Author Archives: Brian Bixby

About Brian Bixby

I enjoy history because it helps me understand people. I'm writing fiction for much the same reason.

Sorting through facts and legends of Samuel Bellamy, pirate

In 1984, “Black Sam” Bellamy became New England’s most famous pirate when Barry Clifford discovered the wreck of Bellamy’s ship Whydah off the coast of Cape Cod. Today, one can go to a museum and see some of the material salvaged from the wreck. But who was Bellamy, and what can his story tell us?

Location of the wreck of the Whydah

Location of the wreck of the Whydah

In brief, Samuel Bellamy was born in 1689, tried to salvage treasure from the wrecked Spanish treasure fleet of 1715, and when he had little success at that, turned pirate. In February, 1717, he captured the Whydah, a newly-built slave ship, while sailing in the Caribbean. Subsequently he headed up the coast. Late in the evening of April 26, 1717, the Whydah was caught in a thunderstorm and driven onto the reefs, where the ship broke up, with the loss of all but two hands. Bellamy himself perished, along with 143 crewmen.

As such, it’s not that interesting a story, and it’s not surprising that Capt. Charles Johnson didn’t get to it until the second volume of A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pirates in 1728. And he probably got his information from two newspaper accounts and a sermon printed in 1717.

However, Johnson wasn’t above embellishing the accounts to make a political point or two. Typically, Johnson embellished to establish the criminal nature of the pirates and how their sins contributed to their downfall. That explains his probably fictional account of Avery’s (Every’s) downfall. But sporadically through his work, Johnson had pirates speak out against the established social order and its injustices. He even invented a pirate captain named Misson to show what a utopia based on reason, justice, and mercy might look like.

Johnson wrote his account of Bellamy along the latter lines. Twice he related speeches in which he suggested that states are founded by force of arms and therefore have no more moral authority than any pirate! He had Bellamy declare at one point that “I am a free prince, and I have as much authority to make war on the whole world, as he who has one hundred sail of ships at sea, and an army of 100,000 men in the field . . .” What’s curious is that while Johnson probably made up one of the speeches out of whole cloth, the one I’ve quoted has a factual basis, as it was taken from the account of a ship captain robbed by Bellamy and his crew!

Stories of romances between outlaws and reputable women still pull in readers, as this 2010 book demonstrates.

Bellamy’s and Hallett’s romance still pulls in readers, as this 2010 book demonstrates.

Nor was Johnson the only person to embellish Bellamy’s life. There is a possibility that Bellamy was sailing by Cape Cod in order to rekindle a romance with a young woman, Mary Hallett, who lived on the Cape. According to legend, he had met and romanced Mary on a previous visit, and even promised marriage. Mary succumbed to his charms, he sailed off, and she found herself pregnant. She hid her pregnancy, but was exposed when her dead child was discovered. Depending on which version of the story you hear, either she went mad pining away for her missing love, she became a witch and caused the storm that wrecked him, or he escaped the wreck of the Whydah, and the two ran off to have a happy life together. All of which suggests that a legend has overtaken the facts. There was a young Mary Hallett living in Eastham in that era, but the rest is legend, and she died decades later, unmarried.

Strangely, Johnson had little to say about the wealth Bellamy’s crew discovered when they took the Whydah: “elephants’ teeth, gold dust, and other rich merchandise.” Later historians added “sugar, indigo [used for dying] and Jesuit’s bark [used in the treatment of malaria].” The money on board was reported to run to £20,000, or £30,000, portioned out in 50-pound bags. If true, then the Whydah had 4.5 tons of gold and silver money on board. By some estimates, that would make Bellamy and his crew the richest pirates in history.

Whydah treasure

Whydah treasure

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The (Pseudo-)Shakespearean Tragedy of Edward England

It’s hard to have sympathy for pirates. Oh, they’re cool in movies, but they’re really ship-based thieves. And yet, there is one pirate described by Capt. Charles Johnson in A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pirates (1724) who might qualify as a tragic hero of even Shakespearean quality: Captain Edward England. So here read,

The Noble Tragedy of Edward England, Pirate Captain

pirate_englandACT I

We meet our tragic hero living in the pirate haven of New Providence in 1718. Capt. Woodes Rogers is soon to arrive with the King’s Pardon for those pirates who will take it. At a great assembly of pirates, Capt. Benjamin Hornigold speaks in favor of the pardon, while Capt. Charles Vane speaks against it. The pirates cannot agree, and so the meeting breaks up.

Charles Vane

Charles Vane

Vane finds he has lost many men who hope for the pardon, so he goes out recruiting new men for the several ships he commands. In a tavern he finds Edward England. Vane and England are old friends; England served as quartermaster aboard Vane’s ship on its last cruise. Vane offers England the captaincy of one of Vane’s ships.

England had been leaning in favor of the pardon, as he wants peace and happiness now. But the lure of command of his own ship and Vane’s friendly persuasions, together with a bit too much drink, get the better of him. England agrees to Vane’s proposition. They depart from the tavern, arm in arm, but not before England stumbles on the threshold.

ACT II

We see England on the deck, pleased with his new pirate ship. A call from above tells him a sail’s been sighted. Within moments, the pirates catch up to the other ship and force it to surrender.

