Only when he has done this can he be called the king of a people."
When the heralds returned they told the king of their ill success and advised him to take the girl by force.
"Not so," Harold replied. "The girl has spoken well and deserves thanks instead of injury. She has put a new thought into my mind which had not come to me before. This I now solemnly vow and call God to witness, that I will not cut or comb my hair until the day when I shall have made myself king of all Norway. If I fail in this, I shall die in the attempt."
Such is the legend of Gyda and the vow. What history tells us is that the young king set out to bring all Norway under his rule and prospered in the great enterprise. One after another, the small kings yielded to his power, and were made earls or governors under him. They collected taxes and administered justice in his name. All the land of the peasants was declared to be the property of the king, and those who had been free proprietors were now made the king's tenants and were obliged to pay taxes if they wished to hold their lands. These changes angered many and there were frequent rebellions against the king, but he put them all down, and year after year came nearer the goal of his ambition. And his hair continued to grow uncut and uncombed, and got to be such a tangled mass that men called him Harold Lufa, or Frowsy-Head.
There was one great and proud family, the Rafnistas, who were not easily to be won. To one of them, Kveld-Ulf, or Night-Wolf, Harold sent envoys, asking him to enter his service, but the chief sent back word that he was too old to change. Then he offered Bald Grim, old Night-Wolf's son, high honors if he would become his vassal. Bald Grim replied that he would take no honors that would give him rank over his father.
Harold grew angry at this, and was ready to use force where good words would not prevail, but in the end the old chief agreed that his second son Thorolf might be the king's man if he saw fit. This he agreed to do, and as he was handsome, intelligent and courtly the king set much store by him.
Not only with the Norway chiefs, but with the king of Sweden, Harold had trouble. While he was busy in the south King Erik invaded the north, and Harold had to march in haste to regain his dominions. But the greatest danger in his career came in 872, when a number of chiefs combined against him and gathered a great fleet, which attacked Harold's fleet in Halfrs-Fjord. Then came the greatest and hottest fight known to that day in Norway. Loudly the war-horns sounded and the ships were driven fiercely to the fray, Harold's ship being in the front wherever the fight waxed hottest. Thorolf, the son of Night-Wolf, stood in its prow, fighting with viking fury, and beside him stood two of his brothers, matching him blow with blow.
Yet the opposing chiefs and their men were stout fighters and the contest long seemed doubtful, many brave and able men falling on both sides. Arrows hissed in swift flight through the air, spears hurtled after them, stones were hurled by strong hands, and those who came hand to hand fought like giants. At length Harold's berserkers—men who fought without armor, replacing it with fury of onslaught—rushed forward and boarded the hostile ships, cutting down all who opposed them. Blood ran like water and the chieftains and their men fell or fled before this wild assault. The day was won for Harold, and with it the kingdom, for after that fatal fray none dared to stand up before him.
His vow accomplished, all Norway now his, Harold at last consented to the cutting of his hair, this being done by Ragnvald, the earl of Moere. The tangled strands being cut and the hair deftly combed, those who saw it marvelled at its beauty, and from that day the king was known as Harold the Fair-Haired. As for Gyda, the maid, the great task she set having been accomplished, she gave her hand to Harold, a splendid marriage completing the love romance of their lives.
This romance, however, is somewhat spoiled by the fact that Harold already had a wife, Aasa, the daughter of Earl Haakon, and that he afterwards married other wives. He had his faults and weaknesses, one of these being that he was not faithful to women and he was jealous of men who were growing in greatness. One of the men whom he began to fear or hate was Thorolf, who had aided him so mightily in battle and long stood highest in his favor.
Thorolf married a rich wife and grew very wealthy, living like a prince, and becoming profuse in his hospitality. He was gracious and liberal and won hosts of friends, while he aided the king greatly in collecting taxes from the Finns, who were not very willing to part with their money. Despite this service Harold grew to distrust Thorolf, or to hate him for other reasons, and the time came when this feeling led to a tragedy.
Thorolf had been made bailiff of Haalogaland, and when Harold came to this province his bailiff entertained him with a splendid feast, to which eight hundred guests were invited, three hundred of them being the king's attendants.
Yet, through all the hilarity of the feast, Harold sat dark and brooding, much to his host's surprise. He unbent a little at the end and seemed well pleased when Thorolf presented him with a large dragon ship, fully equipped. Yet not long afterwards he took from him his office of bailiff, and soon showed himself his deadly foe, slandering him as a pretext for attacking him on his estate.
The assailants set fire to Thorolf's house and met him with a shower of spears when he broke out from the burning mansion. Seeing the king among them Thorolf rushed furiously towards him, cut down his banner-bearer with a sword blow, and was almost within touch of the king when he fell from his many wounds, crying: "By three steps only I failed."
It is said that Harold himself gave the death blow, yet he looked sadly on the warrior as he lay dead at his feet, saying, as he saw a man bandaging a slight wound: "That wound Thorolf did not give. Differently did weapons bite in his hand. It is a pity that such men must die."
This would indicate that King Harold had other reasons than appears from the narrative for the slaughter of his former friend. It must be borne in mind that he was engaged in founding a state, and had many disorderly and turbulent elements with which to deal, and that before he had ended his work he was forced to banish from the kingdom many of those who stood in his way. We do not know what secret peril to his plans led him to remove Thorolf from his path.
However that be, the killing of the chief sent his father to his bed sick with grief, and he grew content only when he heard that the king's hand had slain him and that he had fallen on his face at his slayer's feet. For when a dying man fell thus it was a sign that he would be avenged.
But the old man was far too weak to attack Harold openly, and was not willing to dwell in the same kingdom with him; so he, with his son Bald Grim and all his family and wealth, took ship and set sail for Iceland. But long he lingered on Norway's coast, hoping for revenge on some of Harold's blood, and chance threw in his way a ship containing two cousins of the king. This he attacked, killed the king's cousins, and captured the ship. Then Bald Grim, full of exultation, sang a song of triumph on the ship's prow, beginning with:
"Now is the Hersir's vengeance On the king fulfilled; Wolf and eagle tread on Yngling's children."
