Content note: familial murder and attempted murder; bigamy.
"Thus set it down," decrees Claudius of his wayward nephew in Hamlet: "he shall with speed to England, / For the demand of our neglected tribute." Later, after the murder of Polonius, he changes the plan, writing to his unnamed English vassal that Hamlet must die: but Hamlet discovers the letter, alters it, and sends his companions Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to their deaths instead. But who are these vassals, and why do they obey Claudius?
Shakespeare's sources were the lost 1580s play known as the "Ur-Hamlet", possibly by Thomas Kyd, and a story from Francois de Belleforest's Tragic Histories, from which the Ur-Hamlet itself was derived. He was probably not aware of any earlier version (except perhaps Havelok the Dane, which will be discussed below, but which he might not have recognised as the same story even if he did know it). However, the legend has a long history in Scandinavia, most notably in Belleforest's source, Saxo Grammaticus' History of the Danes.
In Belleforest's version, the unnamed King of England (whose daughter Belleforest's Hamblet marries thanks to the revised letter) is not a Danish vassal, but a friend and ally on apparently equal terms. Shakespeare - or perhaps Kyd? - has deliberately altered this, harking back to when England was part of the Danish empire in 1016-42, and the earlier imposition of Danegeld (essentially protection money to buy a pause in viking raids) in the tenth century. This evocation of the distant past contributes to the play's sense of temporal confusion: it seems to take place simultaneously in 1600 and in the Viking Age. (It certainly takes place in a Christian Denmark, but the kingdom had converted under King Harald Bluetooth around the early 960s, several decades before the rest of Scandinavia.) But Saxo sets the story far earlier still, before there was an England.
In Saxo, the Hamlet figure Amleth is the son of Horwendil, governor of Jutland. It is his maternal grandfather, Rørik the Ring-slinger, who is the King of the Danes. Rørik belongs to the amorphous Heroic Age, whose verifiable historical figures range from the fourth to seventh centuries: but by most reckonings he belongs in the sixth. He is apparently the Hreðric of Beowulf, though his fate is very different: and here we may turn to Friedrich Klaeber's elaborate chronology of the poem's action. Based on the one apparently solid historical event in the poem - the death of the Geatish King Hygelac in a raid on the Frisian coast, which happened between 516 and 522 - Klaeber worked out rough life and regnal dates for the major characters, notably dating the reign of Hroðgar's nephew and successor Hroðwulf to 525-45: this is the Hrólf Kraki of the Norse sagas, called Rolvo in Saxo. In Beowulf, Hreðric is killed when his cousin accedes to the throne: but Scandinavian sources unanimously agree that he lived to be a famous king himself after Hrólf. So if he succeeded Hrólf directly, Rørik begins his reign in 545, in vigorous early middle age, and rules for decades, setting the Hamlet story in the 560s or 570s. (Scandinavian accounts make Rørik either a half-brother of Hroðgar, or more commonly a son of the god Höðr, but unanimously agree that his reign came after Hrólf's.)
Making sense of the timeline
It is worth noting here that the Heroic Age of Germanic legend makes little or no chronological sense. Saxo's chronology in particular contains many obvious duplications, chronological misplacements, and more successive kings than there is actually time for. Here are a few of the problems with this particular story.
* In Saxo, Rørik is succeeded - and Amleth ultimately slain - by Wiglek, usually interpreted as the legendary Anglian King Wihtlaeg who was claimed as an ancestor by the rulers of Mercia. (The successive names after them back this up.) However, Wihtlaeg was recorded as living up to nine generations before Pybba, the first King of Mercia who can be solidly dated (he died in 625/6). While some sources, including early ones, do considerably reduce the number of generations, it is almost impossible to accept such a late date for Wihtlaeg. (The shortest gap is four generations, but this implausibly omits Icel, the eponym of the dynasty. No other source gives fewer than seven.)
* Saxo depicts Wiglek's son Wermund as an old man when the Swedish King Aðils dies: Aðils is semi-historical and likely died in the mid 570s, which would seem to push Wihtlaeg further back than is compatible with accepting both Saxo's account and Klaeber's chronology.
