According to Norwegian-Icelandic tradition, King Harald Finehair (r. 860-940), turned the lawless Viking hubs of Shetland and Orkney into governed domains of Norway by placing the island regions under the control of the family of Jarl Rognvald of More. Like most events in Harald Finehair’s life, the date of the Norwegian takeover of Orkney and Shetland is difficult to place on a timeline, with dates often having a margin of error spanning decades. As told by the Icelandic sagas, King Harald did not turn his gaze toward the British Isles until he crushed all Norwegian resistance against his rule in the Battle of Hafrsfjord, which has been dated anywhere from 872 to 900. By the time Harald Finehair was succeeded by his son, Eirik Bloodaxe, around 940, several jarls had come and gone in Orkney. The sagas claim that Jarl Sigurd was the first ruler of Orkney, and he was succeeded by two short-lived jarls. There was apparently a brief period when Danish Vikings edged their way back into the region, but Jarl Einar I (a son of Rognvald) reclaimed Orkney for Norway. Einar was said to have lived a long life, but he likely died well before Eirik Bloodaxe came to power.
Around 945, Eirik Bloodaxe was forced to flee Norway when his popular and well-connected brother, Haakon the Good, made a successful bid for the Norwegian throne. Eirik Bloodaxe made the best of his exile and sailed to the British Isles, where he became king of Northumbria around 947 or 948. While there, he allied himself with Orkney, which was reportedly ruled at that time by three sons of the late Jarl Einar. Two of the three sons, Arnkl and Erlend, supposedly became Eirik’s frequent companions, and they were said to have died alongside Eirik Bloodaxe after having been ambushed at Stainmore in 954.
After the death of Eirik Bloodaxe, his wife, Gunnhild, uprooted her family from Northumbria and sailed to the friendlier shores of Orkney. The last son of Einar, Jarl Thorfinn Skullcleaver, allowed Gunnhild’s family to take control of Orkney and Shetland for a while, but the late King Eirik’s ambitious scions eventually relocated back to Scandinavia and harassed Haakon the Good from a base in Denmark. Yet, before Gunnhild and her sons departed from Orkney, they rewarded Jarl Thorfinn for his hospitality by arranging for his son, Arnfinn, to marry Eirik Bloodaxe’s daughter, Ragnhild. According to the Orkneyinga Saga, this marriage would cause a wave of bloodshed to crash over the ruling family of Orkney.
Thorfinn Skullcleaver was said to have five sons, and while infighting over who would inherit the jarldom may have developed naturally between the sons, the Orkneyinga Saga placed the blame on the scheming of Ragnhild Eiriksdotter. According to the saga, Ragnhild murdered her husband, Arnfinn (presumably Thorfinn’s heir), and instead married Thorfinn’s next eldest son, Havard. After Thorfinn Skullcleaver died, Havard became the new jarl, but his brothers and cousins did not respect his claim to the title. As the saga presents the story, Ragnhild then used her wit and good looks to weave the nobles of Orkney around her will. She supposedly convinced one of the new jarl’s nephews, curiously known as Einar Buttered-Bread, to ambush and kill Jarl Havard. Another of the late jarl’s nephews, known as Einar Hard-Mouth, allegedly also fell to Ragnhild’s charm and killed Buttered-Bread on her command. Meanwhile, Ragnhild Eiriksdotter reportedly married a third son of Thorfinn Skullcleaver, this time called Ljot, and she helped her new husband become the next jarl.
As had happened with the last husband of Ragnhild, other nobles of Orkney did not respect the authority of the jarl. Ljot’s nephew, Einar Hard-Mouth, launched a lack-luster coup attempt and was executed after the conspiracy ended in failure. Ljot’s younger brother, Skuli, however, posed a much more dangerous threat. Skuli sailed to Scotland, where he cultivated some support among the Scots. With a large band of warriors, Skuli returned to Orkney and challenged his brother. Jarl Ljot, however, won the battle and chased his brother all the way back to Scotland. According to the Orkneyinga Saga, Ljot and Skuli continued to battle it out in the then Norwegian-controlled region of Caithness, where Skuli was killed and Ljot was mortally wounded.
After fighting Skuli and the Scots in Caithness, Ljot was said to have returned to Orkney and died of his wounds soon after. His brother, Hlodvir—the last remaining son of Thorfinn Skullcleaver –became the next jarl. Unlike his brothers, Arnfinn, Havard and Ljot, Jarl Hlodvir made the wise decision to distance himself from Ragnhild Eiriksdotter. He instead married Eithne, a daughter of an Irish king, and lived long enough to die peacefully in his bed. After the ascendance of Hlodvir, no further record of Ragnhild was kept, leading many to believe she lost all influence in Orkney or died.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (Image of Gunnhild being told of Eirik Bloodaxe’s death, by Christian Krohg (1852–1925), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- Heimskringla, by Snorri Sturluson and translated by Lee Hollander. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1964, 2018.
- Orkneyinga Saga, written anonymously approximately c. 1200, translated by Hermann Pálsson and Paul Edwards. New York: Penguin Classics, 1981.
- The Saga of the People of Laxardal and Bolli Bollason’s Tale, written in 13th-century Iceland, translated by Keneva Kunz. New York: Penguin Classics, 2008.