Jelling kirke, Gorms grav

Jelling kirke, Gorms grav
Jelling kirke, Gorms grav

Sunday, November 8, 2009

The First Danish Kings , 700s-800s

The written sources for mentioning Denmark in history come from abroad, from the Frankish National Annals, and later from the Germans and the Brits, often written by clericals. Local Danish sources are i.e. the runic inscriptions in stone, which makes it possible to study the daily language of the Danes at that time, another linguistical evidence is the place names. Archaeology has developed immensely and is still a valuable source. The reconstruction of the five Viking ships from Roskilde fjord, the excavations in the earliest Danish cities Ribe, Hedeby, Århus, Roskilde and Lund. And when the dendrochronology came, it meant a large step forward for archaeology. Buildings and ships could be dated, and former theories could be replaced by knowledge, i.e. that king Godfred did not establish the first section of Danevirke in the beginning of the 800s (808); the trees used for the building were cut down 70 years before 808 - namely in 737.

The English missionary Willibrord tried to spread Christianity among the Frisians, who lived outside Frankish territory, but he did not succed, and he then went on to "the tribe of the wild Danes". His kinsman, Alcuin, told about his experiences 50 years later about a man named Ongendus, who ruled there; he was more cruel than any beast and harder than a stone, and Willibrord found that he was immune to persuasion. He therefore took 30 boys with him from Denmark and hurried back to the Franks in order to teach the boys to become missionaries.

Maybe Willibrord's ship landed at Ribe, since it was the best landing place at the west coast, and maybe Ongendus' land bordered to Frisia. It must have been on the same journey Willibrord took shelter on an island, which Alcuin names Fositeland from the god Fosite, who was worshipped there. The island was situated on the border between the Frisian and the Danes, and although it has been identified as Helgoland, (which is 50 km from the coast), it is more probable that it was one of the islands in the Wattensea. The island was filled with taboos, which Willibord boldly defied; the local people were highly astounded and their king Radbod was in a rage. There was a lot of trouble about this, and Willibrord's life was very much in danger, but at last the king sent him back to the Franks with all kinds of honour to the Frankish king, Pipin. This happened before 714, the king of France was Pepin l'Heristal (Pepin of Herstal), who died in 714. (The Franks was the mightiest people in western Europe of the 700s.)

After Pepin's death in 714 Radbod conquered Utrecht, but was quickly driven back. In the end of the century, when a couple of Saxon chiefs sought shelter by the Danes, the Frankish sources throw a little light on Danish history. It is told that the Saxon chief Widukind both in 777 and in 782 took shelter by Sigfred, king of the Danes, and in 804 Charlemagne negotiated with delegates from another Danish king, Godfred about returning some refugees. Archaeology has also proved the connections abroad. Frankish, English and Frisian coins have been found in various places in the southern part of Jutland. The city Ribe's connections abroad are proved, not only by findings of imported glassware, ceramics and mill stones, but also with silver coins, some of them have been striken in Dorestad. Between Ribe and Dorestad must have been a connection in the 700s, and the ship, which brought Willibrord to Ongendus, was probably a trade ship.

The archaeological sources show a Danish connection to western Europe, but they also show that there were mighty rulers in the 700s-Jutland, one of the best evidences is Danevirke. The timber in the original bank is cut between the summers 737-738. The front of the bank turns south, and its purpose must have been to protect Jutland from invading Saxons or Slavs. According to dendrochronological examinations the north bank and the main bank were built in the same year, and if the east bank probably was built simultaneously, then this 10 km bank was built in a relatively short period. 30.000 oak trees had to be cut down for the whole stretch, transported to the place and dressed - and ab. 80.000 m3 earth and turfs. The leader must have been a person, who really understood how to get control of a large workforce.

