For far too long, the town of Grimsby has been a victim of its own name. After all, “it’s grim up north,” is an all too popular phrase. Though the town gets its fair share of drizzle, the word “Grim” means a lot more to its residents than typical English weather and the smog of industry. For us, it’s a syllable that speaks of myth, legend, history, and the very founding of our proud community.

Much of the past is shrouded in mystery, put together in hindsight like a gigantic jigsaw puzzle with countless missing pieces. We may never know the exact details of how Grimsby was built on the fringes of the Humber estuary, but what we do know spins a tale of heroism and fate that stretches across the county of Lincolnshire. Today, it’s a story that you rarely hear and, following the removal of a commemorative statue from Nuns Corner in 2006, has practically faded from thought.

With little surviving from the time to help us paint a picture, historians and scholars are left with a single 13th-century text as a guide – Lay of Havelok the Dane. Within its literally epic poetry, royal families break apart across nations in a romance that spans centuries. Of particular interest to Grimbarians is the humble fisherman, Grim, who enters the story under the nastiest of circumstances.

Amongst the foam of a stinging sea, and under royal order, Grim’s unthinkable task was to murder the infant son of Birkabein – a Danish king who had recently died. Birkabein’s replacement, the regent Godard, was quite unlike his predecessor. Ruthless and evil, Godard had already killed Birkabein’s two daughters in cold blood, leaving their brother’s life in the hands of Grim. Despite facing the death of his entire family as punishment, Grim returned home with the young boy to care for him as his own – refusing to leave a child to the cold brutality of the ocean.

It’s here where the tale turns mythological, as that night, after saving the poor, discarded boy, a strange light is said to have poured from the baby’s mouth like a divine beacon. If any of the story is grounded in truth, the glimmering ray that Grim saw shine that night was surely a metaphor; an antiquated fable that really conveys the quiet fisherman’s discovery that he harboured a forgotten prince – Havelok the Dane himself.

Indeed, the unbelievable is rife throughout Grimsby’s history, making it fitting that the earliest hints of our existence are shrouded in superstition. Grim himself, though portrayed as a modest figure, may have been read by scholars at the time as a mortal vessel of Odin – a God found in Germanic and Norse religious writings, and so influential that characters wholly based on him still pepper our popular culture.

In order to protect Havelok from further harm, Grim and his wife fled to England for a better hope. Fortunately, Godard was fooled and the family set up comfortably at the feet of new waters. Already a fisherman, the location was perfect for Grim to continue his trade. Despite countless challenges and difficulties, it’s incredible that fish is still associated worldwide with the little spot he found in the shadow of the Humber.

Eventually ending up in Lincoln, the adult Havelok enters the history of another town too. In a different legend, his kingly heritage is proved beyond all doubt by a shotput competition. Havelok’s performance – if it ever took place at all – must have been quite something to behold, resulting in an instant reputation that he was the “Strongest Man in England”.

As if that weren’t enough of an accolade, his victory won him the hand of Princess Goldborough – the much-loved adopted daughter of Godrich, Earl of Cornwall, who took care of Goldborough and England alike following the death of King Athelwold. The very same stone thrown by Havelok is even thought to still hide within Lincoln Castle – tying two of Lincolnshire’s key towns together through one ambitious figure.

Remembering his roots, at least as far back as he could, Havelok returned to Grimsby with his new wife. As far as he knew, he was nothing more than Havelok – perhaps the country’s strongest man, but certainly not of royal blood. Yet, as the newlywed couple shared their first night in the town together, his destiny once again shone through the same light from his sleeping mouth.

Adding to a prophetic dream of Goldborough’s, the two sought answers from Grim (who still cast his nets among Grimbarian waves). After hearing of his highborn background, and being able to prove his bloodline, Havelok was finally able to take the mantle of Denmark’s rightful king. In tandem, Godrich stepped down from his role as England’s ruler, allowing Goldborough to become queen in his stead. Thus, thanks to the good-hearted instincts of a single fisherman, two great houses came together as one – in spite of the oceans and evil that stood in their way.

Just how much truth there is to the spiralling story of Havelok the Dane, and his Grim beginnings, is something we’ve lost to the sands of time. Regardless, the marvellous epic we have should never be misplaced – even if it’s obscured by myth and old gods. Grimbarians should hold on to their founding legend, understand it and revel in the unassuming details that we still see in our town today. At its best, modern Grimsby still has the heart and honour of its historical namesake, who couldn’t fathom harming a child, and our community can certainly be as strong as Havelok himself.


Post written by Lee Tyrell.  

* Featured image source: Grimsby Telegraph.