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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 11

Chapter XI. Magnus the Good and Others

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Chapter XI. Magnus the Good and Others.

St. Olaf is the highest of these Norway Kings, and is the last that much attracts us. For this reason, if a reason were not superfluous, we might here end our poor reminiscences of these dim Sovereigns. But we will, nevertheless, for the sake of their connection with bits of English History, still hastily mention the names of one or two who follow, and who throw a momentary gleam of life and illumination on events and epochs that have fallen so extinct among ourselves at present, though once they were so momentous and memorable.

The new King Svein, from Jomsburg, Knut's natural son, had no success in Norway, nor seems to have deserved any. His English mother and he were found to be grasping, oppressive persons; and awoke, almost from the instant that Olaf was suppressed and crushed away from Norway into Heaven, universal odium more and more in that country. Well-deservedly, as still appears; for their taxings and extortions of malt, of herring, of meal, smith work and every article taxable in Norway, were extreme; and their service to the country otherwise nearly imperceptible. In brief their one basis there was the power of Knut the Great; and that, like all earthly things, was liable to sudden collapse,—and it suffered such in a notable degree. King Knut, hardly yet of middle age, and the greatest King in the then world, died at Shaftesbury, in 1035 as Dahlmann thinks,1—leaving two legitimate sons and a busy, intriguing widow (Norman Emma, widow of Ethelred the Unready), mother of the younger of these two; neither of whom proved to have any talent or any continuance. In spite of Emma's utmost efforts, Harald, the elder son of Knut, not hers, got England' for his kingdom; Emma and her Harda-Knut had to be content with Denmark, and go thither, much against their will. Harald in England—light-going little figure like his father before him,—got the name of Harefoot here; and might have done good work among his now orderly and settled people; but he died almost within year and day; and has left no trace among us, except that of 'Harefoot,' from, his swift mode of walking. Emma and her Harda-Knut now returned joyful to England. But the violent, idle and drunken Harda-Knut did page 274 no good there; and, happily for England and him, soon suddenly ended, by stroke of apoplexy at a marriage festival, as mentioned above. In Denmark he had done still less good. And indeed, under him, in a year or two, the grand imperial edifice, laboriously built by Knut's valour and wisdom, had already tumbled all to the ground, in a most unexpected and remarkable way. As we are now to indicate with all brevity.

Svein's tyrannies in Norway had wrought such fruit that, within the four years after Olaf's death, the chief men in Norway, the very slayers of King Olaf, Kalf Arneson at the head of them, met secretly once or twice; and unanimously agreed that Kalf Arneson must go to Sweden, or to Russia itself; seek young Magnus, son of Olaf, home: excellent Magnus, to be king over all Norway and them, instead of this intolerable Svein. Which was at once done,—Magnus brought home in a kind of triumph, all Norway waiting for him. Intolerable Svein had already been rebelled against: some years before this, a certain young Tryggve out of Ireland, authentic son of Olaf Tryggveson and of that fine Irish Princess who chose him in his low habiliments and low estate, and took him over to her own Green Island,—this royal young Tryggve Olafson had invaded the usurper Svein, in a fierce, valiant and determined manner; and though with too small a party, showed excellent fight for some time; till Svein, zealously bestirring himself, managed to get him beaten and killed. But that was a couple of years ago; the party still too small, not including one and all as now! Svein, without stroke of sword this time, moved off towards Denmark; never shewing face in Norway again. His drunken brother, Harda-Knut, received him brother-like; even gave him some territory to rule over and subsist upon. But he lived only a short while; was gone before Harda-Knut himself; and we will mention him no more.

