What little we know of him is from a mixture of Norse sagas, recorded history written centuries after the fact, and scant archaeological records. 

Who was the man behind the Viking's greatest epithet?

Mind the gap(s)

The man with one of the Viking's best nicknames, and a King of Norway in the early medieval period, is, to we modern readers, a mystery. 

The historical record, even in the early medieval period, for a King of Norway is normally adequate to fathom a rough sketch of the man. It is not for Bloodaxe. 

The second option, though less historically factual but, perhaps, certainly more entertaining, is for scholars and academics to scour the Norse sagas and skaldic poems. 

These richly detailed tales of famous warriors and kings can try and fill in some of the holes that dry records leave. 

We can get a sense of a man – or a woman – their character, their likes, their dislikes, maybe even a physical description, even if many are biased and, to put it bluntly, blatant early medieval forms of propaganda the likes of which would make Vladimir Putin or Kim Jong Un blush.

The case of Eric Bloodaxe, however, is surprisingly complicated. This was a man who was not only a King of Norway – which is an absolute fact – for two years (c. 931 – 933 CE) but also ruled across the North Sea in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Northumbria. 

Those are two societies where scribes and scholars could have recorded details about their ruler, but, alas, we have little. 

Furthermore, not only was he a King of Norway in his own right, but he succeeded one of the 10th century's most important rulers, Harald Fairhair, the original unifier of Norway, who was his father!

This suspicious lack of historical or poetic record has led some scholars to believe that Eric Bloodaxe was indeed two people – one who was a King of Norway and another who was a Norse warrior that rose to prominence in the Anglo-Saxon realms of Northumbria. 

However, like so much of early medieval history, this theory is yet to be conclusively proven.

One of many sons of a king

Eric Bloodaxe enters the historical story when his father, Harald Fairhair, was an old man. 

Fairhair had successfully forced the many petty kingdoms of Norway to submit to his rule, and he had unified Norway under his rule by 872 CE. 

Harald was, in more ways than one, a force of nature. Not only did he unify Norway for the first time in its history, but he also appears to have been a fan of nocturnal activities as he sired between 11 and 20 sons. 

The sagas recount that towards the end of his 48-year reign, much of his energy was directed towards trying to settle bitter familial disputes and machinations of his sons.

As Fairhair approached his 80th year, he was forced, due to Norwegian law (the so-called "Gray Goose Laws," a legal framework that was in force in early medieval Norway), to name a successor and share power. 

His successor was his son, Eric Bloodaxe, who ruled jointly for three years before his father succumbed to old age.

Historians and scholars here point out that, perhaps, this is the period when Eric, son of Harald Fairhair, earned his bloody epithet. 

Regardless of exactly how many brothers he had, it appears that Eric was one of multiple sons, each with their own claim to power. 

The sagas describe how Eric set about securing his grip on power by slaughtering the other claimants to the throne, his stepbrothers. 

Skaldic poetry labeled him as Blóðøx (Bloodaxe) whilst he is referred to, in Latin, as Fratrum Inerfector (Brother Killer).

According to lore, Harald Fairhair had between 11 and 20 sons. Illustration: The Viking Herald

A pirate's life for me

There is, however, another possible explanation for his bloody nickname. The Heimskringla – which is perhaps the best account of the early medieval kings of Norway, complied in c. 1230 CE by Icelandic author Snorri Sturluson – paints the early life of Eric as one of plunder and piracy. 

In his youth, he appears to be a child of prodigious strength. This strength and brute force were put to use for almost a decade in raids of coastal communities of the Baltic region, the British Isles, northern France, and Frisia, the north of the Scandinavia Peninsula, and into Northwestern Russia. 

This was the period that Eric, some scholars argue, gained his nickname due to the ruthlessness of his Viking raids.

Regardless of his nickname, Eric appears to be a very different man and ruler than his father. His rule was said to be despotic, and soon, after ascending to the Norwegian throne in 931 CE, the nobility of Norway fell out with their new King. 

Eric then fled to the British Isles whilst his brother, Haakon, assumed the throne of Norway with the help of the powerful northern Norwegian nobility.

King of Northumbria?

Most of the sagas agree that Eric was forced out of Norway and took refuge in the British Isles. 

Some sagas have him personally welcomed to the Anglo-Saxon realms by the greatest of Anglo-Saxon Kings, Æthelstan, baptized and handed the Kingdom of Northumbria to rule. 

Other sagas, especially the Orkneyinga Saga, mention how Eric took refuge in the Orkney Islands and spent several years there, a nod to his earlier pirate roots.

Eric enters the historical record as he ascends to the throne of the Kingdom of Northumbria. 

Though Anglo-Saxon King Æthelstan had wrested Northumbria from Norse control, evicting the last Hibero-Norse ruler from Jorvik (York), the area was a key battleground between the West Saxons, Norse, and the new Scottish realm. 

Eric ascended to the throne in 947 CE, but many of his subjects were not happy with a new "English" ruler, and his kingdom suffered from both insurrection and raiding from further north in Scotland. 

Eventually, he was forced from the throne but regained it after a 4-year interregnum in 952 CE.

Little is recorded of his reign, but more than 31 coins, minted at what is now York, have been uncovered bearing his name. 

Two different types of coins were uncovered, correlating to the two different reigns he had over the Kingdom of Northumbria.

Eric, some scholars argue, gained his nickname due to the ruthlessness of his Viking raids. Illustration: The Viking Herald

Later life and depictions

Like his earlier life, little is known about the events that led to the downfall and death of Eric Bloodaxe. 

However, in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Eric's downfall comes at the hand of a man only named "Maccus, the son of Olaf." Did Eric's streak of despotism and tyranny finally catch up with him? 

Nonetheless, from 954 CE, Bloodaxe exited the historical record and was said to be murdered at Stainmore, near the borders of Northumbria and Cumbria. After his death, Northumbria was brought conclusively under English rule.

It would be more than two centuries after his reputed death that Eric again reenters the historical spotlight. A saga was written in c. 1240 CE dealing with the lives and history of one Icelandic family clan, Egils Saga

Here, Eric is the chief antagonist. The saga tells of how Eric, thanks to his wife Gunnhild, becomes entangled in a bitter conflict with Egill Skallagrimsson.

The sagas, perhaps, give us the most well-rounded, though not necessarily historically accurate, depiction of Eric Bloodaxe. 

He was said to be a vicious and ferocious warrior, though not necessarily the most able statesman, backed up by the fact he was ousted three times from power. 

Nonetheless, the man who has arguably the Viking era's best nickname is as fascinating as he is mysterious.

The final days of Eric Bloodaxe were the focus of a recent Jorvik Viking Festival. The Northern Echo reported on the festival here.

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