In 1015, Olaf Haraldsson launched his bid for the throne of Norway, killing, exiling, or otherwise forcing into submission the regional jarls who were beholden to other kings of Scandinavia. By 1016, he had brought Norway under his control, becoming King Olaf II, but there were still pockets of resistance among the jarls, petty kings, and chieftains who were uneasy with their new king. Around 1017, King Olaf (also known as Saint Olaf) dramatically clashed with several of these wavering noblemen who did not agree with his efforts to spread Christianity in their domains. The ensuing showdown was recorded in verse by an 11th-century Icelandic skald named Ottar the Black, whose poem was cited by Snorri Sturluson (c. 1179-1241) in his Heimskringla (History of the Kings of Norway), specifically Saint Olaf’s Saga, which is included in that text.
Around 1017, King Olaf II began pressuring the Uppland districts to convert to Christianity. The topic of religion can get heated even in simple conversation, so the tension of the region understandably became quite hostile when King Olaf’s methods of spreading Christianity proved less than cordial. As Snorri Sturluson bluntly described, “if he found anyone who did not want to abandon heathendom, he drove him out of the land. Some he had maimed, having their hands or feet lopped off or their eyes gouged out, others he had hanged or beheaded, but left no one unchastised who refused to serve God” (Saint Olaf’s Saga, chapter 73). Such heavy-handedness, especially on a topic as sensitive as religion, did nothing to console the noblemen in the region who were still unsure of Olaf’s rule. Shocked by the stories of execution, mutilation and banishment, five petty kings of Uppland decided to work together in a conspiracy against King Olaf II.
Only three of the five conspirators are known to history by name, but all of them were said to have lived around the Lake Mjøsa area. Hrœrek and Gudröd were the most influential of the petty kings, while a certain King Hring and two other petty kings usually deferred to Hrœrek and Gudröd for guidance. As Olaf II ramped up his conversion campaign in the region, the five petty kings decided to meet in order to discuss what course they wanted to take. Although there was some debate, they all chose to launch a violent resistance against King Olaf. Yet, instead of an open rebellion, they decided to orchestrate a more subtle conspiracy, hoping to ambush Olaf II while the king was unaware of their disloyalty. Upon their agreement to conspire against their liege, the five petty kings vowed to remain together in a single camp, lest one of them be tempted to betray the others.
Fully committed, the conspirators started to gather warriors whom they presumed to be loyal to their cause. Each of the five petty kings allegedly pledged to recruit around 300 trustworthy fighters, and therefore, they hoped to obtain a force of at least 1,500 men. Meanwhile, as they slowly mustered their forces, the conspirators sent spies to keep an eye on King Olaf, who, at that time, was reportedly only guarded by a band of between 400 and 500 warriors.
Hrœrek, Gudröd, Hring and their fellow petty kings, however, were not the only ones with eyes and ears on the ground. King Olaf II, too, had a formidable spy network, and, to his fortune, one of his informants was invited to the conspiracy. This man, reportedly named Ketil, quickly relayed news of the conspiracy back to King Olaf, who, upon receiving the tip-off, quickly acted to crush the plot.
As the story goes, King Olaf and his guards stormed off to the nearest shore of Lake Mjøsa. There, they commandeered as many ships as they needed, and then set sail upon nightfall out into the lake. With help from his informant, Olaf knew the exact location where all five of the conspiring kings were camped together—a place called Hringiskar, near Gudbrands Dale. King Olaf reached his target well before dawn, and, after assembling his troops around the compound, he attacked at first light. Catching the conspirators unprepared and off guard, King Olaf’s troops made short work of the would-be rebels. In the fight, all five of the petty kings were captured, and Olaf severely punished the main two ringleaders of the group. King Hrœrek was blinded and forbidden to stray from Olaf’s company. Gudröd, similarly, was mutilated, but his tongue was taken instead of his eyes. Hring and the other two remaining petty kings were reportedly banished from Norway. Despite King Olaf’s victory, the blinded Hœrek would continue to conspire against the king, and Uppland would remain staunchly pagan for several more years.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Illustration by Christian Krohg (1852–1925) for the Heimskringla, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- Heimskringla, by Snorri Sturluson and translated by Lee Hollander. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1964, 2018.