Copyright by Brian Howard Seibert





The Battle of the Holy River (1026)


(1025 AD)  The Prince was late getting back to Southampton.  He had set Gretta up in his palace in Gardariki as his Aesir wife there and then stayed in Kiev a few weeks while he brokered peace between Princes Ivaraslav and Mstislav with Ivar controlling Hraes’ on the western side of the Dnieper and Misty the eastern side.  When he caught up with stragglers of the great merchant fleet in Roskilde, he learned that Jarl Ulf had persisted in his encouragement of Prince Hardeknute’s King of Denmark claims and he warned the jarl that he was putting himself and the boy in jeopardy, but he had to be very diplomatic about his warnings because Ulf now controlled the Danish legions and the great merchant fleet had already dispersed to its home countries, so Hraerik had lost that huge army of ships.  He dared not tip off Ulf about what he’d learned in Constantinople and had learned in Sweden on his way through.  “I heard rumours in Sweden that King Anund plans to attack Denmark because he blames the Danes for his defeat in Chernigov,” he warned Ulf.  “I wouldn’t face the Swedes alone, because he likely has the aid of King Olaf and his Norwegians.  Take your legions into Jutland and wait for King Canute’s aid.  He is assembling a fleet with which to easily crush those two interlopers, and I guarantee that he will reward you handsomely for your help.”

The Prince had sent messengers with the English portion of the great fleet to tell Queen Emma he would be late, so she wasn’t worried as he sailed into Southampton weeks over schedule.  He saw all the tallships back from the Newfoundland and he saw a lot of new tall warships anchored beside them, and one in particular that was huge.  It had two masts set up like a large cargo knar and he’d counted sixty oar-ports ‘tween deck on the stearingboard side, so a hundred and twenty oars total.  He hadn’t seen a ship with that many oars in the north since King Alfred’s attempts at overlarge longships a century earlier.  And those were just open longships.  These were tallships with a full double deck and triple deck fore and aft castles!

“I’ve finished King Sweyn’s castle on Wight,” Emma told him, “and I’ve just finished King Canute’s castle on the sea!  What do you think of her?”

“She’s awe inspiring!” Hraerik said as his shieldship pulled up to the main quay beside it.  “A veritable fortress on the waters.”

“And it’s fixed frame, so it can take a lot of punishment,” Emma said proudly.  “King Canute wants to see you in Winchester right away.  I want to come and visit with Aelfgifu.”

“When do we leave?”

“I’ve got the carriage loaded up and ready to go now,” she replied.

“By the gods,” Hraerik said, “doesn’t anybody fock anymore?  I’ve been at sea for a long time!”

“Don’t get your balls in a knot, fellow Knytling,” she answered.  “I’ve got the carriage all set up and I’m going to ride you all the way to Winchester!”

“The children aren’t coming?  I haven’t seen them yet.”

“We’re riding in the back seat, they’ll be in the front seat and I’ve got a blanket hung between us.  Only my handmaiden will be on our side and she may have to ride you for a bit while I rest.”

“Your blonde handmaiden?” Hraerik inquired.

“Yes, your favourite,” and she poked him.

And she did have the carriage all set up.  There was a huge picnic basket with food and sparkling Frankish wine and Khazar Vayar and the handmaiden kept the children from peeking while they had sex and then Emma kept the children from peeking.

King Canute was waiting for them when they arrived at his palace in the evening and he said, “I’m glad you’re back safely,” and they hugged, “because I’ve been getting reports back from our intelligence in Constantinople that get more and more disturbing.”

“Is Emperor Basil dead yet?” the Prince asked.

“No,” Valdy said, curiously.  “I did get a report that he’s taken ill, but they expect a quick recovery.”

“That’s not going to happen,” Hraerik assured him.  “And King Athelred’s head of security is there with him and will be dying shortly after him, and Emperor Constantine will follow them both in about two years.”

“How do you know all this?”

“I took Gretta out of the Tower with me and we did a hit on them.”

