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Thorkell the Tall

The rune stone U 344 in Orkesta, Uppland, Sweden, was raised by the Viking Ulfr who commemorated that he had taken a danegeld in England with Thorkell the Tall. He took two others with Skagul Toste and Cnut the Great.
Storm in Hjørungavåg by Gerhard Munthe

Thorkell the Tall, also known as Thorkell the High in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (Old Norse: Þorke(ti)ll inn hávi; Norwegian: Torkjell Høge; Swedish: Torkel Höge; Danish: Torkild den Høje), was a prominent member of the Jomsviking order and a notable lord. He was a son of the Scanian chieftain Strut-Harald, and a brother of Jarl Sigvaldi, Hemingr and Tófa.[1] Thorkell was the chief commander of the Jomvikings and the legendary stronghold Jomsborg, on the Island of Wollin.[citation needed] He is also credited as having received the young Cnut the Great into his care and taken Cnut on raids.[2] In the Encomium Emmae, a document aimed at the movers and shakers of the Anglo-Scandinavian court in the early 1040s, describes Thorkell as a great war leader and warrior.[3]

Thorkell notably partook in a campaign that saw him lead a great Viking army to Kent in 1009, where they proceeded to overrun most of Southern England.[4] This soon culminated in the Siege of Canterbury in 1011 and the kidnapping of archbishop Ælfheah, who had previously converted Olaf Tryggvason,[5] and his subsequent murder at Greenwich on 19 April 1012.[4]


Thorkell is a historical figure, but his career, especially its early part, is steeped in associations with the legendary Jomsvikings. Thorkell took part in the Battle of Hjörungavágr in 986 and in the Battle of Swold in 1000.

In August 1009, a large Danish army led by Thorkell the Tall landed on the shores of Sandwich. They first marched towards the city of Canterbury but were promptly paid 3000 pounds of silver by the people of Kent to sway the army from attacking.[6][7] They instead turned towards London and attempted to take the city several times, but were met with heavy resistance and ultimately abandoned their attack.[7][8]

On 8 September 1011 the Viking army returned to Canterbury and besieged the city for three weeks, eventually taking it through the treachery of a man named Ælfmaer, whose life had been previously saved by the archbishop of Canterbury, Ælfheah.[7] Thorkell and his men occupied Canterbury and took several hostages of importance, including Ælfheah himself, who was held prisoner for seven months. During the captivity, Ælfheah seems to have taken the opportunity to convert as many of the Vikings as possible to Christianity prompting tension.[3] The Vikings demanded an extra 3000 pounds of silver for the release of the archbishop,[5] but Ælfheah bravely refused to be ransomed or have his people pay the invaders. As a consequence, Ælfheah was murdered by Thorkell's men during a drunken feast at Greenwich on 19 April 1012 - the Vikings pelted him with the bones of cattle before one Viking finished him off with a blow to the back of the head with the butt of an axe. Thorkell was said to have tried his best to prevent the death of the archbishop, offering the attackers everything he possessed to stop the killing, save for his ship.[9] And someone, possibly Thorkell, is said to have carried the corpse to London the day after the murder.[3] Thorkell's army eventually ceased their attacks across Southern England, but only after a large series of danegeld payments were made, eventually culminating to 48,000 pounds of silver.[4][9]

Disillusioned by the archbishop's murder, and sensing that he was losing control over his men, Thorkell and several other loyalists defected, taking 45 Viking ships with them.[5][9] He and his men subsequently entered into the service of the English King Æthelred the Unready as mercenaries, of whom they fought under in 1013 against the invasion of Danish King Sweyn Forkbeard and his son Cnut.[10]

After the death of Edmund Ironside on 30 November 1016, Cnut became king of England and he divided the country into four earldoms - making Thorkell the jarl of East Anglia.[11][12] It is unknown how Thorkell fell into Cnut's services, especially considering the former's role in opposing Cnut and his father's invasion of England in 1013, but it is assumed that Cnut considered him a valuable asset and powerful ally.[11] Given the Jomsvikings' role in political events in Scandinavia, the possibility exists that Thorkell played a masterminding role in assisting with Sveyn Forkbeard's 1013 invasion and Cnut's re-invasion a few years later.[13]

In 1021, for unknown reasons, Thorkell is very briefly described as falling out with Cnut, with the former being banished by the king and returning to Denmark.[14][12] However, Cnut later reconciled with Thorkell in 1023, seemingly aware of the strong connections and influence he had in his home country and that he was too powerful a man to be made an enemy of.[14] As a result, he was granted the earldom of Denmark and given custody of Cnut's son Harthacnut, to whom Thorkell would serve as foster-father.[14][12] Thorkell's rule was a short one, with Cnut's brother-in-law Ulf the Earl to become Jarl of Denmark a year later.[15][14] The perceived power vacuum[3] of Thorkell's unexplained absence after 1023 and the commitment of Cnut in England, prompted King Olaf II of Norway and King Anund Jacob of Sweden to launch attacks on the Danish in the Baltic Sea. The Swedish and Norwegian navies led by kings Anund Jacob and Olaf II lay in wait up the river for the navy of King Cnut, which was commanded by Danish earl Ulf Jarl. Now known as the Battle of Helgeå, the decisive victory left Cnut the dominant leader in Scandinavia.

