King Olaf Tryggvason (r. 995-1000) was not a particularly patient or compromising monarch in his efforts to make Christianity the state religion of Norway. He often brought overwhelming military power to public assemblies and forced his people to convert at sword point, then took hostages to keep them in line, and smashed representations of the Norse gods for good measure before moving on to the next pagan region. As bad often attracts bad, it is not surprising that other violent church figures found their way into the court of Olaf Tryggvason. In particular, a priest named Thangbrand was known to have been a chaotic and turbulent figure.
Thangbrand’s early history has been lost to time, but he was said to have been of Saxon origin. Njal’s Saga(c. 13th century) even claimed that he was the son of a certain Count Willibald of Saxony. Whatever his origin story, Thangbrand eventually traveled to Norway and became a court priest of Olaf Tryggvason. In Norwegian circles, Thangbrand gained a reputation of being admirable in study, but abysmal in social settings. The Icelandic historian, Snorri Sturluson (c. 1179-1241), summed up Thangbrand’s reputation as, “He was a man of great overbearing and much inclined to violence, but otherwise a good cleric and a brave fellow” (Heimskringla, Oláfs saga Tryggvasonar, chapter 73). Although Thangbrand did have some positive qualities, his negative quirks were too much for some members of the Norwegian court to bear—the king included. Therefore, King Olaf Tryggvason apparently concluded that the brave and ruthless Thangbrand was the perfect candidate to send off on a missionary trip to Iceland.
To the relief of Norwegian courtiers, Thangbrand set sail for Iceland in 997. A warrior named Gudleif (or Gudlaug) Arason was the priest’s companion on the mission, and, according to Njal’s Saga, they sailed on a ship called the Bison. The missionaries eventually landed in Álptafjord of the Eastfjord District of Iceland. There, Thangbrand continued his educated, but belligerent, ways. The Laxdæla Saga claimed, “He preached the Christian faith with both fair words and dire punishments” (section 41). He did succeed in converting several significant figures in Iceland, such as Hall of Sida, Gizur the White and Hjalti Skeggjason, yet Thangbrand’s antics created more enemies than friends. The Saxon priest became an extremely unpopular figure on the island, and witty skalds in Iceland started to write unflattering verses at Thangbrand’s expense.
Unfortunately for the Icelanders, the priest was in no way a forgive-and-forget Christian, and he lashed out at the poets in an extremely unpriestly way—murder. Virtually every source on Thangbrand claims that he killed at least two people in his short stay on Iceland. The Islendingabók of Ari the Learned (c. 1068-1148) claimed that Thangbrand killed two or three of the people who lampooned him, while Snorri Sturluson proposed it was three, and the embellished Njal’s Saga alleged that the priest slew at least five people. The skalds, Thorvald Veili and Vetrlidi, were the two victims on which most sources agreed. About those two, Snorri Sturluson wrote, “Thorvald Veili and the skald Vetrlidi composed scurrilous verses about Thangbrand, and he killed both” (Heimskringla, Oláfs saga Tryggvasonar, chapter 73).
As soon as Thangbrand began murdering poets in Iceland—a land prone to bloody feuds at that time—it became no longer safe for him to remain on the island. Assassination plots began to form among the priest’s enemies, and, by 999, Thangbrand decided to flee back to Norway. The same year, Gizur the White and Hjalti Skeggason (both Icelandic converts of Thangbrand) also fled to Norway. The latter of the two Icelanders had outraged his countrymen with a crass poem of his own, one that called the gods Odin and Freyja a pair of dogs.
When Thangbrand reported his failure in Iceland to King Olaf Tryggvason, the monarch did not give up his quest to convert the Icelanders to Christianity. The king quickly sent a second wave of missionaries to Iceland, led by the aforementioned Icelandic exiles. About this second group of proselytizers, Snorri Sturluson wrote, “he [Olaf Tryggvason] sent Gizur the White and Hjalti Skeggjason to Iceland to proclaim Christianity there, and with them a priest called Thormod and several other ordained men, but kept with him as hostages four Icelanders that seemed to him noblest” (Heimskringla, Oláfs saga Tryggvasonar, chapter 95). This second party of missionaries was much more successful and, aided by the fact that the Norwegian king was holding the sons of four prominent chieftains captive, they convinced the Icelanders to accept Christianity by 1000. As for Thangbrand, he apparently did nothing of note after his peculiar trip to Iceland and faded into history.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (A scene depicting King Olaf Tryggvason of Norway, by Peter Nicolai Arbo (1831–1892), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- Heimskringla, by Snorri Sturluson and translated by Lee Hollander. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1964, 2018.
- The Book of Settlements (Sturlubók version) translated by Hermann Pálsson and Paul Edwards. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 1972, 2006.
- Laxdæla saga by an unknown 13th century Icelander, translated by Keneva Kunz. New York: Penguin Classics, 2008.
- Íslendingabók (ed. Jakob Benediktsson) in The Viking Age: A Reader, edited by Angus A. Somerville and R. Andrew McDonald. Ontario: University of Toronto Press, 2010.