“Poisoning?” Valdy asked, sitting down.

“Tyrfingr poisoning,” he answered.

Canute kind of knew what the Prince meant.  He knew that there was a poison in the sword that kept wounds from healing.  “I was looking for Gretta,” he said, “to have her beheaded.”

“No!” Hraerik echoed.  “Why?”

“She’s been working for the Romans,” Valdy explained.  “She was ordered to poison Jarl Eirik.  That’s how he died.  Didn’t you read the report?”

“I must’ve missed that one.  We were going through a lot of them.”

“I know!” Valdy exclaimed.  “I’ve been getting them all!  Each one more unbelievable than the last.  Where is Gretta?”

“I left her there to monitor Constantine’s death.  She’ll be back in a couple of years.  You can kill her then.”

“Jarl Eirik’s nephew, Ivar ‘the White’, just got back from the pilgrimage to Rome I sent him on, and he says he saw his Uncle Eirik’s spirit at the Vatican right when he died!”

“Are you still going next year?” Hraerik asked.

“He’s set up all the hostels and inns and security, so I guess it’s a go.”

“Did you read the reports on King Olaf?”

“Which one?  Trygve’s son or Harald’s son?”

“Both, I guess, but Olaf ‘the Stout’ Haraldson has worked for Basil for years and so has Jarl Ulf, when they were working for King Athelred together.”

“So, was Athelred working with Rome?”

“I don’t think the Romans found him worthwhile to work with,” Hraerik guessed.  “They likely just manipulated him and let him make his own mistakes.  They just wanted him to keep your father in the north fighting him rather than going back to Constantinople to claim his co-Emperorship.”

“But was Olaf Tryggvason really working for them?” Canute asked.

“Apparently,” he answered.  “When you kicked Jarl Olaf out of Hraes’ for focking your mother…”

“That motherfocker!” Valdy interrupted.

“…he snuck off to Constantinople and joined the Guard there.  That’s where they recruited him.  The Roman reports said he didn’t like to follow orders and that he kept letting opportunities to kill Sweyn pass by, but he ended up achieving a lot more than they’d expected him to, until Jarl Eirik killed him, or thought he killed him.”

“Is that why the Romans poisoned Eirik?” Valdy asked.  “Because he killed their Christian crier boy?”

“Basil’s hard-nosed,” Hraerik said.  “They don’t call him the Bulgar Slayer for nothing.”

“Our security officer attached a statement that you told him Basil blinded fifteen thousand Bulgar warriors just so he could blind five thousand of their Wallachian allies.”

“He would have blinded more Bulgarians, but that was all he needed to avenge the twenty thousand Romans of Philippopolis that Count Vlad of Wallachia impaled to avenge our twenty thousand Pecheneg allies the Roman knights massacred at Adrianople.  Anyway, that’s likely why Basil had Eirik poisoned…vengeance.”

“If Jarl Ulf was working for the Romans,” Valdy began, “do you think Jarl Thorkel was working for them too?”

“No,” Hraerik said.  “When Thorkel was pretending to work for Athelred, he was actually working for your father, and Sweyn told me Thorkel did him great service against the English.  But I don’t think Jarl Ulf is working with King Olaf or the Romans anymore.  I put the fear of Canute in him and if you find him withdrawn to Jutland, it means he is ready to assist you against the Norwegians and Swedes.  Use his help, then decide what you’ll do with him.”

“Why were you so late getting back?”

“I was brokering peace between two of your many sons in the east.”

“Are Ivar and Misty going to bury the war-axe?”

“I think we’ve worked out a compromise,” Hraerik said.  “But Hraes’ is now divided and Ivar gets what’s west of the Dnieper and Misty gets what’s east.”

“Did you see my new tallships?” Valdy asked.  “Emma has finished them just in time for me to take them to Denmark in the spring against these conspirators.  One of my faithful officers just arrived from Liere with news that Kings Olaf and Anund are preparing to attack Skane and Zealand.  We’ll soon see if how Jarl Ulf responds to their attack.  I shall be leading my new fleet to Denmark in the spring.”

