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A king, a famine, an epithet

Back in the good old days, kings were elected rather than born to the ermine. Okay, so I’m talking the really, really good old days, well before our distant ancestors had left their pagan beliefs behind, a time in which being the king was not only a secular but also a religious role.
Obviously, being king came with its perks even back then – why else would anyone want to become king? – but there were some aspects to this ancient kingship that were rather disturbing. Especially if you were the king. But more of that later.
Today, I’d like you to meet a king we know very little about – and this despite him not being from the really, really old times. But he was elected – albeit based on his parentage. At most, today’s protagonist is a foot-note in history. We do know he was Danish. We know when he died – maybe. We know who his daddy was, but there are some doubts as to who his mother was. Daddy was something of a ladies’ man, putting it mildly.
Other than that, we know his name. And that he had a baker’s dozen of brothers. And quite a few sisters. Plus, of course, we know he was the king of Denmark for some years.
Over the centuries, kings have often been given epithets. Richard Lionheart has quite a ring to it. Suleyman the Magnificent was obviously a dude with great dress-sense, Charles the Bold reasonably rode at the head of his army, and John Lackland was something of a failure – or a wronged son. And then we have today’s protagonist: Olof Hunger. Yes, I know: doesn’t quite have that royal ring to it, does it?

Olof Rekonstruction Jellingestenen Vikingeskibsmuseet, Denmark
The Jilling Stone, reconstructed. Photo: Vikingskibsmuseet, Denmark

So who was this man, and how on earth did he come about his particular epithet? Well, people, let us take a few steps backwards, more precisely to 965 A.D. when Harald Blue-tooth (and one cannot help but wonder, can one?) converted to Christianity. We know the exact date for this momentous event because Harald, not a man given to humility, erected a huge rune stone – the Jilling stone – to commemorate his christening. We know it was momentous because to this day a descendant of Harald sits on the throne of Denmark, so obviously God was more than pleased by the conversion of this heathen Viking king.
Harald had a son called Sven Forkbeard. No love lost there, as I hear it… Some even say Sven forcibly ousted his father from both Denmark and Norway. Mostly though, Sven is famous for being a gigantic burr up the English King’s arse, bringing over his eager Viking raiders to despoil England over and over again. At some point, Sven decided he might just as well take over England and while the Anglo-Saxons were less than thrilled at the prospect, Sven was not only a determined man, but a man possessed of an extremely efficient army. Plus it helped that the man facing him was Ethelred the Unready – his name says it all, really.
Anyway: Sven defeated Ethelred in 1013, proclaimed himself king of England and promptly died in 1014. The Anglo-Saxons exhaled in relief and Ethelred was yet again the undisputed king (hmm) of England. Except, of course, that Sven had not only spent his years conquering other nations; he had also found the time to make babies.
Olof H 800px-Knut_der_Große_cropped
Knut (?)

One of those babies was Knut (Canute) who invaded England in 1015, determined to make himself king of England. In 1016, he succeeded, partly due to his warmongering skills but just as much because Edmund Ironside, the heir to the Anglo-Saxon kingdom, up and died.
Now, while Knut had been busy in England, his brother Harald had ruled Denmark and Norway. Also in Denmark was Knut’s sister Estrid, married to the by all accounts rather impressive Ulf Jarl. Harald died young, and soon enough it was Ulf Jarl who was acting the regent for Knut in Denmark and Norway, while his wife gave birth to several sons and daughters.
As an aside, at one time Estrid was proposed as the bride of Robert I of Normandy, which could potentially have led to her presenting the Duke of Normandy with a legitimate heir. Instead, Robert made his bastard son William his heir… Neither here nor there in this post, and by now I suspect you’re thinking this extended genealogy is starting to read a bit like the Bible, but please note the lack of “begat”.
Knut died too young – but that may just be my opinion. Once this strong and competent ruler died, his extended empire fell to pieces. In Norway, Knut’s son Sven Knutsson had been king for some years but was now ousted by a certain Magnus. In Denmark, Estrid and her son – yet another Sven – decided to join forces with Magnus in return for Sven Estridson being proclaimed the Danish de facto ruler. And in England, Knut’s other two sons squabbled over the throne. Eventually, both of them died young and without heirs, which was how the English crown ended up on Edward the Confessor’s head.
In Denmark, Estrid and her son bemoaned the sad changes in their status. Gone was the mighty Danish empire, instead all that was left was Denmark, and even here Sven Estridson ruled only on behalf of someone else. This did not please either Estrid or Sven. After all, was not Sven the great-grandson of Harald Blue-tooth? It irked them both to be subservient to King Magnus – by all accounts a nice chap, seeing as he’s gone down as Magnus the Good.
Olof Hunger Harald_landing_in_York_01
Harald Hardrada as per Matthew Paris – when he set off to invade England where he bit the dust

A golden opportunity arose when Magnus famous uncle, Harald Hardrada returned from his extended stay in Constantinople. Harald was as rich as Croesus, a veteran of wars all over the place, and quite determined he should be the king of Norway. Magnus did not agree. Sven Estridsson, however, decided to side with Harald, and faced with both his uncle and his false Danish jarl, Magnus had no option but to agree to share his kingdom with Harald.
In all this upheaval, Sven chose to declare Denmark independent and spent the coming two decades in constant warfare with Harald. Mostly, Sven Estridson got his arse whipped. Mostly, he fled to Sweden to lick his wounds. And mostly, he refused to give up. Eventually, Harald tired of all this and recognised Denmark as a separate kingdom. Sven Estridson had arrived, people. At long last, the family of old Blue-tooth had reclaimed the Danish throne.
Sven Estridson was quite the chick-magnet. He liked women, they liked him, and despite being a married man – and a devout Christian, friendly with none other than Adam of Bremen – he happily fornicated with a number of mistresses, which resulted in a nursery chock-full of babies, of which 14 were sons.
Olof Hunger svenestridsson3_517121daddf2b322d4b92af0
Sven Estridson as depicted on the pillar of Roskilde Cathedral which contains him…(Photo Per Erik Tell)

