The Viking Age was filled with powerful kings, but research suggests that Viking women also held significant power as rulers—particularly a woman named Thyra.

Four recently analyzed runestones mention Thyra by name, with one praising her as the “strength” or “salvation” of Demark. Using 3D-scanning, researchers connected the carvings on these runestones to argue that they are all describing the same Viking queen Thyra, making her a distinctively honored and revered figure in Viking history.

No other man or woman in Viking-Age Denmark is mentioned on as many runestones as Queen Thyra—including her husband, King Gorm, and her son King Harald Bluetooth, whom scholars have traditionally connected with the establishment of the state of Denmark. The presence of Queen Thyra’s name on four runestones suggests that she held notable political clout and she may have played a larger role in the formation of Denmark than previously thought.

Reading the Runes

The Viking Age was a period from about 800 to 1050 in which seafaring people from Scandinavia expanded their presence in Europe through trade and conquest. During this period, Vikings erected large runestones to commemorate important people who died. The crafters of these runestones painted them with bright colors and placed them in areas where many people would see them. In Denmark, there are roughly 250 known runestones from the Viking Age.

The first royal seat of Denmark was the town of Jelling, and it is there that archaeologists identified two runestones mentioning Queen Thyra, who lived during the 10th century. The first runestone says that her husband commissioned it, stating: “King Gorm made this monument in memory of Thyra, his wife, Denmark’s strength/salvation.” 

The commissioner of the second runestone was Thyra’s son Harald, whom scholars have traditionally credited with establishing the state of Denmark around 965. This runestone states: “King Harald ordered this monument made in memory of Gorm, his father, and in memory of Thyra, his mother; that Harald who won for himself all of Denmark and Norway and made the Danes Christian.”

In addition to these, archaeologists identified two more runestones in the Danish towns of Bække and Læborg that mention both Thyra and the runestone carver Ravnunge-Tue. The Læborg runestone states that the carver, Ravnunge-Tue, cut the stone in memory of Thyra, whom he describes as “his lady,” or “his queen.”

Scholars have disagreed on whether the Thyra mentioned on the Bække and Læborg runestones is the same Queen Thyra from the Jelling runestones. However, in a paper published in the archaeology journal Antiquity, researchers used 3D-scanning to identify Ravnunge-Tue as the likely carver of the second Jelling runestone. The researchers argue that the Thyra mentioned on all four runestones is the same person, and that she held a uniquely powerful position in Viking-Age Denmark.

Queen Thyra's Power

The fact that Thyra is mentioned on more runestones than anyone else in Viking-Age Denmark—including her famous son—suggests that she may have played a larger role than previously thought in the formation of Denmark.

“Political and administrative life in Viking-Age Denmark was dominated by men, but it seems that some women also had power,” Lisbeth M. Imer, a senior researcher at the National Museum of Denmark and the lead author of the new paper, says in an email to HISTORY. “So instead of talking about the Viking Age as a completely male-dominated society, we should include elite women, or women from royal families, in the powerful circles.”

Interpreting Thyra’s specific role is still difficult given the lack of primary sources. The four runestones mentioning Thyra are the only known Viking-Age sources that mention the queen.

“[Thyra] is also mentioned by early 13th-century historians in Denmark, who introduce her as a wise and resourceful queen, probably mostly based on an oral tradition about Thyra’s life that we do not know today,” Imer says. “In the 19th century she was a hero in Danish history writing, a kind of a mother for the nation.”

The late 12th-century historians Sven Aggesen and Saxo Grammaticus credited Queen Thyra with commissioning the Danevirke, a series of fortifications defending Denmark’s southern borders. In comparison, these historians described King Gorm—who is only commemorated on the one runestone that Harald commissioned for his parents—as weak and lazy.

The evidence of Queen Thyra’s prominence also suggests that other elite Viking women could have held significant political power. Imer advises that when studying the Viking Age, “we shouldn’t rule out the possibility of women being able to hold power in their own right.”

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