New studies at a Viking castle on the Little Belt suggest that the castle played an important strategic role in the struggle for power in Denmark in the ninth century.
(This article is from videnskab .dk and is written Mads Ravn Head of Research and Museum Inspector, Vejle Museums Christian Juel Museum Inspector, Vejle Museums)
At a high point just south of Fredericia, archaeologists have in recent years excavated the remains of a heavily fortified manor house - which can be seen as a castle when you look at the site's location.
The fortifications date from the time around the Danish kings Godfred and Harald Klak in the early ninth century, when Denmark was invaded from the south.
In the spring of 815 e.v.t. the Frankish emperor Louis the Pious (814-840 e.v.t.) sent an army of Saxons and Abodrites to occupy Jutland.
The goal was to fight the kings of the Danes.
After the sons of King Godfred (799-810 e.v.t.) had come to power, they would not recognize the peace at the border of the Frankish kingdom at the Eider (river in Schleswig-Holstein).
The exile king Harald Klak (died 842 e.v.t.) helped to stir up the conflict on the part of Emperor Ludvig. The troops reached the Little Belt, but perhaps they were stopped by a fortified castle on the Little Belt. Alternatively, they ravaged it and burned it down.
The framework for these events begins as early as 808 AD, when King Godfred expands Danevirke, the Nordic region's largest fortification and ancient monument, near the Eider against the Frankish emperor Charles (768-814 AD).
But in 810, Godfred dies suddenly. Godfred's successor, Hemming, concludes a peace treaty with the Franks in 811.
Hemming dies in 812, however, and a dispute arises between Godfred's sons and a former royal family, Harald Hildetand's (705-770) successors.
After Hemming's death in 812, Harald Røriksøn, also called Harald Klak and his brother Reginfred (died 813) fought against Godfred's sons.
Harald and Reginfred are elected to the royal power in 812, and Godfred's sons go into exile in the kingdom of the Swedes (Swedes).
But when unrest broke out in the northern provinces of Vestfold in Norway, Godfred's sons, Horik the I (813-854) and his brother Rolf took the opportunity to overthrow Harald and Reginfred from the throne in 813 together with the mythical Ragner Lodbrog, there was perhaps the eldest son of King Sigurd Ring, King Godfred's predecessor and Godfred's brother.
Ragner Lodbrog is better known by the younger audience from the ongoing series 'Vikings' on HBO.
The excavation at Erritsø in 2006 seen to the south with a view of the Little Belt and Kolding Fjord. (Photo: Vejle Museums)
Harald Klak must go into exile. But he succeeds in persuading the inexperienced Emperor Louis, the successor of Charlemagne, who died in 814, to send troops to Jutland in 815.
Harald's mission succeeds in 819 where he becomes co-king with Horik, until he is again deposed in 827 and remains in exile until his death in his county in Rüstringen.
The ninth century is quite full of conflict, which we can not go into detail with here, but especially from 873, when Horik II disappears a little suddenly from the sources, the kingdom of the Danes is ruled by several weak kings.
According to the Frankish royal annals, Emperor Ludwig's troops did not succeed in contacting the Danes' army and navy in 815.
After seven days of travel, they reached what we think could be the Little Belt. They waited here for three days while Godfred's sons, with a fleet of 200 ships, lay 30 miles away, according to the annals "on an island thirty miles from the mainland."
The forces "returned to the emperor of Saxony" after having ravaged the whole surrounding country and had been given forty hostages by the people. "
They reached Paderborn (located approximately between Cologne and Hanover) in July.
A Roman mile is approx. 1.5 kilometers. Thirty miles fit so that it may have been by the Little Belt, south of Erritsø and Kolding fjord.
Also the distance from Paderborn fits quite well with seven day trips with an army.
They excavated parts of the Erritsø farm and the fortification with a moat, the palisade and the central half-timbered building. The colored areas outside the excavation field are mapping with advanced georadar - a measurement method that uses radar signals to map objects or structures in soil or structures. (Photo: Vejle Museums, graphic Christian Juel)
The source from 815 e.v.t. is interesting because it is probable that the emperor's army may have been near the heavily fortified Viking castle of high status, which the Vejle Museums found in 2005 at Erritsø. The castle has a large courtyard within the fortification.
At new research excavations in October 2016, the Vejle Museums found that the castle had a significant fortification, including rather high palisade pillars that protruded 70 cm into the subsoil (a palisade is a series of pillars that are pointed at the top and then set close up next to each other like a defense fence).
The palisade ran all the way around within a two meter deep moat. The moat had at least two phases. The last phase may be dated to the 10th century, when the site was abandoned. The palisade may have been up to three to four feet high.
The first pollen analyzes from the moat show that there has not been much tree growth in the area. If this is true, from the place where the fortified castle is located, one could have seen the enemy coming in and out of the Little Belt, both from the north and south at many kilometers distance.
But first we must briefly review the fortified castle.
