Copyright by Brian Howard Seibert
9.0 THE BATTLE OF THE SCHLEI (Circa 813 AD)
(Circa 813 AD) While King Ragnar was establishing his Southern Way or Sor’Way trade route, the exiled Harald, meanwhile, with the adherence of certain Danes who were cold-hearted servants in the army of Ragnar, returned to Zealand with renewed sedition, and came forward claiming the title of king. He was met by the warfleet of Ragnar, returning from the Hellespont; and Ragnar drove him from the island and Harald fled, once more, through Saxony to the Franks and he asked Emperor Louis the Pious, Charlemagne’s son, who was then stationed at Mainz for help. But Louis, filled with the greatest acolytic zeal, imposed a condition on the Dane, promising him help if he would agree to follow the worship of Christ. For he said there could be no agreement of hearts between those who embraced discordant faiths. So Prince Harald allowed himself to be converted to the Christian faith and, bolstered with Frankish and Saxon auxiliaries, he conquered Reric, Ragnar’s trading town on the continent, just south of Zealand. Trusting in the support of the Franks, Harald built a church in the land of Sleswik, with much care and cost, to be hallowed to God. Then he pulled down the shrines and temples that had been dedicated to Odin and to Thor and to Frey, and outlawed the sacrificers and abolished all witchcraft and was the first to introduce the religion of Christianity to his heathen country.
When King Ragnar heard this news he led his warfleet south and they ravaged the coast and drove Prince Harald west along the coast into Jutland. But King Fridleif ‘the Swift’ was there with an army of his own, protecting his Danevirk fortification from a possible attack from the Frank and Saxon troops he had learned were active in Schleswik and he would only allow Harald entry into his kingdom if he deserted Christianity and returned to the Aesir faith of the Danes. Though Prince Harald had been the first introduce the Christian faith into Denmark, he quickly became the first to turn his back on it, for at his back was a fast approaching Zealand army, and this illustrious promoter of holiness proved a most infamous forsaker of the same. When King Fridleif learned from Harald that the Frank and Saxon troops in Schleswik had been provided to him by the Emperor of Frankia to fight a war against King Ragnar, Fridleif seized an opportunity to regain the patronage of the Emperor while gaining the Kingdom of Zealand and he offered to allow Harald and his remaining Franko-Saxon troops to join his army and take the war to King Ragnar. He had been watching King Ragnar grinding gold out of his Nor’Way and Sor’Way trade routes and he wanted a part of it, the southern part, and Ragnar’s Kingdom of Zealand was like a cork stopper into the Baltic and King Fridleif wanted to use Harald as his corkscrew to gain control of it. Prince Harald discussed the offer with his Frankish officers and they agreed to support the Anglish Danes in a war against the Norse Danish king that had just burned the new Christian church in Reric.
When King Ragnar and his army came up to the wall of the Danevirk, he demanded that King Fridleif send out the treasonous Zealander, Prince Harald, and his Frankish troops. King Fridleif did just that and more. His own Anglish Danish troops came out alongside Harald’s and the King of the Angles rode in front of them and offered battle against the King of the Danes. King Ragnar could not believe his ears, so he repeated his demand in Anglish Danish instead of the Norse Danish he had used, thinking perhaps King Fridleif had heard him wrongly. But King Fridleif repeated his offer to battle in Norse Danish as well and awaited his rival king’s response.
“That’s what I thought you said,” King Ragnar answered. “I was just making sure I had heard you correctly because I’d heard that Ludwig, the King of the Franks, had given you the byname ‘the Swift’, because you had run from him instead of doing battle.”
King Fridleif turned red with rage at this insult, but he controlled his words because it was partly, perhaps even mostly, true. “I shall send out officers to mark a field of battle, subject to your approval,” was all he said and he rode back to his Danevirk. King Ragnar rode back to his troops and had them set up a camp in Schleswik a short distance from the Danish wall. He watched the Anglish officers ride out and set four hazel poles into the earth, defining the size of the square battlefield. King Ragnar then rode out with his officers to inspect the field of battle and they made the field wider, turning it into a rectangle. King Fridleif rode out with his officers and addressed king Ragnar, “You obviously have more troops at hand than I have, but I have sent word down the wall to gather more men, so, if you could wait a day or two, we can match your new size.”
