Gorm of Denmark and his immediate predecessors


Gorm of Denmark and his immediate predecessors

based on the earliest authorities

compiled by Stewart Baldwin

[Revised 18 February 2001. This is a very minor revision of an article posted on 5 February 2000 to the USENET newsgroup soc.genealogy.medieval]


From the late eighth to the late ninth century, it is possible to work out (with some gaps) a basic succession of Kings of Denmark (click here for an outline of those kings). Then, in the late ninth century, our sources dry up, and there are few early sources which give the history of the kings of that period. Not until Harald, son of Gorm, do the sources reach their earlier level. Of course, there are the late Icelandic sagas, the native histories of Saxo and Svend Aggeson, late king lists, and other sources, but their authority is very dubious for the period prior to Gorm. Whenever the data from these late sources can be checked against the more reliable contemporary sources, reasons for grave suspicion emerge. For example, the story of Gorm "the Old" given in the Icelandic sagas (there being no known early authority for the nickname "the Old") has the story of his death as a prominent feature, in which he is survived by his wife Thyre. Since it is known from the contemporary evidence that Thyre died before Gorm, the saga story of Gorm's death is shown to be a fabrication, casting suspicion on the saga material. The sagas and other late sources are full of errors and inventions, and even if they do preserve some valid tidbits of history, there seems to be no reasonable way of separating these from the many inventions.

Thus, the account given here is based only on the earliest authorities, that is, those works written before 1100 that are known to mention Danish kings from the late ninth century, up to and including Gorm. There are few enough of these that the relevant passages can be quoted in their entirety, for the benefit of those who wish to read the sources directly and form their own conclusions. These sources will first be quoted, and then an outline of the meager conclusions which can be reached will follow.

Runic Inscriptions

The earliest sources for the history of the kings of Denmark during the tenth century, and the only ones which are strictly contemporary, are several runic inscriptions in Jutland that mention certain Danish kings, including Gorm and his son Harald. The dynasty of Haddeby (Hedeby, Haithabu) is represented by two runic inscriptions in South Jutland, called Haddeby Stones 2 and 4. (Haddeby Stones 1 and 3 are later, from the time of Gorm's grandson Svend, and contain no genealogical data.) The family of Gorm is represented in the well known Jelling monuments in North Jutland, and on Sonder Vissing Stone 1, also in North Jutland. Transcriptions and translations of these stones have been given by both A. V. Storm [Storm 328-47] and Erik Moltke [Moltke 192-223]. Moltke's treatment has been preferred in the transcriptions below, except that the modern convention for the spacing of words has been followed here. (It was common to split words on runestones between lines.)

Haddeby Stone 2, South Jutland [Moltke 193-4; also Storm 330, where it is called Vedelspang Stone I]

asfriŝr karŝi kumbl ŝaun aft siktriku sun [s]in aui* knubu
[*error for "auk" - Moltke 194]

Moltke's translation:
Asfrid [Asfriŝr] made this monument in memory of Sigtryg [Siktriku], her son and Gnupa's [Knubu].

Haddeby Stone 4, South Jutland [Moltke 194-5; also Storm 332, where it is called Vedelspand Stone II]

asfriŝr karŝi kubl ŝausi tutiR uŝinka[u]rs aft Siktriuk kunuk sun sin auk knubu
kurmR raist run[aR]
[These last three words are on another part of the stone, and were apparently overlooked by Storm. Of course, the Gorm who carved the stone for Asfrid would be a different man from King Gorm.]

Moltke's translation:
Asfrid [Asfriŝr] Odinkar's [Uŝinkaur] daughter made this monument in memory of King Sigtryg [Siktriuk], her son and Gnupa's [Knubu].
Gorm [Kurmr] cut the runes.

Jelling Stone 1, North Jutland [Moltke 206-7; Storm 336]

kurmr kunukr k[ar]ŝi kubl ŝusi aft Ŝurui kunu sini tanmarkaR but

Moltke's translation:
King Gorm [Kurmr] made this monument in memory of Thorvi (Thyre) [Ŝurui], his wife, Denmark's adornment.

