King Canute’s use of ships designed by Vikings in the English Navy

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    David E P Dennis

    King Canute (Cnut) arrived off Sandwich in 1015 AD and sailed his fleet to the mouth of the Frome from where he began to raid the coasts of Dorset and Somerset and moved inland with Viking warriors to harry Wiltshire.

    Queen Emma’s Encomium Emmae Reginae states (of the fleet):

    “[T]here were so many kinds of shields, that you could have believed that troops of all nations were present. … Gold shone on the prows, silver also flashed on the variously shaped ships. … For who could look upon the lions of the foe, terrible with the brightness of gold, who upon the men of metal, menacing with golden face, … who upon the bulls on the ships threatening death, their horns shining with gold, without feeling any fear for the king of such a force? Furthermore, in this great expedition there was present no slave, no man freed from slavery, no low-born man, no man weakened by age; for all were noble, all strong with the might of mature age, all sufficiently fit for any type of fighting, all of such great fleetness, that they scorned the speed of horsemen.”

    True to his tradition as a foul murderer and traitor Edric Streona then abandoned King Ethelred (Unraed) and seemed to have procured 40 Viking ships (courtesy of Thorkell Havi (The Tall) to join forces with Cnut and thus attack his own nation. Incidentally, Thorkell was the mentor of Cnut and the father of Edith Swan-Neck, Harold Godwinsson’s handfasted wife.

    I think we need some sort of research into the problems and benefits of having two types of closely similar but not identical ships in the English Navy – those of the legacy of Alfred the Great’s notable redesign and those of the Viking fleet now belonging to the Viking King of England.
    We also need an appraisal of command. Time and time again through the period of Saxon and Viking naval action the Earls (eorl) take very large numbers of ships and force them to do their bidding – often nefarious and traitorous. How then did the crews and ships captains react? Did those who were not in favour of traitorous behaviour leave these ships and these were then re-crewed by the willing, or were these sailors hijacked against their will because their captains gave in to tyranny?

    There must also have been arguments and debates amongst those who built these ships as to which steering mechanisms were best, sail arrangements, prow figurehead beasts, methods of gilding, and battle platforms – and so on.

    We also need to consider how it was that seaborne warriors could harry so far inland. How many warriors were left to guard the ships parked in the creeks? How did these ship-guardians manage to find food and fresh water? What was the response of local populations of Saxons who found Vikings parked in their rivers?

    We are lucky that the National Maritime Museum is going to celebrate the Cnut Millennium in early 2016 at Falmouth. Being an Anglo-Saxon who lived and worked in Norway for three years I will certainly be going to that! Hwaet!

    Geoffrey Brooks

    I am a UK pensioner, author of a couple of naval books, and translator of over 70 German language, and two Spanish language, military books for UK and foreign publishers. In England I lived at Barking in Essex. I am now domiciled in Argentina and over the last fifteen years have concentrated on local maritime history, little of which is known in the northern hemisphere.

    My interest in the Vikings stems from the claimed Viking presence in Paraguay and Bolivia. From the runology it appears certain that the voyages with disembarkations at Santos in Brazil were made by Danish/Schleswig Vikings and also persons who spoke Anglo-Saxon. Therefore it appears that the voyages originated in England, although from where along the English coast is not known. Voyages were made to and from the port of Santos, some certainly involving calls to Normandy, which makes me think that they went down the Channel and not by the north-about route to Iceland. The Viking period was from about 1000 to 1300 at the latest.

    Recently I came across an article about the material used for drakkar sails which enabled Viking boats to sail much closer to the wind than any previously known and with a speed at least 10% greater than believed. If any of this would assist your research please let me know.

    Frank Scott

    Could you provide a source/ reference for your firm statement that the Vikings operated between Santos (Brazil) & Europe. This expands their known area of operations by a massive amount compared to what I have read.

    Also can you give more information about this wonder sail material, quantifying the improvement & providing sources? As I understood it no sails or rigging had survived, and I have not seen about anything concerning this new sail material from the Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde (who have done the most work with sailing replicas).