King Ragnar agreed to this, not wanting to seem as if he and his Norse Danes needed an advantage, but he also knew how long it took to collect men from down a long and sparsely defended wall, so he set his men to building a Roman ring fort in front of their camp. He had just returned from fighting and trading in the Hellespont and he had observed the construction of just such a fort on the approach of his warfleet on the Scythian steppe just off the Dnieper River north of Cherson. Ragnar set a millstone in the center of his fort and put a short pole into the hole of the milestone, looped a long anchor rope around it, paced out a hundred steps with the rope in hand, tied the rope to his spear with a knot, and began tracing a circle into the dirt as he walked around the millstone. He could see King Fridleif and his officers observing every move he made, very curious as to what he was doing. He then paced out another ten steps and tied a knot about the spear and walked around again, tracing out the outer perimeter of the berm they would be constructing, and then he paced out another ten steps and did the same for the outer perimeter of the ditch they would be digging to get the material for the berm. He had made sure to use knots that stayed in the rope when he withdrew the spear because the Romans had used the knots to square up the fort into equal quadrants.
King Ragnar sent half his men into some nearby woods to fell trees for a palisade and he set half his men to digging the ditch and throwing the earth between the two lines for the berm. While they were digging he took the rope and walked to the nearest point along the outer berm perimeter he had marked upon the ground to where his ships were beached on the shore and he pushed his spear into the ground, pulled the rope taunt about it and tied it off. Then he used his sword to trace a straight line in the dirt all the way back to the millstone. This would be one of four roads inside the fort that would divide the keep into the four equal quadrants. The road would be a spear’s length wide on each side of his line so he had two of his officers mark out two lines on either side of his straight centerline while he used their spears to mark the distance as they walked back to Ragnar’s spear. The king then took the rope off his spear but left the spear in the ground and he walked back past the millstone with the rope to the opposite perimeter and he lined his spear, on the far side, up with the pole in the millstone and he took a spear from an officer and planted it in the ground where the outer berm perimeter was marked and, once more, pulled the rope taut about it.
Ragnar left three of his officers to trace out the width of that road just as he had done with the first and then he tried to remember what it was that the Romans had done to make sure that the crossroad was perpendicular to the main road. He put the knot from the outer ditch perimeter marking around the spear that was in the outer berm perimeter and then he walked back to the millstone, took the rope loop off of the center-pole, and looped the rope around a spear and he traced an arc into the ground on one side of the millstone and then marked another arc into the ground on the other side of the millstone. Then he had an officer take the rope off of the one spear that was stuck in the ground and put it around the opposite spear that was stuck in the ground on the other side of the millstone, the spear that was close to the ships, and Ragnar traced another two corresponding arcs into the ground on the cross sides of the millstone, and where the two opposing arcs on the cross sides intersected was where the crossroads would be perpendicular to the main road. As Ragnar was telling his officers how to mark out the crossroads, one of them said, “Don’t look up now, but one of King Fridleif’s officers is at his elbow drawing out everything we’ve been doing on a sheet of vellum.” King Ragnar slowly peered over to the Danevirk wall and he saw Fridleif showing his officer what he wanted added to the vellum drawing. “I wish I’d done that,” Ragnar confessed to his men, “when we were watching the Romans!” And the men all laughed.
It took two days for the men to throw up the berm and another two for them to erect the palisade, but King Fridleif kept making excuses for a few men yet missing and Ragnar was in no hurry because he had sent ships back to Zealand to fetch more men. Once the Roman ring fort was completed and King Fridleif’s vellum drawing was done, he suddenly had enough men at hand for battle. Since King Fridleif’s men had all come off the Danevirk wall and King Ragnar’s men had come straight off warships, there were few horses about so it was all foot soldiers that would be doing the fighting that day.
The Zealand Danes lined up in three ranks between the east hazel poles of the battlefield and the Jutland Danes formed up twixt the west poles and drums beat and shields were pounded as they moved forward against each other. Arrows flew as they closed and then spears were hurled and finally the shield walls crashed and the hacking began. Men screamed as arms and legs were severed and the dying bled out and turned the earth into mud, red mud, and men were tripping over limbs and slipping over viscera and boots were being lost in the mud and men fought on in bare feet as the ‘blud’ squished between toes. Men threw their shoulders into shields but the shield walls stood fast and the swords whipped out from between them like long razors and bit deep into bone and spear tips would spring out from the arcs of the shields and would pierce vital organs and always there was the heavy beating of drums and the blowing of trumpets and horns and whistles all playing the opera of death. Valkyrie minstrels carried off the dying and Ragnar’s Raven Banner seemed to be attracting more of the birds for the ravens’ bloody banquet. After a few hours of fighting, they were down to two ranks and the formations no longer swept from pole to pole, but shrank down to maintain two ranks so the men could at least step back and catch a breath.
