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Vikings: Valhalla – the real history behind Netflix’s successor to Vikings

Vikings: Valhalla is available to stream on Netflix, bringing a new generation of Viking schemers and dreamers to the screen, from explorers Leif Erikson and Freydís Eiríksdóttir to warrior Harald Sigurdsson and empire-builder King Cnut. Here’s what’s what to expect from the show, plus the real history that underpins the story…

Leif Erikson in Vikings Valhalla
Published: February 25, 2022 at 5:59 pm
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If Netflix’s new historical drama Vikings: Valhalla looks and feels familiar, that’s because it is. It’s the successor to the History Channel’s hugely popular Vikings, the six-season epic that told the story of the semi-mythical Ragnar Lothbrok and his sons.

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Read on for the real history of Vikings: Valhalla – from the true stories of the historical characters depicted on screen to the liberties taken by the show in the name of creative licence…

Vikings: Valhalla plot – what should we expect?

** This section contains no major spoilers for Vikings: Valhalla season 1**

Vikings: Valhalla is set approximately a hundred years after the final season of Vikings concludes bringing us a new generation of Norse warriors and rulers, dreamers and schemers. At the centre of the action are three historical figures for whom we have records in varying degrees: Nordic prince Harald Sigurdsson (played by Leo Suter), whom we know better today as Harald Hardrada; legendary explorer Leif Eriksson (Sam Corlett), and his sister Freydís Eiríksdóttir (Frida Gustavsson).

But while the show feels and looks familiar, the Viking world we see this time around is not the same. If Vikings showed us the glory days of Norse expansion from Scandinavia, the raid on Lindisfarne and the Great Heathen Army, Vikings: Valhalla brings with it a sense of lingering finality.

This is the Viking Age at the beginning of the end, where the Viking world is riven by religious tension within – pitting Christian Vikings against ‘pagan’ Vikings – as well as more traditional enemies without.

The lynchpin moment that kicks off the plot is the St Brice’s Day Massacre of 1002, in which king Æthelred II of England orders the extermination of all Vikings in his realm, many of whom live within the Danelaw [a region under Danish law in Anglo-Saxon England].

It’s in the aftermath of this slaughter that Harald, Leif and Freydís are brought together, bound up in a quest for revenge that introduces us to new pantheon of historical characters, including warrior king Edmund Ironside, politically savvy queen Emma of Normandy, Danish empire builder Cnut the Great and his father, the no-nonsense Sweyn Forkbeard.


Vikings: Valhalla release date and where to watch

Vikings: Valhalla arrives on Netflix on 25 February 2022 in US and the UK, with all 8 episodes released at the same time.

Vikings: Valhalla trailers

Two trailers for Vikings: Valhalla have been released – watch them both below:


The real history of Vikings: Valhalla

** This section contains major spoilers for Vikings: Valhalla season 1**

Harald Sigurdson fights barechested with a bearskin on his shoulders in Vikings Valhalla
Harald Sigurdsson fights as a beserker in Vikings Valhalla (Photo by Bernard Walsh/Netflix)
1

The St Brice’s Day Massacre was a real event

Kicking off the plot is the St Brice’s Day Massacre of 1002. In the show, we see Æthelred II summon his Viking bodyguards only to promptly have them killed, while the Danes in the settlement these warriors travelled from are slaughtered. In one particularly gruesome moment, we see some Danes who sought sanctuary in a church barricaded inside and then burned.

The massacre was a real event, referenced in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which notes that “in this year the king ordered to be slain all the Danish men who were in England”. There’s also a specific reference to a church in Oxford being burnt down with people inside. But there’s a question as to “how widespread the violence was, and whether it deserves to be called a massacre at all”.

Speaking on the HistoryExtra podcast, Dr Benjamin Savill offered this context:

“It depends on what you’re reading. If you’re looking at the later sources coming from the Normans and Anglo-Normans, it was depicted as hyper-bloody, with babies being snatched and thrown out of windows and stuff like that, and it was happening all across the nation.

“Our only really concrete evidence for it is what we see in Oxford. But the point to make is the fact that this gets its own big entry in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which is pretty laconic most of the time, signifies that this was a serious event.”


Listen: Benjamin Savill discusses the St Brice’s Day Massacre of 1002, in which Danes living in England were killed, apparently on royal orders, on this episode of the HistoryExtra podcast


 Why did it happen though? One school of thought it that it has to do with a decade of earlier Viking incursions.

"Æthelred’s response to the arrival of Viking forces in great numbers in the 990s was to pay them off, and to employ them as mercenaries,” writes Dr David Musgrove. “As a consequence in 1002, there was a truce, but also considerable concern about a court conspiracy, with the Danes there implicated in a plot to overthrow the king.

“Academics have argued that, rather than an unregulated bout of mob violence, the events of 13 November 1002 were a planned response to this conspiracy plot, possibly drawn up by reform-minded churchmen among Æthelred’s counsellors.”