* Wermund's own son Offa is mentioned as a contemporary or near-past figure during the main action of the first part of Beowulf, which Klaeber sets in the 510s!
* In Skjöldunga Saga (c. 1190), Wermund himself appears as a King of the Danes long before Hroðgar. (Wermund may also be one of the inspirations for the "African" King Gormund who is supposed to have ravaged Ireland c. 550; but it is likely that this legend owes more to confusing ninth century vikings with fifth century Vandal rulers of Carthage than to anything that happened in the sixth.)
For what it's worth, Beowulf is much older than any surviving Scandinavian source, dating to c. 1000. Just to confuse matters further, it's even possible that Beowulf himself is a postdated duplicate of Hroðgar's grandfather King Beowa. It's also possible that two Hygelacs have been conflated, which would undermine the whole basis of Klaeber's chronology. The Geatish King of the poem, who dies raiding the Frisians, is certainly meant to be the historical Chlochilaicus: but legend also records a Swedish Hugleik, an ancestor of Aðils who, if the genealogies are at all accurate, would have lived in the first half of the fifth century or even the late fourth. Hugleik could himself be a misdated duplicate of Chlochilaicus: but if they were originally two separate men, then we cannot rely on Chlochilaicus' death as a date on which to build our chronology.
Who are these people?
But who in what became England might have answered to a governor of Jutland in Rørik's time? In the sixth century, Germanic peoples including Angles and Jutes were beginning to establish kingdoms on the east and south coasts of what is now England. They retained links to their continental homelands, though there is no evidence that any recognised overlords there. The Anglian kingdoms of the east coast, Bernicia, Deira, and East Anglia, are all traditionally supposed to have been founded between 547 and 571, Jutish Kent much earlier, in 449 or even before: the traditional dates may not be precisely accurate but are likely to roughly reflect the reality. (The Saxons, whose original home was in Germany, are not very relevant here.) That rulers of Jutland, Angeln, or the Danish islands could have had close relations with these kingdoms is highly plausible: but Saxo refers neither to these nor to England, but to "the King of Britain". This implies that he was thinking of a ruler not of the Germanic settlers, but of the Celtic Britons. Saxo may not have been very aware of the history of this period in Britain, but he does refer to the name of the land being changed after the Angles seized it (he mentions no other settler peoples), which supports the idea that he is thinking here of a Briton.
This British king is given no name. He is said to be - in a common folklore motif - secretly the illegitimate son of a slave, and his wife also of servile origin on her mother's side; after her death he wishes to force the formidable warrior Queen of the Scots, Hermuthruda, into marriage, but she chooses Amleth over him, persuading him into bigamy. This sparks a war; Amleth and Hermuthruda win, and return to Jutland laden with the spoils of Britain, which they yield up to Wiglek, who has been raiding Jutland because the Danish claim to suzerainty was ignored after Rørik's death. This fails to prevent a later war, in which Amleth is killed, and Hermuthruda seized and married to Wiglek.
Hermuthruda is a Germanic name, equivalent to Old English Eormenthryð. (It has been noted that queens whose names ended in "-thryð" appear with remarkable frequency in the early genealogy of the line that became Mercian.) No sixth century Scot or Pict would have had such a name: though Anglian Bernicia did straddle the modern Anglo-Scottish border. But if Hermuthruda was a Teuton turned into a Celt by Saxo, so may Amleth's other wife be. This would surely stymie any attempt to identify her family, if we did not also have Havelok the Dane as a source.
Havelok the Dane
The famous Middle English romance of that name, composed around the 1280s, features apparently invented rulers of England and Denmark, owing little to previous tradition, let alone history. (This romance inspired William Morris' 1895 novel Child Christopher and Goldilind the Fair, and thence C. S. Lewis' Prince Caspian. Interestingly, when the 2008 movie adaptation of the latter emphasised the story's Shakespearean parallels, it looked not to Hamlet but to Richard III.) However, it derives ultimately from a passage in the Norman chronicler Geoffrey Gaimar's metrical History of the English (c. 1140). Gaimar sets the story in the middle of the sixth century, saying that the King of the Britons is Constantine of Dumnonia, cousin and successor of King Arthur. (While Arthur's dates, if he existed, are obviously hugely controversial, Gaimar will have been working from Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain, in which Arthur dies in 542. Furthermore, Constantine - though not in fact a ruler of all Britain - is historical, and was alive when Gildas wrote Of the Ruin of Britain, which is conventionally dated to between 537 and 547, though there is a theory that it may have been as late as 560.) Gaimar also states that Havelok's father Gunter and uncle Edulf, successive rulers of Denmark, are brothers of Arthur's knight Aschis or Aschil - who is generally accepted as being a duplicate of Aðils of the Swedes.
