Around 1016, King Olaf II (Saint Olaf, r. 1015-1028) of Norway pulled together a fleet in preparation for the upcoming sea battle of Nesjar against his rival, Jarl Sweyn Hákonsson. It was a modest armada, reportedly numbering only seven or eight ships at the beginning, of which only three could be classified as warships. Before the day of the battle, Saint Olaf would recruit more ships and crews, yet his force was said to have still remained far fewer than that of Jarl Sweyn. What Olaf’s force lacked in quantity, it made up for in quality—before barging into Norwegian politics, Olaf had spent years as a Viking, giving him ample battle experience and enough treasure to equip his most trusted men with the day’s latest armors and weaponry. As such, even though Saint Olaf’s fleet in 1016 was not the largest sea force in the north, it was still a formidable fleet that Olaf was proud to call his own.
With the fleet formed, Olaf picked out which vessel was to be his flagship, but no ship, especially a flagship, could be complete without a figurehead adorning the prow. In this regard, Saint Olaf reportedly decided to give the ship a personal touch. Instead of commissioning an artisan, Saint Olaf was said to have procured a set of woodworking tools for himself and promptly set about carving his ideal figurehead with his own hands. The historian Snorri Sturluson (c. 1179-1241), claimed that Olaf “was skilled and had a sure eye for all kinds of handicraft work,” so the final product must have been an admirable piece of art (Heimskringla, Saint Olaf’s Saga, 3). Interestingly, out of all the fearsome creatures he could have chosen to depict, the king decided to adorn his prow with a simple kingly head. When the figurehead was complete, Saint Olaf gave his flagship the unimaginative name of Man’s Head. The regal wooden visage apparently became the next big ship-fashion trend, and, before long, other chieftains put in orders for their own ships to be decorated with various wooden faces. Nevertheless, Olaf’s nautical tastes would eventually change. He later had a new flagship built, which he called the Vísund (or the Bison).
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Construction of longships, painted by Nicholas Roerich (1874–1947), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- Heimskringla, by Snorri Sturluson and translated by Lee Hollander. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1964, 2018.