It has been argued by historians and academics, more learned than we at The Viking Herald, that the history of the English language and literature can be traced back to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

Though first compiled in the reign of Alfred of Wessex, it was continuously being updated and added to until the 12th century. 

Covering almost 12 centuries of British history – from the invasion of Caesar to the Norman invasions – its focus is mainly on the early medieval period, particularly when the Viking invasions began to plague the British Isles. 

The Chronicle is a who's who of early medieval European history – with just as many famous Viking warlords and warriors recorded as Anglo-Saxon chiefs, kings, and leaders. 

One of these famous warlords was a man dubbed Thorkell the High, sometimes referred to as Thorkell the Tall.

Though shrouded in mystery, his life story was as tall as his stature and features that perfect early medieval blend of historical fact and legendary fiction. 

Thorkell the Tall, believed to be the son of Strut-Harald, a petty king in Scania, eventually rose to command the Jomsvikings, a legendary group of Viking mercenaries known for their formidable fortress on the Baltic Sea. Illustration: The Viking Herald

Youthful years steeped in power and military might 

Like another famous warrior, Harald Fairhair, Thorkell was said to be the son of a petty king. We have no exact record of when young Thorkell was born. 

Still, chronicles mention that he was born into the purple, i.e., the son of a petty chieftain in Scania (in what is now Sweden but was, up until the 17th century, part of Denmark) sometime in the latter part of the 10th century. 

In addition to ruling over Scania, his father, Strut-Harald, was also reputed to be the leader of the renowned Jomsvikings. Legend has it that these Vikings operated from an impregnable fortress called Jomsborg, located on an island in the Baltic Sea. 

Not only were their defenses unbreachable, but they also served as early forerunners to the military orders of the later medieval period, dedicating their lives to sharpening their combat skills. 

Though nominally adherents of the Old Norse religion, they were said to be mercenaries whose true adherence was only to the highest pay. 

We know little of Thorkell's younger years, but he appears to have succeeded his father as a leader of the Jomsvikings. 

Thorkell was reputed to have fought in two major battles alongside these feared warriors.

The first was at Hjorungavåg (986), where they confronted the mighty forces of the Norwegian Jarl of Lade. The second was at Svolder, where they allied with Norwegian King Olaf Tryggvason against an enormous coalition of Danish and Swedish troops led by Danish King Sweyn Forkbeard and Swedish Monarch Olof Skötkonung.

Thorkell earned praise for his martial prowess in these battles, a skill honed through his training with the Jomsvikings. 

However, it was only a matter of time before Thorkell turned his attention to one of the richest prizes in the early medieval period: Anglo-Saxon England. 

Thorkell the Tall's successful siege of Canterbury and the subsequent ransom of 48,000 pounds of silver in 1011 highlighted the Vikings' military strength and their ability to exploit Anglo-Saxon vulnerabilities. Photo: Alexey Fedorenko / Shutterstock

Exploits in Anglo-Saxon England 

Thorkell was said to have led a "Danish" (Viking) force and landed on the south coast of England. 

They marched to an important Anglo-Saxon town, Canterbury. The locals were less than thrilled to hear of a large Viking force on their way to pay them off with 3,000 pounds of silver. 

This payment, known as the Danegeld, had mixed results for Anglo-Saxon communities in this period. 

Sometimes, it did indeed stop further looting, raiding, or pillaging by Vikings; at other times, it merely inspired them with the riches that could be extracted at swordpoint. 

Thorkell laid siege to much of southern England for the next three years, eventually returning to capture Canterbury in 1011. 

He held the archbishop hostage – already a prominent political and religious figure of England in the 11th century - and managed to squeeze 48,000 pounds of silver from the Anglo-Saxon authorities. 

However, he was soon losing control of his men – they had murdered the archbishop against his wishes – and this reality forced him to switch sides. 

Along with 45 ships and some of his Jomsviking comrades, he entered the (paid) service of the Anglo-Saxon king of England, Aethelred the Unready. 

In recognition of his military support during Cnut's invasion of England, Thorkell the Tall was granted the earldom of East Anglia, becoming a key figure in the Norse administration of the region. Photo: Richard Bowden / Shutterstock

Turning sides or preparing the way? 

There is much speculation about Thorkell's role over the next few years, including the invasion of England by Sweyn Forkbeard and his son Cnut the Great

Some academics have speculated that Thorkell's supposed loyalty to Aethelred was nothing more than a highly Machiavellian ploy. 

Cnut, the son of Forkbeard, was said to have spent time with the Jomsvikings, welcomed by Thorkell. 

They use this relationship as proof that Thorkell was merely gathering insider information to use by his ally, Forkbeard, upon the invasion of Anglo-Saxon England. 

Other academics have postulated that Thorkell's allegiance to Aethelred was true, but when Forkbeard invaded, he saw the writing on the wall for the Anglo-Saxon king. 

Forkbeard's invasion of England in 1013 proved a turning point in Viking history, the greatest reach of tangible Viking political power and influence. 

Though Forkbeard would seize the crown of England – and forge what later historians call the North Sea Empire, uniting the thrones of Denmark, England, and Norway under his rule – he would die months after securing the English crown. 

His son, Cnut, would invade England in 1016 to secure his father's legacy, and Thorkell was granted one of the four earldoms of this new regime, becoming the Jarl of East Anglia. 

This was perhaps Cnut repaying his old mentor and master and a man who had taught him much about life on and off the battlefield. 

In his later life, Thorkell was said to be made the Jarl of Denmark and become a foster father to another royal, this time Cnut's son, Harthacnut

Thorkell falls out of the historical record from about 1023. 

Some historians believe he may have gone off into retirement, and others think he may have been killed in the Battle of Helgeå, which left his foster son, Cnut, the predominant ruler in Scandinavia. 

Thorkell the Tall was a towering figure in both stature and Viking lore, leaving an indelible mark on the tumultuous latter period of the Viking Age. 

As a warrior, a powerful kingmaker, and a foster father to two kings of England, his name deserves to be more well-known. 

Regaled in the Jómsvíkinga saga (Saga of the Jomsvikings), he was a prominent military leader and his strategic nous earned him both respect and fear alike. 

For more information on the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, visit Denmark's Viking Ship Museum here.

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