Jelling Stone 2, North Jutland [Moltke 207; Storm 340]

haraltr kunukR baŝ kaurua kubl ŝausi aft kurm faŝur sin auk aft Ŝaurui muŝur sina sa haraltr ias saR uan tanmaurk ala auk Nuruiak auk t[a]ni [karŝi] kristna

Moltke's translation:
King Harald [Haraltr] commanded this monument to be made in memory of Gorm [Kurm], his father, and in memory of Thorvi (Thyre) [Ŝaurui], his mother - that Harald [Haraltr] who had won the whole of Denmark for himself, and Norway, and made the Danes Christian

Sonder Vissing Stone 1, North Jutland [Moltke 203]

tufa let kaurua kubl mistiuis tutiR uft muŝur sina kuna harats* hins kuŝa kurms sunaR
[*spelling error for "haralts" - Moltke 203]

Moltke's translation:
Tove [Tufa], Mistivoj's [Mistiui] daughter, wife of Harald [Hara[l]t] the Good Gorm's [Kurm] son, had this monument made in memory of her mother.

Archaeological Finds at Jelling

The site containing the Jelling stones also has an old church and two large mounds, containing finds which have an important bearing on the chronology of Gorm's reign. The North Mound contains a (pagan) burial chamber, which dendrochronological (tree-ring) dating shows to have been built either in the year 958 or shortly thereafter [Andersen 281, citing Christainsen-Krogh]. The burial chamber had been plundered long before the first archaelogical investigations. In the old church, a grave was found in a prominent position, apparently the founder of the church, the skeleton having apparently been removed from elsewhere [Krogh 200-1]. The bones (of a single individual) indicate a man about 173 cm. (5 ft. 7 in.) tall, aged perhaps 35 to 50 years old [Krogh 202], although the judgement of age is subject to considerable error. While Krogh was of the opinion that the bones were carefully moved from the burial chamber to the church, Andersen argued against that interpretation, offering the opinion that there was no evidence that the burial chamber had been opened prior to the time that it was plundered. (I find Andersen's arguments more persuasive, but have not seen any replies that Krogh might have made.) Krogh's interpretation suggests that the body buried in the church is that of Gorm (which requires the assumption of a removal from the burial chamber to the church, as Gorm was a pagan by all accounts). Andersen made the tentative suggestion that the body was that of Gorm's son Harald, the probable founder of the church located there. If the body was that of either Gorm or Harald, then any age estimates for the body would have important chronological implications.

[Note: Thanks are due to Todd Farmerie for providing me with copies of the articles by Andersen and Krogh.]


Strictly speaking, the above runestones are the only contemporary documentation that we have for Gorm and his family, and for the kings ruling at Hedeby. However, the above king Gnupa ("Chnuba") is also mentioned in Widukind's "Res gestae Saxonicae", which places him in the year 934. Since "Res gestae Saxonicae" was written about 968, this almost contemporary source gives us a chronological fix for the period that one of these kings was reigning.

Widukind's "Res gestae Saxonicae", Book 1, section 40 (part):

Latin text (from PL 137: 156):
(DCCCCXXXIV) Cum autem omnes in circuitu nationes subjecisset, Danos, qui navali latrocinio Fresones incursabant, cum exercitu adiit vicitque, et tributarios faciens, regem eorum nomine Chnubam baptismum percipere fecit.

English translation by Storm [Storm 335]:
(934) [Henry the Fowler,] after having subdued all nations around him, attacked the Danes, who had harried the Frisians from the sea, and he subdued them, and made them pay taxes, and compelled their king, Chnuba, to be baptised.

Adam of Bremen

The other source prior to the year 1100 which gives direct information on the Danish kings of this period is Adam of Bremen's "Gesta Hammaburgensis Ecclesiae Pontificum" (History of the Archbishops of Hamburg[-Bremen]), probably written during the peiod 1072-1085. As such, it falls between one hundred and two hundred years later than the event which are of interest to us here, and the reliability of the information must therefore be judged in that context. However, there is also the advantage that he had the Danish king Svend Estridsen as an informant, and some of the information given is attributed directly to this king. About 1076, Adam presented Archbishop Liemar with a copy of his history. After that, however, he continued to make revisions to the original manuscript of his work, and both versions were then copied and recopied. This, and the fact that the earliest manuscripts do not survive, has resulted in a complicated manuscript tradition [see AB xxiv ff.].

The Latin texts of Adam's work below are taken from PL, and the English translations are adapted from Tschan's translations in AB. When I say "adapted from", I mean that Tschan "translated" the personal and place names to a "standard" form, which tends to obscure what the original manuscript said. I have left these names as they were in the Latin text (minus the Latin declensions), but have otherwise given Tschan's translation as it was given by him.

