Often derided as history’s most petulant son, his story is as complex as his character. Whilst his insatiable lust for power ended up forging an empire that dominated Northern Europe, this lust sowed the seeds of his own exile and the downfall of his father – Forkbeard’s tale is the stuff of Shakespearean lore and legend some five centuries before the Great Bard lived.
Historical record is blurry
Like so many rulers and monarchs in the medieval period, the historical record and story of Sweyn Forkbeard are far from a complete picture. There is only one contemporary source from Forkbeard’s time – the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle - originally compiled sometime in the late 9th century, but it appears to have sporadically updated, with new outlooks, events, and indeed histories until at least 1154 CE.
One must, however, always look at such a source with a degree of skepticism. The Chronicle was, after all, complied for the rulers of the Kingdom of Wessex (one of the last Anglo-Saxon kingdoms left in what is now England). Was there a political angle or considerations to any depiction of Forkbeard? Would his Anglo-Saxon rivals really be true, honest, and neutral historical judges?
Aside from the Chronicles, the two other sources were written hundreds of years after his death: Adam of Bremen’s Deeds of the Bishops of Hamburg compiled in the 11th century CE, a historical treatise on Northern Europe’s centuries-long conversion to Christianity, whilst Forkbeard also appeared in the 13th-century Heimskringla by Icelandic man of letters, Snorri Sturluson.
The rise of the Christian faith in the Danish elite
What can be fathomed from various records is that Sweyn Forkbeard was born sometime in the early 960s CE. He was, according to Adam of Bremen, the son of Harald "Bluetooth" Gormsson, who, as King of Denmark, had helped introduce Christianity to his kingdom. Bluetooth's chaplain has recorded Forkbeard’s birth as being sometime around Easter 963 CE.
Adam of Bremen chronicles the increasing importance of the Christian faith to the Danish elite. In fact, whilst Forkbeard’s first name was the old Norse "Sweyn," he adopted the "Christian" name of Otto (in tribute to the German Christian Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, Otto I) when his father was baptized and converted to the Christian faith.
Forkbeard grew up in a court dominated by his powerful father. Upon the death of Otto I, Bluetooth attacked the parts of Saxony that lay in what is now southern Denmark and northern Germany to consolidate his rule over the areas of Zealand and Jutland. Furthermore, Bluetooth had aided Richard the Fearless, Duke of Normandy, and after the assassination of the Norwegian King, Harald Greycloak, had subjugated much of the Norwegian kingdom.
By the time Forkbeard was a young man, his father had direct rule over the Danish realm with south-eastern Norway too, whilst having vassal states in Normandy, Saxony, Wendland, and Samland.
Whilst his father - Harald "Bluetooth" Gormsson - embraced the Christian faith, Forkbeard is said to have held onto his Norse pagan beliefs and ideas. Photo: Kristijan Arsov / Unsplash
Rebellion and rule
While Forkbeard was coming of age and a young man, he had seen his father extend his rule over the Danish and Norwegian realms. It was during this formative time that he received his famous moniker (surely one of history’s best nicknames for a ruler) due to his long, cleft beard.
In an almost Shakespearean twist of familial betrayal, Forkbeard revolted and usurped power from his father. With the aid of the Viking warrior, Palnatoke, Forkbeard led a successful revolt that would see his father die in battle. In 985/986 CE, Adam of Bremen claims that God then punished Forkbeard for revolting against his father and that he spent 14 years in exile, mostly in Scotland. However, there is archaeological evidence – amongst them a church in Roskilde that shows that Forkbeard was very much in power and on the Danish throne.
Whilst his father embraced the Christian faith, Forkbeard is said to have held onto his Norse pagan beliefs and ideas. Success as a ruler, according to Adam of Bremen, only came when he embraced the faith his father had worked so hard to establish within his realms.
Battle of Svolder and English invasions
To secure his foothold in Norway, Forkbeard built an alliance with the Swedish King, Olof Skötkonung, and a Norwegian earl, Eirik Hákonarson, against the King of Norway, Olaf Tryggvason. A huge naval battle – Svolder - was won by the trifecta of rulers, securing Forkbeard’s place on the Norwegian throne legitimately by the turn of the 11th century. Forkbeard’s rule in Norway was marked by religious freedom, which saw many recent Christian converts return to pagan beliefs.
Forkbeard then turned his attention across the North Sea to England. On November 13, 1002, St. Brice’s Day, the King of England, Æthelred the Unready, ordered an unknown number of Danes living within his realm killed to prevent the further spread of this Norse "fifth column." In response to this massacre, Forkbeard set about raiding the English coasts and country multiple times up until 1012. In collusion with Richard, Duke of Normandy, and with military support from a Viking warrior, Torkell the Tall, Forkbeard eventually invaded England in 1013. From Sandwich, he led a huge army that devastated much before it, reaching and laying siege to London by winter 1013.
King Æthelerd was – as his nickname would suggest – unready for this invasion though he did send his sons, Edward and Alfred, to Normandy. Following Æthelred’s flight and London’s fall, Forkbeard was crowned King of England on Christmas Day in 1013. He now ruled not only three kingdoms but established an empire spanning the North Sea.
End of an empire and legacy
King Sweyn Forkbeard of Denmark, Norway, and England was now at the height of his power. His empire was second only in Europe in terms of size, power, and military might to the much larger Holy Roman Empire further south. Based in the north of England, Forkbeard set about to slowly organize his new kingdom but died of apoplexy in February 1014 – ruling this new empire for only five weeks.
His kingdoms were divided amongst his sons, with Harald II becoming the King of Denmark whilst Cnut was proclaimed King of England by the peoples living in the Danelaw. His empire would survive, but without the ruthless force of Forkbeard would eventually disintegrate after two generations.
One of medieval history’s more interesting hypotheticals is trying to predict how Northern European history would have changed if Forkbeard had lived longer. He was the first Viking ruler of England and perhaps the most successful political and military ruler to come from a Viking society ever.
Sweyn Forkbeard is a character on the Netflix series "Vikings: Valhalla," portrayed by his fellow countryman, Søren Pilmark.
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