Magnus was a fine bright young fellow, and proved a valiant, wise, and successful King, known among his people as Magnus the Good. He was only natural son of King Olaf; but that made little difference in those times and there. His strange-looking, unexpected Latin name he got in this way: Alfhild, his mother, a slave through ill-luck of war, though nobly-born, was seen to be in a hopeful way; and it was known in the King's house how intimately Olaf was connected with that occurrence, and how much he loved this 'King's serving-maid,' as she was commonly designated. Alfhild was brought to bed late at night; and all the world, especially King Olaf, was asleep; Olaf's strict rule, then and always, being, don't awaken me:—seemingly a man sensitive about his sleep. The child was a boy, of rather weakly aspect; no important person present, except Sigvat, the King's Icelandic Skald, who happened to be still awake; and the Bishop of Norway, who, I suppose, had been sent for in hurry. "What is to be done?" said the Bishop, "here is an infant in pressing need of baptism; and we know not what the name is: go, Sigvat, awaken the King, and ask." "I dare not for my life," answered Sigvat. "King's orders are rigorous on that point." "But if the child die unbaptised," said the Bishop shuddering; too certain, he and everybody, where the child would go in that case! "I will myself give him a name," said Sigvat, with a desperate concentration of all his faculties; "he shall be namesake of the greatest of mankind,—imperial Carolus Magnus; let us call the infant Magnus!" King Olaf, on page 275 the morrow, asked rather sharply how Sigvat had dared take such a liberty; but excused Sigvat, seeing what the perilous alternative was. And Magnus, by such accident, this boy was called; and he, not another, is the prime origin and introducer of that name Magnus, which occurs rather frequently, not among the Norway Kings only, but by and by among the Danish and Swedish; and, among the Scandinavian populations, appears to be rather frequent to this day.

Magnus, a youth of great spirit, whose own, and standing at his beck, all Norway now was, immediately smote home on Denmark; desirous naturally of vengeance for what it had done to Norway, and the sacred kindred of Magnus. Denmark, its great Knut gone, and nothing but a drunken Harda-Knut, fugitive Svein and Co., there in his stead, was become a weak dislocated Country. And Magnus plundered in it, burnt it, beat it, as often as he pleased; Harda-Knut struggling what he could to make resistance or reprisals, but never once getting any victory over Magnus. Magnus, I perceive, was, like his Father, a skilful as well as valiant fighter by sea and land; Magnus, with good battalions, and probably backed by immediate alliance with Heaven and St. Olaf, as was then the general belief or surmise about him, could not easily be beaten. And the truth is, he never was, by Harda-Knut or any other. Harda-Knut's last transaction with him was, To make a firm Peace and even Family-treaty sanctioned by all the grandees of both countries, who did indeed mainly themselves make it; their two Kings assenting: That there should be perpetual Peace, and no thought of war more, between Denmark and Norway; and that, if either of the Kings died childless while the other was reigning, the other should succeed him in both Kingdoms. A magnificent arrangement, such as has several times been made in the world's history; but which in this instance, what is very singular, took actual effect; drunken Harda-Knut dying so speedily, and Magnus being the man he was. One would like to give the date of this remarkable Treaty; but cannot with precision. Guess somewhere about 1040:2 actual fruition of it came to Magnus, beyond question, in 1042, when Harda-Knut drank that wassail bowl at the wedding in Lambeth, and fell down dead; which in the Saxon Chronicle is dated 3rd June of that year. Magnus at once went to Denmark on hearing this event; was joyfully received by the head men there, who indeed, with their fellows in Norway, had been main contrivers of the Treaty; both Countries longing for mutual peace, and the end of such incessant broils.

Magnus was triumphantly received as King in Denmark. The only unfortunate thing was, that Svein Estrithson, the exile son of Ulf, Knut's Brother-in-law, whom Knut, as we saw, had summarily killed twelve years before, emerged from his exile in Sweden in a flattering form; and proposed that Magnus should make him Jarl of Denmark, and general administrator there, in his own stead. To which the sanguine Magnus, in spite of advice to the contrary, insisted on acceding. "Too powerful a Jarl," said Einar Tamberskelver—the same Einar whose bow was heard to break in Olaf Tryggveson's last battle ("Norway breaking from thy hand, King!"), who had now become Magnus's chief man, and had long been among the highest page 276 chiefs of Norway; "too powerful a Jarl," said Einar earnestly. But Magnus disregarded it; and a troublesome experience had to teach him that it was true. In about a year, crafty Svein, bringing ends to meet, got himself declared King of Denmark for his own behoof, instead of Jarl for another's: and had to be Beaten and driven out by Magnus. Beaten every year; but almost always returned next year, for a new beating,—almost, though not altogether; having at length got one dreadful smashing-down and half-killing, which held him quiet a while,—so long as Magnus lived. Nay in the end, he made good his point, as if by mere patience in being beaten; and did become King himself, and progenitor of all the Kings that followed. King Svein Estrithson; so-called from Astrid or Estrith, his mother, the great Knut's sister, daughter of Svein Forkbeard by that amazing Sigrid the Proud, who burnt those two ineligible suitors of hers both at once, and got a switch on the face from Olaf Tryggveson, which proved the death of that high man.

