Biography

Thorkell the Tall, or Þorkell, Þorketill, is the son of Strút-Harald, the Danish king of Skåne. In his early life, he and his brother Sigvaldi are part of the legendary Jómsvikings. Later, he raids in England where he eventually marries and has two sons. He serves many kings and takes part in the largest battles of his time until his death around 1039.1

Life and Viking Times

Thorkell is an important wingman and jarl to three kings and one who will later be king. His name is on a rune stone in Sweden raised by a certain Ulf, who recalls how he received payment from Þorketill.2

Furthermore, his name appears in the major medieval sources for the Viking Age. This makes it clear he has a claim to fame. The references also help to reconstruct (parts of) his life. The sources vary from Old Norse sagas and skaldic poems to a German Chronicon by Thietmar of Merseburg, and from the Encomium Emmae Reginae (Encomium) to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (ASC).

A Jómsviking at Sigvaldi’s side

The Jómsvikings Saga (JS) is an important aid to unravel the events in Thorkell’s early life. Unfortunately, this source is considered unreliable due to its fictional and literary character.3 Still, certain elements in the JS overlap with other sources. So, here is a summary:

His father is Strút-Harald, the Dane who ruled the petty kingdom of Skåne in Sweden. He is close to his brother Sigvaldi and together they set out to join the Jómsvikings. When their chieftain Pálna-Tóki dies, Sigvaldi becomes the next leader with Thorkell as his trusted right-hand man.

Later on, the saga recounts the battle of Hjǫrungavágr (986) that is known from other sources as well. Sweyn Forkbeard instigates this battle shortly after Sigvaldi tricks him into marrying a Wendish princess. Sweyn organises a large banquet where most Jómsvikings get drunk. Slyly, he makes an oath to conquer England and Norway and asks the Jómsvikings to make an oath of their ambition, too. Thorkell swears he will go where ever his brother goes. Sigvaldi, however, has forgotten his oath by the next day due to his hangover. He is bound to honour it anyway and thus the Jómsvikings sail for Norway and lose the battle at Hjǫrungavágr. Many die, but Sigvaldi and Thorkell make it back home.4

Thorkell is probably at his brother’s side in the year 1000 when Sigvaldi lures Olaf Tryggvason into a trap. The result is the famous battle of the Svold that will cost the Norse king his life.5

A raider at Olaf’s side

Thorkell then appears in Saga of Olaf Haraldsson. Olaf is the son of the petty king of Vestfold. In 1007, by the age of twelve, he already lives a pirate’s life in the Baltic with his foster father Hrane the Far-Travelled. After several battles, they sail to Denmark where Olaf meets Thorkell. They strike up a partnership to go raiding.

At this point, the timeline gets hazy. After Olaf raids Denmark, presumably with Thorkell, he goes to raid Frisia and thereafter sails for England around the same time of Æthelred II’s exile (1014). The ASC, though, mentions Thorkell’s presence in 1009 in England. So, it isn’t clear if Thorkell joined Olaf on his Frisian adventures.

Upon Æthelred’s return to England, Olaf stays to support him against the Danish invaders. There is no mention of Thorkell in the sagas or the ASC as their ally. Did Thorkell stay with Æthelred until his exile in 1014 only to switch sides with Sweyn Forkbeard, or did he turn to his fellow Danes by 1017, when Cnut became king of England?6

A commander at Æthelred’s side

Another thing that is not clear, is Thorkell’s motivation to go to England. The Encomium suggests he goes to revenge his brother’s death. Thorkell indeed has several brothers, including Sigvaldi and Hemming.7 Neither is mentioned in this source, leaving room for speculation which brother he tries to avenge.

(Source: Geograph.co.uk / Tiger).

Thorkell arrives in Sandwich in 1009 when a few Anglo-Saxon noblemen have just destroyed Æthelred’s newly built navy. The Kents take the opportunity to offer Thorkell good money. So, the Vikings go raiding further south and set up camp near the Thames by wintertime. A year later, they move into East Anglia. Meanwhile, Æthelred is continuously thwarted by his ealdormen in his attempts to stop Thorkell’s army. By 1011 he tries to make peace with the Dane himself, but the raids continue and the Danes capture archbishop Ælfheah. Ealdorman Eadric Streona offers Thorkell the astronomic amount of 48,000 pounds in Danegeld, but the Vikings still cruelly murder the archbishop. The account by Thietmar of Merseburg, in any case, seems to suggest that Thorkell tried to stop the murder8