Captain Skinner, the commander of the other vessel, comes on board, a prisoner lightly guarded. England begins explaining to Skinner that his pirates will seize whatever cargo they like, but if no resistance is offered, no harm will come to him or his crew.

England's flag

England’s flag

However, he is interrupted when a sailor comes up, sees Skinner, and begins cursing him. He says he served under Skinner, and that Skinner is a brute and a cheat. With one mind, England’s crew descends on Skinner, beating him savagely until one pirate pulls out a pistol and shoots Skinner dead. The crew exit the stage, leaving Skinner, dead, on the deck.

England has been standing by all this time, horrified. He kneels down and shakes Skinner’s body in the forlorn hope that Skinner is still alive. England realizes that he runs a ship of cruel men, and that he will survive only so long as he equals them in cruelty. The realization troubles him so much that he goes down to his cabin to get drunk. His second-in-command, John Taylor, watches him go. Taylor wants to be captain, and he now begins to see how he might engineer England’s downfall.

ACT III

England is on deck as before, but the deck is a shambles from a vicious fight with a merchantman, blood everywhere. The crew is drunk and disorderly, having pillaged the merchantman of all its booze. England himself is drunk, disgusted with himself.

Some crew members of the pirate ship bring the captain of the merchantman, Macrae, aboard. The pirates are vexed with Macrae, because he caused many casualties among them before surrendering. They verbally abuse him, and suggest ways he can be tortured. England flinches at the notion. Taylor, his second-in-command, sees his chance, and demands that Macrae be tortured right then and there. England pleads with his crew not to do it, but he can tell he is losing and in danger of being overthrown as captain.

Abruptly, a whiskered pirate, Peg-Leg, comes up on deck. He swears in bloody language that he will see Macrae or else. England feels he can’t oppose Peg-Leg, and Taylor thinks Peg-Leg will strike Macrae, so he doesn’t interfere, either. Macrae thinks he is about to die, and prays under his breath.

Peg-Leg sees Macrae, rushes up to him, throws his arms around him, and says he is damned happy to see him. To the astonishment of everyone, Peg-Leg proceeds to praise Macrae in glowing terms as one of the best captains, and best men, ever to sail the seas. And he finishes by saying that anyone who wants to harm Macrae will have to go through him first.

England is ashamed that it is one of his crew standing up for Macrae. He tosses his bottle over the side of the ship, and swears to himself that he will be captain of this ship and he will save Macrae.

ACT IV

Taylor still wants to use Macrae as a weapon to overthrow England. He talks up all the harm Macrae’s fight caused the pirate crew, plying them with drink, getting them riled up so they’ll take on Peg-Leg, then depose England, then kill Macrae.

Peg-Leg, seeing which way the wind is blowing, goes down to England’s cabin where England and Macrae are having a friendly talk. Peg-Leg wants to arm the three of them and go down fighting.

England tells him, no, that he is the captain, and he will solve this problem himself. He tells Peg-Leg to help Macrae get ready to escape in the ship’s longboat.

Not sure quite what he is going to do, England spies on his crew. He sees them drinking and arguing, and decides to use their weaknesses against them, just as Taylor was hoping to use England’s weakness against him. England joins the crew and encourages them to talk and argue and swear, all the time plying them with drink. Eventually, they all get so drunk they fall asleep.

England returns to the cabin and assists Peg-Leg in helping get Macrae away on the longboat.

When the pirates wake up, Macrae is gone. England lies and blames the crew for losing their fun by getting too drunk. They sullenly go back to work, but resentments linger. Taylor openly tells England that England has betrayed the crew, and that a day of reckoning is coming.

ACT V

Back on the deck again, England is still in command, but barely, a sullen Taylor beside him. They have just taken another prize at sea and the crew brings the captain, John Tawke, on board. Under England’s and Taylor’s questioning, Tawke reveals that Macrae escaped to India, where the British East India Company gave him a ship to hunt the very pirates who had once captured him. There is a general uproar on the ship, Taylor calls for England to be overthrown, and in the tumult gets elected captain. He orders England imprisoned in the brig.

The next day, Taylor has England brought up from the brig. England looks a bit bedraggled. Taylor informs him that they are going to maroon him on the island, along with three crew members loyal to him, one of them Peg-Leg. Upon hearing this, England stands tall, in a loud voice proclaims that he alone bears the responsibility for helping Macrae to escape, that he’d do it again, and that he takes pride in their marooning him.

A beach on Mauritius (Credit: Wikipedia/Romeodesign)

A beach on Mauritius
(Credit: Wikipedia/Romeodesign)

Now on the island, England helps Peg-Leg and the other sailors build a boat to escape. They have few supplies, so England only pretends to eat and returns his food to the common stores.

By the day the boat is ready to launch, England is clearly weak and dying. He orders Peg-Leg and the other sailors to sail without him, saying that he regrets having been a pirate captain and wishes to end his life in peace. Peg-Leg refuses to leave, saying England should not die alone. The last we see are of Peg-Leg holding England as he breathes his last.