But all this high fortune of the often beaten Estrithson was posterior to Magnus's death; who never would have suffered it, had he been alive. Magnus was a mighty fighter; a fiery man; very proud and positive, among other qualities, and had such luck as was never seen before. Luck invariably good, said everybody; never once was beaten,—which proves, continued everybody, that his Father Olaf and the miraculous power of Heaven were with him always. Magnus, I believe, did put down a great deal of anarchy in those countries. One of his earliest enterprises was to abolish Jomsburg, and trample out that nest of pirates. Which he managed so completely that Jomsburg remained a mere reminiscence thenceforth; and its place is not now known to any mortal.

One perverse thing did at last turn up in the course of Magnus: a new Claimant for the Crown of Norway, and he a formidable person withal. This was Harald, half-brother of the late Saint Olaf; uncle or half-uncle, therefore, of Magnus himself. Indisputable son of the Saint's mother by St. Olaf's stepfather, who was himself descended straight from Harald Haarfagr. This new Harald was already much heard of in the world. As an ardent Boy of fifteen he had fought at King Olaf's side at Stickelstad; would not be admonished by the Saint to go away. Got smitten down there, not killed; was smuggled away that night from the field by friendly help; got cured of his wounds, forwarded to Russia, where he grew to man's estate, under bright auspices and successes. Fell in love with the Russian Princess, but could not get her to wife; went off thereupon to Constantinople as Vœringer (Life-Guardsman of the Greek Kaiser); became Chief Captain of the Væringers, invincible champion of the poor Kaisers that then were, and filled all the East with the shine and noise of his exploits. An authentic Waring or Baring, such the surname we now have derived from these people; who were an important institution in those Greek countries for several ages: Væringer Life-Guard, consisting of Norsemen, with sometimes a few English among them. Harald had innumerable adventures, nearly always successful, sing the Skalds; gained a great deal of wealth, gold ornaments, and gold coin; had even Queen Zoe (so they sing, though falsely) enamoured of him at one time; and was himself a Skald of eminence; some of whose verses, by no means page 277 the worst of their kind, remain to this day.

This character of Waring much distinguishes Harald to me; the only Væringer of whom I could ever get the least biography, true or half-true. It seems the Greek History-books but indifferently correspond with these Saga records; and scholars say there could have been no considerable romance between Zoe and him, Zoe at that date being 60 years of age! Harald's own lays say nothing of any Zoe, but are still full of longing for his Russian Princess far away.

At last, what with Zoes, what with Greek perversities and perfidies, and troubles that could not fail, he determined on quitting Greece; packed up his immensities of wealth in succinct shape, and actually returned to Russia, where new honours and favours awaited him from old friends, and especially, if I mistake not, the hand of that adorable Princess, crown of all his wishes for the time being. Before long, however, he decided farther to look after his Norway Royal heritages; and, for that purpose, sailed in force to the Jarl or quasi-King of Denmark, the often-beaten Svein, who was now in Sweden on his usual winter exile after beating. Svein and he had evidently interests in common. Svein was charmed to see him,—so warlike, glorious and renowned a man, with masses of money about him too. Svein did by and by become treacherous; and even attempted, one night, to assassinate Harald in his bed on board ship: but Harald, vigilant of Svein, and a man of quick and sure insight, had providently gone to sleep elsewhere, leaving a log instead of himself among the blankets. In which log, next morning, treacherous Svein's battle-axe was found deeply sticking; and could not be removed without difficulty! But this was after Harald and King Magnus himself had begun treating; with the fairest prospects,—which this of the Svein battle-axe naturally tended to forward, as it altogether ended the other co-partnery.

