King and Emperor. Chapter 1, 2
Stamford—March, Anno Domini 875
“Just a village,” they said. “A few huts by the roadside. Capital of the North! It’s not even Capital of the Fen. Never been anything, never will be.”
The inhabitants of Stamford, both the old ones and the many more numerous incomers, bore the taunts of their neighbors easily. They could afford to. For whatever its history, whatever its native merit or lack of it, Stamford was now chief residence of the King of the North, once a co-king, once a jarl, before that a mere carl of the Great Army now destroyed, before that, almost, a thrall in a fenland village. Now they called him the One King, for so he had proved himself, and to his name and title, King Shef, his Norse subjects added the nick-name Sigrsaell, his English ones, with the same meaning and in almost the same word Sigesaelig: the Victorious. Truly he was a king who ruled by his word alone. If he declared humble Stamford the Capital of the North, then so it must be.
After his now-legendary defeat of the Ragnarsson brothers in the great battle of the Braethraborg in the year 868 of the Christians’ count, that itself following on his defeat of the King of the Swedes in single combat at the Kingdom Oak of Uppsala, Shef the One King had received the submission of all the petty kings of the Scandinavian lands, of Denmark, Sweden and Norway as well. His fleets filled by levies from his under-kings, prominent among them Olaf of Norway and his own comrade Guthmund of Sweden, he had returned with massive force to the island of Britain, regaining power not only over the kingdom of the East and Middle Angles which he had been granted previously, but rapidly overawing also the petty rulers of Northumbria and the southern shires, and after them exacting submission further from the Scots, the Picts and Welsh. In the year 869 King Shef had launched the great circumnavigation of the island of Britain, which set out from the port of London, cruised to the north along the English and Scottish coasts, descended like a cloud on the disbelieving pirate-jarls of the Orkneys and Shetlands, left them chastened and afraid, and then turned south and west again through the many islands of the Scots and down the lawless western coasts to Land’s End itself. Only there did it recognize friendly power, sheathe its talons, and sail east in company with the escort-ships of Alfred, King of the West Saxons, till it reached home harbor once more.
Since then the inhabitants of Stamford could boast that they sheltered a king whose power was uncontested from the westernmost isle of Scilly to the tip of the North Cape itself, two thousand miles north and east. Uncontested and—most said—shared only in theory with King Alfred, whose narrow boundaries King Shef persistently continued to honor, in obedience to the agreement of co-kingship the two had entered into in dark days of threat almost ten years before.
What the inhabitants of Stamford could not say, and did not care to think about, was why the greatest king the North had known since the times of the Caesars should make his home in the rural mud of Middle Anglia. The king’s advisers had said the same thing, many times. Rule from Winchester, some said, to be frowned down by an angry one-eyed stare: for Winchester remained the capital of Alfred and the South. Rule from York, suggested others, from the stone walls that the king himself had stormed. London, said others, long a wretched backwater without a king or a court to fill it, but now increasingly the rich center of trade from the fur-lands of the North to the vineyards of the South, crowded with ships carrying hops, honey, grain, leather, tallow, wool, iron, grindstones and a thousand luxury goods: all paying toll to the officers of the co-kings, Shef’s on the north bank and Alfred’s on the south. No, said the many Danes among his counselors, rule from the ancient stronghold of the Skjöldung kings, from Hlethraborg itself, for it is the center of your dominions.