2

Harald Sigurdsson wasn’t even born

Harald Sigurdsson stands on a dock in Kattegat holding a weapon
Harald Sigurdsson (Leo Suter) in Vikings Valhalla (Photo by Bernard Walsh/Netflix)

The future king of Norway is an anachronism in Vikings: Valhalla, impossibly depicted as raiding England one year after the 1002 St Brice’s Day Massacre. It’s impossible because Sigurdsson – who would become better known as Harald Hardrada – wasn’t actually born until 13 years later, in 1015.

In real history, it would be another 15 years before Harald is first heard of.

“Harald made his first mark in history as a 15-year-old warrior, when he fought alongside his elder half-brother King Olaf II (later Saint Olaf) against Danes loyal to Cnut the Great in the battle of Stiklestad in 1030,” writes Don Hollway. “The day ended with defeat, and for Olaf, death.”

Harald’s own death would be years later. After Stiklestad he fled to the lands of the Kievan Rus, eventually became head of the Varangian Guard – the elite guard of Byzantine emperors – and later successfully claimed the crown of Norway. He finally met his end in England fighting against Harold Godwinson at the battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066.

3

Leif Erikson was already in Vinland

Leif Erikson sails into Kattegat on boat in Vikings Valhalla
Leif Erikson (Sam Corlett) sails into Kattegat unaware of the chaos that awaits him (Photo by Bernard Walsh/Netflix)

We know of Leif Erikson through two sagas: the Saga of the Greenlanders and the Saga of Erik the Red, both of which recount Viking explorations west to Vinland, a land we believe to be North America – making them the first Europeans to set foot on what is now American soil, 500 years before Christopher Columbus.

The trouble, in terms of Viking: Valhalla’s chronology, is that Leif, who is fresh out of Greenland as far as the show concerned, is thought to have reached Vinland two years before the St Brice’s Day Massacre.

The real-life Leif “learns about this mysterious land from Bjarni Herjólfsson, and is so intrigued that he buys Bjarni’s knarr (a Viking ship) and determines to retrace his route,” writes Pat Kinsella.

“According to this account, with a crew of 35 men, and armed only with a secondhand boat and a verbal description of the route to follow, Leif sets off on his 1,800-mile journey to a completely new world sometime in AD 1000.”

He would return to Greenland laden with precious supplies, “full of tales about a western land of bounty and beauty”, and he even rescued some shipwrecked Norse sailors on the way home, earning the nickname ‘Leif the Lucky’.

4

We don’t know much at all about Freydís Eiríksdóttir

Freydis Eiriksdottir (Frida Gustavsson) kneels on the wooden floor of Viking hall in Vikings Valhalla
Freydis Eiriksdottir (Frida Gustavsson) goes on a spiritual journey in Vikings Valhalla (Photo by Bernard Walsh/Netflix)

Along with her brother Leif, Freydís Eiríksdóttir finds herself in Norway in the aftermath of the St Brice’s Day Massacre in Vikings Valhalla. But while the plot contrives to take Leif to England, Freydís remains in Scandinavia, where she becomes embroiled in the violent religious struggles between pagan Vikings and those who have converted to Christianity.

Those tensions were real, but Freydís’s story is a fabrication – or at the very least, one that is impossible to verify. She appears in two Icelandic sagas, once as saviour and once as villain – and despite that, she may not have even existed.

“Some characters in the Icelandic sagas may have lived in reality, while others were undoubtedly created by skilled saga authors,” writes Jóhanna Katrín Friðriksdóttir. “Unfortunately, there is often no way of finding out, and that is the case for Freydís Eiríksdóttir.

“Apart from these sagas, which are far removed in time and space from the people they feature, there is no other independent evidence to corroborate her existence. Saga authors may have put someone like Freydís into their story about Norse expeditions to add dramatic elements that they thought would improve it.”

5

There were real religious rifts between Christian Vikings and pagan Vikings

Religious tension is a major driver of Vikings: Valhalla, both within the army seeking vengeance on England and within Scandinavia itself – and this is inspired by very real conflicts between Vikings of different faiths.

In the show this is predominantly represented through two characters: Olaf Sigurdsson (Harald’s real half-brother) and the entirely fictional Jarl Kåre. Olaf is ferociously pious, but slightly tempered by the more material concerns of power and plunder. Jarl Kåre is unfettered by such trivial matters. An unhinged zealot, he actively hunts and murders those who still worship the pagan gods. He is not alone; he has a huge following, and that eventually leads to war between Vikings within Norway itself.

Though Kåre’s character is an invention, there are slender parallels to some of the more unsavoury aspects of Olaf from the sagas, writes Jóhanna Katrín Friðriksdóttir.

“[The sagas] tell us that Olaf rode around parts of Norway with his entourage, inspecting whether people had converted – and he has their eyes gouged out if he found their Christianity deficient, inflicts other tortures, or sometimes executes them,” she says.

“The trouble is, it is hard to attribute such actions directly to his faith and set it apart from his general ruthlessness and dogged determination to hang onto the throne in what was an extremely turbulent era.”

