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In Service To The Crown:
Warriors' Oaths To The King

Dear Viking Answer Lady:

I am a member of the Society for Creative Anachronism, and my king has offered me the honor of a knighthood within this organization. However, I have a Viking persona, and I have heard that Vikings didn't swear oaths of fealty, such as are required of knights in the SCA. I want to be true to my persona. How can I both accept the knighthood, and have my ceremony have a Viking flavor?

(signed) A Warrior of the King

Gentle Reader:

Like rulers elsewhere, the Viking age king or jarl had warriors in his service, serving in a similar role to the High Medieval knight. Modern scholars have noted that Germanic kings from antiquity through the Viking Age collected about them a group of such warriors, often referred to using the Latin term comitatus, which might be translated as "war-band."

In Old Norse, the term for the leader of such a war-band was dróttin, while the term for the war-band itself was drótt. The members of the comitatus were called húskarlar, "house-carls", especially those found in King Knut's Danelaw forces as described in Þingliði (Foote and Wilson, p. 100; Barfod, p. 717). Other terms used to describe members of a comitatus included O.N. drengr ("warrior member of a ship's crew") and O.N. þegn ("mature man, seasoned warrior"). The conduct of the comitatus was termed drenskapr in Old Norse, meaning "the ideal of conduct for warriors, roughly equivalent to the ideal of chivalry" (Foote and WIlson, pp. 425-426).

King from the Lewis Chessmen If the leader of the comitatus was a powerful noble, such as a king or a jarl, the war-band might then be called a hirð in Old Norse (Foote and Wilson, p. 101; Bagge). The hirð had a special ceremony of reception for new members and held regular meetings, which functioned as a court of law for its members and as a council advising the king (Bagge). By the 12th and 13th centuries, there were three groups within the Norwegian hirð: the hirðmenn ("men of the hirð"); the gestir ("guests"), who served as a royal police force; and the kirtisveinar, young men who served as pages (Bagge). From the hirðmenn came the officers of the hirð. The highest officer of the hirð was the stallari (literally "marshall") who served as the king's champion and also as a sort of general of the comitatus forces. The second ranking officer in the hirð was the merkismaðr (standard-bearer) (Bagge; Foote and Wilson, p. 103). Ranking after these officers were the lendir menn, the "landed men", equivalent to barons, and then finally the body of warriors who made up the bulk of the hirð (Bagge). The relationship between the king and his hirðmenn was based on a contract or reciprocal oath, and the king's hirð was usually dissolved upon his death (Bagge).

It should be noted that the comitatus, dróttin or hirð was a fairly small, elite band. The Vikings did not maintain standing armies: when it was needful, a levy was called up of free men and farmers. The kings and jarls instead maintained only their small group of core troops between wars. Confusion on this topic is rampant, in large part due to chroniclers' tendency to wildly exaggerate the numbers of enemy armies and the tally of the dead (Evans, p. 27). The size of the comitatus is put into sharp perspective when one examines the law code of Ine of Wessex at 13.1, which states:

Ðeofas we hatað oð VII men;
from VII hloð oð XXXV;
siððan bið here.

A party of armed men numbering less than seven are thieves;
between seven and thirty-five are a band;
more than that is an army.
(Attenborough, p. 41; Evans, p. 27)

Within the comitatus, the Germanic ruler's primary duty was to lead his warriors in battle. The literature records that the ideal ruler was the foremost warrior and best of the men in the war-band (Cherniss p. 39). This idea gave rise to descriptions such as Old English cyning-bald which means "very brave" but literally reads "royally brave, brave as a king" (Klaeber, glossary s.v. cyning-bald, p. 314). As Stephen Evans notes:

The major duty of a Germanic or Celtic lord was the conduct of warfare, in which he was expected to take an active part. The lord of a comitatus was expected not only to fight, but to fight with a great deal of martial prowess. At least during his younger years, a lord was expected to be one of the most formidable and valiant warriors of his warband.
(Evans, p. 50)

This appears to have been true for Germanic kings and lords back into antiquity, since Tacitus reports in his Germania:

Cum ventum in aciem, turpe principi virtute vinci, turpe comitatui virtutem principis non adaequare. Iam vero infame in omnem vitam ac probrosum superstitem principi suo ex acie recessisse. Illum defendere, tueri, sua quoque fortia facta gloriae eius adsignare praecipuum sacramentum est. Principes pro victoria pugnant, comites pro principe.