Constantine has Germanic vassals, including Adelbrit, Danish King of Norfolk, who marries Orwain, sister to the British King Edelsie of Lindsey, and fathers Argentille. Let's break these names down:
* Edelsie is in fact a Germanic name, Æthelsige in Old English. Nobody of that name is reported to have lived in or around the sixth century.
* Orwain appears to be a variant of the Welsh Orwen. In a thirteenth century Latin romance, the History of Meriadoc, Orwen is the hero's sister, and marries Urien, "King of Scotland" - the historical Urien or Urbgen of Rheged (died c. 590), whose realm was centred in the western part of what are now the Scottish Borders: but Meriadoc appears to owe a lot to the Breton founder-hero Conan Meriadoc, who is supposed to have flourished around the beginning of the fifth century.
* Adelbrit may reflect King Æthelberht I of Kent (589 - 616), who called himself Bretwalda or "Britain-ruler" - a grandiose title periodically adopted by the most powerful king in the English heptarchy at a given time. Æthelberht was acknowledged as an overlord by the Kings of East Anglia, and like the fictional Adelbrit may have recognised a suzerain above himself in continental Europe: but this was not a Jute or Dane, but the Frankish relatives of his wife, Bertha of Paris.
After Adelbrit's death, Edelsie annexes Norfolk, marrying off his niece to the serving boy Cuheran - who is in fact Havelok, brought up in exile after Arthur conquered Denmark, killing his father and installing Edulf. (In Geoffrey of Monmouth's version, Aschil is King, and submits voluntarily to Arthur. There are Heroic Age characters, both real and legendary, with names approximating to Gunter and Edulf: these include no Scandinavian or British-based rulers, but Æthelberht's wife Bertha did have uncles named Gunthar and Guntram, the latter reigning as King of Orléans from 561 to 592. The most famous Gunther in medieval literature, the legendary King of the Nibelungs, is a composite of the fifth century Burgundian King Gundahar and another of Bertha's uncles, Chilperic I of Neustria (561-84).) Havelok and Argentille together defeat first Edulf and then Edelsie, and reclaim their thrones.
Like Amleth, Havelok is the son of a sixth century Danish king, living in fear of the uncle who has usurped his throne; spends time in Britain and marries a local princess; defeats both the head of the princess' family and his own uncle, and becomes King. Argentille even comes up with the same strategy as Hermuthruda, of propping up the corpses of the fallen to make their numbers look more impressive.
The name Cuheran suggests an historical inspiration that has nothing to do with the sixth century. Óláf Cuarán was a tenth century Norse-Irish warlord, twice King of York (941-44 and 949-52) and twice of Dublin (945-47 and 952-80). He was descended from men believed to have been Kings of Denmark (though by the time he was born they had been three generations in Ireland); his father died prematurely (but naturally); he was repeatedly driven out of his kingdoms; he succeeded paternal relatives, probably uncles, in both kingdoms, and was expelled from York the first time by his maternal uncle, Edmund I of England. He married at least twice, though both his wives were Irish and neither had a name remotely like Argentille or Hermuthruda. The parallels are present but not close, and do not in themselves suggest that the entire story came from Óláf's career: but there is another point.
So who was Amleth?
The name Amleth, or Amlóði as it appears in Norse sources, is of obscure origin: but it is said to mean "fool", relating to his feigned madness (though he is given no previous name). This links it to the Roman name Brutus and the similar defensive pretence of mental incapability by Lucius Junius Brutus, semi-legendary co-founder of the Roman Republic: Saxo was probably aware of the Roman legend. Attempts to provide a convincing Norse etymology have generally failed. Old Irish origins are commonly suggested: for instance amhlair, meaning "jester"; admlithi, meaning "great-grinding", and relating to Amlóði's association in poetic kennings with a supernatural quern or hand-mill; or a back-translation from Amlaíb or Amhlaidh, Irish forms of "Olaf", by someone who did not recognise the name's Norse origins. The latter would of course strengthen the case for a link to Óláf Cuarán: but there is a similar name to be found connected with sixth century Britain.
