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Wife of Eric Bloodaxe, mother of kings, and king-maker – Gunnhild was one of the most politically active women in Norway, Orkney and Jorvik, featuring prominently in several sagas.

The 12th century Historia Norwegiæ tells us that Gunnhild was the daughter of Gorm the Old, King of Denmark, and so her marriage to Erik was a union between two great houses, the Norwegian Ynglings and the early Danish monarchy. This version of events is largely accepted by modern scholars, though Heimskringla and Egil’s Saga have Gunnhild as the daughter of Ozur Toti, a military commander from Halogaland. Whichever version is true, Gunnhild and Erik had a fruitful marriage with several children, as rulers over Norway.

During their time in Norway, Gunnhild and Erik were embroiled in an intense enmity with Egil Skallagrimsson, and as a result are portrayed particularly negatively in his saga and poetry. Egil killed one of the king’s retainers, prompting Gunnhild to order her two brothers to kill Egil in revenge. But Egil killed Gunnhild’s brothers too, and Erik declared him an outlaw in Norway; initiating further deaths as the king’s men hunted Egil, and Egil killed them in turn.

Eventually Egil fled Norway, cursing the royal couple with a horse’s head upon a pole:

“Here I set up a níð-pole, and declare this níð against King Erik and Queen Gunnhildr”, — he turned the horse-head to face the mainland — “I declare this níð at the land-spirits there, and the land itself, so that all will fare astray, not to hold nor find their places, not until they wreak King Erik and Gunnhild from the land.” He set up the pole of níð in the cliff-face and left it standing; he faced the horse’s eyes on the land, and he rist runes upon the pole, and said all the formal words of the curse.”

Gunnhild and Erik were themselves expelled from Norway after a rebellion by nobles in favour of Erik’s half-brother, Haakon the Good. The couple settled in Orkney, then in Jorvik, where Erik became king over northern England, and where Gunnhild and Erik may have been baptized. Jorvik was also the scene of a final encounter between Egil and Gunnhild, around AD 948.  Egil was shipwrecked and brought before Erik, who sentenced him to death – but Egil wrote and recited a poem singing the king’s praises, which won him his freedom, much against Gunnhild’s wishes.

After Erik’s loss of Jorvik and death at the Battle of Stainmore in AD 954, Gunnhild eventually returned to Denmark, finding a home at the court of Harald Bluetooth. Her son Harald was fostered by the king and her other sons much favoured, all fighting in the war against the Norwegian King Haakon. When he died in battle, Gunnhild’s sons were able to exploit the power vacuum and established rule over Norway.

Gunnhild became a key player at court, known from this time as konungamóðir, mother of kings. Heimskringla says that she ‘mixed herself much in the affairs of the country’. It was a turbulent time, with Gunnhild’s sons killing or deposing many provincial rulers, and famine stalking the country.

Unrest eventually led to more civil war, and Gunnhild’s son Harald was killed by his once-foster father Harald Bluetooth. Gunnhild and her remaining two sons once more fled to Orkney; but she seems to have sought a quiet life there after her years of political machinations. According to Jómsvíkingasaga (and with similar stories in other sources), Gunnhild returned to Denmark around 977 but was killed at the orders of King Harald by being drowned in a bog.

A fascinating coda to Gunnhild’s story came in 1835, when a murdered female body was found in a bog in Jutland and mistakenly identified as the queen. Contemporary King Frederick VI commanded a regal sarcophagus to house the body, but later radiocarbon dating proved that the woman lived much earlier, in the 6th century BCE.