Ole Larson's Folks

Ancient History II: 1000-1250


Conquerors,Vikings, and Saints

Following up on a comment by cousin Lois, I did some research on the so-called Norman Conquest of England, by William the Conqueror in 1066. A bloody year in a bloody century, to be sure, and one of the most studied periods in medieval history. William*, you may recall, is my 28th great-grandfather, genes courtesy of my mother. Just to refresh your memory, in October of that year, William’s forces defeated and killed the last Anglo-Saxon king, Harold Godwinson, in the Battle of Hastings. Note that even though he was Anglo-Saxon, the king is known by a Scandinavian-style surname; indeed, his mother was a Danish princess. Of course, the Normans themselves were descended from Danish Viking settlers in Normandy, but that is another story.

Lois’ comment concerned a remarkable piece of Medieval artwork, the Bayeux Tapestry, a detail of which is shown in the banner image above. The tapestry depicts this historic event, on a piece of linen almost 100 feet long! Even more remarkable, it has survived (apparently incomplete but in good condition) for almost a thousand years.

The Norman Conquest is the was led by

WilliamWilliam the Conqueror (1027-1087)

My research necessarily included an earlier battle, a month before the fateful Battle of Hastings, brought by a third claimant to the English throne, himself another ancestor of mine! I speak of Harald III “Hardrada,” king of Norway. Harald of Norway had invaded England, in collusion with Godwinson’s estranged brother, Tostig. Harald’s claim to the English throne was weak, but so were those of the other two pretenders. The invasion, however, ended in a debacle that for many historians marks the end of the entire Viking era. In September 1066, Harald was in his turn defeated and killed, along with Tostig Godwinson, at the Battle of Stamford Bridge, by the forces of Harold Godwinson. (In fact, control of much of England had swung between Anglo-Saxon and Viking for over two centuries.)  Although they had crushed the Norse invaders, it could be argued that Godwinson’s army was weakened by its battle with the Vikings, and less fit to battle the Normans.

I just mention this because Harald Hardrada is another 28th great-grandfather, thanks to my father’s (Lovell’s) mother, Anna Moen.

Oh, and by the way, Harald III Hardrada is also a half-brother of Olaf II, famed in Norsk circles as Saint Olaf, patron saint of Norway.

Oh, and also, Saint Olaf is my 29th great-grandfather, due to a marriage several generations later between descendants of Harald and Olaf.

I guess this helps balance with my “other” ancestors: the peasants and the potato-thief.


Olaf II “the Saint” (995-1030)

*Note that each link above is unique; that is, if there are two links on a particular subject, such as  “Anglo-Saxon,” they lead to two different articles.


It is for me a source of amusement and fascination to study so many historic world leaders, now thart I count them (whimsically) among my ancestors. (e.g. Marc Antony, William the Conqueror, Saint Olaf, Eleanor of Aquitane,  etc. etc.).

In trying to write about them in a way that illustrates their importance to Western “civilization,” I hope I haven’t given you the impression that I admire them or their accomplishments, or even approve of them. To achieve what they did, I know they had to be ruthless, cruel, and corrupt, most often in direct proportion to their power and importance.

In a world where the accepted path to influence was military conquest, if a leader had the means to subjugate his neighbors by force, then in the name of lifting up his people, he was expected to do so. That does not mean it was morally justifiable even then, only that it was “how things were done.” One point in respect of these ancient leaders: they were in the thick of their battles, risking their own lives alongside their soldiers, unlike the powerful leaders of the present era.


“Death of Harold,” detail from the Bayeux Tapestry

“Death of King Harold,” detail from the Bayeaux Tapestry

I dream of a different world, where leaders have learned that our collective survival depends on cooperation and compassion across all lines of language, race, and religion, not on the superiority of armaments and killing power of one neighbor versus another.

Now that I have set the record straight on that, there are one or two more of these “king” guys I want to tell you about.

1066 – A Clean Sweep

Here is another link documented by cousin Orrin Moen, but overlooked by me until now due to a software glitch. The “loser” of the Norman Conquest, Harold Godwinson, had three children  who escaped to Denmark after Harold was killed at the Battle of Hastings. One of those was a daughter, Gytha of Wessex, who later married duke Vladimir II of Kiev. Well, guess what? Vladimir II was Lovell Larson’s 26th great grandfather, the son of Vsevold I Yaraslovic, mentioned in a recent post. Therefore, Harold Godwinson is my 28th great. Also, Harold’s treachorous brother, Tostig, who joined forces with Harald of Norway in his invasion of England, had children who escaped to Norway.  One of them became an ancestor of Earl Skule Baardsson, father-in-law and deadly rival of King Haakon IV, and so, another ancestor of mine! So here is the score:

conquerorWilliam the Conqueror: ancestor of Reatha Larson via Dan Myers, through a succession of kings of England;

Harold Godwinson, Tostig Godwinson, and Harald Hardrada: all ancestors of Lovell Larson via Anna Moen, through various branches of the Fairhair dynasty of Norway.

