In jelling in 928 a little boy was born, this boy would turn out to have one of the most important roles for the future of the Danes. This little boy was Harald Gormsson, or as he later would be known, Harald Bluetooth (In Danish Harald Blåtand). Harald would affect the future of Danish society and leave behind some of the most amazing and unique landmarks across Scandinavia.
Harald was the son of King Gorm the old and Queen Thyra, and he had a big brother named Knud (In English: Canute). Knud was King Gorm’s favorite son, he was tall, strong, and handsome, not like Harald who was slender and short. Knud was described in the Olaf Tryggvesson saga as the most wonderful and polite man you have ever seen. Knud was so loved that he was nicknamed Dana-ast, which means ”the Danes love”, so he was probably loved by the people as well.
Harald Bluetooth raided Northumbria
However, Gorm’s favorite son Knud, would never be crowned King, he fell on a raid somewhere on the British Isles in the 10th century. There are different sources that write about how Knud died.
One source says that Knud was killed in a forest near the town of Dublin. While Knud and his men besieged the town. According to the source, Knud went into a nearby forest with a few of his most loyal men, who were all masters of archery. During the night, he and his men were surrounded and attacked by the enemy. Knud was shot by an arrow, in his chest and he died shortly after.
In the big saga of Olaf Tryggveson, it says that Knud and his brother Harald sailed on an expedition to Northumbria. They raided many towns along the coast and conquered all of Northumbria. In fact, Knud and Harald felt that they were entitled to it because it was the land that Ragnar Lothbrok’s (In Danish: Lodbrog) sons and many of their ancestors had owned.
King Adelbrecht responded to the Viking invasion by gathering an enormous army and fought against the Danes north of Cleveland (Klyfland) in Northumbria. When the dust began to settle and the screams of the fallen warriors were just an echo in the distance, thousands laid dead or wounded on the ground.
It is unknown who was victorious, but both sides had great casualties. The two armies would eventually meet again shortly after, at the coast of Northumbria in the city of Scarborough (Skardeborg). Here Harald and Knud would defeat King Adelbrecht’s army and push them south.
Months went by and the locals had now accepted the Danes as the new authority. The Danes now felt safe and no longer feared any danger from the locals. On a warm and sunny day, many of the Danes including Harald and his brother went for a swim.
The locals now grabbed their chance to fight the Danes and poured out from their houses armed with bows and arrows. They ran down to the beach and shot arrows at the Danes while they were swimming in the sea. One of the arrows hit Knud, his men dragged him into one of their ships, but he was already dead. The Danes tried to embark on land and even sailed up and down the coast, but they had no luck, so they decided to sail back to Denmark.
Knud would leave behind his son named Harald, who would be known later in his life as Gold Harald (In Danish: Guld Harald) because of all the gold that he collected from raiding.
Harald Bluetooth became King of the Danes
At this point in time in history, the Danes were split into many clans, each with their own King or Queen, but this would soon change and Harald Bluetooth would become a central figure in the years to come.
Harald was crowned the King after his father passed away in 958. Harald who was in his early 30’s at his time of becoming King would turn out to be a strategic and very ambitious man.
Harald was like his sister Gudhild, described as a very cunning and uncompromising person. He was not particularly wise just like his father Gorm the old, but he was a good listener.
Harald Bluetooth’s sister would not stay in Denmark for very long, she had eyes for the handsome Erik Bloodaxe, the son of the Norwegian King Harald Fairhair.
Two huge Heathen burial mounds in Jelling
It is uncertain who died first King Gorm the old or Thyra. The local folklore claims that Thyra died first, and King Gorm the old ordered the construction of a huge mound in the center of Jelling for his beloved Queen Thyra.
King Gorm the old would have died shortly after, maybe from a broken heart, after his loss of his wife Thyra. It was probably Gorm’s son Harald, who ordered a second mound built in the center of Jelling for his father.
Today you can still see the two mounds in the city of Jelling, they are both located next to the church of Jelling. It is believed that the north mound is where Queen Thyra was buried, and therefore it is called Queen Thyra’s mount. Of course, the south mound is then King Gorm the old’s mound.
Before King Gorm the old died in 958-959 he ordered a runestone to be made in memory of his beloved Queen. The runic inscription says: King Gormr made this monument in memory of Thyrvé, his wife, Denmark’s adornment.
