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Viking Roots of the Royal Families

Posted by Sons Of Vikings on

Vikings shaped three centuries of intense cultural, economic, demographic, and political change. Though the world would transform exponentially in the thousand years since the Viking Age (circa A.D. 793-1066), many of the changes the Vikings brought are still with us. These contributions include countries like Norway, Sweden, Denmark, England, and many more, which took their shape during the crucible of that period. Some of these countries are still ruled by royal families founded by Vikings.


Today, Norway is ruled by King Harald V of the House of Glücksburg. Though this dynasty is relatively new, King Harald’s lineage can be traced through a path of matrilineal and patrilineal genealogy all the way back to the first King of Norway, Harald Fairhair.

Harald Fairhair was a Viking prince of a small kingdom in the late 9th century. According to saga accounts, Harald wooed a beautiful woman, but she rejected him because his kingdom was too insignificant. Harald vowed never to cut his hair until he had brought all the kingdoms around him under his dominion.

Harald Fairhair fulfilled his vow through a series of events culminating in the epic naval Battle of Harfrfjord. After this (sometime between 870-900), Harald became known as King of all Norway. He finally cut his hair and added the woman who had rejected him to his many other wives and consorts. He had many sons to follow him, including such famous Vikings as Erik Blood-axe and Haakon the Good.

Harald Fairhair’s victory was commemorated in the poem, Hrafnsmál (Words of the Raven). Hrafnsmál describes Harald as a mighty warrior who wades into battle flanked by berserkers and wolf warriors. Though he is terrifying in war, the poem speaks of his generosity and the fine weapons, garments, rings, and other rewards he gives his loyal followers.

Not everyone felt so favorably about their first King of Norway. Many sagas cite Harald Fairhair as a principal reason for Iceland's rapid settlement. Those on the losing side of Harald’s wars or those who did not want to live under his rule fled to Iceland to start over. In Iceland, they formed the traditional democracy that had held sway in Norway before the time of kings. Indeed, Iceland would not have a king until they eventually acknowledged the overlordship of Norway hundreds of years later. Learn more about Vikings settling in Iceland here.

Harald Fairhair is only one of the many saga heroes in the Norwegian royal family tree. Harald Bluetooth (also a King of Denmark), Saint Olaf, Sven Forkbeard, Cnut the Great, and Harald Hardrada all loom large. One of the reasons so much is known about the Vikings of these first generations of Norwegian royalty is because of the close affinity our Icelandic poets had with their Norwegian motherland.


The Royal Family of Denmark traces its line back to a Viking named Hathacanute in the 9th century through his son, Gorm the Old. But it was Gorm's son, Harald Bluetooth, that is probably the most famous of the early kings. Harald Bluetooth is commemorated on one of the Jelling Runestones, with an inscription that includes the epitaph:

“[T]hat Harald who won for himself all of Denmark and Norway and made the Danes Christian."

This reference to Christianity was probably not just a reference to Harald’s piety (he was a brutal warrior and ruthless ruler, by the way). Instead, it acknowledges the influence of Christianity in bringing the Danish lands into the broader European context. The Medieval Church offered structure that Scandinavian lands before Harald Bluetooth did not have. So, as ambitious Vikings came in contact with these institutions in southern lands and saw their value in kingdom building, they embraced them and brought them home. (Read more on Vikings and Christianity here.)

So, Harald Bluetooth united many disparate tribes and petty kingdoms into a land called Denmark. He also ruled part of Norway. Indeed, the united rule of Denmark and Norway would be assumed or contested by many rulers over the centuries. But, because Harald first brought together so many different peoples of that region into one cohesive unit, his name was borrowed for today's Bluetooth technology. The Bluetooth symbol on your phone is made of runes bearing Harald’s initials.


Sweden was the center of the earliest large-scale Viking activity. Still, it resisted foreign influence and high-level organization longer than any Scandinavian lands. So, the sagas are full of Swedish kings and queens (including the famous Bjorn Ironside, son of Ragnar Lothbrok). But it is only in the late 10th century that we find one with the necessary historical verifiability to be called the founder of Sweden's royal family.