Harald Hardrada

Harald III Hardrada

Harold Godwinson

Harold Godwinson

Birkebeiner, past and present

Nordic ski racers and fans recognize the name as that of a demanding 54-kilometer race with events in Norway, Canada, and Wisconsin, USA.


Norwegian Birkebeiner

Norwegian Birkebeiner

The name comes from a political faction contending for power during Norway’s century of intense civil wars (1130-1227). During the multiple conflicts, forces coalesced into two main parties. The Bagler party, centered in Oslo, enjoyed the support of the Church, and superior military strength (most of the time), while the Birkebeiner were popular among the farming communities of inland Norway, and the fishermen and mariners of the Atlantic coast. Their name comes from the birch bark they used (according to legend) to protect their feet and legs, as many were too poor to afford protective armor or footwear.

So what, you may ask, is the connection to the sport of Nordic ski racing? It is a journey in January of 1206 to rescue a young prince from the oncoming  Bagler army. When King Haakon III Sverresson (a Birkebeiner) died on 1 January 1204, he left no legitimate heirs to his throne. Late the following year, an untitled woman named Inge of Varteig came forward with a young son whom she claimed was conceived with King Haakon a few months before his death. Her claim was corroborated by several associates of the late king, and eventually Inge successfully underwent a trial by ordeal, the 13th-century substitute for DNA testing.

This development was not taken well by the Bagler, who sent a force of soldiers to find and kill the boy. During Christmastide, as the contingent closed in on his hiding place at Lillehammer, a small group of Birkebeiner warriors set out on skis, carrying the toddler, in a daring midwinter rescue attempt. Beset by daunting blizzards, unable to use the less formidable route via Gudbrandsdalen, only the two strongest warriors were able to complete the journey, bringing the eighteen-month-old safely to the Birkebeiner capital city of Nidaros (Trondheim).  The rescue is depicted in this famous 19th-century painting, and is re-enacted in costume at some of the modern sports events.


Birkebeinerne, by Knut Bergslien, 1869

The boy succeeded to the throne in 1217, skillfully consolidated his power during the next decades, eventually reconciling with the Bagler and ending a century of civil strife. The details of how the Birkebeiner chose Haakon over two other pretenders, I can only find in Norwegian. But this link will I hope bring up a partially usable Google translation. The same article is also the only detailed look at Inge of Varteig.

Under Haakon IV Haakonsson, Norway arguably assumed as much importance on the European stage as it had enjoyed even during the Viking era, since it was now a unified nation, rather than a handful of squabbling, if powerful, petty kingdoms, as in the heyday of the Vikings. Eager, it seems, to restore some of the Viking glory, Haakon sailed to Scotland, captured the northern islands, and launched an invasion to reclaim the mainland. However, his fleet was pounded by storms, forcing a retreat to the Orkney Islands, where he fell sick and died in December of 1263.

After his death, the status of Norway again gradually declined. The plague, or Black Death, in the mid-1300’s killed as much as half the population. Norway was merged by royal marriage with Denmark in 1380. The royal line died out, and Norway ceased to be an independent country for more than 500 years, until 1906. The core of this period was dubbed by Henrik Ibsen “the 400-year night.” Perhaps not coincidentally, the period from approx. 1400-1800 is now known by climatologists as the “Little Ice Age,” due to exceptionally cold weather throughout Europe.

And the punch line … Haakon IV … my 22nd great-grandfather.ArmsKingHaakonIV

Birkebeiner follow-up

In my study of Haakon IV, I read “The Pretenders,” a play by Henrik Ibsen. It is a fictional account of the tortured relationship between Haakon IV and Earl Skule Baardsson, who was chosen by the Birkebeiner council to rule as regent for Haakon until he came of age, and to permanently rule a third of the kingdom. By some accounts, it was Skule who actually accomplished many things that are usually credited to Haakon.

Years later, Skule Baardsson ended up rebelling and being put to death, and Ibsen makes a great fiction of it, complete with an arch-evil bishop (or was it an evil archbishop?). The opening scene is the mother’s trial by ordeal, which in the play is just the first of many ordeals.

Many basic facts are true, e.g. Haakon married Skule’s daughter Margrite to try to keep the earl on board (this fact makes Skule Baardsson my ancestor). The timeline may have been altered a bit, and some elements were no doubt made-up. But the best part is the (wholly fictional) dialogue and the vivid, three-dimensional characters. Quintessential Ibsen; I read it in one long sitting. Google books has it for free (English translation of course – as if I could read anything else!)