Finis

How much of this is true? In outline, all of it. I’ve taken considerable license, dramatically compressing England’s career and fleshing out his character. He was indeed once quartermaster to Vane and rejected the 1718 pardon. Skinner and Macrae are real, as is Peg-Leg, though the latter has no name in Johnson’s book. England did get Taylor drunk to spirit off Macrae. Subsequently, Taylor did overthrow England and maroon him on Mauritius. On the other hand, Macrae wasn’t commissioned to hunt down England, though the pirates were told he was. And England actually did escape with the others to Madagascar, though he died not long after.

England does indeed seem to have been something of a gentleman. I’ll leave you with Capt. Johnson’s description of his character:

England was one of these men, who had a great deal of good nature, and did not want for courage; he was not avaricious, and always averse to the ill usage prisoners received. He would have been contented with moderate plunder, and less mischievous pranks, could his companions have been brought to the same temper, but he was generally overruled, and as he was engaged in that abominable society, he was obliged to be a partner in all their vile actions.

Let’s go live the glamorous life as pirates!

At least one feminist historian argued Black Bart was a woman because of his taste and style

At least one feminist historian argued Black Bart was a woman because of his taste and style

In his A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pirates (1724), Capt. Charles Johnson, whoever he is, quotes “Black Bart” Roberts as saying that pirates have “Plenty and Satiety, Pleasure and Ease, Liberty and Power . . . ‘a merry life and a short one,’ shall be my motto.” Sounds great! Let’s go a-pirating!

Not so fast. First, you have to get a ship. Now, Henry Every started off with an actual warship, but they aren’t just lying around everywhere. Captain Worley set off from New York harbor in September of 1718 with eight companions in an open boat, carrying “a few Biscuits, and a dry’d Tongue or two, a little Cag of Water, [and] half a dozen old Musquets and Ammunition accordingly.” Hardly a Caribbean cruise ship! Although it’s been done in the same style in the Caribbean: Ned Lowe began with 12 men in a boat, and in 1722 John Evans began with a canoe and “three or four” companions on the coast of Jamaica.

How unfortunate was Major Stede Bonnet? This unfortunate!

How unfortunate was Major Stede Bonnet? This unfortunate!

But just think of the riches you’ll enjoy! Again, Every and his crew came away from seizing the Ganj-i-sawai with enough wealth to retire to Madagascar, the Bahamas, Pennsylvania, or England. Making the big score was the dream, one which the crews of the other ships Every cheated did not get to share in. And neither did most pirate crews. There just weren’t that many poorly defended ships with treasure sailing about. You were more likely to encounter coastal sailing ships carrying provisions, as the unfortunate Major Stede Bonnet did in his cruise off the Virginia coast in July, 1718.

Woe betide the pirate captain who failed to find enough treasure for his crew! At best, they were likely to lose crew members who took one of the prizes and sailed off in the night, as happened to Bonnet, and which happened multiple times to Black Bart. Worse, your crew might depose you or, if they were really unhappy with your performance, kill you. Capt. Thomas Anstis was shot in 1723 by some of his crew members while lying in his hammock, ending his career with his life. In the same year, Captain Lowther saved his crew the trouble: he shot himself after losing his ship while it was being careened.

But think of the plentiful supplies you’ll have, the clothes you’ll wear, the food you’ll eat! Pirates did love looting ships for fancy clothes. That’s because sea water ruined all but the sturdiest of their clothes, so they had to be replaced frequently. And no horror was worse for pirates than to run short of food and water. Why it was even worse than running short of liquor! Yet it happened far too often, for pirate crews were not careful to budget their supplies, always figuring they could steal more from the next ship they seized.

Sometimes there was no next ship when they needed one. This happened at least twice to Black Bart Roberts in 1720, in both cases because his voyage turned out to be much longer than expected. The second occasion was the more dreadful. Roberts had been sailing to Africa, but thanks to poor navigation got caught in trade winds that forced him to turn back to the Caribbean. He had 700 leagues (2400 miles) to sail with only one hogshead (maybe 60 gallons) of water for a crew of 124! As Johnson describes it,

They continued their Course, and came to an Allowance of one single Mouthful of Water for 24 Hours; many of them drank their Urine, or Sea Water, which instead of allaying, gave them an inextinguishable thirst, that killed them: Others pined and wasted a little more Time in Fluxes and Apyrexies, so that  they dropped away daily: Those that sustain’d the Misery best, were such as almost starved themselves, forbearing all Sorts of Food, unless a Mouthful or two of Bread the whole Day, so that those who survived were as weak as possible for Men to be, and alive.

The pirates managed to make the coast of South America, where they obtained water from a river mouth at the coast, and soon seized provisions from a passing ship. But this no doubt explained why some of Roberts’s crew left him in another ship the next time he sailed for Africa!

Captain Maynard hung Blackbeard's head from the bowsprit of his ship

Captain Maynard hung Blackbeard’s head from the bowsprit of his ship

It could be a miserable life, and worse yet, a short one, as Roberts admitted. He did well enough, but didn’t last three years (1719-22) as a pirate. Others had an even briefer run. Blackbeard was a pirate captain for only two years (1717-18). Howel Davis, actually one of the more clever pirates, was a captain but one single year before he was killed in an ambush in 1719. Johnson describes a Captain Worley (mentioned above) whose entire career ran from September, 1718 to February 17, 1719. And no doubt there were many pirates whose careers were even shorter and escaped Capt. Johnson’s attention!

