“The Vikings” Breakdown #1: Jarls, Earls, and Kings

*SPOILER ALERT: Minor spoilers for Season 3 of “The Vikings,” as well as Seasons 1 and 2. 

In the beginning of Season Three of the History Channel show “The Vikings”, Ragnar meets with King Ecbert in Wessex to reestablish their political ties. When King Ecbert addresses Ragnar as an “earl,” another one of the Vikings corrects him and says that Ragnar is now a “king.” King Ecbert then responds, “We are now truly equals.” (Or something like that, I only watched it once.)

ecbert-and-ragnar-meet

Okay, that’s a fine bit of cinema, but if you really look at the political climate in the ninth century that’s very wrong. So, in case you were at all curious about the accuracy of the show, I figured I should talk a little bit about how this show portrays the very fuzzy line of power which existed in the Viking and Anglo-Saxon World.

What is Kingship? 

When we think of a king, we think of a ruler of a country, and when we think of an earl, we think of someone who rules a part of the king’s land. This is, in essence, how the Middle Ages was run, right? Well, in the LATER Middle Ages, basically yes. But the show is set in the eighth and ninth century, not the twelfth through the fifteenth. Things were very different in the Early Middle Ages. Arguably, countries as we think of them did not exist in England and Scandinavia in the eighth and ninth centuries. Historians even debate when it’s appropriate to refer to England and “England” in this period. And since the petty wars of Academia are fought over jargon – which I will admit is important to clarify – I’ll try to parse this issue out as best I am able. (Much more ink has been spilt on this topic than I have time for here, but I included a bibliography if you’re curious.)

To go back to the scene in Season 3, Episode 1, let’s look at the facts. King Ecbert is king of Wessex. Now Wessex isn’t all of England. The British Isles at that time were an amalgamation of up to seven small kingdoms, the main ones referenced in the show being Wessex and Northumbria. There was also Kent, Sussex, Essex, East Anglia, and Mercia. By the late ninth century these kingdoms were loosely united under the reign of Alfred the Great, and it is by the end of HIS reign that historians refer to his kingdom as “England.” But our King Ecbert ruled in the early ninth century, when the various kingdoms were still at war. Eventually, the kingdom of Wessex will rule all of England, but that hasn’t happened yet. So while Ecbert is a powerful king, he is not as powerful as say, Charlemagne, or other kings of mainland Europe.

Ragnar’s kingship is an entirely different matter. From what the show indicates, when Ragnar became “king” he became ruler over several other jarls, which means he came to rule over their lands as well. We are given no sense of how small or large these land holdings are, because frankly historians are not very sure. The sources from that period are never clear about how much land any Scandinavian “king” ruled, and indeed it varied greatly between the “kings.” I was recently talking with an anthropologist at the Field Museum about this, and he indicated that it would be much more appropriate to refer to these Viking “kings” of Scandinavia as “chieftains.” He is correct, of course, but in my defense I use the term “king” in my thesis because that is what the sagas call them. However, I do clarify what I mean by the term because the idea of kingship changes greatly during the Viking Age (that is, after all, one of the main points of my thesis). In the eighth and ninth centuries, these “kings” were technically chieftains because their authority and legitimacy was tied to military power, rather than to an independent office. Here’s a way to think of it: we have the office of the President in the United States, and even when one man leaves the Presidency the office itself does not disappear. It is set within an established government in an established boundary of land called the United States. It’s not like the Vice President or the Speaker of the House can kill the President and establish a monarchy. But this kind of a takeover was much easier to do in Viking Era Scandinavia. A scrap of land in Scandinavia belonged to “x king” because he had the wealth and military power to enforce his legitimacy. Without him there would be a power vacuum. There were no kingdoms, there were not even small “earldoms.” The ownership of land was extremely fluid in this period, with each chieftain vying over power against the other.

