Toward the end of the reign of King Olaf II of Norway (r. 1015-1028), the king began offering overtures of vassalage and tribute payment to Nordic countries that he thought were weaker than his own Kingdom of Norway. He reportedly sent a messenger to Iceland, asking for strategic land, taxes, and for the Icelanders to become his subjects—Iceland refused. King Olaf II also made a similar offer to the Faroe Islands, and as he reportedly had an embassy of leading figures from the Faroes under his power when he made his demands, a semblance of a tributary agreement was allegedly formed. The Norwegian king evidently believed that the arrangement was sound enough to go ahead and send a ship to collect the agreed tribute from the Faroe Islands. Yet, Olaf II made the mistake of releasing his Faroese hostages as the ship was being prepared, letting the representatives of the Faroes returned home without escort or guard. Arriving back at the Faroe Islands well before Olaf’s slow and delayed tribute ship, the Faroese envoys were able to warn their people of the Norwegian king’s intentions. With this knowledge, the Faroese were able to make a plan of action. The Icelandic politician and scholar, Snorri Sturluson (c. 1179-1241), in his Heimskringla, hinted at what the people of the Faroe Islands did with their prior warning:
“That same summer King Óláf learned that the ship he had sent to the Faroes the previous summer to collect the tribute, had vanished and never made land so far as could be learned. Then the king equipped another ship with a crew to sail to the Faroes to collect the tribute. They got underway across the ocean, but nothing was heard of them afterwards, no more than the first. And there were many surmises [about] what had become of these ships” (Snorri Sturluson, Heimskringla, Saint Olaf’s Saga, chapter 129).
Fortunately for the Faroe Islands, King Olaf II would soon be distracted from his attempts to impose tribute and taxes. As the saying goes, there is always a bigger fish, and for King Olaf II, that stronger being was King Canute the Great of England (r. 1016-1035) and Denmark (r. 1019-1035). King Canute expelled Olaf II from Norway in 1028, usurping the kingdom for himself with the help of dissident Norwegian allies. Two years later, Olaf II would be killed in battle while trying to reclaim Norway.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- Heimskringla, by Snorri Sturluson and translated by Lee Hollander. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1964, 2018.