Harald I of Denmark

Rune stones of Gorm and Harald
Rune stones of Gorm and Harald
Rune stone of Harald, writing side
Rune stone of Harald, writing side
Rune stones of Gorm and Harald, back side
Rune stones of Gorm and Harald, back side

Harald Bluetooth Gormson (Danish: Harald Blåtand, Old Norse: Haraldr blátönn, Norwegian: Harald Blåtann, German: Harald Blauzahn), was born 911, the son of King Gorm the Old, king of Jutland (i.e. pensinsular Denmark) and of Thyra (a.k.a. Thyre Danebod) a supposed daughter of Harald Klak, Jarl of Jutland, or daughter of a noblemen of Sønderjylland who is supposed to have been kindly disposed towards Christianity. He died in 986 having ruled as King of Denmark from around 958 and king of Norway for a few years probably around 970. Some sources state that he was forcefully deposed by his son Sweyn as king.

His biography is summed up by this runic inscription in Old Norse : "Haraltr kunukr bath kaurua kubl thausi aft kurm fathur sin auk aft thaurui muthur sina. sa haraltr ias sar uan tanmaurk ala auk nuruiak auk tani karthi kristna"

Translation: "Harald, king, bade these memorials to be made after Gorm, his father, and Thyra, his mother. The Harald who won the whole of Denmark and Norway and turned the Danes to Christianity"

Conversion and Christianization of Denmark

Although his predecessors had accepted Christianity at the instigation of the Frankish Carolingian kings in 826, heathendom remained predominant among Danes and northerners for centuries. His mother may have implanted in the boy's soul the first seeds of faith which his father, a devout servant of the Norse god Odin, did his utmost to destroy. When Harald converted around 965, he had the Jelling mounds – previously started by his pagan father Gorm – adapted into Christian monuments honoring both Gorm and Thyre. The Jelling monuments are said to have been a statement of Harald's new-found religion; it was thought that with these monuments, he was trying to conduct a smooth transition from paganism to Christianity both for himself and his subjects. Christianity may have been impressed on him as a result of military pressure, but the stones have led some people to believe that they represent a new-found love and confidence for his new religion.

Meanwhile the Christian religion became more and more deeply rooted among the Danes. Even a few members of the nobility (such as Frode, Viceroy of Jutland) embraced the faith and soon episcopal sees were established (Schleswig, Ribe, Aarhus). The first recorded attempt at Christianization was made by the English missionary Willibord in the early 8th century. The attempt was unsuccessful, but Willibord is said to have taken 30 young Danish men back to England, possibly to start a seminary. Other attempts were made after this time, but they too were largely unsuccessful. In 845 the Danes sacked Hamburg the town where Anskar, the Bishop of Hamburg, resided. As an indirect result of the sack, Anskar was compensated and given the richer see of Bremen which was run jointly with Hamburg.

It was not until 935 that Christian missionaries had a major breakthrough in the Christianization of Denmark. At this time the Archbishop of Hamburg-Bremen, Unni received Harald’s permission to begin preaching across Denmark, even though Harald was not yet the king. As early as 948 sees were established with German missionary bishops in Denmark at Hedeby, Ribe and Aarhus. Hararld Bluetooth converted between 960-965 and became similar to non-Scandinavian kings ruling through Europe.

However the prominent part the Germans had in these achievements as well as the lofty idea of the Roman Empire then prevailing led Otto I, the Great, to require Harald to recognize him as "advocatus", or lord protector of the Danish church, and even as "Lord Paramount". It is easy to understand why the indignant king of the Danes replied to this demand with a declaration of war, and why the "emperor" sought to force his "vassal" into subjection. The devastating expeditions, which were pushed as far as the Lÿmfjord, enabled the emperor to beat down all opposition (972), and to compel Harald not only to conclude peace but to accept baptism. Henceforth paganism steadily lost ground.

The Bishopric of Odense was established at Funen (Fyn) in 980; the sacrificial grove at Lethra (on Zealand), which, until then, had been from time to time the scene of human sacrifices, was deserted. King Harald moved his royal residence to Roskilde and erected there a wooden church dedicated to the Holy Trinity. In the eleventh century it was replaced by a basilica, which in turn was soon torn down. Since about the year 1200 its site has been occupied by the Gothic cathedral of St. Lucius, the burial place of the kings of Denmark. Christian houses of worship were also built in many other places during Harald's reign; in these German and Danish priests preached the gospel of the crucified and risen Saviour.

