Friday 7 March 2014

The World's Friendliest Vikings

With the British Museum exhibition Vikings: Life and Legend opening this week, Viking-fever is at its height. Naturally I'm enjoying this: I love Vikings and I love it when other people are excited about them. As a literary scholar, I tend more towards the 'legend' than the 'life' side of the equation, though with the Vikings it's sometimes hard to separate the two. Marking the opening of the exhibition, there have been various articles floating around on the perennial question, much loved by journalists, 'Were the Vikings bloodthirsty warriors or peaceful, misunderstood traders?" This BBC article gives a fair summary of some examples, and quotes some more nuanced views. It's a question I don't personally find that interesting, because the answer, of course, is that the Vikings were both, or rather that they were lots of different things; it's that complexity which makes them so fascinating. The truth is always more complicated and more interesting, and the question 'how do we interpret the Vikings?' usually tells us much more about us, the people doing the interpreting, than it does about the Vikings.

However, the question of whether the Vikings have been given an unfairly bad rap goes pretty far back in English history - at least as far as the eleventh century, and probably beyond. To a large extent the Vikings created their own legend, and it was Scandinavian settlers who engaged in the earliest kinds of 'Viking rehabilitation' in England, with the stories they told about themselves and their ancestors (Cnut, arguably the most successful Viking king of all, was a master at this, and see further my posts on later legends surrounding Edmund of East Anglia, Siward, Earl of Northumbria, and Svein Forkbeard). Today I thought I'd talk a little about a medieval English poem which poses that popular question 'Vikings: raiders or traders?' and comes up with an emphatic answer: 'traders!' Good, hard-working, family-minded traders, no less, who came to England, settled down peacefully, and brought nothing but harmony and prosperity. This is the story of Havelok.

This poem (known, logically enough, as Havelok) is a Middle English verse romance written at the end of the thirteenth century, although stories about Havelok are first recorded a good 150 years earlier. This is the plot of the poem Havelok, in five sentences:

1) Havelok is the son of the King of Denmark, but his father dies when he's a child and he and his sisters are left in the care of a man who wants to seize the throne; this villain kills Havelok's sisters and gives Havelok to a fisherman to be drowned.
2) The fisherman (whose name is Grim) can't bring himself to do it, so he saves the boy's life and flees Denmark, with his wife and family, and settles in England, in Lincolnshire.
3) Havelok grows up in England, and gets a job as a kitchen-boy in Lincoln, but he impresses everyone by his incredible strength and comes to the attention of the current ruler of England, who is also a villain who has usurped the throne from the rightful heir, a girl named Goldeburu.
4) The English usurper forces Goldeburu to marry Havelok to humiliate her and get her out of the way, but they fall in love and Goldeboru, learning Havelok is actually a king's son, urges him to return to Denmark and win back his rightful inheritance.
5) He does so, and then comes back to England and fights to regain Goldeboru's kingdom, and they rule England and Denmark together in a state of perfect peace and harmony for sixty years.

The poem is 3000 lines long, so I've skipped over some of the finer plot points, but that's essentially it (the whole poem can be found here). So what we have is the story of a Viking-Age Danish prince who settles in England, marries an English princess, and then conquers both countries to restore the rightful line of inheritance. Medieval English romances are not short on displaced kings, but they're not usually Danish; it's certainly odd to have a romance about a Danish king who ends up ruling England (Anglo-Saxon England, as is clear from the names of the English characters). The best way to understand this oddness is by exploring how the poem is interested in questions of identity, in migration and settlement, and, yes, in 'what the Vikings did for us', us being in this case the people of Lincolnshire. The story of Havelok is also in part the story of the foundation of the town of Grimsby, which was founded, according to the poem, by Havelok's foster-father, the fisherman Grim. When Grim flees with the young Havelok from Denmark to England, we're told precisely where they land:

In Humber Grim bigan to lende,
In Lindeseye, rith at the north ende.
Ther sat his ship upon the sond;
But Grim it drou up to the lond;
And there he made a litel cote
To him and to hise flote.
Bigan he there for to erthe,
A litel hus to maken of erthe,
So that he wel thore were
Of here herboru herborwed there.
And for that Grim that place aute,
The stede of Grim the name laute,
So that Grimesbi it calleth alle
That theroffe speken alle;
And so shulen men callen it ay,
Bitwene this and Domesday.

