Hamlet with the Princes of Denmark: An exploration of the case of Hálfdan, ‘king of the Danes’

Hamlet with the Princes of Denmark: An exploration of the case of Hálfdan, ‘king of the Danes’

By Stephen M. Lewis


Cawood sword – Image courtesy of York Museums Trust

The Anglo-Saxon scholar Patrick Wormald once pointed out: ‘It is strange that, while students of other Germanic peoples have been obsessed with the identity and office of their leaders, Viking scholars have said very little of such things – a literal case of Hamlet without princes of Denmark!’

The reason for this state of affairs is two-fold. First, there is a dearth of reliable historical, linguistic and archaeological evidence regarding the origins of the so-called ‘great army’ in England, except that it does seem, and is generally believed, that they were predominantly Danes – which of course does not at all mean that they all they came directly from Denmark itself, nor that ‘Danes’ only came from the confines of modern Denmark. Clare Downham is surely right in saying that ‘the political history of vikings has proved controversial due to a lack of consensus as to what constitutes reliable evidence’.

Second, the long and fascinating, but perhaps ultimately unhealthy, obsession with the legendary Ragnarr loðbrók and his litany of supposed sons has distracted attention from what we might learn from a close and separate examination of some of the named leaders of the ‘great army’ in England, without any inferences being drawn from later Northern sagas about their dubious familial relationships to one another.

This article explores the case of one such ‘Prince of Denmark’ called Hálfdan, ‘king of the Danes’. His life, as best we can reconstruct it, reveals much that is of great significance for our understanding of the Viking Age, not only in England but in Denmark and the Frankish realm as well.

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