Rulers: Kings and Overkings
The concept of rulership in Viking Age Scandinavia was not always straightforward. At the start of the Viking Age, Scandinavia was divided into many small, regional polities that are often referred to as either chiefdoms or petty kingdoms. This is in reference not only to their size but to the probable simplicity of their governments, which are likely to have consisted of little more than a core group of nobles struggling with one another to amass the support necessary to call themselves king. Due to such disputes, the boundaries of these small kingdoms are likely to have fluctuated over time. Our sources, particularly those written by non-Scandinavians, are often vague, referring to the ‘king of the Danes’ or ‘king of the Swedes’, which often makes it impossible to tell whether the rulers described actually controlled the entire territories that we now attribute to those concepts, or just small regions of it.
The Viking Age presented many Viking nobles and petty rulers with opportunities to expand their wealth and power through raiding Western Europe or exercising control over pivotal trade routes. As a consequence, it increasingly became possible for rulers to attract more nobles to their courts and expand the size of their territories. In this way, different petty kingdoms could merge under the rule of particularly important dynasties, such as the dynasty of Harald Finehair in Western Norway. Territorial expansion was not the only way that petty kings were able to grow, however. Before rigid governmental structures developed that could bind larger areas to a single monarchy, one way in which an aspiring king might assert his dominance and gain greater wealth was by achieving the submission of other petty rulers, whether through the threat of military action or alliances. By acknowledging the overlordship of another king, a ruler would be obliged to pay them tribute and perhaps offer military support when it was needed, but in practical terms they would probably remain in complete control of their territory and have a great deal of autonomy. This is the situation that probably prevailed in Norway during the first two periods of Danish rule from 970–975 and 999–1016 (see here).
Christianity and Royal Administration
As polities became larger, they required more sophisticated mechanisms of government to keep them together, such as taxation and the creation of a central bureaucracy. Thus, the seeds for the development of kingdoms were sown. An important contributing factor to the development of these structures was the Christianisation of Scandinavia. The Church brought with it a well-defined hierarchy of the Pope, his archbishops, bishops and priests that could be copied for secular positions. The medieval Christian church also provided the tools for an effective bureaucracy, such as literacy, and legal apparatus which could also be adapted. With these mechanisms in place, instead of relying on sub-kings and nobles to manage their regions with a great deal of autonomy, kings could organise taxation and military service using a single bureaucracy: the process by which the early structures evolved into these later ones is known as centralisation. For this reason, there were considerable incentives for kings to convert to Christianity. Most accounts of the conversion of Scandinavia attribute the greatest role to missionary kings. Harald Bluetooth is a famous example of a missionary king, whose conversion of the Danes is treated as a single event. In reality, Christianity probably already had a presence among the lower social classes, spreading out for urban centres in particular (as the Life of Anskar implies). From Harald’s perspective, however, his acceptance of Christianity could symbolically stand for the conversion of his people, thus allowing him to begin the process of installing a central bureaucracy. It also had the diplomatic advantage of depriving the East Franks of a reason to invade.
As centralised structures were put in place, kings increasingly had to contend with the traditional nobility who saw their powers being diminished. Noble uprisings were a relatively common occurrence in Viking Age Norway and Sweden. In written sources for the period, these conflicts are often depicted as a clash between Christian kings and recalcitrant pagan magnates. A particularly famous example of this comes in the reign of Hakon the Good (c. 933–961). Hakon’s efforts to convert the people of Trøndelag are frustrated by their fierce resistance to the new religion, and ultimately Hakon is forced to back down and take part in pagan sacrifices. As a result of the problems posed by the nobility, kings such as Knut the Great and Olaf Haraldsson began the process of supplanting the traditional nobility with royal officials: instead of owning their own farms and estates, royal officials were often given royal lands which they oversaw as stewards.
Peter Nicolai Arbo’s 1860 depiction of Hakon’s disagreement with the farmers of Trøndelag. Image sourced from Wikimedia Commons.
Many royal officials preserved the same local functions of the nobility, attending regional assemblies and organising local taxation, but reported directly to the king and executed his will.
It is sometimes difficult to get a sense of how social hierarchies worked in Viking Age Scandinavia, because the saga sources that provide the most information about this were written down in the late medieval period, when these hierarchies had become more defined. The sagas provide us with a fixed secular hierarchy, at the top of which is the king. Below him are the most powerful members of the nobility, such as jarls (earls). The king had a retinue of followers made up of members of the nobility and royal officials: this was known as the hird. The king’s relationship with the members of the hird was based on reciprocal responsibilities: in return for their loyalty, the king was expected to reward them with land, wealth and status. The most powerful nobility are likely to have had their own hirds, made up the most important individuals in the regions they controlled.
It is likely that the institution of the hird dates back to the Viking Age (if not earlier) and had its ultimate origins in Germanic military retinues that may date back as far as the Roman period. Powerful chieftains and petty kings would surround themselves with warriors drawn from the noble ranks of his followers who would fight for him in battle in exchange for a share of any spoils won. This served two functions: it offered rulers protection in battle and from other threats, but it also allowed them to keep noblemen in line by inviting them or their sons to join the retinue. This meant they could keep an eye on the noblemen or effectively hold their sons as a bargaining chip if any disputes arose. We see this dynamic play out very clearly in Egil's Saga, in which a Norwegian noble called Kveldulf refuses to swear loyalty to King Harald Finehair, but placates him by sending his son Thorolf to serve in Harald’s retinue. Thorolf becomes swept up in court intrigue and is murdered by Harald’s men. After taking his revenge on these followers of Harald, Kveldulf is forced to flee Norway with his younger son, Skallagrim. Although he dies on the voyage, his son establishes a farm in Iceland and fathers Egil, the saga’s protagonist.