The Peculiar Poisoning of Jarl Harald Smooth-Tongue


The 12th century was a tumultuous time for the nobles of Orkney. At the beginning of the century, King Magnus III “Barefoot” reasserted the power of the Norwegian crown over the islands, yet, upon his death in 1103, the jarls of Orkney regained some of their autonomy. The Heimskringla of Snorri Sturluson (c. 1179-1241) and the anonymous Orkneyinga Saga (published around 1200) provided names of the jarls who were said to have ruled Orkney before and after Magnus. According to those aforementioned sources, the sons of the late King Magnus III appointed a certain Jarl Hakon Paulsson to rule in Orkney. Jarl Hakon was said to have executed his cousin, Saint Magnus, in 1117 in order to maintain sole rule over the islands. Not long after that event, Jarl Hakon died and power in Orkney passed to his two sons, Harald Smooth-Tongue and Paul (or Pál) the Silent. Yet, like their father, the siblings were not keen on sharing power.

Harald and Paul were apparently half-brothers, and while Paul’s mother remains unknown, the Orkneyinga Saga did name Harald Smooth-Tongue’s supposed mother. Harald was said to have been born to Helga Moddansdottir, a woman from a prominent family in Caithness, Scotland. Helga reportedly had a sister named Frakokk, who was said to have traveled to Orkney sometime after King David I became king of the Scots in 1124. Frakokk joined Helga in the court of Jarl Harald Smooth-Tongue, and, according to the Orkneyinga Saga, Harald put great trust in their counsel.

Around the time of Frakokk’s supposed arrival in Orkney, the divide between Jarl Harald and Jarl Paul was reaching a breaking point. One of Paul’s staunchest allies, Thorkel Sumarlidason, was reportedly assassinated and the rival factions of the jarls were nearing open war. Peace, however, was said to have been maintained by mutual friends of the two rulers. The jarls even allegedly pledged to work on improving their sibling relationship by spending Christmases together.

During an unknown year, Harald Smooth-Tongue reportedly announced that he would host a Christmas feast on his estate at Ophir and that Jarl Paul was invited. Harald’s mother, Helga, and his aunt, Frakokk, were allegedly still present in Orkney at the time and, according to the Orkneyinga Saga, they spent the days leading up to Christmas by feverishly sewing a magnificent snow-white robe, which was lined with golden thread. As the story goes, this was a special gift that they wanted to present to a certain rival jarl during the upcoming Christmas feast.

In a greatly embellished (or perhaps purely fictitious) section from the Orkneyinga Saga, Jarl Harald Smooth-Tongue discovered the luxurious robe sometime after it was completed. He asked his mother and aunt about the garment, and they quickly responded that it was not for him, but for his brother, Paul. Yet, Harald coveted that white and gold robe, and he was determined to wear it at all costs. The young jarl haughtily marched over to the robe and began unfolding it, and would have completed the task if his mother had not snatched the gift away. The Orkneyinga Saga continued the peculiar scene:

“The Jarl snatched it back and was about to put it on when the sisters pulled off their bonnets, tore their hair and said that if he put on the garment his life would be at risk. Though they were both in tears he didn’t let that stop him, but no sooner was the garment upon his back than his flesh began to quiver and he began to suffer terrible agony. He had to go to bed and not long after that he died” (Orkneyinga Saga, chapter 55).

And so died Jarl Harald Smooth-Tongue, or, at least, that is how the Orkneyinga Saga portrayed his death. Whatever the case, whether the jarl’s death was a nefarious plot gone wrong, an assassination, or simply of natural causes, it followed that Jarl Paul the Silent emerged as the sole ruler of Orkney. Yet, Paul similarly did not live happily ever after. Around 1137, Paul the Silent mysteriously disappeared and was succeeded by Rognvald Kali (read about that HERE).

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (A scene of King Haakon the Good of Norway by Peter Nicolai Arbo (1831–1892), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).



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