Fact-Checking, ‘Vikings’ Style

Fact-Checking, ‘Vikings’ Style

Most people, when watching a TV show, don’t assume that the reality presented within it is definitely the case. I mean, half the time you’d have to be pretty dumb to think it was real, right? Except, sometimes it’s not so easy. Sometimes the show has enough basis in fact to make it difficult to ascertain the truth.

This is the case with Vikings, aired on the History Channel in the US and streamed surreptitiously by people like me who can’t even afford to buy the first series on DVD yet because for some reason it’s eighteen quid and I’m skint.

— Warning: This Post Will Contain Some Spoilers For Vikings Up To And Including 2×04 —

Vikings is a historical TV show revolving around the initial invasion by Viking raiders. It takes place both in Scandinavia and England, and is apparently filmed in Ireland, which is neither of them. The central character is a guy called Ragnar Lothbrok who was, in fact, a real person — though he wasn’t necessarily involved in the first invasion and the destruction of Lindisfarne.

I was very excited to come across a reference to him while reading In Search Of The Dark Ages by Michael Wood, because it convinced me that watching Vikings was basically work, right? (Admittedly, it was only a mention of his sons, but shhh. Allow me to justify my procrastination.)

from "In Search Of The Dark Ages" by Michael Wood
from “In Search Of The Dark Ages” by Michael Wood

However, because the show is marketed as having been based on true events, many people seem to be of the opinion that it’s incontrovertible fact. Which is fine up to a point … until you get to the problem of Athelstan.

Athelstan is my favourite character, and also the reason I knew about the show in the first place. He’s played by George Blagden, who was in the 2012 Les Miserables movie as Grantaire, and it was via the Les Mis fandom that I found out about Vikings, so of course I was going to be watching out for this character. The only thing that disappointed me was how little screentime he seemed to get given that he has one of the most interesting and emotional character arcs of anybody in the series.

Athelstan is a monk, captured as a slave by Ragnar and taken back to Scandinavia where he is forced to adapt to his surroundings and at least appear to denounce his Christian faith for fear of getting himself into trouble, though that doesn’t entirely work out in the first series.

His crises, uncertainties and heartbreak are emotional and compelling, and as he clung to his faith I clung to the hope that somebody eventually would give him a hug and a blanket and get him the hell out of there, because man, he needed it.

You can understand why the whole process might be a bit traumatising for him.
You can understand why the whole process might be a bit traumatising for him.

The second series comes along, and Athelstan — who was nicknamed ‘The Tiny Viking’ — seems to be a fully fledged warrior, and he’s just as in to the whole killing-defenceless-Englishmen as the rest of them. There’s actually quite a lot of symbolism in the attack on the minster at Winchester that he helps to lead, because when he was found cowering in a monastery with the manuscripts he helped illuminate, they spare him and he survives; he finds a monk in the exact same position, and kills him.

Athelstan’s gone bad.

Athelstan is, in the words of the bishop he spares at the monastery (was it a bishop? The hierarchy confuses me), an apostate. He has renounced his faith, at least outwardly, and returned to the ‘pagan’ life of the Vikings.

And, at least according to the show, that’ll get him crucified. And nearly does, in episode four, until he’s cut down by King Ecbert for reasons yet to be exposed — presumably, the king thinks he’ll be a useful bargaining chip. Oh, and by ‘nearly crucified’ I mean ‘nailed to a cross but not yet dead’, which is probably at least as traumatic as actually dying that way.

When this was shown as a teaser, everybody assumed it was a nightmare. Oh dear.
When this was shown as a teaser, everybody assumed it was a nightmare. How wrong we were.

This … is not something I’ve ever come across as a part of the early Church. In fact, all my reading has presented a totally different image. Now, I’m a nerd, and that period is part of my special interest, so recently I read the whole of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History Of The English People, which was written about 50 years earlier but provides a detailed overview of the Church in England over the first few centuries of its existence.

Bede writes about miracles. A lot about miracles. He writes about converting pagans, and also converting those who are Christian but celebrate Easter at the wrong time, because to listen to him you’d think that was just as bad. (He never, ever shuts up about the Easter thing.) He writes about healings and saints and people giving up their riches to live a holy life.

But I’m pretty sure that at no point during that entire text does he even suggest that those who renounced their faith were executed in any way, least of all crucified, which is a problematic form of execution for Christians anyway. Why would you place a ‘heathen’ in the same position as the person you worship? The image of an upside down cross originates from the death of Simon Peter, who believed himself to be unworthy of dying the same way as Jesus and insisted that they crucify him upside down. (Wiki article here.)

If that was the attitude of early believers, then why would they inflict this punishment on somebody they believed had renounced their God? You know, leaving aside the whole bit about trying to convert people to Christianity and believing in redemption by penance, rather than just killing people.

