A Model Murder during the Nordic Civil Wars

This is greetings from Oslo! I am spending some time as a fellow at the Centre for Advanced Studies in Oslo, working on the Nordic Civil Wars project. One of the main reasons for being here in Oslo is that I am writing a chapter on the concept of ‘state’, its expectations and functions during times of civil wars. However, researching this topic has inevitably thrown up plenty of other intriguing pieces of evidence that I am also pursuing as part of the project.

One such unexpected finding relates to the killing of King Harald Gille in 1136 by his half-brother and rival for the Norwegian throne, Sigurd Slembe. The account in one of the kings’ sagas known as Morkinskinna, composed c. 1220, goes something like this:  Having discovered that Harald was staying the night with his mistress ‘Sigurd went to the lodging where the king was sleeping, and they began by first killing the guards and breaking down the door. Then they entered with swords drawn. The king had gone to bed after heavy drinking and was fast asleep. He awoke only as they attacked him…There King Harald lost his life…After that Sigurd and his men left. He summoned the men who had promised to support him if King Harald was killed. They took a ship, had the oars manned, and rowed out across the bay past the king’s residence. It was then beginning to dawn. Sigurd stood up and spoke to the men on the quay, identifying himself as Harald’s killer. He asked that they accept him as their chieftain, as his birth entitled him to be. Then large numbers arrived from the king’s residence, and they were all in agreement. They said that they would never serve a man who had murdered his brother…They all proclaimed that the killers should be outlawed and subject to death. Then the king’s trumpet was sounded, and all the district chieftains and retainers were assembled. Sigurd and his men saw that their only chance was to depart’ (Adapted from Morkinskinna, tr. T. M. Andersson and K. E. Gade (Cornell University Press, 2000), pp. 371-2).

There are lots of things in this account that is of interest. For me – no surprises – the description of an unemendable crime and the outlawing of the perpetrator was what originally caught my eye. The description in Morkinskinna has all the hallmarks of a more formal, legalised, process, with emphasis on certain elements – the breaking into the chamber, the witnesses, the consultation and agremeent, and the judgment of outlawry. The account clearly deals with the crime of treason – a hotly debated topic in twelfth- and thirteenth-century Europe and characterised in works such as John of Salisbury’s Policraticus (VI:24), following the Digest of the Emperor Justinian. But despite these exciting features, my question after reading the account in Morkinskinna, and remembering a similar description in one of the eighth-century entries of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (ASC), which I use in one of my third-year lectures as an example of how to become king in the early Anglo-Saxon period, leaned more towards: Did the Icelander writing the saga have access to the ASC?

The short answer is ‘no’. Or, not that we know of anyway. The accounts are not exactly the same, but at the core there are some very close similarities, suggesting the use of a textual model. I will be exploring some of the possibilities and problems of the origins of the account in Morkinskinna in a forthcoming paper to be given to the Graduate seminar at the Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic, Cambridge on Monday 6 November. Hope to see you there!