[In the Humber Grim came to land, in Lindsey [i.e. northern Lincolnshire], right at the north end. There his ship rested on the sand, but Grim drew it up to the land, and there made a little dwelling-place for himself and his family. He began to live there and made a little house out of earth, so that they were well sheltered in their shelter there. And because Grim owned that place, it took its name from him, so that everyone who speaks of it calls it 'Grimsby' - and so shall it be called always, between now and Doomsday.]

And so it is still. This is a brilliant detail, partly because it's essentially correct - more accurate than most etymologising in medieval literature, anyway. The town 'Grimsby' almost certainly did get its name from a Scandinavian settler called Grim, although I suppose we can't be sure whether he brought an exiled Danish prince with him... This foundation myth was a real and lasting source of pride in Grimsby; it's recorded on the town's medieval seal, which depicts Grim, Havelok and Goldeburu:

(image from here)

Grim is the one in the middle, with Havelok and Goldeboru on each side of him - which shows you which of them medieval Grimsby thought was most important! Grim looks very fierce here, with sword and shield, although in the poem he never does more than save Havelok's life and run a fishing business; it might be that the version of the legend in Grimsby was different from the Middle English poem, and gave Grim a more prominent role. In the seventeenth century an antiquarian recorded several versions of the story still being told by inhabitants of Grimsby, including one in which Grim first finds the child Havelok drifting in a boat in the Humber (think Scyld Scefing at the beginning of Beowulf). But beyond Grimsby, the Havelok story seems to have been widely known in Lincolnshire; the chronicler Robert Mannyng tells us that in the fourteenth century you could go to Lincoln castle and see the huge rock which Havelok, with his extraordinary strength, threw to win a stone-casting competition, as well as the chapel where Havelok and Goldeburu were married.

The poet of Havelok, writing in Lincolnshire, was aware that Danish settlement was part of the history of the area, and was inclined to find it a source of pride. The story of Havelok might be distantly based on a legend about Óláfr Cuarán, but the English poet wouldn't have known this; more likely he was familiar with stories about Viking violence as told by contemporary chroniclers, and this is the context in which he's telling his story of Havelok and Grim, our Danish heroes. (It might be helpful to note at this point that the word 'Viking' didn't exist in Middle English; 'Dane' to a medieval English writer would have conveyed much of our modern popular idea of Vikings, minus the horned helmets.) Sometimes these stories seem to be influencing the poem's presentation of its Danes: for instance, one of the Danish characters is given the name of the notorious Viking invader Ubbe, son of Ragnar Lothbrok, well known in English chronicles and hagiography as one of the killers of St Edmund of East Anglia. The name's so rare that this seems unlikely to be a coincidence, but the poem's Ubbe is helpful and law-abiding, a respectable merchant who aids Havelok in regaining the Danish throne. It's as if the poet decided he was going to present an alternative version of the chronicle stories of Viking aggression: his Danish protagonists, especially the ones who come to England, are industrious, honest and virtuous. And Havelok's the best of them all. He is by a long way simply the nicest hero of medieval romance - completely lacking in guile or courtly manners, but with a wide-eyed innocence about him which is delightful, and often very funny (especially if you imagine him as a story-descendant of fearsome Vikings). I've quoted this description of him before, but it's particularly interesting to read with his Danishness in mind:

Of alle men was he mest meke,
Lauhwinde ay and blithe of speke;
Evere he was glad and blithe -
His sorwe he couthe ful wel mithe.
It ne was non so litel knave
For to leyken ne for to plawe,
That he ne wolde with him pleye.
The children that yeden in the weie
Of him he deden al here wille,
And with him leykeden here fille.
Him loveden alle, stille and bolde,
Knictes, children, yunge and holde -
Alle him loveden that him sowen,
Bothen heye men and lowe.
Of him ful wide the word sprong,
Hw he was mikel, hw he was strong,
Hw fayr man God him havede maked...
Als he was heie, als he was long,
He was bothe stark and strong -
In Engelond non hise per
Of strengthe that evere kam him ner.
Als he was strong, so was he softe;
They a man him misdede ofte,
Neveremore he him misseyde,
Ne hond on him with yvele leyde.

