Throughout history there have existed elite units whose legend lived long after the men themselves had faded from memory. From the Heroes who fought at Troy to the Navy SEALs of today, warriors of the highest caliber have been drawn to join brotherhoods of men of like kind. In the Dark Ages few had a more lasting impact than the Jomsvikings.
Founded in the late 10th century, the Jomsvikings were a Scandinavian warrior brotherhood, based at Jomsborg, a fortress on the southern Baltic shore (likely near modern Wollin, in German Pomerania). Their origins are shaded in fable and obscured by conflicting sources.
One source states that this brotherhood was established and patronized by the Danish king, Harald Bluetooth. That he granted their leadership to Palnatoke (“Toke the Archer”, also rendered as Palna Toki), and supplied them with their first fleet of longships. However, the Jómsvíkinga saga says that Jomsborg was founded by Palnatoke alone, the land to build the citadel of Jomsborg granted him by the (mythical?) Wendish ruler Burislav.
However they were founded, this Viking brotherhood soon became a force to be reckoned with in the Baltic. They intervened in dynastic disputes both in Sweden in 984, and in Norway in 986. In 1000, they fought with distinction at the battle of Svoldr, one of the greatest Battles of Viking Scandinavia. In 1010, a group of Jomsvikings followed Thorkell the Tall, to raid England; and stayed to serve the English King, Ethelred the Unready.
The Jomsvikings drew their strength from adventure-seeking recruits from all over the Viking world (including Russ from Novgorod and Kiev). Their numbers are unknown. However, their ships numbered around 30, putting their strength at somewhere between 900 and 2,000 warriors. Alternative accounts put their numbers higher, at 300 and even an improbable 1000 ships; but these higher numbers may represent large fleets of allied Vikings who joined in for specific expeditions, such as Styrbiorn’s. attack on Sweden (see below).
They lived by strict code of conduct, and military discipline was enforced among its members. Violation of these rules could be punished with immediate expulsion from the order. No man was accepted without first having to prove his fighting prowess in a duel, or Holmgang, with a selected member. One such candidate was Vagn Åkesson, who at twelve defeated Sigvaldi Strut-Haraldson in such a holmgang; becoming the youngest Jomsviking ever!
Each Jomsviking was bound to defend his brothers, as well as to avenge their deaths if necessary. Speaking ill of one’s fellows or quarrelling were forbidden. Blood feuds between members were mediated by Jomsviking officers. No women or children were allowed within the fortress walls, and none were to be taken captive. (It is unclear, however, whether members were forbidden marriage or liaisons with women outside the walls.) No Jomsviking was permitted to be absent from Jomsborg for more than three days without permission.
Jomsvikings were forbidden to show fear or to flee in the face of an enemy of equal or inferior strength, though orderly retreat in the face of vastly outnumbering forces appears to have been acceptable. All spoils of battle were to be equally distributed among the entire brotherhood.
Palnatoke was the first Jarl of the Jomsvikings. Like William Tell, he was forced to shoot an apple off of his own son’s head. Unlike Tell, who shot at his stationary son, Palnatoke successfully did so as the lad ran down a hill!
According to some sources, Palnatoke was overthrown and replaced as Jarl by the exiled Swedish prince, Styrbiorn the Strong.
This notable Viking married Thyra Haraldsdottir, daughter of the Danish king Harald Bloothooth. Depending on the source, Harald did so to cement his relationship to the Jomsvikings and Styrbiorn, who he backed in his bid to seize Sweden; or, alternatively, because Styrbiorn had taken the king hostage and forced him to give over his daughter as ransom!
Stybiorn attempted to overthrow his uncle, and led the Jomsvikings into Sweden. The opposing forces met at the Battle of Fýrisvellir, in which Styrbiorn was slain and his force destroyed.
Styrbiorn was followed as Jarl by Sigvaldi Strut–Haraldsson. Sigvaldi was not the heroic figure his predecessor had been. He can at best be described as prudent; though a less charitable observer would call him unscrupulous. He has the distinction of being the longest serving and last Jarl of the Jomsvikings.
His first act was to lead the Jomsvikings to Norway, in 986, to depose Jarl Haakon Sigurdsson; who had ruled the land since the death of King Harald Greycloak. When the Jomsvikings were defeated at the Battle of Hjörungavágr, Sigvaldi fled rather than stand and die, as Styrbiorn had two years earlier!
In 1000, the Norwegian king, Olaf Trygvasson, was sailing home after an expedition to Wendland, with 11 ships plus another 71 supposedly allied Jomviking ships.
For reasons that are unclear, Sigvaldi betrayed the Norwegian king, leading Olaf into an ambush at Svoldr. There, a fleet of enemies awaited, led by Svein Forkbeard, King of Denmark; Olof Ericson, King of Sweden; and Eric Haakonson, son of the late Haakon Jarl of Norway. Trygvasson was defeated, and died fighting to the last.
A few years later, Thorkell the Tall, younger brother of Sigvaldi, took a Jomsviking force to raid in England. He defeated the local forces encountered, and received a large payment (“danegild”) from King Æthelred the Unready, to cease raiding. The following year, 1012, the Jomsviking band split apart, with Thorkell taking a portion into the English King’s service. When Svein Forkbeard invaded the country, Thorkell’s band fought successfully with the English.
The hapless Ethelred turned against his Jomsviking soldiers after they had helped turn back Svein’s assault. The English treacherously attacked them and among those killed were Thorkell’s younger brother, Hemming. Thorkell and the survivors returned to Denmark; taking service with Svein.
When Svein’s son Cnut (or Canute) succeeded in conquering England in 1015, it was with the help of Thorkell and his Jomsviking warband. For this services, Thorkell was made Earl of East Anglia; and his band became the nucleus of Cnut’s household guards, the Huscarls.
Back in Jomsborg, the Jomsvikings declined after Thorkell’s departure. In 1043, Magnus I of Norway (nephew and co-king of Harald Hardrada) decided to put an end to the Jomsviking threat. He sacked Jomsborg, destroyed the fortress; putting an end to the Jomsvikings. It is unknown if the aged Sigvaldi was still in command there; as he disappears from the record after his treachery at Svoldr.
The Jomsviking’s lasting legacy was manifest in the elite unit that sprang from those members who ventured to England under Thorkell the Tall: the Anglo-Saxon Huscarls who fought so nobly at Hastings in 1066!
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