Sunday, February 26, 2017

Who was Harald Bluetooth Gormsson?

King Harald Bluetooth in Civilization V
Harald Bluetooth ruled as King of a united Denmark from around 958 until 987 and his mysterious demise, overseeing great projects and changes among the Danes, most importantly the rise of Christianity.

Before a King

Born in 910, Harald Bluetooth Gormsson was the son of King Gorm the Old, considered as the first ruler of Denmark.  When his father passed away from grief over the death of Cnut, Harald’s older brother, he succeeded as King in midst of suspicions of some. Rumors suggested Harald orchestrated his brother’s death over jealousy for the affection of their father. But it did not deterred Harald from consolidating his power and expanding the kingdom.

Builder King

Harald other numerous construction throughout his kingdom, some with utilitarian purpose while others glorified his parents and his own reign.

To consolidate his control within the kingdom and maintain its security, he ordered the building of Trelleborgs, round castles that enclosed long houses serving as living quarters for soldiers. Trelleborgs marked the landscapes Trelleborg in Skane, Sjaelland, Fyrkat, Aggersborg, Nonnebakken.

He also built the oldest bridge in southern Scandinavia known as the Ravning Bridge.
One of the Jelling Stones
depicting a Crucifix

But his most famous work was the Jelling tomb and stones dedicated to his parents, King Gorm the Old and Queen Thyra. He had his father and mother’s remains buried beneath two huge mounds. Near it were huge rune stones. The biggest had an inscription stating, “King Harald bade this monument be made in memory of Gorm his father and Thyra his mother, that Harald who won for himself all Denmark and Norway and made the Danes Christians.”

The inscription indeed detailed much of Harald Bluetooth’s reign, including his expansion to Norway and his remarkable conversion of himself and his people to Christianity.

Conquest and Consolidation

His conquest of Norway can be considered achieved through treachery and a clever rouse that also helped him to consolidate his rule further.

Two events sparked the conquest: 1) Guld-Harald, son of Cnut and Harald’s nephew demanding a part of the kingdom as his inheritance; 2) Earl Hakon sought refuge and support for his claim to Norway against the enthroned King Harald Greycloak.

With these conditions, Harald moved to kill two bird with one stone, by getting Norway and eliminating Guld-Harald’s threat to his reign. Harald Bluetooth promised to his nephew Guld-Harald the Kingdom of Norway instead of any part of Denmark.

King Harald Bluetooth planned to invite King Harald Greycloak to come to Denmark so he could be killed by his nephew. The Danish King then used the misery of famine in Norway and invited King Harald Greycloak to come to Denmark and received food assistance. As the Norwegian King approached Denmark, Guld-Harald attacked and killed Harald Greycloak and claiming Norway as his.

Harald then moved to his plan’s second phase. He instigated Earl Hakon to slay Guld-Harald, which he did, making him the avenger of the fallen Norwegian King. Following the death of Guld-Harald, Harald Bluetooth successfully eliminated his contender, and with Harald Greycloak dead, he landed to Norway, took over half of the Kingdom and gave it to his son Sven and the other half under Earl Hakon’s regency. Hakon then declared his fealty to Harald Bluetooth, effectively making Norway a vassal of Denmark.

Further Expansion

After Harald expanded his reach to Norway, he then focused his attention towards the Baltic region. He attacked the Wends that occupied lands surrounding the mouth of the Oder River. His conquest ended with the sacking of Wollin and the establishment of the fort Jomsborg.

He also interfered with the rivalry for the throne of Sweden when its King Styrbjorn sought his support against his contender Erik. Harald gave refuge to King Styrbjorn when the Swedish king lose the upper hand and driven out of Sweden. An alliance between the two kings cemented when Harald married Styrbjorn’s sister, Gyntha. Harald gave support to his brother-in-law but it proved insufficient when during the battle of Fyrisvellir in 984. Stybjorn lose and fell to Erik who earned the epithet “the Victorious” as a result of his success.

Cross and Sword

The most notable of Harald Bluetooth’s reign was the spread of Christianity among the Danes, but even this remained obscure as 2 stories with different nature suggested the rise of the new religion.

Christianity emergence in Harald’s life and rise among the Danes came either through a miracle or through a war. The first story told that Harald was converted to Christianity by a German Bishop named Poppo after the cleric exhibited an extraordinary miracle of holding a red hot iron with his bare hands, which remained clean and unhurt by the act.

