Magnates and kings
The Vikings were ruled by powerful magnates and kings. However, the term king was not used in the same way as it is today, because in the Viking period several kings could exist at the same time. A king was simply a leading magnate, who the other magnates regarded as “first among equals”. In addition, the status of king was not automatically inherited, but had to be fought for. This often led to internal conflicts, in which several individuals simultaneously claimed to be the country’s rightful king.
Royal power in Denmark is believed to have been consolidated during the reign of Gorm the Old. King Gorm and his successors have ruled Denmark right up until the present day. Denmark’s Queen Margrethe II is therefore part of the family tree, which stretches back to Gorm the Old and Queen Thyra.
A magnate, or chieftain, was the greatest man in a local society. The magnate was usually chosen by the society’s freemen. Wealth and possessions played an important role, as riches could enable power to be obtained. Only the most wealthy men could afford to employ a small army, which could pave the way for attaining a chieftain’s title. The magnates possessed power on various levels and, for instance, played a significant role in the great cult celebrations of the period.
The king was the individual who had sufficient support amongst local magnates to call himself king over a large area of land. The king’s power, however, depended at all times upon pitting his own strength against that of the magnates, although foreign politics also played a significant role in the maintenance and strengthening of royal power. It was vital for the king that he could gather men around him, lead, achieve results and pay his people well. The king’s power was thus in practice based upon personal reputation and enormous quantities of silver, which could be used to obtain the necessary support.
The king’s bodyguards - a personal army
The king’s role was primarily to protect the kingdom and to lead military expeditions. To assist him in fulfilling this role, he was accompanied by a personal army – the housecarls. These warriors were personally connected to the king in a relationship characterised by mutual loyalty. They were his bodyguards, accompanying him on expeditions and other travels. The warriors were often recruited from the notable families in Viking society.
It was the land’s magnates who bore the basic military obligation. They had to provide military forces to enable the defence of the country under the king’s leadership.
In the later Viking Age it is thought that the Crown had become such a strong and central power, that the king could assemble a significant army with the support of the magnates around his kingdom. This involved a type of conscription known as “leding”, which could be used as and when the king thought it was necessary. The country’s men capable of bearing arms – led by the magnates – had to make themselves, weapons, equipment, ships, and the necessary quantities of food and drink available for the king.
Denmark becomes a kingdom
During the Viking period Denmark was gathered into a single kingdom, but precisely when this happened is not clear. Before the Viking Age the Danish area was divided into various domains, forming a patchwork quilt of chiefdoms and petty kingdoms. In the Viking period it is believed that the number of leading families decreased. This indicates that central royal power was gaining ground.
There is much evidence, however, to suggest that throughout the entire Viking period there were proper kings in Denmark. The area of the Danish kingdom at this time does not necessarily correspond with Denmark’s modern boundaries. The country was larger during some periods and smaller in others. Its area was dependent upon the distribution of power and there could be several kings fighting each other for the throne at one time.
The first gathering of the Danish areas into a kingdom may have occurred by the beginning of the Viking period. The appearance of the trading towns adds support to the theory that a central Crown had developed by this time. Ribe was founded around 705 and Hedeby at the latest in 808. Large construction projects were also undertaken in the 8th century. These included the reinforcement and enlargement of the Danevirke border fortification in 737, and the building of the Kanhave Canal on the island of Samsø in 726. The trading towns and these structures would seem to be evidence of a Crown, which had the funds to carry out great construction projects, as well as to secure law and order in the trading towns.
It is not until around the year 960, that we can say with certainty that Denmark properly existed. This is because of the famous rune stone that Harald Bluetooth erected at Jelling – the royal seat at this time. Upon this he not only honours his parents, Gorm the Old and Queen Thyra, but also proclaims that he won all of Denmark and Norway, and made the Danes Christian. The Jelling Stone is therefore sometimes referred to as Denmark’s birth certificate.
Royal power in the Viking Age was, however, very fragile. It was based upon relationships of personal loyalty and thus crumbled easily, if not before, then when a king died. Kings therefore sought to secure social and political alliances by giving gifts.
The skaldic epics of the Viking Age frequently describe how generous kings and magnates gave golden rings to those who agreed to fight for them. The ruler bought the loyalty of the population, which then made itself available for him. Kings, as well as magnates, strengthened their friendships by giving gifts. The gift giving was a means of creating and maintaining connections.
For example, the Danish king Sigfred’s brother, Halfdan, is said to have given Louis the German a sword with a gold hilt when he visited him on a diplomatic mission in 873. The missionary Ansgar also took fine gifts from King Louis when he set off to visit King Björn at Birka in 839. However, on the way these gifts were stolen by pirates, along with 40 books intended for use in Christian services.
Social and political alliances were also secured by marriage. Written sources tell us that the two most powerful Viking kings, Harald Bluetooth and his son Sweyn Forkbeard, both married Slavic princesses.