Reputation was the most important thing in the lives of the famous Viking kings. They believed human actions were the only thing that survived people for years after death.
So Viking kings loved to celebrate the achievements of their ancestors and friends, and they also tried to make themselves famous by exploring, raiding, conquering, or patronizing people who composed songs: the skalds. So today, we will talk about the ten Viking rulers and the epic deeds that made them famous.
Harald Fairhair, The First King Of Norway
Any account of the most notable achievements of Viking kings would be incomplete without mentioning Harald I, the Beautiful-haired. Despite his semi-mythical status, most historians today believe that Harald did exist, but his exploits were probably not as dramatic as the sagas describe them. Most likely, he was a petty king in southwestern Norway who could conquer his neighbors and rule over most of modern Norway.
The sagas tell how the battle of Hafrsfjord was decisive for Harald’s young kingdom. It took place in about 872, and it was a big battle by modern standards – many small kings of Norway took part in it. The only king mentioned in sources relating to the time of the battle was Kjøvt the Rich, who presumably fled after Harald’s victory, leaving many of his men to die.
The place where the battle is thought to have occurred is marked today by the “Swords in the Rock,” three monuments 10 feet high, symbolizing Harald and the kings he defeated. After the Battle of Hafrsfjord, Harald created the most powerful state in Norway, eventually becoming the ancestor of the present Norwegian kingdom.
Rurik, The Founder Of Russia
Rurik, Founder of the Old Russian State. The Rurik dynasty was one of the longest-lived in human history: they were the princes of Kievan Rus from its foundation until the reign of Ivan the Terrible a century later. And Kievan Rus itself was founded by a Viking. “The Tale of Bygone Years,” compiled in Kyiv in 1113 from the annals of previous years, tells the history of Russia.
The Slavic peoples who lived in what is now Russia and Ukraine asked Rurik (and his brothers) to rule them, believing that they would bring law and order to the tribes. They agreed, but Rurik’s brothers soon died, leaving him to rule alone.
Rurik was a Viking. That was the name given to the warriors who served the Byzantine emperor as personal bodyguards (almost all of them were Norwegians), so he was a respected man.
There is also evidence of considerable Viking influence in what is now Russia and Ukraine. When Harald III the Harsh lost the battle of Stiklestad in 1030, he fled with his family to Kyiv.
The Vikings also had their trade routes stretching across Europe, from Baghdad to the coast of Spain, so it is reasonable to expect that warriors and traders traveling from Scandinavia to Greece and the Middle East often settle along this route.
Odin and Scandinavian forging tools from the Viking era were found in Lahoda and Novgorod, suggesting that there was clearly some Norse influence in the region. In any case, Rurik founded his kingdom in the Slavic lands, and his descendants (who were raised as Slavs) continued his work, ruling as princes in the region until 1612.
Eirik the Bloody Axe, the Last King of Northumbria
Most people have heard of Eirik I, the Bloody Axe, the last of the Viking kings of Northumbria. However, besides his name, most people know little about him except to speculate that Eirik was a great warrior, for which he got his nickname. The name most likely comes from the connotation “blood,” meaning “family” or “brotherhood.” This nickname takes on new meaning when one learns that he killed five of his brothers to win the throne of Norway.
Eirik reigned in Scandinavia for only four or five years, after which he was overthrown by his last remaining brother and fled to Great Britain without a fight. Why he gave up his kingdom so easily is probably no one will know anymore, but perhaps it was because the Viking thought he would have a brighter future in the British Isles. Eirik ended up being right and easily took control of the kingdom of Northumbria, which he ruled until he died in 954.
Sitrick the Blind and the Battle of Icelandbridge
The Vikings have a long history in Ireland – the city of Dublin was founded by the Viking kings to serve as a trading center for the slave trade.
They gradually diminished their actual influence in Inner Ireland over the years. And in 902, they were expelled from Dublin by a combined army of several Irish kings. Sitrick the Blind was one of them. He first ruled a tiny kingdom in Denlo, but by 918, the Anglo-Saxons had subjugated most of Denlo and drove most of the Vikings out of England.