Magnus, on first hearing of Væringer Harald and his intentions, made instant equipment, and determination to fight his uttermost, against the same. But wise persons of influence round him, as did the like sort round Væringer Harald, earnestly advised compromise and peaceable agreement. Which, soon after that of Svein's nocturnal battle-axe, was the course adopted; and, to the joy of all parties, did prove a successful solution. Magnus agreed to part his kingdom with Uncle Harald; uncle parting his treasures, or uniting them with Magnus's poverty. Each was to be an independent king, but they were to govern in common; Magnus rather presiding. He to sit, for example, in the High Seat alone; King Harald opposite him in a seat not quite so high, though if a stranger King came on visit, both the Norse Kings were to sit in the High Seat. With various other punctilious regulations; which the fiery Magnus was extremely strict with; rendering the mutual relation a very dangerous one, had not both the Kings been honest men, and Harald a much more prudent and tolerant one than Magnus. They, on the whole, never had any weighty quarrel, thanks now and then rather to Harald than to Magnus. Magnus too was very noble; and Harald, with his wide experience and greater length of years, carefully held his heat of temper well covered in.

Prior to Uncle Harald's coming, Magnus had distinguished himself as a Lawgiver. His Code of Laws for the Trondhjem Province was considered a pretty piece of legislation; and in subsequent times got page 278 the name of 'Grey-goose' (Gràgas); one of the wonderfullest names ever given to a wise Book. Some say it came from the grey colour of the parchment, some give other incredible origins; the last guess I have heard is, that the name merely denotes antiquity; the witty name in Norway for a man growing old having been, in those times, that he was now becoming a grey-goose. Very fantastic indeed; certain, however, that Grey-goose is the name of that venerable Law Book; nay, there is another, still more famous, belonging to Iceland, and not far from a century younger, the Iceland Grey-goose. The Norway one is perhaps of date about 1037, the other of about 1118; peace be with them both! Or, if anybody is inclined to such matters, let him go to Dahlmann, for the amplest information and such minuteness of detail as might almost enable him to be an Advocate, with Silk Gown, in any Court depending on these Grey-geese.

Magnus did not live long. He had a dream one night of his Father Olaf's coming to him in shining presence, and announcing, That a magnificent fortune and world-great renown was now possible for him; but that perhaps it was his duty to refuse it; in which case, his earthly life would be short. "Which way wilt thou do, then?" said the shining presence. "Thou shalt decide for me, Father, thou, not I!" and told his Uncle Harald on the morrow, adding that he thought he should now soon die; which proved to be the fact. The magnificent fortune, so questionable otherwise, has reference, no doubt, to the Conquest of England; to which country Magnus, as rightful and actual King of Denmark, as well as undisputed heir to drunken Harda-Knut, by treaty long ago, had now some evident claim. The enterprise itself was reserved to the patient, gay and prudent Uncle Harald; and to him it did prove fatal,—and merely paved the way for Another, luckier, not likelier!

Svein Estrithson, always beaten during Magnus's life, by and by got an agreement from the prudent Harald to be King of Denmark, then; and end these wearisome and ineffectual brabbles; Harald having other work to do. But in the autumn of 1066, Tosti, a younger son of our English Earl Godwin, came to Svein's court with a most important announcement; namely, that King Edward the Confessor, so-called, was dead, and that Harold, as the English write it, his eldest Brother, would give him, Tosti, no sufficient share in the kingship. Which state of matters, if Svein would go ahead with him to rectify it, would be greatly to the advantage of Svein. Svein, taught by many beatings, was too wise for this proposal; refused Tosti, who indignantly stepped over into Norway, and proposed it to King Harald there. Svein really had acquired considerable teaching, I should guess, from his much beating and hard experience in the world; one finds him afterwards the esteemed friend of the famed Historian Adam of Bremen, who reports various wise humanities, and pleasant discoursings with Svein Estrithson.