6

Cnut was not the first Viking king of England

King Cnut leads the Vikings over London Bridge in Vikings Valhalla (Photo by Bernard Walsh/Netflix)
King Cnut leads the Vikings over London Bridge in Vikings Valhalla (Photo by Bernard Walsh/Netflix)

In Vikings: Valhalla, Cnut’s army arrives in England to avenge the St Brice’s Day Massacre only to find Æthelred II dead and the young king Edmund on the throne. Cnut quickly bests Edmund and in doing so – so the show tells us – becomes the first Viking king of England, co-ruling with Edmund as puppet-king.

There’s a lot to unpack here, not least because Cnut was not the first Viking king of England – that title belongs to his father.

In real history, Æthelred II ruled from c978 to 1016 – except for a brief period in the winter 1013–14. For that one winter, England’s king was Sweyn Forkbeard.

Sweyn’s raids on England began in the AD 990s, but 1013 was the year of his decisive strike.

“King Æthelred escaped to the Isle of Wight where he spent Christmas, and then went into exile with his wife’s people in Normandy,” writes Sarah Foot.

“But on 3 February 1014, Sweyn died, and the fleet elected Cnut as king. The English then thought better of their own king, their natural lord and begged him to return, ‘if he would govern them more justly than he did before’.”

7

Sweyn Forkbeard should already be dead

Sweyn Forkbeard (Soren Pilmark) seated on a throne alongside Emma of Normandy (Laura Berlin)
Sweyn Forkbeard (Soren Pilmark) comes into the story in the second half of the season. Seated next to him is Emma of Normandy (Laura Berlin) (Photo by Bernard Walsh/Netflix)

When Cnut’s father, King Sweyn Forkbeard, turns up to rule England in Cnut’s stead midway through the season, it’s a surprise two times over.

In the show canon, it’s because Sweyn seemingly appears from nowhere and is a more vicious character than his son. For fans of real history, it is because by this point Sweyn shouldn’t be alive. He dies in 1014, two years before Cnut wins the English throne in 1016.

8

The real Edmund gave Cnut fierce resistance

Prince Edmund stand with in a training yard holding a sword and shield in Vikings Valhalla
Prince Edmund (Louis Davison) is a king-in-waiting at the start of Vikings Valhalla (Photo by Bernard Walsh/Netflix)

In Vikings: Valhalla, the freshly crowned Edmund is portrayed as almost incapable of ruling, a petulant and arrogant young man who quickly loses his kingdom to Cnut and then, once installed as a puppet co-ruler, is quietly murdered by his erstwhile advisor Earl Godwin.

But the real Edmund posed a much fiercer resistance – even earning the same ‘Ironside’ sobriquet given to Ragnar Lothbrok’s son Björn.

After Sweyn Forkbeard’s death in 1014, Cnut took up the fight against England, and it was Edmund Ironside who fought back: first as a prince, then as king of England following the death of Æthelred II in 1016. His character could not be more different.

“Few Anglo-Saxon leaders who went to war with the Vikings in the early years of the 11th century emerged with their reputations enhanced,” writes Sarah Foot.

“King Edmund II, who ruled the English for seven tempestuous months in 1016, was one of those who did. Such was Edmund’s reputed martial prowess that chroniclers were still celebrating his exploits more than a century after his death.”

The one element of Edmund’s arc in Vikings: Valhalla that holds true is that he died in potentially mysterious circumstances.

“Contemporary English sources shed little light on how he died – though, in the 1070s, the chronicler Adam of Bremen claimed that he had been poisoned,” writes Foot. “[Anglo-Norman chronicler Geoffrey] Gaimar’s version of events is the most extraordinary. He claimed that someone had fired an arrow up into Edmund while he was sat on the privy, piercing his body as far as his lungs.”

9

Valhalla was a place of aspiration to the Vikings

According to Viking legend, Valhalla was not a place of eternal rest, but training for the end of the world. Valhalla was Odin’s hall, where slain warriors – if they were lucky enough to reach it – would spend what remained of eternity honing their skills (and drinking incalculable horns of mead) until the final battle, Ragnarök.

“We have references talking about Valhalla as a place that Vikings are going to go to if they fight bravely and die, and it seems to be a sort of aspiration,” says Professor Carolyne Larrington.


LISTEN: Vikings: Valhalla showrunner Jeb Stuart explains why he chose ‘Valhalla’ to encapsulate his entire series on this episode of the HistoryExtra podcast


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Vikings: Valhalla is available to stream on Netflix from 25 February 2022 Check out our lists of the best historical movies on Netflix, the best history documentaries on Netflix and the best historical drama series on Netflix

Authors

Kev LochunDigital Section Editor, HistoryExtra

Kev Lochun is Digital Section Editor of HistoryExtra.com and previously Deputy Editor of BBC History Revealed. As well as commissioning content from expert historians, he can also be found interviewing them on the award-winning HistoryExtra podcast.

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