Author Topic: Aarhus 1044 AD  (Read 2368 times)


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Aarhus 1044 AD
« on: May 25, 2012, 11:31:46 PM »
The Sea Fight off Aarhus 1044 AD


Magnus the Good with  a fleet of Norwegians and some Danes

Sweyn Estridson rebel Earl and Danish claimant to the Throne of Denmark
 Danish Rebels.

Numbers not known, though Sweyn had more ships and men than Magnus.

Source; Snorre Sturlason’s Heimskringla, Saga of Magnus the Good from the  Online Medieval and Classical Library


King Magnus immediately turned round with his army against Sweyn,
whom he called his earl, although the Danes called him their
king; and he collected ships, and a great force, and on both
sides a great strength was assembled.  In Sweyn's army were many
chiefs from Scania, Halland, Seeland, and Fyen; while King
Magnus, on the other hand, had mostly Norway and Jutland men, and
with that war-force he hastened to meet Svein.  They met at Re,
near Vestland; and there was a great battle, which ended in King
Magnus gaining the victory, and Swein taking flight.  After
losing many people, Swein fled back to Scania, and from thence to
Gautland, which was a safe refuge if he needed it, and stood open
to him.  King Magnus returned to Jutland, where he remained all
winter (A.D. 1044) with many people, and had a guard to watch his
ships.  Arnor, the earls' skald, speaks of this: --

     "At Re our battle-loving lord
     In bloody meeting stained his sword, --
     At Re upon the western shore,
     In Vestland warrior's blood once more."

31. BATTLE AT Aarhus.

Sweyn Ulfson (Estridson) went directly to his ships as soon as he heard that
King Magnus had left his fleet.  He drew to him all the men he
could, and went round in winter among the islands, Seeland, Fyen,
and others.  Towards Yule he sailed to Jutland, and went into
Limfjord, where many people submitted to him.  He imposed scat
upon some, but some joined King Magnus.  Now when King Magnus
heard what Svein was doing, he betook himself to his ships with
all the Northmen then in Denmark, and a part of the Danish
troops, and steered south along the land.  Sweyn was then in Aarhus
with a great force; and when he heard of King Magnus he laid his
vessels without the town, and prepared for battle.  When King
Magnus heard for certain where Swein was, and that the distance
between them was but short, he held a House-thing, and addressed
his people thus: "It is reported to me that the earl and his
fleet are lying not far from us, and that he has many people.
Now I would let you know that I intend to go out against the earl
and fight for it, although, we have fewer people.  We will, as
formerly, put our trust in God, and Saint Olaf, my father, who
has given us victory sometimes when we fought, even though we had
fewer men than the enemy.  Now I would have you get ready to seek
out the enemy, and give battle the moment we find him by rowing
all to attack, and being all ready for battle."  Thereupon the
men put on their weapons, each man making himself and his place
ready; and then they stretched themselves to their oars.  When
they saw the earl's ships they rowed towards them, and made ready
to attack.  When Sweyn's men saw the forces they armed
themselves, bound their ships together, and then began one of the
sharpest of battles.  So says Thiodolf, the skald: --

     "Shield against shield, the earl and king
     Made shields and swords together ring.
     The gold-decked heroes made a play
     Which Hild's iron-shirt men say
     They never saw before or since
     On battle-deck; the brave might wince,
     As spear and arrow whistling flew,
     Point blank, death-bringing, quick and true."

They fought at the bows, so that the men only on the bows could
strike; the men on the forecastle thrust with spears: and all who
were farther off shot with light spears or javelins, or war-
arrows.  Some fought with stones or short stakes; and those who
were aft of the mast shot with the bow.  So Says Thiodolf: --

     "Steel-pointed spear, and sharpened stake,
     Made the broad shield on arm shake:
     The eagle, hovering in the air,
     Screamed o'er the prey preparing there.
     And stones and arrows quickly flew,
     And many a warrior bold they slew.
     The bowman never twanged his bow
     And drew his shaft so oft as now;
     And Throndhjem's bowmen on that day
     Were not the first tired of this play:
     Arrows and darts so quickly fly,
     You could not follow with the eye."

Here it appears how hot the battle was with casting weapons.
King Magnus stood in the beginning of the battle within a shield-
rampart; but as it appeared to him that matters were going on too
slowly, he leaped over the shields, and rushed forward in the
ship, encouraging his men with a loud cheer, and springing to the
bows, where the battle was going on hand to hand.  When his men
saw this they urged each other on with mutual cheering, and there
was one great hurrah through all the ships.  So says Thiodolf: --

     "`On with our ships!  on to the foe!'
     Cry Magnus' men -- on, on they go.
     Spears against shields in fury rattle, --
     Was never seen so fierce a battle."

