By Ian Stuart Sharpe
For want of a nail, the shoe was lost;
For want of the shoe, the horse was lost;
For want of the horse, the rider was lost;
For want of the rider, the battle was lost;
For want of the battle, the kingdom was lost;
And all from the want of a horseshoe nail.
If you could alter history, change one subtle event, what would you pick? For a Viking fan, the answer might be as simple as it is iconic.
The Battle of Stamford Bridge. 25th September 1066: The Norwegian King Harald Hardrada was trapped. Worse, his Byzantine coat of mail, so strong that it had never been pierced, was left with his ships and his reinforcements.
He called his chainmail Emma. An affectionate name perhaps, strange to modern ears but it was an old one, a name with meaning: universal, all-encompassing. Emma had protected the giant king for many of his fifty years, from neck to thigh, and nothing was her equal. But it was a hot day, and he had no idea the English were so near. The Earl Tostig had told him it would take the English weeks to get this far north.
Now, though, his claim to the English throne was in ruin. And so, unprotected and outnumbered, pinned against the river, Hardrada fought desperately to reform his men into a shield wall. Perhaps sensing the inevitable, he led a mad charge, his black raven standard streaming above him. His Dane Axe sang as he hewed his way through the English ranks. Perhaps he thought he could carry the day singlehanded, bloody the English tide the way he had ravaged and despoiled a hundred shores.
But wearing only his blue tunic, far from Emma’s embrace, the great Varangian was exposed. We all know the history that followed.
King Harald of Norway was struck by an arrow, pierced through his neck. He fell choking on his own blood. His men refused quarter and shared their brave king’s fate. Only a fraction of his ships returned to Norway, under oath to never return to English shores. And so, ended the Viking Age.
But, what if Harald Hardrada had kept his armour on that day? What if Emma had deflected the projectile and helped him rally his men? Or what if he waited for his hostages patiently at Ricall, his army and fleet undivided? Would the English King Godwinson have been beaten and bloodied? Would then the Norman Conquest have been thwarted by Viking hands, and the Bayeux tapestry undone?
It’s impossible to say who might have won in any alternate future battle. There are too many vagaries in war – although each force, Norman, English and Norse were around 10,000 men strong, so numbers weren’t a huge factor. But let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that the Norwegian King was triumphant, or that he agreed to divide the kingdom, either between the English and the Northmen, or through parlay with William the Bastard, his ‘Viking cousin’. It is interesting to speculate on the British Isles that might have resulted had Emma provided her unyielding protection.
In fact, England had been in a similar situation fifty years prior. The House of Wessex had fought five battles against the Danes, ending in defeat on 18 October at the Battle of Assandun, after which they agreed to divide the kingdom; Edmund Ironsides took Wessex and the 21-year-old Dane Canute seized the rest of the country. When Edmund died just six months later, Canute became King of Denmark, England and Norway; often referred to as the North Sea Empire.
Canute was a wise and successful king, and his combined peoples saw a period of increased influence across all of Europe. Such was the power at his command, he could control even the rebellious North (including, ironically, a teenage Hardrada, who fled East after his brother was deposed by Canute). Security at home meant Canute could accept an invitation to witness the accession of the Holy Roman Emperor Conrad II, which he did over Easter 1027, in Rome. A pilgrimage to the heart of Christendom afforded considerable prestige for medieval kings.
Canute’s reign might well have been the foundation for a complete political union between England and Scandinavia, a North Sea Empire with blood ties to the Holy Roman Empire (as it was, his son, Harthacnut died, convulsing, at a wedding in Lambeth in 1042, and his only known daughter Cunigund died in Italy before she became empress consort of Henry III).
It would have been a Christian union. Canute’s grandfather, Harald Bluetooth, became the first Scandinavian king to accept Christianity in 975AD. Scandinavian kings might still keep handwives and mistresses, but they had been reconciled to the church for a century. Canute went so far as to repair all the English churches and monasteries that were victims of Viking plunder as well as refill their coffers. He also built new churches: the first stone church recorded in Scandinavia was in Roskilde, c. 1027, and its patron was Cnut’s sister Estrid.
If Canute’s heirs had not died within a decade of his death, Hardrada would have no claim to press and no kingdom from which to launch it. But had he followed in Canute’s footsteps, he might have simply picked up where the Danish king left off a generation before. Hardrada too, was a church builder, although perhaps influenced by the Orthodox Church in Constantinople, where he spent his youth in exile. His son, Olaf the Peaceful, just 17 years old at Stamford Bridge, went on to protect Norway through agreements, marriages and modernisation through his long and prosperous rule. In all likelihood, had Hardrada prospered at Stamford Bridge, England would have settled into a similar Pax Nordica, drawn less into territorial squabbles on the continent and focused firmly on the North. Their Norman cousins had already embarked on the process of carving themselves kingdoms around the Mediterranean, William the Bastard could find his glory elsewhere.
We know that in his younger years Harald “searched thoroughly the length of the northern ocean”, perhaps searching for the legendary Vinland beyond the “dark failing boundaries of the savage world”. It was after all his countryman, Leif Erikson, that discovered the New World in 1000AD. With his English throne secured, perhaps he might have sought another crown in the West – the King of the Skraelings has a certain ring to it – thereby extending the Viking Age indefinitely.
Of course, in terms of the novel The All Father Paradox, where an enraged Odin seeks to thwart the spread of Christianity and create the Vikingverse, this scenario doesn’t work at all. While it might secure a viable and prosperous North Sea – and North Atlantic – Empire, all those church steeples would send him into a berserker rage. The Lord of the Æsir has find a different moment in history to ensure Christianity is put to the Viking Sword – the question is when?
This article was originally published in Medievalist.net