Yet much of the history of the man who would establish the Danish monarchy - one of the oldest in the world, with a royal heritage stretching back over a millennium - is shrouded in mystery. 

Join us as we separate fact from fiction, tall tales from the truth.

A day in the 10th century CE

Imagine now you are transported back to the year 900 CE. Western Europe – rather than being a byword for sophistication, a high standard of living and progress – is a civilizational backwater. 

For more than four centuries, since the fall of Rome in the West, the only constancy has been total and utter instability. 

Centuries of the movement of peoples and tribes, often from the east, have totally broken the political, economic, social, and cultural security that the former Roman Empire once offered. 

Every and all forms of societal structure had been, to paraphrase John F. Kennedy, shattered into a thousand pieces and scattered into the wind.

One of these areas has been particularly affected in the mark of the Danes. The Roman Empire never quite stretched its tentacle into the area that is now the modern country of Denmark, but the archaeological record has shown a surprising amount of contact and trade. 

By the first few centuries of the first millennium CE, two tribes – the Danes and the Jutes – had settled around what is now Jutland in Denmark. 

From about the 3rd century CE, the construction of a series of fortifications across the Cimbrian Peninsula separated the Danish "mark" from the Saxon realm further south. These fortifications were believed to have been completed by the 8th century CE.

Following the collapse of Rome, centuries of population migrations (the famous Völkerwanderung - that beautiful German language has a term for everything, doesn't it?) changed Western Europe's political landscape forever. 

Several Northern Germanic tribes – including the Jutes – had migrated to the British Isles (foreshadowing their Viking ancestors several centuries later), and the "mark of the Danes" was made up of several small, petty kingdoms waiting for a steady and strong hand.

Mythical foundations and kings

Like many nations, the foundation of Denmark is shrouded in myth and legend. 

Sources from the later medieval period point to a mythical "King Dan," who was said to have ruled in Jutland and saved the local tribes there from the might and scorn of the first Roman Emperor, Cæsar Augustus.

Writing later in the 12th century CE, the Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus spoke of 3 different kings named Dan in his seminal history of Denmark, Gesta Danorum. 

However, if we look at the historical written record, our first mention of "Denmark" - as a nation – comes from the 811 CE Treaty of Helligen, which was signed between Frankish Emperor Charlemagne and the "King of Denmark," Hemming. 

This treaty fixed the border between the Frankish realms and the Danish Mark at the Eider River.

The remainder of the 9th century CE would see an unprecedented amount of outward expansion by the Danish people, as this was the heyday of the Vikings. 

Danish peoples would go about raiding, trading, and establishing settlements throughout much of the North Atlantic region. One of these powerful Vikings was Ragnar Lothbrok, who was said to be the driving force behind the Siege of Paris in 845 CE, the culmination of Viking raids against West Francia. 

According to Adam of Bremen, a later medieval scholar and historian, it was the scion of Lothbrok, his great-grandson Gorm, who ruled the march of the Danes by the turn of the 10th century CE.

The runestones at the Viking archaeological site at Jelling in Denmark. Photo: Kenneth Bagge Jorgensen / Shutterstock

Gorm - the early years

Like so much of Viking history, we are indebted to later medieval chroniclers and historians. 

Adam of Bremen relates that Gorm's father, Harthacnut, apparently arrived in Denmark and seized control of one of the petty Western kingdoms of the realm. 

By the time Gorm was born, his father had united the petty kingdoms in a somewhat similar process that Norway had undergone in the same period under Harald Fairhair

Whether Gorm's forefathers had seized power like this in Denmark is debatable, but it appears certain that by the late 9th century CE, the consolidation of power by a single ruler over the whole of what was then termed "Denmark" was complete. 

Was Gorm, though, the first ruler of a unified Denmark? What other sources do we have – aside from the writings of later medieval chroniclers and historians – which are, of course, questionable in their historical accuracy – to determine the historicity of Gorm's rule?

The answer lies at Jelling.

The most studied and storied runestones in European history lie in the Danish town of Jelling.

Two runestone – with the smallest one believed to have been erected by King Gorm himself – helps unlock the key surrounding the mystery of his early reign. 

Whilst the smallest runestone is dedicated by Gorm, to his wife, Thyra, the larger one – erected by Gorm's son, Harald Bluetooth – states how it was he, and not his father, who, "won for himself all of Denmark..." 

This suggests that Gorm may have only ruled part of Denmark, from his seat of royal power in Jelling.

Marriage and family

Aside from the runestones at Jelling, we have little historical detail on King Gorm. 

His marriage to Thyra was obviously a happy one, for he describes her as "Denmark's Adornment" on the runestone at Jelling. 

What is interesting about Gorm, compared to the other medieval rulers, is the degree to which he appears to have fostered a tight-knit and loving family. 

Remember, after all, that the second runestone at Jelling was erected by his son, Harald Bluetooth, in memory of both his parents. 

Bluetooth then also mentions the small fact that he conquered all of Denmark and Norway AND helped Christianize all of Denmark. However, aside from that rather outrageous claim, it is touching to see a monument erected in memory of a medieval ruler's parents.

Gorm was said to have fathered four children, of which we know the most about one of the sons, Harald. It would be Harald who followed in his father's royal footsteps and ascended to the throne in 958 CE. 

Unlike his father, Harald would go on to conquer much more territory and unite the kingdoms of Norway and Denmark, foreshadowing the "North Sea Empire" of a later Danish king, Sweyn Forkbeard, decades later.

Queen Thyra also features heavily in medieval records as finishing the construction of the Danevirke, which first started in the 4th century CE. 

What archaeologists and historians have conclusively found is that the third stage of the construction of the Danevirke does date from the 940s CE, which would make it contemporary with the rule of King Gorm and Queen Thyra.

Today, the official Danish monarchy's webpage proudly states that the monarch can trace its roots back to King Gorm. Pictured is a coin of Queen Margrethe II of Denmark. Photo: Vladimir Wrangel / Shutterstock

Death, burial, and nickname

There is an ongoing debate about the origins of King Gorm's nickname - "Gorm the Old." 

Some scholars have pointed out that this should not be taken literally but that Gorm is the ancestral founder of the Danish monarchy. 

Others have pointed out that it may very well be taken literally, and he ruled well into a very advanced age and was blind by the time he succumbed to old age.

His royal residence appears to have been at Jelling; it is there that much archaeological work has been undertaken since 2007. 

Whilst King Gorm and many of his subjects worshipped the Old Norse gods, it only took a generation – under the reign of his son Harald Bluetooth – for the new religion, Christianity, to take hold of, at least, powerful elites and the ruling class.

It is believed that King Gorm died in about 958 CE and was buried in a burial mound at Jelling. 

However, recent excavations have uncovered the remains of a wooden church that housed the skeletal remains of a man between 40 – 50 years old. 

Some scholars suggest that this may be King Gorm, who may have been ceremoniously reburied in this church when his son converted to the new Christian religion.

Today, the official Danish monarchy's webpage proudly states that the monarch can trace its roots back to King Gorm. 

That an institution survives (and thrives) today, that can trace its foundations back more than 11 centuries ago to the time of King Gorm, boggles the mind.

With a modern twist to this tale, Kongernes Jelling, National Museum of Denmark, has facilitated a recent 3D construction of King Gorm. Read about the interesting results that the reconstruction produced on the Science Nordic website here.

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