Those of us who loved the History Channel’s Vikings series and watched it more than once on Netflix were devastated when it came to an end (even if the final season wasn’t quite as good as the ones that went before).
Netflix, knowing when it was onto a good thing, promised us a new series to fill the gap, and it has reached our screens more quickly than imagined. Vikings Valhalla dropped on Netflix on 25 February with eight episodes. Season two is already in production.
But Vikings fans have the same burning questions about Valhalla as they did about the original series. How historically accurate is it really, and what events might we expect to see unfold over the coming seasons.
Warning – there are plenty of spoilers below!
When is Vikings Valhalla Set?
Vikings Valhalla is set about 200 years after the end of the original series, at the end of the Viking Age when the rise of Christianity is changing the Norse world.
The lynch-pin event that gives us our historical setting is the St Brice’s Day massacre, which occurred on 13 November 1002, when King Aethelred the Unready of England killed all Danes in certain areas of England. It is thought to have been a response to raids on England and Viking plots to remove Aethelred from the throne.
Historically, there was a campaign of vengeance led by King Swein Forkbeard of Denmark. He managed to establish Viking rule over most of England by 1013, sending Aethelred and his Norman wife Emma into exile.
Swein dies the following year, and his son Cnut becomes the king of England, defeating the remaining English forces and taking the entire country. When Aethelred dies in 1016, Cnut marries Emma, further securing his power in England.
Vikings Valhalla greatly condenses these events that happened over a 15-year period, but they are basically real historical events.
A Character out of Time: Harald Hardrada
But while the events are real, one of the principal characters in the show, Harald Sigurdsson, who is based on Harald Hardrada, is out of time. Harald was only born in 1015 and became king of Norway in 1046. So, he is a generation younger than the other characters that appear in the show.
The real Harald Hadrada fought alongside his half-brother Olaf Haraldsson in the Battle of Stiklestad in 1030 to try and regain the Norwegian throne, which had been taken by King Cnut. The brothers lost the battle and Harald was forced into exile. He went east to the Kyivan Rus, where he became a respected commander. He went on to lead the Varangian Guard of the Byzantine Empire and played an important role in court intrigue.
Hardrada abandoned his post in 1042 to return to Norway and try and seize the throne again. When he arrived in the west, he found that his nephew Magnus has been elevated to the position of King of Norway. After initial skirmishes, the two decided to share kingship, but Harald became sole king when Magnus died a year later.
He spent the next 20 years disputing the kingship of Denmark against King Sweyn II, but despite grand claims, he never took hold of the territory.
Harald also invaded England in 1066, with 10,000 troops and 300 longships. While he was initially successful, he was defeated and killed at the Battle of Stamford Bridge on 25 September 1066. Many modern historians consider the death of Harald to be the end of the Viking age.
Characters out of Space: Leif Erikson and Freydis
While Leif Erikson and his sister Freydis do belong to the historical period of Vikings Valhalla, they are out of place.
They were the children of Erik the Red. He was expelled from the Viking communities in Iceland for killing a fellow Viking, and so established the first Viking settlements in Greenland.
According to the Saga of Erik the Red, Leif Erikson found himself in North America when his ship was blown off course when he was traveling from Norway to Greenland, and this is supposed to have occurred in 1001.
Clearly, the events that happen in Vikings Valhalla are meant to cover what happened to Leif while he was in Norway. But there is no evidence that Leif ever set foot in England, and he had already left Norway and sailed to the Americas before the events of the Brice Day massacre.
When he was in Norway, Leif Erikson spent time in the court of the Norwegian King Olaf Tryggvason, and this is where he converted to Christianity. There is no evidence that his sister Freydis was with him. She seems to have been back in Greenland.
After landing in North America, Leif returned to Greenland. He and many of his family members led subsequent expeditions to America, to a region that they called Vinland, trading with the locals and establishing settlements. However, they seem to have abandoned the venture by 1030. These are events that we will probably see unfold in subsequent seasons of Vikings Valhalla.
