Thorkell the Tall

Thorkell the Tall

Thorkell the Tall, also known as Thorkell the High in the Anglo-Saxon chronicles (Old Norse: Þorke(ti)ll inn hávi; Norwegian: Torkjell Høge; Swedish; Torkel Höge: Danish: Torkild den Høje) was a Jomsviking, a son of the Scanian chieftain Strut-Harald, a brother of Jarl Sigvaldi, commander of the Jomvikings and the legendary stronghold, mythical Jomsborg, on the Island of Wollin, while himself a notable lord.

He took part in the Battle of Hjörungavágr in 986 and in the Battle of Swold in 1000. In 1009, he attacked England with a large army, eventually being paid an unusually large Danegeld, in 1011.

In 1012, Thorkell's men took Archbishop Alphege hostage, who had previously been instrumental in negotiating danegeld payments. Whilst under Thorkell's protection he was murdered at Greenwich during a feast by throwing hambones at him until he was mercifully axed to death. It is said that Alphege (or Alfheah) refused to be exchanged for ransom organised by Eadric Streona as he did not wish to further impoverish his countrymen, prompting his murder. Sensing that he was losing control over his men, Thorkell and his loyalists defected and he and his men entered into the service of king Ethelred the Unready, whom they fought under in 1013 against the invasion of king Sweyn Forkbeard and his son Cnut. After the death of Sweyn, and the English attacks on the Danish invaders which drove his son to abandon the conquest, Ethelred's forces were turned against the Jomsvikings in his service. Thorkell's brother Henning was killed [Trow, M.J., "Cnut: Emperor of the North", first. edn., Sutton (2005), pg. 57] , and he went back to Denmark, with a score to settle in England. He was to return with the future king, in 1015, and the invasion's success meant he was proclaimed to be the Jarl of East Anglia, in 1017, after the coronation of the Viking king of England. An explanation for Cnut the Great's acceptance of Thorkell's allegiance, not to mention his military prowess, may be that he was in fact his childhood mentor [Trow, M.J., Cnut: Emperor of the North, first edn., Sutton (2005), pg. 44] , and the Jomsvikings were also of special worth to Cnut. He himself held a score against the men responsible for the betrayal of oaths of allegiance given by the English nobles after his father Forkbeard's conquest. If it was Thorkell's men who taught Cnut to fight his battles, such bonds as these were surely hard broken, even with opposition in war.

In 1021, though, Jarl Thorkell fell out with king Canute [Lawson, M.K., "Cnut: England's Viking King", rev. edn., Tempus (2005), pg. 90] , and had to make himself scarce and went to Denmark. This appears to have been as a result of a trial of his wife, who was found guilty of poisoning his son by his first marriage, with the help of a witch. Thorkell had sworn to her innocence and consequently lost face. He was soon reconciled with Canute again, who proclaimed him Jarl once more, of Denmark, although he seems to disappear, in 1023, as there is no mention of him after this point [Lawson, M.K., "Cnut: England's Viking King", rev. edn., Tempus (2005), pg. 92] . It may be he was simply too old for anymore conflict, and the final years of his life spent at court, yet with no military commands. It may also be that he was cast out of the kingdom, to return to Jomsborg, or Scane, and lived the rest of his days as a wayward old soldier. Equally, he might have been dead soon after he was made Jarl of Denmark, and the causes either natural or malevolent.

While we are sure Thorkell is undoubtedly a real historical figure his career, especially its early part, is steeped in legendary associations with the mysterious Jomsvikings, which too often distract and distort from the facts of his life.

In Fiction

Thorkell the Tall appears as a character in the Japanese norse manga Vinland Saga. His character is first seen defending London from the Danish Invasion, but he later aligns himself with Prince Canute in an effort to dethrone Sweyn Forkbeard.


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