In Younger Futhark (Old Norse):
᛬ ᚴᚢᚱᛘᛦ ᛬ ᚴᚢᚾᚢᚴᛦ ᛬ ᛬ ᚴ(ᛅᚱ)ᚦᛁ ᛬ ᚴᚢᛒᛚ ᛬ ᚦᚢᛋᛁ ᛬ ᛬ ᛅ(ᚠᛏ) ᛬ ᚦᚢᚱᚢᛁ ᛬ ᚴᚢᚾᚢ
ᛅᛚᛅ ᛫ ᛅᚢᚴ ᛫ ᚾᚢᚱᚢᛁᛅᚴ
᛬ ᛋᛁᚾᛅ ᛬ ᛏᛅᚾᛘᛅᚱᚴᛅᛦ ᛬ ᛒᚢᛏ ᛬
In normalized Old Norse: Gōrmʀ kunungʀ gærði kumbl þǿsi æft Þōrvē, kunu sīna, Danmarkaʀ bōt.
In Danish: Kong Gorm gjorde disse kumler efter Thyra sin kone Danmarks bod.
A Viking ship in stones
While the two huge burial mounds are impressive in itself, they are in fact also inside a 370 meter (1161 ft) long Viking stone ship. And around the Viking stone ship and the two burial mounds, there was also a palisade made from oak trees that surrounded the entire site, framing an area of about 24 football fields. The palisade has unfortunately vanished with time, but we can still see the remains in the soil.
The archaeologists have found household items and the mains of longhouses inside the palisade, which means some people lived here in the Viking age. But the beautiful Viking stone ship formation did not stand here for a thousand years, the stones have been knocked over and thrown into holes, but why, and who would have done such as thing?
It is speculated that it was done by the orders of King Harald Bluetooth after he converted to Christianity sometime in the 960s. The excavations that have been conducted at the two tombs seem to confirm a similar story, someone has removed the human remains, from both tombs. Did Harald want his parents to gain access to the Christian afterlife in heaven with him? Was this the reason to disturb the tombs and remove the human remains?
The first church in Denmark?
Harald Bluetooth built a church, made of wood in Jelling, a church that was bigger than the one that stands in Jelling today. On exactly the same place was the church from the Viking age stood, human remains have been found under the floor, which is believed to have been Harald’s father, Gorm the old.
Today Gorm the old is buried under the floor in the Church in Jelling, he was reburied there in the year 2000, and there is a marker on the floor that indicates the spot. Shortly after Harald Bluetooth’s parents died he would move his headquarters to Roskilde, maybe this was a strategic move to be located in the center of Denmark.
Harald did only inherit Jutland (Jylland), Fyn, and some islands from his father, Roskilde which is on Zealand (Sjælland) was land that was acquired by King Harald himself.
Harald Bluetooth’s wife
In normalized Old Norse: Tōfa lēt gørva kumbl, Mistivis dōttiR, øft mōður sīna, kona Hara[l]ds hins gōða, Gōrms sonaR.
In Danish: Tove, Mistivis datter, Harald den Godes, Gorms søns kone, lod gøre kuml efter sin mor.
Harald Bluetooth’s children
Harald had two daughters, Thyra and Gunhild. Thyra Haraldsdaughter was, married to Burislav who was King of the Wends, but the marriage would not last, and she would eventually run away and travel to Norway, where she married Olav Tryggvason.
Gunhild married Palling Tokesen, who was the Earl of Devonshire in England. Her life would have a tragic ending, she and her husband were killed in the St. Brice’s Day massacre on the 13th of November 1002. It was King Ethelred 2nd who had ordered to find and kill all the Danes in England.
According to the Saga of the Jomsvikings, Harald Bluetooth might have had a son named Svend with a peasant girl from Fyn in Denmark. This girl who was named Aesa, and she is described as being tall and with a manly appearance. Harald would never acknowledge him as his own son, and the child was raised by Palnatoki (Old Norse Pálnatóki or Pálna-Tóki) and his mother. Svend is mentioned by Adam of Bremen as Svend Otto, and he is probably the one that later would be known as Svend Forkbeard (In Danish Svend Tveskæg).
Harald did also have a son named Hakon Haraldsen, who according to the sagas traveled east on an expedition to the Kaliningrad Peninsula, also named Samland. But he would never return home because he and his men thought the women were the most beautiful ones they had ever seen.
Adam of Bremen also mentions that Harald might have had a son named Hiring who died on a raid in England, but it is uncertain.