This time, Sitrick returned to Ireland at the head of an army. He won several battles against the Irish kings and, at the Battle of Islandbridge in 919, inflicted a crushing defeat on the Irish. Niall Glundub (the High King of Ireland) headed a coalition of Northern Irish kings to throw the Vikings out but was defeated by the Vikings led by Sitric.
Five Irish kings and Niall himself died in this battle. Sitric reigned as the undisputed king of Dublin for three more years before returning to England to take the vacant royal throne in Northumbria at York.
Sven the Forkbeard and the Conquest of England
Sven I Forkbeard became the first Viking king of all England in 1013, although he reigned only five weeks before his death – not long enough to be officially crowned.
But it is the reason for his invasion that makes him truly outstanding from the line of Viking kings.
By Sven’s time, the Vikings had lived in England for about 200 years, but they never managed to conquer the entire kingdom. The Viking kings ruled the northeastern half of England, known as Denlo, until the end of Erik the Blood Axe’s reign in 954, after which they were banished.
But the Vikings continued to live in England, and the konungs from Scandinavia remembered them. So when, in 1002, the English king ordered the mass murder of Vikings living in England, Sven decided to take revenge. Although he had simply raided the English coast for ten years before, he now assembled a party to invade. They landed in 1003, destroying and plundering much of the country.
Ethelred the Unwise was forced to pay Sven a huge amount of silver to keep him from flattening his entire kingdom.
But ten years later, Sven returned with an army large enough to take all of England. The Vikings landed in Kent and reached London, devastating everything in their path.
The English earls, fearing another protracted war and already skeptical of their king, sent Ethelred into exile and proclaimed Sven king of England. Although Sven’s reign was short-lived, it paved the way for a new Viking invasion that was even more extensive.
King Knud and the North Sea Empire
With the death of Sven, his son Knud led his father’s army into England. However, the English lords decided to bring Ethelred back, and Knud was forced to flee to Denmark. He began assembling a larger army and even asked his brother (and rival), King Harald II of Denmark, for warriors.
Swedes, Poles, and Norwegians were herded to his banners, lured by promises of great booty. Cnut sailed into Wessex in 1015 with 10,000 warriors and devastated the country, conquering territories from Cornwall to Northumbria. But London remained unconquered under the leadership of the newly elected English king Edmund of Ironbow. The two kings’ armies met at the Battle of Assandun, won by Knud, after which English resistance finally ceased.
By 1018, Knud was also king of Denmark after the death of his brother, and he finally conquered Norway in 1028 after years of conflict with various Scandinavian kings. Although they initially fought against him, the English were remarkably loyal to Knud during his reign. He spent most of his 20-year tenure on the throne suppressing rebellions or fighting enemies in his homeland while England was ruled by his allies. Almost all the men in Knud’s retinue were English at his death.
Knud became one of the most powerful Viking kings in Europe and met several times with the pope and the German emperor, strengthening economic ties between the three kingdoms. Although his empire disintegrated after Knud’s death, it seems like he made no effort to continue it.
In the last years of his reign, Knud left Norway to the rebels, gave Denmark to his son Hardeknud, and England to his other son Harold the Hare Paw. However, the alliance of the three kingdoms made Knud the most powerful king in Europe then, and other kings repeatedly tried (and failed) to recreate his successes.
The Ring Fortresses of Harald the Blue-toothed
Even before Knud and Sven, someone among the Viking kings had to turn Denmark into a strong, centralized state rivaling England. That king was Harald the Blue-toothed, Sven’s father.
In fact, not all Viking power came from conquest. In his 30-year reign, Harald turned Denmark from a political backwater into a solid medieval state.
Harald’s plans for a centralized government are best seen in his circular Trelleborg forts, built throughout Denmark and centered at Fort Aarhus, the region’s geographic center. Each of the forts was built to strict standards, with four gates (strictly to the sides of the world), a high wall, and a moat around the outside.
Inside was an open courtyard with administrative buildings in the middle.
Danish kings used them as places for collecting taxes and gathering troops. All fortresses were built in places close to the sea but far enough away to be safe from sea raids. And also along the Viking overland routes, from where they were perfectly visible and represented a symbol of the king’s power.
The locations were carefully chosen so that the forts could be used to protect and control the people of Denmark effectively. Unfortunately for Harald, the main threat came from within when his son Sven dethroned him.