    Frank Scott

    Geoffrey Brooks

    I am answering the above query in twoparts, herewith Part One of Two, being the main points from an article by Nancy Bazilchuk: “Recreating Sails Used on Viking Ships”.

    “Missing even from well-presevered Viking ships are the sails: such old cloth rarely survives in the environments that preserve wood. After delving into old documents, Jon Godal and Eric Andersen from the Viking Ship Museum at Roskilde/Denmark decided that old sails might be preserved elsewhere. They found a Viking law dating fropm about 1000 AD stating: “The man upon whom responsibility falls shall store the sail in the church. If the church burns, this man is responsible for the sail…” As a result of their search, a fragment of woollen sail was found between the walls and roof of the church at Trondenes.

    Amy Lightfoot, head of the Tommervik Textile Trust at Hitra/Norway, had been studying coastal people’s use of a tough lanolin-rich wool to weave vadmal, a thick woollen cloth used to make durable clothing. When in 1991 the coastal museum at Hitra decided to build a replica of a boat used locally in the 1300s, it was also decided it should have a woollen sail based on the Trondenes fragment, and Amy Lightfoot was chosen for the task. Because there was no knowledge of the technique, she consulted the people who still made vadmal.

    Even the simplest sail is a highly complex tensile structure. The fabric must be heavy enough to withstand strong winds, but not so heavy that it slows the ship. The balance is found in the strength of the different threads, the tightness of their twist, and watertightness. The Trondenes fragment allowed the intricacies to be examined in Viking-age cloth. Analysis of the sail showed that its strength came from the long, coarse outer hairs of a primitive breed of Northern European short-tailed sheep called ‘villsau’. This breed can still be found in Finland and Iceland. They need no shelter in winter as their wool is saturated with water-repellent lanolin. The quality of their wool owes much to their diet of new grass in summer and heather in winter.

    Historical and radiocarbon data from as early as 1400 BC show that Norwegian coastal farmers burnt the heather every year in spring. This kept down the heather and also prevented the invasion of young pine trees that would eventually turn the famers’ grazing land to forest. The villsau thrived on the summer grass and in fact helped to encourage its growth. The flocks gained enough weight to overwinter on heather.

    Lightfoot was able to provide a limited amopunt of villsau wool for the coastal museum’s boat “Sara Kjerstine” from 25 sheep she kept herself. The remainder came from a modern relative called the ‘spelsau’. Both types of wool had to be worked by hand to preserve the lanolin and to separate tje long, strong outer hairs from the weaker, inner wool.

    The 85-square metre sail required 2 tonnes of wool, a year’s production from 2,000 sheep. Lightfoot and three helpers spent six months pulling wool from the villsau. Spinning the wool into 165,000 metres of yarn and weaving the sail took another two years.

    In 1997 Lightfoot joined forces with the Viking Ship Museum at Roskilde which required a woollen sail for the replica of a cargo ship. This time the wool was sheared. The Danish king Knut II is believed by historians to have had over 1700 ships in 1085. “If you think about the Vikings’ western expansion, you have to think maybe the sheep had something to do with it. But without women ashore making sails, the Vikings could never have sailed anywhere.”

    Lightfoot’s sails have provided unexpected insight into the handling of Viking ships. Woollen sails power Viking ships about ten per cent faster upwind than modern sails, and also allow the ships to be sailed far closer to the wind than anyone guessed previously.

    The Roskilde replicas have not been equipped with woollen sails because the museum does not have huge flocks of wild sheep or an army of women to provide the material.”

    End of quote. In Part Two, the evidence for the Danish Viking presence in South America.

    Frank Scott

    Although of interest, this is not new, it is an extract from an article that is over 10 years old, and only records information interpreted by a journalist. By contrast I note that Rikke Johansen, ‘The Viking Ships of Roskilde’ in Sailing into the past: Learning from Replica Ships, ed by Jenny Bennett (Seaforth Publishing, 2009), provides solid performance data, but does not make the same claims.

