In the year 1030, Rognvald Brusason, son of Jarl Brusi of Orkney, fought on the side of King Olaf II of Norway (Saint Olaf) at the Battle of Stiklestad. Rognvald had first joined Olaf’s retinue as a political hostage, meant to keep his father in line, but he grew to become a well-respected and trusted member of the king’s court. Unfortunately, Saint Olaf was killed during the battle, but Rognvald was credited with saving the slain king’s half-brother, a fifteen-year-old future king who would come to be known as Harald the Ruthless. Rognvald, Harald and other supporters of the late Saint Olaf fled to the lands of the Kievan Rus. Harald went on to join the Varangian Guard in service to the emperors of Constantinople, while Rognvald became a respected mercenary working under the kings of Kiev. Magnus, a son of Saint Olaf, was also present with the Rus. When Magnus “the Good” was invited back to Norway to become king in 1035, Rognvald Brusason followed him back to the kingdom and became a close acquaintance of the king.
While staying in Kiev or upon his return to Norway, Rognvald discovered that his father, Brusi, had died and that Rognvald’s uncle, Jarl Thorfinn, had claimed Brusi’s land for himself. According to the Orkneyinga Saga, the Jarls of Orkney not only ruled their title’s namesake, but also administered Shetland and Caithness. Jarl Thorfinn was also reportedly expanding his influence into the Hebrides at that time. Once King Magnus was firmly back in control of Norway, Rognvald brought up the topic of Orkney and asked the king to help him claim his inheritance from Jarl Thorfinn. King Magnus agreed to help, naming Rognvald as a jarl of Orkney, as well giving him a small fleet of three ships.
Inheritance and division of rule had long been a tense issue in the jarldom of Orkney. During the reign of Saint Olaf, the jarldom had been divided into thirds. According to the Orkneyinga Saga, Jarl Brusi (Rognvald’s father) ruled one-third of the jarldom, Jarl Thorfinn ruled another third, and the last third belonged to the Norwegian crown. The kings of Norway, however, gave their own third to the jarl of their choice, making that chosen jarl of Orkney dominant in the region. Saint Olaf reportedly chose Jarl Brusi as his governor of the royal third in Orkney, yet Jarl Thorfinn was given control of the royal third when King Canute sent Saint Olaf into exile in 1028. In keeping with the tradition of Norwegian kings giving control of their third of Orkney to their favorite jarl, King Magnus sent Rognvald not only with the authority to claim his father’s land, but appointed him as administrator of the royal third, as well.
Jarl Thorfinn was oddly calm about his nephew claiming two-thirds of the jarldom—the bitter news was made sweeter by the realization that Caithness and the land he was conquering in the Hebrides would remain in his sole possession. Therefore, Jarl Thorfinn allowed Rognvald to take possession of two-thirds of Orkney and Shetland without a fight. He only asked that Jarl Rognvald send reinforcements to help in the conquest of the Hebrides. After reaching their agreement, the two jarls of Orkney were able to coexist for nearly a decade.
According to the Orkneyinga Saga, a powerful Norwegian chieftain called Kalf Arnason fled from King Magnus and found shelter with Jarl Thorfinn around the time that King Hardecanute ruled England (r. 1040-1042). The arrival of Kalf, who had with him a modest fleet of six large ships, apparently made Jarl Thorfinn rethink the distribution of power in Orkney. Thorfinn sent a messenger to his nephew, demanding control of the royal third of the islands. When Rognvald received the message and heard that his uncle was mustering forces in Scotland and the Hebrides to enforce his demands, he decided to flee back to Norway in order to ask for help.
King Magnus agreed to aid his favored jarl and gave Rognvald a fleet of large ships. The king also handed him a pardon to give to Kalf Arnason, which stated that Kalf’s estates in Norway would be restored to him if he supported Rognvald’s claims in Orkney. With the king’s backing, Rognvald sailed to Shetland, where he recruited more troops, and then finally returned to Orkney. Upon the jarl’s return, King Magnus’ letter was sent to Kalf Arnason and Rognvald received a reply that Kalf had accepted the offer. Emboldened by the news, Rognvald set sail toward Scotland with a reported fleet of thirty large ships and an unknown amount of smaller supporting vessels. Kalf Arnason accompanied him with six sizable ships of his own.
Before Rognvald could reach Scotland, he was intercepted by his uncle. According to the Orkneyinga Saga, Jarl Thorfinn had raised a formidable fleet of sixty ships, although they were smaller than the ones provided to Rognvald by King Magnus. The two seaborne forces met near Roberry, in southern Orkney, and almost immediately a battle erupted. Rognvald’s large ships were said to have been very effective against the smaller ones possessed by Thorfinn, yet the old jarl’s ships had an advantage of their own—Thorfinn’s smaller ships could easily be pulled to shore to escape danger and then just as easily be pushed back to sea.