This king was Erik the Victorious (Erik Segersäll), whose original territory included the vital cult center of Uppsala and the trade centers around Lake Mälaren. By careful expansion and outmaneuvering the competition, Erik became a powerful ruler. This success was not without consequences, though. Erik soon faced a Viking invasion himself, led by his nephew at the head of Danish allies and the notorious Jomsviking mercenaries.

According to the sagas, Erik made a pact with Odin to give him victory in exchange for his own sacrifice in ten years. Erik’s Swedes clashed with the invading Vikings at the Battle of Fýrisvellir (circa 980). It was there that Erik won his nickname by annihilating his enemies.

Emboldened by this success, or perhaps just wanting to make the most of his blood pact with the treacherous god of battles, Erik invaded Denmark in reprisal. There, Erik met with more victories and chased Swen Forkbeard (Harald Bluetooth’s son) out of the country. According to many sagas, Swen Forkbeard was one of the most powerful kings in the North at that time, and so Erik’s feats were indeed impressive.

It is not enough for a king to be a mighty warrior, though. Erik was a great maker of treaties and made peace between the Swedes, Danes, Geats, and even the Wends of Poland. Erik's son, Olaf, would unite the Swedes and Geats into the single entity that would remain Sweden to this day.

For the Icelandic poets who composed the sagas, though, Erik was often upstaged by his ex-wife, Sigrid the Haughty. Sigrid was a beautiful but cold woman who left a trail of broken hearts and bruised egos that stretched all the way from the Baltic to the North Sea.

Today, Sweden's Royal Family is led by Carl XVI Gustaf, the longest-reigning Swedish monarch in history. King Carl is a scion of the Bernadotte Dynasty who ruled Sweden (and elsewhere in Scandinavia) since rising to power under the reign of Emperor Napoleon. Despite these distant French ties, the Bernadotte Dynasty is grafted into the Swedish throne through the circuitous lines of royal kinship. Therefore they inherit the crown of Erik the Victorious in an unbroken chain of rule.


Queen Elizabeth II died in 2022 after a long and storied reign. King Charles replaced her to continue the House of Windsor dynasty. The British Royal Family is proud to be descended from William the Conqueror, Alfred the Great, and Coel Hen (that is, “Old King Cole” from the nursery rhyme). William the Conqueror ties the Royal Family to their Norman roots, Alfred to their Anglo-Saxon, and Coel to the ancient Celtic. So, they are descended from the rulers of all three major people groups of Britain.

Alfred the Great was a tremendous fighter of Vikings who helped shape the rise of the English nation against the threat of invasions in the mid-9th century. But it is William the Conqueror that gives the modern Royal Family their Viking roots. William I, Duke of Normandy, was the great-great-grandson of the mighty Viking Hrolf Ganger, a.k.a. Rollo.

Rollo (or Hrolf) was called “Ganger” (the Walker) because he was allegedly too tall to ride a horse. According to some sources, he was a relative of Harald Fairhair but ran afoul of the King of Norway when he rustled his cattle. However, most French sources call Rollo a Dane. This reminds us of the fluid nature of Viking ethnicities during this time when countries (as we know them today) were only in their infancy.

Rollo was a charismatic leader who led the 885 Siege of Paris and many other raids. Finally, the Frankish King offered Rollo the title Count of Rouen, granting him and his Vikings land on the west coast in exchange for their protection from other Vikings. Because this territory then became the land of the Northmen, it became known as Normandy, and the title Count of Rouen changed to Duke of Normandy.

So, William the Conqueror’s Normans were a fusion of the most effective Viking and Frankish military and political qualities. Conquering and holding England was one of many feats they would perform in the Middle Ages (read more about the Normans here). Since then, the British Royal Family had descended from these Norman adventurers (even when the Royal Family was from Scottish or German branches). Indeed, it may be from these age-old Viking roots that Prince Harry gets his red hair.   

