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Olaf Haraldsson

In the Heimskringla, Snorri Sturluson writes that Olaf Haraldsson came to England with Thorkell the Tall. Although Olaf is not mentioned by English sources, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (Peterborough MS) does record the arrival of the Vikings in 1009, saying that "there were more of them than there had ever earlier been in England in the days of any king."

It was a wearying time of treachery and defeat, with no respite for the hapless English from the harrying and raids of the Vikings. London often was attacked "but praise be to God that it still stands sound, and they always fared badly there." In 1010, the English were defeated at Ringmere in East Anglia. As the Chronicler so ruefully remarked,

"...when they [the Vikings] were in the east, then the army was kept in the west: and when they were in the south, then our army was in the north. Then all the councillors were ordered to the king, and it had then to be decided how this country should be defended. But whatever was then decided, it did not stand for even one month. In the end, there was no head man who wanted to gather an army, but each fled as best he could; not even in the end would one shire help another."

The next year, Æthelred sued for peace, promising the Vikings tribute and provisions. "And nonetheless for all this truce and peace and tax, they travelled about everywhere in bands and raided and roped up and killed our wretched people." The town of Canterbury was betrayed, and its archbishop seized and martyred, beaten to death with the bones of a cow when he refused to have himself ransomed. More tax was paid and, finally, the Vikings dispersed. Thorkell the Tall and his fleet stayed behind, however, and allied himself with Æthelred, to be paid by a levy, the heregeld or army money.

In 1013, Swein Forkbeard again invaded England, perhaps to punish Thorkell for his desertion. This time, the countryside submitted to him. Only London, where both Æthelred and Thorkell were confined, held out. When the Vikings attacked the town, "a great part of his people was drowned in the Thames, because they did not look out for any bridge." Still, Swein was recognized as ruler of the country, and Æthelred and Emma, his queen, were forced to take refuge with her brother, the duke of Normandy. Five weeks later, however, Swein died and Æthelred returned to England to reclaim his kingdom.

Although he has confused the chronology, Snorri writes that Æthelred was supported in this attempt by Olaf Haraldsson. There was a bridge over the Thames, "so broad that two waggons could pass each other upon it," with forts on either side of the river. Unable to dislodge the Danes from their fortifications, Æthelred sought to gain possesion of the bridge, itself. Olaf and his men roofed over their ships, rowed up to the bridge, and, under a barrage of stones and missiles, "laid their cables around the piles which supported it, and then rowed off with all the ships as hard as they could down the stream." The pilings were loosened and, with the weight of the defenders on the bridge, it gave way. The fort at Southwark across the river was stormed and taken, and those in the tower on the other side, aware that the river no longer could be blockaded, surrendered. Æthelred, writes Snorri, was proclaimed king.


Olaf Haraldsson (St. Olaf) died in 1030 and Norway was ruled by the young son of Cnut. Such was the tyranny of his reign, however, that in 1035 Olaf's illegitimate son Magnus, who had fled to Russia, was invited to return. In 1042, he was elected king of Denmark, as well.

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