    Geoffrey Brooks

    The question is whether any of the Roskilde replica ships was actually fitted with the kind of woollen sail from which the performance data was obtained. The journalist stated that the Roskilde replicas would not be so equipped for an obstacle impossible to overcome in the short period before the book was published, and therefore the claims are unlikely to have been checked in practice, on a boat at sea. Passing to the other subject, the claimed presence of Danish Vikings in South America, I am preparing this in several parts as a separate thread.

    David E P Dennis

    I agree that it would be amazing to find that the Vikings had got to South America – Rollo’s kin out of Paris via Normandy – then maybe the Canaries or Africa – but what a journey! They did make long trips – to Kiev and Turkey for example – and of course Greenland (see below) and what is now USA (L’Anse aux Meadows) – and now Canada.

    However, I have also studied the lone sailor technique called Immrama (small boat, sheep and bible – and abandon your self to God’s providence) where the monk and the short-tailed sheep went from Ireland to the Orkneys and Shetlands and then to Iceland for the summer. Not every monk made it alive but some did and they left the sheep to breed and flocks increased while they were away so there was enough food to take two monks next time.

    I have also been to Greenland and visited the Viking church and have taken photos of it. It is at the end of a fjord in wild country and you can imagine the attacks by the Skraelings and the fading of hope (The Frozen Echo) after the wedding guests were stuck there for so many winters. I think that marriage by handfasting (mores danico)(right-handed rather than left concubinage) was devoutly to be wished. If your husband went to Greenland and was frozen in for three years you’d probably want to fall for someone else to help look after the children. It would be an echo of the Greek tragedies for you to handfast to a new man and then see your husband come home after three long years. Especially if he found you in bed!

    I commend The Frozen Echo to you. I also encourage you to go to Greenland and Spitzbergen – both great! We sailed up the coast of Baffin Land and the sea was the colour and consistency of Venetian glass, lustrous, green-blue and smooth with bergs every now and then. The bergs at Cape Farewell were huge as they were at Ilullissat. We went up on the ice cap by helicopter – awesome. I also recommend you reading the voyage of Bill Tilman who sailed to Greenland in his yacht.

    I lived in Oslo for three years and visited the museums to see the Viking ships and went to Falmouth last year for the Vikings at Maritime Museum – and Canute’s show is coming up in March. I am writing a book on the Marriages and betrothals of Harold Godwinson so will include sections on Viking and Saxon navies. Bill Flint has now shown that Edith Swan-Neck’s father was Thorkell Havi so what with Earl Godwin helping Canute and Thorkell being young Canute’s battle-master – it was a right Royal Viking time before 1066! The Normans spoilt it all.

    Canada = Baffin Land – extract:

    ‘As reported in the November issue of National Geographic magazine (2012), Sutherland first caught wind of another possible Viking way station in 1999, when she spotted two unusual pieces of cord that had been excavated from a Baffin Island site by an earlier archaeologist and stored at the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Gatineau, Quebec.

    Explorer Sutherland noticed that the strands bore little resemblance to the animal sinew Arctic hunters twisted into cordage. The cords turned out to be expertly woven Viking yarn, identical in technique to yarn produced by Viking women living in Greenland in the 14th century.

    Always interest in anything to do with pre 1066 boats. cheers David

    Geoffrey Brooks

    Swedish Vikings portaged to the Dnieper where they founded the principality of Kiev. They reached the Volga by similar means and finally the Caspian Sea at Itil by way of the Volga where they maintained the river trade route via modern Volgograd north to Bulgar until it was blocked by hostilities in the 970’s. This appears to be the farthest extent of their travels east. Nat Geographic magazine, March 1985, p.278-317.

    There appears to be some documentary evidence that the Normans, descendants of the Vikings, visited Brazil and Bolivia in the couple of centuries after 1100.

    An interesting cave painting alongside runic inscriptions was reported from northern Argentina in a 1975 magazine. The painting shows an elongated low hull form with a raised forecastle and two masts with sails one behind the other roughly straddling the centre section. I have never seen a Viking ship depicted with two sails and wonder if this is known of here.

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