The story of Ellisiv, Norway's last Viking Queen, shows that sometimes behind a strong man is an even smarter woman.
East (not West) is best
The history of the so-called "Viking Age" (c. 793 – 1066 CE) traditionally starts with Viking warriors' outward expansion to raid the British Isles.
However, despite the importance of this westward push across the North Sea, peoples from Viking societies' eastward push across the Baltic Sea to Central and Eastern Europe has largely been sidelined, especially in the Anglosphere.
Academics, like Dr. Cat Jarman, in her new book, River Kings - A New History of Vikings from Scandinavia to the Silk Roads, have been trying in recent times to correct this general ignorance.
Yet the westward push is only half of the Viking story. Whilst Viking raiders, traders, and settlers were swarming west, many also crossed the Baltic Sea.
The Vikings' eastward adventures are just as historically significant and relevant today as any westward push. In fact, three Eastern European countries (Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine) can claim Vikings as their supposed historical founders, whilst countries like Poland, Estonia, and Hungary have a rich history of interacting with peoples from Viking societies during the early medieval period.
The Vikings were crucial in establishing what was, for the early medieval period, one of the largest political entities in Europe: the Kievan Rus.
Though its foundation is steeped in medieval myth, legend, and lore – of somewhat dubious use for modern academics and researchers – they are nonetheless thoroughly entertaining and perhaps speak of the eastward push of Viking warriors from the late 8th century CE onwards.
Viking traders, raiders, and settlers had exploited the various river systems of Eastern Europe, especially along the Dnieper, Dniester, and Volga rivers that linked the Viking sphere of influence to the Byzantine Empire and Abbasid Caliphate further south.
These people were known as Varangians and soon began to dominate the local communities and societies they encountered.
According to the Tale of Bygone Years (also known as the Primary Chronicle, a main source of early history for the Kievan Rus first compiled in 1113 CE), three Varangian brothers were invited, in 882 CE, to rule over a large territory of the Eastern Slavs with one brother, Rurik, establishing a dynasty that would rule over vast swathes of Eastern Europe until the 17th century CE.
At the crossroads of empires
The Kievan Rus, at the crossroads between Scandinavia, the Baltic region, and Eastern Europe whilst bordering two great civilizations (the Byzantines and the Arab world) on its southern flank, soon rose to become the second largest and most important empire in Europe after the Holy Roman Empire.
It was a cultural and ethnic pot with a Varangian elite ruling over fellow Norse as well as East Slavic, Finnic, and Baltic peoples.
Whilst various forms of paganism and shamanistic beliefs were practiced during its formative years, the Christianization of the Kievan Rus was roughly happening at the same time as the Christianization of Scandinavia further north.
The key difference, however, is that it was Orthodox Christianity, thanks in part to its location to the nearby Byzantine Empire, the epicenter of Orthodox belief, that would be the dominant variant of Christianity practiced.
Whilst it owed its foundation to its Viking brethren, soon, the ruling elite of the Kievan Rus, in many ways, outdid its northern neighbors.
The proximity of more "educated" civilizations (the Byzantines and Arabs had built upon and advanced the educational foundations of Classical Antiquity) saw the level of education, especially amongst the ruling elite, which was higher than any contemporary Viking rulers or elites.
During the Viking Age, an essential trade and communication route between Scandinavia and Constantinople passed through what is today the state of Ukraine. Illustration: sub job / Shutterstock
A chick in Kiev
The importance of the Kievan Rus, with its strategic position as a bastion of Christianity on the eastern edges of Europe, as well as economically powerful due to its trading links with far more affluent civilizations southward, saw its ruling elite become intertwined with other European royal dynasties.
By the mid-11th century CE, Prince Yaroslav the Wise, the ruler of the Kievan Rus, saw his two daughters married off.
One, Anna, was married to the King of France, Henri I, whilst another, Elisaveta (or Ellisiv as she is known in Norway), would eventually fall under the spell of the preeminent warrior king of his day, Harald Hardrada.