As for Harald Hardrade, 'Harald the Hard or Severe,' as he was now called, Tosti's proposal awakened in him all his old Væringer ambitions and cupidities into blazing vehemence. He zealously consented; and at once, with his whole strength, embarked in the adventure. Fitted out two hundred ships, and the biggest army he could carry in them; and sailed with Tosti towards the dangerous Promised Land. Got into the Tyne, and took booty; got into the Humber, thence into the Ouse; easily subdued any opposition the official people or their populations could page 279 make; victoriously scattered these, victoriously took the City of York in a day; and even got himself homaged there, 'King of Northumberland,' as per covenant,—Tosti proving honourable,—Tosti and he going with faithful strict copartnery, and all things looking prosperous and glorious. Except only (an important exception!) that they learnt for certain, English Harold was advancing with all his strength; and, in a measurable space of hours, unless care were taken, would be in York himself. Harald and Tosti hastened off to seize the post of Stamford Bridge on Derwent River, six or seven miles east of York City, and there bar this dangerous advent. Their own ships lay not far off in Ouse River, in case of the worst. The battle that ensued the next day, September 20, 1066, is forever memorable in English history.

Snorro gives vividly enough his view of it from the Icelandic side: A ring of stalwart Norsemen, close ranked, with their steel tools in hand; English Harold's Army, mostly cavalry, prancing and pricking all round; trying to find or make some opening in that ring. For a long time trying in vain, till at length, getting them enticed to burst out somewhere in pursuit, they quickly turned round, and quickly made an end of that matter. Snorro represents English Harold, with a first party of these horse coming up, and, with preliminary salutations, asking if Tosti were there, and if Harald were; making generous proposals to Tosti; but, in regard to Harald and what share of England was to be his, answering Tosti with the words, "Seven feet of English earth, or more if he require it, for a grave." Upon which Tosti, like an honourable man and copartner, said, "No, never; let us fight you rather till we all die." "Who is this that spoke to you?" inquired Harald, when the cavaliers had withdrawn. "My brother Harold," answers Tosti, which looks rather like a Saga, but may be historical after all. Snorro's history of the battle is intelligible only after you have premised to it, what he never hints at, that the scene was on the east side of the bridge and of the Derwent; the great struggle for the bridge, one at last finds, was after the fall of Harald; and to the English Chroniclers, said struggle, which was abundantly severe, is all they know of the battle.

Enraged at that breaking loose of his steel ring of infantry, Norse Harald blazed up into true Norse fury, all the old Væringer and Berserkir rage awakening in him; sprang forth into the front of the fight, and mauled and cut and smashed down, on both hands of him, everything he met, irresistible by any horse or man, till an arrow cut him through the windpipe, and laid him low forever. That was the end of King Harald and of his workings in this world. The circumstance that he was a Waring or Baring, and had smitten to pieces so many Oriental cohorts or crowds, and had made love-verses (kind of iron madrigals) to his Russian Princess, and caught the fancy of questionable Greek queens, and had amassed such heaps of money, while poor nephew Magnus had only one gold ring (which had been his father's, and even his father's mother's, as Uncle Harald noticed), and nothing more whatever of that precious metal to combine with Harald's treasures:—all this is new to me, naturally no hint of it in any English book; and lends some gleam of romantic splendour to that dim business of Stamford Bridge, now fallen so dull and torpid to most English minds, transcendently important as it once was to all Englishmen. Adam of page 280 Bremen says, the English got as much gold plunder from Harald's people as was a heavy burden for twelve men;3 a thing evidently impossible, which nobody need try to believe. Young Olaf, Harald's son, age about sixteen, steering down the Ouse at the top of his speed, escaped home to Norway with all his ships, and subsequently reigned there with Magnus, his brother. Harald's body did lie in English earth for about a year; but was then brought to Norway for burial. He needed more than seven feet of grave, say some; Laing, interpreting Snorro's measurements, makes Harald eight feet in stature,—I do hope, with some error in excess!

1 Saxon Chronicle says: '1035. In this year died King Cnut. ... He departed at Shaftesbury, November 12, and they conveyed him thence to Winchester and there buried him.'

2 Munch gives the date 1038 (ii. 840), Adam of Bremen 1040.

3 Camden, Rapin, &c., quote.