The fact is that Vikings is a good show, and it makes an effort to be historically authentic. It uses Old English and Old Norse to ground viewers in the time period. It uses real places and events to make the story more believable. But this single element was possibly the least likely of every deviation from reality … and it’s the one that a lot of people seem to believe might have happened.

This picture could serve as a summary of the faith/fight conflict he experiences in the series.
This picture could serve as a summary of the faith/fight conflict he experiences in the series.

I considered the possibility that it happened. I googled ‘crucifixion of apostates’, but found very little except some blog post with somebody ranting about it in the context of Vikings, pretty much accusing the show of bashing Christianity, so I figured I’d take a slightly different approach to addressing the liberties they took with the history here.

I’m sure they had their reasons for it, I really do: Athelstan has nearly been martyred several times and comes across sometimes as a Christ figure within the narrative, particularly in his desperation as he seems to echo the My god, my god, why have you abandoned me? thing. I’m sure it’ll have a massive effect on his character development throughout the rest of the series, too.

But people need to be aware that this doesn’t seem to have been general practice at all during the period. I have read a lot about the Anglo-Saxon church. Probably more than I will ever need to know. And I have never come across any reference to it, so it’s fairly safe to assume that it wasn’t common if it existed at all.*

So: enjoy the show. By all means, enjoy it. Go and watch it now. But don’t take it at face value as accurate or factual without double-checking, because that leads to a spread of misinformation and unsubstantiated claims, and that just makes everything more complicated for people trying to research what actually would have happened.

Also, when you’ve watched it, come and cry with me about Athelstan, please?

*I’m a nerd and well-read, but I’m not an expert. So it might be that I’m wrong, but so far that’s not the impression I’ve got.

22 thoughts on “Fact-Checking, ‘Vikings’ Style

  1. They may not have crucified people, I agree, but the Christians of that time and many other times were by no means polite or accepting of anyone who did not adhere to their faith or those who had fallen away from it. They were just as cruel as people have depicted Vikings. I believe in writing the show, they wanted people to understand this and as a way show what it must have been like for a Christian who turned away from the Church back in that time. The psychological torment, the confusion…and the crucifixion was a metaphorical way of depicting it. I don’t think they by any means want you to think that the Anglo-Saxons really did such things, but they are also not opposed to using violence and torture to get their point across either.

    Athelstan is not a factual character from Ragnar’s real story, but there is record of two monks who had fought alongside the Vikings. (There could be more, I just haven’t read everything!) So in some way I believe the writers wanted people to get a sense of what it was like for someone at that time if they chose to take the path that Athelstan took.

    There is a shock value in crucifying the ex-monk-turned-Viking and that shock forces people to think about it. Sheer brilliant writing and definitely absolutely incredible acting.

    1. Oh, I’ll never say anything bad about George Blagden’s acting, and I agree that they probably had their reasons for the symbolism of it. As I said, I’m definitely sure there’s an element of portraying Athelstan as a martyr, and from what George Blagden’s said in interviews I can tell this is going to shape his character development from this point forward.

      However, I was more addressing the posts I’d seen on Tumblr and the like where people genuinely seemed to believe this was something that happened, like, regularly, which certainly doesn’t seem to be the case. I think because so much of the show is portraying a version of ‘reality’, metaphorical significance can be missed or misunderstood, particularly by those who haven’t taken it upon themselves to research the period itself.

      And while the Christians weren’t exactly NICE, by the 8th century they’d settled down quite a lot after their initial arrival, and they hadn’t got around to stuff like the Crusades etc yet, so I’d expect them to be a little less brutal than they were depicted here!

  2. Thank you for the info! I was watching last night and while I loved how they did it, even though it was awful, and George Blagden did a fantastic job acting as usual.
    But it did leave me wondering, because I was thinking the same thing, it seems weird that they’d crucify him in the way of a person of leadership, in a way even a saint deemed he was unworthy to die.
    (^^And while it is true that Athelstan isn’t strictly a historical figure the way Ragnar and Lagertha are, the action of crucifying him in general seems unlikely. It’s not that crucifying Athelstan is historically inaccurate, it’s that crucifying any one in his position is historically inaccurate. It’s about the action, not the character. I also get where the writers were coming from, and liked it, it’s just that that’s seemingly pretty historically inaccurate.)
    But it definitely was very cool, and very well done, if not very historically accurate.
    (Side note: I feel you on the crying about Athelstan bit.)

    1. Yes — my thoughts exactly. Athelstan may be an invented character, but he’s fulfilling a role in society that would have existed, and therefore needs to do it accurately, ha ha. But it doesn’t mean the scene and all its implications for the plot was worthless, as I’m sure it’ll be powerful, it just means that people shouldn’t quote it in essays as being A Thing That Happened. ;)

      (I cry endlessly about Athelstan. Also Grantaire. George Blagden needs to stop playing characters that hurt so much.)