Adam of Bremen, Book 1, chapter 50

Latin text (from PL 146: 492):
Audivi autem ex ore veracissimi regis Danorum Suein, cum nobis stipulantibus numeraret atavos suos, Post cladem, inquit, Nortmannicam Heiligonem regnasse comperi, virum populis amabilem propter justitiam et sanctitatem suum. Successit illi Olaph, qui veniens a Sueonia, regnum obtinuit Danicum vi et armis, habuitque filios multos, ex quibus Chnob et Gurd regnum optinuerunt post obitum patris.

English translation (adapted from AB: 44):
But I have heard from the mouth of the most veracious king of the Danes, Svein, when at our request he named over his forefathers: "After the overthrow of the Northmen," he said, "I have learned that Nortmannia was ruled by Heiligo, a man beloved by the people for his justice and sanctity. He was succeeded by Olaph, who, coming from Sweden, obtained the Danish kingdom by force of arms, and he had many sons, of whom Chnob and Gurd possessed the realm after their father’s death."
[Note: Tschan translates Nortmannia as Norway, which seems false from the context of the next sentence, so I have left the term untranslated above.]

Adam of Bremen, Book 1, chapter 54 (part)

Latin text (from PL 146: 495-6):
... Aliqua vero recitavit nobis clarissimus rex Danorum ita rogantibus: Post Olaph, inquit, Sueonum principem, qui regnavit in Dania cum filiis suis, ponitur in locum ejus Sigerich. Cumque parvo tempore regnasset, eum Hardegon, filius Suein, veniens a Nortmannia, privavit regno. Tanti autem reges, immo tyranni Danorum, utrum simul aliqui regnaverint, an alter post alterum brevi tempore vixerit, incertum est. Nobis hoc scire sufficiat, omnes adhuc paganos fuisse, ac in tanta regnorum mutatione vel excursione barbarorum Christianitatem in Dania, quĉ a sancto Ansgario plantata est, aliquantulam remansisse, non totam deficisse. ...

English translation (adapted from AB: 47):
... Some things, too, the illustrious king of the Danes told us when we asked. He said that after Olaph, the Swedish prince who ruled in Denmark with his sons, Sigerich was put in his place. And after he had reigned a short time, Hardegon, the son of Svein, came from Nortmannia and deprived him of the kingdom. How many Danish kings, or rather tyrants, there were indeed, and whether some of them ruled at the same time or lived for a short time one after the other, is uncertain. It is enough for us to know that to this day they all were pagans and that, in spite of so many changes in rulers and so many barbarian inroads, there was left in Denmark a little of the Christianity which Ansgar had planted and which did not entirely disappear. ...
[Note: Here, Tschan renders Nortmannia as Normandy.]

Adam of Bremen, Book 1, chapter 57:

Latin text (from PL 146: 497):
In diebus suis Ungri non solum nostram Saxoniam aliasque cis Rhenum provincias, verum etiam trans Rhenum Lotharingiam et Franciam demoliti sunt. Dani quoque Sclavos auxilio habentes, primo Transalbianos Saxones, deinde eis Albim vastantes, magno Saxoniam terrore quassabant. Apud Danos eo tempore [filius] Hardecnudth[,] Wrm regnavit, cruselissimus, inquam, vermis et Christianorum populis non mediocriter infestus. Ille Christianitatem, quĉ in Dania fuit, prorsus delere molitus, sacerdotes Dei a finibus suis depulit, plurimos quoque ille per tormenta necavit.
[Note: It appears that the word "filius" (in brackets above) has been lost in the transmission of one group of manuscripts [see e.g., Moltke 199]. Other manuscripts give, e.g., "filius Hardewigh Gorm", "filius Hardewich Gwrm", etc., in which the name "Hardecnudth" has suffered considerable corruption in the transmission of the manuscript, but the word "filius" appears. The context suggests that the word "filius" should be included.]

