A Hat on a Pole- The Curious Case of the King Who Almost Lost His Country After His Hat Fell Off

A good hat can be very hard to come by. A good example of this comes from H.G. Wells, who once stole the Mayor of Cambridge’s hat, leaving a note that said: “I stole your hat. I like your hat. I shall keep your hat”.

This all brings us to 9th century Scandinavia and a king called Erik Anundsson, sometimes also called Erik Weatherhat, a semi-legendary King of the Swedes during this period, who is primarily commemorated today via a hat placed on a cliffside. So what’s the story here and why for over three centuries has a hat been kept on a pole in his honor?

Anundsson is said to have been either the son of the Swedish king Anund Uppsale or as a son of the legendary Viking Ragnar Lothbrok. Him being the son of the previous Swedish king is the most widely accepted theory, but do keep in mind that most of the information we have about him comes from medieval Icelandic sources and should therefore be taken with a big old pinch of salt. The tale that has the most to tell us about Erik is The Saga of Harald Fairhair where he appears as an antagonist to the saga’s hero, in this case the Norwegian king Harald Fairhair, but his name does appear in other works of the era as well. The oldest reference we have to mention the name “Erik Weatherhat” is Saxo Grammaticus’ Deeds of the Danes, written in the 13th century.

In the Hervarar Saga Erik is described as a mighty king who was highly successful in expanding his realm in the lands of the east. In the Heimskringla written by Snorri Sturlason in the 13th century, a character called Torgny the Lawspeaker relates an anecdote about King Erik, where he mentions that Erik as a young man went on Viking raids each summer and had conquered the regions of Finland, Kirjalaland, Courland, Estonia and other eastern countries. He also mentions that there were still earth-bulwarks, ramparts, and other great works to be seen in these regions that had been built by King Erik, and that he was a humble man who would listen to what each of his subjects had to say to him.

Raids and conquests in the east appear frequently when reading about the old Swedish kings, so how come Erik is especially remembered as being more successful in his eastern campaigns than his forebears? What made his campaigns different?

The answer to this comes to us in a local legend in the Mälar Valley region of Sweden – the very heartland of the old Swedish kings. According to this tale Erik was so successful on his raids and campaigns because of his allegedly magical hat. We do not know from where he acquired this hat, but we are told of its magical properties. When Erik wore this hat, handily he could control the winds and the weather by simply turning the hat in any given direction. This was, of course, quite useful in the Viking Age when the main way of transportation was by ship and when sudden attacks by sea could be incredibly devastating. The powers of the hat increased the king’s prestige and he would no longer be called “Erik Anundsson” … He became Erik Weatherhat! We’ll leave it to you to decide whether his hat was actually magical or just made him look magically dapper.

Whatever the case, years passed and Erik became a rich and powerful king through plundering and subjugating the east, much due to the magic of his powerful hat. As he grew older, however, his earlier humility had left him and he had become very ambitious, and now sought to rule the west as well. He made plans to greatly expand the Swedish realm by incorporating the disputed regions in modern-day western Sweden, and even to conquer another country – Norway.

Weatherhat’s ambition was to create a kingdom as great as that ruled by the Swedish king Sigurd Ring and his son Ragnar Lothbrok. Apart from western Sweden, this also meant conquering the area of Viken in what was then southern Norway. This land was, however, already ruled by a king called Harald Fairhair, who was to become Erik’s greatest rival- someone with magnificent hair always being greater than one who merely wears a hat, no doubt to hide hideous baldness…

The western campaign started off well for Erik, who managed to subjugate several regions of western Sweden and southern Norway, even making his way to Viken where Harald Fairhair ruled and forced many of the locals to accept him as their overlord. News of this of course reached the Norwegian king who was off doing his “unite all of Norway”-thing further north. Harald quickly rushed south and punished those who had betrayed him but was eventually successful in taking back his lands from King Erik.

Erik, on the other hand, was busy feasting with his followers in one of his newly conquered regions called Värmland. But one day he was approached by one of the richest farmers in the region, called Åke, who invited him to a feast. This suited Erik well, as this was what he was doing anyway. Unbeknownst to Erik, however, was that Åke had also invited King Harald to the same feast.

