Old Gorm: The Last King of Norse Faith in Denmark
Updated: Mar 10
It is said that the Danish line of kings starts with Gorm the Old even though there were kings before him. The reason he is considered to be the first king is because he is the first one to be mentioned in Danish contemporary literary sources – the two rune stones in Jelling.
But we actually do not know much about Gorm for certain. We know that he was married to Thyra, that he was the father of Harald Bluetooth and that he held his seat of power in Jelling. He died in 958/59, and was initially buried in the North Mound in Jelling, one of the site’s two great mounds for which, along with the two rune stones, Jelling is famous.
The North Mound. Photo credit: Pia Enghild, Kongernes Jelling
But there is more to the story of Gorm
Although we do not know exactly when his reign started (nor how much of present-day Denmark this realm encompassed), we know with quite a bit of certainty that he was in power by 936, because literary sources tell us that he, at this time, expelled a certain bishop Unni, rejecting his requested permission to perform Christian mission. Since the early 8th century, Christian rulers of Europe had tried to force Denmark into the Christian fold. However, during the reign of Gorm, most Danes still worshiped the Norse gods, and Gorm, unlike his son, was never fond of, nor prone to the idea of Christianity.
After Gorm had died, Christianity was closing in on Denmark and Harald had to make a stance
Whether it was the supposed miracles performed by bishop Poppo - as described by the German monk Widukind - or the external pressures from the Holy Roman Empire to the south, Harald was convinced it was time to convert the Danes to Christianity.
The baptism of Harald Bluetooth. Detail from baptismal font of Tamdrup Church, ca. 1200,
now held in the National Museum, Denmark . Photo credit: Sven Rosborn, CC BY-SA 3.0
Harald himself was baptized in 965, and the whole conversion was commemorated on the large runestone in Jelling. At the same time, Harald commissioned a wooden church to be set up between the North and South mounds in Jelling, in which he re-buried his heathen father Gorm below its floors.
Was Gorm the Old actually old?
This reburial secured the remains of Gorm up to present day, revealing to us the fact that Gorm the “Old” was never very old. Analysis of the bones reveals that the man buried was between 35-50 years of age by the time death occurred. He was tall for his time, about 1,72 cm, had osteoarthritis in his back, bad teeth, and was not particularly muscular.
Although the large rune stone of Harald is considered the “birth certificate of Denmark” due to its Christian revelations, it is the stone erected by Gorm that mentions the name “Denmark” as a country for the first time in Danish history.
Gorm is considered the ancestor of the Danish royal family, and although the line is not always direct, it can be traced to the present Danish monarch, Margrethe II.
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Nielsen, P. (2013). Danmarks Oldtid, 1st edn, Nationalmuseet.
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