The Sons of Raghnall: October Night

January 10th, 1642
Nordnes, Bergen

It was, of course, raining; a drizzling, chilly rain with more than a hint of ice in it, driven by a gusting wind off the North Sea. Even in his good down-lined fur cloak, Greger felt the water creep into sleeves and down his neck, chilling him to the bone; the watching crowd muttered and stamped, shivering in patched woollens. There was a notable lack of furs, linens, and other finery. Hangings were usually a popular entertainment with the merchant class as much as with the commons; but not today. Today the wealthy were staying home; it was not the custom for executions to cut them close to the bone, and they had no stomach for it. But their absence was more than made up for by the poor, even though the crowd had a noticeable lack of bearded faces. The women of Nordnes had turned out in force, and brought their sons not yet of fighting age; widows and orphans there were enough of in Bergen, in this year 1642. But their men had not come with them.

The prisoners came out single file – line ahead, Greger corrected himself with dark amusement; these were naval men – not-quite-marching to the slow tap-tap-tap of a single drum. They were five, today. There had been more, many more, through all the grim days of December; tens and twenties had hanged daily before the muttering crowds, only Christmas Day bringing a pause. But these were the last and the highest-ranked, men with connections at court and friends everywhere but the streets of Bergen; even to this morning there had been rumours that they would escape the noose – and people in the ministries working to make it so. But here they were, D’Herrer Admiraler – the Lords of the Admiralty: The five men in charge of naval policy, and therefore responsible, beyond all others, for the Battle of the Cape. The five who would show, even more than the hundreds of lesser functionaries who had strangled and kicked here through the past three months, that the MacRaghnall court understood the plight of its seafaring population, and would honour their grief with reform. New brooms sweep best; and after today nobody could doubt that there were new brooms at the Admiralty. There were no old ones left. From the newest writ-servers and letter-copiers, to these very rulers of the Norse Navy, every last one had been swept out in the most final way possible, here on the Nordnes Oak.

The prisoners walked heads up, not precisely defiant, but not acknowledging guilt, either. Greger had to work to meet their eyes; over the winter he’d watched a round thousand men kick their lives away here, and he was a veteran of bloody fields, but these were men he knew. Teodor Ragnvaldsen, the Fifth Lord, was even a relation by marriage, husband of his wife’s cousin; the others he’d met on occasions of state and at balls and dances, hunts and parties. Now they were dead men, walking – as are we all, always, he reminded himself; but there was a difference between ten minutes and ten years – and yet they had done nothing but their best, as Gregor well knew. They were being hanged, not because anyone really thought they were traitors – though treason was their official crime – but to appease the mob; a sacrifice of a few, to save most of the upper classes from revolution. But for the chance that the defeat had been at sea and not on land, it might easily have been Greger walking up the thirteen steps of the Nordnes Oak, and Teodor marking him to his place, struggling to look him in the eye.

They knelt before the bishop – a single concession to their rank; everyone else had been shriven by priests – for the confession and Viaticum. The hangman fitted their nooses; then it was Greger’s turn.

“Johan MacRaghnall, Eirik Stenkil, Roar Randale, Steinar Rosendal, Teodor Ragnvaldsen” – he gave them their order of rank, but left off their titles for the bare names, just as their uniforms had been stripped of buttons and insignia – “for the crime of high treason, you have been sentenced to be hanged by the neck until dead, which shall be done this day before noon. Do you have any last words?”

The First Lord shook his head, tight-lipped, but Teodor spoke: “I hope someone is encouraged by this.” Gregor winced inwardly at the bitterness in the jest, but did not let anything show on his face. All these men had fought storm and gunpowder; but to stand under an oaken beam with a thirteen-coiled knot on your neck, and find it in you to make a quip – that was something else again, that went beyond the ordinary courage of seamen and soldiers. He met Teodor’s eyes and nodded, gravely, letting him know that one man, at least, had understood what he did. Then he spoke; no sense in drawing it out, since nobody else had anything to say.

“Execute the sentence.”


I think I see a host of ships
spreading their sails i’lee
as down the Channel they do glide
bound for a Southern sea.
I think I see them yet again,
and all on board’s all right,
with their guns run in
and their decks washed clean
and their sidelights burning bright.

