When the Norse of the Viking Age are shown, then these Vikings typically wield sword, axes, spears and shields. Images of Vikings holding bows are few and far between – and why is that? Archery gives some clear advantages in combat, the bow and arrow had been around for centuries and we know that the Norse used them.
And yet, there are stories of bows and master archers during the Viking Age. One of this comes from Saxo Grammaticus relating the story of how Palnatoke (the jarl of the Danish island of Funen, during the reign of Harald Bluetooth) shots an apple off the top of his son’s head. This is actually the earliest known European telling of this setup, and precedes the well-known incident where William Tell does the same. Incidentally, some historians have pointed to the possibility that the name Palnatoke may have meant “Toki the Archer” in Old Norse.
Furthermore, the bow seemingly has played a key role in the deaths of notable Viking Age leaders reportedly killed by an arrow (list not exhaustive):
- Knud Dana-Ast – Little is known about this Danish jarl and supposedly oldest son of King Gorm the Old. One version of his death holds that he was killed in a battle against his younger brother, Harald Bluetooth. However, another version tells of Knud and Harald jointly leading a raid, and that a cowards arrow is shot into their camp where it hits and kills Knud.
- King Haakon the Good – Mortally wounded by an arrow at the Battle of Fitjar in c961, as told in the Hakonamal skaldic poem.
- King Harald Bluetooth – Mortally wounded by arrow shot in the buttocks during revolt which may have been led by Harald’s own son, Sweyn Forkbeard. The story goes that it may have been his life long arch-rival (and foster-father of Sweyn), Palnatoke who fired the arrow.
- King Harald Hardrada – Mortally wounded by arrow shot into his neck at the Battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066. By some accounts, the arrow was shot by Harold Godwinson.
- King Harold Godwinson – The earliest report of Godwinson’s death does not mention him being killed by an arrow at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. Some years later however the tradition starts of him being killed by an arrow in the eye – as also shown on the famous Bayeux Tapestry.
There are numerous accounts of archery being an integral part of Viking Age skirmishes or battles at sea. For instance, several Nordic sagas describe the Battle of Svolder c999 in which there is engagement with bow and arrow as part of the sea battle. Archaeological finds also seem to indicate that there were special hollow tip arrows to contain embers, which could be fired at opposing ships in an attempt to get the decks or sails to catch fire.
It seems certain that the Viking Age Norse had bows and were proficient in using them. Perhaps the key to why the bow and arrow tend to have little prominence in stories and depictions of the Viking Age is to be found in the difference in tactics between Viking raiding, and Viking Age land and sea battles. As a final thought, it is worth noting that only a century after Hastings, during the reign of Richard the Lionheart comes the story of probably the most legendary of archers, Robin Hood.