Dressed in armour, watching his fleet fall to his Danish rival, King Olaf I Tryggvason of Norway threw himself into the sea, sinking to his death and denying his enemies the pleasure of killing him. The death of Olaf (r. 995 – 1000) at the Battle of Svolder returned the Norwegian crown to Sweyn Forkbeard the king of Denmark (r. 986 – 1014), and the Danish hegemony. The Norwegian crown had fallen under the tenuous control of the Danish Kings c. 971 during the reign of Sweyn’s father, Harald Bluetooth. Thus, when Sweyn seized the throne of Denmark at the expense of his father in 986, he also ostensibly assumed the throne of Norway.
But it was never a personal rule. For over two decades before Olaf broke the Norwegian crown away from Danish overlordship in 995, Norway was ruled by Jarl Haakon with near autonomy from the Danish King, and there is little to indicate that Sweyn was unhappy with this situation upon taking the reins of power. Haakon had originally asserted his autonomy c.975 when Harald sought to forcibly Christianise Norway – conversion was a contentious issue throughout much of Scandinavia, and Haakon resisted, breaking with the Danish King and asserting his loyalty to the Norse Gods. A number of sources, including those most contemporaneous with his reign, assert that Sweyn did not follow in his father’s footsteps and that he, like Haakon, worshipped the Norse deities. This may in fact be intended as slander by later Christian writers, and Sweyn’s reluctance to seek to assert his authority over his Norwegian vassal may have related primarily to the political situation in Denmark after he took the throne in 986, rather than any religious partisanship. However, it remains that after Olaf’s death in 1000, Sweyn returned rule of Norway to Haakon’s sons, the Jarls Eirik and Sweyn Hákonarson, which does indicate some affection on Sweyn’s behalf for the family of Haakon.
Clearly it’s complicated and I am not going to cover five full years of political history in Norway during such a tumultuous period. Rather, I am focusing on Olaf, and those two important years, 995 and 1000 – seeking to establish the conditions that allowed Olaf to rise to the kingship of Norway, and a mere five years later see him comprehensively defeated at Svolder.
So let’s head to the year 995, and a pig-sty in Norway where Jarl Haakon is hiding from the ascendant Olaf, who, outside the pig-sty, is addressing the local farmers and offering a reward for Haakon’s head. It is not going to be a good day for Haakon. In an incident alluded in throughout the Old Norse corpus, but never so lovingly described as in Snorri Sturluson’s Olafs saga Tryggvasonar, Haakon met his fate in that pig-sty. Understandably wary of the threat that loomed over him, Haakon had a restless night, swapping watches with his faithful servant Tormod Kark to guard against those who may seek his life. Toward dawn Haakon finally drifted off to a dream-laden sleep and, as his body thrashed around at the whims of his nightmares, a panicked Kark awoke in fright and slit Haakon’s throat. Thinking quickly, Kark proceeded to behead Haakon’s corpse, taking the prize to King Olaf. However, clearly not understanding the cultural expectations of loyalty in his society, Kark told Olaf how Haakon died when he presented the head and, for his betrayal, Olaf ordered Kark’s execution.
Clearly, being slaughtered in a pig-sty by a slave is a dizzying fall for a man who had ruled Norway with the blessing of the Danish King. In fact, the tableau Snorri paints is so clearly intended to tarnish Haakon’s reputation that it is undoubtedly propaganda. Olafs saga Tryggvasonar is the longest of the sagas in the Heimskringla, and Snorri was an unabashed fan of King Olaf. As I have discussed in an earlier article, Olaf was viewed by later Christianised Scandinavians as a paradigmatic fusion of Christian and Viking ideals, and Snorri was writing around two-centuries after these events. There is no doubt as to Haakon’s paganism, and Snorri therefore portrays the Danish vassal in the worst possible light in contrast to the (brutal) missionary king, Olaf. Further, there are tensions of ethnic identity involved. Snorri was an Icelander who was, at times, the personal guest of the Norwegian court – as such his writings preference Iceland and Norway above other Scandinavian polities and, despite his autonomy, Haakon was a servant of the Danish king. This concern with ethnic origin is most overtly on display in Snorri’s account of the Battle of Svolder. According to Olafs saga Tryggvasonar, as Olaf sailed by the fleets which lay in wait to attack him, he identified the Danish fleet and said ‘I am not afraid of those cowards. There is no courage in the Danes.’ He then identified the Swedish fleet, and of them he said, ‘it would be better for the [Swedes] to be at home licking their sacrificial bowls…’ But when Olaf saw the fleet belonging to Eirik the son of Haakon, Olaf stated ‘…we can expect fierce battle from this force. They are Norwegians, like us.’
Writing in the thirteenth century, Snorri’s religious concerns and his preoccupation with ethnic identity must be suspected of anachronism. It is with the benefit of hindsight that Snorri tells us that ‘the time for heathen worship and heathen worshipers to be condemned’ as he closes the account of Haakon’s rule. As I have detailed in an article on King Cnut, Sweyn’s son, accounts of Sweyn’s apostacy stem from the pages of Adam of Bremen’s eleventh-century History of the Archbishops of Hamburg-Bremen, and likely relate more to Adam’s dissatisfaction with how Sweyn undertook missionary activity, than any reversion by Sweyn to a pagan belief system. In turn, though Olaf seized the Norwegian throne, his legitimacy as an heir to that title, and indeed his own place of birth and upbringing are unclear in the historical record. Though some sense of religious and ethnic identity were undoubtedly a part of what motivated both Olaf and Sweyn, it seems unlikely that they were primary motivators behind events. Rather, we are looking at old-fashioned political intrigue and opportunism.
