Eric Bloodaxe | The Brother Slayer

This isn’t Shakespeare so when you ask what’s in a name you won’t get a flowery, metaphor-filled answer. We are …

This isn’t Shakespeare so when you ask what’s in a name you won’t get a flowery, metaphor-filled answer. We are talking Vikings, and the names are usually self-explanatory. Eric Bloodaxe is no exception to this rule. A nickname such as Bloodaxe or Brother Slayer gives off the impression of a volatile and brutal man.

This fits Eric Bloodaxe (also known as the Brother Slayer) perfectly. A horrifying, ruthless name for a man who was known to be quite a merciless ruler every time he ruled a kingdom.

Most of what is known about Eric Bloodaxe is gathered from what little information is available. There are many different accounts but if you look closely, you’ll find some common truths among all of them that help paint a picture of this man who died doing what he loved most, battling.

The Apple of His Father’s Eye

Eric Bloodaxe (Old Norse Eiríkr blóðøx) was born aroun 895 as Eirik Haraldsson, son of King Harald Fairhair of Norway. While the exact number is disputed, some say King Harald had up to twenty children with several of them being sons.

Out of all his sons, Eric was the one who King Harald favored the most. He intended for Eric to inherit the throne after his death, as one would expect for the one who was essentially his golden child. A modern term that perfectly describes Eric Bloodaxe.

When Eric was twelve, his father gave him several longships. He went on a long voyage, sailing first to the Baltic, Denmark, and south to Frisia. For four years Eric started to earn the nickname Bloodaxe. As in many vikings raids before him, he sailed west and south, towards the British isles and the Frankish empire. There he ravaged the areas of Scotland, Ireland, Bretland, and Brittany.

He was not done yet. At sixteen, Eric took his longships and sailed north to Finnmark and Bjarmaland or northern Russia. There it’s rumored he won a great battle. A poem recalls the battle, mentioning how Eric was treated as a great hero by the Norse gods when he arrived in Valhalla after his death, but this is jumping ahead.

Eric returns to norway

Eric did eventually return to Norway, waiting for his father to pass and to what he believed was his rightful place on the throne. Though Eric was the favorite, Harald did appoint his other sons as client kings over the other districts in the Kingdom.

There were always tensions between Eric and the rest of his brothers. Being favored by King Harald comes with a heavy burden, putting a target on Eric’s back. But he earned the nickname Eric the Bloodaxe for a reason.

Harald would not be deterred. He intended to keep Eric as his successor after his death, something his other sons would not take lightly.

The Brother Slayer

Eric earned the nickname Bloodaxe because of his ruthlessness. He earned the nickname Brother Slayer because he slayed not one, not two, not three, but four of his brothers. A fifth assassination was attempted but this resulted in such a huge loss for Eric Bloodaxe that he had to flee Norway.

Before his father’s death, Eric killed two of his brothers on perhaps the orders of his father, but this is debated. The two brothers Eric killed were Ragnvald the ruler of Hadeland and Bjor Farmann, ruler of Vestfold.

After his father’s death, Eric became King. By slaying his brothers who had vassal kingdoms, he wanted to ensure he would be the sole King of Norway. But Eric was not quite done yet. He killed the combined forces of his two half-brothers Olaf and Sigrod

With these two brothers out of his way, Eric had no trouble taking full control of Norway. He was a harsh ruler, losing favor with his people quite rapidly.

Eric lose to his brother Hakon

There was one surviving thorn in Eric’s side that went by the name of Hakon, his last living brother. Hakon was rumored to have been raised in England but went back to Norway to claim his inheritance, from the Kingdom of Norway. Well, he was also thought to have been invited to Norway by several unhappy nobles who no longer wanted Eric in power.

It was Hakon who managed to do the impossible. He drove Eric the Bloodaxe from Norway, taking his place as ruler and forcing Eric to flee from the Kingdom. No one in the Kingdom was a fan of Eric so they were more than happy to see him go.

It was not like he had any choice. Had he stayed, he would have faced the same fate that befell his brothers and ended up losing his life at the hands of his flesh and blood.

Eric then fled to England, the very place his brother had come from, and found a home there. However, not only did he find a home, he became ruler there not only once but twice.

Move to the British Isles

The next place Eric made his home was in the British Isles. Eric didn’t arrive in the British Isles to keep his head down and stay out of trouble. He wanted to have power again. To have the power of a King with a kingdom and people to rule right at his fingertips.

England was no stranger to Vikings coming in and taking over their entire country.  But by the time Eric arrived there, it was no longer a Viking stronghold and was back under English control.

This did not deter Eric who craved that sweet scent of power. He had it once back in Norway after being groomed by his father to take over practically his entire life. A kingdom is what Eric was owed and a kingdom is what he would get, no matter what or how many attempts it took to get one.

Eric Becomes king of northumbria

In 948, Eric decided to establish himself as King of Northumbria. It was not a long kingship. It only lasted about a year before he was driven out of leadership, likely because of how harsh of a ruler he was.

Eric was once again not one to be deterred. He remained in England, continuing to try to get back into power. His next attempt at grasping power took a few years. It wasn’t until 952 that he came back to Northumbria and established himself as king again.

This second attempt at ruling over Northumbria did last longer than the first. It lasted a full two years but in 954 Eric was once again driven out of power when King Eadred of England took the Northumbrian Kingdom.

Eric didn’t live much longer after he was ousted for a second time. He was killed the same year at Stainmore, slain in battle which is fitting for a man who spend so much of his life fighting. It’s probably how he wanted to go out anyway.

Following Eric’s exile and death, the line of Norse Kings in York came to a bitter end.

Relationship with Gunhild

Throughout a good portion of his adult life, Eric had a relationship with a woman by the name of Gunhild. One account says Gunhild was the daughter of Ossur Tote from Haalogaland in Northern Norway while another says she was the daughter of Gorm inn Gamli, King of Denmark, and sister of Harald Bluetooth. 

It’s assumed the latter is the truth because one of their sons was named Gorm, a name not common among the Norwegian people. Not only that, but Harald Bluetooth supported Eric’s many war campaigns. This did prove successful because Eric’s son Harald Grafeld did manage to regain power in Norway.

Based on these two facts it’s the assumption that Gunchild was from Denmark rather than the daughter of a man from Norway.

Did Gunhild control her husband?

A Saga claims that Eric was very much under the thumb of his wife, a beautiful woman with a cruel demeanor. She’s often been portrayed as a witch in such tales, but whether this is the truth remains to be seen. Women are not always portrayed in the best light, often being called wicked and accused of leading men to their doom.

It’s a trope as old as time that can be traced as far back as the bible. Eve tempted Adam and is the reason for the fall of mankind and you can find many other examples throughout the ages.

What is known is that Gunhild bore him several children during their marriage. It’s not known exactly how many children they had. The numbers vary depending on what source you look at.

Whether you believe the tales of a wicked Gunhild who beguiled her husband with witchcraft or the ones that describe her in a better life, the fact is she remained at her husband’s side. No matter what trials and tribulations they faced, Gunhild stayed.


Eric Bloodaxe died in 954, leaving behind a bloody legacy full of mostkly failed attempts at not only ruling a kingdom but also taking and keeping it under his power a total of three times. It wasn’t for lack of trying. He did try. Many, many times. The problem was Eric couldn’t manage to make it stick.

But regardless of his lack of success, he has made an impact on Viking history.

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Desiree Delong

Desiree Delong lives is a lifelong New Yorker with a penchant for writing retellings of myths, legends, folktales, etc. She currently works as a freelance writer and ghostwriter, allowing her to explore all sorts of topics… including Norse mythology!

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