King of Norway (c930-c936)
King of Jorvik (947-948 and 952-954)
Born c 885 Died 954

Eirikr in Old Norse rendered into English as Eric or Norwegian as 'Erik'

King of Norway

Around the year 930 Eirikr acceded to the throne of Norway1 on the death of his father Harald I Hårfagre (Harald the Fairhaired) although it appears that Eirikr secured the succession for himself by murdering a number of his brothers in turn2. Thus in the Norse sagas such as the Heimskringla and Egils Saga he was named as Blodøks or 'Bloodaxe' in honour of his fratricidal activities.

Eirikr's rule in Norway does not appear to have been very popular and in 936 his brother Håkon, who had fortunately been safely ensconced in England at the court of Athelstan where he had been fostered, arrived in Norway. Håkon rapidly deposed Eirikr and replaced him as ruler of Norway3.

From Norway Eirikr seems to have left for the Orkneys, where he may have had a share of power in the Viking Jarldom there, spending his time raiding in northern Britain and around the Irish Sea,before an opportunity presented itself further south in Jorvik.

The political situation in the north of England

The former kingdom of Northumbria was dismembered in 866 into Viking held Jorvik and the Bernician Lordship of Bamburgh. The Viking kingdom of Jorvik had been suppressed by Athelstan in 927 as part of his unification of England, and who later withstood an effort by the combined forces of Olafr Guthfrithson (king of Dublin), Malcolm (king of Scots) and Owain (king of Strathclyde) to drive him out of the north at the battle of Brunanburh in 937.

The kings of Wessex such as Athelstan were keen to enforce their authority north of the Humber, the Scottish kings of Alba, the Hiberno-Norse of Dublin, as well as sundry Scandinavian kings saw an opportunity to extend their own domains, whilst the Lords of Bamburgh were keen to protect their interests and maximise their autonomy and within York itself an independence faction led by the Wulfstan, the Archbishop of York.

Former Northumbria became therefore the battleground for a number of factions, and the remainder of Eirik's career was dominated by the interplay of these factions.

Eirikr and Athelstan

The Norse sagas claim that Eirikr was invited into England by Athelstan and suggest that he first became ruler of Jorvik as Athelstan's agent; the Heimskringla claims that Athelstan made Eirikr ruler to protect the land against "Danes and other marauders", whilst the Egils Saga tell us that his role was to defend the land against the Scots and the Hiberno-Norse of Dublin. (See Håkon the Good's Saga.)

Both the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and the Irish annals are silent on the matter of Eirikr before the death of Athelstan in 939 and therefore there is no contemporary confirmation of this. But nor is there any contemporary contradiction and it remains entirely within the realms of possibility; Athelstan may well have chosen a displaced king of Norway to rule over his fellow Vikings in Jorvik.

After Athelstan

Athelstan, the first king to unite the English both north and south of the Humber, (and therefore arguably the first proper King of England) died in 939 and the English grip on the north slackened. Olafr Guthfrithson of Dublin returned to take power in Jorvik until [Athelstan|Athelstan's successor, Edmund launched a major invasion of the north in 945, driving out Olafr Guthfrithson as well as conquering Strathclyde into the bargain.

But by the end of 946 Edmund was dead and into the resulting power vacuum jumped Eirikr who was 'taken as king' in York. Eirkir grip on power was tenuous and in 948 Eadred invaded the north again and took control of Jorvik driving out Eirikr.

With the departure of Eirikr, Olafr Sigtryggson, king of Dublin took control of Jorvik but by 952 the pendulum swung again in Eirikr's favour and he replaced Olafr as king. Eadred retaliated by imprisoning Wulfstan who was Eirikr's greatest supporter, but seems to have been unable at the time to take any further direct steps against the Norwegian. Eirikr seems to have continued to regularly launch raids where he could, hitting targets in Scotland, Ireland and Strathclyde but his grip on Jorvik was never secure; too many other people were after the same prize.

The Last Battle

In the year 954 Eirikr, together with a party of warriors including his son Haeric and his brother Ragnald, were travelling near Stainmore when he was ambushed and killed by one Maccus.4 This action is ascribed to the treachery of Oswulf Ealdulfing, the High Reeve or Lord of Bamburgh, it is likely therefore that Eirikr and his party where there at the invitation of Oswulf, enroute perhaps to a meeting, before being intercepted by Oswulf's hired killers.

Oswulf had his reward from a grateful Eadred when he was appointed eaolderman of Northumbria and effective ruler of the north. Eirikr, if the Eiriksmal or 'The Song of Eric' is to be believed, had his reward in heaven, which describes his welcome by the gods when "the benches trembled as though Baldur were coming back to Odin's Hall".5

He was the last Viking king of Jorvik, whose fame as a warrior was recorded in the many Norse sagas of the age. Driven once out of Norway, twice out of Jorvik, he does not however, seem to have been a particularly successful ruler and appears as an old style Viking marauder who did not quite appreciate that the world had moved on since the days of Ivarr the Boneless. One gets the impression that despite his skill at lopping off heads, that he wasn't that politically astute and that he probably the victim of the political machinations of others who used him for their own ends and discarded him when he was of no further use.


NOTES

1 Various dates ranging from 926 to 933 are given for the beginning of Eirik's reign in Norway.

2 Or at least one brother by the name of Bjorn; the sagas name as many as twenty sons of Harald I.

3 Who later became known as Håkon I den Gode 'Hakon the Good', presumably by comparison with our Eirkir.

4 Whose identity is uncertain but may have been a relation of Olafr Sigtryggson.

5 There is also the Höfudlausn, or the 'Head-Ransom', a poem in praise of Eirikr written by the Icelandic poet Egill Skallagrimsson; in 948 Egill was captured by Eirikr and was due to be beheaded for some crime, real or imagined, before he composed the poem to buy back his head.


SOURCES

Ann Williams, Alfred P. Smyth and D. P. Kirby A Biographical Dictionary of Dark Age Britain (Seaby 1991)

Eric Bloodaxe by Gareth Williams (November 2001) at http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ancient/vikings/bloodaxe_01.shtml

Eric Bloodaxe at http://www.vanl.freeserve.co.uk/gvleric2.html

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