Was Greycloak, a king of Norway at a time of seismic cultural, political, and religious changes, one of the most significant and consequential kings of the 10th century CE yet cruelly cut down in his prime and cruelly forgotten by history, or was he just a mere Christian zealot who was hellbent on conducting genocide against pagans in Norway?
His father's son
Given that he ruled Norway for almost a decade, in an era where contemporary accounts of kings in Frankia or Byzantium would detail every minute, little is known about this king.
What makes this even more shocking is that he is the son of a king, his father was Eric Bloodaxe, and his maternal uncle was the fearsome Harald Bluetooth, the force of nature that would rule over the kingdoms of Denmark, England, and Norway.
Nevertheless, Harald Eriksson enters the historical record as the son of Eric Bloodaxe and the daughter of who historians agree was the founder of the Danish monarchy, Gorm the Old.
Born about 935 CE, little is known about his early years other than he was sent away to England where his father, Eric, was ruling as a sort of Viking viceroy for the "Danelaw."
This was an area of modern England, roughly a third, where the Vikings had colonized and settled over many generations since the great invasions of the "Great Heathen Army" more than half a century before.
Famous family, famous feuds
Foreshadowing events that would lead to his own downfall years later, Greycloak's father had been involved in bitter family politics, ousted from the throne, and exiled from Norway.
According to the traditional historical narrative, his replacement, Haakon the Good, had been slowly introducing Christianity into the country, but modern historians are skeptical whether this was little more than paying lip service to Christianity.
This made Haakon many enemies throughout the kingdom who were more than willing to throw their lot in with the sons of Bloodaxe, including Greycloack, in their political scheming and military machinations to try and secure the throne of Norway.
By the time Greycloak came of age, he had set about, with his brothers, the other sons of Eric Bloodaxe, desperately trying to seize the throne of Norway back.
Battles between King Haakon and these brotherly wannabe usurpers took place at Avaldsnes (953 CE), Rastarkalv (955 CE), and finally at Fitjar, where though victorious, Haakon died in the battle.
Harald's uncle, Bluetooth, forever pulling the strings in Norwegian politics from afar, soon installed young Greycloak as his vassal king. He was to claim what he felt was his birthright and ascend to the throne of Norway, where his father had sat all those years before.
A Christian king
The reign of King Harald II of Norway has often been portrayed as a time of religious friction and intolerance. This is said to have stemmed from Greycloack's conversion to Christianity sometime in his early years, in exile, in England.
It is in these formative years that some historians have argued young Harald may have been converted to Christianity and baptized.
It should be no surprise, if this was the case, as both his Uncle, Harald Bluetooth (he who erected the Jelling runestones) and his cousin, Sweyn Forkbeard (he who forged the "North Sea Empire" by seizing the thrones of Denmark, England, and Norway) were converted to this relatively new (at least in the Viking world) religion from their old pagan ways.
Harald Greycloak was said to be the first Norwegian king to not only enjoy support in the hinterlands but also along the long Norwegian coast. Illustration: The Viking Herald
The conversion of his powerful family members shows how, in Scandinavia, the widespread adoption of Christianity very much came from the "top down."
Powerful elites and rulers wanted to tap into the new Christian religion to receive legitimacy from, and secure alliances with, fellow Christian rulers in Europe.
As an example of the pragmatic benefits of converting to Christianity, his uncle, Sweyn, chose the "Christian" name of "Otto" upon his father's baptism, a nod to his father's sponsor, Holy Roman Emperor Otto I, who they hoped to court and thus secure Denmark's southern flank.
A destroyer of pagan temples?
Whether Harald was a Christian zealot or not, he has been portrayed as decimating the pagan population of Norway and destroying many pagan temples, a sort of early cultural genocide.
Harald was intent on trying to strengthen Norway and was said to be the first Norwegian king to not only enjoy support in the hinterlands but also along the long Norwegian coast...which was the economic backbone of this burgeoning kingdom.
This process of solidifying and strengthening his rule was marked by his apparent destruction of many pagan temples and shrines throughout his kingdom.
This was part of his broader attempts to Christianize his subjects whilst also trying to establish a more centralized power system and structure, wiping out local religious elites.
He believed that by eliminating various centers of powers, like pagan temples and shrines, he could consolidate his own grip on power and create a more stable and unified kingdom.
It was during his reign as king that he gained the moniker Haraldr gráfeldr (Old Norse for Harald Greyhide or Greycloak), apparently taking a liking to a fake fur – which was grey - produced by Icelandic entrepreneurs. This also makes him the Nordic world's first fashion icon, centuries before H&M.
Whilst he was not the first, nor last, Viking king to attempt to thwart all vestiges of the Old Norse religion, he was, perhaps, the most notorious.
It is unknown how many temples and shrines he destroyed, but what is known is that his quest to "Christianize" his kingdom (of which he was little more than a mere vassal for his uncle) resulted in the incalculable loss of Norway's pre-Christian cultural, religious and social heritage.
A karmic kind of death?
A more nuanced historical view, perhaps, should be offered up in defense of Greycloak.
Not only is he credited, in the Heimskringla and among contemporary sources, as being the first ruler of Norway to control the prosperous coastal regions as well as the hinterlands, but his attempts at solidifying and unifying a fractious nation were relatively successful.
There is no doubt, however, that he desecrated many pagan temples and shrines, but he was a mere cog (albeit a powerful one) in the centuries-long process of the Christianization of Scandinavia.
Then again, that is a convenient view to have, sitting here in the 21st century CE, with no skin in the game, so to speak.
Having ascended to the throne through machinations, he was lured to Denmark in 970 CE and murdered in a conspiracy involving Norwegian nobles and relatives of his predecessor, Haakon the Good.
The Norwegian throne would pass to his uncle, Harald Bluetooth, who installed another vassal king, Haakon Sigurdsson.
BBC History Extra has published more on the long and bloody process of the Christianization of Scandinavia.
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