[He was the meekest of men, always laughing and merry in speech; he was always glad and merry, and ever able to conceal his sorrows. There was no child so little that he was not ready to play with him - the children who met him in the road, he would let them have their own way with him, and play with him as much as they wanted. Everyone loved him: shy and bold, knights, children, young and old - everyone loved him who saw him, both high and low. His reputation spread far and wide: how he was tall and strong, and how fair a man God had made him... Just as he was tall, as he was big, he was also strong and powerful: in England there was no one his equal in strength. As he was strong, so was he gentle: even if a man mistreated him again and again, Havelok never insulted him, or laid a hand upon him.]

After Havelok is exiled from his kingdom he makes no fuss about having to work for his living: famine forces him to leave Grimsby and get a job as a kitchen-boy in Lincoln, but he just goes and does it, cheerful as ever. When he is compelled to marry the imprisoned English princess Goldeboru, his innocent question is "What will I do with a wife?" - but he does as he's told, and marries her. At that point in the story we get an extraordinary scene with him and Goldeboru in bed together, where Denmark and destiny are calling to them through their dreams:

On the nith als Goldeboru lay,
Sory and sorwful was she ay,
For she wende she were biswike,
That she were yeven unkyndelike.
O nith saw she therinne a lith,
A swithe fayr, a swithe bryth -
Al so brith, all so shir
So it were a blase of fir.
She lokede noth and ek south,
And saw it comen ut of his mouth
That lay bi hire in the bed.
No ferlike thou she were adred!
Thouthe she, "What may this bimene?
He beth heyman yet, als I wene:
He beth heyman er he be ded!"
On hise shuldre, of gold red
She saw a swithe noble croiz;
Of an angel she herde a voyz:
"Goldeboru, lat thi sorwe be!
For Havelok, that haveth spuset thee,
He, kinges sone and kinges eyr,
That bikenneth that croiz so fayr
It bikenneth more - that he shal
Denemark haven and Englond al.
He shal ben king strong and stark,
Of Engelond and Denemark -
That shal thu wit thin eyne seen,
And tho shalt quen and levedi ben!"

Thanne she havede herd the stevene
Of the angel uth of hevene,
She was so fele sithes blithe
That she ne mithe hire joie mythe,
But Havelok sone anon she kiste,
And he slep and nouth ne wiste
Hwat that aungel havede seyd.
Of his slep anon he brayd,
And seide, "Lemman, slepes thou?
A selkuth drem dremede me now -
Herkne now what me haveth met.
Me thouthe I was in Denemark set,
But on on the moste hil
That evere yete cam I til.
It was so hey that I wel mouthe
Al the werd se, als me thouthe.
Als I sat upon that lowe
I bigan Denemark for to awe,
The borwes and the castles stronge;
And mine armes weren so longe
That I fadmede al at ones,
Denemark with mine longe bones;
And thanne I wolde mine armes drawe
Til me and hom for to have,
Al that evere in Denemark liveden
On mine armes faste clyveden;
And the stronge castles alle
On knes bigunnen for to falle -
The keyes fellen at mine fet.
Another drem dremede me ek:
That ich fley over the salte se
Til Engeland, and al with me
That evere was in Denemark lyves
But bondemen and here wives;
And that ich com til Engelond -
Al closede it intil min hond,
And, Goldeborw, I gaf thee.
Deus! lemman, what may this be?"

Sho answerede and seyde sone:
"Jesu Crist, that made mone,
Thine dremes turne to joye . . .
That wite thu that sittes in trone!
Ne non strong, king ne caysere
So thou shalt be, fo thou shalt bere
In Engelond corune yet.
Denemark shal knele to thi fet;
Alle the castles that aren therinne
Shaltou, lemman, ful wel winne.
I woth so wel so ich it sowe,
To thee shole comen heye and lowe,
And alle that in Denemark wone -
Em and brother, fader and sone,
Erl and baroun, dreng and thayn,
Knightes and burgeys and sweyn -
And mad king heyelike and wel.
Denemark shal be thin evere ilc del -
Have thou nouth theroffe douthe,
Nouth the worth of one nouthe;
Theroffe withinne the firste yer
Shalt thou ben king of evere il del.
But do now als I wile rathe:
Nim in wit lithe to Denemark bathe,
And do thou nouth on frest this fare -
Lith and selthe felawes are.
For shal ich nevere blithe be
Til I with eyen Denemark se,
For ich woth that al the lond
Shalt thou haven in thin hond.