There were other chieftains who sought refuge abroad from Harold's rule, men who were bitterly opposed to the new government he founded, with its system of taxation and its strict laws. They could not see why the old system of robbing and plundering within Norway's confines should be interfered with or their other ancient privileges curtailed, and several thousand sailed away to found new homes in the Orkneys, the Hebrides, and Iceland.
One of the chief of these, Rolf, or Rollo, son of the king's friend, Ragnvald of Moere, defied Harold's laws and was declared an outlaw. His high birth made the king more determined to punish him, as an example to others, and no influence could win forgiveness for Rolf the Walker, as men called him, saying that he was so tall and heavy that no horse could carry him.
We must follow the outlaw in his journey, for it was one destined to lead to great events. Setting sail with a fleet and a large number of followers, he made his way to the coast of France, and fixed himself there, plundering the people for several years. Charles the Simple, king of France, finding that he could not drive the bold Norseman off, at length gave him a large province on condition that he would become a Christian, and hold his land as a vassal of the king. The province was given the name of Normandy, and from Rollo descended that sturdy race of kings one of whom conquered England in the following century. Thus the exile of Rollo led to events of world-wide importance.
When the proud Norseman was asked to kiss King Charles's foot in token of fealty to him, he answered: "I will never bend my knee before any man, nor will I kiss any man's foot."
He could hardly be persuaded to let one of his men kiss the king's foot as a proxy for him. The man chosen strode sturdily forward, seized the foot of the king, who was on horseback, and lifted it to his lips so roughly that the poor king turned a somersault from his horse. The Norsemen laughed in derision while the king's followers stood by grim and silent.
But despite his unruliness at home, Rollo, when he got a kingdom of his own, ruled it with all the sternness of King Harold, hanging all robbers that fell into his hands, and making his kingdom so secure that the peasants could leave their tools in the fields at night without fear of loss. Five generations after him came to the throne William the Conqueror, who won himself the kingdom of England.
To go back to Harold, the builder of the kingdom of Norway, we shall only say in conclusion that he built his rule on sure foundations and kept a court of high splendor, and died without a rebel in his realm in 933, seventy-three years after he succeeded his father as ruler of a province.
GORM THE OLD, DENMARK'S FIRST KING.
In ancient times Denmark was not a kingdom, but a multitude of small provinces ruled over by warlike chiefs who called themselves kings. It was not until the ninth century that these little king-ships were combined into one kingdom, this being done by a famous chieftain, known by the Danes as Gorm den Gamle, or Gorm the Old. A great warrior he was, a viking of the vikings, and southern Europe felt his heavy hand. A famous story of barbarian life is that of Gorm, which well deserves to be told.
He was the son of a fierce pagan of Norway, Hardegon, who was of royal blood, being a grandson of the half-fabulous Ragnar Lodbrok. A prince with only his sword for kingdom, Hardegon looked around for a piece of land to be won by fighting, and fixed upon Lejre, in the fruitful Danish island of Sjoelland, which was just then in a very inviting state for the soldier of fortune. Some time before it had fallen into the hands of a Swedish fortune-seeker named Olaf, who left it to his two sons. These in turn had just been driven out by Siegric, the rightful king, when Hardegon descended upon it and seized it for himself. Dying, he left it to his son Gorm.
It was a small kingdom that Gorm had fallen heir to. A lord's estate we would call it to-day. But while small in size, it stood high in rank, for it was here that the great sacrifices to Odin, the chief Scandinavian deity, were held, and it was looked upon as one of the most sacred of spots. Hither at Yuletide came the devotees of Odin from all quarters to worship at his shrine, and offer gifts of gold and silver, precious stones and costly robes, to the twelve high priests of whom the king of Lejre was the chief. And every worshipper, whether rich or poor, was expected to bring a horse, a dog, or a cock, these animals being sacred to Odin and sacrificed in large numbers annually at his shrine. In the special nine-year services, people came in great numbers, and it is probable that on these occasions human sacrifices were made, captives taken in war or piratical excursions being saved for this purpose.
As one may see, the king of Lejre had excellent opportunity to acquire wealth, and young Gorm, being brave, clever, and ambitious, used his riches to increase his landed possessions. At least, the Danish historians tell us that he began by buying one bit of land, getting another by barter, seizing on one district, having another given him, and so on. But all this is guess-work, and all we actually know is that Gorm, the son of a poor though nobly-born sea-rover, before his death gained control of all Denmark, then much larger than the Denmark of to-day, and changed the small state with which he began into a powerful kingdom, bringing all the small kings under his sway.
The ambitious chief did not content himself with this. Long before his kingdom was rounded and complete he had become known as one of the most daring and successful of the viking adventurers who in those days made all Europe their prey.
Early in his reign he made a plundering cruise along the shores of the Baltic and joined in a piratical invasion of Russia, penetrating far inward and pillaging as he went. We hear of him again in 882 as one of the chiefs of a daring band which made a conquering raid into Germany, intrenched itself on the river Maas, sallied forth on plundering excursions whose track was marked by ruined fields and burnt homesteads, villages and towns, and even assailed and took Aix-la-Chapelle, one of the chief cities of the empire of Charlemagne and the seat of his tomb. The reckless freebooters stalled their horses in the beautiful chapel in which the great emperor lay buried and stripped from his tomb its gilded and silvered railings and everything of value which the monks had not hidden.
The whole surrounding country was similarly ravaged and desolated by the ruthless heathens, monasteries were burned, monks were killed or captured, and the emperor, Charles the Fat, was boldly defied. When Charles brought against the plunderers an army large enough to devour them, he was afraid to strike a blow against them, and preferred to buy them off with a ransom of two thousand pounds of gold and silver, all he got in return being their promise to be baptized.
Finding that they had a timid foe to deal with, the rapacious Norsemen asked for more, and when they finally took to their ships two hundred transports were needed to carry away their plunder. The cowardly Charles, indeed, was so wrought upon by fear of the pagan Danes that he even passed the incredible law that any one who killed a Norseman should have his eyes put out and in some cases should lose his life.