There is no doubt that Harald professed Christianity at that time: it is also true that he contributed to its spread. But his moral conduct in many respects distinctly violated biblical commandments. This attitude toward Christianity can be seen throughout the Norse world. The Christian god became a part of Norse life, but was no more important, at first than their gods which already existed. A good example is the Jelling Stones made by Harald I. The rune-stone has both Christian and pagan qualities demonstrating the mixture of old and new values. Consequently many people looked on the plots that were directed against the sovereignty and life of the aging prince by his own son Svend as a punishment from Heaven. Although baptized, Svend joined forces with Palnatoke, the most powerful chieftain on Funen, who lead the heathen party. The fortunes of war varied for a time, but finally Harald was slain on 1 November, 985 or 986.


His father's invasion of Friesland in 934 involved him in war with the German Holy Roman Emperor, Henry I. Having been vanquished, he was forced to restore the churches which he had demolished as well as to grant toleration to his Christian subjects, and he died one year later, bequeathing his throne to Harald. Bishop Unni of Bremen, accompanied by Benedictine monks from the Abbey of Corvey, preached the gospel in Jylland (Jutland) and the Danish isles, and soon won the confidence of the young ruler, although he did not succeed in persuading him to receive baptism. Harald sought to shut the Germans out of his kingdom by strengthening the "Danawirk"–a series of ramparts and fortifications that existed until the latter half of the nineteenth century.

During his reign, Harald oversaw the reconstruction not only of the Jelling runic stones but of other projects as well. Some believe that these projects were a way for him to preserve the economic and military control of his country. During that time, forts were built in five strategic locations: Trelleborg on Sjælland, Nonnebakken on Fyn, Fyrkat in central Jylland, Aggersborg near Limfjord, and Trelleborg near the city of Trelleborg in Skåne in present-day Sweden. All five fortresses had similar designs: "perfectly circular with gates opening to the four corners of the earth, and a courtyard divided into four areas which held large houses set in a square pattern"[1] A sixth Trelleborg is located in Borgeby, in Skåne in present-day Sweden. This one has been dated to the vicinity of 1000 AD and has a similar design, so it too may have been built by king Harald.

He also constructed the oldest known bridge in southern Scandinavia, known as the Ravninge Bridge in Ravninge meadows, which was 5m wide and 760m long.

Harald had a son named Sweyn (Forkbeard), who was baptized along with the rest of the royal family, and given the name of the Holy Roman emperor Otto the Great:

Not long after Harald himself was baptized together with his wife, Gunnhild, and his little son, whom our king raised up from the sacred font and named Svein[2]

While absolute quiet prevailed throughout the interior, he was even able to turn his thoughts to foreign enterprises. Again and again he came to the help of Richard the Fearless of Normandy (in the years 945 and 963), while his son conquered Samland and, after the assassination of King Harald Graafeld of Norway, he also managed to force the people of that country into temporary subjection to himself.

The Norse sagas presents Harald in a rather negative light. He was forced twice to submit to the renegade Swedish prince Styrbjörn the Strong of the Jomsvikings- first by giving Styrbjörn a fleet and his daughter Tyra, the second time by giving up himself as hostage and an additional fleet. Styrbjörn brought this fleet to Uppsala in Sweden in order to claim the throne of Sweden. However, this time Harald broke his oath and fled with his Danes in order to avoid facing the Swedish army at the Battle of the Fýrisvellir.

As a consequence of Harald's army having lost to the Germans in the shadow of Danevirke in 974, he no longer had control of Norway and Germans having settled back into the border area between Scandinavia and Germany. The German settlers were driven out of Denmark in 983 by an alliance consisting of Obodrite soldiers and troops loyal to Harald. Soon after, Harald was killed fighting off a rebellion led by his son Sweyn. He was believed to have died in 986, although there are many other accounts that claim he died in 985.

He died 1 November, 985 or 986. His remains were buried in the cathedral at Roskilde, where his bones are still preserved, walled up in one of the pillars of the choir.

In popular culture

In The Long Ships or Red Orm (original title: Röde Orm), a best-selling Swedish novel written by Frans Gunnar Bengtsson, a large part of the plot takes place in the court of the aging Harald, shortly before the outbreak of the rebellion of his son Swen. (One of the charcters, a Christian cleric, makes comparisons with the Biblical story of King David and his son Absalom).

Bluetooth wireless specification

"Bluetooth" now more commonly refers to the Bluetooth wireless specification designed to enable cable-free connections between computers, mobile phones, PDAs, printers and other electronic equipment. The Bluetooth logo consists of the Nordic runes for his initials, H and B.

Sources and References

This article incorporates text from the Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh Edition, a publication now in the public domain.

  1. ^ Viking Empires, Fortehad, Oram and Pedersen, Cambridge University Press, 2005, p.180
  2. ^ History of the Archbishops of Hamberg-Bremen, Adam of Bremen, p.56

Preceded by:
Gorm the Old
King of Denmark
Succeeded by:
Sweyn Forkbeard
Preceded by:
Harald Greyhide
King of Norway
(Håkon Jarl was de facto ruler)

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