Female Warriors: Freydis
While on television we meet many Viking shieldmaidens who raided alongside their menfolk, these types of shieldmaidens were actually quite rare. Women learned to fight to protect their homes while the men were away and to protect new settlements in new lands, but they were rarely part of Viking raiding parties.
However, Freydis does seem to have been an exception. She was known as a ferocious warrior. The most famous story about her recounts a battle in Vinland, where she and her group found themselves in conflict with the Native Americans.
According to the saga, following their failed attempt at trade, the Native Americans attacked the Viking camp at night. They probably used some kind of catapult, as they are described as attacking with rods that made unusual sounds. These were weapons that the Viking had never seen before and caused most of them to flee in panic.
According to the legend, only Freydis, who was eight months pregnant at the time, had the courage to stay behind and fight. Facing the enemy alone, the odds were against her. She grabbed a sword and started beating her bare chest with it and screaming bloody murder, all why eight months pregnant. It is said that the locals were so startled and terrified by the sight that they fled.
However, Freydis was also known for being incredibly ruthless in her dealings, often breaking her word and betraying her allies.
On one occasion, she is said to have beat herself up so that she could claim that a pair of brothers that she was partnering with had maltreated her. She then demanded that her men slaughter everyone in their party. When the men returned and revealed that they had left five women alive in the camp, Freydis was furious as she wanted no witnesses alive. In a blind rage, she went back and killed the five women herself.
We are yet to see if Freydis’ character will evolve in this direction on the show.
Paganism vs Christianity
One of the main themes explored in the show is the rise of Christianity and the impact it had on the Viking world. In Vikings Valhalla, we see that culturally Christians and followers of the old Pagan religion aren’t that different, and the Vikings incorporated Christianity into their existing culture.
Erik the Red, the father of Leif and Freydis, was a staunch pagan until the day he died. We seem to see this reflected in Freydis’ character, who is connected with the old ways. However, Erik’s wife was Christian and built the first church in Greenland. Leif Erikson also converted to Christianity relatively early in his life. Despite these religious differences, the family seems to have lived in harmony in Greenland.
This is in strong contrast to what we see in the show, with the Christian Viking Jarl Kare leading a bloody crusade to irradicate Paganism and convert the Vikings to Christianity. But this kind of zealotism was not common in Scandinavia. The two religions coexisted relatively peacefully, with Christianity eventually gaining dominance.
The more open and accepting environment that we see in the fictional city of Kattegat is probably the most historically accurate representation of religious attitudes at the time.
The Queen of Kattegat
Of course, one historical issue that many fans have already pointed out is that Kattegat has a black queen, Jarl Estrid Haakon, played by black Swedish actress Caroline Hunderson.
This is actually not as unlikely as many fans imagine. The Vikings traveled far and wide, and often intermarried with locals, or took them as slaves back to Scandinavia. Female slaves would certainly have borne Viking children.
Also, the Vikings were quite open about accepting people from other backgrounds into their culture, as long as they proved themselves. This is something that we see earlier in the Roman Empire, with the Romans happy to assimilate people from Africa, Britain, and the Middle East into the Roman citizenship. The Vikings seem to have had a similar philosophy.
In the Egils Saga, we hear about two brothers, Thorolf, who was handsome and tall like his mother’s people (the Vikings), and his brother Grim, who was “black and ugly” like his father’s people. Grim’s sons, born in Iceland, repeated the pattern. One son, Thorolf, was tall and handsome like a Viking, while his other son Egill was black and “even uglier than his father”.
While there is certainly prejudice evident in the description of these black Vikings as ugly, Egill went on to become the greatest poet of his age and was well-respected within the Viking community.
So, for me, it is not 100% impossible that a Jarl may have risen to power who had some black ancestry, just like we see in the show.
Besides, it is a fictional TV program made for a modern audience, and this is far from the most historically unlikely thing to appear in Vikings Valhalla.
Are you watching Vikings Valhalla? What do you think of the new show?