[During the night, as Goldeboru lay awake, she was sad and sorrowful, for she thought she had been betrayed and married to someone who was not her equal. In the night she saw a light in the chamber, very fair, very bright – just as bright and just as clear as if it were a blaze of fire. She looked to the north and the south, and saw it coming out of the mouth of the man who lay beside her in the bed. No wonder if she was afraid! She thought, “What can this mean? He is a nobleman, I’m sure of it – he’ll be a nobleman before he dies!” On his shoulder, in red gold, she saw a very beautiful cross, and she heard the voice of an angel: “Goldeboru, let thy sorrow be! For Havelok, who has married you, is a king’s son and king’s heir; this is shown by that fair cross. It shows more: that he shall possess Denmark, and all England too. He shall be king, strong and powerful, of England and Denmark – and you shall see it with your eyes, and you shall be queen and lady!”

When she had heard the voice of the angel out of heaven, she was so happy that she could not conceal her joy; at once she kissed Havelok, as he slept on and knew nothing of what the angel had said. Then suddenly he started up from his sleep and said, “Darling, are you asleep? I’ve just had a marvellous dream; listen now to what I’ve been dreaming. It seemed to me that I was in Denmark, and sitting on the largest hill I’ve ever seen. It was so high that I could see over the whole world, it seemed to me. As I sat on that mound, I began to possess Denmark, the towns and the strong castles; and my arms were so long that all at once I embraced Denmark with my long limbs; and then I wanted to draw them in my arms towards me and have them in my keeping. I held fast in my arms all who ever lived in Denmark, and all the strong castles began to fall on their knees; the keys fell at my feet. And I dreamed another dream: that I flew across the salt sea to England, and with me all who had ever lived in Denmark, except bondsmen and their wives, and that I came to England, with it all enclosed within my hand – and, Goldboru, I gave to you. God, darling, what does this mean?”

She answered and said at once, “Jesu Christ, who made the moon, turn your dreams to joy! [Some lines missing] There shall be no king or emperor as powerful as you, for you shall bear a crown in England yet! Denmark shall kneel at your feet; all the castles that are in the country you, darling, shall certainly win. I know as well as if I saw it, that to you shall come high and low, and all who live in Denmark, uncle and brother, father and son, earl and baron, freeman and thane, knights and citizens and attendants – and you shall be made king, nobly and well. Denmark shall be yours in every part; have no doubt of it, not as much as a nut! Within one year you shall be king of every part of it. But do now as I advise you: let us both quickly go to Denmark, and do not postpone this journey – speed and success are good friends! [This is a proverb]. For I shall never be happy until I see Denmark with my own eyes; for I know that all that country you shall have in your hand."]

For reasons best known to himself, the poet has chosen to present this scene of angelic visions, prophetic dreams, and invasion-planning as a gentle and loving moment - full of tenderness not just between husband and wife, but between the king and the land and people of Denmark. Not only does the future king embrace his land, encompassing it with those same strong arms which have won him his wife, and clasping it within his hand; he also brings the people of Denmark with him to England as a love-gift to Goldeboru. It's a kind of dream-world migration, completely peaceful and fruitful and lacking in violence.

To make a long story short, Havelok and Goldeboru go to Denmark and regain his inheritance, and then return to England with an army to win Goldeboru's. This is the point at which the poet demonstrates just how alert he is to the possible interpretations of a Danish army coming to invade England (even though Havelok is fighting on his wife's behalf, and thus upholding the proper order of the native English succession). The villain who has usurped the English throne gives a speech appealing to his followers to fight back against this foreign threat:

Hwan he wore come, sket was the erl yare
Ageynes Denshe men to fare,
And seyde, "Lythes nw alle samen!
Have ich gadred you for no gamen,
But ich wile seyen you forthi.
Lokes hware here at Grimesbi
Hise uten laddes here comen,
And haves nu the priorie numen,
Al that evere mithen he finde,
He brenne kirkes and prestes binde;
He strangleth monkes and nunnes bothe -
Wat wile ye, frend, her-offe rede?
Yif he regne thusgate longe,
He moun us alle overgange,
He moun us alle quic henge or slo,
Or thral maken and do ful wo
Or elles reve us ure lives
And ure children and ure wives.