“I got this from Prince Mstislav in Chernigov,” Hraerik said, taking a gold chain mail robe out of a bag he had slung from his shoulder.  “It’s the gift you gave to King Anund.  It was in the baggage train that Misty captured after defeating the Swedes.  You might want to give it back to Anund Jakob.  He’s still your son’s father-in-law.”

“I gave it to Anund to try to keep him from allying himself with Olaf, but I’ll try it again if I get a chance.  I’m okay with the Swedes, it’s the Norwegians that have been pissing me off lately.”

“Was the robe made with gold from the Newfoundland?” Hraerik asked.

“Yes,” Valdy admitted.  “I’ve been trying to buy peace with the Swedes and have also given gold to our rebellious Norwegian jarls and I’ve been giving much to the church for their support.”

“We need more tallships for the Newfoundland trade,” the Prince said.

“I know,” Canute replied.  “But I needed tallships for my war fleet too.  It’s the way of the future.  But Emma’s already starting on merchant tallships.”

So Prince Hraerik and Queen Emma visited in Winchester for a few days and they travelled with the king’s retinue to London for Yule.  Before festivities even began, a ship had braved fall weather and Hakon of Stangeby arrived with news that Skane had been occupied by the Swedish forces of King Anund and that Zealand had fallen to King Olaf’s Norwegians.  Then Canute learned that Jarl Ulf and his Danish legions had withdrawn to Jutland and were awaiting reinforcements from England.  “Well, at least we now know where the ears of the Ulf stand,” Valdy told the Prince.

“And where the ears are,” Hraerik told him, “the teeth are not far from,” meaning the Danish legions.

But the eyes of the wolf were on Denmark.  Once Jarl Ulf and his retinue arrived in Jelling on Jutland, he sent word to the Jute and Anglish Danes in Viborg that King Hardeknute wished to be confirmed as king by a general assembly there and Ulf produced a letter from King Canute of England giving him the power to promote Prince Hardeknute to that esteemed royal position.  He further told the gathered Danes that it was better to have such a king ruling in residence within the land than a king who spent all his time in England.  The people were inspired by Ulf’s fine speech and quickly officially elected young Hardeknute as their king.  And this was done while King Olaf’s Norwegians continued to ravage the eastern half of Denmark and King Anund harried all of Skane.

(1026 AD)  In the spring, the Newfoundland tallships sailed west under Captain Hugh and then Prince Hraerik led the English merchant fleet east with the Irish and Norman components and they began assembling in Roskilde harbour under the noses of the Norwegian invaders as though nothing abnormal was happening.  The Norwegian merchant fleet joined it and the Swedish merchant fleet joined up with it on the Baltic.  It was business as usual for the Hraes’ Trading Company, and the great merchant fleet was too large and powerful for any one country to trifle with.

King Canute had taken his new war fleet out for spring manoeuvres and his shieldship sported two masts and a hundred and twenty oars, while the flanking ships of Prince Godwin and Earl Haakon had tall single masts and eighty oars each.  Six slightly smaller tallships trailed them and then the rest of the standard longships of the fleet followed.  The English and Danish legions embarked on the ships at Southampton and they then departed for Denmark.  When Canute arrived there, he went up the Jutland coast to Jelling and he found Jarl Ulf and Prince Hardeknute in King Gorm’s old palace.  The young prince quickly apologized to his father for usurping the throne and was just as quickly forgiven.  Jarl Ulf begged forgiveness as well, but it was not so easily forthcoming.  “Just be ready to defend Denmark when I need you,” King Canute told the jarl.  “We may make peace after this war.”

King Canute sent Exeyes officers from his Danish legion to Zealand to reconnoitre and he learned that King Olaf had come south in the fall with four hundred and eighty ships, but over the winter many had gone back to Norway and remained on call.  Olaf ‘the Stout’ had retained only sixty of his largest longships in Roskilde over the winter and when he’d sent for the rest to return in the spring, they were very tardy in responding.  Many of Olaf’s supporting jarls had received gold and gifts from England over Yule and the rebellious jarls even more.