When they go into battle, it is a disgrace for the chief to be surpassed in valour, a disgrace for his followers not to equal the valour of the chief. And it is an infamy and a reproach for life to have survived the chief, and returned from the field. To defend, to protect him, to ascribe one's own brave deeds to his renown, is the height of loyalty. The chief fights for victory; his vassals fight for their chief.

Aside from the bonds that form between comrades-in-arms, there were specific bonds in the form of oaths and reciprocal rights and responsibilities from ruler to warrior and from warrior to his lord, much like the formal Oath of Fealty used between the king and a knight during the medieval period. "The bond between a Germanic lord and his retainer, in a hierarchical society, places specific, clearly differentiated, though nevertheless similar, responsibilities and privileges upon social superior and inferior, leader and follower" (Cherniss, pp. 30-31). In Skáldskarpamál 53 Snorri Sturluson says:

Konungar ok jarlar hafa til fylgðar með sér þá menn, er hirðmenn heita ok húskarlar, en lendir menn hafa ok sér handgengna menn, þá er í Danmörku ok í Svíðjóð eru hirðmenn kallaðir, en í Nóregi húskarlar, ok sverja þeir þó eiða svá sem hirðmenn konungum.

Kings and jarls have in their train men called hirðmenn and húskarlar, but lendir menn also have men in their service who in Denmark and Sweden are known as hirðmenn, but in Norway húskarlar, and yet they take oaths just as hirðmenn do to kings.
(Prose Edda, p. 129)

The first bond is that of the oath between king and his warriors. "All oaths are important in heroic society, but most important and most binding is the oath of loyalty to one's lord. This oath takes precedence over any oath which may conflict with it" (Cherniss, p. 63).

The importance of this relationship between warrior and lord cannot be overstated:

The most important relationship within a warband, and the one that was most instrumental in protecting and strengthening its social and cultural integrity, was the lord-retainer relationship. It is the internal social relationship that best explains the structure of the comitatus, and provides us with the social and cultural context in which Dark-Age warbands functioned. At least for the warrior aristocracy, by the period of Germanic migrations to Britain, the bonds established between a lord and his men had become more important than traditional kinship ties and in fact had usurped some of the duties associated with the older social system. The lord-retainer relationship was one that bound the warriors of a warband to their lord, a relationship whose fundamental and underlying roots lay in a bedrock of personal loyalty, and one whose operational framework is reflected in the series of obligations and duties which the lord and his men owed to one another
(Evans, p. 52).

Vendel Era Ring-Hilted Sword The Teutonic peoples used an oath sworn on a sword hilt since antiquity, as the custom is attested to in the writings of Ammianus Marcellinus (Ellis-Davidson, Sword in A-S England, p. 185). Many early Germanic swords are known to have had special rings set into their pommels, and it is believed that these rings were used as oath-rings (Ellis-Davidson, Sword in A-S England, p. 75), similar to the sacred arm rings made of silver or gold which were kept in the temples of Thórr. These oath-rings were used to swear oaths upon, by having the oath-giver place his hand upon the ring while swearing (Ellis-Davidson, Gods and Myths, pp. 76-77). Later, as ring-swords went out of fashion, the oath was sworn directly upon the sword itself rather than upon a ring associated with the sword.

Early Norwegian law codes, including Hirðskrá (ca. 1270) and Norges Game Love describe the oath sworn by a warrior to his ruler. These sources state that the hilt of a king's sword had to be presented to the man who entered his service, and that as the follower swore the oath of allegiance to his new lord he had to touch the hilt of the royal sword as it lay across the king's knee: this is reminiscent of the kings of the Lewis chess-men, which all bear their swords across their laps as symbols of their temporal authority, and in a position where it may quickly be used for oath-swearing. A 13th century law, which is itself known to be a revision of an earlier 12th century law code, states:

At the time when the king appoints hirðmenn, no table shall stand before the king. The king shall have his sword upon his knee, the sword which he had for his crowning, and he shall turn it so the chape goes under his right arm, and the hilt is placed forward on his right knee. Then he shall move the buckle of the belt over the hilt, and grasp the hilt. so that his right arm is over everything. Then he who is to become a hirðsmaðr shall fall on both knees before the king on the floor ... and shall put his right hand under the hilt, while he keeps his left arm down in front of him in the most comfortable position, and then he shall kiss the king's hand.
(Ellis-Davidson, Sword in A-S England, pp. 76-77).