Harald Bluetooth converted to Christianity
There had been countless of tries from the Christian missionaries to convert the Danes to Christianity in the Viking Age, and the pressure was growing for each passing year. The German Roman empire had failed to convert Gorm the old, but Adam of Bremen thought it was possible to convert Harald Bluetooth Gormssen to Christianity.
The sagas tell us that Harald Bluetooth became convinced that Christ was the strongest god, when the Monk Poppo carried a glowing iron glove in his hands, without getting burned. But was that really the reason for his decision or could Harald Bluetooth’s conversion into Christianity have been politically motivated, after the news spread that Otto I had been crowned the Holy Roman Emperor.
Maybe Harald realized that it was a good idea and a strategic move to convert into Christianity before Otto I would force him to do it, by the edge of a sword. Harald Bluetooth’s Kingdom was after all just a tiny area in the north, compared to the mighty German-Roman Empire.
The Jelling stone
According to the local lore, a stone was found on the beach near the town of Vejle in Jutland and was then transported to Jelling, by the orders of Harald Bluetooth.
This stone would later be known as the Jelling stone, and be seen as the unification of Denmark. The Jelling stone has three sides, with runes written vertically on it from left to right. This is very unusual since on most runes stones at the time, the text was written horizontally. The decision to write the runes in such a way, was probably a gesture to the Roman-German Empire, even though it was written in runes and not Latin.
The Jelling stone also has images on it, for those who could not read the runic letters. The Jelling stone has an image of Christ which is shown as victorious with his head raised, which is opposite to how he is normally depicted. A Christ with a hanging head, that looked defeated and weak, did not fit into the Danish society in the Viking age.
Harald ”Bluetooth” Gormsson brags about his accomplishments on the Jelling stone, the text reads as follows: “King Harald ordered these kumbls made in memory of Gorm, his father, and in memory of Thyra, his mother; that Harald who won for himself all of Denmark and Norway and made the Danes Christian”.
In Younger Futhark (Old Norse):
ᚼᛅᚱᛅᛚᛏᚱ ᛬ ᚴᚢᚾᚢᚴᛦ ᛬ ᛒᛅᚦ ᛬ ᚴᛅᚢᚱᚢᛅ ᚴᚢᛒᛚ ᛬ ᚦᛅᚢᛋᛁ ᛬ ᛅᚠᛏ ᛬ ᚴᚢᚱᛘ ᚠᛅᚦᚢᚱ ᛋᛁᚾ ᛅᚢᚴ ᛅᚠᛏ ᛬ ᚦᚭᚢᚱᚢᛁ ᛬ ᛘᚢᚦᚢᚱ ᛬ ᛋᛁᚾᛅ ᛬ ᛋᛅ ᚼᛅᚱᛅᛚᛏᚱ (᛬) ᛁᛅᛋ ᛬ ᛋᚭᛦ ᛫ ᚢᛅᚾ ᛫ ᛏᛅᚾᛘᛅᚢᚱᚴ
ᛅᛚᛅ ᛫ ᛅᚢᚴ ᛫ ᚾᚢᚱᚢᛁᛅᚴ
᛫ ᛅᚢᚴ ᛫ ᛏ(ᛅ)ᚾᛁ (᛫ ᚴᛅᚱᚦᛁ ᛫) ᚴᚱᛁᛋᛏᚾᚭ
In normalized Old Norse: Haraldr konungr bað gǫrva kumbl þausi aft Gorm faður sinn auk aft Þórví móður sína. Sá Haraldr es sér vann Danmǫrk alla auk Norveg auk dani gærði kristna.
In Danish: Kong Harald bød gøre disse kumler efter Gorm sin fader og efter Thyra sin moder – den Harald, som vandt sig hele Danmark og Norge og gjorde danerne kristne.
Why was the Jelling stone made?
But why did Harald Bluetooth raise the Jelling stone? Was it to send a strong message to the German Roman Empire, to say that here in Denmark we are really really Christians. So just stay away with your army, we have the same religion.
It is estimated that the Jelling stone is from about the year 958 – 985. I think that the Jelling stone is probably from around the 960s when Harald Bluetooth converted to Christianity. Which was also at a time, when Harald Bluetooth ordered many new mega constructions in Denmark.
In the 960s Harald Bluetooth decided to expand Dannevirke, on the southern Danish border. Dannevirke is a 30km long (18.64 miles) defensive Viking wall, that is 5 meters tall (16.4 ft) and 20 meters wide (65.6 ft).