That is Amlawdd or Anblaud, in Welsh legend the maternal grandfather of none other than King Arthur. The surviving Welsh sources say nothing of Amlawdd's origins or career: but he was reportedly a gwledig or land-ruler, son-in-law of the earlier gwledig Cunedda, who sits at the head of many of the princely genealogies of medieval Wales. Lists of his descendants are usually based on who is mentioned as a maternal relative of Arthur: there is a persistent theory that Amlawdd must have been a King of Ercing in South Wales merely because one text names a certain Gwrfoddw as Arthur's maternal uncle, and a man of the same name was briefly King of Ercing in the late 610s. There is, however, one other important figure linked directly to Amlawdd in medieval sources: St Illtud, whose mother Rieingulid is identified in a Life of c. 1140 as another of the gwledig's daughters. Illtud certainly existed, and is attested as a teacher of St Samson of Dol: this gives us dates, as Samson was probably born in the 480s and was consecrated bishop in 521. The 1140 Life and later legend make Illtud a knight turned monk, and teacher of many of the most famous saints of Britain, Gaul, and Ireland across the fifth and sixth centuries; he has even been identified as one of the inspirations for Sir Galahad.
The chronology of Arthur is hugely controversial. The earliest references to his wars make him the victor of the Battle of Badon, for which the two most popular dates are 493 and 516: but dates far outside this range have been proposed, victors other than Arthur have been suggested, and later legend strongly associates Arthur with figures who flourished in the Old North between about 570 and 600. His paternal grandfather is usually identified as the imperial usurper Constantine III, who died way back in 411, but who is clearly confused with the sixth century Constantine in Welsh genealogical material; neither makes much chronological sense. The most likely explanation is that, just as we can see happening with the Germanic Heroic Age and the Matter of France, the Matter of Britain rolled together characters and events from across a broad period, Arthur himself likely being a composite. Illtud, though his associations with Arthur and Amlawdd may have been invented for the twelfth century Life, does at least seem to have been an adult at the likely period of Badon: which fits with being the victorious general's first cousin.
If Amlawdd was really Illtud's grandfather, he would have lived in the early to mid fifth century, long before Constantine of Dumnonia, Aðils, or any date for Rørik compatible with Klaeber's chronology. Conversely, if he was contemporary with Constantine of Dumnonia, then he could not have been the victor of Badon's grandfather: though it is of course possible that his grandson was a different ruler, perhaps also called Arthur, who became confused with the victor of Badon. The connection with Cunedda tells us little, because Cunedda's chronology is almost as disputed as Arthur's. Tradition states that he migrated from Scotland to Wales with his sons in the late fourth century, but this is difficult to reconcile with the genealogies and most historians would now favour a fifth century date: but when in the fifth century is impossible to settle. It doesn't help that Cunedda's grandfather Padarn seems to have become confused with the saint of the same name, who is conventionally dated to the sixth century and supposed to have clashed with Arthur!
Another look at the Kings of the Danes
Rørik also shows up as the maternal grandfather of the Scottish founder hero Fergus Mór, in Hector Boece's Chronicle of the Scottish People (1527) - a very late source, but a legend we will be looking at in a later article. This, for what it's worth, would place Rørik in the late fourth century by Boece's chronology, or the mid fifth by more plausible reckonings of Fergus' likely floruit. Meanwhile, the fourteenth century Saga of Hrólf Kraki displaces Amleth's story onto Rørik's father Hróarr, the Hroðgar of Beowulf; though there is no earlier authority for Hroðgar recovering the kingdom from a usurping uncle, let alone settling in Northumbria as he does in the saga. (Way back in Beowulf, however, Hroðgar's wife was called Wealhtheow, meaning "foreign thrall", implying that she was of both servile and non-Germanic origin, like Amleth's first wife. "Wealh" most commonly referred to Britons, giving us the word "Welsh".)