In fact, there really were not “jarls” in the technically sense in ninth century Scandinavia. For the record, the show keeps confusing “jarl” and “earl.” The way I understood the terms when I read the sources, “jarl” and “earl” are the same thing, although what power an “earl” held was a little different than what we commonly think of today. Based on my research, it is not appropriate to refer to a Scandinavia ruler as an earl until the tenth century at the earliest, as I first saw the term used to refer to Danish vassals who ruled Norway in the place of the Danish king. The term is then applied to former chieftains who submitted to the power of Olav Tryggvason and St. Olav Haraldsson. When Olav Tryggvason united Norway under his rule in the late tenth century, he allowed the chieftains to retain control of their lands in exchange for accepting Olav as king over all of Norway. The same happened during the reign of St. Olav later in the eleventh century. In that sense, the chieftains under the Olavs were technically “earls,” in that they ruled a smaller portion of the king’s larger kingdom. But this term can only be applied when there is a kingdom to be split up. So when Olav Tryggvason and St. Olav Haraldsson united all of Norway, then yes, there could be earls/jarls, but if you’re referring to a period before the tenth century then you’re using the term anachronistically to refer to a very powerful chieftain.

So, really, when we look at Ragnar’s story in the show, the battles he fights with the other “jarls” are really just battles between chieftains of varying levels of power. The “king” in Season 1 and 2 was just a chieftain who had more military power and more land, and thereby was able to get other lesser chieftains to support him. That was why the issue over the land rights in Season 1 was so very important. That land was important to the “king” as a resource but also as a symbol of his power. If he could not control the “jarl” on that land, then that land and the people on it were not his. So you can probably understand why the “jarl” wanted to break away from the power of the “king,” because then he would have more legitimacy and power in his own right. And as we saw at the end of Season 2, power can easily be overturned by a lesser chieftain killing the more powerful chieftain.

That is not to say that kingdoms in England did not also squabble over power like the Vikings did, but by the ninth century we already begin to see the seeds of what can be call “kingdoms” in England, in that the kings of those Anglo-Saxon kingdoms established governments which could administer law and justice to an established area without the king having to be present. Before the tenth and eleventh centuries, kings in what would become England maintained power by constantly traveling around their lands on horseback. This is what my honors adviser jokingly referred to as “kingship on horseback,” but it is very accurate. As government systems developed in the Anglo-Saxon world, kings began to administer laws through the Witenagemot, an assembly of high ranking ealdormen (read earl) and clergy who drafted and enforced laws. The Witenagemot would write up these laws in conference with the king and then each earl and clergyman would be in charge of enforcing the king’s law in his lands. If this system worked smoothly, then the king no longer needed to ride around making sure the law was enforced. He could trust his earls to do that for him. Thus, the king could set up a capitol and administer rule from a single seat of power. The concept of a set area of rule, a set body of law, and a well-defined area of land are the basis of what can be called “statehood.” Though the English “state” did not fully materialize until much much later, this concept had its origins in the Witenagemots of the early English kingdoms in the ninth century. “Kingship on horseback” was replaced by “kingship through written law,” which is what became the norm in later Medieval England and Scandinavia.

So, while it is very flattering to King Ecbert to call Ragnar is “equal,” nothing could be farther from the truth.  Ragnar at best owns half the amount of land and wealth that King Ecbert does, and even if he did, his power is not tied to a well-defined, legitimate kingdom and government. While he’s away anything could happen (and Season 2 showed us what could and did happen). King Ecbert, while not fully secure in his kingship, is certainly a lot more secure than Ragnar is. He has an established and legitimized government, he has ealdormen and bishops to rule his lands, and he has a legal system to enforce his power.

So, is “The Vikings” correct in its depiction of kingship in that period? Sort of. They get some aspects correct but also use all the wrong terminology. I hope this post was a understandable premier on early Medieval kingship. I was trying to sum up parts of my thesis into a blog post, so forgive me if I left something out for the sake of brevity.  But I hope my premier will help you pick apart inaccuracies in the show to see what the history was actually like. If you have any questions, please feel free to write to me in the comments below!

-The Valkyrie

For more on this topic: 

Secondary Sources

Bagge, Sverre. From Viking Stronghold to Christian Kingdom: State Formation in Norway, c. 900-1350. Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press, 2010.

Berend, Nora, ed. Christianization and the Rise of Christian Monarchy: Scandinavia, Central Europe and Rus’ c. 900-1200. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Chaplais, Pierre. English Diplomatic Practice in the Middle Ages. New York: Hambledon and London, 2003.

Stafford, Pauline. Unification and Conquest: A Political and Social History of England in the Tenth and Eleventh Centuries. New York: Edward Arnold, 1989.