And now the battle was exceedingly sharp; and in the assault
Sweyn's ship was cleared of all her forecastle men, upon and on
both sides of the forecastle.  Then Magnus boarded Sweyn's ship,
followed by his men; and one after the other came up, and made so
stout an assault that Sweyn's men gave way, and King Magnus first
cleared that ship, and then the rest, one after the other.  Sweyn
fled, with a great part of his people; but many fell, and many
got life and peace.  Thiodolf tells of this: --

     "Brave Magnus, from the stern springing
     On to the stem, where swords were ringing
     From his sea-raven's beak of gold
     Deals death around -- the brave!  the bold!
     The earl's housemen now begin
     To shrink and fall: their ranks grow thin --
     The king's luck thrives -- their decks are cleared,
     Of fighting men no more appeared.
     The earl's ships are driven to flight,
     Before the king would stop the fight:
     The gold-distributor first then
     Gave quarters to the vanquished men."

This battle was fought on the last Sunday before Yule.  So says
Thiodolf: --

     "'Twas on a Sunday morning bright,
     Fell out this great and bloody fight,
     When men were arming, fighting, dying,
     Or on the red decks wounded lying.
     And many a man, foredoomed to die,
     To save his life o'erboard did fly,
     But sank; for swimming could not save,
     And dead men rolled in every wave."

Magnus took seven ships from Sweyn's people.  So says Thiodolf:

     "Thick Olaf's son seven vessels cleared,
     And with his fleet the prizes steered.
     The Norway girls will not be sad
     To hear such news -- each from her lad."

He also sings: --

     "The captured men will grieve the most
     Sweyn and their comrades to have lost;
     For it went ill with those who fled,
     Their wounded had no easy bed.
     A heavy storm that very night
     O'ertook them flying from the fight;
     And skulls and bones are tumbling round,
     Under the sea, on sandy ground."

Sweyn fled immediately by night to Seeland, with the men who had
escaped and were inclined to follow him; but King Magnus brought
his ships to the shore, and sent his men up the country in the
night-time, and early in the morning they came flown to the
strand with a great booty in cattle.  Thiodolf tells about it: --

     "But yesterday with heavy stones
     We crushed their skulls, and broke their bones,
     And thinned their ranks; and now to-day
     Up through their land we've ta'en our way,
     And driven their cattle to the shore,
     And filled out ships with food in store.
     To save his land from our quick swords,
     Svein will need something more than words


Sweyn was an unlucky general and this battle shows him as rather static and unimaginative. Binding his ships together ceded the initiative to Magnus. Snorre’s rendering of Magnus character is exemplified here. When progress it too slow Magnus leaps across to the opposing boat and starts hacking men down. Clearly a king with an element of the berserker about him. Sweyn does not take a decisive lead.
Tactically there is little to say, Svein has the numbers, Magnus has the aggression. It may be that, though outnumbered, Magnus had a higher proportion of professionals and Svein a greater number of farmers.

The point that I find of interest is the tactical deployment of Magnus’ men on the ship. At the front are men with swords and axes, then men with spears, then javelin thrower and then archers. It is very possible that this training for sea fighting gave the Vikings key advantages in battles on land.
1)   Because they were ships crews they had relatively similarly sized small tactical units of say 60 -100 men, with a commander and with a team loyalty.
2)   As not all the men can be at the front of the boat at the same time there is a specialisation of task with well armoured men fighting hand to hand at the front and then spears, javelins and bows.
3)   The number of bows is quite high (as much of the time ships are near, but not in contact, so that a force of Viking infantry can not only form a strong defence, with locked shields, but has an offensive missile capacity at long and short ranges.
4)   The Vikings must have drilled to cooperate in this way. Because each weapon must be given space to be used to get the best out of the combination. There is little point having your javelinmen up front and your axeman at the rear.
These organizational and tactical advantages gave, I believe, Norse forces an advantage on land battlefields.


« Last Edit: June 03, 2012, 09:14:04 PM by aligern »
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Patrick Waterson

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Re: Aarhus 1044
« Reply #1 on: May 26, 2012, 10:30:44 AM »
Some intriguing observations on Viking tactics there, Roy: this specialised multi-'rank' weapon use would initially be dictated by what could be used when ships meet prow-to-prow, but could well be exported to dry land, and would work well there.

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