After years of mercenary work and Viking activity in Britain and Spain, an ambitious Norwegian nobleman named Olaf Haraldsson sailed back to his homeland. His return came in 1014 or 1015, and, at the time, Norway was ripe for the picking—the Danish King Sweyn Forkbeard had died in 1014 and the Dane-backed Norwegian Jarl Eirik Hakonarson (who had dominated Norway since 1000) traveled to Britain in order to help Sweyn Forkbeard’s successor, Canute the Great, maintain power in England. Jarl Eirik had left behind his son, Hakon Eiriksson, to hold the fort in Norway, but Jarl Hakon was unprepared for Olaf Haraldsson’s return, much less his immediate bid to seize the throne of Norway.
According to Norwegian-Icelandic tradition, Olaf Haraldsson crossed from the British Isles to the middle of Norway with a band of over 200 well-equipped warriors on two ships. The island of Selje was reportedly where he made landfall. While there, he must have sent out spies or reconnected with his family’s intelligence network, for Olaf Haraldsson learned the exact location of Jarl Hakon Eiriksson, as well as the route that the jarl would be sailing in his ship.
At that time, Olaf’s two-ship fleet reportedly was not very intimidating, for the nobleman was said to have exchanged his warships for the most dismissive of merchant vessels before leaving Britain. As such, Olaf Haraldsson apparently believed that Jarl Hakon Eiriksson would underestimate, or completely ignore, Olaf’s force if the two should meet at sea. With this assumption in mind, Olaf Haraldsson scanned the waterways along Jarl Hakon’s predicted path to pinpoint an ideal spot for a confrontation. He reportedly chose the narrow stretch of water between the island of Atleö and the Norwegian mainland as the place to enact his plan.
When Olaf arrived at his destination, he was said to have put one of his merchant ships next to the island and the other by the mainland beach, aligned but at opposite ends of the waterway. Each ship dropped something into the water that sank like an anchor. With everything in place, Olaf’s crews simply waited for the jarl to appear.
As the story goes, Jarl Hakon Eiriksson rowed into the waterway with a fully-manned warship, unaware that Olaf Haraldsson had returned to Norway, much less that the man was just upstream. As Olaf had predicted, the jarl apparently paid little attention to the two merchant vessels that were loitering at opposite ends of the narrows. Without taking any precautions, the jarl’s ship continued through the channel, eventually rowing right between Olaf’s two ships. At that very moment, so the story goes, the crews on Olaf’s ships used windlasses to quickly pull up the lines they had dropped into the water. As it happened, what they had dropped had not been anchors or fishing nets. Instead, what they hauled up was much more nefarious—both ships reportedly winched out of the water a separate end of a single thick cable.
The cable reportedly caught the keel of Hakon Eiriksson’s ship and managed to lift or twist the end the hull just enough to flood the prow of Hakon’s ship with water. Before long, the ship sank or overturned, sending the jarl and his guards into the water. With his plan successful, Olaf Haraldsson rowed over to the shipwreck and fished the soggy jarl out of the depths. As the story goes, Olaf spared Hakon Eiriksson’s life in exchange for the jarl renouncing his authority in Norway. Hakon Eiriksson reportedly accepted the deal, and after his ship was hauled back up from the sea, he joined the court of King Canute. As for Olaf, he continued with his plan to become the ruler of Norway, eventually becoming King Olaf II (r. 1015-1018), also known as Saint Olaf.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Ready For The Campaign (The Varangian Sea), by Nicholas Roerich c. 1910, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- Heimskringla, by Snorri Sturluson and translated by Lee Hollander. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1964, 2018.