Central and Eastern Europe

Vikings penetrated Central and Eastern Europe to establish lucrative trade routes along the Don and Volga rivers. One of these Vikings was a man named Rurik, who founded the city of Novgorod (now in Russia). His family would go on to build Kyiv in Ukraine and be remembered as the Kyven Rus.

This Rurikid dynasty would have many colorful rulers after Rurik. One was Igor, an ambitious Viking who would threaten mighty Constantinople. Igor's widow, Olga, would become a saint – but only after murdering hundreds of people as vengeance for her fallen husband. Her son, Sviatoslav the Brave, would make the Rus domain the biggest in Europe. Olga's grandson, Vladimir (or Volodymir) the Great, would set the Rus on track to become a powerful medieval empire that would survive the test of time.

By the time of Vladimir the Great, the Rus had become more Slavic than Viking. However, Vladimir's son and successor, Yaroslav the Wise, was an important figure in many Norse sagas. He was the benefactor of Harald Hardrada, the future King of Norway, and many other heroes. Yaroslav was Harald's father-in-law and married so many of his daughters into other royal families that he is sometimes remembered as “The Father-in-Law of Europe.”

Though the Rurikid Dynasty and their Norse-Slavic aristocracy were (quite literally) crushed by the Mongol invasions of the 13th century, they survived and remained in power until the first years of the 17th century. Though the Communist Bolsheviks murdered the last of the Russian royals in the early 20th century, the Rurikid Dynasty left institutions and heritage indivisible from the countries and peoples in that region to this day. 

Succession in European Royal Lines

Many generations have passed since the Vikings, and even those countries where Vikings left their strongest imprint have had 30-60 regents in that time. There have also been dynastic changes. For example, in England, the Tudors and Stuarts were replaced by the Hanoverians, who today's House of Windsor then replaced. So, how can it be said that today's kings and queens are related to their ancient forebearers – whomever those forebearers might be?

Well, in Europe, the monarchy (once firmly established) was considered of the highest importance – even divine. Therefore, every effort was made to ensure the peaceful transfer of power and to keep this power within the established royal family. However, someone's right to rule was even more important than their ability to govern. So, while many ambitious, capable people from all backgrounds might achieve power, only the King or Queen could genuinely rule. And that King or Queen must be from the royal family.

The right to rule transferred along clearly delineated channels – ideally, father to son. But if there were no legitimate surviving son to transfer rule to, then time-honored rules of succession would dictate which daughter, brother, or cousin might be next in line. Of course, when these lines of succession were too gray, civil wars or coups could break out. Still, the winner of these wars was also usually a member of the royal family.

The only way to break this cycle was through outright conquest, as seen in England in 1066. However, even in these situations, the pressure would be high to tie into the previous royal family through marriage alliances to shore up legitimacy as quickly as possible. The European mind loves its rulers, and even when these rulers had been cast out from time to time (i.e., the French Revolution, Cromwell’s Commonwealth, etc.), there has often been a return to the monarchy – at the very least, on a symbolic level. The fascination Americans have with the British monarchy (though we have not been under them for 250 years) is a testament to this sociocultural attachment.

In recent decades, the royal families of Europe have gradually but relentlessly lost power to increasingly representative and democratic forms of modern government. The original Vikings would have appreciated this. Government by all and for all was an essential part of their culture before they ascribed to large-scale kingship. But the royal families continue to be important symbols of heritage and national identity – an identity and cohesion many of them can trace all the way back to their Viking ancestors.


  1. The Heimskringla of Snorri Sturluson. Finley, A. & Faulkes, A. (translators). Viking Society for Northern Research. 2011.
  2. Rodgers, D. & Noer, K. Sons of Vikings. KDP. The United States. 2018.
  3. Price, N. Children of Ash and Elm: A History of the Vikings. Basic Books, New York, 2020.
  1. Family tree of Swedish monarchs - Wikipedia
  2. Family tree of Norwegian monarchs - Wikipedia
  3. Family tree of Danish monarchs - Wikipedia