  3. I am much like the author of this article: a well read nerd and not a scholarly medievalist. Based on what I’ve read, my objection to the scene wasn’t the mode of execution, crucifixion, but rather that a clergyman orchestrated the affair without involving the secular authority: the king. In all of my studies, clergymen presided over investigations and trials (including torture), but execution of apostates and heretics was the prerogative of the secular authorities: not clergymen.

    1. Interesting — yes, I can definitely see how that would have been necessary, especially as Ecbert came in at the end and clearly had ultimate authority over them, so they ought to have consulted him. Basically, that scene had issues, I think that’s what we can conclude. ;) Thanks for reading!

  4. LOL, I found your blog entry trying to find corroboration for the church punishing apostates with crucifixion. I have never heard of this; am not a particularly well-read nerd, though a history major, and would think something this macabre would have been mentioned somewhere either in my studies or historical fiction reading. It reminded me of when the HBO series, Rome, depicted Vercingetorix being garroted in public. I thought, my recall of historical fact isn’t very good, but my memory for sensationally gory detail is much better.

    Anyway, my objection was the same as BeggarJones, but based less on protocol than simply that Aethelstan would be such an obvious intelligence asset that no amount of desire for revenge could make even the most bone-headed cleric kill him without consulting the king. Thanks for the interesting discussion!

    1. True – Athelstan is useful to them for the same reasons he’s useful to Ragnar. While the Vikings wanted information about England, the English could probably do with some insider info about the Vikings. An informer or a spy would be a much more useful job for him.

      I imagine that’s where half my hits came from (Google and the Tumblr tag for Vikings), but few of them have commented, so thanks for that and thanks for reading :)

  5. I really like Vikings, too. Travis Frimmel is really empathetic, but so is Athelstan.. The writer is making an effort to be true to the era and characters, but this is not a documentary and so there are many aesthetic additions to add to the ambiance of the of the story…, like Aslaug’s prophetic ability (snake eye).among other things…My guess is that the Crucifixion is one way to identify the time as a post roman era,and though there are no Romans, the kings are basically romanized rulers, still enjoying baths and classical statuary… Since. the Romans crucified felons,,then such rulers might have adopted that form of execution. While the early Christian emperors practiced some toleration at first, over time as they justified their kingship as appointed by God,and therefore heretics would come to be seen as a threat to the divinely ordained hierarchy, And so, if heretics were executed, they might use a roman form of execution which conveniently adds a symbolic richness to the story..

    1. Yes, it’s by no means the only example of taking liberties with historical facts – it simply seemed an odd one because it was so out of place with the facts and beliefs of the time as far as everything I’ve read can tell me.

      It won’t stop me enjoying the show, though, of course. Thanks for reading! :)

  6. I found your blog b/c I’m trying to figure out this very question. In this interview: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/04/28/vikings-season-finale-season-2-all-change_n_3175975.html The showrunner says this: “First of all, I was doing my reading and discovered that there were at least two monks that had been written of who had been captured by Vikings and taken back to Scandinavia. In fact one of them, later on, was captured by the Saxons raiding back in England and they crucified him as an apostate.” I sent out a call on Twitter to Christian historian friends to see if anyone could corroborate but heard nothing back. I am *extremely* curious about where this information could have come from. Anyways, the question lead me to a sweet blog, so at least that’s something :)

  7. I haven’t actually watched Vikings yet, although I do want to, but I had to comment. I thought it was funny that you mentioned you’d originally started watching Vikings because of Les Mis. I’m in a production of Les Mis right now, and just last night I was reading a post (an old one – it came out around the time of the movie) about the 1832 uprising where she basically said the same thing – “enjoy the show, but get your history right”. Anyway, it just struck me as an interesting coincidence. :)

    Interesting article – and a good point not to take everything on TV as fact, even if it’s from a show inspired by historical events. I am looking forward to watching Vikings at some point in the future. Maybe it will come out on Netflix.

