Hárek Eyvindsson was one of the major power players in 11th-century Norway. Despite having a significant role in the Norwegian power struggles of his day, Hárek’s origins and early career remain quite obscure from history. This is likely because he was a self-made man who no one expected to become such a powerful figure, and consequently few records were kept about his existence until he had accumulated enough influence to make his power known in Norway. He would become known as Hárek of Thjótta, a man who lived a rags-to-riches story, building up enough economic and military power to be a thorn in the side of Norway’s kings.
Hárek Eyvindsson was born in the 10th century into an impoverished noble family with little exploitable assets except a distant link to the Norwegian royal family—they traced their lineage back to Ingibjorg, a daughter of the first king of Norway, Harald Finehair, who ruled from approximately 860 to 940. Although Hárek eventually was associated with a place called Thjótta, an island reportedly in the Hålogaland region, his family originally did not own any land in the area. Instead, Hárek was the first member of his immediate family to settle on Thjótta. Scrounging together the limited funds at his disposal, Hárek purchased a small plot of land on the island. He built a farm there, a small enterprise at first, nestled alongside the lands of other farmers who were operating at that time on Thjótta. With this land in his possession, Hárek Eyvindsson soon began to show the business cunning that would make him a political power player in Norway.
Besides farming, Hárek realized that his island plot of land had other advantages that could he could turn into a lucrative profit. Thjótta was apparently located near Finnmark, where engaging in the fur trade with the Lapps and the Finns could lead to great wealth. Such trade, however, was monopolized by the Norwegian royal family. To tap into this restricted trade, Hárek of Thjótta was able to leverage his ancestral link to Harald Finehair in order to be named chief royal officer in Finnmark and, consequently, the chief officer over its fur market. The wealth that Hárek soon began to accumulate was reinvested into Thjótta, where he diligently took every opportunity to buy plots of land from his neighbors. As told by the Icelandic political leader and historian, Snorri Sturluson (c. 1179-1241), “in a few years he had all the farmers moved out who had lived there before, so that he owned the whole island himself, and erected there a large manorial residence. He soon waxed very rich. He was a man of excellent good sense, and most enterprising” (Heimskringla, Saint Olaf’s Saga, chapter 104).
As Hárek’s wealth and land increased, so did his influence and power in the Hålogaland region. By the time King Olaf I Tryggvason (r. 995-1000) ruled in Norway, Hárek had become a significant chieftain with warriors at his disposal. His might continued to grow over the years, and in the later reign of King Olaf II (r. 1015-1028), Hárek of Thjótta would become a leader of the Norwegian resistance against the king. He would go on to befriend Canute the Great (ruled Norway from 1028-1035), and brought troops to fight against Olaf II at the Battle of Stiklestad (1030), when the deposed king attempted unsuccessfully to regain the throne of Norway. King Olaf II did not survive the battle, and his son, King Magnus the Good (r. 1035-1047), did not forgive the chieftain from Thjótta for siding against his father. Hárek reportedly wanted to coexist with King Magnus, but when he arrived at court to pay homage to the new king, he was arrested and executed.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Image, dated 1899, by Wilhelm Wetlesen for the Heimskringla, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- Heimskringla, by Snorri Sturluson and translated by Lee Hollander. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1964, 2018.