History Detective

Gunnhild Viking Mother of Kings Case 16

Episode Summary

Hear the story of this controversial woman in history Gunnhild, the Mother of Viking Kings, who has been described with the most unflattering of adjectives, such as; witch-like, power hungry, cruel, evil and fierce, but also as ambitious and beautiful.

Episode Notes

Hear the story of this controversial woman in history Gunnhild, the Mother of Viking Kings, who has been described with the most unflattering of adjectives, such as; witch-like, power hungry, cruel, evil and fierce, but also as ambitious and beautiful.

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Listen to the lyric video  for Bringer of Kings on YouTube

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Find the transcript at the History Detective Podcast Website. 

Reflection Questions:

  1. Discuss why traditionally textbooks have predominantly told the stories of men and not included stories of women.
  2. Why it is important to represent the history of both men and women in history texts?
  3. Vikings have very straightforward naming conventions. Can you think of some surnames that are common these days and work out where the name may have originated from? (Hint, someone with the surname Baker may have originate from a family who made bread.)
  4. Explain why Gunnhild's origins may be contested.

This episode is proudly sponsored by Amped Up Learning You can find classroom ready resources, games and decor for a huge range of subjects from Prep to Year 12. 

Accompanying teaching resources for this episode can be found on my Amped Up Learning Store

Contact: Twitter @HistoryDetect, Instagram @HistoryDetective9, email  historydetective9@gmail.com

History Detective Website

All original music written and performed by Kelly Chase.

Episode Transcription

Hi, this is Kelly Chase and you are listening to History Detective, a podcast where I delve into the past to uncover the mysteries of history and then I explore how that story might be reimagined through song. This is Case 16: Gunnhild, the Viking Mother of Kings.

One thing that we can agree on when it comes to Gunnhild, is that nobody seems to agree. She is a controversial woman in history partly because, that at this time and place in history, things weren’t written down. Stories or sagas were passed down through word of mouth and in all of the sagas she appears in, her story is slightly different. And because she is always a side character, rather than the main character, there are lots of gaps in the narrative.

Now before we get started, I just wanted to tell a little story about a popular Year 8 textbook used in schools that was published within the last 10 years, specifically for the release of the Australian Curriculum. In their chapter on Vikings, this almost 300year period, the textbook had 118 pictures of Viking men and only 8 depictions of women. So, I wrote this episode to bring a little bit of balance to the Viking History that is presented in textbooks.  And now I bring you the tale of Gunnhild, the Mother of Viking Kings, often described with the most unflattering of adjectives, such as; witch-like, power hungry, cruel, evil and fierce, but also as ambitious and beautiful. Well, I’m intrigued, so let’s learn some more.

You might hear me use the word Norse it means ‘from the north’ and usually refers to the Norwegians and Scandinavian people in medieval times. You might have heard of the Norse Gods like Thor or their home of Asgard. Fun fact: many of the words we use in English today that begin with the sk- sound come from Old Norse, words like scale, skill, skull, skin, skirt, and scare. 


Let’s get back to our bringer of kings, Gunnhild. She pops up in a couple of sagas, one of them “A Collection of Kings’ Sagas” and another the “Saga of Egil” and she apparently lived in the 10th century and she lived until she was about 70 years old. There is a bit of historical debate about where Gunnhild was born, one source says she was Danish, and another source says she was from Norway. When I say a bit of debate, I found a 28 page journal article published by the University of Aberdeen that is entirely devoted to this debate and the article cites more than 100 sources in their bibliography. So yeah, her origins are contested.



I normally don’t like to spend too much time devoted to whom a historic woman’s husband was, but Gunnhild was married to a king named Erik Bloodaxe. That wasn’t his official surname, but everybody knew him as Erik Bloodaxe, so perhaps that gives us an indication that that his axe was not just used for chopping up firewood. 


He was the son of King named Harald Fairhair- I am going to take a wild guess and say he probably had fair hair. I really do love the Viking naming conventions. Most of Erik’s children inherit the surname from him so they and called Eriksson or Eriksdotter, depending if they are a son or a daughter. Except for one, but we will get to him a little later.

But before she hooked up with old mate Bloodaxe, she has 2 origin stories. One story has her as the daughter of the Danish king and she met Erik at a party, and they were married to align the two houses, as was common practice in ye oldie days. In the other version where she is from Norway, she is a young beautiful maiden who had been kidnapped by two wizards who taught her sorcery, and both wanted to marry her. Erik Bloodaxe discovered her and helped her escape, killing the wizards in the process- with his axe I presume- and then they sailed to get permission from her dad in Norway to marry. Although in this second version she seems the victim of two creepy old guys having wizard duels over who she will marry, this version also sets her up to be a bit of a magic wielding sorceress, because as this saga goes on, it paints her out to be the treacherous enemy of Egil, the hero of the saga. 

