The Actual History Behind 11 Things That Happen On 'Vikings: Valhalla'

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Vote up the fiercest backstories that set the stage for 'Vikings: Valhalla.'

Vikings: Valhalla picks up about a century after Vikings concluded, placing viewers in the late stages of the Viking Age. The historical connections between Vikings and Vikings: Valhalla serve as a reminder of the influence and legacies of the Vikings. New characters introduced on Vikings: Valhalla like Emma of Normandy, Godwin, Cnut, and Leif Erikson represent the increasingly connected world of the Vikings, the English, and the Normans, essentially playing out aspects of one of the most fascinating centuries of the Middle Ages.

The fact and fiction in Vikings: Valhalla blurs over and over again as the show weaves in diplomacy, religion, and combat. There's a lot of truth at the heart of Vikings: Valhalla, and the backstories to key events and happenings add a new level of fascination and ferocity to the show - and all things Viking.

  • Godwin May Have Had A Hand In The Demise Of One Of Aethelred's Sons
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    Godwin May Have Had A Hand In The Demise Of One Of Aethelred's Sons

    Godwin's role as an adviser, observer, and manipulator in Vikings: Valhalla attests to the power and influence he had during the 11th century. Believed to be the son of Wulfnoth Cild of Wessex, Godwin was born circa 993. His presence in the lives of Emma of Normandy, Aethelred, and Edmund Ironside is unclear, but he had no hand in the latter's demise. 

    Godwin was made an earl by King Cnut of England in 1018 CE and thrived under Danish rule. His wife, Gytha, may have actually been related by marriage to Cnut. Between 1018 CE and Cnut's demise in 1035 CE, Godwin rose to prominence as the most significant earl in the kingdom. 

    Cnut's demise led to the co-monarchy of Harold Harefoot and Harthacnut, his eldest sons by Aelfgifu of Northampton and Emma of Normandy, respectively. Godwin was supportive of Harefoot and had a heavy hand in helping him secure Mercia and Northampton, while Harthacnut struggled to control Wessex.

    Amid the political instability after Cnut's death, Emma's son by Aethelred, Alfred, returned to England. Godwin reportedly intercepted him, and per the Encomium Emmae Reginae, an 11th-century work praising Queen Emma, "took him under his protection." Alfred was either handed over to Harold Harefoot or taken at the order of the king. A decree then ordered:

    [T]hat first of all both [Alfred's] eyes should be put out as a sign of contempt. After they prepared to carry this out, two men were placed on his arms to hold them meanwhile, one on his breast, and one on his legs, in order that the punishment might be more easily inflicted on him. 

    Alfred perished soon after and the taint of his demise followed Godwin for the rest of his days. 

  • Pagans And Christians Had A Big Influence On Each Other  
    Photo: Netflix

    At the core of Vikings: Valhalla is the relationship between pagans and Christians. Olaf Haraldsson makes it clear he wants to spread the Christian faith, while Freydis Eirikssdottir has suffered from Christian aggression. When Cnut rallies his men to fight, the group is reminded that their commonality in being Viking unites them. 

    The slow spread of Christianity into Scandinavia made for tolerance and tension at various times and in different locations. When King Inge of Sweden tried to impose Christianity and ordered the destruction of the temple at Uppsala around 1080 CE, he was forced out of the kingdom. The actual destruction of the Uppsala temple occurred during this time period, however, and a Christian church was built in its place.

    Coexistence also meant religious beliefs and practices melded and blurred between pagans and Christians. Pagans worshipped their gods alongside Christ, and newly converted Scandinavian rulers protected Christian missionaries and merchants within pagan lands. 

    While assessments of religious mingling in the Viking Age often focus on pagans adopting Christianity, there are instances of pagan practices going the other direction. Berserker-like behaviors (demonstrated by Jarl Kare in Vikings: Valhalla) can be extrapolated from the enthusiastic, if not militant, efforts of some Scandinavian Christians to convert others.

    Even with that, however, the efforts of Scandinavian kings like Haakon of Norway were unsuccessful in converting the population. 

