The story of our family...for my sons

Monday, September 12, 2011

Thorkils and The Battle of Swold 1000AD

I love stories about my relatives, especially the Vikings and this one is a saga. Thorkils Sparkalagg "Prince of Sweden" Styrbjornsson fighting on the side of the Swedes was killed in this batlle. The Battle of Swold or “Svold,” is the most famous of the sea-fights of the ancient Norsemen. It took place on September 9th of 1000 CE. The place cannot be identified now because the formation of the Baltic Coast has changed in the course of subsequent centuries, partly by the gradual silting up of the sea, and partly by the storms of the 14th century. Swold was an island probably on the North German coast, near Rügen. The battle was fought between Olaf I Tryggvessön (sometimes Olav), King of Norway, and a coalition of his enemies, Eric Hakonson, his cousin and rival, Olaf the King of Sweden, and Sweyn Forkbeard the King of Denmark. The poets, and the poetically minded authors of the sagas, who are the only authorities, have told the story with many circumstances of romance. But when the picturesque details, which also have no doubt at least a foundation of truth, are taken at their true value, the account of the battle still presents a very trustworthy picture of the sea-fighting of the Norsemen.

During the summer that Olaf had been in the eastern Baltic his allies waited for him at the island of Swold on his way home. The Norse king had with him seventy-one vessels, but part of them belonged to an associate, Sigwald, a chief of the Jomsburg Vikings, who was an agent of his enemies, and who deserted him. Olaf’s own ships went past the anchorage of Eric Hakonson and his allies in a long column without order, since no attack was expected. The king was in the rear of all of his best vessels. The allies allowed the bulk of the Norse ships to pass, and then stood out to attack Olaf. He might have run past them by the use of sail and oar to escape, but with the true spirit of a Norse warrior he refused to flee, and turned to give battle with the eleven ships around him. The disposition adopted was one which is found recurring in many sea-fights of the Middle Ages where a fleet had to fight on the defensive.

Olaf lashed his ships side to side, his own ship, the "Long Serpent," the finest-war-vessel as yet built in the north, being in the middle of the line, where her bows projected beyond the others. The advantage of this arrangement was that it left all hands free to fight, a barrier could be formed with the oars and yards, and the enemy’s chance of making use of his superior numbers to attack on both sides would be limited, a great point when all fighting was with the sword, or with such feeble missile weapons such as bows and javelins. The Norse long ships were high in the bulwark. Olaf turned his eleven ships into a floating fort.

The Norse writers, who are the only authorities, gave all the credit to their own countrymen, and according to them all the intelligence of Olaf’s enemies, and most of their valor, were to be found in Eric Hakonson. They say that the Danes and Swedes rushed at the front of Olaf’s line without success. Eric Hakonson attacked the flank. His vessel, the “Iron Ram,” was “bearded,” that is to say it strengthened across the bows by bands of iron, and he forced her between the last and last but one of Olaf’s line. In this way the Norse ships were carried one by one, till the "Long Serpent" alone was left. At last she too was overpowered. Olaf leapt into the sea holding his shield edgeways, so that he sank at once and the weight of his hauberk dragged him down. A legend of later days has it that at the last moment a sudden blaze of light surrounded the king, and when it cleared away he had disappeared. King Olaf is one of the same company as Charlemagne, King Arthur and Sebastian of Portugal, the legendary heroic figures in whose death the people would not believe, and whose return was looked for.

Building "The Long Serpent"

"The ship was a dragon...but this ship was far larger, and more carefully put together in all her parts. The king called this ship the Long Serpent... The Long Serpent had thirty-four benches for rowers. The head and the arched tail were both gilt, and the bulwarks were as high as in sea-going ships. This ship was the best and most costly ship ever made in Norway."

Snorri Sturluson, Heimskringla

In AD 998, near Trondheim Fjord on the west coast of Norway, King Olaf Tryggvason ordered the construction of the Long Serpent, the most splendid of the dragon (drakar or dreki "dragon-head") longships. The keel alone, of a single piece of oak, was said to have been one hundred and twenty-eight feet long (Snorri writes that the ship's slipway still was to be seen in his own time, more than two hundred years later). It was built by the prow-wright Thorberg, who was responsible for laying the keel and constructing the stempost and sternpost that determined the lines of the ship. But he was away when the overlapping planks were fitted to the keel to form the curved hull. When he returned, the work had been completed, and "everyone said that never was seen so large and so beautiful a ship of war."

The next morning, however, when the king went again to admire his longship, there were deep notches hacked into the planking all along one side. The ship was ruined, and Olaf swore an oath, promising that the man who had done this would die and offering to reward whoever revealed his name.

Thorberg said that he had done it.

Unless the ship was restored as before, Thorberg would forfeit his life. The prow-wright then took his axe and proceeded to plane the wood until even the deepest notches were smooth. "The king and all present declared that the ship was much handsomer on the side of the hull which Thorberg had chipped, and bade him shape the other side in the same way, and gave him great thanks for the improvement." So pleased was the king that Thorberg was appointed master builder for the entire ship and known thereafter as Thorberg Skafhogg, "Smoothing Stroke."

What the prow-wright had realized was that the thick planks were too heavy. Thinner ones would permit a lighter, more supple ship, one that would ride higher in the water and flex more in rough seas. (To provide extra strength, the planks were cut radially, split lengthwise along the grain like the spokes of a wheel.) The Gokstad ship, for example, has sixteen planks, or strakes, on each side, ranging in thickness from one inch below the waterline to one-and three-quarter inches at the waterline and only one-half inch at the gunwale. Such a ship drew only three feet of water, which made it well suited to navigate rivers and tidal estuaries. It also was fast and, in front of a stiff wind, could make as much as eleven knots and several hundred miles a day. A replica of the Gokstad ship, in fact, constructed a dozen years after its discovery, crossed the Atlantic from Norway to Newfoundland in only twenty-seven days.

Viking ships were built by first laying the keel and securing the stempost and sternpost (as Thorberg had done). Working up from the keel, the strakes were attached, each overlapping the other and fastened together by hundreds of iron rivets in what is called clinker construction. When the sides reached the waterline, the ribs were fitted and lashed to the bottom of the hull. Crossbeams then were placed over each rib to provide support for the deck, the boards of which remained loose so that they could be removed for storage. At either end were wooden knees to which the strakes were attached by pegs (trenails). Such construction permitted an exceptionally strong and flexible ship, one that was seaworthy enough to be propelled by a large sail on the ocean but with a draft shallow enough to allow it to be shelved on a beach or navigated far upstream by oar.

Snorri relates an anecdote about the king and his favorite ship, one that is evocative of them both. He writes that "King Olaf could run across the oars outside of the vessel while his men were rowing the Serpent."

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