Whilst the medieval chronicles often portray theirs as a love story (Hardrada was said to have first seen Ellisiv when she was but a young teenager and wedded her decades later), the story of how Harald first laid eyes upon her is just as interesting.
Harald had, following the defeat and murder of his half-brother, Olav (later Saint Olav), at the Battle of Stiklestad, in 1030 CE, fled to the Kievan Rus.
It was here that he went into service with Ellisiv's father, Yaroslav, as a mere 15-year-old. He had apparently asked for Ellisiv's hand in marriage then but was turned down.
Harald then had a storied career which saw him travel next to the Byzantine Empire and become the leader of the famous Varangian Guard, the personal bodyguard of the Byzantine Emperor.
As a mercenary, he also fought against the Byzantines' numerous enemies, from the Arabs to the Normans, from pirates in the Aegean Sea to Bulgars, and possibly even the Sassanids.
Returning to Kiev a wealthy man almost two decades later, after some Byzantine palace intrigue forced him to flee, he eventually succeeded and married Ellisiv in 1044 CE.
A Kievan Queen
A few short years into their marriage, Ellisiv would become Queen Consort of Norway when Harald's nephew, and co-ruler of the Norwegian throne, Magnus I, died.
Harald finally claimed what he had helped his half-brother fight for all those years ago at Stiklestad: the Norwegian crown. However, his ambition did not stop there.
Soon dramatic events across the North Sea unfolded whereby the brother of the English king, Harold Godwinson, decided to betray his family and pledge his support for Hardrada to claim the English throne.
Ellisiv may well have journeyed with her husband and the supposed 10.00 warriors he took with him to invade England, but the historical record is sketchy.
Nonetheless, Hardrada's invasion of England was miraculously stopped by Harold Godwinson at Stamford Bridge in 1066 CE. Hardrada – who had spent fifteen years as a mercenary and fought everywhere from the Baltic to Bulgaria, from Constantinople to the Caspian Sea, was apparently felled by an arrow – the first, but not the last, time a King was felled by an arrow on English soil that year.
Unfortunately for us, so little is known of Ellisiv's time as Queen Consort of Norway. Some medieval sources say she journeyed with her husband to England, whilst others state that it was Hardrada's second wife, Tora Torbergsdatter, who traveled.
We have but a few poems supposedly recited by Hardrada himself, longing for affection from his Kievan Queen, but this may have been poetic license and compiled by courtiers later.
A timely reminder of Europe's interconnectedness
What infuriates academics and historians, let alone writers for The Viking Herald, is that so many women in history, like Ellisiv of Norway, are left, for the most part, in historical darkness.
This was the daughter of perhaps the second most important ruler in Europe, a highly educated woman (in fact, her sister, when marrying Henri I, was able to write her own name whilst Henri had to make do with a squiggly X to mark his spot) and the scion of a royal dynasty that encompassed a huge swathe of Eastern Europe.
Yet what we know about her is only through her male relatives – the daughter of a King and the first wife of another King.
She bore Harald two daughters – Ingegerd (who was married off to Danish and later Swedish royalty) and Maria – who supposedly died of shock when she heard the news of her father's death at Stamford Bridge.
Despite the lingering aftereffects of the Cold War (which we are sadly seeing play out today in Ukraine), Ellisiv of Kiev reminds us of the interconnectedness of European history.
The division between East and West, if we look at the history of people like Ellisiv of Kiev, is only really one of the mind.
Science Norway has written more on Ellisiv of Kiev and the interconnectedness of Scandinavian and Eastern European history here.
This deep-dive article was written thanks to the support of subscribers to The Viking Herald's Facebook page. Do you enjoy our work? You can SUBSCRIBE here or via our Facebook page. You'll get access to exclusive content and behind-the-scenes access.
Feel free to reach out to discuss potential stories that may be in the public interest. You can reach us via email at firstname.lastname@example.org with the understanding that the information you provide might be used in our reporting and stories.