The fortifications, moat and inner palisade measured 110 x 110 m. It encircled the central half-building, which was up to 34 meters long and 13 meters wide in the oldest phase and up to 40 meters long in the younger phase.
Such a great manor with a considerable fortification is impressive for its time, and no identical farms with fortifications are known in Denmark until something similar appears in Jelling almost 200 years later (968 e.v.t.) on a much larger scale.
The crucial thing here, however, is that the studies that the Vejle Museums carried out together with the National Museum and funds from the Ministry of Culture's Research Committee and the Beckett Foundation show that the place may have played a role.
Either as a defense against the advancing imperial forces, or by the fact that it was burned down at this very time by Emperor Ludwig's troops, who according to the sources ravaged the area.
For the same reason, one of the main purposes of recent years' research has been to get some more accurate dates from this unique fortified Viking farm as well as to better understand the farm's distribution, function and location.
Dating has so far just confirmed that Erritsøborgen is at the same time as the accounts found in the Frankish annals.
Thus, the Viking castle may have played an important role in the battle for the early Danish kingdom's struggle for power against both internal and external enemies.
How Erritsøborgen from the 7th and 800s fits into the 900s battle for the kingdom is still unclear.
It is in the 960s that Harald Bluetooth wins 'all of Denmark'.
The question is whether the castle was the last defense against enemies coming from the south, as Fredericia later became in a united kingdom, or whether it was a 'Danish castle' - a bridgehead, where the Zealand (read: Danish) royal power had a bridgehead against the Jews to the north.
New studies for which the Augustinus Foundation has allocated funds may be able to clarify this.
The fortified farm at Erritsø is in any case an important piece to understand the similarities and differences that exist between the East Danish and the West Danish area in the early Viking Age, where the above events and battles for royal power take place.
Regardless of which kings have controlled the fortified farm at Erritsø - whether it was the great man or the king who lived on it for periods - it suggests, however, that in Jutland, as also much later in history, more fortifications were needed than on the islands, as the poet Laurids O. Kochs wrote in the 17th century:
» Denmark, most beautiful side and wings,
smell with the wave blue,
where the adult Danish boys
can take the lead
against the scissors, slaves, turns,
where you send them on a journey,
one thing is missing about that garden:
the lead is of low. «
Text: Laurids O. Kock, circa 1685
Melody: P. E. Rasmussen, 1811
The parallels to the Three Years' War 1848-1850 (also known as the 1st Schleswig War) are striking.
Here the Danes' army withdrew to Funen and used Fredericia, which is four km from the fortified Viking farm at Erritsø, as an outpost.
This suggests that there are consistent strategic features in the Danish landscape that can be traced far back in time.
The Little Belt area is a defense hub on 6 July 1849, where one could just use the sea and the superiority at sea to send troops from the islands and North Jutland to defend North Jutland.
Perhaps the same was the case in 815 e.v.t.
The strategic location of the Viking farm at Erritsø is supported by several angles.
First, it is so close to the later Fredericia, which was built in 1649-50, just as an attempt to defend North Jutland and the rest of the country against invading, then Swedish, troops from the Jutland southern border, which was difficult to defend.
Like Fredericia, the fortified Viking farm at Erritsø and its strategic location may have been crucial in stopping an advancing enemy.
Another written account from 880 e.v.t. also points in the direction that the site has had significant strategic importance.
A merchant traveler named Ottar tells in these years at the court of the Anglo-Saxon king Alfred in England that he sailed from Sciringssal, which is probably the famous Kaupang in Vestfold in Norway to Hedeby [family Hæthum] in northern Germany.
On the way, he says, he sailed with Denmark [Denemearc] on the port (ie left) side for four days.
This must mean that the area of Halland, Blekinge, Funen and Zealand was part of the Danish kingdom at the end of the ninth century.
On the fourth day, he writes that he had Jutland on the starboard side.
It is strange that Ottar mentions Jutland and later Silling (probably a term for Southern Jutland) as something different from Denmark, and it testifies that there may still be a certain feeling of independence in this area, yes, perhaps separate Jutland kings .
Some believe that North Jutland was not part of Denmark until Gorm and Harald from Jutland in the 10th century won all of Denmark.
The important thing here, however, is that Ottar probably after this description sailed through the Little Belt.
This underpins the strategic and political significance of the place. He must have passed the hub at Erritsø on his journey, yes, maybe even paid a visit when he spent the night. Ottar did not sail at night.
We do not know whether a kind of tax has already been levied on the Viking castle during this period. But a quite unique silver treasure has been found a mile away, substantiating that this place was a checkpoint with contacts that stretched far away.
The so-called Erritsøskat consists of a group of so-called Permian silver rings, the origin of which can be traced all the way to the Russian territory. They date to the 8-900s and are thus within the later framework of the life of the fortified farm.
There are also gold finds from the area that confirm the possible religious significance of the place.