Ruler of Denmark, in Cnut’s name

Thorkell moves to Æthelred’s side because he couldn’t control his men, or didn’t agree with the murder, some scholars suggest. But there are no sources to confirm either way. When Sweyn Forkbeard and his son Cnut arrive in 1013, Thorkell is still at Æthelred’s side. After Æthelred’s banishment, Thorkell demands tributes and food from the locals just as Sweyn does. Has he switched back along with Eadric Streona who defected to Sweyn?9

Sweyn becomes king of England, as he once swore in the JS, but dies shortly thereafter in 1014. The Danes name Cnut as his successor, but the ealdormen ask Æthelred to return. Æthelred defeats Cnut in battle and he leaves England, to return in 1015. By then, Æthelred is sick and Eadric Streona once more betrays his king by giving Cnut an easy passage into the country. Cnut defeats Æthelred’s son Edmund Ironside, at the battle of Assingdon and England is finally his. At first, Edmund may rule Wessex, but by 1017 Cnut divides the country among his men. Thorkell the Tall becomes jarl of East Anglia. Apparently, Thorkell has now offered his services to Cnut after Æthelred’s death.10

In 1020, Cnut takes Thorkell to Assingdon to build a memorial to the battle, a stone church. But within a year, their relationship sours. Cnut outlaws Thorkell, presumably over actions by his Anglo-Saxon wife,11 but again, this is not clear from the sources. In 1023, Thorkell and Cnut reconcile, but Cnut is careful in their renewed relationship. Each is to foster the other’s son, and Thorkell must leave for Denmark to rule there in Cnut’s name.12

Conclusion

Though the son of a king, Thorkell seems forever the wingman of other kings. Nothing is known about the time from which he rules Denmark until his death. We only know that Jarl Ulf succeeds him as ruler. When Olaf the Saint attacks Denmark during a power vacuum, Cnut must return home to put things in order, which he does. Thorkell’s name has by then disappeared completely from the sources.13 

References


  1. Charles Cawley, ‘Thorkell ‘the Tall’,’.’ Foundation of Medieval Genealogy. Last Accessed 12 July 2019.  ↩
  2. Rune Stone in question is U344, Orkesta, Uppland. See the entry from the Nottingham Runic Dictionary on The Skaldic Project ↩
  3. Alison Finlay, ‘Jómsvíkinga Saga and Genre,’ in: Scripta Islandica Volume 65 (2014), pp. 66–67, 69, 77. [pp. 63–79].  ↩
  4. Jómsvíkinga Saga | The Saga of the Jomsvikings. Translated by N.F. Blake (Edinburgh: Thomas Nelson and Sons Ltd, 1962), pp. 24–25, 29–34, 43.  ↩
  5. Snorri Sturluson, ’King Olaf Trygvason’s Saga.’ In: Heimskringla translated by Samuel Laing (London, 1844), chapter 109. Sacred Texts Online
  6. Snorri Sturluson, Heimskringla | Volume 2 Óláfr Haraldsson (the Saint). Translated by Alison Finlay and Anthony Faulkes. (London, Viking Society for Northern Research, 2014), chapters 1, 4, 9–11.
  7. Annette Kruhøffer, ‘Thorkell the tall — A key figure in the story of King Cnut,’ in: The Fantastic in Old Norse/Icelandic Literature: Preprint Papers of the 13th International Saga Conference, Durham and York 6th–12th August 2006, I–II, edited by John McKinnell, David Ashurst and Donata Kick (Durham: Centre for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2006), pp. 516 [pp. 514–523].  ↩
  8. Anonymous, “The Anglo–Saxon Chronicle | 1009–1011.” The Avalon Project | Documents in Law, History and Diplomacy. Last Accessed 12 July 2017, Yale University.
    Ottonian Germany: The Chronicon of Thietmar of Merseburg. Translated and annotated by David A. Warner (Manchester, Manchester University Press, 2001), pp. 335.  ↩
  9. Ann Williams, ‘Thorkell the Tall and the bubble reputation: the vicissitudes of fame.’ Academia.edu Last Accessed 12 July 2019. Pp. 11 [pp. 1–21].  ↩
  10. Anonymous, “The Anglo–Saxon Chronicle | 1013–1017.” The Avalon Project | Documents in Law, History and Diplomacy. Last Accessed 12 July 2017, Yale University.
    Ann Williams, ‘Thorkell the Tall and the bubble reputation: the vicissitudes of fame.’ Academia.edu Last Accessed 12 July 2019. Pp. 11 [pp. 1–21].  ↩
  11. Annette Kruhøffer (2006), pp. 520–521.  ↩
  12. Anonymous, “The Anglo–Saxon Chronicle | 1020–21, 1023.” The Avalon Project | Documents in Law, History and Diplomacy. Last Accessed 12 July 2017, Yale University.
  13. Annette Kruhøffer (2006), pp. 523.  ↩

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