All this was sure to invite new invasions. A wave of joy passed through the north when the news spread of the poltroonery of the emperor and the vast spoil awaiting the daring hand. Back they came, demanding and receiving new ransom, and in 885 there began a great siege of Paris by forty thousand Danes.
King Gorm was one of the chiefs who took part in this, and when Henry of Neustria, whom the emperor had sent with an army against them, was routed and driven back, it was Gorm who pursued the fugitives into the town of Soissons, where many captives and a great booty were taken.
The dastard emperor again bought them off with money and freedom to ravage Burgundy, Paris being finally rescued by Count Eudes. In 891 they were so thoroughly beaten by King Arnulf, of Germany, that their great leaders fell on the field and only a remnant of the Norsemen escaped alive, the waters of the river Dyle running red with the blood of slain thousands.
Gorm was one of the chiefs who took part in this disastrous battle of Louvaine and was one of the fortunate few who lived to return to their native land. Apparently it was not the last of his expeditions, his wife, Queen Thyra, taking care of the kingdom in his many long absences.
Thyra needed ability and resolution to fitly perform this duty, for those were restless and turbulent times, and the Germans made many incursions into Sleswick and Jutland and turned the borderlands on the Eyder into a desert. This grew so hard to bear that the wise queen devised a plan to prevent it. Gathering a great body of workmen from all parts of Denmark, she set them to building a wall of defense from forty-five to seventy-five feet high and eight miles long, crossing from water to water on the east and west. This great wall, since known as the Dannevirke, took three years to build. There were strong watch-towers at intervals and only one gate, and this was well protected by a wide and deep ditch, crossed by a bridge that could readily be removed.
For ages afterwards the Danes were grateful to Queen Thyra for this splendid wall of defense and sang her praises in their national hymns, while they told wonderful tales of her cleverness in ruling the land while her husband was far away. Fragments of Thyra's rampart still remain and its remains formed the groundwork of all the later border bulwarks of Denmark.
Queen Thyra, while a worshipper of the northern gods, showed much favor to the Christians and caused some of her children to be signed with the cross. But King Gorm was a fierce pagan and treated his Christian subjects so cruelly that he gained the name of the "Church's worm," being regarded as one who was constantly gnawing at the supports of the Church. Henry I. the Fowler, the great German emperor of that age, angry at this treatment of the Christians, sent word to Gorm that it must cease, and when he found that no heed was paid to his words he marched a large army to the Eyder, giving Gorm to understand that he must mend his ways or his kingdom would be overrun.
Gorm evidently feared the loss of his dominion, for from that time on he allowed the Archbishop of Bremen to preach in his dominions and to rebuild the churches which had been destroyed, while he permitted his son Harald, who favored the Christians, to be signed with the cross. But he kept to the faith of his forefathers, as did his son Knud, known as "Dan-Ast," or the "Danes'-joy."
The ancient sagas tell us that there was little love between Knud and Harald; and that Gorm, fearing ill results from this, swore an oath that he would put to death any one who attempted to kill his first-born son, or who should even tell him that Knud had died.
While Harald remained at home and aided his mother, Knud was of his father's fierce spirit and for years attended him on his viking expeditions. On one of these he was drowned, or rather was killed while bathing, by an arrow shot from one of his own ships. Gorm was absent at the time, and Thyra scarcely knew how the news could be told him without incurring the sworn penalty of death.
Finally she put herself and her attendants into deep mourning and hung the chief hall of the palace with the ashy-grey hangings used at the grave-feasts of Northmen of noble birth. Then, seating herself, she awaited Gorm's return. On entering the hall he was struck by these signs of mourning and by the silence and dejection of the queen, and broke out in an exclamation of dismay:
"My son, Knud, is dead!"
"Thou hast said it, and not I, King Gorm," was the queen's reply. The news of the death had thus been conveyed to him without any one incurring the sworn penalty. Soon after that—in 936—King Gorm died, and the throne of Denmark was left to his son Harald, a cruel and crafty man whom many of the people believed to have caused the murder of his brother.
ERIK BLOOD-AXE AND EGIL THE ICELANDER.
In the year 900 Harold the Fair-Haired, the famous monarch who made a kingdom of Norway, passed a law which was to work mischief for centuries to come. Erik, his favorite son, was named overlord of the kingdom, but with the proviso that his other sons should bear the kingly title and rule over provinces, while the sons of his daughters were to be made earls. Had the wise Harold dreamed of the trouble this unwise law was to make he would have cut off his right hand before signing it. It was to give rise to endless rebellions and civil wars which filled the kingdom with ruin and slaughter for many reigns and at last led to its overthrow and long disappearance from among the separate nations of the earth.
A bold and daring prince was Erik, with the old viking blood in his veins. When only twelve years of age his father gave him five ships, each with a sturdy crew of Norsemen, and sent him out to ravage the southern lands, in the manner of the sea-kings of those days. Many were the perilous exploits of the young viking admiral and when he came back to his father's halls and told him of his daring deeds, the old king listened with delight. So fierce and fatal were many of his fights that he won the name of Blood-Axe, but for this his father loved him all the more and chose him to be his successor on the throne.
Before his father died Erik had shown what was in him, by attacking and killing two of his brothers. But despite all that, when the old king was eighty years of age he led Erik to the throne and named him as his successor. Three years later Harold died and Norway fell under the young sea-king's hand—a brave, handsome, stately ruler; but haughty, cruel, and pitiless in his wrath, and with the old viking wildness in his blood.
He had married a woman whom men called a witch—cruel, treacherous, loving money and power, and with such influence over him that she killed all the good in his soul and spurred him on to evil deeds.
Strange stories are told of the wicked Queen Gunhild. It was said that she had been sent to Finland to learn the arts of sorcery, in which the Finns of those days were well versed. Here Erik met her in one of his wanderings, and was taken captive by her bold beauty. She dwelt with two sorcerers, both bent on marrying her, while she would have neither of them. Prince Erik was a suitor more to her liking and she hid him in her tent, begging him to rescue her from her troublesome lovers.
