English history often throws up a few surprises, and this is one: on Christmas Day 1013 the fearsome Viking and Danish King, Forkbeard became King of England. He ruled from Gainsborough in Lincolnshire and without having really established himself, rather swiftly died just five weeks later in February 1014, being succeeded by Canute (or Cnut), his son in Denmark. After a couple of years of wrangling with the exiled former English King, Ethelred the Unready, Canute took England again, then he and his sons ruled here for twenty six years from 1016.
These Danish Kings are an interesting bunch: Forkbeard’s father, Harald Bluetooth, so named as the blueberries of which he was so fond, stained his teeth, was also responsible for bringing together and communicating with various difficult factions across Europe. And so it was that the mobile communications device, the Bluetooth, was named after him centuries later; indeed the logo is a combinations of the long branch runes for HB. So Viking culture is reaching out across the world even today!
So in order to celebrate this thousand years of shared history and monarchy, the British Museum is hosting the BP Exhibition Vikings: Life and Legend. It’s the first major Viking exhibition in the UK for thirty years and has many artefacts never seen before from across the Vikings’ European power base, where they traded and raided. Central to these will be the 37 metre long warship, Roskilde 6, possibly a royal vessel, which is the longest ever found. The exhibition is currently at the National Museum of Denmark and transfers to London to open March 6th 2014. It also features extraordinary jewellery and magnificent items that are probably the result of raids that took place as far afield as Afghanistan, alongside the Vale of York Hoard and a previously unseen treasure trove of silver found in Russia.
So, what more is known of the conquering Forkbeard? Well, he is so named as he plaited his facial hair, essentially into pigtails, and created a forked beard! He was also responsible for extorting protection money, Danegeld, from the English periodically from 1002 to 1013, essentially he was paid to not raid and pillage in Wessex and East Anglia. Amazingly, this year Visit Denmark decided that after a thousand years, it was time to make amends for the Danegeld, and Vikings were dispatched to Liverpool Street Station on May 16th this year to distribute special chocolate coins to commuters in reparation for their ancestors’ behaviour.
Forkbeard’s son, Canute is alleged to have been the first King to build a palace at Westminster, then known as Thorney Island, wanting to be well away from London in the east. He is also famous for attempting to command the waves and tides to stop, in an effort to prove to his courtiers that no one, not even a King, has unlimited powers and perhaps in some hope that their arrogance might diminish. It is said that after this demonstration, Canute hung up his gold crown and never wore it again. A real show of humility from a Viking conqueror.
There is of course, no better place to get a real sense of Viking history than Denmark itself, where you can visit monuments, rune stones, fortresses and of course, Viking boats. Ribe is the oldest town in Scandinavia and here you can totally immerse yourself in Viking history and culture, with re-enactments taking place and living Viking museums. Nowadays, our Danish cousins are peace loving and friendly, with rather special abilities in design and architecture and exceptional taste in food. Their open, warm nature and life style is very welcoming with Copenhagen an absolutely superb city to visit at the start of your journey around this lovely country, where you are only ever a few miles from the sea.
• Read more about what you can do in Denmark
• Listen to Vibeke Oliver talking about Denmark on the Silver Travel Radio Show