Crime and punishment Viking style

One of the most famous killings in the sagas is the burning of Njal in his home

One of the most famous killings in the sagas is the burning of Njal in his home

So your brother’s been deliberately murdered by one of his neighbors. And you’re both farmers in Viking Age Iceland, around the year 1000. What do you do?

In the United States today, you’d go to the police, lay out your reasons for assuming that the neighbor did the deed, hope the police can find enough evidence to charge the neighbor, have the neighbor tried, and hope there is enough evidence to convict the neighbor. If convicted of murder, the neighbor will spend decades in prison, unless unlucky enough to live in one of the states that still executes murderers. And that’s that.

But, no, you’re in Viking Age Iceland. There are no police. There are no prisons. So what happens instead?

Gudrun greets her husband's slayers with a smile, but she'll get her revenge!

Gudrun greets her husband’s slayers with a smile, but she’ll get her revenge!

Well, first off, believe it or not, your brother’s neighbor publicly proclaimed he was responsible for the killing. Why? Because then it isn’t murder. Instead, it’s manslaughter. What’s the difference under Icelandic law? The killer can pay compensation, in silver or something valued in silver, to settle a blood-debt incurred by manslaughter. That option isn’t officially open to him if he conceals the killing, a dishonorable course. The killer risks being outlawed, not a trivial penalty.

You think about collecting your farm hands and exacting revenge by killing your brother’s killer. It would be fair, it would be just. But then his brother might summon up a band to come kill you!

So you go to your chieftain, your godi, instead. And you tell him what happened and why you think it happened. You’ve got a clear case: the neighbor announced the killing, and there was a well-known property dispute over some woods, a valuable property. Certainly the godi will see the justice in your case, summon up all his thingmen (supporters) and help you kill your brother’s killer.

Not so fast. Your godi has his own issues. Sure, he wants to retain your loyalty. And he’d like a reputation for justice and wisdom. But that’s one of the reasons he doesn’t immediately offer to help you kill the guilty man. He doesn’t want a blood feud on his hands that could escalate and cost a lot of people their lives, including more of his supporters, maybe even him. And there is credit to be gained if he can settle this matter in your favor but without bloodshed.

That’s not his only concern. Just because you have the facts in your favor doesn’t mean he can successfully prosecute the case. Your brother’s killer has the support of several allied godar (plural of “godi”). Your godi has to consider which other godar he can count on for support. He might eventually decide he can’t support you, in which case you’re out of luck, at least for now.

The Law Rock where the Althing met

The Law Rock where the Althing met

But let’s say he supports you. You don’t get a hearing immediately. It has to wait until when the quarter court meets at the Althing, the annual Icelandic assembly, in the summer. (They are called quarter courts because Iceland is divided into four quarters for legal purposes.) In the meantime, your side and his side meet several times. There is tremendous pressure put on both of you to settle, though always to the advantage of your side, of course. Meanwhile, everyone is also taking precautions against the other side making a violent move.

You are burning with vengeance, and consider your brother’s title to the woods unassailable in law, so you are looking for revenge and refuse compensation, no matter how much money the killer and his godi offer. Especially because they refuse to even discuss the woods. But your godi is regretting his role in this affair. He’s going to have to use a lot of influence on your behalf, and he makes it clear that he won’t support you any further without something of value from you. Ultimately, he proposes to fight for your rights, but only if you sign over the woods to him when you win. It sounds like a bum deal, but your godi points out that your brother wasn’t able to maintain his rights to that property, and you, who live even farther away, won’t be able to do so either without help. So you agree with a witnessed handshake.

Luckily for you, the killer’s alliance of godar breaks up over other issues, conflicts among them, and he comes to the Althing with very limited support. The godar name the farmers and other men who will hear the evidence and pass judgment, and with his allies, your godi is able to stack the quarter court’s panel with quite a few people favorable to your cause.

No one wants a fight at the Althing, but sometimes things get out of hand

No one wants a fight at the Althing, but sometimes things get out of hand

The panel at the quarter court hears the evidence presented and witnesses called by both sides, deliberates, and delivers a judgment, both verdict and terms of settlement. It sounds nice and modern. But the panel could be influenced by the political power mustered by the very visible presence of godar and their thingmen supporting each side. No one wants to deliver a verdict that will tear open the Althing with violence.

But you have the best of both worlds: a solid case, and the weight of political influence. The panel decides in your favor. Better yet, the sentence they pronounce on the killer is the maximum that could be inflicted: the greater outlawry. This means that your brother’s killer loses all of his property, and all of his rights. No one can help him, and anyone is free to kill him.

You’re surprised. You figured the best you could hope for was to have him sentenced to the lesser outlawry, which also involves confiscation of his property, but only a three-year exile out of the country instead of forfeiting his life. Your godi notices your surprise, leans over, and whispers in your ear, “The man’s killed before, and while those cases were settled, he’d developed quite the reputation of a trouble-causer. People pretty much agreed that Iceland’s best rid of him for good.”

