The Great Escape Of Stein Skaptason From A King He Insulted

Stein Skaptason was a loose-lipped, quippy poet from Iceland who lived in the shadow of his influential father—the skald and lawspeaker, Skapti. Although dear old dad was an impressive figure, Stein was not too shabby, either. According to a later fellow Icelander, Snorri Sturluson (c. 1179-1241), “Stein Skaptason was a very handsome man, greatly skilled in bodily accomplishments, a good poet, very fond of fine clothes, and most enterprising” (Heimskringla, Saint Olaf’s Saga, chapter 138). Due to his father’s importance in Iceland, Stein would become embroiled in international politics. He, along with other sons of important Icelandic leaders, were held hostage in Norway, beginning around 1025, when King Olaf II was trying (but failing) to leverage Iceland into a vassalization or a tributary arrangement. This stalemate between the Icelanders and the Norwegian king continued for years, and all the while Stein and his fellow hostages were stuck in Olaf’s court. Stein, as the story goes, did not take well to his gilded captivity, and he vented his frustrations like a true artist of words. As told by Snorri Sturluson, “Stein did not refrain from saying things in reproach of the king both in his speech and in verse” (Heimskringla, Saint Olaf’s Saga, chapter 138). Although King Olaf suffered these bold lampoons gracefully for a year or two, his patience and mercy were not infinite. Eventually, the king began to push back against the wordy poet, challenging him in public. Exhausted with life as a hostage, and now beginning to fear for his life, Stein Skaptason decided that he could be a captive no longer.

As Stein waited for an opportune night to arrive, he began making plans with an unnamed accomplice—this person was a trusted attendant who had traveled with Stein from Iceland. After the two plotters had thoroughly studied the guard posts and schedules, as well as the best escape routes out of the king’s court, they finally launched their escape attempt. The plan worked well, and they managed to slip out successfully from the city where they were being held. Seemingly starting from the vicinity of Trondheim, Stein and his companion made their way to a nearby estate in the Orka Dale region. Stein knew the local bailiff there, and, stating that he was doing the king’s business, the fugitive requested a horse and a sleigh. As for the bailiff, knowing this traveler in the night was a hostage, he had his suspicions about the whole situation and began asking questions. Under pressure, Stein gave up on his persuasion attempt. He grabbed a sword that he had somehow managed to obtain during his escape and used it to kill the bailiff. With the official dead, the fugitives stole a horse and sleigh from the property and used it to race off into the night.

Navigating their way through the dales and fjords, Stein Skaptason and his attendant found their way to the coast. For the next phase of their journey, they commandeered a boat and navigated to the island of Giske. Stein had a friend named Ragnhild Erlingsdatter who lived on the island with her husband, Thorberg Árnason. Ragnhild’s family was headed by a powerful figure namd Erling Skjalgsson, who had openly clashed with King Olaf in the past. Ragnhild, like her father, was more than willing to cause a little annoyance for the king. Thorberg Árnason, however, needed some convincing, but Ragnhild was able to bring him around to the idea of giving Stein Skaptason shelter. With the consent of their hosts, the fugitives stayed on the island of Giske for the winter of 1027. During that time, Ragnhild and Thorberg discovered that King Olaf had outlawed Stein for the murder of the bailiff in Orka Dale. Regardless of this news, the fugitives were allowed to remain on the island.

Ragnhild and Thorberg were putting themselves at risk by harboring an outlaw, especially since King Olaf had a fairly competent network of informants. Indeed, before the winter was over, Olaf’s messengers appeared at Giske, delivering a summons that demanded Thorberg report for an audience with the king. To the credit of Ragnhild and Thorberg, they did not give up Stein Skaptason and his attendant. Instead, husband and wife reportedly called in their families to build a small army. Ragnhild’s two brothers, Sigurd and Thórir each appeared with heavily-crewed ships. Similarly, three of Thorberg’s brothers, Finn, Árni and Kálf, also answered their kinsman’s call and arrived with ships and crews. This fleet supported Thorberg when he answered the king’s summons—Thorberg’s own vessel made their force six ships in total.

Fortunately for Thorberg and Stein, King Olaf had much more worrisome problems to deal with than a rogue poet. For one, unrest was rampant in Norway over religious tensions, and many Norwegian chieftains were bitter about Olaf’s centralization of government, which came at the detriment of regional leaders. Furthermore, the king evidently felt that his kingdom’s treasury was insufficiently full, as he was obsessively trying to force islands such as Iceland and the Faroes into paying him tribute (to no avail), while also sending out agents to collect taxes and conduct trade missions. Most pressing of all, however, were the ambitions of King Canute the Great—ruler of England since 1016 and king of Denmark since 1019—who was openly announcing his wishes to supplant Olaf as the new ruler of Norway. With such threats around the corner, King Olaf II decided that punishing Stein Skaptason was not a cause that was worth battling against 6 ships of capable Norwegian fighters. Instead, the king reduced Stein’s outlawry to banishment and forgave Thorberg for harboring the man. After obtaining new oaths of allegiance from Thorbeg and his kinsmen, King Olaf II let them go free. As for Stein Skaptason, he reportedly joined the court of King Canute, who would succeed in ejecting Olaf from Norway in 1028.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Picture Attribution: (Illustration by Johan Holmbergsson (1804—1835) inspired by Frithiof’s Saga, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).



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