The shield walls began to budge, but where they bulged here they began to sag there so that the clashing bucklers took on more of a ripple or wave than lost ground. As evening approached, horns sounded and drums ceased and the fighting stopped and the two sides drew apart and the Zealand Danes trudged east, back to their Roman ring fort in exhaustion and the Jutland Danes ambled back behind their beloved Danevirk.
The next day, officers from both side rode out and adjusted the Hazel poles, making them not nearly as wide apart so that the reduced numbers of the Danes would be able to form three ranks on each side. Then the Zealand Danes formed up between the east hazel poles and the Jutland Danes formed up between the west poles and, once more, drums beat and shields pounded as they moved forward against each other. Arrows flew and spears were hurled and then the shield walls crashed and the hacking began anew. Men spent another day dying and bled out over the field again and the earth turned to mud much sooner. All day the drums beat their beat and horns and whistles sounded and the opera of death played on. Valkyries chose their dead and carried them off to Valhall and shield-maidens carried the wounded back behind their respective walls for saving. Ragnar’s Raven Banner fluttered in the breeze at the center of their shield wall and the banners of the Anglish Danes and Saxons and Franks flew above the center and wings of their formation and when the three ranks became two and they no longer stretched from pole to pole, trumpets sounded and the troops went back behind their separate walls, exhausted.
The next day, King Ragnar barely had enough men left to properly defend their Roman ring fort palisade, so he didn’t send officers out to adjust any poles or troops out to do battle. “If they want to fight,” he told his men, “they can come and attack us here.” But nobody came. They didn’t have enough men left to man their Danevirk and could only man the eastern section that faced the Zealanders. King Fridleif sent out officers carrying white shields and they requested a pause of two weeks so that more men could be gathered. The timing worked out well for Ragnar because he expected his ships to return with more troops by then, so he quickly agreed.
Ragnar’s sons, Ivar and Siward came from Angleland with more troops, leaving their brother, Agnar, in charge of Northumbria, and they settled in Zealand and raised more Danish troops there and landed on the east coast of Schleswik and beached their ships in front of King Ragnar’s Roman ring fort. King Ragnar and his remaining men had been busy the two weeks, having run protective stockades from the ring fort down to the sea to protect their supply route and ships. It reminded Ivar of their longphorts in Ireland. The two boys wanted to stay and fight but Ragnar sent them back to Zealand to raise even more troops and to quell any rebellions that might erupt in his absence. He was preparing for the possible long haul. King Fridleif may have garnered the byname ‘the Swift’ from the Germans for his swift withdrawal from a war with Emperor Charlemagne and the Frankish Empire just before Charlemagne’s death, but he was no fool. His father, King SigFrodi, had boasted he was going to capture Aachen, the capital of Frankia, in a drunken rage and that insane challenge had been passed on to his son, Fridleif, but the young warrior was not going to be drawn into a long war with the Frankish Empire when he could just fight a short one with Zealand, so, here they were, and Ragnar had to admit that Fridleif was good. By allying himself with the usurper Harald, he had even managed to get grudging support from the Empire.
The Franks were not aware that Prince Harald had turned his back on Christianity and when it had been brought up by Emperor Louis ‘the Pious’, Harald told him that King Fridleif wouldn’t let him practice the faith in Denmark, so, Louis gave Harald a Fief in Saxony called Rustringen, to which he could repair to in order to keep up the faith, and the Emperor agreed to provide Prince Harald and King Fridleif with additional Saxon and Frankish troops to replace the ones he had lost battling the godless King Ragnar, Hring’s grandson, and Ragnar garnered the Latin name for Ring, Anulo, because the name King Anulo was not as frightening as King Ragnar ‘Lothbrok’ was becoming. King Fridleif’s brother, the Sea-King Odd, brought his warfleet down from Jelling with fresh Anglish Danish troops and Prince Harald returned from Frankia with his fresh troops at about the same time as the sons of Ragnar had come, but Ragnar put the fighting off another week because he didn’t want his sons being drawn into it. Once they had sailed back to Zealand, Ragnar prepared his host to take against that of King Fridleif and Harald.
This time, they fought on the Battlefield of the Schlei, as they came to call it, between the walls of the Danevirk and the Roman ring fort, for almost a week straight, heading out each day to slay each other and returning back again with their wounded and their dead and without victory to either side. This time King Ragnar sent officers out to ask for a pause while more men could be gathered. Winter was coming on and this slowed down the whole process. And Ragnar had two trade routes, the Nor’Way and the Sor’Way to administer in the spring, so he was hoping this would be the last war arrow he had to pass out to his people. But that was not to be. The battle drew on all through the winter and, as spring approached, Ragnar had lost over ten thousand of his finest warriors and champions and he told his men that enough was enough. He sent officers over to the Danevirk with white shields and a request for peace talks.