It is believed that the ritual used in this account was substantially the same during the Viking Age, two to three hundred years earlier, for there are similar accounts in Viking Age literature as well:

Oblato Wiggone perinde ac munere gratulatus, an sibi militare vellet, perquirit. Annuenti destrictum gladium offert. Ille cuspidem refutans capulum petit, hunc morem Rolvoni in porrigendo militibus ense exstitisse praefatus. Olim namque se regum clientelae daturi tacto gladii capulo obsequium polliceri solebant. Quo pacto Wiggo capulum complexus cuspidem per Hiarwarthum agit, ultionis compos, cuius Rolvoni ministerium pollicitus fuerat.
(Gesta Danorum 2.8.4)

Then Wigg came forth, and Hiartuar, as though he were congratulating him on the gift, asked him if he were willing to fight for him. Wigg assenting, he drew and proferred him a sword. But Wigg refused the point, and asked for the hilt, saying first that this had been Rolf's custom when he handed forth a sword to his soldiers. For in old time those who were about to put themselves in dependence on the king used to promise fealty by touching the hilt of the sword. And in this wise Wigg clasped the hilt, and then drove the point through Hiartuar; thus gaining the vengeance which he had promised Hrólfr to accomplish for him.
(Danish History, Book II)

Snorri Sturluson's Heimskringla tells how the Anglo-Saxon king Æthelstan played a trick on Harald Fairhair of Norway. Æthelstan sent a messenger to Harald:

Hann selur konungi sverð gullbúið með hjöltum og meðalkafla og öll umgerð var búin með gulli og silfri og sett dýrlegum gimsteinum. Hélt sendimaðurinn sverðshjöltunum til konungsins og mælti: "Hér er sverð er Aðalsteinn konungur mælti að þú skyldir við taka." Tók konungur meðalkaflann og þegar mælti sendimaðurinn: "Nú tókstu svo sem vor konungur vildi og nú skaltu vera þegn hans er þú tókst við sverði hans."
(Haraldar saga hárfagra, ch. 40)

The emissary went up to the king, handing him a sword adorned with gold and silver and set with precious stones. The emissary offered the king the sword hilt and spoke these words, "Here is the sword which King Aethelstan asks you to receive from him." Then the king took hold of the hilt, whereupon the messenger said, "Now you seized the sword in the fashion our king desired you would, and now you shall be his leigeman since you seized hold of his sword."
(Heimskringla, "Haralds saga Harfagra" ch. 38, p. 92).

Sveno in his Lex Castrensis records that the custom of Viking kings presenting swords to the men in his fealty persisted up until the time of King Knut (Ellis-Davidson, Sword in A-S England, p. 186).

A young man might also receive a sword from the lord whom he pledged himself to serve as a poet or warrior, thus Hallfred [Troublesome-skald] took a sword from King Olaf Tryggvason and Sigvat a sword from King Olaf the Holy. We know from one of Sigvat's own poems what this gift meant to him: "I received thy sword with pleasure, O Njord of battle, nor have I reviled it since, for it is my joy. This is a glorious way of life, O Tree of Gold, we have both done well. Thou didst get a loyal housecarle, and I a good leige lord."
(Ellis-Davidson, Sword in A-S England, pp. 212- 213).

The actual oath that was sworn probably varied from person to person and from place to place. The oath binding a warrior to his lord was of supreme importance within the warrior's life: "All oaths are important in heroic society, but most important and most binding is the oath of loyalty to one's lord. This oath takes precedence over any oath which may conflict with it (Cherniss, p. 63).

The typical vow or oath began with a declaration of the lineage of the warrior.