English translation (adapted from AB: 49):
IV (57). In his [i.e. Archbishop Unni’s] days the Hungarians devastated not only our Saxony and the other provinces on this side of the Rhine but also Lotharingia and Francia across the Rhine. The Danes, too, with the Slavs as allies, plundering first of all the Transalbingian Saxons and then ravaging the country this side of the Elbe, made Saxony tremble in great terror. Over the Danes there ruled at that time [the son of] Hardecnudth[,] Wrm, a savage worm I say, and not moderately hostile to the Christian people. He set about completely to destroy Christianity in Denmark, driving the priests of God from its bounds and also torturing very many of them to death.
[Note: The words in brackets show the reading if the word "filius" is to be accepted, as discussed above. The translation without this word can be seen by ignoring the part in brackets.]

Adam of Bremen, Book 1, chapter 59:

Latin text (from PL 146: 498):
Deinde cum exercitu ingressus Daniam, Wrm regem primo impetu adeo perterruit, ut imperata se facere mandaret et pacem supplex deposceret. Sic Heinricus victor apud Sliaswich, quĉ nunc Heidiba dicitur, regni terminos ponens, ibi et marchionem statuit et Saxonum coloniam habitare prĉcepit. Hĉc omnia referente quondam episcipo Danorum, prudenti viro, nos veraciter ut acceptimus, sic fideliter ecclesiĉ nostrĉ tradimus.

English translation (adapted from AB: 50):
Then he [King Henry the Fowler of Germany] invaded Denmark with an army an in the first battle so thoroughly terrified King Wrm that the latter pledged himself to obey his commands and, as a suppliant, sued for peace. The victorious Henry then set the bounds of the kingdom at Schleswig, which is now called Haddeby, appointed a margrave, and ordered a colony of Saxons to settle there. All these facts, related by a certain Danish bishop, a prudent man, we transmit to our Church as faithfully as we have truthfully received them.

Adam of Bremen, Book 1, chapter 61:

Latin text (from PL 146: 498):
Postquam vero confessor Dei pervenit ad Danos, ubi tunc crudelissimum Worm diximus regnasse, illum quidem pro ingenita flectare nequivit sĉvitia; filiam autem regis Haroldum, sua dicitur prĉdicatione lucratus. Quem ita fidelem Christo perfecit, ut Christianitatem, quam pater ejus semper odio habuit, ipse haberi publice permitteret, quamvis nondum baptismi sacramentum percepit.

Ordinatus itaque in regno Danorum per singulas ecclesias sacerdotibus, sanctus Dei multitudinem credentium commendasse fertur Haroldo. Cujus etiam fultus adjutorio et legato, omnes Danorum insulas penetravit, evangelizans verbum Dei gentilibus, et fideles quos invenit illic captivatos in Christos confortans.

English translation (adapted from AB: 51):
Thereafter the confessor of God [Archbishop Unni] came to the Danes over whom, as we have said, the most cruel Worm then held sway. The latter, indeed, he could not win over on account of his inborn savagery, but he is said by his preaching to have won the king’s son, Harold. Unni made him so faithful to Christ that, although he himself had not yet received the sacrament of baptism, he permitted the public profession of Christianity which his father always hated.

And so, after the saint of God had ordained priests for the several churches in the kingdom of the Danes, he is said to have commended the multitude of believers to Harold. Seconded also by his aid and by a legate, Unni went into all the islands of the Danes, preaching the Word of God to the heathen and comforting in Christ the faithful whom he found captive there.


The runestones and Widukind's chronicle show us that the account of Adam of Bremen contains some kernels of truth. However, the archaeological finds at the Jelling graves tell us that Adam's chronology is suspect. If, as seems likely, the burial chamber which was built in or shortly after the year 958 was that of Gorm (and it is difficult to see who else it could be, for given the runestone monuments that appear there, the only other reasonable candidate would be Gorm's wife Thyre, whom Gorm survived, and other chronological considerations make it difficult to place Gorm's death significantly later than that), then it is difficult to reconcile a death date of ca. 958 for Gorm with some of the statements made by Adam. For example, in the passage describing Harald's death [Book 2, Chapter 36, not quoted here], Adam states that Gorm's son Harald ruled for fifty years. Since Harald died between 985 and 987, this would place Harald's ascension in the 930's.

As the Christian son of a pagan father, we may suspect that Adam has magnified the length of Harald's reign to a significant extent. Adam was more than a hundred years removed from the events he described, so it would seem that preference needs to be given to the ca. 958 date of the burial chamber. Thus, the outline given here will assume that Adam was mistaken about the length of Harald's reign, and that the ca. 958 date of death for Gorm which is indicated by the dendrochronolocal evidence is accurate.

