King Hrœrek was a powerful chieftain or petty king in Hedmark, Norway, who was at his political height in the early 11th century. He reportedly was considered to be one of the wisest local rulers from his region, and he claimed to be a descendant of King Harald Finehair (ruled approximately c. 860-940), the first king to bring Norway under his banner. Both attributes, wisdom and lineage, made King Hrœrek a popular ruler—one from whom chieftains and petty kings sought advice.
After the fall of King Olaf Tryggvason of Norway in the year 1000, no new monarch was immediately declared, and instead, the jarls, petty kings and chieftains deferred to Swedish and Danish rule, or otherwise enjoyed the autonomy that arose from the fall of the Norwegian monarchy. Hrœrek, with his modest kingdom in Hedmark, Norway, quite liked the arrangement, as it increased his own power.
Hrœrek’s independence and autonomy was threatened, however, when his distant kinsman, Olaf Haraldsson, returned to Norway around 1015. Olaf had been a Viking and a mercenary, and now he was planning to put his wealth and military experience to good use by attempting to seize the vacated throne of Norway for himself. Olaf, like Hrœrek, also claimed descendence from King Harald Finehair, and one of Olaf’s first actions upon launching his campaign was to call for the other members of the Finehair Dynasty to join his campaign. Hrœrek reportedly resisted giving his support to Olaf, as proclaiming a new king would have undercut the autonomy he enjoyed in Norway’s decentralized state. Yet, other members of the family were ultimately able to convince Hrœrek to join the campaign. With the help of his kinsmen, Olaf Haraldsson was successful in his mission, defeating or exiling his foreign-backed rivals in Norway by 1016, and he became King Olaf II of Norway, also known as Saint Olaf.
After Olaf II became king of Norway, it did not take long for the jarls, petty kings and chieftains who had submitted to his rule to realize that the new king fully intended to enforce his authority. The new monarch was most tyrannical when it came to religion. Although he came to be known as Saint Olaf, his ways of spreading Christianity in Norway were in no way saintly. According to the Icelandic historian, Snorri Sturluson, “he laid such stress on it that if he found anyone who did not want to abandon heathendom, he drove them 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” (Heimskringla, Saint Olaf’s Saga, chapter 73).
Such heavy-handedness by Olaf II alienated the chieftains who still followed their traditional religion, and it also made moderate and reserved local rulers begin to question their allegiance to the king. Hrœrek, along with several of his fellow chieftains and petty kings in Hedmark, was among the latter group of wary leaders who had half-heartedly pledged their support to the upstart king; yet now that they had a taste of what his reign would be like, they began to debate amongst themselves whether or not to rebel against King Olaf II. Hrœrek met with four other petty kings from the Lake Mjøsa area, of which he and a man named Gudröd were the most influential. At the meeting of the five petty kings, Gudröd argued in favor of rebelling against Olaf. Hrœrek, for his part, reportedly pressed for a more peaceful solution, saying that they could have resisted Olaf before he had become king, but now that he had consolidated his power as monarch of Norway, the rebellion of the petty kings would be unlikely to succeed. The other three petty kings of this 5-man debate sided with Gudröd, however, and Hrœrek was eventually swayed to join their plot.
The five petty kings, heeding Hrœrek’s advice, decided to improve their chances of success by utilizing subtlety and subterfuge. Instead of launching a blatant, easily-crushed rebellion, the five petty kings conspired to ambush King Olaf II while the monarch was unaware of the existence of a threat. Fully committed to their plan, 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. Yet, the conspirators were not the only ones with spies skulking about. King Olaf II, too, had a formidable spy network, and, to his fortune, one of his informants was invited to the conspiracy.
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, which occurred around 1017, 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. The other three remaining petty kings were reportedly banished from Norway.
Although defeated, blinded, and under close watch by King Olaf II, Hrœrek did not give up his resistance. In 1018, the blinded rebel reportedly hired an assassin and sent him after Olaf. The assassin was said to have come close to completing his mission, but he was discovered and captured before he could strike. When Hrœrek’s part in the attempt came to light, King Olaf II increased the security around the blind rebel, making sure at least two warriors were guarding Hrœrek day and night.
Persistent Hrœrek did not stay quiet for long. Before the year was over, a posse of Hrœrek’s supporters infiltrated the city in which he was kept and they attempted to break him out of jail. They killed the guards, rushed Hrœrek out of the city and tried to flee in a boat. King Olaf’s troops, however, found the bodies of the slain guards and promptly began a manhunt. The fugitive was tracked down and when escape seemed to no longer be likely, Hrœrek told his supporters to go on without him. After seeing them off, Hrœrek turned himself in to King Olaf’s troops and was brought back into custody. With Hrœrek’s return, King Olaf II decided to keep his troublesome kinsman close at hand, and therefore he had the blind rebel accompany him during his daily tasks.
Opportunistic Hrœrek used his proximity to the king to continue his intrigue. One day in 1018, while being forced to sit beside Saint Olaf in church, Hrœrek suddenly pulled out a dagger and, to the best of his blind ability, tried to jab and slash at Olaf. The king was able to lunge to safety and walked away unscathed, but it was a close call, and Olaf no longer wanted to have Hrœrek at his side. King Olaf II ultimately decided to banish Hrœrek, and tasked an Icelandic merchant named Thórarin Nefjólfsson with the chore of bringing Hrœrek to Iceland or Greenland. The blind exile was dropped off on Iceland by 1019 and eventually obtained his own farm, called Kálfskin. Hrœrek did not live long after his exile and reportedly died between 1020 and 1021.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Image of Finn Arnesson and Tore Hung illustrated by Gerhard Munthe (1849–1929), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- Heimskringla, by Snorri Sturluson and translated by Lee Hollander. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1964, 2018.