How much of this is true, and how much is just medieval propaganda? Let us delve into the Viking era to see if Håkon lived up to his nickname.
Son of a self-proclaimed king
As we are now witnessing today with King Charles III, it can often be a little hard growing up in the shadow of a royal parent.
The boy who would become Håkon the Good was born the rather less pronounceable (though better for Scrabble players) Haakon Adalsteinfostre, the youngest son of the recently self-proclaimed King of Norway, Harald Fairhair.
Now Harald was said to have been born in about c.850 CE and Håkon in 920 CE, making it extremely unlikely that there was any sort of rigorous fathering on Harald's behalf.
Nevertheless, what King Harald lacked in agility, he made up in wisdom and, having only recently subjugated all of Norway under his reign, sent the youngest of his sons, Håkon, far away from the dangers and machinations of Norwegian royal politics to the Anglo-Saxon court of Æthelstan.
Håkon was said to have spent his formative years here, in a foreign country, being schooled by what modern historians have called "the first King of England" and the "greatest Anglo-Saxon king."
However, it is here, with young Håkon at the Anglo-Saxon court, that we hit our first historical snag. Contrary to the popular perception of this era being the "Dark Ages," where written records were non-existent, we have a wealth of information about the court of Æthelstan.
In no contemporary accounts is there a mention of his young ward, Håkon. In fact, dig a little deeper, and you'll discover that the first account of Håkon's younger life arises more than two centuries after his death, in the 12th century CE, by a royal biographer of a later Norwegian king.
Ok, no big deal...I hear you say....it was the pre-modern era, and records, chronicles, or accounts may have been lost.
Well, the fact remains that so much of Håkon's formative years – it was during this time that Æthestlan was said to have sponsored him for baptism into the new Christain faith – are part of the mythology that surrounds Håkon to this day. So what, then, do we make of his formative years?
The current academic consensus – as with so much of the lives of early medieval figures of importance – is that traditional tales and myths may indeed have elements of truth in them.
Death of one king, rise of another
Håkon was said to have returned to Norway upon the death of his father in c. 932 CE. The crown was passed to another son, Håkon's brother, Eric Bloodaxe.
Legend has it that Bloodaxe received his gruesome moniker by butchering family members (fellow claimants for the throne) in order to try and monopolize his grip on power.
Reigning only a short time, his rule was so despotic that he had to flee to the Orkney Islands when his kingdom, from the peasants to the nobles, grew weary of him. The crown then passed to young Håkon, who was said to have been crowned in 935 CE.
Unlike his brother, who had a reputation for barbarity and abrasiveness, Håkon's personality was marked by skills needed for a great diplomat – patience, compromise, and thoughtfulness.
Håkon set about trying to divide his father's once united kingdom, which had fractured due to the violent nature of Bloodaxe. He used his skill, charisma, and sheer force of personality to try and placate, soothe, and win over many powerful chieftains who controlled small but strategically critical independent territories.
Håkon extended this skilled diplomacy with a political nous for enforcing strict laws to try and maintain law and order throughout his realm.
He was, according to later biographers, known for his fairness and justice. These were the solid foundations upon which he had rebuilt the kingdom his father had created and his brother had partially destroyed.
The Historia Norwegiæ, described Håkon as an apostate who practiced both Christianity and the Old Norse religion. Illustration: The Viking Herald
A good Christian king?
Håkon was, if we are to believe the later sagas and royal biographies, a champion of the relatively new faith of Christianity.
Though it had been introduced to Scandinavia centuries before, mostly by missionaries from the British Isles and northern Germany, it was during the Viking Age (c. 793 – 1066 CE) that it got a foothold within the ruling elite of the budding kingdoms of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden.
Whether he was baptized during his time at the court of Æthelstan, we may never know, but it appears that Håkon was instrumental in the spread of Christianity in this mostly pagan realm.
He was said to have brought back with him, upon return to Norway, missionaries from England to help proselytize his subjects.
He was said to have been responsible for the construction of the royal court, including a church, at Avaldsnes and gave generously to monasteries and the clergy. This royal patronage influenced the prestige and power of the church in Norway.
Not every source agrees that Håkon was a good Christian king. The Historia Norwegiæ, compiled some time in the early 16th century from sources dating back centuries before, decries Håkon as an apostate who practiced both Christianity and the Old Norse religion.
The sagas explain this by saying that the powerful Earls of Lade refused to be converted to this new faith so, for Håkon to sure up his northern flank and gain these powerful allies, he toasted with them in a "pagan" style.
Their refusal to convert sparked the end of his process of actively converting all his subjects.
Fending off attack after attack
Despite all the good work Håkon was said to have done, there were factions within his kingdom who wished him to be removed.
The sons of his brother, Eric Bloodaxe, by the 950s, were now men with a mission: to reclaim what they saw as their birthright and usurp the throne.
This decade was marked by a series of battles that saw Håkon pitted against various alliances and coalitions controlled by his nephews, including a grueling one near Avaldsnes at the aptly named "Bloody Heights" in 953 CE.
By all accounts, it was a bloody battle that Håkon narrowly won. Two more battles (in 955 and 957 CE) saw Håkon defeat familial claimants to the throne and introduce rudimentary conscription on all free men (the lething system) for the first time in Norway's history.
The final showdown, however, resulted from a surprise attack by three of the surviving sons of Eric Bloodaxe. Landing their forces on the coast, they surprised Håkon near his royal residence at Fitjar.
This surprise attack saw Håkon mortally wounded, and he was buried in a mound near the village of Seim in Norway. A skaldic poem was composed after his death which involved Håkon taking his place in Valhalla alongside Odin.
Though a great tale, it was unusual for a Christian king to be eulogized in such a way, perhaps giving credence to the view that his religious views may well have been eclectic.
Reigning for 27 years, he had tried to unite a heavily divided kingdom, introduce a new faith – from the top down – and fend off constant threats to his power.
Achieving all of this with gusto (though he ultimately died on the battlefield, he had fended off four previous attempts of armed usurpation and was killed not by skill but by stealth), he, more than any other Viking-era king of Norway, deserves his moniker to be upgraded from "Good" to "Great."
History Today has more information on the life of Håkon the Good, and his upbringing in Anglo-Saxon England, available here.
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