Olaf’s career before taking the throne of Norway, as far as we can divine from the sparse records of his life, was primarily as a Viking. It seems likely he was at the Battle of Maldon, and that he spent much of his time immediately before his conquest of Norway in Britain and Ireland. Though by this time he was a Christian, Olaf was a reasonably recent convert leading into the events of 995. By that year, Haakon had been in control of Norway for over two decades, and it appears likely that his autocratic rule was wearing on his subjects. It must be remembered that, though Haakon was politically dominant, he was only one among numerous Jarls who likely resented that dominance. Snorri has it that Haakon’s main transgression in the eyes of his subjects was something akin to droit du seigneur, and Olaf drew upon this ire to sweep into power on the back of popular support.
Certainly there is no evidence that Olaf arrived in Norway with a vast army at his back, and some level of popular support seems likely, but that Haakon had a predilection for rape that shifted the face of Scandinavian politics? This seems unlikely – as I have noted, Snorri is deliberate in his character assassination. Nonetheless, it is possible to speculate some truth from the bones of the account. After a twenty-year reign, popular discontent with Haakon’s rule had swelled. He is universally regarded as arrogant and, irrespective of any resistance to the Christianising Danish crown, it remained that his political dominance and nominal vassalage to the Sweyn stood as a barrier to the Norwegians reclaiming their own right to kingship. While there is some confusion as to how Olaf first asserted descent from the Norwegians kings, and how he came to hear of Norway’s discontent with its ruler, there is no doubt that he saw an opportunity. Olaf set Sail for Norway and, for Haakon’s fellow Jarls, the arrival of a young Viking with a well-known reputation and a claim, however spurious, to be descended from Norwegian nobility was too tempting.
I will then bypass both the next five years of Olaf’s rule in Norway, though I have addressed some aspects relating to his policies of coercive conversion elsewhere, and look to the year 1000 and Svolder. I will also dismiss Snorri’s slightly absurd story that it was Sigrid the Haughty brought together Olaf’s enemies in 1000 as vengeance for a slap he gave her when she refused to marry him if it required conversion. It is a nice story, but it fits too neatly into Snorri’s agenda of religious conflict.
We have already noted Snorri’s identification of the presence of Sweyn, the sons of Haakon, and the Swedish king in the fleet that ambushed Olaf at Svolder. Here we can have some faith in Olafs saga Tryggvasona, for the impetus behind this political coalition in opposition Olaf is evident. Upon their father’s defeat, Eirik and Sweyn Hákonarson had fled to the Swedish king’s court to plot their revenge. In turn, Sweyn had lost his hegemony over Norway, a blow to his prestige he could not let stand. While the Swedish king, by assisting the exiles at his court and the Danish king, was placing men in power in neighbouring Norway who would be forever in his debt. It was a natural coalition, the main surprise being that it took four or five years to come together. This was likely a mere matter of logistics. Firstly, Olaf was occupied consolidating his rule in Norway for the first four years of his reign, which would have necessitated aggressive annexation by his enemies – a difficult endeavour. In 1000, Olaf had travelled on campaign with his fleet, allowing an ambush and a single decisive battle. In this case, it was Sweyn and his allies that saw the opportunity, and their roll of the dice was successful, as Olaf, the short-lived king of Norway, stepped into the waves.
So I will leave the complicated world of Scandinavian politics at the turn of the millennium there. Snorri tells us that rumours of Olaf’s survival began immediately after the battle and though, as Snorri notes, he never reclaimed the Norwegian crown, he was reported in some quarters to have ended his days as a pilgrim to Jerusalem. But Olaf’s active afterlife is for another day!
I have used Anglicised versions of names throughout this article. For those interested, I have provided some of the Old Norse names of some of the more important people and places below.
Jarl Haakon – Hákon Sigurðarson
Eirik Hákonarson – Eiríkr Hákonarson
Harald Bluetooth – Haraldr Gormsson
Olaf Tryggvason – Óláfr Tryggvason
Sigrid the Haughty – Sigríðr in Storráða
Sweyn Forkbeard – Sveinn tjúguskegg
Sweyn Hákonarson – Sveinn Hákonarson
Svolder – Svolðr
Tormod Kark – Þormóðr Kark
- Feature image: Halfdan Egedius – Eirikr Hákonarson and his men at Svolder
- Sverre Bagge, Society and Politics in Snorri Sturluson’s Heimskringla, Berkley: University of California Press, 1991.
- Adam of Bremen, History of the Archbishops of Hamburg-Bremen, translated by Francis Tschan, 2nd edn, New York: Columbia University Press, 2002.
- Saxo Grammaticus, Gesta Danorum,edited by Karsten Friis-Jensen and translated by Peter Fisher, 2 vols, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2015.
- Ian Howard, Swein Forkbeard’s Invasions and the Danish Conquest of England, 991-1017, Woodbridge: Boydell, 2003.
- Jónas Kristjánsson, Eddas and Sagas, translated by Peter Foote, Reykjavík: Hið íslenska bókmenntafélag, 2007.
- Snorri Sturluson, Óláfs saga Tryggvasonar, in Heimskringla, translated by Alison Finlay and Anthony Faulkes, 3 vols, vol.1, London: Viking Society for Northern Research, 2011 – 2014, 137 – 233.
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