Royal Succession

As Adam of Bremen admitted in Book 1, Chapter 54, we do not know whether or not the kings named by him form a consecutive sequence, or show dynasties that were reigning in two different parts of Denmark at the same time. As a result, we can come to few chronological conclusions based on the meager evidence that we have, namely that the year 934 occurred during Gnupa's reign, that Gorm probably died about 958, and the less secure one that Gorm's reign probably began before the death of Unni (936). If we assume, as is usually done, that the Sigerich of Adam is the same person as the king Sigtryg, son of Gnupa and Asfrid, then we have three basic groupings, first the reign of Helge, perhaps in the last years of the ninth century or the first years of the tenth, either followed by or partly contemporaneous with Olaf and his sons and grandson in Haddeby, who in turn were either followed by or partly contemporaneous with Hardegon/Hardeknud and Gorm. The consecutive scenario seems very unlikely from the fact that we would then have to place the reigns of both Sigtryg and Hardeknud in the period 934 to 936. Thus, it seems very likely that the Haddeby and Jelling dynasties were at least partially overlapping with each other, ruling in different parts of Denmark. In that case, since Harald claimed on his runestone that he was the one to unite Denmark, we must even leave open the possibility that Sigtryg lived until after the death of Gorm.

Danish Kings ca. 890-ca. 985

Unknown dynasty:


Haddeby dynasty:

Gnupa, living 934
Gyrd (order unknown)
Sigtryg (presumably the "Sigeric" of Adam of Bremen)

"Jelling" dynasty:

Hardegon (probably Hardeknud)
Gorm, before 936 - ca. 958
Harald, ca. 958 - between 985 and 987

Genealogical Tables

No genealogical information for Helge is known from the early sources, so he is left off of the tables. For the Haddeby kings, the information from Adam, combined with the runestone data, give us the following outline genealogy. For the Jelling kings, the key point is whether or not to accept the word "filius" which appears in some of the manuscripts of Book 1, Chapter 57 of Adam's work (see above). Since the passage is awkward without this word, this suggests that Adam was making Gorm/W[u]rm the son of a certain Hardeknud/Hardecnudth. The other question is whether this Hardecnudth is to be considered the same person as the king Hardegon of Book 1, Chapter 54. While it seems quite likely that he is, this has been left ambiguous in the table below.

[These tables might not display correctly if the line length is too short. They must also display in a "constant width" font in order to look right.]

Kings at Haddeby (Hedeby, Haithabu)

       Olaf, king at Haddeby
     |                            |
   Gnupa, living 934           Gyrd, king at Haddeby
   king at Haddeby,
   md. Asfrid, daughter
   of Odinkar
   king at Haddeby

Danish kings of the "Jelling Dynasty"

   Svend (from Normandy?)
   Hardegon - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - Hardeknud
   king of             (same?)              |
   Denmark                                Gorm, d. ca. 958
   (or part                               king of Denmark
   thereof)                               md. Thyre, who
                                          d. bef. 958
                                          Harald, d. 1 Nov.*
                                          between 985 & 987,
                                          king of Denmark
                                          and Norway
                                          later Danish kings

[*Note: Adam, Book 2, Chapter 26, states that Harald's death occurred on All Saint's Day (1 November), but the exact year is undertain.]


AB = Adam of Bremen, History of the Archbishops of Hamburg-Bremen, translated with introdiction and notes by Francis J. Tschan (Columbia University Press, New York, 1959)

Andersen = Harald Andersen, "The Graves of the Jelling Dynasty", Acta Archaeologica 66 (1996), 281-300.

Christiansen-Krogh = K. Christiansen & K. J. Krogh, "Jelling-hĝjene dateret", Nationalmuseets Arbejdsmark (1987), 223-31. [Note: I have not seen this source, which is cited by Andersen as the source of the dendrochronological date of 958 for the burial chamber at Jelling.]

Krogh = Knud J. Krogh, "The Royal Viking-Age Monuments at Jelling in the light of recent Archaeological Excavations. A preliminary report", Acta Archaeologica 53 (1982), 183-216.

Moltke = Erik Moltke, "Runes and their Origin - Denmark and Elsewhere" (Copenhagen, 1985).

PL = Migne, Patrologiae (Latin series)

Storm = A. V. Storm, "Pages of Early Danish History", Saga-Book of the Viking Club 2 (1897-1900): 328-347.