  • "I will make known my ancestry to one and all: I came from a mighty family of Mercian stock; my grandfather was Ealhelm, a wise ealdorman..." (The Battle of Maldon)

  • "I am Hygelac's kinsman and thane..." (E. Talbot Donaldson, trans. Beowulf. New York: Norton. 1966. p. 8).

This condensed genealogy was then followed by a listing of the warrior's past heroic deeds, especially those which had some bearing upon the deeds he hoped to perform in the immediate future.

  • "I came from the fight where I had bound five, destroyed a family of giants, and at night in the waves slain water-monsters, suffered great pain, avenged an affliction of the Weather-Geats on those who had asked for trouble - ground enemies to bits." (Beowulf)

This collection of past feats recalled the warrior's heroic exploits in order to project the heroic actions so described upon the future acts of the speaker: "the past is made present as it is brought to bear upon some future situation... the spirit of past deeds must be revived and renewed in future struggle" (Conquergood, pp. 27-29). This listing of deeds emphasized the speaker's heroic virtues (I fought... I avenged... I endured... I ventured...) -- never events that did not conform to the ideals of a warrior society (I hesitated... I weighed the alternatives... I surrendered...).

Heroic poetry gives a good idea of the actual promises made in the oaths that a warrior made to his lord or king. For instance, in the Old English poem, The Battle of Maldon, Earl Bryhtnoth's men have sworn:

  • not to forget the goods and wealth received from their lord (ll. 185-197)

  • to always fight before their lord (i.e., in the van, ll. 15-16)

  • to wrest glory from the foemen they face (l. 129)

  • that they will not flee one foot-step from the battle (ll. 246-247, 275-276)

  • to avenge their lord if he is slain or die trying (ll. 207-208, 216-224)

  • to avenge their lord and fight themselves until slain (ll. 249-253, 288-294, 317-319)

Saxo Grammaticus records the theme of vengeance owed by the warrior to his lord's slayer as well. After a young man named Wigg bestows King Hrólfr with his famous nickname, kraki, the king gifts the youth with a pair of arm-rings, and Wigg in turn makes an oath:

Nec Wiggoni rependendi beneficii cura defuit. Siquidem artissima voti nuncupatione pollicitus est, si Rolvonem ferro perire contingeret, ultionem se ab eius interfectoribus exacturum. (Gesta Danorum 2.6.12)

Nor was Wigg heedless to repay the kindness; for be promised, uttering a strict vow, that, if it befell Hrolfr to perish by the sword, he would himself take vengeance on his slayers (Danish History, Book II).

The warrior entering a lord's service made an oath to fight for his lord, to support the lord in battle and protect him, and to avenge the lord if needed, dying if necessary while trying to exact vengeance. Some warriors may have vowed to die in battle if their lord died, taking as many of the foemen with them into death as possible to exact veneance for the ruler's death (Cherniss, pp. 50, 62).

Another duty of the members of the Germanic lord's war-band was serving as advisors and counsellors to their lord. While this duty may have fallen primarily to the veteran members of the comitatus based on their age and experience, still it was an important role:

Regardless of the precise constitutional underpinnings and authority of these advisors, it is clear that the chieftains and kings of this period did consult them, at least on matters in which they all had a vested interest; the initiation of hostilities, the course of a campaign, and other important matters pertaining to the kingdom
(Evans, p. 66).

This advice also extended to the selection of new members of the war-band, as is seen in Beowulf, where King Hrothgar's warrior Wulfgar offers his lord advice on the newly-arrived war-band led by the redoubtable Beowulf, first suggesting that the king should hold audience with the Geatish warrior:

..... no ðu him wearne geteoh
ðinra gegncwida, glædman Hroðgar!

..... give no refusal to him
in your answer, gracious Hrothgar!
(Beowulf ll. 366-367; Evans, p. 66).

Then the Danish warrior assesses the worth of Beowulf and his men, advising his lord as to this assessment:

Hy on wiggetawum wyrðe þinceað
eorla geæhtlan; huru se aldor deah,
se þæm heaðorincum hider wisade.

In battle-gear, they seem worthy
of nobles' esteem; surely that chief is strong,
who led these battle-warriors here.
(Beowulf ll. 366-367; Evans, p. 66).

