King of the North: Historical Note

I always include a Historical Note at the end of my novels so that readers can tell which bits of the story are made-up and which are real history. There isn’t all that much history in King of the North (Fire Born 4) but here is the Note I included anyway. The novel has been out for more than a month now, but if you still haven’t read it, you might want to avoid the following as there are a few spoilers. Otherwise, enjoy . . .

“The intolerable clash of arms filled the air with an incredible thunder. The steam of the wounds suddenly hung a mist over the sky; the daylight was hidden under the hail of spears . . .”

So wrote Saxo Grammaticus, the 12th-century chronicler of Danish history in Part 1, Book 8 of Gesta Danorum. The medieval scribe (below) was describing in Latin the horrors of the legendary Battle of Brávellir, which probably took place sometime in the late 8th-century on the plain below the wooded Kolmarden ridge between the territories of Svealand and Ostergotland. He was re-imagining the battle using descriptions from the Norse sagas and writing more than four hundred years after the event – if, indeed, this battle happened at all – and so his work must be taken with a large pinch of salt. Nevertheless, this was the battle I used as a rough model for the slaughter at the end of King of the North.

I first came across this extraordinary battle not in Saxo’s writing, nor in the sagas but in a brilliant historical novel called A Sacred Storm, the second volume of the superb Wanderer Chronicles, written by a friend of mine, Theodore Brun. If you enjoyed my book, I urge you to read his novel – which, I am relieved to say, has a completely different take on the semi-mythical battle. I have since done a fair bit of research on the battle myself, but I cannot deny that Theo’s fine novel gave me the original idea for King of the North, and he has kindly said he doesn’t mind at all.

As I say, I have done the battle quite differently to Theo – and, indeed, I have departed also from the legend to a large degree to make the story fit in with my own Fire Born “universe” and the various Scandinavian kings and jarls established in my previous novels. However, the original story of the Battle of Brávellir goes something like this: The King of the Danes, Harald Wartooth, was growing old and losing his sight, and he wanted to have one last good fight before the end to ensure himself a place among the valiant in Odin’s Hall of the Slain. He wanted a “good” death in battle and so sent a message to Sigurd Hring, the King of Svealand, inviting him to join him in a great glorious bloodletting at a suitable place near the Braviken fjord between Sigurd’s territory and the land of the East Geats. 

The Svear King agreed and they allowed seven years to plan for this epic encounter, with each side recruiting many famous warriors from across the North. The heroes flocked to both their banners from as far afield as Ireland and Lithuania, Frisia and the Slavic lands – 200,000 warriors took part in the battle, we are told, although this is surely a huge exaggeration – and these warriors also came equipped with the most wonderfully descriptive Viking names, the flavour of which I have tried to give to my own fictional combatants. 

Harald Wartooth – who may or may not have gored his enemies on his weirdly protruding tooth – was joined by the heroes Are the One-eyed, Dag the Fat and Hothbrodd the Indomitable. Sigurd Hring recruited Egil the Bald, Einar the Fatbellied and Erling Snake. Into the mix of these “historical” heroes, I added my own Bjarki Bloodhand and Tor the Shield Maiden – and apparently there were another 300 shield maidens fighting at Brávellir, as well as the famously skilled archers of Telemark.

The events of the battle in my novel differ greatly to the legend – with the many unwise Danish attacks up the stump-dotted slope of the Kolmarden being somewhat unlikely. In Saxo’s telling of it, Harald Wartooth uses a chariot on the plain below the ridge with scythes on the wheels, à la Boudicca, to mow down his foes. But the most extraordinary event in the battle occurred when Harald was killed by his own steward who, riding with him in the lethal chariot, decided Harald had won enough glory and crushed his skull with a club at the height of the fray. The steward may, in fact, have been Odin in disguise, rather than the Wartooth’s faithful old retainer, but what a plot twist! I knew I had to include that surprising death in my version of the story.

In the legend, Sigurd Hring won the day and it is claimed (unconvincingly) that 40,000 people died in the terrible slaughter. In my book, I have reduced the numbers of participants to a far more credible 10,000, and switched the allies of the opposing armies around a little simply because I wanted Bjarki to be King of Vastergotland and he and Tor to be initially on opposing sides in the great show-down. In the sagas, the Vastergotlanders fought alongside the Svears and the Ostgotlanders were allied to the men of the Dane-Mark. The Slavic Wends also fought on the Danish side.

The title of King of the North is my own invention, although the royal houses of Svealand and the Dane-Mark, from the little we know of them in this period, appear to have heavily interconnected by blood and marriage, as well as sharing a common Norse culture. The first historically recognised King of the Danes is Gorm the Old, and he ruled in the early-to-mid 10th-century – 150 years after my Siegfried. Before this era all Danish kings are semi-legendary and most rule only in the realm of myth.

The old sacrifice

There is little doubt, however, given the archeological evidence, that the people of the North practised human sacrifice from time to time and that the old temple at Uppsala was an important cult centre of their pagan religion. What we don’t know is exactly how the rituals were performed. Probably in different ways according to region and the era they were performed in. We only know about them from Christian chroniclers, to whom they were a hideous abomination. Saxo writes in Gesta Danorum: “Also Frey, the regent of the gods, took his abode not far from Uppsala, where he . . . paid to the gods abominable offerings, by beginning to slaughter human victims.”

The scene at the beginning of the book, in which Einar the Cruel was sacrificed in the Disablot ceremony was inspired by a photograph I saw going round on Twitter last year that records the final moments of a German general called Anton Dostler, a war criminal (below). The picture shows him as he is being tried to the stake before execution by an American firing squad. The look in Dostler’s eyes as he stared directly into the camera still haunts me. He knew he was going to die, he knew his captors would have no mercy – he had ordered the execution 15 US PoWs in cold blood – yet he is trying with all is might to preserve his courage right up until the end. He was ritually slain by the victors of the war. And I like to think that people don’t change very much over time. So, while I have no sympathy for Nazi war criminals, you might well argue that General Dostler was, in fact, a latter-day human sacrifice made to the gods of victory.

King of the North is available as an eBook, paperback or as an audio file from Amazon. If you haven’t read any of the Fire Born series, better start with The Last Berserker (Fire Born 1), and click here.

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