King Olaf, meanwhile, had posted scouts in western Zealand to watch for any signs of King Canute and he kept his sixty dragonships ready to sail on a moment’s notice.  One day, while the Norse king was addressing the Danes of Roskilde at a public assembly to win their support, sentries rushed up and reported that they had seen several ships approaching from the west.  An old Dane in the crowd came forth and assured the King that the ships were merchant knars only; but when sails in growing numbers began to flood the horizon, he added that they were full of merchants who had come to buy back Denmark with iron.

King Olaf rallied his fleet and they sailed out of Roskilde harbour and sailed east through the sound between Zealand and Skane, gathering up all the Swedish war fleets he could find ravaging the coast of Skane and they all fled before Canute’s great warfleet, which soon blocked the whole sound from the north.  King Olaf could do nothing but continue eastward and connect with King Anund’s fleet, which was harrying the southern Skanian coast.

Components of Canute’s fleet, led by Earl Godwin, caught and crushed a small Swedish warfleet that had been north of it, harrying the coast off Stangeberg.  King Canute returned to Roskilde to reassert his regal domain in Zealand and he sent out ships to patrol the Vik and the coasts of Norway to ensure that his gold had bought peace with the jarls there.  He did not want a Norwegian warfleet coming up behind him while he attacked the fleets of Kings Olaf and Anund off southern Skane.  He spent time with Queen Gyritha in Roskilde and heard her grievances against Jarl Ulf while he waited for the jarl to arrive from Jelling with the rest of the Danish army.  He sent messengers to Jelling over the summer to hurry Jarl Ulf along, but he was in no hurry to attack the Swedes, whom he hoped would soon tire of the costs of maintaining troops on the sea.

But Olaf and Anund kept themselves busy by constructing a trap for King Canute and his fleet near the mouth of Holy River, a short stream in the eastern part of Skane that formed the outlet of a group of lakes just inland.  King Anund commanded the fleet while King Olaf, who had learned Roman military engineering while serving in the Varangian Guard, went inland with the army to build a trap for the Danes.  He built a frangible dam of cut logs and turf, and he bolstered the outlet flows of some of the smaller lakes, to fill the dam more quickly.  The army spent weeks working according to King Olaf’s directions, but it kept the Swedes occupied while they awaited the attack of King Canute.  When word finally came that Canute had arrived, the Swedes and Norsemen hastened to their ships.

It was late in the afternoon when Anund’s scouts finally caught sight of the great warfleet approaching from the west and couriers were dispatched to inform Olaf, who immediately prepared to break the dam, at the same time filling the course with large tree trunks left over from the construction.  King Canute saw the enemy drawn up in line east of the river mouth, but it was by then too late in the day to attack; so the Dane therefore refused battle that day.  Finding the harbour at the river mouth empty, he had his longships sail into it, as many as could be accommodated; and the tallships all remained anchored just outside the estuary.

At dawn the next morning, a large part of Canute’s longships were still beached and the troops were eating breakfast and conversing when, without the least warning, the waters of the river came bursting forth in torrents, dashing the floating logs against the beached ships as the riverbanks were inundated.  Many ships were damaged and many men drowned, but many had already been on their ships getting ready to sail, so, those who were able to, cut their ropes and allowed their ships to be swept out to sea with the deluge.  The tallships that were anchored at sea were swept out before them and great tallship that Canute himself commanded was foremost among these and was swept out toward the expectantly waiting enemy fleets.  When the allied fleets recognised the ship, they immediately surrounded it and attempted to board, but it was not easily attacked, for the ship was high like a castle and had a very large number of men on board, who had been carefully chosen, thoroughly armed, and very well trained.  While the entire Swedish and Norwegian fleets were engaging the English fleet of tallships, the damaged longships along the Holy River were righted and made seaworthy and began assembling for battle.  King Canute was at the forecastle of his ship and he waved directions to his princes at the forecastles of their ships and arrows flew down from tallships into the lower longships and their crews huddled under shields and took many casualties from the fierce attacks.

