Gorm king made these runes after Thyra, his wife, Denmark’s pride Gorm konge gjorde disse kumler efter Thyre, sin kone, Danmarks bod
– So reads the inscription on the small Jelling runestone, raised by Gorm the Old, the first recognized king of Denmark, in the 900s A.D. The translation, however, is not definitive. This version conventionally suggests that “bod” means “pride”, while a more recent interpretation of the word is “salvation”, which would make Gorm’s wife, Thyra, Denmark’s savior rather than its pride. The inscription on the bigger runestone, raised nearby by Harald Bluetooth, Gorm’s son, says:
King Harald ordered these runes made in memory of Gorm, his father, and in memory of Thyra, his mother; that Harald who won for himself all of Denmark and Norway and made the Danes Christian.
At the time, the ancestry was normally noted through the fathers bloodline, but Harald equally mentions his mother. Perhaps he just really loved his parents, but this inscription also may suggest that being descended from Thyra herself offered some legitimacy and claim to power.
Conventional historical interpretation has it that Thyra was a highborn lady probably from outside of Denmark, who married king Gorm who ruled from Jelling in mainland Denmark. While women had far more influence in this period compared to later medieval ones, it was still a male dominated society. Women were in charge of maintaining the households, which in the case of a king could be quite large, and as this is before complicated government systems, Thyra likely ran the king’s estate and great hall in person. The reconstructed kings hall in Lejre (Denmark), is 61m long and 12m wide, giving it a floor space of 732m2 – and the hall in the king's compound was just one of several buildings that Thyra would have had to oversee.
Maybe, her importance came from an ability to manage these vast estates and create the domestic power needed to project it to conqueror and control all of Denmark, and hence she is the salvation of Denmark? If so, her impact must have been tremendous – as numerous other runestones made in honor of Thyra have been found on mainland Denmark, spread out over several days of journey on foot. One of them, the Laeboth runestone, reads:
Tófi, of Hrafn's lineage, made these runes in memory of Thyre, his queen.
Highborn men made honorific inscriptions to their ruler – and their ruler is Thyra, not Gorm. No runestones mentioning Gorm from a highborn point of view have been discovered, except his family.
This archaeological evidence prompts us to look at another “maybe” in Thyra’s story – and that’s where she actually originated from. Assumptions have been made that she was a foreigner brought to Denmark to seal an alliance with the Danish king Gorm. But what if it was the other way around? Perhaps Thyra was a powerful noble in her own right, who had managed to maintain order in turbulent times, and Gorm was the foreigner who came to Denmark, possibly from the Danelaw in England, where Gorm was spelled as Guthrum.
Some written sources also suggest that Thyra’s achievements go beyond talented household management. Saxo Grammaticus mentions that she was considered incredibly cunning and that it was she who ordered the building of Danevirke, the Danish border fortifications towards Germany, which successfully kept out Frankish invasions. Sven Aggesen, 12th century historian, mentions that Otto the Holy-Roman emperor requested to sleep with Thyra, though it is also said that this was merely to disgrace Denmark, not for her beauty – but either way he was aware of her personally. The anonymous Historia Norwegiæ mentioned Thyra as being astute of mind, while her husband Gorm was foolish. The Jomsviking saga also tells a story of Thyra as being a ruling Queen in Jutland, who was approached by Gorm whom she tested cunningly to see if he was worthy. In the Heimskringla Icelandic saga by Snorre Sturlason, it is said:
Ragnhild mother was called Tyrni, a daughter of the outlandish kong Klak-Harald and sister to Tyra Danebod, who was married to Gorm the Old, who ruled Denmark at this time.”
Thyra is not mentioned just as Gorm’s wife, she is mentioned with her additional name “Danebod”. The author thought that it was important that she was a sister to Thyra, and not just a daughter to Klak-Harald, once again highlighting that a simple familial tie to Thyra was considered worth mentioning.
So who was she: a good housekeeper, a king’s wife, an important political figure, a leader of warriors who defended Denmark against the Franks? Whatever reality the past keeps as a mystery, she was there during the foundation of a realm that would last over a thousand years after her death and counting – Thyra, the first Queen of Denmark.
Thyra will be featured in our game as a heroic character, beautifully drawn by Gianne van der Berg as you can see below. Thyra will lead her Viking warriors in battle against Franks and Saxons alike. You can try our public demo build here.