[When Havelok had come, the earl was quickly eager to fight against the Danish men, and said, "Everyone now listen to me! I haven't gathered you together for sport - I'll tell you why. Look how here at Grimsby his foreigners have arrived, and have captured the priory and everything else they can find! He burns churches and ties up priests, he strangles monks and nuns; friends, what do you think we should do? If he carries on in this way much longer he'll destroy us all, he'll hang us alive or kill us, or make us slaves and cause terrible harm, or else rob us of our lives, and our children and our wives too!]

Can't trust those Vikings, can you? Except that of course Havelok isn't doing any of those things, not strangling nuns or anything like it; he actually later goes on to found a priory in Grimsby in memory of Grim, because that's just how virtuous he is. (The real priory in Grimsby was founded in the twelfth century and dedicated to the Norwegian king St Olaf - another reminder of how popular saintly Vikings were in the area!) Havelok and his Danish friends do fight hard - this poet loves a fight scene - but it's in the cause of justice, every time.

When Havelok has won the kingdom back for Goldeboru, he rewards all his Danish followers, marries Grim's daughters to English earls (nicely reinforcing the Anglo-Danish bond), and sends Ubbe off to rule Denmark on his behalf:

Hwan he wore parted alle samen,
Havelok bilefte wit joye and gamen
In Engelond and was ther-inne
Sixti winter king with winne,
And Goldeboru Quen, that I wene
So mikel love was hem bitwene
That al the werd spak of hem two;
He lovede hir and she him so
That neyther owe mithe be
Fro other, ne no joye se
But if he were togidere bothe.
Nevere yete no weren he wrothe
For here love was ay newe -
Nevere yete wordes ne grewe
Bitwene hem hwar of ne lathe
Mithe rise ne no wrathe.
He geten children hem bitwene
Sones and doughtres rith fivetene,
Hwar-of the sones were kinges alle,
So wolde God it sholde bifalle,
And the douhtres alle quenes.

[When they had all parted from each other, Havelok stayed behind with happiness and pleasure in England, and was king there for sixty years, with joy, and Goldeboru was queen. I believe there was such great love between them that all the world spoke of those two: he loved her, and she him, so much that neither would be parted from the other, nor enjoy anything unless they were both together. They were never angry with each other, for their love was ever new; there never grew up angry words or resentment between them. They had children together, fifteen sons and daughters in all; and all the sons were kings, and all the daughters queens, as it pleased God it should be.]

Happy ever after, with England ruled by a Danish king. Havelok is a wonderful poem, tremendous fun to read but also very interesting and still (despite some good work in recent years) too much underrated by scholars. It's about many other things as well as Danish settlement in England, but it makes for particularly good reading when thinking about the Vikings' impact on England - if nothing else, as a reminder that people have been thinking about it for a long time.


Heliopause said...

This is absolutely brilliant!

I have known the name of Havelock the Dane (which is how it was spelt in my head, which I think must reflect where I first read it) but not this wonderful story - fairy-tale, as it feels to me - I love it! :) Also the name Goldeburu has jumped my mind to Goldberry in Tolkien, which is a different sort of fun. And yes, yes! to the whole question of Viking/Dane image-making/remaking and how interesting it all is. (I have recently read Carlyle's stories of early Norse kings, which is certainly part of that long process.)

(Also - personal note: I have tickets!! I am going to the British Museum to see the Vikings! - and am very excited about all of it!)

Thank you for this lovely happy-ever-after post! :)

Clerk of Oxford said...

Thank you! I love Havelok so much, it makes me very happy when other people like to read about him :) I tend to imagine Tolkien's Goldberry is named after Havelok's, though I have no proof for that belief...

I saw the Vikings exhibition last week and was very excited! There's some absolutely wonderful stuff on display - I hope you enjoy it!

Anonymous said...

A charming story beautifully presented and commented on!

Anonymous said...

During my last few years in Grimsby, I was fortunate enough to serve as first honorary member of the Grim and Havelok Association, researching this ancient legend in depth. What we discovered was truly mind-blowing and launched us headlong into a series of synchronicities that led to the rediscovery of the 13th century seal matrix that had been missing for over 100 years. I'd be glad to provide you with photographs of the original seal and an impressions I made from it. I also have photographs of both the blue 'Grim's Stone' and granite 'Havelok's Stone', now residing outside the Welholme Galleries in Grimsby.
I'm sure you'd be interested to hear more of what happened during our research and the new information we discovered. Please get in touch if that's the case.

Kind regards,
Royston E. Naylor