Another evidence of the extended and effective power of the Jutland ruler was Kanhavekanalen, which crosses the narrow part of the island Samsøe. The channel is about 800 m long and 11 m broad, it was dressed with timber, which is dated to year 726. The most possible explanation for this channel is that is was meant to ease the surveillance of the ships passing the island. Kanhavekanalen made it possible for the stationed ships in Stavns fjord to catch passing ships, also west of the island. The channel was made as a benefit to Jutlands ruler. It might have had a fortification-function, but it is more probable that the meaning was to demand taxes and customs from passing ships. The Kanhavekanal was probably a royal enterprise, and together with Danevirke it shows, how great steps were taken in the beginning of the 700s in order to protect Jutland and to control the shipping along the coast.

It is a possibility that Funen was under the same ruler as Jutland, or that the ruler of Funen acknowledged the supremacy of his Jutland neighbour. Supposedly the Danish king drew back to Funen in 815 caused by the invasion of a Frankish army, but there are no other informations about this. Some Danish rulers had the supreme power in large parts of the country , maybe in the whole country. In the beginning of the 800s king Godfred ruled not only in Jutland, but also in the southern Norway and probably also in Skåne. He could easily control the traffic between the Baltics and western Europe, which meant an important influence in all of Scandinavia. Such an early Danish supremacy might explain why the old Norse language in the Middle Ages was mentioned as "the Danish tongue" - even at Iceland.

The name Danmark is used for the first time in Ottar's and Wulfstan's accounts of their journeys written in the 800s. Short reports from their journeys were printed in an English translation of a World's History, which the Spanish cleric Orosius wrote in the beginning of the 400s. The translation was made for king Alfred and is kept in a manuscript from the time shortly after his death in 899. Both Ottar and Wulfstan said that the islands east of Jutland belonged to Denmark, and Ottar placed Halland and Bohuslen as part of Denmark. The name "mark" might mean border or border area, the most reasonable explanation is that the Danish "mark" was the islands and western Sweden, namely Skåne, Halland and maybe Bohuslen, while the Dane's own country was Jutland. This fits with Alcuins description as Ongendus being king of the Danes and Ottar's words that Hedeby in Jutland was Danish. The old Byzantic historian Procopius from the 500s tells in his desription of the Herulis' migrating that they passed the Dani-people, before they went across the sea to Thule (=the Scandinavian peninsula), where they settled next to the Gauti (the Goths). The name Danmark was probably first used about the Danish kingdom in the 900s, when Harald Blåtand wrote his famous words on the Jelling stone that he "vandt sig al Danmark" ( he won all of Denmark). But the earliest history about Denmark is dark and with few informations.

The Danish kingdom was an island kingdom, united by water, and the communication traffic was dependent on ships. The Franks experienced this when they in 815 (Frankish king: Louis the Pious) sent and army to Jutland to fight the Danes, since the Danes had withdrewn to an island, possibly Funen. The Frankish army was met with fjorde, widespread moors and marsh areas, even small water streams were difficult to pass caused by swampy banks.The famous army road (Hærvejen) might have been difficult to pass to a foreign army, who was not familiar with the land. The Franks had no ships, they had to return to their homeland and king Louis without having achieved anything, while the Danes and their ships patiently awaited their departure on Funen.

Villages and farms formed larger unities, bygder, (rural area),which often had natural borders, like coast and water streams. Some of the names are still seen in the syssel- and herredsnames, like Vendsyssel, which original was named Wændæl or Wændlæ; it contains the name of people who lived by Limfjorden. (DK: Vendelboer) The inhabitants of the bygd probably ruled their own affairs and met at the Thing to decide feuds and cases of inheritance. Some sources mention men from the bygd as magnates and rulers/chiefs. Rune inscriptions were only for the chiefs and some inscriptions refer to the man's supremacy over a local area, using the word: gode. At Iceland the word godi was used for chiefs. The support of a strong chief meant safety, and in return the chief could expect services or some form of economic payment. Rune inscriptions and scald-poems tell about aristocratic ideals and in "Ansgars Levned" (life of Ansgar) there is a little information about religious habits. The title gode shows the leader's religious role, it comes from a word meaning priest, but although the chief was in charge of religious rituals, he was not a priest, and although a chief's house was named hov, an old word for temple, it was not a temple.