A people that makes its living from the sea will necessarily suffer its share of disasters from storm and tide; and a great imperial power does not come into being without paying the price of admiralty. But the Battle of the Cape stands out, in Norwegian folk-memory, far beyond the everyday losses of feeding the sea. To lose ships and men in battle or storm was one thing; to lose almost the entire Kongelige Leidangsflåte in a single engagement was something else again, and the shock reverberated through Norse society like the tolling of a great bell. There was no family near the coast – and all of Norway is near the coast! – that had not lost a son or brother; only the timely hanging of a thousand clerks and officers of the Admiralty, the infamous Purge of Forty-Two, prevented a full and bloody revolution from breaking out. Even so late as 1680 labour agitators in Bergen stirred a vicious riot by spreading the rumour that Eirik Stenkil, the Second Lord, had escaped and that the authorities had hanged another man in his place.

A seafaring folk naturally had its songs and stories to describe, and thus soften, the grief of loss at sea. After such a blow as the Battle of the Cape, the existing body of mournful ballads were pressed into service (an apt metaphor, with the literal press-gangs roaming far beyond their accustomed coastal cities, hunting for crews to man the replacement navy) for this new disaster.

October night was such a night
was never seen before
with masts and yards and broken spars
come drifting to the shore.
There was many a heart in sorrow,
there was many a heart full brave;
there was many a hearty sailor lad
did find a watery grave.

Thus, for example, the curious case of “Three Score and Ten”, which for some centuries has puzzled scholars with its anomalies; although by common consent of those from whom it was collected it refers to the Cape, it is hard to see how any battle off southern Africa, no matter how bloody, could plausibly lead to any flotsam on the coast of Norway! The discovery of a collection of songs from 1623, twenty years before the battle, makes it clear that “Three Score and Ten” in fact refers to an older catastrophe, probably the Storm of 1611, which did cause a measureable uptick in the number of flotsam claims brought before the sea-courts in that year.

And it’s three score and ten,
boys and men,
were lost from Grimstad town;
from Tromsø down to Arendal
many thousands more were drowned.
The men of war, the frigates
the merchantmen as well
alone they fought the bitter fight
and battled with the swell.

To lose seventy men from such a flyspeck town as Grimstad is a disaster of epic proportions, and could be dismissed as hyperbole or artistic license if not for the careful record-keeping of the Admiralty at Bergen, whose paybooks indeed do show sixty-eight entries “Missing, presumed dead” for the year 1642 – from Henrik Tarvaldsen, 11, cabin boy on frigate Kong Ragnvald, to Arne Olsen, at 57 surely one of the oldest men in the fleet, bosun of the first-rate Sleipnir. It is unlikely that either one drowned, although that was no doubt the most common cause of death in the original fishing disaster; in a clash of ships-of-the-line, wooden splinters the size of a man’s head, flung about at half the speed of sound by cannon impacts, were the likeliest killer, followed by musketry. Young Henrik would likely have been sent to the orlop deck, below the waterline, before the battle started, and thus would have been safe from either threat; he probably died of fever clearing the Malayan jungle for a spice plantation.

In one sense, the memory of the Cape in song and story was the least of the changes it wrought on Norse society – as no doubt those thousand-or-so Admiralty bureaucrats who paid with their lives for the mistakes of others would agree. In another sense, it is through symbols that humans understand their world; such a sea change as occurred in Norway’s ballads in the 1640s is the expression as well as the companion of a society-wide revolution – in the original sense of everything being turned upside down. The old Kongelige Leidangsflåte was abolished, each ship-district being to pay a fixed sum of money directly to the King for his use instead of outfitting a ship more or less as it saw fit; the new navy thus raised was given the name of Nordsjøflåte, denoting its task of sea control. Between the losses at the Cape and the Purge, it had almost no continuity with the old fleet that descended from the Viking ship-muster. The ships, too, were built to a uniform new design, with three rather than two masts and more guns; there would be no more idiosyncratic sixty-three gun third-rates from the outlying districts. Finally, as if to underline the completeness of the break with tradition, it was decreed that the new ships should bear no dragons’ heads in time of war, as had been the custom from pagan times; only upon returning from a victorious campaign, the Fleet Order of 1645 laid out, should the dragons’ heads be raised, as a special privilege and reward for success. Until victory was assured, the Nordsjøflåte was instead to carry on its ships’ prows a broomstick, a silent reminder both of its task of sweeping the sea clear of enemies, and of the motto of the Purge.

New brooms sweep best.


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One response to “The Sons of Raghnall: October Night

  1. Pingback: The Sons of Raghnall: Images of the Great War | Ynglinga Saga

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