This was no easy task, for sorcerers have arts of their own, but Erik proved equal to it, cut his way through all the difficulties in his path and carried Gunhild away to his ships, where he made her his wife. In her he had wed a dragon of mischief, as his people were to learn.
She was of small size but of wonderful beauty, and with sly, insinuating ways that fitted her well to gain the mastery over strong men. But all her arts were used for evil, and she won the hatred of the people by speaking words of ill counsel in her husband's ears. The treachery and violence he showed were said to be the work of Gunhild the witch, and the nobles and people soon grew to hate Erik Blood-Axe and his cruel wife, and often broke out in rebellion against them.
His brothers, who had been made kings of provinces, were not ready to submit to his harsh rule, and barely was old King Harold dead before Halfdan the Swarthy—who bore the name of his grandfather—claimed to be monarch in Troendelag, and Olaf, another brother, in Viken. Death came suddenly to Halfdan—men whispered that he had been poisoned by the queen—but his brother Sigfrid took his place and soon the flame of rebellion rose north and south. Erik proved equal to the difficulty. Sigfrid and Olaf were in Tunsberg, where they had met to lay plans to join their forces, when Erik, whose spies told him of their movements, took the town by surprise and killed them both.
Thus, so far, Erik Blood-Axe was triumphant. He had killed four of his brothers—men said five—and every one thought that Gunhild would not be content until all King Harold's brood except her own husband were in the grave.
Trouble next came from a region far away, the frost-king's land of Iceland in the northern seas, which had been settled from Norway in the early reign of Harold the Fair-Haired, some sixty years before. Here lived a handsome and noble man named Thorolf, who had met Erik in his viking days. He was the son of the stern old Icelander Bald Grim, and nephew of the noble Thorolf who had been basely slain by King Harold.
Bald Grim hated Harold and all his race, but Thorolf grew to admire Erik for his daring and made him a present of a large and beautiful ship. Thus Erik became his friend, and when Thorolf came to Norway the young prince begged his father to let him dwell there in peace. When he at length went home to Iceland he took with him an axe with a richly carved handle, which Erik had sent as a present to his father.
Old Bald Grim was not the man to be bought over by a present. The hate he felt for Harold he transferred to his son, and when Thorolf set sail again for Norway his father bade him take back the axe to the king and sang an insulting song which he bade him repeat to Erik. Thorolf did not like his errand. He thought it best to let the blood-feud die, so he threw the axe into the sea and when he met the king gave him his father's thanks for the fine gift. If Thorolf had had his way the trouble would have been at an end, but with him came Egil, his younger brother, a man of different character.
Stern old Bald Grim seemed born again in his son Egil. A man of great size, swarthy face, harsh of aspect, and of fierce temper, in him was the old, tameless spirit of the Norse sea-kings, turbulent, passionate, owning no man master, he bent his strong soul to no man's rule. Rash and adventurous, he had a long and stormy career, while nature had endowed him with a rich gift of song, which added to his fame. Such was the type of men who in those days made all Europe tremble before the Norsemen's wrath, and won dominion for the viking warriors in many lands.
Thorold when in Norway before had gained powerful friends in the great nobles, Thore Herse and Bjoern the Yeoman. On this visit the brothers became Thore's guests, and Egil and Arinbjoern, Thore's son, became warm friends. The young Icelander's hot temper soon brewed trouble. Sickness kept him from going with Thorolf to the house of Bjoern the Yeoman, whose daughter, Aasgard, he was to marry; but he soon got well and went on a visit to Baard, a steward of the king. As fortune decreed he met there King Erik and Queen Gunhild.
Egil was not the man to play the courtier and his hot blood was under little control. When Baard neglected him in favor of his royal visitor, he broke into such a rage that the queen, to quiet him, tried one of her underhand arts. She bade Baard to mix sleeping herbs with his beer.
Suspecting treachery from the taste of the beer Egil flung his flagon to the floor, struck Baard dead in his fury, and, fleeing for his life, swam to an island in the neighboring stream. When men were sent to search the island and capture him he killed some of them, seized their boat, and made his escape.
King Erik was furious, but Thore Herse got him to accept a money payment for Baard's death—as was then the custom of the land—and he agreed to let Egil dwell in Norway unharmed.
This was not to the queen's liking. She was fond of Baard and was deeply incensed at Egil for his murderous act, and she stormed at the king for his mildness of temper till he broke out:
"You are forever egging me on to acts of violence; but now you must hold your peace, for I have given my kingly word and cannot break it."
Gunhild, thus repulsed, sought other means of revenge. A great feast of sacrifice to the old heathen gods was to be held at the temple of Gaule, and at her instigation her brother, Eyvind Skreyja, agreed to kill one of Bald Grim's sons. Finding no opportunity for this, he killed one of Thorolf's men, for which act Erik outlawed him.
The remainder of the story of Egil's career is largely that of a viking, that is, a piratical rover, bent on spoil and plunder and the harrying of sea-coast lands. With Thorolf he took to the sea and cruised about in quest of wealth and glory, finally landing in England and fighting in a great battle under the banner of King Athelstan. He made his mark here, but Thorolf was slain, so Egil went back to Norway, married his brother's widow, and sailed for his old home in Iceland, which he had not seen for twelve years.
Iceland was too quiet a land to hold the stirring sea-king long and news from Norway soon made him take ship again. Bjoern the Yeoman, his wife's father, had died, and Queen Gunhild had given his estate to Berg-Anund, one of her favorites. Storming with rage, he reached Norway and hotly pleaded his claim to the estate before the assembly or thing at Gula, Erik and Gunhild being present. He failed in his purpose, the thing breaking up in disorder; and Egil, probably finding Norway too hot to hold him, went back to Iceland.
If King Erik now fancied he was rid of the turbulent Icelander he was mistaken. Rankling with a sense of injury and borne onward by his impetuous temper, Egil was soon in Norway again, sought the Bjoern estate, surprised and killed Berg-Anund, and went so far in his daring as to kill Ragnvald, the king's son, who was visiting Berg. Carried to extremes by his unruly temper he raised what was called a shame-pole, or pole of dishonor, on a cliff top, to the king and queen. On it he thrust the head of a dead horse, crying out:
"I turn this dishonor against all the land-spirits of this land, that they may all stray bewildered and none of them find his home until they have driven King Erik and Queen Gunhild out of this land."