Many Danes were probably healthier, better nourished and materially better off than their descendants in the 1800s. Examinations of skeletons from the Danish Viking period show that men's height varied from 163 to above 184 cm , an average of 172,6, which is 4 cm more than measured at the sessions in Schleswig-Holstein 1876-80. The farms found in the village Vorbasse were large and similar to later Danish farms. People were dependent on their own production, but they were also able to import wares from other parts of Scandinavia and from Germany . Although people usually stayed in their local area, the societies were not isolated. There was contact and influence from abroad via trade, diplomacy, Christian mission and Viking expeditions. New ways of producing cloth and new styles in decoration, a new religion and a developing language. The foreign influence came first to the rulers, the chiefs and magnates, and these people and especially the kings deliver most information from the earliest Danish historical period.

About year 800 the Franks had after 20 years won over the Saxons, and the Danes and the Franks were now neighbours. In the first half of the 800s were many contacts between the Frankish and Danish court. Frankish sources from 782 and 873 mention several Danish kings and give some informations about the Danish kingdom. Two rival families claimed the throne. One line worked together with the Franks, the other was hostile to the Franks in the beginning. From 804 to 864 all known kings and pretenders belonged to those two families. Maybe they represented dynasties, who earlier had ruled over lesser kingdoms, which were now a part of the Danish kingdom, but it is more likely that they were branches or parts of the same dynasty. Both families used the names Hemming and Godfred. The brothers Sigfred and Halvdan ,who are mentioned as kings in 873, must have been from the same family as earlier kings with the same name. One of king Godfred's kinsmen was named Angandeo, which indicates that they were all kinsmen of the king Ongendus, whom Willibrord visited in the beginning of the 700s.

If the rival families were from the same dynasti, then the dividing probably happened in the late 700s. In 850 king Horik from one of the families had to share the kingdom with two nephews, and in 854 almost all family members were killed in a fight where Horik was being challenged by a third nephew Gudurm, who had spent some years abroad as a viking chief.

King Sigfred is mentioned in 777, 782 and 798. In 777 the Saxon leader Widukind sought shelter by Sigfred, and in 782 he came once more, where Sigfred was king. King Sigfred's relations with the Franks is not exactly known, but in 782 it must have been clear to him that the Frankish power was a threat to Denmark. Delegates from Sigfred participated in a meeting, which Charlemagne held in Saxony near Paderborn shortly before a rebellion broke out. It is not known why the delegates came, but it had nothing to do with Frankish supremacy over Denmark, and likewise there was nothing about Danish submission in 798, when a delegate from Charlemagne came to king Sigfred, and this delegate is only mentioned because he was killed on his way home.

Neither Sigfred nor his successor Godfred gave in to the Franks, but the Danes who came to the Frankish court, either as delegates or refugees, must have been impressed with the pomp and circumstance there. Some Danes wanted to keep independence above all, while others were ready to have something to do with the mighty neighbours. In 807 the aristocratic Dane Halvdan offered Charlemagne his service. This happened while Godfred was king, and since he was hostile to the Franks, Halvdan might have been one of the refugees. He might be the Halptan who was the leader of the Danish delegation to the Franks in 782.

King Godfred
King Godfred is mentioned the first time in 804; he died in 810.

In 802-804 there were fights south of the Danish border between the Franks and the Saxons, where the Franks were the winner. In 804 Charlemagne had a base in Hollenstedt at the river Elbe. This was too close for Godfred's nerves. The same year he gathered a navy and a cavalry in Sliesthorp at the border of his kingdom. According to the Frankish chronicle-writer Godfred promised to take part in a meeting with the emperor, but since his men warned him not to, he sent substituts to the meeting. After the negotiations Charlemagne sent a delegation to Godfred to discuss the return of refugees, probably leaders of the Saxon rebels.

