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  • Julie Lund

Harald Bluetooth: The King Who Connected With Europe


illustration by Janna Reinpacher and Damir Pejinovic


Harald Bluetooth is one of the most famous Danish Viking kings in history–and not just because Bluetooth technology was named after him!

Also known as “Harald the Good” or “Harald Gormsson”, he was the son of king Gorm and queen Thyra. We do not know when Harald was born, nor the exact year of his death, but we know that he (like his father) held his seat of power in Jelling, which was greatly embellished during his reign. We also know that he was a great builder of military power systems throughout Denmark and that he both fathered and was killed by Sven Forkbeard, the later conqueror of England.

Before the death of Gorm, it is believed that father and son co-ruled Denmark. When Gorm died in ca. 958, Harald became king and ruled Denmark until his death in ca. 987.


Mixing politics and religion

Harald was a notable king for many reasons, but his most famous and impressive (considering the Danes’ reluctance) achievement, was the Christianization of the pagan Danes.

According to Widukind’s Saxon Chronicle, Harald was convinced to convert to the Christian faith by a miracle performed by the German bishop Poppo. In the legend, Poppo grabs a piece of glowing iron from the hearth and carries it around in his hand without it burning him. His faith in the White Christ (the name under which Jesus was known in Scandinavia) was so great that the iron did not burn him.

This was quite a dramatic story about Harald Bluetooth's conversion and baptism, and it served political purposes. Harald was up against strong forces from the Holy Roman Empire just south of the Danish borders, and ultimately, had no other choice but to change sides in the religious struggle and convert his people. In this sense, the story of Poppo and the glowing iron came in handy as nobody likes a loser, while Christianity loves a good miracle.

This conversion was commemorated on the large runestone in Jelling, a stone that is not only the largest runestone in the world, but a stone that also carries the oldest representation of Christ in Scandinavia.


Two sides of the large Jelling Stone, ca. 965 AD. Credits: CC BY-SA 2.0 Roberto Fortuna.

Harald’s monuments – Busy guy!

Now that Harald had secured his empire from the southern threat, it was time to show the world, or at least the north, who was in charge!

Harald Bluetooth was indeed no idler. During his ca. 29 years of rule, he erected not only the large runestone in Jelling, the two mounds, the surrounding palisade, a huge bridge by Ravninge Enge near Jelling, but also an impressive and prestigious network of ring fortresses across the country. These constructions were of no ordinary scale, they were built to impress, impose and demonstrate the enormous power that only a great king possessed. Harald demonstrated his right to rule through the building of these prestigious monuments - something never seen in the north before - and ultimately joined a tradition that had characterized Western Europe for centuries.

Harald's unique constructions were built over a short period of time and were evidently only in use for a few generations before they were abandoned and – due to lack of repair and maintenance - perished.


“Trelleborg”, one of Haralds numerous ring fortresses. Credits: Thue C. Leibrandt (Wikimedia Commons)


Cursed with a rebellious son

We can safely say that Harald did not have a good relationship with his son Sven. Accounts describe Sven as a wild Christ-hating heathen, but they were from biased sources. Whatever the cause, there was bad blood between the two.

In 986/87 a civil war broke out, in which Sven Forkbeard rebelled against his father. There is conflicting information from the literary sources about the context of this dispute, but most of them agree that Harald was wounded, forced to retreat his forces, and consequently died shortly afterwards.

It is believed that Harald took his last breath at Jomsborg (modern day Wollin, northwestern Poland). It was assumed that he was buried inside the Church in Roskilde, a church allegedly commissioned by him. However, it turns out that the church does not contain his remains and seemingly never did. The final resting place of Harald Bluetooth is to this day a mystery.



 

References:

Hvass, S. (2011). Jelling-monumenterne: deres historie og bevaring, 1st edn, Kulturarvsstyrelsen.

Lund, N. (1997). De hærger og de brænder: Danmark og England i vikingetiden, 2nd edn, Gyldendal.

Nielsen, P. (2013). Danmarks Oldtid, 1st edn, Nationalmuseet.

Skaaning, P. (2008). Sven Tveskæg, Forlaget Hovedland.

Varberg, J. (2019). Viking: Ran, Ild og Sværd, Gyldendal A/S.









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