Tryggvi Olafsson was a grandson of the first King of all Norway, Harald Finehair (ruled approximately 860-940). Tryggvi’s cousins, the sons of Eirik Bloodaxe (r. 940-945), conquered Norway around 961, after they dealt a mortal wound to King Hákon the Good (r. 946-961). Yet, even though the sons of Eirik were proven warriors and had royal blood in their veins, Tryggvi and other nobles worked together to resist the brothers. Jarl Hákon Sigurdsson of the Trondheim region led an open rebellion against the sons of Eirik after his father was assassinated in 963 and Tryggvi was one of the Norwegian chieftains that lent the rebels his support. Unfortunately, supporting Jarl Hákon put a target on Tryggvi’s back and he was ultimately assassinated by the sons of Eirik around 968. According to tradition, Tryggvi’s wife, Astrid, was pregnant at the time of her husband’s death. When the grim news arrived, she immediately fled from Norway. Her son, Olaf Tryggvason, was reportedly born while she was on the run.
As told in the sagas, Astrid and her newborn child escaped to Sweden, where they stayed until young Olaf was three years old. Yet, when agents of the sons of Eirik came looking for them, Astrid decided to relocate to Novgorod or Kiev, where Vladimir the Great (prince of Novgorod r. 970-972 and Grand Prince of Kiev 980-1015) was ascending to power. With this in mind, Astrid and her young son boarded a merchant ship and set sail for the lands of the Kievan Rus. Nevertheless, according to legend, the merchant ship never reached its destination.
Astrid and Olaf were reportedly thrown into chaos even before they reached mainland Europe. As the story goes, Vikings or raiders attacked the merchant ship somewhere in the Baltic Sea. The traders were overpowered and the assailants boarded the ship, seizing the cargo and passengers, alike. According to the sagas, Olaf Tryggvason and his mother were captured and separated. Astrid was hauled away to some unknown grisly fate, while young Olaf was shipped over to Estonia, where he was sold into slavery. The pirates apparently bartered him in exchange for a goat and then he was supposedly traded once more for a good cloak. According to the tale, Olaf Tryggvason remained a slave in Estonia for about six years, mainly working as an enslaved farmhand. Thankfully, Olaf was apparently discovered and freed by his uncle, Sigurd Eiriksson, who fulfilled Astrid’s wishes by bringing Olaf to the domain of Vladimir the Great.
Whether or not this is truly how Olaf Tryggvason spent his childhood, the real historical figure certainly lived his early years in exile from Norway and eventually became quite the adventurer. Anglo-Saxon accounts of Olaf’s Viking raids in Britain are some of the first definitive accounts of his burgeoning military career. He somehow became a companion of King Sweyn Forkbeard of Denmark and accompanied the Danish king on great Viking expeditions against England in 991 and 994. Finally, in 995, Olaf Tryggvason returned to Norway and usurped power from Jarl Hákon Sigurdsson (who had by then defeated the sons of Eirik with the help of the Danes). King Olaf Tryggvason ruled Norway from 995 until his death in 1000. As for Olaf’s mother, Astrid, the sagas claim she was eventually found in an Estonian slave market by a certain Lothin of Vik, who bought her freedom and brought Astrid back to Norway, eventually making her his bride.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (A depiction of a scene from the saga of Olaf, by Halfdan Egedius (1877–1899), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- Heimskringla, by Snorri Sturluson and translated by Lee Hollander. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1964, 2018.
- The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle translated by Benjamin Thorpe in 1861 and republished by Cambridge University Press, 2012.