This hero Egil and Gunnhild appear in a few sagas together, in one story, Egil is at a feast at Erik and Gunnhild’s house when he insults their beer, by saying that there is not enough to quench his thirst. Well, in Viking times, you can’t just insult someone’s beer and get away with it, so Gunnhild retaliates by trying to poison him but he manages to trick her and escape.

Gunnhild and her husband go on to have 6 sons and 2 daughters, which in medieval times is an awesome achievement. Remember how her husband’s father was King Harald Fairhair. Well, he insisted that they call one of their sons after him and so they called him, Harald Greycloak and old King Harald declared that baby Harald would one day become king- which he did, by the way.

Anyhow, her hubby Erik Bloodaxe went on a bit of a Viking expedition with a fleet of his Viking buddies, pillaging and plundering as Vikings were want to do, and on this trip he got into a battle and was killed. When Gunnhild and her sons heard about his death, feeling unsafe they gathered as many ships as possible, packed up all of their Viking loot and headed to the Orkneys, which is a group of islands near Scotland, before they found their way back to Denmark to visit the children’s grandfather King Harald Fairhair. Along the way, Gunnhild had married off one of her daughters to the son of a guy named Earl Thorfinn Skullcleaver, now there is a name that really conjures up some brutal imagery.

Gunnhild’s sons, who are all described as handsome men, got into a bit of a stoush with another king and two of her sons are killed, the others managed to flee and eventually the son named Harald Greycloak, the one named after his grandfather, defeated the enemy king and began to rule. However, Gunnhild played a very important role in the government and was known by the title “king’s mother”. 

This was until in around the year 971, another chap called, Harald, Harald Bluetooth (is it too obvious to assume that he had a blackened tooth?), he arranged to kill Gunnhild’s son King Harald Greycloak. At this point, from her original 6 sons, she only had 2 sons left and she fled to the Orkneys again where she seemed to put away her conquering ambitions and tried to live a quiet life. She would have been in her 60 by then.

The final chapter in Gunnhild’s life happened when she was about 70 years old. She was lured back to Denmark by Harald Bluetooth and he ordered her to be drowned in a bog. A bog is kind of a marshy wetland that consists of partially decayed plant matter. Because of the chemical composition of these bogs, they are surprisingly efficient at preserving dead bodies. 

In the year 1855, almost 1000 years after Gunnhild was supposedly drowned in the bog, there was a well-preserved body of a woman discovered and for a long time it was thought to be the body of Gunnhild. However, in 1977 when science and technology had significantly advanced enough to use a technique called carbon dating, scientists discovered that the body could not be Gunnhild as it was dated at more that 1500 years before Gunnhild existed.

Unlike much of the history that I look at on History Detective, Gunnhild is a much murkier figure shrouded in mystery and contradiction with limited evidence available to tell her true story. Historians disagree about her origins, the sagas written about her life vary greatly and even her death was subject to debate. Gunnhild is just another woman who is lost in history. 

Now I would like to play you a song that I wrote which was inspired by the Viking Mother of Kings Gunnhild. You can find the lyric video on YouTube. 

This song is called, Bringer of Kings.

This Kelly Chase, on the Case.

I'm the Bringer of Kings

A witch and lover

Caster of spells

A queen and mother

Nobody seems to know

The truth about me

Just another girl

Lost to history

Hungry for power 

Wicked and cruel


Don’t play me for a fool

Nobody seems to know

The truth about me

Just another girl

Lost to history

Strong sons

And a cup of ambition

All that’s left

Is contradiction

Nobody seems to know

The truth about me

Just another girl

And I can’t breathe

If you are a teacher or student, you will find reflection questions in the show notes. You can follow me on Twitter @HistoryDetect, Instagram @HistoryDetective9 or head to historydetectivepodcast.com to find all kinds of podcast related stuff. Or head on over to Amped Up Learning to buy supporting resources for every episode of Season 1 and 2 of the Podcast.

This is the last episode of Season 2 of History Detective, and I have a special announcement, Season 3 of History Detective is going to be slightly different. The series is called All Cashed Up and every episode I am going to be diving into the history of one of the people or places that we have been carrying around in our pockets. So, for the first episode I am going to take a look at the lady whose face graces not only our coins, but she features on our lovely lavender $5 note. Queen Elizabeth the II. I hope you can join me to find out exactly what one has to do to get their face featured on our national currency. 

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See you next time.