The legend of Egil’s silver, and the unification England

Somewhere on the hillside of Mosfell, about 20 kilometres to the east of Reykjavik, lies buried treasure. It is here, more than a thousand years ago, that Egil Skallagrimsson, Iceland’s infamous warrior poet, dumped two chests of silver that had been presented to him decades earlier by the king of England. It is reported that some English coins of that era were subsequently found in the area but the bulk of the treasure remains lost – for now.

The story of how the treasure came to be deposited here is told in Egil’s Saga, written in the 13th century by Iceland’s preeminent medieval historian Snorri Sturluson. It is an epic drama, covering the 150 years from 850 to 1000, that describes how Egil’s family came to settle in the Borganes region of Iceland following their long-standing feud with the kings of Norway.

The Grimsa River in Borgarnes, part of the territory claimed by Egil’s father Skallagrim when he first settled the area in the ninth century. Currently the location of the Rock’n’Troll Café.

We are introduced to Egil about a third of the way through the story as an unruly and exceptionally ugly and verbose three-year-old with the girth and strength of boys twice his age. As a young man, Egil spends most of his time travelling through the known Viking world getting into fights and antagonising his enemies with his poetry. In the autumn of 937, Egil and his brother Thorolf heard that King Æthelstan of England was in need of mercenaries to help in his campaign to pacify the Scots who were threatening his northern border. They travelled from Saxony to Northumbria with 300 followers, and were inducted into Æthelstan’s army.

Æthelstan was the grandson of Alfred the Great, and he had succeeded in doing what his famous grandfather could not do, namely wrest the vast regions of northeast England from Viking control. And it is for this reason that Æthelstan rather than Alfred is generally held to be the first king of all England. But the northern border was never secure, and when England was threatened again by a coalition of Scottish and Irish forces, Æthelstan decided to take decisive action and confront his enemies directly at what would become known in England as the Battle of Brunanburh.

In Egil’s Saga, the battleground is known as Wen Heath, and, of all the medieval sources, it is the Saga that contains probably the most detailed account of not just the battle but the background to the conflict, the negotiations prior to battle, and the tactics employed by both sides. The Saga naturally focuses on the role of Egil and Thorolf, and in particular King Æthelstan’s order that the brothers lead separate columns. Egil had a premonition that this would end badly, and sure enough, Thorolf was killed in battle before Egil arrived and almost single-handedly put the enemy to the sword.

The battle ended in a great victory for the English but Egil was still brooding over the death of his brother when he met the king at a celebration banquet that evening. Sensing Egil’s dangerous mood, Æthelstan presented him with a gold ring, which placated the grumpy Viking somewhat. The king then gave Egil two chests of silver as compensation for Thorolf’s death which, he instructed, were to be given to Egil’s father when he returned to Iceland.

The Saga probably exaggerates Egil’s role in the battle but given the detailed descriptions of the conflict and how it dovetails with other contemporary sources, there is probably some element of the truth in it. In which case, English patriots certainly owe Egil a debt of gratitude.

The Battle of Brunanburh is widely considered to be the key moment in the forging the modern political map of Britain, with a united England as the dominant power in the region. The rulers of Scotland and Wales remained independent (for the time being) but were forced to pay tribute to the English crown.

We should note here that there is no mention of any Icelandic mercenaries in the best-known English description of the battle, a celebratory poem that forms part of the Anglo-Saxon Chronical. This is not surprising given that the Chronical is by definition Anglo-centric and treats all foreigners as foes. There would be no reason for the poem’s anonymous author to admit to any outside help (particularly help from Vikings) that would water-down English heroism.

Upon his return to Iceland, Egil, who never got on with his father, decided to keep Æthelstan’s treasure for himself. It remained securely locked away until Egil was in his 80s, infirmed and completely blind. At this time, he was living in Mosfell with his niece Thordis and her husband Grim. He was constantly teased by the women of the house for being a useless old wreck, and spent most of his time feeling sorry for himself:

My head bobs like a bridled horse

It plunges badly into woe.

My middle leg both droops and drips

While both my ears are dry.

One summer, in a last gesture of defiance and mischief-making, Egil asked Grim to take him to the annual parliament, the Althing, located at Pingvellir, some 30 kilometres to the east of Mosfell. Egil wanted to take his chests of silver, climb to the Law Rock and scatter the contents on the ground so that he could once again relish the sounds of battle as the delegates scrambled for the cash.

Grim refused to indulge him, and Egil was forced to stay at home during the Althing. One evening, while Grim and Thordis were away, he summoned two slaves and told them to saddle a horse and take the chests of silver to the mountain. The next morning, Egil was seen returning to the family home with the horse but no chests and no slaves. It was assumed that he had dumped the silver in a ravine and killed the slaves so that they could not reveal its location. Soon afterwards, Egil caught a fever and died.

Everybody in Iceland knows the story of Egil Skallagrimsson, in fact, many people can trace their ancestry back to him. But given his contribution to nation building in Britain, it is perhaps about time that the people of England got to know more about the warrior poet as well.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *