Eric Bloodaxe: Murderous Viking King of Norway and Northumbria
Eirik was a stout handsome man, strong, and very manly, —a great and fortunate man of war; but bad-minded, gruff, unfriendly, and silent.
-Saga of Harald Fairhair
Eric Haraldsson, nicknamed Eric Bloodaxe, was a Norwegian ruler who lived during the 10th century. He is believed to have been the King of Norway, and later became the King of Northumbria. Although both monarchs are generally regarded to be one and the same person, there are some doubts about this due to the fact that while Eric is mentioned in both Norse and Anglo-Saxon sources, the two do not always match up with each other. Furthermore, the Norse sources are in the form of sagas, which means that both legend and history are mingled together.
Son of Fairhair or Bluetooth?
Eric Bloodaxe is believed to have been one of the many sons of Harald Fairhair, the polygamous King of Norway. An alternative theory proposed during the 19th century was that Eric was the son of another Harald, Harald Bluetooth, the King of Denmark, though there is little evidence to support this claim.
According to the sagas, Eric was Harald’s most beloved son. At the age of 12, Eric was given five long-ships by his father, and thus began his career as a Viking. Eric first sailed eastwards, where he raided the coasts of Denmark, Friesland, and Saxland for three years. He then sailed to the west, and raided Scotland and the area around the Irish Sea for four years. The Fagrskinna suggests that Eric gained the nickname ‘Bloodaxe’ due to his Viking raids.
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Harald Fairhair receiving the kingdom from his father’s hands, in an illustration from the 14th-century ‘Flateyjarbók’. (Public Domain)
Eric Bloodaxe’s Family
The sagas also mention that Eric was married to Gunnhild, who is generally depicted as an evil witch. There is some disagreement as to Gunnhild’s parentage. The Historia Norwegiæ, which is the earliest saga, for instance, states that Gunnhild was the daughter of the King of Denmark, Gorm the Old, and therefore the sister of Harald Bluetooth. The 12th century Icelandic historian Snorri Sturluson, on the other hand, wrote that Gunnhild’s father was Ossur Tote from Haalogaland in Northern Norway. In any case, Gunnhild exerted a strong influence on her husband.
Gunnhild convinces Eric Bloodaxe to kill the Finnish wizards. From an 1890s illustration by Christian Krohg. (Public Domain)
In the sagas, Harald Fairhair is recorded to have unified Norway. Modern historians, however, agree that Harald’s kingdom was in fact much smaller, and was probably limited to the west and southwest. Nevertheless, he may have, through alliances with other Norwegian rulers, exercised some power over other parts of the country. In any case, Harald probably did not have enough land to divide among his sons, which the sagas number at 20. Nonetheless, some sources record that Harald managed to divide his kingdom among all his sons, making each of them kings. Eric, however, was appointed as high king, and therefore ruled over his siblings.
Harald’s death destroyed whatever arrangements he made for his sons. Eric proceeded to kill his brothers in an attempt to become the sole ruler of Norway. In contrast to the Fagrskinna, the Ágrip states that Eric earned the nickname ‘Bloodaxe’ as he had murdered five of his brothers. It is unclear how many brothers / half-brothers Eric killed, or indeed how many he had. In any case, one of his half-brothers who survived was Haakon, who was raised in England at the court of King Athelstan.
It was Haakon who succeeded in ousting Eric from Norway. Apparently, Eric’s rule was so brutal and unpopular, that the Norwegian nobles decided to replace him with Haakon. For one reason or another, Eric did not even bother to put up a fight, and fled to England, where he was welcomed with open arms by King Athelstan. Eric was even made sub-king of Northumbria under Athelstan’s authority.
Æthelstan presenting a book to St Cuthbert. (Public Domain)
Eric Bloodaxe in Northumbria
The Anglo-Saxon sources, however, dispute this version of events and state that Eric was made king by the Northumbrians in 947/8 AD, several years after Athelstan’s death, in defiance of Eadred, Athelstan’s half-brother. By making Eric their king, the Northumbrians may have hoped to gain independence from the Anglo-Saxons in the south, who had brought them under their control in 927 AD.
Eadred responded by invading and ravaging Northumbria. On his way back to the south, Eadred’s rearguard was attacked by Eric at Castleford and many lives were lost. Furious, the English king threatened to destroy Northumbria unless they submitted to his rule. This time, the Northumbrians decided to appease Eadred, and they expelled Eric.
Silver penny of Eric Bloodaxe. (CC BY NC SA 4.0)
After Eric was expelled, the Northumbrians had accepted a new king, an Irish Viking by the name of Olaf Sihtricsson. Five years later, Eric returned to Northumbria and succeeded in overthrowing Olaf, thus becoming King of Northumbria once more. Whilst Eric’s first reign in Northumbria lasted merely a year, this time he was able to occupy the throne for two years. Eventually, he fell out of favor with the Northumbrians and was expelled once more.
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The Death of Eric Bloodaxe
An account of Eric’s death is provided by the Anglo-Saxon chronicler Roger of Wendover. According to this source, Eric was betrayed by a man named Osulf and was slain by Maccus at a place called Stainmore. Another chronicler, Symeon of Durham, reports that Maccus was the son of Olaf (either Olaf Sihtricsson or Olaf Guthfrithson, another former ruler of Northumbria).
According to local legend, the Rey Cross at Stainmore marks Eric’s burial spot. In 1989, an excavation conducted at the site did not uncover any bones, lending support to the alternative interpretation that the Rey Cross is in fact a boundary stone marking the mid-point between Penrith and Barnard Castle. Therefore, it is possible that Eric’s final resting place is somewhere else in Stainmore.
The stump of the ancient Rey Cross Early Medieval, possibly 10th century, boundary cross fragment. (Andrew Barclay/CC BY SA 2.0)
Top Image: A Viking warrior with an axe. Eric Bloodaxe raided around Britain before settling in to a kingship there. Source: lassedesignen /Adobe Stock
By Wu Mingren
Editor’s Note: Article updated 24-12-2021 to correct fact that Eadred was Athelstan’s half-brother, not son.
The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2019. Erik I. Available at: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Erik-I
Vea, M. S., 2019. Eric Bloodaxe. Available at: http://avaldsnes.info/en/informasjon/eirik-blodoks/
Williams, G., 2011. Eric Bloodaxe. Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ancient/vikings/bloodaxe_01.shtml
York Museums Trust, 2019. Eric Bloodaxe. Available at: http://www.historyofyork.org.uk/themes/viking/eric-bloodaxe