In addition to the portion of the oath which specified what the warrior would do in his service to his lord, the sword-oath also was likely to contain a section defining penalties should the warrior fail to perform as he has sworn to do. Sigrun's curse from Helgakviða Hundingsbana II v. 32 suggests the type of language that may have been used in this portion of the oath:

Bíti-a þér þat sverð
er þú bregðir
nema sjalfum þér
syngvi of höfði.

May that sword pierce thee
which thou dost draw!
May it sing only
round thy own head.

The effect of this type of penalty was that if the warrior should fail to uphold his oath sworn upon the king's sword then the the sword itself will turn against him in battle, and wrath of the gods will be brought upon him Davidson, Sword in A-S England, p. 210).

The warrior's oath would then be closed as formally as it was begun, acknowledging the audience as witnesses to the oath by mentioning that the warrior would have no need to fear the scorn or censure of his fellows:

  • "No thanes shall ever reproach me amongst the people with any desire to desert this troop and hurry home..." (Battle of Maldon).

  • "No loyal warrior living at Sturmere need reproach me for returning home lordless in unworthy retreat..." (Battle of Maldon).

  • "My liege lord Hygelac may be glad of me in his heart..." (Beowulf).

An interesting parellel oath structure is preserved in the Russian Primary Chronicle, where the activities of concluding peace treaties between the 10th century pagan Scandinavian Rus and the Christian Byzantine Emperor are recorded:

The first treaty was negotiated in 907 between Oleg, Prince of Rus, with five delegates on one side, and the Emperors Leo VI and Alexander on the other. Probably it was concluded after an attack by the northerners on Constantinople, which was bought off by payment of a tribute:

Thus the Emperors Leo and Alexander made peace with Oleg, and after agreeing upon the tribute and mutually binding themselves by oath, they kissed the cross, and invited Oleg and his men to swear an oath likewise. According to the religion of the Russes, the latter swore by their weapons and by their god Perun, as well as by Volos, the god of cattle, and thus confirmed the treaty.

The next treaty was made in 911 between Oleg, Prince of Rus, with 15 delegates, among them the five men of the previous treaty, and the Emperors Leo, Alexander and Constantine:

Our serenity, (...) deemed it proper to publish and confirm this amity not merely in words but also in writing and under a firm oath sworn upon our weapons according to our religion and our law. (...) to maintain as irrevocable and immutable henceforth and forever the amity thus proclaimed by our agreement with you Greeks and ratified by signature and oath.

In 941, a kinsman of Oleg, Igor, Prince of Rus, attacked Constantinople. The Rus assault was halted by Greek fire, which terrified the pagan Rus, who supposed the Greeks had the lightnings at their command. The resulting treaty was concludied with fifty Rus emissaries and confirmed on oath:

The unbaptised Russes shall lay down their shields, their naked swords, their armlets, and their other weapons, and shall swear to all that is inscribed upon this parchment, to be faithfully observed forever by Igor and his boyars, and all the people from the land of Rus. If any of the princes or any Russian subject, whether Christian or non-Christian, violates the terms of this instrument, he shall merit death by his own weapons, and be accursed of God and of Perun because he violated this oath. So be it good that the Great Prince Igor shall rightly maintain these friendly relations that they may never be interrupted, as long as the sun shines and the world endures henceforth and forevermore.

The last treaty reported by the Primary Chronicle was concluded by Sviatoslav, son of Igor, a definite pagan who had firmly rejected his mother's Christian faith. In 960, Sviatoslav attacked the Bulgars on the river Danube in an attempt to create a more convenient shipping-route to the Black Sea, since the river Dnieper with its falls and predatory Pechenegs was a difficult route for Rus trade. As with the earlier Rus assaults against Byzantine territories, Sviatoslav was forced to bow to the greater might of the Greek armies and conclude a treaty:

I, Svyatoslav (...) confirm by oath upon this covenant that I desire to preserve peace and perfect amity with each of the great emperors, (...) until the end of the world.(...) But if we fail in the observance of any of the aforesaid stipulations, (...) may we be accursed of the god in whom we believe, namely, of Perun and Volos, the god of flocks, and we become yellow as gold, and be slain with our own weapons. Regard as truth what we have now covenanted (...), as it is inscribed upon this parchment and sealed with our seals