This message of defiance he cut in runes—the letters of the Northland—into the pole, that all might read it, and then sailed back to Iceland.
Egil had not long to wait for his curse to take effect, for Erik's reign was soon threatened from a new source. He had not killed all his brothers. In the old days of King Harold, when near seventy years old, he had married a new wife, who bore him a son whom he named Haakon,—destined in later life to reign with the popular title of Haakon the Good. This boy, perhaps for his safety, had been sent to England and given over to King Athelstan, who brought him up almost as his own son.
Erik had been four years on the throne when Haakon came back to Norway, a handsome, noble youth, kind of heart and gentle in disposition, and on all sides hailed with joy, for Erik and his evil-minded wife had not won the love of the people. Great nobles and many of the people gathered around Haakon, men saying that he was like King Harold come back again, gentler and nobler than of old and with all his old stately beauty and charm.
The next year he was crowned king. Erik tried to raise an army, but none of the people were willing to fight for him, and he was forced to flee with his wife and children. Only a few of his old friends went with him, but among them was Arinbjoern, Egil's former friend.
Sudden had been King Erik's fall. Lately lord of a kingdom, he had now not a foot of land he could call his own, and he sailed about as a sea-robber, landing and plundering in Scotland and England. At length, to rid himself of this stinging hornet of the seas, King Athelstan made him lord of a province in Northumberland, with the promise that he would fight for it against other vikings like himself. He was also required to be baptized and become a Christian.
Meanwhile Egil dwelt in Iceland, but in bitter discontent. He roamed about the strand, looking for sails at sea and seeming to care little for his wife and children. Men said that Gunhild had bewitched him, but more likely it was his own unquiet spirit. At any rate the time came when he could bear a quiet life no longer and he took ship and sailed away to the south.
Misfortune now went with him. A storm drove his ship ashore on the English coast at the mouth of the Humber, the ship being lost but he and his thirty men reaching shore. Inquiring in whose land he was, people told him that Erik Blood-Axe ruled that region.
Egil's case was a desperate one. He was in the domain of his deadly foe, with little hope of escape. With his usual impetuous spirit, he made no attempt to flee, but rode boldly into York, where he found his old friend Arinbjoern. With him he went straight to Erik, like the reckless fellow he was.
"What do you expect from me?" asked Erik. "You deserve nothing but death at my hands."
"Death let it be, then," said the bold viking, in his reckless manner.
Gunhild on seeing him was eager for his blood. She had hated him so long that she hotly demanded that he should be killed on the spot. Erik, less bloodthirsty, gave him his life for one night more, and Arinbjoern begged him to spend the night in composing a song in Erik's honor, hoping that in this way he might win his life.
Egil promised to do so and his friend brought him food and drink, bidding him do his best. Anxious to know how he was progressing Arinbjoern visited him in the night.
"How goes the song?" he asked.
"Not a line of it is ready," answered Egil. "A swallow has been sitting in the window all the night, screaming and disturbing me, and do what I would I could not drive it away."
At that Arinbjoern darted into the hall, where he saw in the dim light a woman running hastily away. Going back he found that the swallow had flown. He was sure now that Queen Gunhild had changed herself into a swallow by sorcery, and for the remainder of the night he kept watch outside that the bird should not return. When morning broke he found that Egil had finished his song.
Determined to save his friend's life if he could, he armed himself and his men and went with Egil to the palace of the king, where he asked Erik for Egil's life as a reward for his devotion to him when others had deserted him.
Erik made no reply, and then Arinbjoern cried out:
"This I will say. Egil shall not die while I or one of my men remain alive."
"Egil has well deserved death," replied Erik, "but I cannot buy his death at that price."
As he stopped speaking Egil began to sing, chanting his ode in tones that rang loudly through the hall. Famed as a poet, his death song was one of the best he had ever composed, and it praised Erik's valor in all the full, wild strains of the northern verse.
Erik heard the song through with unmoved face. When it was done he said:
"Your song is a noble one, and your friend's demand for your life is nobler still. Nor can I be the dastard to kill a man who puts himself of his own will into my hands. You shall depart unharmed. But do not think that I or my sons forgive you, and from the moment you leave this hall never come again under my eyes or the eyes of my sons."
Egil thus won his life by his song, which became known as the "Ransom of the Head." Another of his songs, called "The Loss of the Son," is held to be the most beautiful in all the literature of Iceland. He afterwards lived long and had many more adventures, and in the end died in his bed in Iceland when he was over ninety years of age. Erik died in battle many years earlier, and Gunhild then went to Denmark with her sons. She was to make more trouble for Norway before she died.
THE SEA-KINGS AND THEIR DARING FEATS.
From the word vik, or bay, comes the word viking, long used to designate the sea-rovers of the Northland, the bold Norse wanderers who for centuries made their way to the rich lands of the south on plundering raids. Beginning by darting out suddenly from hiding places in bays or river mouths to attack passing craft, they in the end became daring scourers of the seas and won for themselves kingdoms and dominions in the settled realms of the south.
Nothing was known of them in the early days. The people of southern Europe in the first Christian centuries hardly knew of the existence of the race of fair-skinned and light-haired barbarians who dwelt in the great peninsula of the north. It was not until near the year 800 B.C. that these bold brigands learned that riches awaited those who dared seize it on the shores of France, England, and more southern lands. Then they came in fleets and spread terror wherever they appeared. For several centuries the realms of civilization trembled before their very name.
"From the fury of the Northmen, Good Lord deliver us!" prayed the priests, and the people joined fervently in the prayer.
Long before this period the sea was the favorite hunting ground of the daring sons of the north, but the small chiefs of that period preyed upon each other, harrying their neighbors and letting distant lands alone. But as the power of the chiefs, and their ability to protect themselves increased, this mode of gaining wealth and fame lost its ease and attraction and the rovers began to rove farther afield.