  • It's Not Clear Exactly What Happened During The St. Brice's Day Massacre
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    It's Not Clear Exactly What Happened During The St. Brice's Day Massacre

    The St. Brice's Day Massacre on November 13, 1002 CE, took place at the order of King Aethelred II. By the time Aethelred called for the mass slaying, settlements in parts of England known as the Danelaw were populated by Scandinavian migrants. The monarch was making increasingly large payments, called Danegeld, to attempt to dissuade Vikings from going after other parts of the island.

    Aethelred's efforts seemed to be in vain. In 1001 CE, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, "the Danes, who spread terror and upheaval wheresoever they went, plundering and burning and desolating the country with such rapidity," caused "a great commotion in England." When Aethelred was told in 1002 CE that the Vikings "would beshrew him of his life, and afterward all his council, and then have his kingdom without any resistance," he called for the mass slaying. 

    There's no way to know the number of people who were slain. Some historians believe Sweyn Forkbeards's sister, Gunhilde, may have been among the deceased, while others say the action was aimed only at Scandinavians outside of the Danelaw

  • Nothing Indicates Freydis Eiriksdottir Was Ever In England, But She Was A Fierce Adventurer
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    Nothing Indicates Freydis Eiriksdottir Was Ever In England, But She Was A Fierce Adventurer

    Freydis Eiriksdottir, believed to be the illegitimate daughter of Eirik the Red, was born circa 970 CE. She's referenced in Erik's Saga and The Saga of the Greenlanders as a woman who explores alongside her half-brother, Leif, with fierce intensity.

    Two examples exist that describe Freydis's ferocity, although neither places her in England. In The Saga of the Greenlanders, Freydis went to Vinland with two men, Helgi and Finbogi, in 1011 CE. She promised to share "the land's fruitfulness" with Helgi and Finbogi, but later accused them of assaulting her, eliminated them, and slaughtered the women who accompanied them. She then threatened to "take the life of that man who tells of this business; now should we say this, that they remained behind when we went away."

    Again while in Vinland, Freydis fought against natives called Skraelings, telling the men with her, "Let me but have a weapon, I think I could fight better than any of you." They didn't comply, but she picked a sword up from the ground. When she came face to face with the Skraelings, Freydis "let down her sark [dress] and struck her breast with the... sword. At this they were frightened, rushed off to their boats, and fled away."

  • Sweyn Forkbeard Was King Of England Before Cnut
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    Sweyn Forkbeard ruled Denmark, or most of it, from circa 986-995 CE, and again from 1000-1014 CE. Evidence suggests his first raid of England took place in 991 CE and he made several return trips during the remaining part of the decade. It's possible that Sweyn's invasion of England in 1002 CE was an act of revenge for his sister's demise as part of the St. Brice's Day mass slaying in 1002 CE. 

    By mid-1013, Sweyn and his fleet had raided England numerous times, receiving increasingly large Danegeld payments along the way. Sweyn was accompanied by his son, Cnut, and after their failed attempt to take London, Sweyn went to Bath where, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle:

    Alderman Ethelmar, and all the western thanes with him... submitted to Sweyne, and gave hostages. When he had thus settled all, then went he northward to his ships; and all the population fully received him, and considered him full king. The population of London also after this submitted to him, and gave hostages; because they dreaded that he would undo them.  

    Aethelred fled to Normandy in 1013 CE, but after Sweyn's demise in 1014 CE, he was invited by the English aristocracy to return to the throne. Aethelred's time as monarch was short and he perished in 1016 CE, at which time Edmund Ironside became king. While Vikings: Valhalla indicates Sweyn Forkbeard and King Edmund Ironside conversed, Sweyn was dead before the latter took the throne. 

    Cnut was back in England by 1015 CE and, in October 1016 CE, defeated King Edmund and his forces at Assandun. It wasn't until Edmund passed in 1016 CE that Cnut was able to rule England.

  • Cnut And Edmund Ironside Split Britain Up
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    Cnut And Edmund Ironside Split Britain Up

    The armies of Cnut and Edmund Ironside faced off four times in 1016 CE, with their final meeting at the Battle of Assandun (somewhere in Essex) on October 18. It was a defeat for Edmund, who entered into a peace agreement with Cnut soon after.

    With England divided into two realms, Edmund and Cnut were on somewhat equal footing, but the demise of Edmund in November undid the situation. Cnut, who already saw himself as the rightful king as Sweyn's successor, then became king of England.