Gateway to the Classics: Stories of the Vikings by Mary MacGregor
Stories of the Vikings by  Mary MacGregor

Hakon Becomes King of Norway

Three years before his death Harald Fairhair, being eighty-three years of age, had given his whole realm to his son Eirik. Hakon left England, hoping to win some, if not all the kingdom of Norway for himself.

King Athelstan encouraged his foster son to go back to his own country, and gave him a good fleet, a hardy crew, and, indeed, all that he needed for his journey to Norway.

It was harvest-time when Hakon reached the land he had left as a little child, and he was welcomed right royally, for King Eirik, his brother, was no favourite with the people.

Hakon at once summoned an assembly of the people, which in Norway was not called a parliament, but a Thing. This Thing met at Throndhjem.

Now Hakon knew that the people did not like his brother Eirik, so he asked them to give him the title of king. He premised at the same time to make every peasant the owner of the land on which he lived, and this pleased the people greatly, and they shouted aloud that they would take him for their lord.

Then with many bold warriors Hakon journeyed throughout Norway, and everywhere the people deserted King Eirik and flocked around the standard of the tall and handsome king who had come to them from across the sea and who yet was one of their own race.

Before springtime Hakon had a large fleet as well as a great army, and Eirik knew that it was not possible for him to meet his brother on the battlefield, for he had but a few followers. He therefore sailed with these to the Orkneys. Here he was joined by other Vikings, and together they sailed to Scotland, plundering there and also in the northern counties of England.

But Athelstan had no wish to have Eirik plundering in his realms. He therefore resolved to have him there as an ally rather than as an enemy, and offered him the lordship of Northumberland on two conditions. These conditions were that he should defend the country for him against Danes or other Vikings, and also that he and his followers should become Christians.

The offer of the lordship of Northumberland pleased Eirik, and he was at once baptized with all his followers. He dwelt in York, and many Vikings who were already in England took service with him, as well as others who from time to time came over the sea from Norway.

In summer Eirik would lead his men on expeditions, harrying in Scotland, Ireland, and the Hebrides, and getting much booty for himself and his Viking band. He did this because he grew discontented with what King Athelstan had given him. Northumberland seemed very small to the king who for a little while had ruled over all Norway.

Now King Athelstan died in 941 after a reign of fourteen years, eight weeks, and three days. Edmund, his brother, then became King of England, and he had little liking for Northmen, and for King Eirik he did not care at all. No sooner therefore was Edmund seated on the throne than those who knew his dislike to the Northmen began to whisper that Eirik the Viking would not rule much longer over Northumberland.

Eirik, knowing that he need expect no kindness from King Edmund, and hearing these whispers, at once set out on one of his Viking cruises. He sailed to the Hebrides, where many chiefs with their men joined him. With this larger force he steered toward Ireland, where still more Northmen left their homes to follow him.

Thinking that now he was strong enough to pay no heed to Edmund, Eirik boldly sailed to Bretland, the county we now call Wales. Then marching with his army into the south of England, he plundered and burnt every town and village through which he passed, hunting down the wretched inhabitants as they fled before him.

King Edmund, when he heard of Eirik's doings, sent against him a great host. A fierce battle was fought in which Eirik and five kings fell, with many other brave Norsemen.

Those who escaped fled to Northumberland to tell Eirik's wife Gunnhild and her sons the fatal tidings. When Gunnhild heard that Eirik had fallen after plundering in England, she knew that she and her sons need look for no mercy at King Edmund's hands. She therefore left Northumberland with what ships her husband had left, manning them with those Northmen who were willing to follow her fortunes. She sailed to Orkney and settled there with her sons, who subdued both the Orkney and Shetland Islands, taking "scat" for themselves from the people. In summer they went as Vikings to the west, and plundered both in Scotland and Ireland.

Meanwhile in Norway King Hakon had been busy subduing the land. He did not feel secure on his throne while his brother Eirik was alive, for he thought that at any moment he might invade the land with an army and try to win his kingdom back again. When, however, he heard that Eirik had fallen on the battlefield and that his sons had fled from England, he felt that the crown of Norway was indeed his own.

One summer, soon after Eirik's death, Hakon hearing that the Danes were plundering and causing much havoc in a district named Viken, set out with his troops to destroy them. But the Danes heard that King Hakon was coming, and they hastened to their long-ships and sailed out to sea. Hakon sailed after them with two of his cutters, and overtook them in the Sound.

Without a moment's delay he attacked them, and so bravely and so fiercely did his men fight that the king gained the victory, and clearing the decks of eleven ships, he captured them as his booty. Not content with this, King Hakon then carried the war into Denmark itself.

Now the King of Denmark was very angry with Hakon of Norway, because he had made war in his dominions, and he determined that Hakon should suffer for his insolence. He welcomed Gunnhild and her sons to his kingdom, giving them lands in which they and their followers might dwell. And that was the beginning of his revenge on King Hakon.

Eirik's sons grew up very strong and handsome men, and soon they were known all over the land as Vikings of great renown. Before they had been long in Denmark they went off on one of their cruises to Viken. Now King Harald had left King Trygve Olafsen to defend Viken, but he was vanquished and driven away by the sons of Eirik.

