Historical Tales: 9—Scandinavian - Charles Morris

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, Aasbjörn 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 Hördaland. 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.

Thus death claimed the noblest of the Norsemen, at once heathen and Christian, but in his life and deeds as in his death a great and good man.