Sweyn Estridsen, or Svein Ulfsson (as the Icelandic sagas called him), was appointed as viceroy of Denmark in 1042, after the Norwegian King, Magnus the Good, inherited the country. Although Magnus’ inheritance of Denmark had come about because of a pact he had made with the late Danish king, Hardecanute (d. 1042), Norwegian control of Denmark was not firm and Sweyn Estridsen quickly rebelled against Magnus by 1043.
During his long war for independence, Sweyn came across an unlikely ally named Harald Hardrada around the year 1045. Harald was an exiled Norwegian prince who had spent the last fifteen years gaining immense wealth and prestige as a mercenary commander fighting battles around the Mediterranean. Sweyn and Harald were said to have done some raiding together, but the alliance was short-lived. Harald Hardrada was King Magnus’ uncle, and Magnus made Harald an offer he could not refuse—half of Norway for half of Harald’s treasure. Before 1045 had ended, Harald accepted the offer and became a co-king of Norway, ruling alongside his nephew and joining the Norwegian side of the war against Sweyn Estridsen.
Magnus the Good died of an illness in 1047 while he and Harald were campaigning in Denmark. The Icelandic historian, Snorri Sturluson (c. 1179-1241), wrote that Magnus tried to cede Denmark to Sweyn while he was on his deathbed. Even if that were the case, Harald Hardrada, who took full control of Norway after Magnus’ death, had no intention of giving up Denmark. King Harald would continue the war to subjugate Denmark for more than a decade.
The greatest battle that Harald and Sweyn fought was the Battle of Niså (or Nissa), which occurred on August 9, 1062. According to Snorri Sturluson’s depiction of the battle, Harald had sailed south with an elite seaborne army and clashed in the afternoon against the fleet of King Sweyn II at the mouth of the Nissan River, in modern Halland County, Sweden. Harald allegedly had his seasoned soldiers packed onto 150 ships, compared to Sweyn’s less experienced warriors manning 300 ships. When the two forces met, battle commenced and the fighting carried over into nighttime. Despite being outnumbered, King Harald won the battle by a wide margin. Although the Battle of Niså was a significant defeat for King Sweyn II, he and many of his nobles were able to escape through the cover of darkness to keep up their resistance.
In Snorri Sturluson’s elaborate and undoubtedly embellished account of the battle, King Sweyn’s flagship was overrun during the fight. The king was then forced to abandon the ship by means of a small rowboat in order to save his life. Donning a large hood as a disguise, the king stealthily rowed through the darkness avoiding Norwegian ships and patrols. Even though he was able to evade his enemies, King Sweyn was still surrounded by Harald’s ships. Thinking back to the battle, Sweyn had seen a certain Earl Hakon Ivarsson among Harald’s forces. Earl Hakon was a rival of Harald Hardada and he had once spent time with Sweyn after running afoul of the Norwegian king. At the time of the battle of Niså, Hakon Ivarsson was back with Harald Hardrada, but his loyalty was still tenuous. In fact, Hakon Ivarsson would later abandon Norway for a second time and pledge loyalty to the king of Sweden.
With the aid of night, King Sweyn was able to avoid detection until he rowed up to Earl Hakon’s ship. When the king reached the ship, he told the crew that his name was Vandrad and that he wanted to see the earl. The earl was intrigued when he heard the name; Vandrad was a common alias at the time. Recognizing who the stranger was, Earl Hakon decided that he liked King Sweyn better than King Harald. Therefore, he ordered two of his sailors to join the stranger in the rowboat and to escort the man to shore. Once they reached land, the earl wanted them to lead the stranger to a nearby farmer named Karl.
By this point, dawn was approaching, so Harald’s patrols were beginning to have better visibility. Despite this, the earl’s soldiers were able to pass every checkpoint by announcing who they were and who they served, thus allowing the rowboat, with King Sweyn still hiding inside, to continue along its path toward the shore. The sailors kept rowing until Harald’s fleet was out of eyesight and then they beached their boat on the riverbank. As the sun arose, the king and his escorts traveled from the river to Karl’s farm, arriving just in time for breakfast.
When the group arrived, the soldiers delivered a message, which stated that the man accompanying them should be given provisions, a horse and a guide. Welcoming the weary party generously, Karl invited them all inside to eat. Inside the home were Karl’s wife and son. Before they ate, Karl had everyone wash their hands with a basin and handed out a towel with which they could dry off the drops of water. Sweyn was the last to receive the towel and, not noticing that all of the other guests had only used the edges of the towel, Sweyn dried off his hands with the towel’s center. According to the tale, when Karl’s wife saw this, she yanked the towel from Sweyn’s hands and called him an uncouth and boorish man. After that, they sat down to eat.
As the story goes, the farmer’s wife was in an irritable mood that morning, making the breakfast conversation less than enjoyable. Karl’s wife first complained that she had not been able to sleep because of the clamor of the night’s battle. Then, when she learned that the Danes had lost, she mused that King Sweyn was always losing his battles, and that he had probably run away in the end. Not knowing that King Sweyn was one of the guests at her table, she kept up the insults, going as far as calling the king a wretched coward. At the end of her tirade, all that “Vandrad” could say in response to her criticisms was that the king was not a coward—he was just unlucky.
After that humbling encounter, the king met the farmer outside, where Karl lent Sweyn a horse and sent his son to help the king reach wherever he needed to go. After leaving the farmstead, King Sweyn was able to regroup with his troops in Zealand and continue his war.
Once King Sweyn had firmly reestablished himself, he had Karl summoned to the royal court. According to the tale, when Karl arrived, King Sweyn announced that the farmer was his eternal friend. The king then granted Karl a massive plantation in Zealand, and let the farmer, himself, choose which parcels of land would be included in the gift. There was, however, a catch to the deal—Karl had to find a new bride if he wanted to accept the free land.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (Invasion fleet of Duke William of Normandy on Bayeux Tapestry, [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.