Four years later (808) Godfred attacked the Abodrits and was supported by other Slav-tribes. The Franks were afraid if he would invade Saxony and they sent an army to defend the river Elbe against "den gale konge" ( this crazy king). But Godfred only wanted to fight the Abodrits, and the Danes lost many men, one of them was Godfred's nephew Reginold. The leader of the Abodrits Thrasco was driven out, another leader was hanged and several important cities were captured. Godfred came home with the Reric-merchants whom he had forced to follow him from their own town, and soon after he returned to Denmark he started to reinforce Danevirke. At the same time the Franks built two castles by the river Elbe. It seems that there was mutual respect from both sides.

But Godfred still tried to spread his influence beyond the borders of his kingdom. He forced in 809 the Abrodit chief Thrasco to give his son as hostice, and later the same year he killed the chief. A Danish navy attacked in 810 Frisia and demanded tax from the inhabitants. The Franks were alarmed and in spring 809 they built a fortification at Itzehoe ab. ten km north of river Elbe. After the Danish attack on Frisia in 810 Charlemagne himself took command over his army. The Franks were ready for a Danish attack, but they had also heard rumours that Godfred boasted about conquering Aachen, the headquarters of the emperor. The Franks were nervous, and when Charlemagne was thrown off his horse and seriously wounded they saw it as an omen of his death.

Godfred had supremacy over a larger area than the Danish land, he had Vestfold west of Oslo fjord , he took taxes from both the Frisians and the Abrodits. His supremacy was acknowledged by those, who had the power over the various sections of the extensive territory, local rulers, who are often mentioned in rune inscriptions. He had to maintain his power by display of force or threats, and after his death in 810 the rebellion lurked under the surface. In 813 the princes and the people of Vestfold denied to subject to the new kings, who had to fight for their authority. The contemporary Anglo Saxon and Frankish rulers received a tax each year from their under-kings, it was likely the same in Scandinavia. According to a Norwegian king-legend from the 1100s by Ågrip the earls of Lade paid 20 falcons each year to the Danish king. So an overlord gave gifts to his under-kings and chiefs, and they all shared the profits from lucky war expeditions. The tributes, which the Abrodits paid king Godfred, also made his followers rich.

Godfred was murdered late in 810, and the murder might have been arranged by the Franks. His successor king Hemming began peace negotiations at once, and in 811 they were confirmed by twelve delegates from each side, two of the Danish delegates were Hemming's brothers, and all 24 delegates were of the highest rank. The conditions of the tractate is not kown , it was suggested that the Danes negotiated from a weak position or that they acknowledged a Frankish supremacy, but the Franks knew that the Danes would not go for such an agreement tooth and nail. It would be very difficult to conquer the Danes in their own land , their ships could withdrew from the Frankish army and still stay in their own country. They did so in 815, and after this event the Franks did not attempt another intervention. They also knew that if they conquered Jutland they would never be safe there, since the Danes could operate from the islands or other sections of their land.

Godfred was not only a mighty king and warrior, he also knew that it was important for at country to have good trading connections abroad. According to the Frankish National Annals Godfred came home from the lucky war against the Abrodits in 808 and founded Hedeby. But before he went home he destroyed a trading place named Reric, which had brought great advantages to his kingdoms via taxes and customs. He took with him the Reric-merchants on his ships and sailed with his army to the harbour called Sliesthorp where Godfred wanted to build as market place. Since it was unprotected he let build a new embankment, named Kovirke, where parts of it still exist. After finishing the bank the houses for the merchants and their families were built. The dated timber show that the work first started after Godfred's death. The raison d'être of Hedeby was the trade. It also became an important arts and craf-center, but only because the craftsmen could sell their work to people who came to the market to buy or sell the large election of imported wares. Tradesmen from the North Sea, the Baltic and Saxonia met at Hedeby, the city had the ideal position as a centre of North European trade.