Grettir survived almost 20 years as an outlaw, but then he was tough enough to put down an Icelandic zombie

Grettir survived almost 20 years as an outlaw, but then he was tough enough to put down an Icelandic zombie

The killer flees the Althing, but is killed by your widowed sister-in-law’s family who track him down in the desolate interior. Your godi assists you in taking possession of your brother’s farm, while he gladly takes the disputed woods as your own. You arrange a good marriage between your brother’s eldest son and the daughter of your godi, and settle them and the rest of your brother’s family on the farm you previously occupied.

Everyone’s happy . . . until the killer’s son, thirsting for revenge, kills you fifteen years later. But that’s another story.

The Norse gods: all too human

Ragnarok: the world is being destroyed by fire (By Emil Doepler (1855-1922), c. 1905)

Ragnarok: the world is being destroyed by fire
(By Emil Doepler (1855-1922), c. 1905)

I grew up with Edith Hamilton’s account in Mythology (1940/42) as my source on the Norse gods and their world. To judge from Hamilton’s account, the mythology portrayed a dreadful world in which the Norse gods struggled to survive, knowing they were doomed at Ragnarök. It seemed to me to be a humorless world developed by grim people.

So when I turned to the Eddas, I was pleasantly surprised to find out just how much humor they contained. The Vikings could laugh at their gods! And in doing so, they could laugh at themselves.

Thor doing what he does best (By Marten Eskil Winge (1825-1896), 1872)

Thor doing what he does best
(By Marten Eskil Winge (1825-1896), 1872)

Take Thor, the best known Norse god, the wielder of the mighty hammer Mjöllnir. Ever hear the expression, “if all you’ve got is a hammer, everything looks like a nail?” Well, Thor has a hammer, so to him, everything looks like a nail. He instinctively reaches for his hammer to bash in someone’s skull any time he’s faced with a problem. Far from being the long-winded hero of Marvel comics, the mythological Thor is an amusing combination of masculine pride and limited intellect. It shows.

One Viking practice was to engage in flyting: a contest of exchanging insults in ritual fashion. One of the masters of flyting is Loki, the trickster figure of Norse mythology, born of a giant, but blood brother to Odin, chief of the gods. At one memorable feast, Loki takes on most of the Norse gods, insulting their courage, fighting ability, and sexuality. He’s fairly crude, but quite inventive. For example, he accuses Odin of letting the weaker side win in battle so his Valkyries can claim the braver men after they are slain. He accuses Frigg, Odin’s wife, of incestuous relations with Odin’s two brothers. Those are just a few of his accusations.

Thor isn’t present at the beginning, but comes in just about the time Loki brags about seducing the goddess Sif, Thor’s wife! Well, Thor isn’t going to take that lying down, so he calls Loki a homosexual (in terms that were specifically insulting in Viking culture) and threatens to kill him with Mjöllnir. Loki waxes creative, telling one embarrassing story about Thor after another. But all Thor can do is just repeat his initial insult and threat. He sounds like a broken record.

Doesn't Thor look pretty as a bride? (By E. Boyd Smith (1860-1943), 1902)

Doesn’t Thor look pretty as a bride?
(By E. Boyd Smith (1860-1943), 1902)

Oh, those embarrassing stories? For some reason, Loki skips what I think is the funniest one. One day, Thor wakes up to find his hammer gone. (It’s hard to ignore the Freudian implications.) It turns out a giant has stolen and hidden it. The giant won’t give it back unless Freyja, the goddess of love, marries him. So to recover his hammer, Thor has to impersonate Freyja by dressing up as a bride and pretending to marry the giant. As a bride, Thor is not a smashing success. He eats and drinks so much at the wedding feast that Loki has to apologize for him. Thor wears a veil to disguise his looks, but when the giant peeps beneath it, Thor is so enraged that his eyes glare in a distinctly unfeminine way. Thinking quickly, Loki again offers an apologetic explanation, saying “Freyja” hasn’t been able to sleep for eight nights thinking about her future husband.

The story ends as you might expect. Thor gets his hammer back, and proceeds to treat the giants like nails. His would-be husband dies. So do a lot of other giants.

Odin's not going to get his way this time! (By Lorenz Frolich (1820-1908), 1895

Odin’s not going to get his way this time!
(By Lorenz Frolich (1820-1908), 1895)

Odin, as befits the chief god, is usually depicted as wiser. He sacrifices himself on Yggdrasil, the World Tree, to obtain the magical knowledge of runes. He gives an eye to drink from Mimir’s well to acquire wisdom. And he uses lies, trickery, and magic to seduce women all the time. Some wise leader! He brags about it, even. When he and Thor get into a flyting, Thor invariably talks about what he’s done fighting, while Odin prefers to relate his sexual conquests.

Now you might think, “Men!” And you’d be right. Male gods brag about their sex lives, while accusing females of being unfaithful or promiscuous. Just like real men have done.* And that’s the point. The Norse gods were all too human in character. And in laughing at them, the Vikings laughed at themselves. They could even admit, sometimes, that if women were fickle toward men, men were just as fickle and deceitful to women. After making these observations, the speaker in the Hávámál (one of the poems in the Elder Edda) sums it up by saying love makes fools of us all. Even Norse gods.

* No, that’s not an observation on contemporary politics. Leave it alone.