Sven doesn’t seem to have had any surviving children with his wife, but then there is some confusion as to this wife, who in some chronicles is Gunhild, daughter of the Swedish king, in others Gunhild, the widow of the Swedish king. It has been suggested that Sven first married Gunhild the daughter but that she died young and that he then hastily moved over to marry the mother – which would explain why the Church expressed serious disapproval. In fact, Sven was threatened with excommunication unless he divorced his wife, and being so devout he hastily did so. Gunhild was therefore returned to Sweden where she in the fullness of time founded a monastery. Sven returned to frolicking with his concubines.
Of Sven’s many sons, five were destined to become kings of Denmark, and the most famous of his sons is yet another Knut, older brother to our Olof. When Knut became king, he was determined to rebuild the Danish empire, i.e. re-conquer both Norway and England. Strangely enough, his people were less than thrilled at the thought, and even less at the substantial taxes Knut levied to afford such a venture.
Now, if Sven Estridsson was devout, Knut was even more devout. It was Knut who insisted the bishops should have a voice in his council, it was Knut who began the building of the Cathedral in Lund, it was Knut who ordered his days round his prayers. So, on one side he was a meek lamb of God, praying diligently for the well-being of his soul, on the other he was as ambitious as his forebears, eager to make his mark on the world.
Olof H Christian-albrecht-von-benzon,_the_death_of_Canute_the_Holy
Murder of Knut – Christian Albrecht von Benzon

No matter how people protested under the more than doubled tax-burden, Knut would not relent: the money was needed, and he would have it. At long last, this led to rebellion, and soon enough Knut was fleeing for his life. He took refuge in a little church, certain that no one would kill him on holy ground. Turns out he was wrong, and so Knut was killed while kneeling in prayer before the high altar.
Immediately, people began to proclaim Knut a saint – one of his brothers, Erik, proved quite the PR wiz and managed to whip up quite the fan-base. An anointed king to be killed while at prayers – a forceful image that had the pious weeping. The leaders of the rebellion were not quite as impressed and hastened to crown Knut’s next-in-line brother. Olof. Yup, here we have him. At last. It is 1086, and he has just been crowned king of Denmark, while already people were claiming that miracles were occurring at his recently deceased brother’s tomb.
Olof was no major fan of Knut or his hair-brained schemes, which was probably why he was so quickly acclaimed as king. In actual fact, Olof and Knut had never been on good terms, and it is likely Olof would have been among those protesting against all those taxes. At the time of Knut’s death, Olof was in exile – or imprisoned – in Flanders, where Knut’s father-in-law ruled, but that did not stop people from pointing finger at him and calling him a fratricide.
As to what Olof thought of his brother’s purported sanctity, we don’t know. What we do know is that his short reign was plagued by year after year of failed harvests, and the people of Denmark starved as they had never starved before. A sign from God, the priests said. This was God punishing the Danish people for killing that godliest of kings, Knut the Holy. Olof’s subjects believed in this, muttering that this was God telling them Olof was unfit to be king, a severe come-down from the saintly Knut. Plus, of course, there were the supicions that Olof had somehow been involved in Knut’s death.
Behind his back, they started calling him Olof Hunger, and they ate bark and grass, they ate more bark and still the crops failed. And failed. And failed again. In some places, people were heard to say it was time to go back to the old ways – the really, really old ways – where a king could be sacrificed to pacify the gods.
In 1095, Olof disappeared. Well, obviously he didn’t disappear as in ‘poof’ and he was gone, but we don’t know what happened to him.
Is this what happened to Olof? A willing  royal sacrifice (Carl Larsson, Midvinterblot)

Lurid legend has it that Olof was carried off and willingly allowed himself to be disrobed and placed on an altar, there to have his throat sliced open, his blood the price demanded by God to lift the curse of failing crops. Hmm. Very much hmm. But whatever the case, Olof was no longer around, and to this day no one knows where he was buried – or even if he was buried. This is particularly strange when one considers that all other Danish kings since Harald Blue-tooth are accounted for. All of them. (And the majority lie in Roskilde Cathedral, which, BTW, is well worth a visit) So maybe there is some truth in the story that says Olof’s body was cut up in parts and buried in various corners of his kingdom so as to wipe away the blood-guilt. Ugh. But, as Saxo Grammaticus puts it, “willingly he gave himself to loose the land of its bad luck and begged that all of the guilt would fall upon his head alone. So offered he his life for his countrymen.” Poor Olof Hunger, remembered only for a sequence of famines!
Strangely enough, no sooner was Olof gone, but the famines were gone as well. And as to Knut, in 1096 he became Knut the Holy. Imagine that: a taxman made a saint!
Addendum: some things run in families, they say, which may be why Knut’s son, Charles the Good, also was murdered while at prayers, in his case down in Flanders (he was never elected king of Denmark). Likewise, when Knut’s younger brother became king, he had a son whom he named Knut in honour of his uncle. This Knut was to become the first Duke of Schleswig-Holstein and was also murdered and canonised.

5 thoughts on “A king, a famine, an epithet”

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