While there is no mention of Thorkell after 1023, and he seems to have disappeared from the historical record,[12] suggestions that he died in Battle in 1039[16] would place him at a great age in 1039 if indeed he was of fighting age at the Battle of Hjörungavágr in 986. However, if he was only present rather than fighting in the ranks, as some sources suggest, he could have been as young as 15 in 986 - making him around 68 in 1039. As legendary in death as he was in life, theories abound as to Thorkell's fate: maybe he was cast out of the kingdom to return to Jomsborg or Scania. Alternatively, he may have died soon after he was made Jarl of Denmark, presumably in 1024.[17] He may have been chased down by an angry mob or he was simply too old for any more conflict; the Jomsvikings were known to have men serving in the fighting ranks of age 18 to 50. With no military commands, the final years of his life could have been spent at court or on his estates.

It should not be forgotten that Thorkell was the son of Strut-Harald and as such was an eminent nobleman of Scania and celebrated in his life time by the poets and on Runestones for his exploits. No doubt he would have had significant influence, renown and contacts throughout Anglo-Scandinavia. Thorkell's proven shrewd nature and wisdom were well documented.[3] The sometimes contradictory contemporary literature of the Encomium Emmae has Thorkell as being in service of, rather than the threat to, Cnut and Harthacnut's authority.[3] This would lend credence to the idea that he returned to Denmark in 1021 to prepare the way for Ulf, Cnut's brother-in-law, to take-over governing after 1023. The use of the term 'exile' at the time recorded in the Anglo Saxon Chronicle meant being abroad as well as social punishment, and exile was often used as a political tool that consciously or otherwise contributed to shaping Anglo-Saxon society,[18] it was not necessarily indicative of a fall out with the King. Harthacnut, when aged around 21, joined his mother in Bruges in 1040. A reunion prior to travelling to England and coming soon after the possible loss of his childhood mentor Thorkell in 1039. As mentioned above, into whose care Harthacnut had been entrusted following Cnut's and Thorkell's meeting in Denmark during 1023. Indeed, one of Thorkell's sons was a prominent member of Harthacnut's retinue and it is not until after the collapse and subsequent death of Harthacnut, at the wedding feast of Tovi the Proud, that Thorkell's wife and two sons were expelled from England. This was possibly linked to the intrigue that surrounded Magnus the Good's letter of intention to invade the realm of Edward the Confessor, with the ambition to reunite the kingdoms of what is now described as the North Sea Empire.


  1. ^ " - The encyclopedia of medieval Scandinavia". 2018. Archived from the original on 12 June 2019.
  2. ^ Garmonsway, G (1963). Cnut and his Empire. London: H.K.Lewis & Co. Ltd. p. 6.
  3. ^ a b c d e f eds. Ryan Lavelle and Simon Roffey (2016). Danes in Wessex. Oxford: Oxbow Books. pp. 147, 148, 150–152.CS1 maint: extra text: authors list (link)
  4. ^ a b c Peter Sawyer. The Oxford Illustrated History of the Vikings. London: Oxford University Press. p. 75. ISBN 978-0-19-285434-6.
  5. ^ a b c Angelo Forte. Viking Empires. Cambridge University Press. p. 190. ISBN 0-521-82992-5.
  6. ^ Christopher Wright. Kent through the years. Greenwood Press. p. 55. ISBN 0-7134-2881-3.
  7. ^ a b c The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle
  8. ^ Gabriel Turville-Petre. The Heroic Age of Scandinavia. London: Greenwood Press. p. 142. ISBN 0-8371-8128-3.
  9. ^ a b c Gwyn Jones. A History of the Vikings. Cambridge University Press. p. 367. ISBN 978-0-19-280134-0.
  10. ^ Howard, Ian, Swein Forkbeard's Invasions and the Danish Conquest of England, 991–1017, Boydell & Brewer (2003), pg. 44
  11. ^ a b Peter Sawyer. The Oxford Illustrated History of the Vikings. London: Oxford University Press. p. 172. ISBN 978-0-19-285434-6.
  12. ^ a b c d The Viking World. Routledge. 2012. p. 665. ISBN 978-0-415-69262-5.
  13. ^ Campbell, J (1982). The Anglo-Saxons. Oxford: Cornell University Press. pp. 192–213.
  14. ^ a b c d Johannes Brondsted (1965). The Vikings. Penguin Books. p. 94. ISBN 0-14-020459-8.
  15. ^ Gabriel Turville-Petre. The Heroic Age of Scandinavia. London: Greenwood Press. p. 156. ISBN 0-8371-8128-3.
  16. ^ "Emma Ælfgifu of Normandy".
  17. ^ Johannes Brondsted (1965). The Vikings. Penguin Books. p. 94. ISBN 0-14-020459-8.
  18. ^ White, William Roy. "A Discourse of Exile: Representations of Restored Royal Exiles in Anglo-Saxon England". White Rose eTheses online.

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  This article contains content from the Owl Edition of Nordisk familjebok, a Swedish encyclopedia published between 1904 and 1926, now in the public domain.

Preceded by
Ulfcytel Snillingr
Earl of East Anglia
Succeeded by