According to the Orkneyinga Saga (written around 1200), the earldom of Orkney was often co-ruled by multiple jarls. This was made even more complicated during the reign of St. Olaf of Norway (r. 1015-1028), when the Norwegian crown reportedly claimed direct rule of one-third of Orkney. As portrayed in the sagas, the other two-thirds of Orkney was thereafter often ruled by two jarls, who both competed in befriending the Norwegian crown in hopes of gaining the right to administer the king’s portion of Orkney. In some cases, however, a single jarl claimed sole rule over the earldom by outliving or killing his co-rulers. One such person was Jarl Thorfinn Sigurdsson the Mighty (d. 1064), who outlived his brothers and executed a nephew to become sole ruler, although Orkney was once again split among his sons.
If the genealogy of the Orkneyinga Saga is correct, Jarl Paul the Silent was a great-grandson of Thorfinn the mighty. Paul came to power in Orkney sometime after 1117 and shared power with his half-brother, Harald Smooth-Tongue, until Harald mysteriously died at an unknown time. After Harald Smooth-Tongue’s death, Paul the Silent became sole ruler of Orkney and several members of his family were sent into exile. According to the Orkneyinga Saga, Harald’s son (Erlend), mother (Helga), aunt (Frakokk), and sister (Margaret) were all banished from Orkney or otherwise decided to stay in exile.
Although Jarl Paul the Silent had managed to become sole ruler of Orkney, he had several potential rivals who could claim a piece of the earldom. Two were nephews: the aforementioned Erlend and also Harald Maddadarson, the son of Jarl Paul’s sister, Margaret, and an earl of Atholl. Another threat was Rognvald Kali Kolsson, a Norwegian nobleman who was living the life of a merchant and adventurer. Rognvald Kali was related to the ruling family of Orkney through his mother, Gunnhild, who was a granddaughter of Jarl Thorfinn the Mighty. Rognvald Kali’s uncle was also Jarl Magnus of Orkney, who had been executed by the father of Paul the Silent in 1117.
With his lineage and powerful connections in Norway, Rognvald Kali became the predominant threat to Paul the Silent. King Sigurd the Crusader of Norway (r. 1103-1130) reportedly recognized Rognvald Kali’s claim to a piece of Orkney and elevated him to the rank of jarl around 1129. Before Jarl Rognvald Kali could launch an expedition to Orkney, he was delayed by the death of King Sigurd in 1130 and the chaotic politics of succession. Upon King Sigurd’s death, Norway was divided between the late king’s son, Magnus IV, and a self-proclaimed half-brother of Sigurd named Harald IV. Rognvald Kali joined the camp of the latter and did not return his gaze to Orkney until after Harald IV defeated, captured and blinded Magnus IV in 1135.
After receiving King Harald’s blessing, Rognvald Kali set off for Shetland with five or six ships. He also reached out to the nobles that had been exiled by Paul the Silent, such as the late Harald Smooth-Tongue’s sister and aunt, who were both reportedly powerful women in Scotland through marriage. These women were said to have agreed to help Rognvald Kali and mustered around 12 ships from their domains, which they sent off to Orkney. Yet, the target of all these conspirators was no pushover. Jarl Paul the Silent was said to have raised his own fleet of 17 ships and quickly put to use the tried-and-true strategy of divide and conquer. Jarl Paul defeated the ships from Scotland before they could unite with Rognvald Kali’s force. He then sailed for Shetland, where he defeated the Norwegian ships with a surprise assault. Rognvald Kali survived the attack and reportedly returned to Norway with the help of some merchants.
Around 1136 or 1137, Rognvald Kali returned to Shetland with a reported fleet of 14 ships. This time, the invaders took more time to plan their strategy. One such ploy was to target Jarl Paul’s network of signal fires set up on various islands in Orkney. Rognvald Kali had some of his ships sail up to the islands to trigger the lighting of these signal fires, then retreat without causing any damage. After repeatedly triggering the signal fires over a long period of time, the annoyed men responsible for igniting the signals began to neglect their duties. Taking advantage of this negligence, Rognvald Kali successfully landed his forces on the island of Westray, in northern Orkney, and did so without any signal fires being lit.
Before any bloodshed occurred between Rognvald Kali and Paul the Silent, the local bishop arranged a truce while the different factions negotiated the fate of Orkney. The truce was accepted by both parties, but Jarl Paul’s enemies used it to their own advantage. According to the Orkneyinga Saga, Paul’s sister, Margaret, hired Svein Asleifarson, one of the ablest men then living in the Scandinavian-controlled regions of the British Isles, and sent him on a mission to abduct Jarl Paul the Silent. Svein and the kidnappers successfully infiltrated Orkney and captured Jarl Paul in 1137. They did such a masterful job that no one in Orkney knew what happened next.
The Orkneyinga Saga provided two or three possible outcomes. One version was that Svein Asleifarson brought Jarl Paul to Margaret in Atholl, where she convinced her brother to freely give up his claim to Orkney so that her son, Harald Maddadarson, could become a jarl of Orkney. In this cheerful ending, Paul the Silent lived a quiet life in exile, possibly in a monastery. Yet, the author of the saga also wrote that Jarl Paul may have been imprisoned for life or executed by his captors. With no clear answer, the saga concluded its account of Paul’s life with an eerie statement: “We can’t say which comes nearer the truth, but this much is known, that he never came back to Orkney and he never gained power in Scotland” (Orkneyinga Saga, section 75). With the timely disappearance of Paul the Silent, Rognvald Kali (r. 1137-1158) claimed sole rule over the islands. Yet, not long afterwards, he accepted Margaret’s son, Harald Maddadarson (r. 1139-1206), as a co-ruler of Orkney.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Social media crop of a Viking Funeral by Carl Schmidt (1858-1923), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- 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.