Recent archaeological discoveries in the Baltic region have shed new light, and truth, on what was assumed to be a mostly mythical ruler of this dynasty, King Yngvar Harra.

Swedish royalty

Despite all the pomp and ceremony of the recent coronation of British King Charles III, monarchies are a bit of an anorchism in the 21st century CE. 

In fact, there are only 28 monarchies left, including that of Sweden, and its House of Bernadotte, headed by King Carl XVI Gustaf. 

This royal household, as the name may explain, has a long and complicated origin story that involves Napoleon, one of his generals, and an invitation to rule by Swedish nobles. 

Yet the Swedish monarchy doesn't originate as a result of the Napoleonic Wars. By the time General Karl Johan was invited to take the Swedish throne, Sweden had been ruled by a monarch for over a millennium. 

The Bernadottes are just the latest family to occupy the Swedish royal throne since its creation sometime in the early medieval period.

Not many monarchies can claim that their forebears were mentioned in the classic Anglo-Saxon tome, Beowulf, but this is a fact that Swedish King Carl XVI Gustaf can boast about, you know, when he's not too busy partying. 

The historical record of the creation of a Swedish monarchy is sketchy at best, so we must turn to the medieval period's best historian of all things Viking, 13th-century CE poet, politician, and provocateur Snorri Sturluson

One of his chronicles, Heimskringla, gives a detailed history of the origins of the monarchies of the kingdoms of the medieval kingdoms of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. 

In this chronicle, he regales us with a skaldic poem, Ynglingtala, concerning the origins of Sweden's monarchy by the Yngling Dynasty. 

This same dynasty pops up in Beowulf with the Anglo-Saxon transliteration of Scyflings.

Legendary foundations

The Yngling Dynasty appears to have its origins in what some 19th-century CE German historians called the Völkerwanderung, the Migration Period. 

Modern historians tend to dislike such sweeping characterizations of a period of over half a millennium, but there is no doubt that between the 1st and 6th centuries CE, there was a great mass of movement and migration, often bloody, of peoples into and around much of Europe. 

In what would become the medieval Kingdom of Sweden, this was an era of the slow centralization of power with violent politics and machinations that would make Machiavelli blush.

If we are to believe the Norse sagas, which should be viewed as no more than a ripping yarn least a historical record, the father of Yngvar, Östen, had ascended to the throne of Sweden during the late 6th century CE. 

This was a troubled time for the only recently created Swedish kingdom, which saw hordes of sea raiders and pirates create havoc and strife throughout the realm. One of these raiders was a Jutland king, Sölve, who managed to usurp power from Östen. 

Legend has it that Sölve stole the throne by waiting until King Osten and his men were feasting in a hall and drunk, then bolted the doors and burnt the hall down.

Whilst King Osten was said to have lost his life that night, his young son, Yngvar, was not present and was said to have fled into hiding to avoid a similar bloody end from Sweden's new king.

The site of the excavation of one of the Salme ship finds. Photo: Ave Maria Mõistlik / CC BY-SA 4.0

Reclaiming the throne and Estonian exploits

Scouring over the Norse sagas and later medieval chronicles, modern historians have estimated the death of King Östen to have taken place sometime in the 7th century CE. Regardless of how he died, Östen left at least one son, Yngvar, who then had to flee into exile. 

Unfortunately, we know little of his age or younger years other than the stories of his travels eastward, into the Baltic Region, and throughout what is now Eastern Europe. 

He was said to have traveled far and wide in what would become an important region of conquest and commerce for later Vikings. It was during these eastward adventures that Yngvar not only made a fortune but was said to have honed his military skills, which he would later use to reclaim the throne, stolen from his father, and defeat the usurper Sölve.

Now it is particularly interesting that there are many sagas, and chapters of chronicles, dedicated to the eastern exploits of Yngvar. The fact that there are numerous stories of Yngvar's adventures in contemporary Norse sagas and later histories makes this, perhaps, the next best thing to any historical record. 

However, a recent archaeological dig of the Estonian island of Salme, which uncovered what has been believed to have been the bloody exploits of Swedish Vikings, has been dated to the mid-8th century CE. 

Though there is no way to find out if any of the bones belong to the semi-legendary King Yngvar, this recent discovery shows that Swedish Vikings were conducting trading and raiding some five decades before the traditional start of the Viking era (793 – 1066 CE).

Death of a king

The archaeological find on the island of Salme has been dated to about 750 CE and includes the body of a Swedish warrior ruler or king. The Norse sagas have stated that King Yngvar made it back to Sweden to reclaim his birthright and oust the usurper. 

Following this, he headed back eastward to subdue local Baltic tribes. He was said to have died somewhere in what is now Estonia. For once, the archaeological record almost matches the entertaining stories told in Norse sagas. 

Could one of the bodies found on Salme be that of King Yngvar? It is not often that history and entertainment align so agonizingly close, but this could be the case.

Following Yngvar's death, the throne passed to his son Anund, another legendary Swedish king, who oversaw a period of peace and prosperity for the burgeoning House of Yngling. 

In the following decades and centuries, all Swedish Kings would trace their lineage back to the House of Yngling that included King Yngvar.

For more information on Viking raids in Estonia, please visit the Archaeology Magazine website here.

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