The Last Viking

A glorified portrait of Harald Hardrada (credit: Wikipedia/Colin Smith)

A glorified portrait of Harald Hardrada
(credit: Wikipedia/Colin Smith)

His name was Harald, Harald Sigurdsson if you want to know his father, but he’s gone down in history as Harald Hardrada, “Harold the Hard-Ruler” we would say in English. He was King of Norway for twenty years, from 1046 until 1066, until he died in battle on foreign soil. And he is often considered “the last of the Vikings.” To what does he owe this dubious honor? He spent most of his life in battle, whether as a mercenary captain, a raiding Viking, or a warrior-king.

In the 11th century, the Viking Era was drawing to a close. Long gone were the adventuresome raids of individual chieftains. The enemies of the Vikings had organized into powerful states to oppose them, and the Vikings themselves were gradually consolidating into the kingdoms of Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and the Icelandic republic. But the bounds of these kingdoms fluctuated, and it was not beyond the power of any one king to dream of conquering another realm. Though their own grasp on power was tenuous, for while it was felt that royal ancestry was necessary to take the throne, it did not follow that male primogeniture (succession by the eldest son) was the rule. Kingship was held by those who could take it and hold it.

Canute was so great that some sycophants thought he could stop the tides!

Canute was so great that some sycophants thought he could stop the tides!

Harald was born around the year 1015. Later accounts would say he was descended from the legendary King Harald Finehair, but his real claim to the throne was through his half-brother, St. Olaf, King of Norway from 1015 to 1028. Olaf had opposed Danish designs to conquer Norway and rule through native earls. Although initially successful, he was driven out of the country by Danish King Canute the Great and killed in 1030. Most of the dynastic claimants to the Norwegian throne took refuge in the court of Yaroslav the Great, the dominant ruler of Russia, and himself of Viking descent. Harald was among them.

He didn’t stay in Russia long. Instead, he went south to the great city of Constantinople, capital of the Byzantine Empire, still one of the richest and most powerful states in the Mediterranean world. There he became the commander of the Varangian Guard, the Scandinavians who served the Byzantine Emperor as an elite military unit. He became famous for his courage, success in battle, opportunistic dishonesty, and the wealth he accumulated from fighting, much of which probably belonged to the Emperor.

Sometime around the year 1042, he came into conflict with the Byzantine Emperor and court. Maybe, as legend would have it, he fell in love with a Byzantine princess, and the Emperor refused his suit for her hand. Maybe the Emperor found out about how much treasure Harald had amassed for himself. In either case, Harald was imprisoned, escaped, and fled to Russia, where he had thoughtfully sent most of his wealth to Yaroslav for safe-keeping.

Harald's Russian wife. There are varying accounts about whether he left her behind when he went to Norway or became a bigamist once he became king.

Harald’s Russian wife. There are varying accounts about whether he left her behind when he went to Norway or became a bigamist once he became king.

Once he arrived in Russia, Harald found out his uncle Magnus, “the Good,” had returned to Norway and retaken the throne there in 1035. Indeed, Magnus had just managed to make himself King of Denmark in 1042, after the last of Canute’s sons had died. Harald probably kicked himself for not thinking of this first. So he married one of Yaroslav’s daughters  and headed west, to see what he could grab for himself in Scandinavia.

When he arrived, the situation wasn’t looking too good. Magnus controlled both Norway and Denmark, and the only trouble he was getting was from Swein Estridsson, who had once been Magnus’s right-hand man in Denmark but now claimed the throne there for himself. Ever the opportunist, Harald joined forces with Swein and the King of Sweden to try to topple Magnus.

Facing both Swein and Harald, Magnus decided to make peace with Harald, who was his nephew after all. In 1046, Magnus offered to give Harald half of Norway if Harald gave Magnus half the treasure he had accumulated.  Harald agreed. It was a good deal, because Magnus died the next year, making Harald sole King of Norway, and getting back Magnus’s share of the treasure, to boot.

Harald helped convert Norway to a money economy by minting his own coins

Harald helped convert Norway to a money economy by minting his own coins

Harald became a strong king of Norway, which is to say that most people became terrified of him. He lived up to his reputation for savagery and duplicity that he had earned as commander of the Varangian Guard. For example, to make temporary peace with his domestic enemies on one occasion, he pardoned an exiled man . . . and then arranged for the man to get killed in battle against the Danes.

Harald also made incessant warfare on Swein, who had become King of Denmark upon Magnus’s death. Harald felt he was owed all the lands claimed by Magnus, including Denmark. Give Harald credit: he typically won his battles and staged successful raids on Denmark. But for all the trouble he made, Harald couldn’t conquer Denmark. The nobles and the people backed Swein, and Harald’s savagery didn’t persuade them otherwise. So around 1064 or 1065, he made peace with Swein, leaving Swein in possession of Denmark.

That might have been the end of Harald’s fighting career. He was about fifty, and while strong and tall, that was an old age to reach in the 11th century. But fighting had been Harald’s life. He was probably itching for an opportunity.