King Ragnar knew from his meetings with various Romans and Khazars in Constantinople that there were many groups vying for control of the northern end of his Sor’Way and he also knew, as an experienced eastern trader, that if he failed to make the seasonal sailings that he’d committed to, there were others in the wings that would step in and replace him. He was already making tremendous profits in gold and silver from his two trade routes and he had enough sons and shield-maiden daughters to run both, so, he had to settle this battle with the Jutland Danes for once and for all and a peace deal seemed the best path forward. What he didn’t know was that King Fridleif and his Jutland Anglish Danes were already one of the groups waiting in the wings.
King Fridleif was under pressure as well. He had his own trade route to the east that he was working on through Wendish Slav lands, but there was one catch…the Slavs wouldn’t allow slave trade through their lands and most of the gold King Ragnar had been grinding was through slave trade. His Viking ships had been raiding the coasts of England and Ireland for years and once the gold was gone from the monasteries and churches, then the people began disappearing as well. Captured and unransomed, they ended up in the slave markets of Baghdad and Constantinople, all transported via the Nor’Way trade route, but now Ragnar was transporting slaves south through his Sor’Way trade route and the profits were even higher. King Fridleif had been supporting Prince Harald’s claim to Zealand in order to take control of this Southern Way trade, what he called his Dan’Way trade route to get into the lucrative slavery business.
A pavilion had been set up at the center of the Battlefield of the Schlei and the Kings and Prince and their officers rode up, the Zealanders from the east and the Jutlanders from the west and when King Ragnar was sitting across the negotiating table from King Fridleif, he might as well have been looking in a mirror, for they were about the same age, with the same long blonde hair, with the same curl and the same reddish beard. What was different about them was the nose. Ragnar’s was short and upturned, while Fridleif’s was long and rather regal looking. They had the same broad shoulders and they leaned forward into the table with the same crossed arms, which was the only thing that belied the mirror image, for the arms would have been crossed oppositely for it to have been a reflection. Ragnar had just asked Fridleif what it would take to make peace with him and the Jut king answered, “We’ve had discussions with Emperor Louis of Frankia and he agrees that you will have to turn the Kingdom of Zealand over to Prince Harald, here, and your Southern Way trade route to the Anglish Danes of Jutland. It is too much that you would have both the Nor’Way and the Dan’Way trade routes, but, if you make peace with us here today, we will leave you your holdings in Thule and Angleland and Ireland, and that is a fine offer, for we believe Northumbria and the Angles living there to be part of our people, just as you believe the Zealanders to be part of yours.”
King Fridleif had answered Ragnar in the Norse Danish tongue of the Zealanders, so King Ragnar replied in flawless Anglish Dane, “Emperor Louis and his Germans have just finished giving you the moniker ‘the Swift’, and by that they don’t mean ‘fast at running’, but rather ‘fast to run from battle’ and, though now I see that they are wrong in giving you such a base byname, for you are quite good at battle, still you cozy up to the Germans and beg their support and you are now fighting using half an army of Franks. Though I shall find it hard to match you man for man with an emperor’s support behind you, I cannot accept such an offer, nor peace under such conditions.”
“Then we shall meet tomorrow morning on the battlefield of the Schlei,” King Fridleif responded grimly in Anglish. “We have another half army of Franks on the way, so you’d best be ready for that one the day after tomorrow.”
Ragnar gave one last look into the steel blue eyes of Fridleif and he saw his own. He knew that Fridleif knew the tide had turned in his favour and the offer he gave was one that would be taken by those who bowed to Emperors, but Ragnar was not that man and Louis was not a real Emperor. He had met a real Emperor, a real Porphyrogennetos, born of the purple blood of Augustus Caesar Emperor, Michael ‘the First’, in Constantinople last year. His veins carried the blood line of the Caesar that King Skiold of the early Danes had helped deprive of three legions and when Augustus had turned toward the Teutoburg Forest of Saxony and shouted, “King Skiold! Give me back my three legions!” Skiold had just laughed and helped himself to the Flower of Saxony, Princess Alfhild, and he made her his queen and he learned her low German language, or at least some of it. Then Ragnar realized why he had been looking at his own image for the last hour. He and King Fridleif were both sprung from the line of Skiold, the Skioldung line of kings. Ragnar got up, gave Fridleif a nod and turned around and left.