All four of the Rus oaths recorded in the Primary Chronicle follow familiar patterns seen in other Scandinavian oaths. Perun, god of weather, lightning and power, was worshipped by Slavs and Balts, but adopted by Rus as the local equivalent of the Scandinavian god Þórr. "Volos, the god of flocks" was surely considered as the local equivalent of the Scandinavian's own god Freyr. These invocations are also seen in the Old Icelandic Úlfljót’s Law:

A ring of two ounces or more [the stallahringr] should lie on the altar of every main temple. (...). Every man who needed to perform legal acts before the court must first swear an oath on this ring and mention two or more witnesses. ‘I name witnesses’ he must say, ‘that I swear the oath on the ring, a lawful oath. So help me Freyr and Njörðr and the Almighty áss [god, often identified as Þórr, Óðinn, or Ullr]...’

The "laying down" of shields, weapons, and arm-rings by the Rus in the Primary Chronicle accounts may indicate the presence of a truce-area, since such areas were hallowed by the names of the gods Freyr and Njörðr elsewhere in Scandinavia, or it may reflect that, as in Úlfljót’s Law, the oath-swearers were actually swearing their own oaths upon these items, their weapons, which would turn against them should they fail the oath, and the sacred ring in the old pagan ritual of oath-giving.

One last common and interesting feature of the Rus oaths is the duration the oaths are sworn to run, "as long as the sun shines and the world endures henceforth and forevermore," which echoes the Trygðamál, or "Peace Guarantee Speech" found in the Old Icelandic lawbook Grágás as formula for settling disputes:

But the one of you who tramples on treaties made or smites at sureties given, he shall be a wolf and be driven off as far and wide as ever men drive wolves off, Christians come to church, heathens hallow temples, fire flames, ground grows, son calls mother, mother bears son, men make fires, ship glides, shields flash, sun shines, snow drifts, Finn skis, fir tree grows, falcon flies a spring-long day with a fair wind beneath both wings’, and so on...

Once the warrior had sworn his oath to the king, the king in turn had to swear to his new retainer. As has already been mentioned, the most important role of the king in the war-band was as the foremost warrior, so it is possible that the king's side of the oath would include a promise to lead in battle.

Arm-rings made of twisted gold wire After battle-prowess and leadership, the next most important virtue of the Germanic king or lord was generosity. The spoils of war which are captured in battle by the war-band belong entirely to the ruler. In turn, it is the duty of the lord to be open handed in the extreme with these riches. As the Old Norse proverb has it: Gjöf sér æ til gjalda, "A gift always looks for a return" -- in return for service, the lord granted gifts, in return for gifts, the warrior granted service (Foote and Wilson, p. 424).

All of the treasures and favors which the retainers receive come directly from their lord, even though they have originally won these treasures in battle themselves. ... Generosity towards his retainers is, along with prowess in battle, the most important virtue which a lord can possess, and is the quality most often praised in Germanic heroic poetry" (Cherniss, p. 41).

Therefore a second component in the oath sworn by the Viking king to his new warrior might be that the lord would reward his new liegeman generously, earning the epithets such as the Old English terms beag-gyfa or beaga brytta ("ring-giver"), gold-wine ("gold-friend, prince, king"), or hord-weard ("treasure-hoard warder") to the point that these terms became synonyms for "king, lord, prince, ruler." This motif occurs in Old Norse poetry as well, for example Þjóðólfr Arnórsson calling King Haraldr, Lét vingjafa veitir, varghollr ("The dispenser of gifts to friends, benificent to the wolf"), showing both the king's generosity to his followers and using generosity as well in a kenning showing him as a warrior, leaving corpses upon which the wolves will dine (Poole, p. 62) or calling him snjóllum hrings, "giver of rings" (Poole, p. 63). Snorri Sturluson, in Skáldskarpamál 53, states that:

...þeir menn, er hersar heita. Kenna má þá sem konung eða jarl, svá at kalla þá gullbrjóta ok auðmildinga...

"...those men, who are called hersar (lords) can be referred to like a king or a jarl, by calling them gold-breakers and wealth-bountiful ones..."
(Prose Edda, p. 129).