The battle initially favored Rognvald. He even forced Thorfinn’s flagship to retreat to the beach. Yet, something was amiss—Kalf Arnason’s forces were loitering and had not committed to the battle. After Rognvald’s fleet had been lured toward shore, Kalf Arnason finally joined the battle, but he did not follow the prearranged plan. The rogue Norwegian chieftain instead led his six ships against a weak point in Rognvald’s fleet. With Kalf joining the battle on his side, Jarl Thorfinn rallied his smaller ships for a renewed attack. The combined onslaught from Thorfinn and Kalf reportedly caused many of the ships on loan from King Magnus to flee the battle. As the Norwegian ships had made up the bulk of his thirty heavy ships, Jarl Rognvald consequently lost the most important segment of his fleet right when he needed it most. With the core of his fleet on the run, Rognvald decided to retreat. He sailed all the way back to Norway, where a sympathetic King Magnus gave him shelter.
Despite the defeat, Jarl Rognvald was not ready to give up. Even though Thorfinn now claimed all of the Orkney jarldom, Rognvald sailed back home in a single ship during winter. As conventional warfare had failed, he decided to try something different—assassination. As the account of the event is told in a saga, it is unsurprising that Rognvald chose to use the most prominent method of murder found in the Icelandic sagas. He supposedly sneaked over to Thorfinn’s house during the night and set it on fire. Rognvald, for his part, was said to have let the women and slaves who were in the home leave in peace, yet he was content to let Thorfinn and other warriors trapped inside burn. As the structure collapsed into a heap of embers, Rognvald was convinced that his uncle was dead. Yet, Thorfinn had escaped the assassination attempt by reportedly jumping out of a window.
In 1045 or 1046, during the cheerful days approaching Christmastime, Rognvald sailed to Papa Stronsay in order to acquire malt for a Christmas ale. As night approached, he decided to stay there for the night. Unbeknownst to him, Thorfinn was very much alive and was tracking his every movement, never straying far from the jarl. After nightfall, Thorfinn and a band of warriors surrounded the building where Rognvald was staying and they barricaded the exits. In front of the main doorway, they placed a pile of wood that was too high for an average man to vault over. With everything in place, Thorfinn set fire to the structure. He offered the same terms as his nephew, allowing women, children, servants and slaves to leave unharmed. Thorfinn’s warriors helped these spared people climb over the wooden barricade at the doorway.
According to the Orkneyinga saga, the warriors were baffled by someone in the building that was dressed in the robes of a priest. The man was tall, strong and had gold-colored hair. In one arm, the priestly figure was carrying a small fur-covered object. With the other arm, to the amazement of the crowd, the priest vaulted himself over the wooden barricade at the door. Once outside of the burning building the strong priest did not say a word to the warriors besieging the house, but instead quickly sped off into the darkness.
As the story goes, it took only moments for Thorfinn to realize that there was something off about the priest. Convinced that the man was Rognvald in disguise, Thorfinn sent his most trusted men to chase after the odd figure.
According to the account of the saga, the strong priest was indeed Rognvald in disguise. After darting off into the darkness, he made his way down to the rocky shoreline. He successfully evaded his pursuers and needed only to find help or, at least, locate a boat so that he could escape. Yet, something unfortunately gave his position away to the pursuers.
As Thorfinn and the warriors besieging the house had seen, Rognvald was carrying something small and furry in his arms as he fled from the building. This was apparently a beloved lap-dog which Rognvald could not bear to leave behind in a burning building. Tragically, the compassion that the jarl showed the dog proved to be his undoing. Even though Rognvald had successfully made his way down to the shore without making any recognizable tracks or sounds, the dog did not possess the same sense of stealth. To Rognvald’s horror, the dog innocently began to bark into the darkness. With the yapping dog giving away his every move, Rognvald was quickly captured and killed. With his nephew dead, Jarl Thorfinn gained control over the whole jarldom and continued to rule until he died of natural causes in 1064.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (An image of Lancelot from BL Royal 14 E III, f. 146, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and picryl.com).
- Orkneyinga Saga, written anonymously approximately c. 1200, translated by Hermann Pálsson and Paul Edwards. New York: Penguin Classics, 1981.
- Heimskringla, by Snorri Sturluson and translated by Lee Hollander. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1964, 2018.