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Defeat Was Not an Option: Viking King Herlaug and His Men Choose to be Buried Alive Instead

The year is 871 AD, and King Herlaug of the Namdalen district in Central Norway fulfills his last wish: instead of surrendering to King Harald Fairhair, he and eleven of his men choose to be buried alive inside a large burial mound on the island of Leka.

Herlaug’s brother King Rollaug, on the contrary, chooses to obey King Harald as the sole ruler of Norway. As reward, Rollaug is appointed Earl of the Namdalen district, a power center controlling the lucrative coastal trades between Northern and Southern Norway.

The burial mound on Leka island containing King Herlaug and eleven of his men originally was about 12.5 meters (41 ft) high with a diameter of more than 70 meters (230 ft). It is one of the largest Viking graves discovered in Norway – and the largest containing people. (Photo: ThorNews)

King Harald Fairhair (Old Norse: Haraldr hárfagri , reign c. 872-932), who was heading northwards to Namdalen, already had crushed several petty kings while moving his army from the fjords of Western Norway.

King Herlaug realized that he only had two real choices: to flee, or voluntarily give up the power. He would surely lose an open battle facing King Harald – who brought with him an army consisting of battle proven warriors.

Opposing Personalities

Instead, King Herlaug chose to be buried alive and eleven of his men voluntarily followed him into the burial mound, Snorre Sturlason writes in the Saga of Harald Fairhair, the third of the sagas in the Heimskringla Old Norse kings’ sagas:

North in Naumdal [today the Namdal district in Central Norway] were two brothers, kings: Herlaug and Rollaug, and they had been for three summers raising a mound or tomb of stone and lime and of wood. (…)

King Herlaug’s bad alternatives: Submit to King Harald Fairhair, or flee the country. (Photo: From “Trace” Viking Movie by Markus Dalhslett)

King Herlaug’s bad alternatives: Submit to King Harald Fairhair, or flee the country. (Photo: From “Trace” Viking Movie by Markus Dalhslett)

  (…) Just as the work was finished, the brothers got the news that King Harald was coming upon them with his army. Then King Herlaug had a great quantity of meat and drink brought into the mound, and went into it himself, with eleven companions, and ordered the mound to be covered up.

King Rollaug, on the contrary, went upon the summit of the mound, on which the kings were wont to sit, and made a throne to be erected, upon which he seated himself. Then he ordered feather-beds to be laid upon the bench below, on which the earls were wont to be seated, and threw himself down from his high seat or throne into the earl’s seat, giving himself the title of earl.

Now Rollaug went to meet King Harald, gave up to him his whole kingdom, offered to enter into his service, and told him his whole proceeding. Then took King Harald a sword, fastened it to Rollaug’s belt, bound a shield to his neck, and made him thereupon an earl, and led him to his earl’s seat; and therewith gave him the district Naumudal, and set him as earl over it.

Honor and Greed

At the end of the 1700’s, three tunnels were dug into King Herlaug’s burial mound. Among other discoveries, excavators found a skeleton of a person who was leaning against a wall – a man who was believed to be King Herlaug himself.

In the early 19th century the skeleton was exhibited, but all the findings that can give us valuable information have unfortunately disappeared over time.

Another of King Herlaug’s bad alternatives: To be slaughtered by King Harald’s army of experienced Viking warriors. (Photo: From “Trace” Viking Movie by Markus Dalhslett)

Another of King Herlaug’s bad alternatives: To be slaughtered by King Harald’s army of experienced Viking warriors. (Photo: From “Trace” Viking Movie by Markus Dalhslett)

There were also remains of a sword and many animal bones.

King Herlaug’s burial mound is larger than most other Viking Age graves found in Norway and it is presumed that it also contains one or more longships.

Surveys with georadar back in 2012 did not give any new concrete answers to what might still be hidden inside the mound.

The somewhat bizarre grave documents both Viking honor and extreme willpower – and that there also were people (including close relatives) in the Viking Age who literally were willing to walk on people’s graves to get powerful positions and wealth.

Vikings in Ireland: Traces of Warriors Not Just Buried Beneath the Ground, They Are in the DNA

As science progresses and archaeologists are forging new positive relationships with developers around Irish heritage, more secrets from Ireland’s Viking past are coming to light, and they are not just found in burial grounds, unearthed dwellings, and old settlements; they can be found in the DNA of the modern-day Irish people. The Vikings may have only been present in Ireland for three centuries – a drop in the ocean compared to its long and dramatic history – but recent research is showing that their influence was far greater than previously realised.

Recent Research Shows Viking Influence Has Been Heavily Underestimated

It has long been known that the Vikings – in Ireland’s case, the Norse and the Danes – eventually settled down and lived alongside the Irish clans, in some cases intermarrying and allying themselves with Irish chieftains.