Sea-kings they called themselves. On land the ruler of a province might be called either earl or king, but the earl who went abroad with his followers on warlike excursions was content with no less name than king, and the chiefs who set out on plundering cruises became from the first known as sea-kings. Pirates and freebooters we would call them to-day, but they were held in high distinction in their native land, and some of the most cruel of them, on their return home, became men of influence, with all the morality and sense of honor known in those early days. Their lives of ravage and outrage won them esteem at home and the daring and successful sea-king ranked in fame with the noblest of the home-staying chiefs. We have seen how King Erik began his career as a viking and ended it in the same pursuit; how Rollo, a king's son, adopted the same profession; and from this it may be seen that the term was one of honor instead of disgrace.
From all the lands of the north they came, these dreaded sons of the sea, from Norway, Sweden, and Denmark alike, fierce heathens they who cared nought for church or priest, but liked best to rob chapels and monasteries, for there the greatest stores of gold and silver could be found. When the churches were plundered they often left them in flames, as they also did the strong cities they captured and sacked. The small, light boats with which they dared the sea in its wrath were able to go far up the rivers, and wherever these fierce and bloodthirsty rovers appeared wild panic spread far around. So fond were they of sword-thrust and battle that one viking crew would often challenge another for the pure delight of fighting. A torment and scourge they were wherever they appeared.
The first we hear in history of the sea-kings is in the year 787, when a small party of them landed on the English coast. In 794 came another flock of these vultures of the sea, who robbed a church and a monastery, plundering and killing, and being killed in their turn when a storm wrecked their ships and threw them on shore. As a good monk writes of them: "The heathen came from the northern countries to Britain like stinging wasps, roamed about like savage wolves, robbing, biting, killing not only horses, sheep, and cattle, but also priests, acolytes, monks, and nuns."
The Norsemen had found a gold mine in the south and from this time on they worked it with fierce hands. Few dared face them, and even in the days of the great Charlemagne they ravaged the coast lands of France. Once, when the great emperor was in one of his cities on the Mediterranean coast, a fleet of the swift viking ships, known by their square sails, entered the harbor. Soon word was brought that they had landed and were plundering. Who they were the people knew not, some saying that they were Jews, others Africans, and others that they were British merchants.
"No merchants they," said the emperor. "Those ships do not bring us goods, but fierce foes, bloody fighters from the north."
The warriors around him at once seized their weapons and hurried to the shore, but the vikings had learned that the great emperor was in the city and, not daring to face him, had sought their ships and spread their sails again. Tears came to the eyes of Charlemagne as he watched them in their outward flight. He said to those around him:
"It is not for fear that these brigands can do me any harm that I weep, but for their daring to show themselves on this coast while I am alive. Their coming makes me foresee and fear the harm they may do to my descendants."
This story may be one of those legends which the monks were fond of telling, but it serves to show how the dread Norsemen were feared. France was one of their chief fields of ravage and slaughter. First coming in single ships, to rob and flee, they soon began to come in fleets and grew daring enough to attack and sack cities. Hastings, one of the most renowned of them all, did not hesitate to attack the greatest cities of the south.
In 841 this bold freebooter sailed up the Loire with a large fleet, took and burned the city of Amboise, and laid siege to Tours. But here the inhabitants, aided, it is said, by the bones of their patron saint, drove him off. Four years later he made an attack on Paris, and as fortune followed his flag he grew so daring that he sought to capture the city of Rome and force the Pope to crown him emperor.
For an account of this remarkable adventure of the bold Hastings see the article, "The Raids of the Sea-Rovers," in the German volume of "Historical Tales." In that account are also given the chief exploits of the vikings in France and Germany. We shall therefore confine ourselves in the remainder of this article to their operations in other lands, and especially in Ireland.
This country was a common field for the depredations of the Norse rovers. For some reason not very clear to us the early vikings did not trouble England greatly, but for many years they spread terror through the sister isle, and in the year 838 Thorgisl, one of their boldest leaders, came with a fleet of one hundred and twenty ships, with which he attacked and captured the city of Dublin, and afterwards, as an old author tells us, he conquered all Ireland, securing his conquest with stone forts surrounded with deep moats.
But the Irish at length got rid of their conqueror by a stratagem. It was through love that the sea-king was lost. Bewitched with the charms of the fair daughter of Maelsechnail, one of the petty kings of the land, he bade this chieftain to send her to him, with fifteen young maidens in her train. He agreed to meet her on an island in Loch Erne with as many Norsemen of high degree.
Maelsechnail obeyed, but his maidens were beardless young men, dressed like women but armed with sharp daggers. Thorgisl and his men, taken by surprise, were attacked and slain. The Irish chief had once before asked Thorgisl how he should rid himself of some troublesome birds that had invaded the island. "Destroy their nests," said the Norseman. It was wise advice, and Maelsechnail put it in effect against the nests of the conquerors, destroying their stone strongholds, and killing or driving them away, with the aid of his fellow chieftains.
Thus for a time Ireland was freed. It was conquered again by Olaf the White, who in 852 defeated some Danes who had taken Dublin, and then, like Thorgisl, began to build castles and tax the people. Two other viking leaders won kingdoms in Ireland, but Olaf was the most powerful of them all, and the kingdom founded by him lasted for three hundred and fifty years. From Dublin Olaf sailed to Scotland and England, the booty he won filling two hundred ships.
The sea-rovers did not confine their voyages to settled lands. Bold ocean wanderers, fearless of man on shore and tempest on the waves, they visited all the islands of the north and dared the perils of the unknown sea. They rounded the North Cape and made their way into the White Sea as early as 750. The Faroe, the Orkney and the Shetland Islands were often visited by them after 825, and in 874 they discovered Iceland, which had been reached and settled by Irishmen or Scots about 800. The Norsemen found here only some Irish hermits and monks, and these, disturbed in their peaceful retreat by the turbulent newcomers, made their way back to Ireland and left the Norsemen lords of the land. From Iceland the rovers reached Greenland, which was settled in 986, and about the year 1000 they discovered North America, at a place they named Vinland.