He got one. Tostig, the deposed Earl of Northumberland in England, came to him with a plan to invade and conquer England. Harald liked the idea. He recalled that Magnus had claimed all of Canute the Great’s realm, and that had included England. Tostig also promised he could get many nobles to rise up against the newly crowned English king, Harold Godwinson (who, incidentally, was Tostig’s brother, but they didn’t get along).

So Harald went to war, and sailed to England. He easily defeated Tostig’s successor and the Earl of Mercia at Fulford on September 20, 1066. York surrendered on September 24. The north of England was his!

And then the next day, to the utter astonishment of Harald and Tostig, King Harold Godwinson appeared with the main English army, long before anyone expected him in the north. Godwinson had marched 200 miles in four days! The Norwegians thought themselves outnumbered, and Tostig urged that they fall back a few miles to rejoin the troops stationed by their ships, but Harald would not retreat, and instead ordered riders to fetch the reinforcements.

Harald (center) charging into battle for the last time

Harald (center) charging into battle for the last time

Battle was joined at Stamford Bridge. The story has it that a single Viking held the bridge and slaughtered forty English soldiers before he was killed, but that was the last good news for the Norwegians. The English charged across the bridge, engaged their enemy, and broke the Norwegians’ shield wall. In a do-or-die effort, Harald, big man that he was, charged into battle himself where the line had been pierced. But it was not enough. He died there.

The Norwegians were defeated. The co-Earls of Orkney gathered up the sad remains of the army the next day and sailed away in peace. Harold Godwinson let them go, provided they agreed never to return. He had other concerns, another invasion to repel, in fact. Although he didn’t know it, he would soon lose his crown, his kingdom, and his life.

Harald Hardrada’s body was buried on the battlefield at Stamford Bridge. The next year, 1067, it was exhumed and moved back to Norway for internment in Trondheim.

Harald was succeeded on the throne by his son Magnus, who died within three years, and his son Olaf. Olaf reigned for about 26 years. They were good years for Norway, peaceful years. For Olaf wasn’t the Viking king his father had been. No, those times were over. The Viking Age was done.

My favorite Viking saga tragedy

The Icelandic sagas were set down mostly in the 13th century. They frequently refer to events many centuries in the past. While they seem to be straightforward historical accounts, and often involve actual people identified in other sources, it is clear that the accounts have often been fictionalized in order to improve the storytelling. Yet, oddly to the modern eye, they tend to be very weak in explaining the motivations of their characters. So let me offer you my interpretation of the motivations of the characters in my favorite Viking saga story.

A 1654 map of the Orkneys

A 1654 map of the Orkneys

The story comes from the Orkneyinga saga, sometimes called the History of the Earls of Orkney. The Orkneys are an island archipelago north of Scotland that was settled by Viking during the 9th century (or earlier). Although they owed obedience to the Kings of Norway, in practice the Earls were often autonomous rulers, whose realm could extend as far north as the Shetland Islands, as far south as the Isle of Man in the Irish Sea, and onto Caithness and Sutherland on the Scottish mainland.

This story begins with two legendary figures, Erik Bloodaxe and Thorfinn Skullsplitter. Erik was the favorite son of King Harold Finehair of Norway, and became king after his father’s retirement in the early 930s. According to legend, he was so fierce a ruler that his subjects deposed him in favor of a brother and drove him out of the realm after only a few years. Fleeing abroad, Erik began a career of raiding that would make his name infamous.

No, Thorfinn didn't really look like this.

No, Thorfinn didn’t really look like this.

But Erik understood that he needed a home base where he could take his plunder and keep his family safe. He thought of the Orkney Islands, Officially, they were ruled by the three sons of Earl Torf-Einar: Arnkel, Erlend, and Thorfinn. But these three young men proved no match for the bloodthirsty Erik. He took over the islands in 937 as his new kingdom. And he took the three sons of Torf-Einar with him on raids. Originally, they were probably hostages, but over time, they became Erik’s collaborators. Indeed, this is probably when Thorfinn acquired the nickname “Skullsplitter.”

Still Erik was not satisfied, and a few years later took over the Viking kingdom of Jorvik in the north of England. There he proved to be such a nuisance that the English mobilized against him, defeated him in 954, and slew him as he tried to flee. Arnkel and Erlend were with him, and they died, too.

Gunnhild is informed of Erik's death, as imagined in 1899

Gunnhild is informed of Erik’s death, as imagined in 1899

Erik’s widow, the formidable Queen Gunnhild, returned to Orkney with her two sons. Like Erik, they found the island earldom too limited for their ambitions. They cast about for some way to regain power in Norway. The King of Denmark offered them help in 955 and they departed from Orkney, leaving behind the remaining son of Torf-Einar, Thorfinn Skullsplitter, as the sole ruler of Orkney. But to solidify the bonds between the two families, Gunnhild married off her daughter Ragnhild to Thorfinn’s son Arnfinn. This union was to have dire consequences.

Thorfinn Skullsplitter now ruled alone as Earl of Orkney for many years. They were good years, good for the realm and good for Thorfinn, whose wife had borne him five sons and two daughters. And then Thorfinn died peacefully in his bed. As expected, his eldest son Arnfinn succeeded him as earl, with Ragnhild at his side. The future looked bright for the sons of Thorfinn.