(It's worth mentioning here that Gautrek's Saga makes Hrólf contemporary with a "King of England" named Ælle. The author could have been thinking of either Ælle of Sussex, who is traditionally supposed to have come to power in 477, or Ælle of Deira, who reigned 559/60-88. Neither reign lines up well with any of the other chronological suggestions we've looked at so far; Gautrek's Saga is a very late and derivative source with so little sense of history that they could have had the ninth century Ælle of Northumbria (864-67) in mind.)
The unavoidable fact is that both the Welsh sources and the Norse and other Germanic ones have made such a hash of plausible chronology in pursuit of a good story that neither Amleth nor Amlawdd can be dated more precisely than "fifth or sixth century, probably", assuming they existed at all; which makes it impossible to determine if they were originally the same. Surprisingly few writers have exploited the potential connections between these two famous legends: though Henry Treece's dark and cynical take on the story, in the 1966 novel The Green Man, involves the exiled Amleth in Mordred's revolt and Arthur's fall, which he dates to 521. (He also identifies Polonius with Beowulf's sneering rival Unferth.) The 1994 Saxo-inspired film Prince of Jutland avoids the connection by replacing Saxo's British king with an invented character, Aethelwine, Duke of Lindsey, played by Brian Cox.
There are, however, certainly plenty of other variations a modern writer of fiction could play with. Since Amleth could flourish anywhere from the early fifth to late sixth century, the "King of Britain" could be Cunedda, Arthur, Constantine III, Constantine of Dumnonia, Æthelberht, or an early Anglian King of Bernicia or Deira, or indeed a figure we have not discussed here - perhaps Hengest, Vortigern, Ambrosius, or Uther Pendragon. Depending on whether Amleth's identity with Amlawdd is accepted or not, he could show up at almost any point in the multi-generational legend of Arthur, or indeed in that of Fergus. It would be possible to construct any number of fascinating variations on the story, and it is quite remarkable that only Treece appears to have attempted it.
Let's go over the chronology one more time
* If Beowulf is correct in making Hroðgar contemporary with Chlochilaicus: then Amleth's exile cannot be earlier than c. 560, he cannot be succeeded by Wihtlaeg, and he cannot reasonably be Amlawdd. (He could be the grandfather of a later Arthur figure, but not of the victor of Badon, not of St Illtud, and not the son-in-law of Cunedda.)
* If Amleth is Amlawdd: then his exile must surely be no later than the 450s. (If we take a late date for Cunedda and assume that his daughter Gwen was born towards the end of his life, we could push Amlawdd a few decades later, but it would be very difficult to accept him as the grandfather of Illtud; the later we go, the harder it would get for him to be the victor of Badon's grandfather, either.) This means we must either reject the connection to Rørik, or push all the Danish monarchs back in time and reject the links to Chlochilaicus and Aðils.
* If we accept that Amleth was killed by Wihtlaeg: then, once again, we must be talking about a date no later than the 450s.
The one way to construct a chronology that makes sense is to assume that there were indeed two Hygelacs, and that Beowulf has misapplied Chlochilaicus' death to an earlier king, who can be identified with the Swedish Hugleik. The main action of Beowulf could then be pushed back to the early fifth century; the distance between that and Amleth could be contracted by accepting Rørik as Hroðgar's half-brother instead of his son; and the Amleth story could take place in the mid fifth century, allowing Amleth to be Amlawdd and to die by Wihtlaeg's hand. (Obviously, Offa still lives after the main action of Beowulf in this timeline.) This also comes with a couple of bonuses: Amleth would be in Britain during the dramatic events of the founding of Kent, the early Jutish wars, and the lead-up to the fall of Vortigern; and Rørik could also be Fergus' grandfather after all. One could even make a connection to the Burgundian Gundahar, and the continental wars of Attila the Hun, a hugely important figure in the Germanic Heroic Age. There is a remarkable story to be told here: though where exactly Eormenthryð would fit in is still beyond me. Unless, of course, she was Gwen ferch Cunedda, and Amleth's first wife was somebody else.