Erik Bloodaxe

A harsh, despotic and unpopular ruler

Erik Bloodaxe, also known as ErikHaraldsson, was a 10th-century Norse king. He was one of King Harald Fairhair of Norway’s twenty sons.

Bloodaxe had a brief reign as King of Norway as well as two short-lived reigns as king of Northumbria.

There are differing accounts as to how Erik’s nickname, ‘Bloodaxe’ or 'Bloody-axe', came about. It is not known whether it was a name his contemporaries gave him or whether it was attached to his legend by authors of sagas long after his death.

The first evidence of the name comes from the ‘Ágrip’, and in Latin translation as sanguinea securis in the ‘Historia Norwegiæ’. The saga’s explanation for the name refers to the tale of Erik slaying his half-brothers in a ruthless struggle to consolidate his rule over Norway. Theodoricus gave Erik the similar nickname – fratrum interfector (killer of brothers); whereas Fagrskinna claims the name ‘Bloodaxe’ was a result of Erik’s violent reputation as a Viking raider.

According to ‘Heimskringla’, Harald had appointed his sons as client kings over the various districts of the kingdom, and intended Erik, his favourite son, to inherit the throne after his death. At strife with his half-brothers, Erik brutally killed Ragnvald (Rögnvaldr), ruler of Hadeland, on his father's orders, and Bjørn Farmann, ruler of Vestfold.

When Harald died, Erik succeeded to the realm. He slaughtered the combined forces of his half-brothers Olaf and Sigrød, and gained full control of Norway. Erik’s rule was reputedly harsh and despotic and he fell rapidly out of favour with the Norwegian nobility.

The sagas greatly expand upon Erik’s activities in the interim between his reigns in Norway and Northumbria, claiming that he initially adopted a predatory lifestyle of raiding, whether or not he was aiming for a more political line of business in the longer run.

He is usually portrayed as a larger-than-life Viking hero, whose powerful and violent performances bring him many short-term successes, but ultimately make him flawed and unpopular as a ruler and statesman. The ‘Heimskringla’ describes Erik as “a large and handsome man, strong and of great prowess, a great and victorious warrior,” but also “violent of disposition, cruel, gruff, and taciturn.”