King Magnus the Good of Norway gained possession of the kingdom of Denmark in 1042, after having made a deal with the Danish king that whoever lived the longest would inherit the kingdom of the other. King Magnus appointed a noble named Svein Ulfsson, also known as Sweyn Estridsen, as an earl in charge of the region of Denmark. This curious nobleman would go on to regain independence for Denmark and set up a dynasty that would rule for centuries. Spectacularly, Svein accomplished this feat despite losing a wide majority of the battles he fought.
Around 1043, Earl Svein rebelled against Magnus the Good while the Norwegian monarch was busy campaigning against the Wends. Hearing the news, King Magnus quickly returned to Denmark in order to put down the rebellion. By 1045, King Magnus had successfully defeated Svein Ulfsson in three major battles, the last of which was the battle of Helganess. Despite this, the Danes continued to resist and when King Magnus the Good died in 1047, Earl Svein took control of Denmark as King Svein II.
Even though King Magnus the Good was dead, Denmark’s Norwegian problem was far from over. The new king of Norway, Harald III (r. 1045-1066), also known as Harald the Hard-ruler or Harald the Ruthless, was determined to bring Denmark back into subjugation, or at least to plunder land for wealth. He kept up constant raids into Denmark and won a major victory against King Svein’s forces at Nissa in 1062. Despite the constant military losses, King Svein must have been a brilliant diplomat—he kept his vassals happy, managed to stay alive and, by 1064, made peace with King Harald, who was planning an ill-fated invasion of Britain.
King Harald III invaded Britain in 1066, almost simultaneously with William the Conqueror of Normandy. Harald was killed on September 25, 1066, at the Battle of Stamford Bridge. Just a few days later, on October 14, William the Conqueror defeated the Anglo-Saxon king, Harold Godwinson, at the Battle of Hastings and claimed the English throne for himself.
When he heard of the Norwegian king’s death, Svein II decided to make a move against Harald’s successors. The campaign, like most of Svein’s other military maneuvers, did not end in victory. Harald’s sons, Magnus Haraldsson and Olaf the Quiet, fought off the Danish advance and secured some much-needed peace for Norway.
King Svein II, like his deceased Norwegian tormentor, also had ambitions in Britain. He took advantage of Anglo-Saxon rebellions against William the Conqueror to launch an invasion into York in 1069. Nevertheless, his troops were quickly outmatched by the Norman military and the Danes were forced to make peace by 1070. After this, King Svein seemingly settled down to more peaceful ambitions, particularly religion and scholarship. After a paradoxical life of military losses, but political victories, King Svein II of Denmark died in 1074. His descendants would continue to rule Denmark for around three centuries.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (Social media format and edited Eighteenth-century engraving of the early English kings Sweyn, Olaus, Edmund II, and Canute National Portrait Gallery(ER14679), National Portrait Gallery, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- King Harald’s Saga, by Snorri Sturluson, translated by Magnus Mangusson and Hermann Pálsson. New York: Penguin Books, 1966, 2005.