Such is, briefly told, the story of the early Norse wanderers. They had a later tale, of which we have told part in their conquest of Ireland. Though at first they came with a few ships, and were content to attack a town or a monastery, they soon grew more daring and their forces larger. A number of them would now fortify themselves on some coast elevation and make it a centre for plundering raids into the surrounding country. At a later date many of them ceased to pose as pirates and took the role of invaders and conquerors, storming and taking cities and founding governments in the invaded land.
Such was the work of Thorgisl and Olaf in Ireland and of Rollo in Normandy. England was a frequent field of invasion after 833, which continued until 851, when King Ethelwulf defeated them with great slaughter. Fifteen years later they came again, these new invaders being almost all Danes. During all his reign Alfred the Great fought with them, but in spite of his efforts they gained a footing in the island, becoming its masters in the north and east. A century later, in 1016, Canute, the king of Denmark, completed the conquest and became king of all England.
This is not the whole story of the sea-kings, whose daring voyages and raids made up much of the history of those centuries. One of the most important events in viking history took place in 862, when three brother chiefs, probably from Sweden, who had won fame in the Baltic Sea, were invited by the Russian tribes south of Lake Ladoga to come and rule over them. They did so, making Novgorod their capital. From this grew the empire of Russia, which was ruled over by the descendants of Rurik, the principal of these chiefs, until 1598.
Other vikings made their way southward through Russia and, sailing down the Dnieper, put Constantinople in peril. Only a storm which scattered their fleet saved the great city from capture. Three times later they appeared before Constantinople, twice (in 904 and 945) being bought off by the emperors with large sums of money. Later on the emperors had a picked body-guard of Varangians, as they called the Northmen, and kept these till the fall of the city in 1453. It was deemed a great honor in the north to serve in this choice cohort at Myklegaard (Great City), and those who returned from there doubtless carried many of the elements of civilization to the Scandinavian shores.
To some of these Varangians was due the conquest of Sicily by the Northmen. They were in the army sent from Constantinople to conquer that island, and seeing how goodly a land it was they aided in its final conquest, which was made by Robert Guiscard, a noble of Normandy, whose son Roger took the title of "King of Sicily and Italy." Thus it was that the viking voyages led within a few centuries to the founding of kingdoms under Norse rulers in England, Ireland, Sicily, Russia, and Normandy in France.
HAAKON THE GOOD AND THE SONS OF GUNHILD.
We have told how King Haakon succeeded his brother, Erik Blood-Axe, on the throne, and how, from his kindly and gentle nature, people called him Haakon the Good. There were other sons and several grandsons of Harold the Fair-Haired in the kingdom, but the new king treated them with friendliness and let them rule as minor kings under him.
He dealt with the peasants also in the same kindly spirit, giving them back their lands and relieving them of the tax which Harold had laid. But he taxed them all in another way, dividing the country into marine districts, each of which was required to supply the king, on his demand, with a fully equipped warship. Yet as this was for the defence of the country, the people did not look on it as oppressive. And as Norway had a long mountainous coast, and important events were often long in becoming known, he gave orders that the approach of an enemy should be made known by signal fires lighted all along the coast.
Haakon made other wise laws, in which he took the advice of the ablest men of the kingdom. But now we have to speak of the most striking event in the new king's career. Norway at that time was a haunt of idolatry. Men worshipped Odin and a host of other gods, and there was not a Christian in the whole land except the king himself, who had been brought up in the new faith by his foster-father, King Athelstan of England.
An earnest Christian, he looked with sorrow on the rude worship and heathen belief of his people, but not until he had been many years on the throne did he venture to interfere with it. Then, about 950, when he had won the love of them all, he took steps to carry out his long-cherished desire.
Sending to England for a bishop and a number of priests, the king issued a decree in which the people were forbidden to make sacrifices to the old gods and ordered to accept the Christian faith.
This came like a thunderbolt to the worshippers of the old gods. To bid a whole nation to give up at a word the religion which they had cherished from childhood and which their fathers had held for generations before them was too much to demand. The king brought together a concourse of the people and spoke to them of his wish and purpose, but they had no answer to make except that the matter must be settled by their legal assembly.
When the thing, or assembly, was called into session, a great body of the people were present, for never had so important a question been laid before them. Earnest and imploring was the speech made by the king, in which he warmly asked them to accept the God of the Christians and give up their heathen idols of wood and stone.
These words were followed by an angry murmur from the multitude, and many dark looks were bent upon the rash monarch. Then a peasant leader, Aasbjoern of Medalhus, stepped out from the throng and spoke:
"When you, King Haakon, first called us here before you and we took you for our king, it was with deep gladness, as if heaven had opened to us. But was it liberty we gained, or do you wish to make thralls of us once more, that you ask us to give up the faith of our fathers and forefathers for the new and unknown one you offer? Sturdy men they were, and their faith did well for them and has done well for us. We have learned to love you well and have always kept and will always keep the laws made by you and accepted by us. But in this thing which you now demand we cannot follow. If you are so resolved upon it that your mind cannot be changed, then we shall be forced to part from you and choose a new chief who will support us in worshipping our fathers' gods. Choose, O king, what you will do, before this assembly has dispersed."
So loud were the shouts of approval with which this speech was greeted that not a word could be heard. Then, when quiet reigned again, Earl Sigurd, who had spoken aside with Haakon, rose and said that the king had no wish to lose their friendship and would yield to their wishes. This was not enough to overcome the distrust of the peasants. They next demanded that he should take part in the sacrifices to be given and in the feast to follow. This he felt obliged to do, though he quieted his conscience by making the sign of the cross.
When the next Yuletide sacrifice came Haakon was required to eat horse-flesh at the feast and this time was forbidden to make the sign of the cross when he drank the usual toasts to the ancient gods of Norway. This was a humiliation that cut the proud monarch deeply and it was with an angry soul he left, saying to his attendants that when he came back it would be with an army to punish those who had thus insulted his faith. Back he did not come, for new troubles were gathering around him.