Strayer, Joseph R. On the Medieval Origins of the Modern State. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1970.

Williams, Ann. Kingship and Government in Pre-Conquest England, c.500-1066. British History in Perspective. New York: St. Martin’s Press INC, 1999.

Articles

Bagge, Sverre. “Christianization and State Formation in Early Medieval Norway.” Scandinavian Journal of History, Vol. 30, No. 2, (June 2005), pp. 107-134.

Gillingham, John. “Chronicles and Coins as Evidence for Levels of Tribute and Taxation in Late Tenth- and Early Eleventh-Century England.” The English Historical Review, Vol. 105, No. 417 (Oct., 1990), pp. 939-950

Jakobsson, Sverrir. “The Process of State-Formation in Medieval Iceland.” Viator 40, (2009), pp. 1-20.

Miller, William Ian. “Of Outlaws, Christians, Horsemeat, and Writing: Uniform Laws and Saga Iceland.” Michigan Law Review, Vol. 89, No. 8 (Aug., 1991), pp. 2081-2095.

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3 thoughts on ““The Vikings” Breakdown #1: Jarls, Earls, and Kings

  1. Pingback: “The Vikings” Breakdown #2: Athelstan’s Dilemma | Midgard to Middle Earth

  2. Very informative. Now what about princesses and princes in the Viking age? If the transfer of power was so fluid. Siggy in the first season says that new earls often kill the family of the old. If that’s true then why did no one kill Aslaug when both her parents died? Even if her father was a king. What use did she have for the next king? Would Bjorn have a claim to both his parent’s kingdoms? Would he have just as legitimate claim to Ragnar’s kingdom as do his brothers? Or a better one than Ubbe as the elder of Aslaug’s sons? Also Jarl Borg mentions an election, What’s up with that?

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    • I must say on the onset that I have stopped watching the Vikings show, so my knowledge of the show’s political dynamics are minimal. I have a feeling, however, that they’ve gone far afield of actual Scandinavian history, because those names together do not sound familiar (individually, they’re all common norse names). Nevertheless, I can comment generally on Viking political dynamics that you’ve mentioned in your question.

      Princes or princesses as we think of them were not known in the pre-Christian Viking world. In the pre-Christian period, a child of a king (think chieftain) or jarl (earl) was wealthy but not guaranteed a ruling position upon the death of their parent. This is because Scandinavia was split up into small loosely controlled kingdoms with very fluid borders. The death of a king was not immediately filled, and the land was to some extent free for another enterprising person to take. There are suggestions that wealthy ports were continuously inhabited by powerful people, but these changed hands. Olav Tryggvason (Olav I of Norway) was the son of a Vestfold noble, for instance, but he was banished from his homeland and had to earn his wealth and power abroad through raiding England before he could conquer Norway. According to saga lore, both king Olavs were exiles in their youth, threatened to be killed by the Danish and Norwegian nobles who took their fathers’ lands. From a Machiavellian standpoint, children of powerful nobles should be eliminated, because they tend to come back for vengeance. So it was to the detriment of the Olavs’ enemies that they survived to become raiders and powerful commanders of Viking fleets. So I don’t know why those characters weren’t killed on the show, but it might not have been the wisest move.

      As Viking kingdoms begin to settle their boundaries around the tenth and eleventh century, and adopt Christianity, we see an increasing idea of “European” kingship and primogenitor succession (or the first son of the king becomes king after him). However, it was a messy processes, with the throne of Norway staying in the hands of Olav II’s family (Harald Hardraada, Olav Kyrre) until the civil wars of the twelfth century, after which the national assembly of Norway was convened in order to agree to primogenitor succession.

      So most likely, the reference to an “election” was that the “thing” or meeting, which in Scandinavia was used to approve laws and, in later periods, the succession of the king. But contrary to what Americans think of that term today, the king was merely seeking approval from the assembly of nobles (and later clergy), not from the masses. The nobles represented the provinces they ruled, so it was presumed that if they agreed their subjects agreed as well.

      I know this was mostly about Norway, but Denmark and Sweden had similar trends. I would recommend looking at Harald Bluetooth and his successors if you’re curious about that part of the Viking world.

      I hope this was helpful! -Valkyrie

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