The Sons of Raghnall: The Norwegian Exile

The Norwegian Exile

We know little of the origins of the Norwegian Exile, the long period during which MacAeda kings sat the throne of Scotland while the MacRaghnalls, variously, married English kings, sat on their ancestral estates in Lothian and Albany, and – from which we derive the name – ruled Norway through a rather tenuous claim by marriage. Of its actual events, however, we are relatively well informed, largely because the name comes from the doings of one of the most active and well-known MacRaghnalls: Gilpatrick “King-over-Water”, also called “the Paunch” by his Norwegian subjects. Gilpatrick was the son and youngest child of Alpin, who was called the Hopeful Prince. Alpin, though the son of Ranald, King of Scots, and married to Ingrid the Maid of Norway, never himself ruled in either kingdom; he died before his father, fighting one of the innumerable rebellions against his wife. His son, nevertheless, inherited the kingdom he had secured for Ingrid, mainly through the inability of the other claimants to agree on a single candidate and unite in resistance to the Scottish dynasty.

As might be expected in these circumstances, Gilpatrick’s rule was somewhat tenuous, and indeed his adult life was mainly consumed in campaigning. His first campaign, which may be apocryphal – it does not appear in court records, but is preserved mainly in bawdy ballads – was against his own wife, Åsta, who was in her own right Jarl of the Orkneys. The marriage was, at least initially, one of convenience, and the ballad “Åsta’s Quarrel” asserts that it was a lover that Åsta wished to place on the throne. This “Domestic Dispute” was, however, put down, somewhat more gently than was Gilpatrick’s later habit. It is clear that Åsta was imprisoned for some time after her defeat; in spite of innumerable sniggering ballads asserting the contrary, it is not clear that Gilpatrick “tamed” her by tying her to his bed and using his belt on her nether regions. This is, nonetheless, the beginning of the MacRaghnall reputation for interesting bedroom practices. The amount of erotica written about Gilpatrick’s court is quite astonishing considering the limited time he actually spent at his estate in southern Norway.

In 1120 we find Gilpatrick disputing the kingship of Scotland with his sister Agnes – and incidentally with Morgan, the MacAeda king, who, however, was never in a position to defend his throne since all his richest vassals – MacRaghnalls to a man – rose in support of their kin. In a technical sense this war ends the Norwegian Exile, in that it ends with a MacRaghnall again on the throne of Scotland. However, since Agnes’s son Theobald was legally considered to be of the dynasty de Plage d’Or, most historians follow their medieval sources in rejecting this interpretation. In any case, the loss of prestige (and fighting men) attendant on his sister’s victory caused Gilpatrick’s vassals to rise in the Rogaland Rebellion, which he put down with ruthlessness, fervour, and the aid of his English brother-in-law, who apparently bore no grudge over the Scottish affair.

A few years later, with his jarls quiescent again, he decided to arbitrate – in his own inimitable style – between the King of Sweden and his rebellious jarl of Norrland; he ended their conflict by the simple expedient of invading Norrland and driving its ruling family into exile as sea-kings, and declaring himself the new jarl. In spite of the label “arbitration”, this was no doubt somewhat provoking to Hardeknut, the Swedish king at the time; but Gilpatrick cleverly announced his willingness to do fealty and homage for his new lands. That is, he would acknowledge Hardeknut as the overlord of Gilpatrick, Jarl of Norrland, while of course retaining the full sovereign independence of Gilpatrick, King of Norway, who chanced to inhabit the same body as the Jarl. It is probable that Hardeknut was not too pleased with this face-saving solution, but as he was embroiled in two other conflicts at the same time – with the wealthy republic of Gotland and with still another of his overmighty subjects in Dal – he perforce took it.

Gilpatrick then occupied himself with putting down yet another of the interminable rebellions that are a recurring feature of Norwegian history in this period. It is worth noting that, although the borders appear reasonably modern and coincide with ethnic boundaries in the fashion of a nation-sate, the Scandinavian kingdoms at this time were not really unified states. Rather they were conglomerates of minor statelets, held together by the personality and force of a king who was genuinely no more than first among equals – in particular, in the number of his fighting tail! Like Charlemagne, if on a smaller scale, Gilpatrick had every so often to remind his jarls of why they acknowledged him as king. To call these expeditions “campaigns” and “rebellions” is in one sense misleading; there seems to have been little real fighting. Rather, Gilpatrick would show up with his personal guard at the estate of a vassal who had been showing signs of too much independence – generally in the form of shorting the scot, the tribute or tax (the distinction is a bit vague in this period) owed to the king. He would then receive the feasting due to a guest, even a guest with a retinue of several hundred, thus making up the arrears in taxes – feeding his fighting men being, in any case, the main use Gilpatrick had for his income. It is even possible that he preferred to receive his taxes in kind at the vassal’s estate, saving on transport costs and allowing him to remind the vassal of why he was paying.

Sometimes, however, this comradely arrangement would break down and a vassal or a collection of them would not only short their scot, but have themselves elected kings by their local assembly. In such a case Gilpatrick could expect to have to fight. Although no single jarl could match Gilpatrick’s full war-levy for numbers, several of them could raise formidable hosts of thousands of men – enough, at any rate, to have a fighting chance against Gilpatrick’s readily-available forces. To call out the leidang against such a rising, of course, always introduced the risk that the fighting men called up would choose to side with the rebellion! Gilpatrick therefore preferred to rely on his hirdsmenn, on aid from his family, and in a pinch on mercenaries like the Victual Brothers. Even so, a rebellion was always a chancy thing; while Gilpatrick would have the advantage of numbers, he was expected, in this warlike age, to take the field himself, and fight in the front ranks at that. A stray arrow could end a kingship and make a rebellion stick. It was for this reason that war-luck was much prized in a king, and Gilpatrick seems to have had more than his share of it; if his chroniclers – admittedly, paid court officials and not neutral reporters – are to be believed, he fought in no less than twenty-three battles in the course of his career, escaping them all with nothing worse than scrapes and bruises. Few of his fighting men can have been so lucky.