By being open-handed with gifts and riches given to the warrior the king fulfilled his side of the contract enacted by the fealty oath:

He beot ne aleh,
beagas dælde,
sinc æt symle.

[King Hrothgar] did not leave unfulfilled his oath:
rings he dealt out,
and treasure at the ale-feast.
(Beowulf ll. 80-81)

The Germanic lord was also known as protector of his people. Many of the kennings for "lord" or "king" reflect this: for instance the Old English terms eþel-weard ("guardian of the native land"), eorla hleo ("protector of earls"), rices weard ("guardian of the kingdom"), folces hyrde ("folk-herd, guardian of the people"), rices hyrde ("kingdom-herd, guardian of the kingdom"). The lord protects his people directly, by his personal battle-prowess, and indirectly by forming advantageous alliances with other tribes, either by mutual exchange of gifts or intermarriage or by adopting a warrior of another tribe as a son:

The devotion of the lord to his followers, and the love of the followers for their lord, are at least partially the result of the role which the lord plays as protector of the people. The lord's first duty towards the comitatus is to protect his followers from whatever harm might befall them were he not present.
(Cherniss, p. 44-46)

Finally, the ruler might cement the swearing by giving a gift to the new warrior, beginning the reciprocal relationship by his generosity. This gift might be a valuable arm-ring, embodying the oath within the circle of the ring, which has no beginning nor ending and which brought with it connotations of the sacred oath-ring of Thórr. Many times a king or lord would gift his new warrior with a sword, perhaps one captured in battle, or maybe even a famous sword with a lineage:

We know, however, that the gift of a sword from the king or leader to a warrior entering his service was considered to form a bond of mutual obligation and loyalty between them."
(Ellis-Davidson, Sword in A-S England, pp. 75-76)

Warriors entering the war-band might also be given lands or a home: the Old Danish word for a member of the comitatus was hemþægi, literally "one who receives a home" (Foote and Wilson, p. 100).

Whatever gift was given by the lord to his new warrior, the gift served as a symbol of the warrior's obligation - the treasure which was gifted to the retainer by the lord demands eventual repayment by the retainer via martial service.


Warrior: "(Lineage) I am Ragnar, son of Ulfgar, grandson of the mighty Snorri of whom many are the songs and stories! (History) I have come from the fight where I alone slew five, furious in the fell play of wound wands! From Skaggerak to Skye my sword is known, and in Skane and among the Skrit-Finns they sing dirge-songs where I've slain their sons! (Future deeds) Greater deeds than these shall I gain, garnering fame like grains of gold! In this war-band shall my wound-wand strike hard against the steel of byrnies, so all hear them sing their sad, dire song, if the guardian of the folk grants me the gift I ask, accepting my oath ay!"

Lord: A mighty man in byrnie are you, of proven bravery, bold in battle. Into my war-band will you come, to serve as warrior and counsel wise words?

Warrior: Aye!

Lord: (Calls for sword, which is kept in the sheath, hilt on the knee pointed toward the arrior with the length of the blade running along his leg, and the point passing between the right arm and the body. The buckle of the sword belt should rest upon the hilt, and the lord should grasp the hilt so that his arm lays on top of the sword along its length.) Speak then your oath!

Warrior: (The warrior shall kneel before the king and shall put his right hand under the hilt) I, Ragnar, make this oath: that I shall be in the forefront of fierce battle, forging ahead with my lord and friend, coming to the war-call carrying my weapons; and when no battle causes the war-horn to blow, I shall not forget the ring-giver's generosity, but will offer wise counsel as I may. And though I had liefer lay down my life than see harm come to my lord, still should the poisoned point or aged edge strike him down, then I shall not flee a single footlength from the field, but rather shall advance into the enemy army, slaying as I might, to avenge the protector of the people. And by Freyr, and by Njordr, and the Almighty Ase, may this sword smite me upon which my hand rests, may my own edge twist and turn against me should I fail to keep this oath. (Leans forward and kisses the lord's hand or the sword hilt).