Dannevirke was not built from coast to coast, because there were huge areas with impassable marshlands and dense forests, in the western part of Jutland (Jylland), so it was not necessary. People who wanted to enter into Denmark had to travel through the big gate near Hedeby, which was an important town in the Viking age, with lots of trade.
Harald Bluetooth also constructed another wall further south called Kovirke in 983. Both Dannevirke and Kovirke demanded a lot of manpower and resources to be built, and would not have been an easy task during the Viking age. These walls were not built exactly on the Danish border which was and always has been at the River Eider (Ejderen).
The Ravning Bridge
Harald Bluetooth Gormsson decided in 979-980 that his army needed a faster way to travel in Jutland (Jylland). So he orders the construction of the 760 meters long (2500 ft) Ravning Bridge near Jelling, the bridge is 5 meters wide (16 ft) and made from oak. The wood and manpower used to create this Ravning bridge would have been enormous.
It is unclear why the Ravning bridge was built, Harald’s army could just have used (Hærvejen) the army road, which is only a short distance away. The Ravning bridge was never maintained nor was it repaired, and the archaeologists have estimated its lifespan to about five years.
Harald Bluetooth’s Viking Ring Fortresses
Harald Bluetooth was a King with many ambitions and he wanted to show his power across Denmark, so there was no doubt about his might. In 979-981 Harald gave the orders to construct some of the biggest constructions ever built in Scandinavia, the Viking fortresses.
The Viking fortresses really were mega constructions especially for its time, and they required an enormous amount of manpower and resources. So far there have been found 8 Viking fortresses from the Viking age, but there are speculations that more have been built.
There is no doubt that the Viking fortresses were built for military purposes, and they were probably used by Harald Bluetooth when he traveled around in Denmark. Not only did these Viking fortresses (In Danish they are called: Trelleborgerne) show his military might, they also helped in uniting Denmark into one Kingdom.
The Viking fortresses on Zealand (Sjælland) required so much wood, they would have used all the trees on the island. Which makes you wonder if they gathered wood from other places, and then transported it to the construction site. But those were not even the biggest Viking fortresses, Aggersborg north of the Limfjord at Loegstoer (Løgstør) in Jutland was the biggest of them all.
Inside the Viking fortresses, there were typical 16 longhouses and a few smaller houses for storage or animals. But Aggersborg which was the biggest Viking fortress had 48 longhouses inside the ring, which was massive for its time.
It is very exciting to see if more Viking fortresses will be found in the coming years, there have been found some signs of more fortresses, but they have yet to be fully confirmed. The list of Viking fortresses could be doubled or even tripled in the near future.
How did Harald Bluetooth die?
Harald Bluetooth would not end his days in a cozy warm bed as an old man, he had made to many enemies in his lifetime, including his own son Sweyn Forkbeard (In Danish, Svend Tveskæg).
Sweyn Forkbeard’s hatred was not just fueled by the fact that he was the unacknowledged son of Harald, but he was also extremely dissatisfied because of Harald Bluetooth’s decision to submit to the cross.
Sweyn Forkbeard was just like his father hungry for power which eventually would lead to Harald’s death. In the year 986, Sweyn Forkbeard denounced his own father and gave the orders that Harald Bluetooth has to die, which started a rebellion.
There are many conflicting sources on how Harald Bluetooth exactly died, in the Knytlinge Saga and the great Saga of Olaf Tryggvesson it says that the battle took place at Ise fjord, and in the Jomsvikinge saga it tells us that it was at Bornholm, and in the Saxo saga it claims it was near Mols.
However, most of the stories about Harald Bluetooth’s death talk about him being broad to Jormborg were he died from his wounds. The one I like the most is the one where he died in Jomsborg from his wounds after taking an arrow to the butt when he was busy with a number two in the forest.
It kinda makes you wonder if he could have ended up with the nickname Harald butt arrow, but that would probably have been too rude. Personally, I do think he was called Harald Bluetooth because of a bad tooth since Vikings often got their nickname because of a unique feature in their physical appearance.
According to the sagas was Harald Bluetooth buried in Roskilde, but his grave has never been found. After Harald Bluetooth’s death was the Viking fortresses slowly abanded and the Ravning Bridge was not maintained. This could have been an attempt to erase Harald Bluetooth’s legacy.
Today the Jelling stone is on UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the Jelling stone is considered Denmark’s birth certificate because it is when the Danes became united into one Kingdom, called Denmark.
The Viking fortresses and Dannevirke are now on the UNESCO World Heritage Site.