« PreviousContinue »
BLOODAXE IN YORK.
By S. BARING GOULD.
IN 934, Athelstan had undertaken a campaign in the north, and humbled Constantine, King of the Scots. As he was returning south he was, doubtless, in some perplexity as to whom he should appoint to bear rule in his name in York, when he was relieved of his difficulty in a manner quite unexpected.
Eric Bloodaxe, son of King Harald Fairhair, who had succeeded his father as King of Norway in 930, had made himself odious to his subjects through his exactions and his cruelties. He had butchered five of his brothers, and hence obtained the nickname of Bloodaxe. In 934, he was in such difficulties that he laid an embargo on all vessels in Norwegian harbours to prevent the news of how he was situated getting abroad; and when in that same year Hakon, Athelstan's fosterson, landed, and the people flocked to him, Eric found himself so deserted, that with a few faithful adherents he escaped across the sea and came to Athelstan, entreating his hospitality. Athelstan at once came to terms with him, and appointed him his viceroy at York.
The words of the Egill's Saga are sufficiently important to be given verbatim : “Eric had no other choice left him but to fly the land. He went away with his wife, Gunnhild, and their children. Arinbjörn, the Baron, was foster-brother
foster-brother of King Eric, and had fostered one of his children. He was the dearest of all the lendermen to the king. Arinbjörn left the land along with the king, and they fared, first of all, to Orkney. After that Eric had married his daughter Ragnhild to Earl Arnfinn, he sailed south with his host along the coast of Scotland and ravaged there. Then he went south to England, and ravaged there as well. And when King Athelstan learned this he collected a force and went against him. And when they met, a settlement was effected between them, and this
was the agreement, that King Athelstan gave Eric authority over
1 According to Snorri “ Heimskringla," it was after the death of Eric, in 950,
that Ragnhild married Earl Arnfinn, of Orkney.
Northumberland, and he was to act as warden of the marches to King Athelstan against the Scots and Irish. King Athelstan had subjected Scotland to tribute after the death of King Olaf; however, the folk then were ever untrue to him.”'2
In escaping from revolted Norway, Eric brought with him his wife Gunnhild, a peculiarly malevolent woman, and one who was his evil genius through life. His children were also with him. Boyesen thus gives the character of Eric: “With him the old turbulent Viking spirit ascended the throne. Power meant with him the means of gratifying every savage impulse. Brave he was, delighting in battle, cruel and pitiless, and yet not without a certain sense of fairness, and occasional impulses of generosity. In person he was handsome, of stately presence, but haughty and taciturn. Unhappily, he married a woman who weakened all that was good in him, and strengthened all that was bad. Queen Gunnhild possessed a baneful influence over him during his entire life. She was cruel, avaricious, and treacherous, and was popularly credited with all the ill deeds which her husband committed.'
Eric established himself in something like regal state in York, presumably in what is now called Coney Street, where was the palace of the king.
Eric, Gunnhild, and their children had all been baptised, and were, nominally, Christians; but the Christianity of Eric consisted only in destroying idols and levelling temples with the dust. With all, it was skin deep only.
Now it so happened that there lived in Iceland a man named Shallagrim, who had been driven out of Norway by the violence of King Harald Fairhair, in 878, who had killed one of Shallagrim's brothers, through an entirely unfounded suspicion of disloyalty.
Shallagrim had two sons, Thorolf and Egill, and both had been badly treated by King Eric, in retaliation for which Egill had killed a son of Eric, and a steward of Queen Gunnhild; and, before leaving Norway after a visit there to a great friend named Arinbjörn, he had added insult to injury by mounting a cliff on the coast, and erecting on it what was termed a scoffing-pole. On the top of this he had put the head of a dead horse, whilst he exclaimed : “ This dishonour do I turn against all the spirits of the land, so that they may all go astray, and none may hit upon their homes, till they have driven King Eric and Gunnhild out of the land.” Thereupon he cut these words in runes upon the pole, and then sailed back to Iceland.
2 Sagan af Agli Skallagrimssyni, Reykjavik, 1856, c. 62, pp. 140-1. The account of this Saga has been given in a previous article on the Battle of Brunanburh.
3 The Story of Norway, by H. J. Boyesen, Lond., 1886, p. 74.
" Thé erection of a nithstöng brought disgrace on the man against whom it was set up.
Should a duel be arranged, and one party did not arrive, the other
Now it happened that in the year 934 no news of the revolt in Norway had reached Iceland, for the reason already given. During the winter of 935-6, Egill became restless, and resolved on sailing to England in the spring and paying a visit to King Athelstan. But, unhappily, he suffered shipwreck on the Yorkshire coast, near the mouth of the Humber, and then, and then only, did he learn that Eric Bloodaxe, who had outlawed him, and whom he had wronged and insulted, had been forced to fly from Norway, and was at that time actually installed in York as viceroy. The only satisfactory bit of news he heard was that his bosom friend, Arinbjörn, had thrown in his lot with King Eric, and was then with him in York. One is, naturally, inclined to wonder why Egill did not immediately escape south through Lincolnshire, but the reason probably was that the scene of his shipwreck was near Scarborough, and that the words of the Saga writer : “ They came ashore at the mouth of the Humber," was probably a guess, as he was not very certain of the geography of Northumbria, or else the tradition as to where Egill had been wrecked was not fixed.