Lord: I have heard your oath, as have the holy Aesir. Hear you then my vow to you: with red gold shall I gift you, granting good gifts as you merit, round rings rolling from my hand to yours; among my earls shall you sit in the sumbel, with sweet mead strong filling your stoup; if to the lawcourt you are called, in legal tangles twisted and tied, then I and all of my earls and kin shall stand as oath-helpers if you should need this; and finally, my sword shall stand between you and your enemies, my strength and my war-band beside you boldly, for bare is brotherless back. May Óðinn Allfather, God of Oaths listen, may Freyr and Njörðr witness my words, let Frigga hold me faithful, may Saga keep this oath in memory, and may Thórr, Almighty God hallow this vow! (Lord stands and hands sword to assistant, who in its place gives him an arm-ring or necklace of heavy gold chain, or a sword or other worthy gift, which the Lord gives to his new warrior.)


Primary Sources

Other References

  • Arent, A. Margaret. "The Heroic Pattern: Old Germanic Helmets, Beowulf, and Grettis Saga." Old Norse Literature and Mythology: A Symposium. ed. Edgar C. Polome. Austin: Univ. of Texas Press. 1969. pp. 130-
    Buy this book from today! Buy this book today!

  • Attenborough, Frederick L. trans. The Laws of the Earliest English Kings. Cambridge: University Press. 1922.
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  • Byock, Jesse L. Feud in the Icelandic Saga. Berkeley: University of California Press. 1982.
    Buy this book from today! Buy this book today!

  • Byock, Jesse. Medieval Iceland: Society, Sagas and Power. Berkeley: University of California Press. 1988.
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  • Cherniss, Michael D. Ingeld and Christ: Heroic Concepts and Values in Old English Christian Poetry. The Hague: Mouton. 1972.
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  • Conquergood, Dwight. "Boasting in Anglo-Saxon England: Performance and the Heroic Ethos." Literature in Performance 1(2):24-35.

  • Ellis-Davidson, Hilda R. The Sword in Anglo-Saxon England: Its Archaeology and Literature. Oxford: Clarendon. 1962.
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  • Ellis-Davidson, Hilda R. Gods and Myths of Northern Europe. Harmondsworth: Penguin. 1964.
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  • Ellis-Davidson, Hilda Roderick. The Viking Road to Byzantium. London: George Allen & Unwin. 1976.
      Buy this book today!

  • Evans, Stephen S. Lords of Battle: Image and Reality of the Comitatus in Dark-Age Britain. Woodbridge: Boydell. 1997.
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  • Foote, Peter G. and David M. Wilson. The Viking Achievement. London: Sidgewick & Jackson, 1970.
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  • Hooper, N. "The Housecarls in England in the Eleventh Century." Anglo-Norman Studies 7. Ed. R. Allen Brown. Woodbridge. 1985. pp. 161-76.

  • Poole, R. G. Viking Poems on War and Peace: A Study in Skaldic Narrative. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. 1991.
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  • Pulsiano, Phillip et al., eds. Medieval Scandinavia: An Encyclopedia. Garland Reference Library of the Humanities 934. New York & London: Garland. 1993.
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    • Bagge, Sverre. "Hirð." p. 284.
    • Barfod, Jørgen H. P. "Warfare." pp. 717-718.
    • Lindkvist, Thomas. "Feudal Influences and Tendencies." pp. 187-188.

  • Magoun, Francis P. "On the Old Germanic Altar or Oath-Ring." Acta Philologica Scandinavica 20 (1949).

  • Renoir, Alan. "The Heroic Oath in Beowulf, the Chanson de Roland, and the Niebelungelied" in Studies in Honor of Arthur G. Brodeur. ed. SB Greenfield (Eugene, Oregon 1963) pp. 237-266.

  • Stein-Wilkeshuis, Martina. "Scandinavians Swearing Oaths in Tenth-Century Russia: Pagans and Christians." Journal of Medieval History 28 (2002). pp. 155-168.

  • Williams, Mary Wilhelmine. Social Scandinavia in the Viking Age. 1920. New York: Kraus Reprint Co. 1971.

  • Woolf, Rosemary. "The Ideal of Men Dying with their Lord in the Germania and in The Battle of Maldon." Anglo-Saxon England 5 (1976), pp. 63-81.
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