The Sons of Raghnall: Years of Many Kings

Saga has it that “Olaf was sole King in Norway after the death of his brother Magnus”; and the word ‘sole’ is telling. It indicates an attempt, possibly unique in European history, at combining the old pagan custom of dividing an estate equally between the sons, with the Christian preference for primogeniture – a method which, while not obviously superior for the family, did not splinter hard-built realms into their constituent parts. In particular, before Magnus’s early death in 1069, he and Olaf ruled jointly as kings, each having the full royal authority all over Norway – although in practice it seems that Magnus had the old royal city of Nidaros, while Olaf controlled wealthy Viken in the south (*).

(*) CK models this by making Olaf king, and giving Magnus the Duchy of Trøndelag.

As the joint kingship lasted only three years, we have little information about how well it worked; it is perhaps not unlikely that, had Magnus lived longer, friction might have arisen. When the experiment was repeated, in the middle of the fourteenth century, it certainly did. Nonetheless, the Years of Many Kings were considered a necessary expedient at the time; and we should not be too quick to judge our ancestors fools. Three decades of divided rule were, at any rate, better than the equal period of the Years of Wolf and Raven; and if the men on the spot thought that civil war was the alternative, we should be slow to disagree. We experience their period only through their words, a dry channel of low bandwidth; they lived it, feeling the wind bringing the scent of blood and iron to their nostrils and the hormones of anger pulsing through their veins. Their view should not be lightly discarded.

We cannot tell, at this distance in time, how angry the grandchildren of Trond really were at each other; we cannot stand in their chambers and feel quick Celtic tempers bouncing off the walls, or see the reddish-gold beards bristle with suppressed emotion. But we can recite the dry facts, and let them speak for themselves: Of the six men and two women who bore crowns of Scotland, Norway, or Sweden in the period between 1307 and 1357, all closely related, not one died of natural causes.

Humans at odds organise themselves into factions, and the names and ostensible causes of the factions do not necessarily show any obvious relationship to the underlying conflict. This appears to be the case with Trond’s grandchildren, who split into “Greek” and, opposing them, “Norse” factions. We need not believe that a passion for Greek literature and fashions actually decided the fate of nations; no doubt some pre-existing, private split took this convenient public form. In any case, for all the accusations of the Norse faction, there was no question of actual political influence from Constantinople; the distances were too large, communications too tenuous. But the difference in fashions – attested both by writers and by a few surviving portraits – was sufficient to make wealthy a few enterprising traders in hair oils, perfumes, and silks; and, more importantly, to be a visible marker of affiliation.

Ragnvald, the eldest son of Trond, had died in 1301; upon Trond’s death in 1307, Ragnvald’s eldest son took the throne, adopting the regnal name Gregoras. His Greek affiliation made it easy for the Norse faction, led by the next-eldest brother Johan, to stir up the nobles against him, and he was forced to abdicate in 1316, dying shortly after in what Johan, to the end of his own life, claimed was a misunderstanding by overzealous servants. Whatever the truth of this, Johan did not enjoy his gains for long; he died in 1320. (Since it is clear that none of these deaths were natural, we shall not bother to list the tedious and transparent excuses that were given at the time; suffice it to say that they may as well all have died of “choking on fishbones”, “trying to escape”, or of course that most popular of natural causes, “suicide by self-backstabbing”.) At this point occurs the first split; the Swedish electorate, refusing to put a child on the throne, rejected Johan’s sickly son Edmure and instead anointed his Johan’s next-younger brother – the third of Ragnvald’s sons to gain a throne – who in memory of his eldest brother also took the regnal name Gregoras. (It is sometimes hypothesized that the overuse of the name Gregoras, not to mention the Scandinavised variant Gregers, accounts for the unpopularity of the Greek faction among historians of the period.) The crowns of Norway and Scotland, meanwhile, passed to Edmure, who however had the bad taste to die a year later at the age of two; the crown then passed to his sisters Ragnfrid (who lasted only a few months longer; one wonders if someone was offering a bulk rate on the assassination of royal children) and then Linda.