“As early as the middle of the ninth century we hear of a mixed race called the Gall-Gael (Gaill-Gaedhil) of partly Scandinavian and partly Irish blood, who began to collect formidable armies. Intermarriage and settlement must thus have been frequent at a date when it is customary to think of the Norse as mere occasional raiders along the coasts.” (Hull, 1931).

The intermingling between the Vikings and the Irish is reflected in many of the surnames present in Ireland today: Doyle (son of the dark foreigner), MacAuliffe (son of Olaf), and MacManus (son of Manus), all originate from Viking warriors who married Irish women. Other Norse names found in Ireland include Cotter, Dowdall, Dromgoole, Gould, Harold, Howard, Loughlin, Sweetman and Trant.

Viking Genes in Ireland

It was widely assumed that the genetic contribution of Vikings to the Irish was relatively small, with just a few surviving surnames as their legacy. Supporting this belief was a genetic study conducted in (2006), which showed little remaining signature of the Viking ages in Irish DNA (McEvoy, B., et al., 2006). However, it only examined the paternal line of Irish individuals that carried Norse surnames and used only one percent of available genetic information.

A more rigorous study conducted by the Royal College of Surgeons in Dublin in December, 2017, revealed that the Vikings’ genetic contribution to Irish DNA had been largely underestimated. Their research pieced together a ‘DNA atlas’ using the genetics of 536 Irish men and women. Their results turned up a “surprising level” of Norwegian related ancestry, predominately from counties on the north or western coasts of Norway, where Norse Viking activity originated from.

“The effect of the Norse Vikings on the genetic landscape of Ireland seems to be shared across Ireland, and not limited to regions of Norse settlement, e.g. Limerick, Waterford, Wexford, and Dublin,” the study authors reported in their paper published in the journal Scientific Reports .

Just weeks later, another study concurred that the Vikings made a lasting impression on the DNA map of Ireland. Scientists from Trinity College Dublin (TCD), the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute at Cambridge, and University College London, mapped genetic similarities and differences between almost 1,000 Irish individuals and more than 6,000 from Britain and mainland Europe. They also found that the Irish have far more Viking ancestry than previously discovered.

“Of all the European populations considered, ancestral influence in Irish genomes was best represented by modern Scandinavians and northern Europeans, with a significant single-date one-source admixture event overlapping the historical period of the Norse-Viking settlements in Ireland,” the study authors wrote in the journal PLOS One .

Unlike the study conducted by the Royal College which found the genetic traces of Vikings spread across the whole of Ireland, the Trinity College study found that the strongest signals were in the south and central Leinster (consistent with the largest recorded Viking settlement in Ireland based in present-day Dublin), followed by Connacht and north Leinster/Ulster. 

“The long and complex history of population dynamics in Ireland has left an indelible mark on the genomes of modern inhabitants of the island” co-author of the study  Professor Russell McLaughlin told the MailOnline.

Battle of Clontarf - 23 April 1014 at Clontarf, near Dublin, on the east coast of Ireland. (Public Domain)

Battle of Clontarf – 23 April 1014 at Clontarf, near Dublin, on the east coast of Ireland. ( Public Domain )

Ireland Has Not Given Up All its Viking Secrets

Much of Ireland’s Viking history is as murky as the Liffey estuary where a Viking fleet of 60 longships arrived in 837 AD, signalling the beginning of Viking settlements in Ireland. Yet archaeologists and scientists are continuing to clear the muddied waters as new findings come to light that offer a new or deeper understanding of the Viking presence in Ireland.

It was only last month that yet more Viking traces beneath the streets of Dublin emerged. During work at the site of the planned Hodson Bay Dublin Hotel on Dean Street, archaeologists turned up the remains of nine Viking structures, one containing the ‘graffiti’ image of a man riding a horse etched into a slate, leather shoes, a wooden spoon, a wooden bowl, a copper alloy decorated stick pin, worked bone objects, and a rare copper alloy Viking key.

Viking ‘graffiti’ etched on slate of man riding a horse found at Dean Sty, Dublin. Image: Aisling Collins Archaeology Services

Viking ‘graffiti’ etched on slate of man riding a horse found at Dean Sty, Dublin. Image: Aisling Collins Archaeology Services

Professor Clarke suggests the area represents part of a suburban development that existed on the outskirts of the main settlement found at Wood Quay.A map published by the Friends of Medieval Dublin in 1978 contains an orange line indicating a ‘zone of archaeological potential’ and it is here, among other sites across Ireland, that more secrets from the Viking Age are likely to be found.

Together, the archaeological and the genomic research is painting a more complex picture of the Vikings. They were not just warriors, but also farmers, traders, and craftsmen in search of new lands, and they left a permanent mark in Ireland and in the genetic makeup of the Irish people.







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