Saturday, 16 February 2013

Sweyn Lives!

As today is the first day of the 2013 JORVIK Viking Festival, I thought I might showcase the Festival's own Sweyn Forkbeard (appearing at the Heimkoma event at the Minster on Wednesday evening), and find out about how he is preparing for the role. Nathan Wade has been a member of JORVIK's Viking interactive team for the last 7 years: having worked with him throughout that time (both in his day-to-day role and in numerous special projects), I know that his commitment to and enthusiasm for re-enacting the Viking past is second to none, and that working as a Viking is more than just a job for him. Indeed, this will be his second time as a Viking ruler, having been selected by his re-enactment group to be Harald Hardrada at the Battle of Stamford Bridge anniversary event in 2012. 'I only found out two nights before, so I had a short time in which to do as much research as possible,' he confesses. Nathan, I know, is being modest, as his long track record in interpreting Viking history for the public would have allowed him to pick up a role of this sort with ease. To prepare for the role, he recalls with a laugh, he trained himself in haughtiness, deliberately avoiding eye contact with fellow commuters on his bus by looking over their heads. The Stamford Bridge experience, he tells me, was a surreal one. 'As well as leading the Viking army at the re-enactment, I had to hold court and greet a modern-day visiting dignitary from the council: I made it clear at this encounter that I was the figure in authority.' As Hardrada, Nathan dispensed justice, hearing the case of a jilted wife and of a man accused of stealing a loaf of bread. He had one man dragged away for lying; his grisly fate was to have his tongue cut out for such an affront to the king. 'It all took place on a cricket pitch, with goalposts in the background,' he remembers.

The setting for his spell as Sweyn will be more impressive: he will take his place at the head of the royal party in the quire at York Minster. As well as developing a suitably kingly persona, he has spent time cultivating Sweyn's trademark feature: a large, forked beard. 'I'll need to age by about 20 years for the part, so I've been experimenting with watered-down face paint as a grey dye for my beard. To add volume, I've got a bundle of theatrical hair to mix in with the natural growth. If this doesn't work, I'll resort to hair gel and I'll sculpt it!' In his research for his beard, as in other matters relating to Sweyn's life, Nathan has found that useful sources are lacking. 'They're more thin on the ground for Forkbeard than for Hardrada, who is generally more highly praised.'

None of this will deter Nathan from making the role of Sweyn his own, however, and he is clearly looking forward to being king for a day. 'The pomp and ceremony will be quite cool, and previous ceremonies at the Minster have felt very authentic. Besides, this is the closest I will get to being a king for real!' 

Images from the event will appear in a blog entry in due course. Good luck, Nathan! 

Nathan (and his beard)

In more Sweyn news, York Archaeological Trust's latest education newsletter features as its headline a new offer, the 'Sweyn Special', for local primary schools. The item is illustrated by an image of a warrior wearing a replica of the Anglo-Saxon Coppergate helmet and sporting a beard that has been plaited to create a 'forked' effect. These themed outreach sessions were piloted for the first time this week, and aim to create a greater awareness amongst local children of the significance of 2013 as an anniversary year. 


  1. Thank you for the great post. I have shared it to my family tree on FB. Thanks


    1. Thanks for the feedback, John! I've been away from the blog since April to concentrate on a separate research project, but will be picking up where I left off very soon.

  2. One of my great aunts was a historian and found that my family are the decendants of king Sweyn Forkbeard

  3. One of my great aunts was a historian and found that my family are the decendants of king Sweyn Forkbeard