Believed to have been both King of Norway and then later King of Northumbria, Eric Bloodaxe has proved to be something of an elusive figure for historians. Since the 12th century these two kings have been identified as one and the same man, however some contemporary scholars remain sceptical.
There are Anglo-Saxon sources that refer to an Eric who is ruler of Northumbria from the 940s and Norse sagas that describe an Eric of Norway, a chieftain who held power in the 930s – the problem is that the Anglo-Saxon and Norse sources don’t entirely overlap.
The situation is also complicated further by the reliance on the Norse sagas to provide a factual account of the real Eric Bloodaxe. Although Eric features heavily in the sagas of his father and half-brother, it isn’t clear whether these legendary accounts can be relied upon to provide a reliable description of a real historical figure.
They often contain mythical elements – dwarves, elves and the life – and their primary purpose when they were written was not accuracy but entertainment. In the account of his life that follows it has been assumed that Eric Bloodaxe was just one man – and whilst there may be some truth behind the sagas, their claims must be taken with a healthy pinch of salt.
Believed to be one of the many sons of the polygamous Norwegian king Harald Fairhair, Eric’s exact lineage is incredibly difficult to trace accurately. A case was made in the 19th century that his real father was in fact Harald Bluetooth, a Danish king who reigned during a similar period, but this argument has little evidence behind it.
The saga’s portray the teenage Eric as a youth possessed of prodigious strength, who by the age of twelve was already raiding the coasts of Denmark, Germany, Britain and France (as was the Viking custom).
Harald’s numerous offspring would prove to be a great source of instability as they competed for the Norwegian throne. Some sources argue that Harald had parceled out his kingdom into separate districts that were to be ruled by each of his sons – but had intended Eric, his favourite, to inherit the throne.
After brutally murdering two of his half-brothers, Eric – it is claimed – then dispatched the combined forces of his remaining siblings to become Norway’s uncontested king. The sagas suggest Eric gained the name ‘Bloodaxe’ after this slaying his half-brothers – although there is little evidence to suggest that this name was actually used at the time.
Flight to Britain
Although his rule now seemed secure, his reputedly harsh reign caused friction with the Norwegian nobility. Eric’s younger half-brother Haakon, who had been spared from the slaughter by his having been raised at the court of King Aethelsan, returned to Norway and – with the support of the nobility – ousted his brother from the throne.
It is unclear exactly how long Eric was supposed to have ruled Norway for – if the sagas are to be trusted his wasn’t a particularly long or glorious reign. After being forced out of Norway, the sagas record that Eric came to Britain. However, their accounts of his journey and its timescale differ greatly.
Some suggest he fled to England directly where he was welcomed by Aethelstan, others claim his route was more circuitous and went via the Orkneys and a spell of piracy and raiding.
King of Northumbria
Although the sources are at times still frustratingly unclear and contain limited details, the historical figure of Eric emerges as the king of Northumbria during two brief periods in the 940s and 950s.
During this period Northumbria was contested territory – fought over by West-Saxon kings and the Dublin Vikings – and the Northumbrians themselves appeared more than happy to shift allegiances when it was in their interests to do so.
Brought under English control in 927 – after King Aethelstan took York from the Viking incumbent – Northumbria was to change hands on regular basis over the following decades.
In the sagas, Eric Bloodaxe became king of Northumbria only at Aethelstan’s invitation, however, judged today this claim seems implausible. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, as well as other Irish sources, Eric first became king around 947, already some time after Aethelstan’s death and against the wishes of his brother Eadred.
A more plausible explanation for Eric’s assent to the throne is that he was a figure around which Northumbrians could coalesce in their rejection of Saxon authority from the south – by making him their king they once again could reassert their independence.
Fall, Rise & Fall
However, Eric’s fall was as swift as his rise. Almost immediately Eadred launched a destructive raid against Northumbria. Although his forces suffered considerable losses in battle he managed to convince the rebels that unless they submitted to his rule and ditched Eric further chaos and destruction would ensue.
Choosing to appease the English king rather than incur his wrath, the Northumbrians duly paid compensation and renounced Eric Bloodaxe as their monarch.
Just five years later, Eric made another bid for the Northumbrian throne. In 949, the kingship had been seized by an Irish Viking known as Olaf. Characterising their new rulers as foreigners, the Northumbrians drove out King Olaf in favour of Eric once again.
Although slightly longer than his previous reign – two years this time rather than just one – he himself fell out of favour with the Northumbrians and was duly expelled from York.
The End of Eric Bloodaxe
Like much of his life, the death of Eric Bloodaxe and the circumstances that led to it are shrouded in a good deal of mystery. One account suggests that Eric was driven out and killed by one Maccus son of Onlaf at a place called Stainmore in modern day Cumbria.
A history written in the 13th century, drawing upon a source now lost, backs up this claim and adds that Eric, his son and brother had been betrayed in a plot that saw Eadred’s power across England enhanced.
The man responsible for the betrayal, a man called Osulf, certainly went on to benefit from his treachery. Once in control of the north, Eadred made Osulf an earl with responsibilities for administering all the provinces of Northumbria.
As might be expected, the sagas present a slightly more vivid tale of Eric’s demise. Some claim he and five other kings died in battle at an unknown place in England, others that he died in Spain after being forced out of Northumbria (scholars have argued this story may well result from a misreading of a place name as the sagas were passed on through the centuries).
Historians today have tended to ignore the more colourful accounts from the sagas in favour of an interpretation that suggests Eric, expelled from York and heading north-west, was killed by one of his own party – a plot that was part of the wider power politics of the day.
His reputation today
Eric Bloodaxe’s reputation today is based almost entirely on the stories of the Norse sagas and the figure he became is a confusing mix of history, political propaganda and folklore.
Once particular saga known as the Heimskringla describes him as “a large and handsome man, strong and of great prowess, a great and victorious warrior,” but one who was also “violent of disposition, cruel, gruff, and taciturn.”
Usually portrayed as a flawed and unpopular statesmen, any success he was said to have achieved was fleeting and based upon power and violence (although it must be said that this wasn’t unusual for the time in which he lived).