In good years, the sheep in the Orkneys multiply

In good years, the sheep in the Orkneys multiply (Credit: Wikipedia/Liz Burke)

Ah, but there was a serpent in this paradise, and her name was Ragnhild. She was too much her parents’ daughter, strong and lusty. Perhaps she wanted real political power, more than Arnfinn would give her. Perhaps she was hard to please in bed, and that was more than Arnfinn could give her. So she decided Arnfinn had to die. Perhaps she suggested to Arnfinn’s brother Havard that he could have the throne if he murdered his brother. Perhaps she seduced Havard, too. Whatever the case, Arnfinn was killed. Havard took the throne and took his brother’s widow to wife, too. No doubt people suspected he had killed his brother, but they weren’t sure. In the good years of harvest that followed, people chose to forget just how Havard came to power.

But Ragnhild wasn’t satisfied. Considering what happened next, one suspects Havard had failed her as a husband and lover, much as his brother might have. For while Havard still had at least three more younger brothers living, it was not to them that she turned. No, instead she robbed the cradle by making eyes at one of Havard’s nephews! This was Einar “Buttered-Bread,” so called to distinguish him from his cousin Einar “Hard-Mouth.”

Ragnhild’s technique played on Einar’s vanity. She praised him as a good man who would make an excellent ruler. She made it clear that a woman would consider herself lucky to marry Einar. In case he was a little slow on the uptake, she added that she didn’t expect her marriage to Havard to last much longer. Einar got the point. Lust for power and for the body of his aunt made him Ragnhild’s patsy. He quickly gathered some of his followers and ambushed Earl Havard, killing him in the skirmish.

Einar had been too obvious. There was an outcry, as many people felt Einar had acted shamefully in killing his uncle. They were not willing to let Einar be the next earl.

Maybe Ragnhild had never really wanted Einar as a husband, or maybe she didn’t want to go against popular opinion. So she betrayed him. She went to his cousin, Einar Hard-Mouth, and suggested that Einar revenge Havard’s killing by killing Einar “Buttered-Bread.”

So far, none of the descendants of Thorfinn Skullsplitter had shown much in the way of brains. But Einar Hard-Mouth wasn’t completely stupid. He had some idea that Ragnhild’s talk of family honor might be a cloak for some scheme of hers. And yet he still fell for it! Thinking he was being tough and realistic, he made it clear that he expected both the earldom and Ragnhild’s hand guaranteed as his rewards. No doubt Ragnhild must have laughed up her sleeve at this. Here Einar thought he was driving a hard bargain when he was just asking for the same thing she had promised Einar “Buttered-Bread” only a short time before! Naturally she agreed. And naturally she had no more intention of keeping to her side of the bargain this time, either. But Einar Hard-Mouth had fallen for her. He summoned his men and tracked down Einar “Buttered-Bread,” killing him just as he had killed Havard.

Ragnhild was pleased. But she wasn’t going to let some boy Einar’s age push her around. Instead, she went to the fourth son of Thorfinn’s, Ljot, pointed out that he had a better claim to the Earldom of Orkney than Einar did, argued that he should take the throne, and the best way to cement his claim was to marry Ragnhild!

You’d think by this time, someone would have figured out what sort of schemer Ragnhild was. And maybe Ljot did. But whether he did or not, Ljot was a chip off the old Skullsplitter, a man not to be trifled with, not by Ragnhild nor anyone else. Oh, he listened to Ragnhild. He became Earl of Orkney and married Ragnhild. When Einar Hard-Mouth tried to take the earldom and Ragnhild away from him, Ljot had Einar killed. When the King of Scotland tried to take over the Earldom’s possessions on the Scottish mainland by using Ljot’s brother Skuli as their pawn, Ljot made war on the Scots and killed Skuli.

Maybe Ljot was just the sort of man Ragnhild needed. Maybe he was tough enough and virile enough to keep her satisfied. Or maybe she was finally getting too old and tired. She’d been a wife to three men and probably a mistress to at least two more over more than thirty years, and was now in her fifties. In any case, she didn’t engage in any plots to kill Ljot (that we know of). Instead, Ljot would die as the result of his wounds in one of his campaigns on the Scottish mainland.

It had been only about a decade since Thorfinn Skullsplitter had died, but thanks to Ragnhild’s machinations, only one of his sons, Hlodvir, remained alive. With Ljot’s death, Hlodvir became the next Earl of Orkney.

With Hlodvir’s ascent, we hear no more of Ragnhild. Maybe Ragnhild was dead by that time. Maybe she looked at her chances, saw that Hlodvir already had a wife, and not just a wife but a son, Sigurd, who was almost an adult, and decided she should finally retire into widowhood. But judging from her career, I wouldn’t be surprised if she went to her grave thinking that if she had just been a few years younger, she could have made a play for Sigurd. If she had, she would have altered history. Sigurd “the Stout” became one of the most powerful Earls of Orkney ever, and would die in the famous Battle of Clontarf in 1014, fighting with Sitric Silkenbeard, Viking King of Dublin, against the Irish High King Brian Bóru.

The Battle of Clontarf, painted in 1826 by Hugh Frazer (1795 - 1865)

The Battle of Clontarf, painted in 1826 by Hugh Frazer (1795 – 1865)