It is worth noting that the MacRaghnalls do not appear to have considered themselves as ruling separate realms; it appears that they believed that the split of the crowns between different persons was a formality, and that there was still a unified kingdom with joint kings. (What their not-very-assimilated Swedish and Finnish subjects thought of this is unrecorded.) And to be fair, whatever their internal quarrels they united with remarkable speed at any hint of opposition from outside the family; Gregoras II, for example, is known to have put down two rebellions against the rule of his niece Linda with remarkable brutality. He also arranged to have her elected as Heir to the throne of Sweden, ahead of his own son Jorah – a remarkable concession, presumably indicating that the eventual re-unification of the thrones as a goal. It is this which makes the death of Linda so mysterious. If Gregoras would straightforwardly take the blame, that would be one thing; but the man insisted having her, not his son, as his Heir – and to compound this evidence of his innocence, he did the same thing with Ragnvald, who inherited Norway and Scotland upon Linda’s death. These, surely, are not the actions of a man obsessed with advancing his children at all costs; but who, then, killed Linda? (For that matter, ought we also to absolve Gregoras of the deaths of Edmure and Ragnfrid?) Perhaps others in the “Greek” faction should be blamed; we do not know what personal tensions and hatreds might have simmered under the surface of the factional feud. But Linda and Ragnvald were both of the next generation, and not obviously involved in whatever struggle motivated their uncles. The hypothesis of an outside killer, someone who desired to keep Scandinavia disunited and weak, begins to look attractive; yet no clear candidate for such a killer is apparent, MacRaghnall relations with all the neighbouring realms being good at this time.

MacRaghnall internal relations were something else again; Ragnvald’s rule was soon challenged by Severin, a son of Gregers – the youngest brother of the two Gregorases and Johan. Rather than fight it out to the end, Ragnvald agreed to a compromise, whereby he retained his personal lands and the empty title of “King of Scots”, while Severin became King of Norway. Gregoras II immediately had Severin elected as Heir, and it again seemed that the thrones would be largely reunited upon his death – whereupon Severin died. At this point, surely, even the most un-paranoid historian is allowed to suspect enemy action; for Severin’s son, Gregers – there’s that name again – was not eligible for election to the throne of Sweden. If this is not deliberate action by some entity interested in keeping Scandinavia weak, it is the most amazing coincidence of all time.

And yet, qui bono? The surrounding kingdoms, usually the first suspects in a matter of weakening internal affairs, seem blameless: At this time they were all on the defensive against the resurgent legions of Rome, and more likely to prop up a reliable ally than to weaken it. Gregoras, again, clears himself by his choice of heirs, and in any case none of these deaths did anything to put Jorah in the line of succession for Norway. Perhaps, then, we should look further afield; and perhaps, also, the name of the Greek faction offers a hint. For while it is true that the “Greeks” did not learn much of the language, did not actually produce many plays, did not even build any great collections of classical art… it is also clear, from the above narrative, that they adopted one Greek trait very well: The flair for intrigue which gave the world’s lexicons the adjective Byzantine. No great works of literature or philosophy are to be found in the MacRaghnall courts of this time, in spite of the pretensions of the Greek faction; but in assassination and backstabbing the two Gregorases and their lesser allies proved quite the equal of their chosen teachers.

As above, so below; the lesser nobles took their cue from the morals of the royals, and did their part to make the courts of the MacRaghnalls into snake pits, where a misstep could cost anything from one’s honour to one’s life. The quip of going from barbarism to decadence without an intervening civilisation has been made of many nations, but it was first said of the MacRaghnalls; and the blame for this must rest on the Greek faction. But, when all’s said and done, they must retain credit for one thing: The snakes would, without hesitation, turn as one upon any external foe. The realm was split between three kings, but they were all MacRaghnall kings; the family considered itself to jointly rule a single large kingdom, which happened to have several monarchs. Nor did any of them hire outside aid to resolve their differences. Indeed, if they turned to the assassin’s knife and the shedding of brothers’ blood, it is worth noting that others in like circumstances have raised banners of war and spilled the blood of thousands of their subjects, and held themselves more honourable. Of that sin, at least, the MacRaghnalls cannot be accused. They kept their feuds to themselves.

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