The next day the Zealand Danes lined up in three ranks between the east hazel poles of the battlefield and the Jutland Danes in four ranks between the west poles, so many more men did they have. The drums beat and shields were pounded and arrows flew and spears were hurled and the shield walls crashed violently and the thrusting and the hacking started once more. Men died bravely and some died fearfully and all died crying for their mothers as if their cries could carry them safely back to the womb and survival. The fighting went on all morning and then halfway through the afternoon a cavalry regiment arrived from Frankia and joined in on the fray. It was the first mounted unit to fight in the battle and they had arrived ahead of the Frankish foot that was expected to arrive the next day. King Fridleif wanted to defeat Ragnar before the foot arrived so that he would owe less to the Frank support they’d been receiving, so he jumped on a horse to lead the Frankish cavalry into battle and as they were harrying some foot on their right flank a soldier lunged out of the ranks and killed the horse out from under Fridleif and the king was thrown over the first rank of Zealanders and was cut to pieces by the second. They didn’t even know it was the king they had just killed until the Frankish officers asked for a pause in the battle to recover the body of the Danish king.
King Ragnar was leading his men in the vanguard, surrounded by his Centuriata and he saw the cavalry dismounted over on his left flank so he sent a troop of archers to dispatch them while they were standing still, not yet knowing that King Fridleif had fallen. When the archers got a short distance away, they started shooting their arrows into the throng of lancers sitting on their horses with their shields down. The Franks were caught by surprise and a number of them fell dead from their horses while the foot before them attacked suddenly with their spears and killed many of them as well. The cavalry officers that were in the midst of the foot, gathering up the body of the king, were themselves cut to pieces and the leaderless Franks rode into the foot soldiers to save their officers and the foot pulled them down from their mounts and killed them in savage hand to hand combat. The lieutenant of the foot soldiers was a good rider, as many of them were, and he jumped upon a horse holding the golden helmeted head of the Jut king high in the air and he started to ride behind the Anglish Danish line waving the head of King Fridleif and some of his men rode behind him carrying the body parts and the armour of their king. When this group of Norse Danes rode past the center, the Norse vanguard began cheering and the Anglish vanguard looked back in horror as they saw their dead king and enemy cavalry behind them and Ragnar’s Centuriata took advantage of their surprise and renewed their hard assault and the Anglish center began collapsing. Soon King Ragnar and his men had broken through the center and were threatening to cut off the Jut Danes from the safety of their beloved Danevirk and the rout began in earnest. The Anglish Danes broke into a run for the Danevirk and the newly established Norse Danish cavalry threw down their body parts and began riding them down and lancing them from behind. And the Norse Danish foot soldiers were hard on their heels and, of course, there was only one gate through the wall and only a small stream of Jut Danes could pour through it and the rest were trapped against the wall and ended up jammed against it so tight that they couldn’t fight and those that tried, died, and those that surrendered were bent over their shields right there under their protective Danevirk.
Many Anglish Danes did manage to get through the gate and they manned their wall and closed their gate, still it was a great victory for the Zealand Danes and they dragged their buggered prisoners back with them, away from the wall, before arrows started to fly from it. Once they were a safe distance from the wall, the prisoners were bent over their shields again for the benefit of those on the wall who might have missed the earlier show because they were too busy running. King Ragnar saw Prince Harald watching the debauchery from the safety of the wall and he didn’t know if Harald had gotten back to safety or had been up there watching the whole day, but the prince didn’t seem too concerned about the slaughter, which meant that it was a significant force of Franks that would be arriving on the morrow. Ragnar planned a short celebration for his men, but they needed rest for the morrow. Some would retire early and take their prisoners to bed with them because it was in their nature, and some would do the same because the camp followers were few and far between and expensive, but King Ragnar had two camp followers of his own, two young girls who had been taken at the sack of Reric. The prisoners would all be offered back for ransom and the unransomed would be taken east with the spring merchant fleet and would be sold in the slave markets of Baghdad. Only Christian slaves were accepted in Constantinople, to save them from heathens, and those would have to come from Angleland and Ireland and the few Frank prisoners that were taken here today.
The next morning Ragnar heard that some of his men had learned from their prisoners that more men were expected to arrive during the day and these were Jutish Danes being brought in warships by Jutland’s Sea-King Odd and it was said to be as large as the Franks’ expected army. Ragnar had lost almost half his men during the prior day’s battle and, between the Danes that made it back behind the Danevirk, the Frank army that was on the march and the Danish warfleet that was on its way, Ragnar just did not have enough men to even hold his ring fort. He told his men to prepare the fleet. “We are heading back to Zealand!”