Historical Tales: 9—Scandinavian - Charles Morris

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 Sjölland, 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.