Saint Olaf (King Olaf II Haraldsson of Norway) was not a typical saint. Before becoming a supporter and spreader of Christianity, he was also a Viking and a conqueror who, around 1015, proclaimed himself king of an independent Norway. In the fifteen years prior to Saint Olaf’s bid for power, Norway had been divvied up between jarls who paid homage either to Sweden or Denmark. Saint Olaf, the battle-hardened and experienced Viking, beat these jarls into submission or exile, and toured his newly won kingdom, from region to region, forcing out foreign tax collectors and making sure all sections of Norway knew that they had a new king. Many regions submitted willingly to Olaf’s dominion, some needed coercion, while others wanted help ridding themselves of Swedish or Danish agents before they could openly join Saint Olaf’s cause. Of that latter category was a community in the southeast borderlands of Norway. This group, according to the Icelandic historian Snorri Sturluson (c. 1179-1241), lived in a location called Ranríki, which was at the time dominated by a Swedish nobleman by the name of Eilíf the Gaut. Saint Olaf, in order to gain the support of Ranríki, would embark on a formidable campaign of espionage, infiltration, and finally assassination.
When Saint Olaf arrived in the vicinity of Ranríki, he apparently found the inhabitants of the region split between those who wanted to remain under Swedish influence and those who wished to join Olaf. There was reportedly enough sympathy for Sweden in the region, or at least fear of the Swedish nobleman Eilíf the Gaut, that the local faction in favor of Norwegian independence was hesitant to voice open support for Saint Olaf. A region with such a split in allegiance could have been a problem for Saint Olaf if he had wandered blindly into that political quagmire. Fortunately for him, he had an effective system of spies and informants. Using those subtle assets, Saint Olaf was able to discover and contact Brynjólf “the Camel,” a leadership figure among the locals who were in favor of separating from Swedish influence. Eilíf the Gaut, in contrast, apparently did not know that Brynjólf supported Norwegian independence, much less that the man had made contact with Saint Olaf.
The secret of Brynjólf the Camel’s pro-independence sympathies was pivotal to Saint Olaf’s mission in Ranríki. Saint Olaf reportedly sent with Brynjólf twelve special warriors, who were led by a certain Thórir the Long. These warriors were said to have disguised themselves as farmers and, when Eilíf the Gaut began rallying his supporters in response to Saint Olaf’s arrival in the region, Brynjólf and the disguised agents infiltrated the pro-Swedish militia. As Brynjólf the Camel and Thórir the Long were both capable men, Eilíf the Gaut brought them into his inner circle and allowed them close access to his person. At this point, Saint Olaf’s agents could have assassinated poor, unsuspecting Eilíf at any opportune time. Yet, Saint Olaf apparently wanted the final, decisive blow to occur in a public and showy event.
As the story goes, Brynjólf the Camel and Thórir the Long were able to convince Eilíf to meet with Saint Olaf near a cliff for peace talks. Saint Olaf reportedly took up position atop the defensible cliff, while Eilíf the Gaut arrived with his militia of farmers, as well as a smaller loyal band of warriors from Sweden, and set up on the beach below the steep slope. Although the cliffside separated the two forces, both camps were within speaking (or shouting) distance, allowing for negotiations to occur. Saint Olaf, or his marshal, opened up the talks by delivering a speech, saying the typical things that would be expected if they were truly there to seek peace. When the speech was over, Eilíf the Gaut readied himself to deliver his own speech.
Unfortunately, Eilíf reportedly did not get a chance to utter a single line. According to Snorri Sturluson, “Eilíf arose and started to speak. In the same instant Thórir the Long stood up, drew his sword, and struck Eilíf on the neck so that his head flew off” (Heimskringla, Saint Olaf’s Saga, chapter 61). When Eilíf the Gaut was assassinated, Brynjólf the Camel and his pro-independence comrades showed their allegiance, attacking the Swedish warriors who had accompanied Eilíf to the meeting. Before long, the startled band off Swedes fled, leaving behind a shocked militia of Sweden-sympathetic farmers to the mercy of Saint Olaf and Brynjólf the Camel. As the story goes, Saint Olaf calmed the confused masses and convinced them to submit to him without any further bloodshed.
Brynjólf’s role in the successful operation in Ranríki did not go unnoticed by Saint Olaf. The saint-king reportedly gave the man a gold-inlaid sword as a gift, as well as a large manorial estate called Vettaland. The two reportedly remained life-long friends.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Saga of Olaf illustration, by Christian Krohg (1852–1925). [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- Heimskringla, by Snorri Sturluson and translated by Lee Hollander. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1964, 2018.