Then the Danish fleet of longships attacked in great numbers from the mouth of the river and the Danish marines began boarding the enemy ships and the attack was carried to them.  The fighting went on for many hours, from ship to ship, as decks were swept on both sides.  Suddenly, Jarl Ulf came up alongside with his ships and men and the battle turned in favour of the Danes.  Canute’s forces now came at the allies from all sides.  Then Kings Olaf and Anund determined they had won as great a victory as they could and they ordered a retreat, withdrew from Canute’s fleet, and separated from the fight.

Disorganised and in damaged condition, Canute’s warfleet could make no effective pursuit and Ulf’s Danish fleet wasn’t large enough to go after them on its own.  The Danes and the English had suffered heavy losses, while those of the Swedes and Norsemen were relatively light, but their allied fleets combined were still smaller than the warfleet of Canute, because the majority of the Norwegian fleet remained in Norway.  So the two kings agreed to avoid further battle and sailed eastward to Sweden, intending to stop for the night in the harbour of Barwick on the coast of Blekinge, however, a large part of the Swedish fleet did not enter the harbour, but continued the journey northward and their sails were not lowered until their chiefs had reached their respective homes.

The next morning, King Anund called for a meeting of the remaining chiefs.  The entire fleet anchored and the assembly proceeded to discuss the situation.  King Anund lamented that of four hundred and twenty ships that had joined his fleet the preceding summer only one hundred and twenty were now in the harbour with him.  These with what was left of the sixty Norwegian ships did not make a force sufficient for successful operations against Canute.  The Swedish king then proposed to Olaf that he should spend the winter in Sweden, and in the spring, perhaps, they might be able to regroup and fight again.  Olaf protested against surrendering their purpose so soon.  It would still be possible, he argued, to defeat Canute, as his large fleet would soon be compelled to scatter in search of provisions, his eastern coasts having been too recently harried to afford much in the way of supplies. But the outcome of the meeting was that King Olaf left his ships in Sweden and returned to Norway overland.

Canute was kept informed of the situation of the enemy fleet, but did not attempt pursuit.  He did not want to fight the Swedes, his hope being to detach King Anund from his more vigorous ally.  To that end, he found some local Swedish Hraes’ merchants and he had them sail to King Anund bearing a gift, the golden robe he had lost after his battle in Chernigov, noting it was courtesy of the Princes Ivar and Mstislav who had patched up their differences and were looking towards a far more prosperous future.  When he learned from the merchants that the enemy fleet was about to disband, he returned to Zealand and blocked the Sound, hoping to intercept the Norwegian king on his return northward.  But King Olaf was on the march through south-western Sweden to his manors on the eastern shores of The Vik.  On his arrival in his own land, he disbanded the larger part of his army, with only a small body of trusted men remaining with him at Sarpsborg, where he planned to overwinter.

Though Canute had suffered a setback at Holy River, the final outcome gave no advantage to his enemies.  The Swedes were discouraged and tired of conflicts that did not seem to concern them.  King Olaf could claim no victory, having returned to Norway without his ships, almost fifty large snaeker dragonships.  From that day forth he found disloyalty everywhere.  Had Canute appeared with his fleet off the Norwegian coasts, he would have found only the enthusiastic allegiance of rebellious Norse jarls.

Canute was not prepared, however, to move against Olaf at this time.  He had to straighten up things with the Danish court in Roskilde.  Queen Gyritha had numerous complaints regarding Jarl Ulf and his abandonment of the Royal House to the invading Norwegians and the resulting rapes and abuses that followed.  It was clear that Ulf and his retainers were not very popular in Denmark anymore.  The day before Michaelmas, the King was in the palace at Roskilde, playing a game of chess with the jarl to help him open up about the travesty.  But as they were playing, the king made a wrong move and the jarl took one of his knights, the Roman one.  “Take the Norman knight,” Canute said.  The nose piece on the other knight was of the Norman variety.  “I hear that Olaf was a Roman knight and that is where he learned his military engineering.”