In order to fit both kings Åke had built a new longhouse, that was much grander than his old one. He had also decorated his new longhouse in a more elaborate fashion and bought some new tapestries and beautiful dishware fit for a king and his retinue. He meanwhile decorated the old longhouse with worn tapestries and dishware that was still beautiful, but had seen many years of service.

When both kings arrived Åke invited King Harald to his new longhouse, while he offered Erik the old one. After the feast, Åke walked over to King Harald and offered him his son Ubbe as a servant, which King Harald gladly accepted, and even referred to Åke as a friend. Erik, on the other hand, was insulted that Åke had clearly favoured the Norwegian king over him – his rightful king! He travelled and conversed with Åke until they reached a forest, and then asked him why he had favoured Harald, when Åke was after all, Erik’s subject. Åke responded that he had offered Harald the new, splendid hall because Harald was a young king in the prime of his life, while Erik was old. He also said that he is as much a subject to the Swedish king, as the Swedish king is a subject to him.

Erik did not care much for this answer but still chose to act diplomatically by beheading Åke with his sword and leaving his corpse in the forest. When King Harald got word of this, he swore to avenge the death of the loyal Åke and to wreak havoc upon King Erik’s lands.

Harald chased Erik out of Värmland and subjugated the region. Erik returned back home, probably still angry with the petty farmer Åke and this young Norwegian king, but still confident that he could win this war.

But now, things would take a turn for the worse for the once mighty King Weatherhat.

So how does this story end? To find the answer, we must go back to that local legend. According to this legend, Erik had been secretly followed back home by King Harald’s men. Erik, who of course suspected none of this, felt secure while he was in the heartland of Sweden. One day, for example, he went out riding without any guards. For some reason he travelled to a small forested island in the middle of Lake Mälaren; an island that is now known as “Kungshatt” or “King’s Hat” in English. And while Erik was out enjoying his stroll on this small island, the Norwegians decided to act.

They followed King Erik to this island and attempted to catch him, but Erik noticed them just in time and managed to flee. The Norwegians chased the King of the Swedes until they reached a tall and steep cliff at the very top of the island. King Erik was now surrounded by his enemies on all sides, except for the steep cliffs behind him. He realized that he only had two choices – either get captured or risk everything by jumping from the cliffs.

And so it was that Erik supposedly spurred his horse on and jumped from the tall cliffs and splashed into the murky waters below. And against all odds, both he and his horse allegedly survived the jump, and luckily for Erik his horse could swim and managed to get him to safety. Unfortunately, in the process of this daring escape, Erik had lost his hat.

Naturally, now hatless, the remainder of the war did not go well for King Erik Weatherhat, who was now plain king Erik Anundsson again. He lost all the territory that he had gained in the war and most of western Sweden. King Erik died around 882 – 895 AD and was succeeded by his son called Björn who would rule as King of the Swedes for a very long time, until he had a son named after his once glorious father. This son would later become known as Erik the Victorious.

So, what are we to make of this tale? Is there any truth to it? Well, since the story is based on medieval Icelandic manuscripts and a local legend, it is quite easy to dismiss it as pure fantasy. But there is likely some truth to the tale of King Erik, as his name shows up in many different manuscripts relating to the period. How much is true is however, much more difficult to say. It is definitely possible that there was once a Swedish king called Erik who was successful in the east, but was defeated in the west by Harald Fairhair. The regions they fought over could have existed in a power vacuum left there by the weakened Danish kings towards the late 9th century. The tale of the magical hat is likely just icing on the cake, however, conjured from an obscure reference to a legendary figure, named Erik Weatherhat in the old sources.

But that did not stop the locals on the island of Kungshatt from erecting a big hat on a pole on those very cliffs in the early 17th century. The hat has been replaced a several times, but still stands at the top of the cliffs to this very day, from where it is said that brave King Erik jumped to escape his foes. The tale, too, has stood the test of time, and is still told today when travelling past the hat on the pole. And at least since the 19th century it has been a tradition when passing the hat to take off your own hat in salute to the king’s lost artifact, or if you are already hatless, to just give it a good wave. If you do so, legend says you will tap into some of that glorious hat magic and have good luck with the weather, for the remainder of the day.

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