King Godfrid And The War That Almost Was
Charlemagne came very close to open war with what could have been one of his deadliest foes—King Godfrid of Denmark (also spelled Godofrid, Godefrid, Gudfrey and Godfrey). As early as 804, presumably Godfrid’s first year of rule, the Danish army and navy moved down to the border of Saxony, a region that the Franks held dearly, as they had spent decades crushing Saxon rebellions to stabilize the region. Godfrid wisely did not invade Saxony proper, but he did invade the territory of the Obodrites in 808, a people who were neighbors of the Saxons, and a long-time ally of the Franks. In response, Charlemagne sent forces to defend Saxony against a possible attack.
It is difficult to determine if the Franks and Danes directly clashed during this conflict. Charlemagne’s biographer Einhard suggested that they fought, yet, he may have been referring to Charlemagne’s countermeasures against Viking raids, in general. The Royal Frankish Annals (RFA), however, hints that the Danish army of Godfrid and the forces of the Franks kept their distance. According to the RFA, the Franks responded by attacking Godfrid’s Slavic allies and only moved troops into the lands of the Obodrites after the Danes had withdrawn back to Denmark.
In 810, King Godfrid reportedly sailed 200 ships to Frisia (approximately the Netherlands and parts of Northern Germany) and forced the region to pay him tribute, with the first payment amounting to 100 pounds of silver. Around this time, Godfrid was feeling so powerful that he began allegedly taunting Charlemagne to meet him in an open battle, for if they did, the Danish king felt he would become the new master of Europe. Charlemagne, for his part, did not take the threats lightly—he built defensive ships to protect his rivers and mobilized his forces, personally leading an army into Saxony. Yet, right as the tension between the Danes and the Franks was reaching the brim, King Godfrid of Denmark was assassinated. Hemming, the nephew of Godfrid, became the new king in 810 and immediately pushed for peace.
Although the Franks were likely releasing sighs of relief at the news of Godfrid’s demise, a whole new series of troubles was just beginning for Denmark. The short-reigning peacemaker, King Hemming, died in 811 and left no clear successor to the throne of Denmark. Instead, two rival factions appeared. On one side was Sigifrid, nephew of the late King Godfrid. His rival was Anulo, nephew of King Hemming. The armed supporters of these two claimants went to war and, incredibly, both of the proposed candidates were killed in battle. Even after the death of the leaders, the war continued. The faction formerly led by Anulo ultimately won the civil war and from their ranks Harald (or Heriold) and Reginfrid, the brothers of slain Anulo, were raised to the throne as co-kings.
Harald and Reginfrid continued the policy of peace toward the Franks and instead launched a campaign against the lords of Westarfolda, located in southern Norway. This war reportedly went well for the co-kings, but while they were away a new faction was conspiring to take control of Denmark. These conspirators were the sons of the deceased King Godfrid, who managed to gather wide support from the Danish nobility, as well as from exiled nobles who had relocated to Sweden. With the support of the nobility, the sons of Godfrid raised an army to take power in Denmark. In the ensuing civil war, the sons of Godfrid made quick progress. In 813, they killed King Sigifrid and forced King Harald to flee from his kingdom. After his defeat, Harald traveled to Aachen around the same time as the death of Charlemagne in 814. When he arrived, the refugee king received shelter and promises of aid from the new ruler of the Franks, Louis the Pious.
In 815, Louis the Pious sent an army, under the leadership of an emissary named Baldrich, against Denmark in order to place Harald back on the throne. Accompanying Baldrich were additional troops from the Obodrites, Saxony and from any loyalists who were still following Harald. Faced by such a coalition, the sons of Godfrid withdrew their forces to the island of Fünen and refused to face the invaders. With no defenders in sight, Baldrich’s army went on a rampage of raiding and pillaging. When they had hauled away their fill, the invaders departed Denmark and disbanded their army for the year. Although the Franks, Saxons and Obodrites benefited from the campaign, Harald made little headway—the sons of Godfrid still had their army, and Denmark remained firmly under their control.
Louis the Pious gave Harald permission to continue his operations against the sons of Godfrid from a headquarters in Saxony. Whatever tactics he was using must have been effective, for the Danes sent a query for peace in 817, which Louis the Pious refused. After this refusal, the Danes launched an invasion of Saxony, which was skillfully coordinated to occur simultaneously with a rebellion by an Obodrite lord, named Sclaomir. While Sclaomir raised his forces in rebellion, the Danes sailed down the Elbe and Stör rivers, raiding every settlement they could find. They also tried to besiege Esefeld Castle, but the defenders showed little sign of weakness, prompting the Danes to end the siege and return to Denmark. Despite the ample distractions provided by the Danes, Sclaomir was captured by the Franks in 818, and the new leader of the Obodrites, Ceadrag, resumed his peoples’ usual alliance with the Franks.
Even though the sons of Godfrid had been in power for more than half of a decade, politics were not yet stable in Denmark. Apparently, a feud broke out between the multiple sons of Godfrid (at least four) who were sharing power in Denmark at the time. In 819, two of the sons invited Harald to return to Denmark, and with his help, they drove two other rival sons of Godfrid out of Denmark. By 821, the triumvirate of Harald and the two sons of Godfrid were able to impose order in Denmark. The three continued to rule together for six more years, but, as Roman history shows, triumvirates never last.
Harald apparently felt insecure in his spot within the triumvirate as early as 823, when he asked for assistance from Louis the Pious. To assay the king’s worries, Louis sent two of his vassals to tour Denmark and to speak with the co-kings. By 826, however, Harald and the sons of Godfrid had become even more distanced. That year, the sons of Godfrid and Harald both made appearances at the court of Louis the Pious, both sides seeking the favor of the Franks in their own ways. The sons of Godfrid offered an alliance and continued peace. Harald, however, knew a better way to sway Louis the Pious—Harald arrived with his family and a sizable number of Danish lords and participated in a mass baptism. Louis the Pious showed his appreciation for Harald’s conversion by giving him the county of Rüstringen.
The sons of Godfrid finally made their move in 827 and successfully forced Harald out of Denmark. Once again, Harald withdrew to the shelter of Louis the Pious and waited eagerly for an opportunity to strike. Louis, however, wanted to try diplomacy first—in 828, a meeting was planned between the Franks and the sons of Godfrid on the Danish-Saxon border, where Harald’s readmission to the throne would be one of the topics discussed. Yet, according to the Royal Frankish Annals, Harald launched a raid into Denmark before the peace talks were held. In reprisal, the sons of Godfrid rallied their army and launched a surprise attack on the Frankish army at the Saxon border. After defeating the Franks in this battle, the Danes returned to Denmark and immediately sent word for peace to Louis, citing Harald’s raid as justification for their own attack. Louis the Pious, for his part, seemingly sided with the sons of Godfrid on this matter, for he did not seek vengeance for the attack and no longer tried to put Harald back on the throne of Denmark. The last surviving son of Godfrid was Horik, who gained sole rule around 828 and continued to rule Demark until 854, offering his kingdom some much-needed stability.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (A scene from the saga of King Olaf, by Halfdan Egedius (1877–1899), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- Carolingian Chronicles: Royal Frankish Annals and Nithard’s Histories, translated by Bernhard Scholz and Barbara Rogers. Ann Arbor Paperbacks / University of Michigan Press, 1972.
- Two Lives of Charlemagne, by Einhard and Notker the Stammer, translated by David Ganz. New York: Penguin Classics, 2008.