Hedeby had many inhabitants, but the excavations of houses have not showed any buildings, which were suitable for a magnate or a royal official. Maybe they did not live in the crowded trading place but on the other side of the coast. No matter if the king's men lived in the town or not, then there is no doubt that Hedeby was under royal control. King Godfred was not only the founder of the city, but his allowance was needed if they had to build a church or hang up a church bell. He had forced the Reric-merchants to move to Denmark. The chronicle-writer calls them traders (negotiatores), who had to travel back and forth in order to do their business - and maybe hostages were taken from their families in order to make them return to Hedeby.
King Godfred's motive to create hedeby was to take customs from the merchants On the medieval markets the merchants had to pay a tax before they could do business.

That time Hedeby was called Slesvig.
An English chronicle-writer says that it was known in the Saxon language as Slesuuic, but known by the Danes as Heithaby. The Danish name meant "the city on the heath" while the other name meant "the city or the market place by Slien". Clericals from the Saxon bishopric called it Slesvig, and in the 1000s and maybe even earlier the cathedral stood on its present place north of the fjord, which was named Slesvig, although it during centuries kept the alternative name Hedeby. The Frankish annals name another name Sliesthorp. Godfred sailed to Sliesthorp with the Reric-merchants in 808, and four years before Godfred gathered a navy and an army at the same place. The Franks feared that he would invade them and their Slavic allied. This name has disappeared, but the place Sliesthorp was at Slien, probably on the north coast at the first section of Danevirke.

The agreement of 811 was a private one between Hemming and Charlemagne via their representatives, but after Hemming's death late 811 a new agreement had to be arranged with the king's successors, the brothers Harald and Reginfred. It was confirmed in spring 813 by 16 representatives from each side. Later in 813 Harald and his brother were driven out of their kingdom by Godfred's sons who returned from exile by the Swedes together with other magnates. After a failed attack to regain the power Harald went to the Franks for help, namely to their new emperor Ludwig the Pious, who was the only living son after Charlemagne, who died in January 814. Harald paid tribute to Ludwig, and he was the first and only Danish king (although exiled) who acknowledged Frankish supremacy.

The year after, in spring 815, Ludwig sent an army of Saxons and Abrodits to occupy Jutland, but as mentioned before, they did not succeed in meeting Godfred's sons, who withdrew with their fleet to and island, probably Funen. Ludwig's troups had to return without results. Harald could not reign in Denmark without the help and presence of the Franks and had to stay in Saxonia for a while, but from his base he troubled Godfred's sons as much as possible. They appealed to the emperor in order to get peace, but the Franks kept on helping Harald, they were suspicious of Godfred's sons, because they supported a group of Abrodits, who were in opposition to the Franks. In 817 a Danish fleet together wih an army of both Slavs and Danes made a failed attack on the Itzehoe-fortification. Some Abrodits were loyal to emperor Ludwig, and with their help Ludwig saw to that Harald was restored in 819 as king in Denmark.

The annals say in 621 that Harald joined a partnership with Godfred's sons, but the good relationship did not last long, and in 823 Harald appealed personally to the emperor for help. The Franks were a little uncertain of his interpretations about the case, and they sent two Frankish counts to Denmark ahead of Harald, they examined the case and presented it to the emperor. In 825 the emperor and Godfred's sons agreed about the peace conditions. Harald did not get the military support he had counted on. In 826 Harald and his wife and son were baptized in Mainz in an impressive ceremonial with emperor Ludwig as godfather. Now as christian king Harald repeated the tribute he had given the emperor 12 years before. He came home loaded with gifts, but he let his son and his nephew Rorik stay in the imperial palce, probably as privileged hostages.