Egill saw that but one course was open to him, to get his friend to intercede for him with Eric, and make peace with the king as best he might.
Egill obtained a horse and rode to York, and on reaching the city, inquired where were the quarters of Arinbjörn. Then he went there, dismounted, summoned the doorkeeper, and bade him go within and inquire of Arinbjörn, whether he would prefer to talk with Egill, Shallagrim's son, without the house or within. The man did as he was bidden. Arinbjörn at once came forth at the head of all his house-churls, and on seeing Egill asked what had brought him there. Egill told his story,
set up a nithstöng to disgrace him.
the erection of this scoffing-post was not
and requested his friend's advice as to the course he ought to pursue.
Have you met anyone in York who could recognise you?” “None whatever.”
Then Arinbjörn ordered all his men to arm themselves, and when this was done, he went with them and Egill to the king's court, and hammered at the door. The porter opened and the Norse baron bade him go to King Eric and say who was outside desiring an interview.
The king at the time was at table. When he heard that Arinbjörn desired to speak with him, he bade the janitor admit the baron, and Arinbjörn entered, attended by a dozen of his own armed retainers, and Egill with ten of his as well. “ ‘Now,” said Arinbjörn, "you will have to throw yourself
" at the king's feet, embrace his legs, and lay your head on his lap, and I will speak on your behalf.”'1
Then Arinbjörn stepped before the high seat and said to Eric : “I have come to solicit favour for a man who has come from a great distance to meet you, and to be reconciled with you. It will be a notable thing for you to have it said that your enemies have travelled from the ends of the earth, unable to endure being out of your favour. Now exhibit yourself generous towards this man, and let him make peace with you, seeing that he has undergone a lengthy and perilous journey with the sole object of obtaining pardon at your hands. There was no necessity for him to undertake this journey, for your arms are not sufficiently long to reach him in Iceland; he has come of his own free will seeking pardon."
The king looked round, and noticed Egill standing, a head taller than those about him, and he recognised him at once. Then he flamed red in the face, and exclaimed, wrathfully : “Egill, how have you dared to face me? No reconciliation between us is possible.”
Thereupon Egill strode up to Eric, knelt, embraced his knees, and sang :
Far have I fared,
1 This was a formal way of submission to the judgment of the man offended. In the Thattr of Thorsteinn White, a Thorsteinn son of Thorfinn, a remarkably handsome man, had killed a
son of Thorsteinn White. “ Thorsteinn, Thor
finn's son, laid his head on the knee of Thorsteinn White, who said: I will not have this head hacked off, the ears look best where they grow, and he accepted the slayer as a son in place of his own slain son (Copenh, 1848, p. 45).
Shores of Northumbria ;
He wrathfull as thunder." Said Eric: "Let me not hear a word in exculpation of your deeds towards me, for exculpation is impossible. They have been so many and so serious, that I shall not suffer you to leave my presence alive. You might well have reckoned on this or ever you set foot in my realm.”
Then Gunnhild, the queen, who sat by the king, spoke : “Let him be put to death instantly. Have you forgotten
. all the offences committed by this fellow against you. He has killed your kinsmen, even your own son, and he has mocked us, and launched a bitter curse against you to drive you out of your kingdom.”
Arinbjörn now spoke up: “If Egill has uttered word of ill of the king, he will atone for it by singing a lay in his praise, that will be remembered so long as the world lasts.”
Gunnhild answered: “We have no wish to hear his song of praise. Sire! have Egill taken out of the hall at once, and hewn asunder. I hate even the sight of him, and will not listen to his voice.”
Then said Arinbjörn: “Do not suffer yourself, Oking, to be egged on to perpetrate a work of infamy. If Egill be killed to-night it will be murder, vile, and all men will so esteem it, and so speak of it, as he has not defied you, but has come to your feet seeking reconciliation."
Then said Eric: “Well, then, be it so, Arinbjörn. He shall live this night, but no longer. And I commit him to your safe custody. Remember, however, that I charge you, on your honour, to bring him before me in the morning."
Arinbjörn thanked Eric Bloodaxe, and said: “It is quite true, Sire, that Egill has trespassed heavily against you. But consider what wrongs he and his have endured from your family. Harald, your father, put to death his uncle, Thorolf, a man of the highest probity and loyalty, simply because he was maligned by personal enemies, and you, king, violated justice towards Egill, in favour of Berg Onund; moreover, you have repeatedly endeavoured to have Egill assassinated; you robbed him of his property in Norway, have outlawed him, and set a price
1 To execute a criminal between sundown and sunrise was regarded as illegal and infamous.