The second version of Harald’s conversion, however, was through war with its neighbor – the Holy Roman Empire. Christianity continued to rise despite the persecution that late King Gorm the Old pursued. Under Harald, new bishoprics emerged in Aarhus, Ribe, and Schleswig. Harald showed lesser hostility and even tolerated Christianity, especially with his mother, Queen Thyra, being a Christian. The growth of Christianity in the country attracted the attention of the aggressive Holy Roman Emperor Otto I who desired to expand his influence to new lands, using religion as his banner.

A competition arose for the influence of newly fledgling Christian bishophrics. Emperor Otto announced his veil of protection over the new Danish bishoprics from any obligation to King Harald. King Harald continued to assert his control over the new Christian institutions, undermining Otto's incursions. Otto I passed away in 675 and he was succeeded by his son Otto II, who took more aggressive stand against Harald. Eventually, the two monarchs collided in a war. Harald’s forces braced themselves in the famous Dannevirke, the long fortified ramparted wall meant to defend Denmark from the incursions of the Holy Roman Empire. He also sought then Earl Hakon of Norway’s support in the upcoming conflict. When the attack did came, the Viking alliance successfully held against the first wave of attacks by the Empire.

But Harald’s resistance weakened as attacks of Otto II continued relentlessly, forcing an agreement to be forged in Limfjord. The agreement forced Harald to accept Christianity, being baptized by the priest Poppo with Emperor Otto sponsoring the ceremony. Other than accepting Christianity, he was also forced to pledge his fealty to Otto and maintain the integrity of church. Furthermore, Harald also took the obligation of spreading the religion across his kingdom, starting with his family.

Christianity Spreading

Whether Harald converted either by miracle or by force, Christianity’s mark spread across the Kingdom. He moved his capital from Leire, a known center of pagan Viking religion, to Roeskilde, where he ordered the construction of cathedral to bless his new city. He also renovated his father’s and mother’s tomb in Jelling, where he ordered the construction of a church and the erection of a stone depicting an early Viking crucifix.

Harald also promoted Christianity’s growth to Norway. He sought Earl Hakon to submit to convert and declare it as Norway’s new religion. But Hakon, staunchly rejected to be a Christian and severed all ties with Harald, refusing to pay any taxes to the Danish King and revoke his pledge of allegiance.

But resistance to the new religion did not only limited itself from Hakon, but it also grew within Harald’s own family, especially his son, Sweyn Forkbeard. Sweyn forced to be baptized into Christianity by his father, but he remained faithful and a strong supporter of the traditional pagan ritual. His loyalty to the traditional religion led him between 986 and 987 to rise up against his father in rebellion.

Death of Harald Bluetooth and his Epithet

Harald Blueooth fought against his son, but he eventually lose to his son. In one battle in 987, he incurred a wound from a battle against his son weakened him. The circumstances of his death remained obscure. Some said he managed to leave Denmark and passed away in exile in modern day Germany, while some said he fell to his wounds right after a fatal battle. Regardless, his death led to the ascension of his son, Sweyn, as the new King of Denmark, and from the foundations of a consolidated and powerful kingdom of Harald, a Danish empire emerged that ruled over Denmark, Norway, and England.

Harald’s another legacy also came in form of his epithet – Bluetooth. No one knew why he was called as such. Some said it came from Harald’s decaying teeth, while some suggested it denotes a tradition of Danish Vikings where they bleached their teeth with different colors. Bluetooth became eventually used as a term in the modern era as a means to connect devices wirelessly.

See also:


Birch, J.H.S. Denmark in History. London: Butler & Tanner Ltd., 1938.

Otte, E.C. Norway, Sweden, and Denmark. Chicago, Illinois: The H.W. Snow and Son Company, 1910.

_______________. Scandinavian History. New York, New York: Macmillan and Co., 1894.

Sinding, Paul. History of Scandinavia: From the Early Times of the Northmen and Vikings to the Present Day. Pittsburgh, Penselvania: W.S. Haven, 1803.

Somerville, Angus et. al. (eds.). The Viking Age: A Reader. Toronto, Ontario: University of Toronto Press, 2014.

Somerville, Angus and Andrew McDonald. The Vikings and Their Age. Toronto, Ontario: University of Toronto Press, 2014.


The Editors of Encyclop√¶dia Britannica. “Harald I.” In Encyclop√¶dia Britannica. Accessed on February 2, 2017. 

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