To return to the tally of Gilpatrick’s wars, in 1232 he again took the field in Sweden, this time at the invitation of the local nobles, who had tired of Hardeknut’s interminable wars. In addition to Gotland, Hardeknut had managed to enter a dispute with Denmark, two of his nominal vassals were in open rebellion, and after two decades of war the forests were full of bandits and broken men. In these circumstances it is hardly surprising that Hardeknut’s subjects wished for someone, anyone, else to bring peace and order to the land. The jarls elector were, however, unable to agree on one of their own number; instead they turned to someone who, at any rate, did not have personal feuds with any of the others. In his persona of Jarl of Norrland, Gilpatrick had a vote in the election of a new Swedish king, but it is unlikely that a foreigner could have won such an election. However, Scandinavian successions at the time were not much given to legal niceties; the casting vote was held by the larger army, which Gilpatrick indisputably had. The fig leaf of being a jarl elector, and of moving only at the invitation of the electoral college, was a mere bonus.

In two years Gilpatrick swept aside all resistance in Sweden, including the crushing of the two large-scale rebellions around Skåne, which had festered, on and off, almost throughout Hardeknut’s reign. He then rounded off his conquest with some campaigning in Finland, on the doubtful marches of his new kingdom, subduing a few independent tribes in the grandly-named “Karelian Crusade” and bringing Norway’s eastern border to the White Sea.

This brings us to 1237, after a decade and a half in which Gilpatrick rarely even wintered at his estate. There follows a relatively peaceful period of two years or so, which Gilpatrick used to set his affairs in order, for example by appointing his son Ragnvald as Jarl of Norrland. This maneuver seems to have been intended to guarantee the Swedish succession, which unlike the Norwegian was still elective. As King of Sweden Gilpatrick had a single vote in the election of his successor, which was insufficient even against the splintered opposition of the Swedish jarls, who could agree on very little except that they did not want Ragnvald. By making his son a jarl elector, he managed to create a voting bloc of two, which (with the King’s vote being decisive in the case of a tie) was a barely-sufficient plurality of the six total votes. However, the maneuver backfired when Ragnvald’s erstwhile vassals rose against him, forcing him to flee Norrland for his father’s court. A jarl with the dread name of Yngling briefly held the title, until a seriously annoyed Gilpatrick took time off from his Danish campaign to reinstate his son at the point of several thousand spears. “And be grateful it wasn’t two hundred,” he is reputed to have snarled to the female ringleader, Cecilia of Medelpad, referring to the ransom of a hundred ducats she had to pay for her head, and accidentally cementing his reputation among writers of smut, who to this day insist that he was talking about blows of – according to taste – the whip, the birch, the belt, or even the bare hand.

Finally, Gilpatrick’s Danish campaign is anomalous in that he seems to have waged it, quite genuinely, to assure the stability of another state. In particular, when Danish king Uffe’s overmighty subject, the Duke of Sjælland, raised his banner in revolt, Gilpatrick took the field to keep Uffe on the throne, and then meekly went home upon achieving this uncharacteristically modest war aim – this in spite of having subdued wealthy Copenhagen, then the largest city on the Baltic. The reasons for this apparent helpfulness are unclear; while it is true that Gilpatrick’s son Ragnvald was betrothed to a grand-daughter of Uffe, this is rather a tenuous alliance as feudal affairs go. To insist, as some writers do, that Gilpatrick was even then plotting to place his (as yet unborn!) grandson on the throne of Denmark, ahead of two living grandsons of Uffe and at least thirty years in the future, is surely too conspiratorial, not to mention that it gives Gilpatrick near-prophetic powers of foresight.

A prophet he was surely not; rather he was the very model of a Norse warlord-king, living toujours en vedette and more often in the field than on his throne, marching and sailing from Scotland to the White Sea. With his sister Agnes he shows what heights a lucky, ruthless, and skilled warlord could rise to, in this unsettled age of axe and sword, wolf and raven. His many victims – Morgan, Hardeknut, half a dozen unnamed Finnish chieftains, jarls from Bergen to Norrland, and (at least by reputation) his wife Åsta – show the pitfalls the less lucky could fall into. With great reward comes great risk; and Gilpatrick, and all his ilk, took risks that would make the most sociopathic hedge-fund trader blanch. Nor was there any way for him to socialise his losses; if he had flinched or fallen at any time in his twenty-three major battles and thirty years of war, he would have died face-down in the mud as did so many of his enemies. He was a Viking King, with all that entails; and though he would not, today, be welcome in the best circles – it is not as though he went to the right schools! – it may be that our politics would be the better for him. Or perhaps not. Perhaps our world of nuclear weaponry is too fragile for such a personality; perhaps it would unravel, glaringly, under the sheer weight of his character. If so, we are all the worse for the fact.

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One response to “The Sons of Raghnall: The Norwegian Exile

  1. Pingback: The Sons of Raghnall: Clan and Crown | Ynglinga Saga

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