The tale of Thorkell the Tall is astonishing in several ways. Not only did his known career span over several decades, a feat in itself considering that people rarely lived past the age of 40, but he was also involved in many significant events of that time. Here is part two of his tale. Part one can be found here.
Forkbeard's rise & fall: The wrath of the Northmen was unleashed upon England in 1013 when King Sweyn Forkbeard, joined by his son Cnut, led his forces in a full-scale invasion. Sweyn Forkbeard was one the most ruthless Viking leaders to ever emerge, which says a lot, for it was a time and age where ruthlessness ruled. He had waged war on England for the past two decades and this time he was set on finally conquering the nation. Sweyn triumphed where ever he led his forces, with local lords bowing and submitting before him. Soon the only true obstacle remaining between him and the crown of England was London.
As the attackers arrived in London they met stout resistance by unusually motivated defenders. King Ethelred and his new Viking ally, Thorkell the Tall, were both there, personally holding their ground against the invaders. Far from strangers to one and other, Sweyn was actually Thorkell’s nephew, but that hardly had anything to do with Sweyn’s decision to take care of business elsewhere before dealing with London. The Vikings left and turned their attention to the smaller unconquered areas that remained.
The English triumph was short-lived though, since London eventually surrendered and Sweyn was declared King of England on Christmas Day 1013. His reign, however, was destined to be equally short-lived. Sweyn Forkbeard died on February 3rd 1014, having ruled England for only five weeks. He was succeeded by his son Cnut, who returned Sweyn’s embalmed body to Denmark for burial in the church he had built himself.
Betrayal: With Sweyn Forkebeard out of the picture, King Ethelred reappeared. He seized the opportunity and returned from his exile in Normandy in the spring of 1014, driving the newly crowned king Cnut out of England with the help of Thorkell the Tall and his loyalists. High on his success and without warning Ethelred followed up through turning his army against the unsuspecting Thorkell and the other Jomsvikings in his service. It is not known if it was a political move to soothe English nationalists, a matter of personal pride, or fear of having Vikings in the realm. Whatever the reason, Thorkell must have felt betrayed. Sworn oaths had been broken and his brother Heming had been slain by Ethelred’s forces. Thorkell retreated to Denmark with his heart filled with revenge. He was now of considerable age, probably nearing his 60th birthday, and he must have been a formidable powerhouse to stay in the game.
Thorkell managed to come to terms with Cnut, son of Sweyn, while in Denmark. This may seem odd, even when considering that Thorkell was a mighty ally who brought substantial military prowess and the Jomsvikings to the table. The main reason behind the two being able to sort things out was probably the fact that Thorkell had been Cnut’s foster father and childhood mentor, and they shared something that was not easily broken.
Revenge & intrigue: Lusting for revenge, Thorkell the Tall returned to England with the future king, Cnut the Great, in 1015. The invasion was a success and after the coronation of Cnut in 1017, Thorkell became the Jarl of East Anglia. He probably turned 60 years of age that year. More about the invasion can be read in an earlier post here.
After living the good life as a Jarl for 4 years in East Anglia, Thorkell got nestled up in matters that led to him falling out with King Cnut in 1021. Thorkell’s wife was accused of poisoning his son by his first marriage with the help of a witch. A strange story in itself, that probably involves plotting and intrigue worthy any daytime soap. Just take a moment and think about the involved. A wife accused of murder. An ex-wife. A possibly murdered son. A witch. The accusers, whoever those were. And in the midst of all that, the 64 year old legendary Viking trying to keep his head calm and think straight.
Thorkell chose to step forth and defend his wife through swearing on her innocence, but things didn’t go his way and the wife was found guilty. Since Thorkell had sworn to her innocence, he lost face and had to go back to Denmark. That is how things worked back then – people were prepared to die before having their honor questioned.
In the end, the whole ordeal raises more questions than it gives answers, and it wouldn’t be surprising if powerful political forces in the region wanted Thorkell out of the country and conspired against him. However, it didn’t take long before Thorkell had restored relations with King Cnut (again!), and he bounced back into importance through being proclaimed Jarl of Denmark.
Every tale has to end: There are no more records of Thorkell after the year 1023. Perhaps he was outmaneuvered politically by a younger generation and forced to return to Jomsborg or his birthplace Skåne, Sweden, to live out the rest of his days? We must also consider the fact that he was halfway to his 70th birthday. That is a considerable age and he could have retired from service to spend the last days of his life comfortably at King Cnut’s court without any military commands. He may have died as well, either to natural causes or by the hand of an old enemy, or the kin of an enemy. Whatever happened, he must have looked back at his life with a smile. The fate of Norns surely had treated him well.
Ethelred in an early 13th century copy of the Abingdon Chronicle