What if? It’s a pretty open-ended question and one friend of the Grapevine Valur Gunnarsson is applying to eight relevant-to-Iceland historical happenings over as many issues. Expand your mind, suspend your disbelief and consider: what if Vikings had conquered the world?
Could Icelandic have become the lingua franca? Surely, it‘s a possibility everyone has mulled at some point, and the answer is that it very nearly came to pass.
After generations of raiding, Vikings were poised by the 11th century to establish kingdoms in other lands. A North Atlantic Empire was within reach and then, in 1066, just as it was taking shape, everything came crashing down. Not one but two climactic battles took place in England that year, determining the fate of the North Atlantic World.
It was the Viking Ragnarök. But what if things had gone differently?
Haraldur Sigurðsson has sometimes been called “the Last Viking.” Haraldur traversed the Viking World, from the river Derwent in England to the Dnipro in modern Ukraine and further afield to the lands of Lombards and Saracens. He is best known by his nickname, Haraldur Harðráða, which has been variously translated as “Hard-Ruler” or “Hard-Council” or, simply, “the Ruthless.” If the Viking Age ended with him, at least it went out in style.
Confusion Over a Crown
In 1066, things were coming to a head in merry old England. Edward the Confessor died childless in January, ending his line. Nobleman Harold Godwinson claims that Edward had promised him the crown before he croaked. But wait! William, Duke of Normandy, claimed Edward had promised the same to him.
Edward was son of King Æthelred and Emma of Normandy. Æthelred died in 1014 and was succeeded by Edmund, his son by his previous wife Ælgifu. Edmund fought and was bested by the Vikings in 1016 and submitted to being co-regent with Viking leader Canute the Great, who also married his step-mother, Emma.
Edmund died soon after, making Canute sole king. Æthelred and Ælgifu’s offspring were executed and Edward went into a 25-year exile in Normandy. That’s when he supposedly promised his crown — should he ever gain it — to William, Emma’s nephew.
Further adding to the confusion, Canute’s son promised Magnus the Good that he would inherit England. Since Haraldur Harðráða was Magnus’ successor, he felt the claim should go to him. Enter Tostig, Harold Godwinson’s little brother, who is also making a play for the throne and eggs Haraldur Harðráða on to invade England.
The Last Stand of the Vikings
The big question was who would get to Godwinson first. It came down to the weather. A fierce north wind blew, quickening the pace of Haraldur Harðráða’s ships sailing from Norway while confining William’s boats to port. So Haraldur Harðráða arrived first, landing in Cleveland (no, not in Ohio) before burning Scarborough (no, not in Ontario). The north seemed to be within his grasp.
Thinking the English were about to offer their surrender, Haraldur Harðráða set off toward Stamford Bridge with only a few men, lightly armed and armoured due to the sweltering heat, while his main forces stayed back to guard the ships.
However, Harold Godwinson managed to force-march his troops up from London in record time to meet the under-equipped Vikings. Still, it is a close-run thing, with a single axe-wielding berserker keeping the Saxons at bay on the battle’s titular bridge. That would’ve been a good time for Haraldur Harðráða to retreat towards reinforcements — but the Last Viking won’t be known for a cowardly act.
A sneaky Saxon skulks under the bridge, stabbing the berserker from below, allowing Godwinson’s army to cross. Haraldur Harðráða catches an arrow in the throat and dies. Tostig takes over. The rest of the Viking troops arrive, fully armoured but exhausted from running. Tostig dies and the battle turns into a rout, with the Vikings eventually running back to their ships, many drowning attempting to cross a river in battle-gear.
The Norman Wins
Haraldur Harðráða’s 16- year-old son Olaf was among the troops allowed to go home — he reigns under the un-vikinglike moniker Ólafur Kyrri (Olaf the Peaceful). Norway had lost a generation and there would not be more Viking raids any time soon. Or ever.
Harold Godwinson didn’t get to savour his victory over the Vikings for long, though. William’s Norman army soon landed in the south and bested the Saxons.
What if things had gone differently?
What if Haraldur Harðráða would have been more cautious and managed to assemble his troops at Stamford Bridge?
Two scenarios could have played out in the event of a Norwegian victory. William’s invading Norman army would have been met with Norwegian Vikings, flush after their victory in the north. At that point, either William would have won and history would revert to a familiar course, or Haraldur Harðráða would have won, thereby becoming king of Norway and England. Could that have created a North Sea Empire that would have made the Vikings a power factor in Europe for centuries to come?
A Viking Superpower
The previous Viking Superpower headed by Canute the Great lasted 19 years. Authority lay with the king and did not always survive him, so when Canute died, his son by his first wife, Harold Harefoot, took over. Hardacnut, Canute’s son by the aforementioned Emma, was preparing to invade from Denmark when Harold suddenly died, but Hardacnut still had him exhumed, beheaded and thrown into a marsh for good measure.
That made Hardacnut the last Danish king of England, reigning from 1040 to 1042 before he died of too much drink while giving a wedding toast.
Something similar could have been the fate of the second North Sea Empire had it taken shape in 1066. It might not have outlived its founder for long.
Haraldur Harðráða was 50 when he died at Stamford Bridge. Had he become king of England, his son Ólafur Kyrri would have succeeded him a decade or two later. Ólafur became a peaceful king and a state builder in Norway. If we assume he would have retained those peaceful characteristics, he would have been exactly what a North Sea Empire would need to prosper. The riches of England combined with a wise ruler could have been the recipe for a powerful kingdom.
But Ólafur Kyrri would have his work cut out for him. Nordic kings had problems turning English taxes into ships. So, it’s unlikely a Norse-English fleet would rule the waves as the British managed to do in the 18th and 19th centuries. In addition, the coming “Little Ice Age” would have seen Iceland and the Atlantic Islands of Shetlands, Orkney and the Faroes relegated to a distant periphery.
Even the languages drifted apart. In the Viking Age, the Norse tongue could be spoken from Greenland to the Volga. But by around 1300, Danish, Norwegian and Swedish became more and more influenced by mainland languages, particularly German. The three Scandinavian languages remain mutually intelligible to this day — even with the awful Danish accent — but Icelandic remained something resembling the original Norse tongue. Perhaps a Viking Empire would have retained the original language and something very similar to Icelandic would have been spoken around the North Atlantic to this day.
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