In 827 Harald was driven out by Godfreds sons, but he did not go to Rüstringen, where the Franks had given him a place of refuge after his stay in Mainz. He stayed close to the Danish border where he caused lots of trouble; he also broke agreements, which had been made between the Franks and the Danes. The Franks wanted to stay on friendly terms with the Danish kings, Godfred's sons, and Harald had to look in vain for any support. But neither Godfred's sons or their successors ever acknowledged Frankish supremacy. Harald was the only 800s-king who did and the only one who got baptized. The Frankish National Annals end in 829, and although there are various sequels, the situation in Denmark was of little interest. Harald is not mentioned until 833 in a feud between emperor Ludwig and his sons.The eldest son Lothar wanted to undermine his father's power, and he urged Harald to attack Dorestad.

It is not known how the order of succession was. After Godfred's death his nephew Hemming became king. He was the eldest living relative. When Hemming died, his eldest brother claimed the throne, but he had a rival, Anulo, who was a nephew of king Harald. Little is known about him, he was possibly before Godfred, who is mentioned the first time in 804, but it is also possible that he was contemporary with Godfred. The power as king was divided at several occassions, usually among brothers. In 812 two brothers, Harald and Reginfred, became kings, but the following year they were driven out by Godfred's sons, who for some years ruled together. The Frankish sources only mention one of Godfred's sons, namely Horik (I), who was sole ruler in 848 and possibly also before. He is mentioned the first time in 827, but he was not a sole ruler at that time, the following years Godfred's sons are mentioned as kings of the Danes.

An accession of a new king might have required an election. A consent from other members of the royal famlily, from the magnates and the chiefs was necessary. Only in 812 the case was settled with a fight between Sigfred and Anulo, who couldn't hit it off, and both pretenders were killed. Anulo's party was considered winner and his brethren were elected kings (Harald and Reginfred). A new king was probably inaugurated in ceremonious rituals. Centuries later the king was inaugurated in Viborg, in line with the Lejre-Chronicle from the 1100s, where it is told that the legendary founder of the kingdom, king Dan, was put upon a large stone in Viborg, when he was proclaimed king. This is not unlikely; similar ceremonies are known from other European countries.

In the 800s the Danish kings were often challenged by rivals, who came home after a stay abroad. Those who are mentioned in the Frankish annals are all members of the royal families. As mentioned before came Godfred's sons home from exile in Sweden and drove away the brothers Reginfred and Harald. Reginfred was killed the following year, but Harald spent many years in exile by the Franks. In 855 his son Godfred and his nephew Rorik tried in vain to win the throne after Horik I's death. Instead a young relative of Horik with the same name was elected king (Horik II). He still lived in 864 when pope Nicolai I sent him a letter. It is not known when his rule ended, or if he died a king. In 873 two brothers Halvdan and Sigfred were king of the Danes. They each sent delegates to the German king Ludwig in order to secure the peace at the Ejder-border. This shows clearly that they shared a united kingdom.

The next century is dark and the Danish kings are not wellknown. In the last quarter of the 800s English, Frankish and Irish sources mention several viking chiefs as kings of the Danes, it was presumed that these viking chiefs were rulers in Denmark at the same time ravaging the western countries like Sven Tveskæg later did. Halvdan on the British Isles in 871 and 877, Sigfred at Elsloo near Maastricht in 882, were identified as the Danish kings who are mentioned in 873. But this is hardly true. A king in the early Viking period could not allow himself to stay away from his country for a long expedition. He had to maintain his power and position as king. Halvdan and Sigfred who were the leaders of several attacks abroad, were probably expelled from Denmark. Several members of the dynasty had these names. Other royal leaders of Viking armies in England, like king Bagsec in 871 and the kings Godrum, Oscetel and Anwend in 875, had evidently no connections to Denmark, although Godrum had the same name as Horik's nephew who was killed in 854. Some of these kings might have been elected by their armies like Canute the Great was in 1014.


Source: Gyldendal & Politikens Danmarkshistorie, Bd. 3 , Peter Sawyer, "Da Danmark blev Danmark", 1988.

1 comment:

Jim Stahl said...

This is great information. I'm a Siegfried on through my mother's family lineage and an uncle did some research about the origin of the name and its first appearance.