It is now thought that Jarlabanke's clan became rich from their services as the Varangian Guard to the Byzantine Emperor in Constantinople. So, who were these Nordic protectors? 

Take me on a tour of Täby 

Nowadays, the bustling town of Täby, nestled in the bucolic countryside of Uppsala, Sweden, is about the last place you'd expect the early medieval world to rear its head. 

However, one should never judge a book by its cover, regardless of the sleepy charm that a town like Täby exudes. 

Scattered throughout the surroundings of this seemingly perfect slice of small-town Sweden are more than 20 runestones. 

These runestones are connected to a warlord, a Viking chieftain who was responsible for over 100 armed warriors and was said to have fought and killed as far away as what is now Greece and Turkey, where Europe and Asia, those two great historical colossi, collide. 

The Jarlabanke runestones – as the collection of 20 are called – tell the story of the Viking chieftain, Jarlabanke Ingefatsson, who resided in the area during the 11th century. 

Though there is some historical disagreement about whether Ingefatsson had political autonomy and independence or was merely a local vassal of the Swedish monarch, he appears to have been somewhat of a local nation-builder. 

Three of the runestones mention how he was responsible for the construction of bridges, roads, and even a Viking assembly

Yet he would perhaps want to be remembered not so much for his civil service as his military one. He was, after all, a Viking chieftain and fierce warrior. 

His fame extended from his rural corner of Sweden to as far away as the shores of the Bosphorus, for Ingefatsson was a member of the Varangian Guard

Throughout the early 9th century, Vikings from Scandinavia and the Kievan Rus navigated the river systems of Eastern Europe to reach Constantinople, seeking both raiding opportunities and trading prospects. Photo: aslan ozcan / Shutterstock

Nova Roma on the Bosporus 

Like moths to a flame, people from Viking societies – be they traders, merchants, warriors, or just adventurers – flocked to Constantinople, the capital of the Roman Empire. 

Hang on a second. You might be thinking that Rome was the capital of the Roman Empire (the clue is in the name), not Constantinople.

Well, yes, this was the case until 330, when the Roman Emperor Constantine shifted the capital eastward, making it a Nova Roma (New Rome). 

Following the collapse of Roman power and authority in Western Europe, the Empire still survived in the east with its shiny new capital based on the Bosphorus. 

For all the medieval period, early or late, Constantinople was the preeminent city in Europe. 

It was a civil, cultural, economic, political, and social behemoth that dwarfed the other small towns of Europe, like London or Paris, with over 500,000 inhabitants at its height. 

Its strategic location, at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, and between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean, saw it grow rich and powerful. 

With great wealth and power came envy. 

For much of the early medieval period, the Eastern Roman Empire was almost annually attacked by different tribes, peoples, and cultures, many using the vast expanses of the Eurasian steppe to storm down upon the Theodosian walls. 

However, it was the Rus – the descendants of people from Viking societies who had traveled eastward across the Baltic to settle colonies and conquer – who proved the Byzantines' most feared European adversary. 

The Varangian Guard is depicted in an 11th-century illustration by John Skylitzes, present as Leo V's body is dragged to the Hippodrome through the Skyla Gate. Illustration: Public domain

Raiding, trading and Miklagard 

Vikings – be they from the Viking homeland of Scandinavia or the Kievan Rus – had been utilizing the many river systems of Eastern Europe to snake their way down to Constantinople throughout the early 9th century. 

In 860, a raid by the Rus led to a series of battles that resulted in a strategic defeat for the Romans. 

A series of raids and battles over the next century saw the Vikings gain a reputation as hardened and brutal warriors regardless of where they came from. 

Running parallel with these military exploits were the traders, merchants, and entrepreneurs from Viking societies. 

They made their way to that great entrepôt – which they called Miklagard (The Great City) – to chase their dreams and find a fortune. 

Raiding and trading went almost hand in hand, and it is often hard to see from the distance of the 21st century where one activity stopped and the other began.

Following the conversion of Kievan ruler Vladimir I to Christianity, which was the climax of the Christianization of large swathes of Eastern Europe sponsored by the Roman Emperor Basil II, a special treaty was signed between the two Christian rulers. 

In this treaty, a segment of Kievan warriors, Vikings, were to serve the Roman Emperor. 

From 988, this unit, named the Varangian Guard (after the Eastern Roman name for the Rus Vikings, "Varangians"), gained particular importance when Basil II made them his personal bodyguard due to the Machiavellian reputation of local guardsmen and warriors. 

From then on, the Varangian Guard would play an important role in Roman power and politics. 

Situated in the sacristy of Angarn Church, not far from Täby in Sweden, Runestone U 201 was raised in memory of Tóki, whose death in Greece points to his service as a Varangian Guard. Photo: Berig (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Famed warriors, including Täby's favorite son 

Soon, Viking warriors became a common sight on the streets of Constantinople, thanks to the Varangian Guard. 

Constituting only the finest Viking fighters, whether from the Kievan Rus or the Viking homelands of Scandinavia, it became a bulwark, safeguarding the Eastern Roman throne and capital. 

Renowned for their loyalty, discipline, and prowess in battle, they stood as a symbol of imperial power and stability. 

Beyond their military role, they played a key role in diplomacy, bridging cultural gaps between East and West, between Scandinavia and Southern Europe. 

The guard would remain in existence well after the last Viking ship ever sailed into the mid-14th century.

Many a famed Viking warrior, including Jarlabanke Ingefatsson, was said to have journeyed south to make his fame and fortune serving with the Varangian Guard. 

Perhaps the most famous (sorry, inhabitants of Täby) member of the Varangian Guard, however, was the Viking king of Norway, Harald Hardrada, whose death on a battlefield in northern England in 1066 traditionally signaled the end of the Viking Age

Though Hardrada may well be the more famous warrior, Ingefatsson's longevity served him well as he returned to Täby and kept himself busy with various infrastructure projects as well as serving as a chieftain. 

Like Winston Churchill, who wrote his own history, Ingefatsson documented his achievements through the many runestones he commissioned. 

These are some of the most impressive pieces of braggadocious propaganda from the Viking Age, and they are well worth a trip to Täby to see firsthand. 

Should you be interested in seeing the bridge that Jarlabanke was said to have constructed, along with the remains of the Viking assembly and the 20 runestones that detail his life and exploits, you can take the STOEX Viking History Extended tour from Stockholm.

Offering tours that detail the Viking history of towns like Täby, you will not only take in the beautiful countryside but also see firsthand the impact that Vikings like Jarlabanke Ingefatsson have had on Swedish history.

More information on the Varangian Guard can be found on BBC History Extra here

This branded article was produced in collaboration with STOEX, a partner of The Viking Herald. You can find out more about their Viking and history tours - and book one - here.

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