Meanwhile Hakon was not idle. He was doing all that he could to make the peasants and merchants less quarrelsome, so that both their lives and their goods might be safe.

He tried also to make his subjects forsake their heathen gods, and be baptized. It is true that in this the king did not succeed very well, yet his effort was the first of many which were afterwards made by the kings of Norway. And when at length the power of the White Christ conquered the old Pagan gods, then little by little the fierce old Viking spirit grew less fierce, their wild expeditions less wild, until they ceased altogether and the Viking age was ended.

But at first when Hakon came to Norway and saw the people sacrificing to their heathen gods, he said nothing, though he himself kept Sundays and fasted in private on Fridays and the chief holy days.

It was after Eirik's death, when he knew that Norway was indeed his own, that he made up his mind to try and make his subjects Christians. He began with his own friends, and some of them did as the king wished and were baptized. Then King Hakon sent to England for a bishop and other teachers, and when they came the wild Norsemen heard of the gospel of peace. Churches were built and priests put into them, and then Hakon grew bolder still and summoned his people to a great Thing at Throndhjem. When they had assembled the king spoke thus to the people: "It is my wish that all, both great and small, young and old, rich and poor, women as well as men should allow themselves to be baptized, and should believe in one God and in Christ the Son of Mary, and refrain from all sacrifices to heathen gods, and should keep holy the seventh day and do no work on it, and keep a fast on the seventh day."

When the king's speech was ended, loud murmurs arose from the crowd, for many were angry that the king wished to take their old faith from them.

The leader of the peasants rose and answered for the others in these words: "We peasants, king, thought we were happy when thou didst make us owners of the land on which we dwelt. But now we know not what to think of these strange words which thou hast spoken, asking us to forsake the ancient faith which our fathers and forefathers have held from the oldest times. We have held thee so dear that we have allowed thee to rule and give laws to all the country, but thou, king, must only ask from us such things that we can obey thee in. If, however, thou wilt take up in this matter a high hand, and wilt try thy power and strength against us, then we peasants have resolved among ourselves to part with thee and take to ourselves some other chief, one who will allow us freely and safely to enjoy our old faith."

Then Earl Sigurd, a friend of the king, arose, and said, "It is the king's will to give way to you, the peasants, and never to lose your friendship."

"We desire that the king should offer a sacrifice," said the people, "as his father was wont to do," and soon after these words the Thing came to an end.

It was Earl Sigurd who took the king's place at the festivals where sacrifices were to be offered. But when the next harvest was over and the people met together, they complained because the king was not himself on the throne at this one of their most joyous festivals.

Sigurd saw that the people would not be denied, so he persuaded the king to come to the feast.

Then the people went into their temple, taking with them all kinds of cattle as well as horses. These were slaughtered and their blood was sprinkled with a brush over altars and over the temple walls, both inside and out. The people also were besprinkled.

In the middle of the temple floor a fire burned brightly, while over it hung huge goblets filled with the flesh of the animals. The goblets were sacred to the gods of victory, of peace, and of harvest.

Now when King Hakon was seated on the throne, Earl Sigurd took a goblet, blessed it, and drank before he handed it to the king. Hakon took the goblet from the earl, but before he drank he made over it the sign of the Cross. This sign disturbed the people, yet the feast ended in peace.

The following winter the king himself gave a feast at Yuletide. On the first day the people demanded that he should offer sacrifices, and while he hesitated they uttered threats of violence.

One again Sigurd entreated the king to yield to the wishes of the people, and at length he consented to eat some pieces of horse flesh, and this none but a heathen would do. He also drank from the goblets which the peasants offered to him without making over them the sign of the Cross.

But though the king did these things he was much displeased at being forced to do so to escape the anger of his people. When the feast was over he left Throndhjem. "Next time I come," he said, "it will be with strength of men-at-arms, to punish these peasants for their violence."

Summer came, and Hakon assembled a large army. Men said he was going to attack his subjects in Throndhjem. Be that as it may, he had no sooner embarked with his army than tidings reached him that Trygve Olafsen had been defeated and banished from Viken.

King Hakon, when he heard this, at once sent to Earl Sigurd and other chiefs to come to his aid against the sons of Eirik. Sigurd came, bringing with him a large army. Among the men were many of those who had forced Hakon to take part in the service of their gods. But these now made peace with the king and went with him against his foes. They sailed the seas in search of the enemy, and ere long they found the Viking long-ships. The battle, however, was fought on land.

Guthorm, one of Eirik's sons, met King Hakon on the battlefield, and they fought together until Guthorm fell; his standard-bearer was also cut down and the banner lost. When the Vikings saw that their leader had fallen they fled to the coast, embarked in their long-ships, and rowed away with great speed. King Hakon and his men also hastened to their ships and pursued the fugitives, but they escaped into Denmark.

Then King Hakon, rejoicing in his victory, returned to Norway and again began to look after the welfare of his people. He ordered that beacons should be placed on the highest hills as war-signals. And it is said that when these were lighted, from the most northerly one to the most southerly, it took but seven days for the whole land to be roused.

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