  8. In many ways the show really does depict what life might have been like for these people, and for me, that is more important than getting a few things wrong (deliberately, or otheriwse)… but it doesn’t take away anything from the show. Those who believe outright these things happened are clearly fantasists and perhaps easily led (ironically much like religion in medieval times). The beliefs consumed people, over-ruled logic and sometimes even compassion, so it’s no surprise a TV show can do the same to so many. :D

    Overall I think they got it so much more right than they did wrong, and for anyone like me who hasn’t really had much of an interest in history, it’s a good way for them (me) to absorb SOME knowledge, a few of my own ideas and gain an appetite for more. I’ll certainly be reading a fair bit more about these times, as I am now fascinated because of “Vikings” 10/10 for me

    1. Some aspects of the show are historical — as I think I mentioned in this post (though I wrote it ages ago and can’t remember), I really liked the way it used Old Norse and Old English at the beginning of series 1 to show the cultural differences and so on. I think the trouble is that if you set something up as historical and then take it down a path that is not so much inaccurate as deliberately contradictory to the truth, you end up spreading misinformation, since there are a lot of people who don’t bother to look up whether something is true or not. But that’s partly why I wrote this post — so those who did bother to look it up would quickly find an answer and could get back to watching it. :)

      I felt like the show got less and less historical after the first season and just stopped trying after a while, though that wasn’t why I stopped watching it. At the time, though, I was studying Old Norse, Scandinavian history *and* Anglo-Saxon history, so while I’m usually pretty chill about letting things use history for their purposes, the timing meant the inaccuracies were harder to stomach. (But I gave up on it due to its treatment of Athelstan, who was my favourite character and the only reason I cared what happened to any of them after a while. Without him, I no longer had a reason to watch it.)

      Anyway, thanks for commenting and I hope I managed to enhance, rather than take away from, your enjoyment of the show. :)

  9. Fascinating article Miriam and yes, Athelstan is a character who hooks you. It’s an interesting choice of name too and I had mistakenly thought it to be a reference to a St Athelstan (no such person) only to discover that King Athelstan was the king who finally united England in around 939.
    I’m only at the beginning of series 3, so I don’t know what happens to him, but he certainly does have numerous saintly qualities, barring his mistaken murdering of the other monk, that is.
    I think the crucifixion was purely for dramatic effect and I’m sure I heard a few episodes before it that an Anglo Saxon had said something like ‘we don’t do crucifixions’. Either way, it was very well put together and carried a great deal of impact. And let’s not even mention the Blood Eagle, which froze my veins.
    I like the way the series mixes the languages of ancient England Scandinavia too and the whole series has rekindled interest in the late middle ages era for many people, which can only be a good thing.

    1. Thanks for your comment! Yeah, Athelstan’s an interesting one. And you’re right, the name’s got all sorts of interesting associations. There are quite a few Athelstans (I mean, let’s face it, basically anybody of importance for a couple of hundred years was called Athel-something, making it very hard for me to remember them all), but the king’s probably the most memorable of them. I think there are a few in more clerical / religious roles, though, even if I can’t remember any of them off the top of my head. :)

      I could see the effectiveness of the scene for drama, but it just seemed odd in a show that had, up until that point, at least tried to remain plausible — while the symbolism was all well and good, I’m sure there might have been less anachronistic ways of doing that scene, especially as I saw quite a few comments and Tumblr posts and so on afterwards that suggested some people had taken it as being historically likely — which was what prompted me to write this post.

      Ugh, the Blood Eagle was grim, I honestly couldn’t watch at that point. Had to cover my eyes. I’ve read about it, given that I used to study Scandinavian History and still study Anglo-Saxon History so it has come up, but that’s very different to seeing it on screen. Apparently I’m more squeamish than I thought.

      I have to admit, I stopped watching the show before the end of series three (I can’t remember exactly when, but it was for Athelstan-related reasons, so I’m sure you’ll know it when you see it). I’m dimly aware that it’s still going, but I lost interest, and as it went on I would’ve needed to write more and more of these posts, which would have felt more like degree work than relaxation, haha. Turns out my ability to cope with violence (and anachronisms) only lasts as long as my favourite characters do…

      Anyway, thanks for reading and commenting. :)

  10. After that episode of “Vikings” aired, I too found it implausible and did some research and read that the creators of the show had found a single such incident in history. Nevertheless, the show’s creators chose to include that scene in the show giving rise to the myth that it was “a common occurrence.” However, the real issue I had with the scene was not the crucifixion.

    I too am a book nerd, and I’ve read quite a bit about the Inquisition. What’s repeated time and again in those books and articles is how after determining the sinful guilt of an unrepentant heretic, the inquisitors would “relax” the apostate/heretic to secular authorities for corporal punishment and/or execution. Contrary to what the show depicted in that episode, the clergy was religiously proscribed from killing. Like you, I’m not an expert, but from what I’ve read it would have been more probable and historically accurate to show Athelstan being crucified by a secular figure, such as the king, and not by a member of the clergy.

    1. Yes, a few people have raised that as an issue in the comments here — that they don’t even involve the secular authorities until they’re forced to. It’s not something that occurred to me, until someone else raised it — I guess I was distracted by the ideological issues of crucifixion so that I didn’t pay attention to the more practical issues of authority, jurisdiction etc. Which possibly says something about me…

      Thanks for commenting! :)

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