“What do you mean by that!” Ulf protested innocently.

“It means I don’t want you near Roman knights ever again!”

Jarl Ulf was angered by this and he overturned the chessboard, rose, and left the table.  When Canute added, “Are you running away now, timid Wolf?” the Jarl turned in the doorway and replied, “Farther you would have run at Holy River, if I had not rushed up with my fleet to help you as the Norse and Swedes were thrashing you and your men like dogs!” and the jarl left the room and went to his suite to sleep.

Jarl Ulf had a dream in the middle of the night and he saw his fylgja floating up above his bed and thought that he would be attacked in his room and he was not far off in his thinking.  Canute ordered Earl Godwin to go up to Jarl Ulf’s suite and slay him with his sword, not wanting to deprive him of Valhall, should heaven, as was likely, not have him.  But Jarl Ulf was nowhere to be found, so Godwin called up all his security officers and had them conduct a search throughout Roskilde.  In the morning it was learned that the jarl had sought sanctuary in the Holy Trinity Church nearby.  Earl Godwin dared not slay Ulf on holy ground, so Canute sent Ivar ‘the White’, one of his Centuriata guardsmen, a Norseman who was Jarl Eirik’s nephew, the man who had seen Eirik’s spirit while at the Vatican and he sent him to carry out the executive order.  Ivar soon returned to his king with a bloody sword as evidence that his daughter’s husband was no more.

But a life had been taken in God’s own house; blood had been shed before the holy altar; and, even though the king had ordered it, the Church could not overlook the crime.  The priests immediately closed the church; but on the king’s command, it was reopened and mass was said as before.  Canute blessed the church with gold and gifts to get this done.  He also gave his daughter, the divorced and now widowed Princess Estrid, large, landed estates.  But after the killing, she quickly sent her young son Sweyn, prudently off to her brother, Prince Ivaraslav, in Novgorod.

Prince Hraerik returned from the east on time this year, as very little out of the ordinary had occurred.  Emperor Basil was dead and trading had gone very well.  Princess Gretta accompanied him on his travels and when he dropped her back off at Gardariki, he picked up more of King Sweyn’s stored gold for redeposit in the Don Jon of his castle on the Isle of Wight.  He stopped in Kiev to see if Prince Ivaraslav had moved back, but he was informed that Ivar was still ruling out of Novgorod.  He then stopped in Chernigov to see how Prince Mstislav and his wife were getting along and to check if the spirit of Iry Dada was becoming an irritation.  He was hoping an exorcism would be requested so he could bring the young Witch Nadege back east with him next season, but Iry Dada was still fine with both of them.

When the great merchant fleet arrived in Roskilde Harbour, Prince Hraerik learned that King Canute had just left for England and that Jarl Ulf was dead and young Prince Sweyn was now in Novgorod.  King Anund Jakob was back in Uppsala and King Olaf was overwintering in The Vik.  It was as if a war had not just occurred.  The Prince spent some time with Queen Gyritha as the fleet paid their tithes and went off to their home countries and then he, too, set off for England with his personal fleet.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for the year read:

A.D. 1026.  This year went King Knute to Denmark with a fleet to

the holm by the holy river; where against him came Ulf and Eglaf,

with a very large force both by land and sea, from Sweden.  There

were very many men lost on the side of King Knute, both of Danish

and English; and the Swedes had possession of the field of battle.

The Prince Hraerik’s New Chronicle of the Hraes’ for the year read:

(1026 AD). Ivaraslav recruited many soldiers and arrived at Kiev,

where he made peace with his brother Mstislav near Gorodets. They

divided Rus’ according to the course of the Dnieper. Ivaraslav took

the Kiev side, and Mstislav the other. They thus began to live in peace

and fraternal amity. Strife and tumult ceased, and there was a great

calm in the land.