Harald the Fierce
Harald III the Harsh, or Harald the Gardner, is known in history for being one of the last Viking kings who tried unsuccessfully to seize the throne of England by force, losing the decisive battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066 to Harold Godwinson, which paved the way for William the Conqueror’s final victory.
In his youth, he was expelled from his native country, after which he spent many years in foreign lands, earning his living as a mercenary. Harald served in Russia and Byzantium. When he returned to Norway, he won the throne that was due to him. After that, the king fought all his neighbors with varying success. His last campaign was the landing in England.
But this battle was the end of a long and distinguished career as a Viking who had traveled all over the known world, from Norway to Sicily to Palestine, in the 30 years before.
Suppressing any signs of opposition to his power, Harald was not shy about means and showed cruelty. It was during his reign that the rich townspeople and the Norwegian yarls were, for the first time, fully subordinated to royal authority. All those who disagreed with the king’s policies, including high taxes and constant warfare, were banished from the country or deprived of their lives. In pursuing centralization, Harald Hardrada, the Viking king, enjoyed the support of the Christian church.
With Norway stabilized, the king could spend the rest of his days in peace. But the monarch still dreamed of new conquests and expanding his power. So when circumstances allowed him to declare his claim to power in Britain, he did not fail to seize the chance.
The Viking landing took place in northern England. In the first Fulford battle near York, the Norse won a convincing victory. The triumph, however, was short-lived. Five days later (25 September 1066), Harald the Harsh suffered a crushing defeat and died on the battlefield after a hit in the throat of an enemy arrow. Three hundred Viking ships arrived in England. Only 25 managed to escape. The king’s body was also returned to his homeland. He was buried in Trondheim.
Svend II Estridsen and the Last Viking Invasion of England
The death of Harald the Harsh at the Battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066 is generally considered the end of the Viking Age, and many people call Harald the last Viking king. True, it’s hardly ever that simple.
After William’s conquest of England, the house of Godwin was overthrown but not defeated. They continued to raid the new kingdom from the sea, and in 1069 Svend II Estridsen decided to support one of the Anglo-Saxon pretenders (Edgar Atheling).
Why he did this is not 100 percent clear, but it may have had something to do with his lifelong rivalry with Harald the Harsh (Gardrad).
After all, Harald died trying to capture England, so it may be better to “outmaneuver” a nemesis once and for all than to succeed where he failed.
Svend also captured much of northern England and defended it successfully against William the Conqueror. But he preferred to receive a large ransom from William and return to Denmark.
Without Svend’s support, the rebellion collapsed, and England remained Norman. Viking kings were never able to conquer England again.
Olaf III, the last of the Viking kings
The last prominent Viking king and the man some consider to be the actual last of Viking kings, Olaf III, who was known as Olaf the Peaceful, has gone down in history.
Although Olaf was not as warlike or bloodthirsty as the other Viking leaders on this list, he was a great politician who successfully created the modern state of Norway.
Olaf may have been influenced by the death of his father, Harald, in England in 1066. But the fact is that during his reign, he was an ardent supporter of peace, and Norway did not go to war for a quarter of a century, in stark contrast to the manner of his father, who was constantly trying to expand his holdings.
Olaf deliberately turned Norway into a more “normal” continental European country: he aligned the Norwegian church with the teachings of the Pope and reorganized the Norwegian dioceses.
He is also believed to have been the first Viking king to learn to read. His reign was built on the European model, with courtiers who became the medieval aristocratic culture in Norway.
During Olaf’s reign, urban growth flourished, and the city of Bergen was founded, which later became the capital of medieval Norway.
Olaf’s light hand first put into writing many Norwegian laws.
King Harald III
King Harald III the Fierce, also known as Harald Hardrada, who lived in the eleventh century, was one of the most brilliant monarchs of his time. In his youth, he was expelled from his native country, after which he spent many years in foreign lands, earning a living as a mercenary. Harald served in Russia and Byzantium.
When he returned to Norway, he won the throne that was due to him. After that, he fought all his neighbors with varying success. His last campaign was the landing in England. Harald’s death in Foggy Albion marked the end of the era of European Viking raids (for this reason, he is often called the “last Viking king”).