A virtuous Viking: the medieval legend of Havelok the Dane

Many regions of England are fascinated by their Viking heritage, and that was as true in the medieval period as it is today. Here, Dr Eleanor Parker from the University of Oxford explores one particularly popular Viking legend…

(Adams, Frank/ Private Collection/©Look and Learn/Bridgeman Images)

Everyone knows the stereotypical image of a Viking: a daring, rapacious warrior who rejoices in fighting and killing, sailing the seas and pillaging monasteries with a certain ruthless glamour. Later medieval writers were familiar with this stereotype too, and many delighted in exaggerated, bloodthirsty tales of Vikings murdering nuns, impaling babies on spears, and carving eagles on the backs of their enemies. But that’s only one aspect of the legend of the Vikings, and some medieval texts tell very different stories about what the Vikings did in England.

Medieval writers interested in England’s history – especially in the north and east of England – knew that Scandinavians had not just raided and plundered in the region, but also settled there. There are various legends exploring how and why this settlement came about, and the most famous involves Lincolnshire's very own Viking hero, Havelok the Dane.

Stories about Havelok, a Danish prince who came to rule part or all of England, are first recorded in the 12th century, but may well be much older. The best-known version of the story is a Middle English romance, written probably at the end of the 13th century, known simply as Havelok. It’s a lively, fast-moving poem, frequently funny but with an underlying concern for important questions about what makes a good ruler and a just society. It's cheerfully violent but always scrupulously fair: kindness is rewarded, cruelty punished, and the rightful king restored to his proper place.

The poem tells the twin stories of Havelok and his wife, the English princess Goldeboru. Set in a distant past, which is recognisably Anglo-Saxon England, the poem begins with the deaths of the fathers of Havelok and Goldeboru, kings of Denmark and England respectively. The young orphaned heirs are both deprived of their inheritance by wicked usurpers: the English villain has Goldeboru imprisoned, while the Danish villain murders Havelok’s little sisters and arranges for Havelok to be drowned by a man named Grim. Grim can’t bring himself to kill the child, so he smuggles Havelok out of Denmark and flees to England with his wife and family.

Grim and his family, with the young royal exile, land on the coast of Lincolnshire, where Grim settles down to the life of a fisherman. He works hard and his business prospers, and the poem tells us that the place where they made their home came to be named after its founder: Grimsby.

Havelok grows up to be incredibly tall and strong, but in other respects he is almost comically unlike the stereotype of a Viking: he is cheerful, patient, good-tempered, and gentle to women and children. When he reaches adulthood he decides he ought to earn his own living, and he sets off for Lincoln, where he finds a job as a kitchen-hand.

Everyone is impressed by his great strength and his sheer niceness, and he comes to the attention of the treacherous regent of England, who decides to humiliate Goldeboru by forcing her to marry this unsophisticated kitchen boy. (He had promised the late king he would marry Goldeboru to ‘the highest man in England’, a condition the unusually tall Havelok technically fulfils.)

Lincoln Castle. According to the chronicler Robert Mannyng, in the 14th century you could see the huge rock that Havelok, with his extraordinary strength, threw to win a stone-casting competition. (© Timbphotography | Dreamstime.com)

Havelok is unwilling and Goldeboru is horrified, but they have no choice, so they marry and return to Grimsby. On their wedding night Goldeboru has an angelic vision that reveals to her that Havelok is actually a king's son, while Havelok dreams of his homeland: he imagines embracing Denmark in his arms, and bringing its people across the sea to England as a love-gift to his new wife. When they share their dreams with each other, Goldeboru urges Havelok to return to Denmark and win back his inheritance. He does so, then comes back to England to regain Goldeboru's kingdom too. The two of them rule England and Denmark together in a state of perfect peace and harmony for 60 years, and have 15 sons and daughters.

Havelok is a kind of historical fantasy, but it’s firmly rooted in the English landscape and in plausible reality: Grimsby, for instance, probably was named for a Scandinavian settler, although perhaps not the saviour of an exiled Danish prince. The medieval poet knew that Danish settlement was part of the history of this region, and seems to have thought it something to be proud of.

In this he was not alone. The foundation story was a lasting source of pride in Grimsby: the town's 13th-century seal depicts Grim brandishing a sword and shield, Havelok and Goldeboru on either side of him. Grimsby might not seem like a very glamorous location for a romance to take place – it's not exactly Camelot – but in the Havelok legend it has a founding father and an origin myth all of its own.

Beyond Grimsby, too, the Havelok story seems to have been widely known in Lincolnshire: the chronicler Robert Mannyng tells us that in the 14th century you could go to Lincoln Castle and see the huge rock that Havelok, with his extraordinary strength, threw to win a stone-casting competition, as well as the chapel where Havelok and Goldeboru were married.

The legend of Havelok offers a reimagining of English history that finds a balance between a proud regional identity and a sense of national unity. It’s a version of Anglo-Saxon history in which the Danes can be easily integrated into English society: the characters inhabit a North Sea world in which fishermen and merchants travel freely between England and Denmark, and Havelok and Grim’s children, Danish by birth, all marry into English families.

It's as if the poet decided he was going to present an alternative version of the many stories of Viking violence; his Danish protagonists are industrious, honest and virtuous. At one point the English villain tries to paint Havelok as a rampaging Viking, claiming he is killing monks and burning churches, but in fact Havelok is notably pious and even founds a priory in Grimsby in memory of Grim.

In this poem the Danish contribution to English history is presented in an entirely positive light – as something Grimsby, Lincolnshire, and England can and should be proud of.

Dr Eleanor Parker is Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in Anglo-Norman England at the University of Oxford. She blogs about medieval England at www.aclerkofoxford.blogspot.co.uk. You can follow her on Twitter @ClerkofOxford.

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