To learn the source of these troubles we must return to the story of Erik Blood-Axe and Gunhild, his wicked wife. After Erik's death that mischief-loving woman sought Denmark with her sons, who grew up to become brave warriors and daring viking rovers, infesting the coast of Norway and giving its king and earls all the trouble they could. At length, backed by Harold Bluetooth, the king of Denmark, their piratical raids changed to open war, and they invaded Norway, hoping to win their father's old kingdom for themselves.
A crisis came in 955. In that year the sons of Erik appeared so suddenly with a large fleet that they took King Haakon by surprise. He had with him only a small force, the signal fires had not been lighted, and the enemy were close at hand before he could prepare to meet them.
"What shall we do?" he asked his men. "Shall we stay and fight, or draw back and gather men?"
The answer came from an old peasant, Egil Woolsack:
"Often have I fought, King Haakon, with King Harold, your father. Whether the foe was stronger or weaker the victory was always his. Never did he ask his friends if he should run; nor need you, for we are ready to fight and think that we have a brave chieftain for our leader."
"You speak well and wisely, Egil," said the king. "It is not my wish to run, and with your aid I am ready to face the foe."
"Good words those!" cried Egil joyously. "It has been so long since I saw the flash of sword that I feared I would die in my bed of old age, though it has been my hope to fall in battle at my chieftain's back. Now will my wish be gained."
To land came the sons of Erik, having six men to Haakon's one. Seeing how great were the odds, old Egil tried strategy, leading ten standard-bearers to a hidden spot in the rear of the hostile army and leaving them there in ambush. When the armies had met and the fighting was under way, he led these men up a sloping hill until the tops of their standards could be seen above its summit. He had placed them far apart, so that when the Danes saw the waving banners it looked like a long line of new troops coming upon them. With sudden alarm and a cry of terror they fled towards their ships.
Gamle, their leader, was quick to discover the stratagem, and called on them to stop, that it was all a trick; but nothing could check their panic flight, and he was swept along with them to the beach. Here a stand was made, but Haakon rushed upon them in a furious attack in which old Egil had his wish, for he fell in the storm of sword blows, winning the death he craved. Victory rested on the king's banners and his foes fled to their ships, Gamle, their leader, being drowned in the flight.
For six years after this the land lay at peace. King Haakon continued a Christian and many of his friends joined him in the new faith. But he was too wise and gentle to attempt again to force his belief upon his people and the worship of the heathen gods went on. All the people, nobles and peasants alike, loved their king dearly and he would have ended his reign in a peaceful old age but for his foes without the kingdom. This is the way in which the end came.
In the summer of the year 961, when Haakon had been twenty-six years on the throne, he with many guests was at feast in the royal mansion of Fitje, in Hoerdaland. While at table a sentinel brought in the alarming news that a large fleet of ships was sailing up the fiord.
By the king's side sat Eyvnid, his nephew, who was a famous scald, or bard. They rose and looked out on the fiord.
"What ships are they, of friends or of foes?" asked the king.
The scald replied in a verse, in which he sang that the sons of Erik were coming again.
"Once more they take us unawares," said Haakon to his men. "They are many and we are few. Never yet have we faced such odds. The danger lies before you. Are you ready to meet it? I am loath to flee before any force, but I leave it to the wise among you to decide."
Eyvnid sang another verse, to the effect that it would be ill counsel to advise a man like King Haakon to flee from the sons of Gunhild the sorceress.
"That is a man's song," cried the king, "and what you say is what I wish."
All around him the warriors shouted their war-cry, and while they ran for their weapons he put on his armor, seized his sword and shield, and placed on his head a golden helmet that shone brightly in the sun. Never had he looked more like a born king, with his noble and inspired countenance and the bright hair streaming down from under his helmet.
The battle that followed was fierce and bloody. Harold, Gunhild's third son, commanded the invaders, who far outnumbered Haakon's small force. And now there was no Egil to defeat the foe by stratagem, but the battle was hand to hand and face to face, with stroke of sword and thrust of spear, the war-shout of the fighters and the death-wail of the fallen.
King Haakon that day showed himself a true and heroic warrior. As the battle grew fiercer his spirit rose higher, and when Eyvnid the scald greeted him with a warlike verse, he answered with another. But the midsummer heat growing hard to bear, he flung off his armor and fought with only his strong right arm for shield. The arrows had now been all shot, the spears all hurled, and the ranks met hand to hand and sword to sword, in desperate affray.
In the front rank stood the king, his golden helmet making him a shining mark for the warriors of the foe.
"Your helmet makes you a target for the Danish spears," cried Eyvnid, and he drew a hood over it to hide its gleam. Skreyja, Harold's uncle, who was storming onward towards the king, now lost sight of him and cried out:
"Where is the Norse king? Has he drawn back in fear? Is he of the golden helmet a craven?"
"Keep on as you are coming, if you wish to meet the Norsemen's king," shouted Haakon, throwing down his shield and grasping his sword with both hands, as he sprang out before them all. Skreyja bounded towards him and struck a furious blow, but it was turned aside by a Norse warrior and at the same instant Haakon's sword cleft the foeman's head down to the shoulders.
This kingly stroke gave new spirit to the Norsemen and they rushed with double fury upon the foe, whom the fall of their best warrior filled with fear. Back to the beach they were pressed, many being slain, many drowned, a few only, Harold among them, reaching the ships by swimming.
The Norsemen had won against fearful odds, but their king was in deadly peril. In the pursuit he had been struck in the right arm by an arrow with an oddly-shaped head, and do what they would, the flow of blood could not be stopped. It was afterwards said that Gunhild the sorceress had bewitched the arrow and sent it with orders to use it only against King Haakon.
In those days it was easy to have men believe tales like that, but, witchcraft or not, the blood still ran and the king grew weaker. As night came death seemed at hand and one of his friends offered to take his body to England, after his death, that he might be laid in Christian soil.
"Not so," said Haakon. "Heathen are my people and I have lived among them like a heathen. See then that I am laid in the grave like a heathen."
Thus he died, and he was buried as he wished, while all men mourned his death, even his foes; for before breathing his last he bade his men to send a ship after the sons of Gunhild; asking them to come back and rule the kingdom. He had no sons, he said, and his daughter could not take the throne.