Thorir Olvirsson was an up-and-coming, youthful 11th-century Norwegian nobleman who cultivated a lot of good will with the people living in the regions around Trondheim, Norway. From local farmers, to powerful chieftains and jarls, many Norwegians saw promise in the young man. By the time he was a teenager, he had already won much praise and admiration from his peers.
Despite being held with high acclaim at such a young age, Thorir Olvirsson’s rise to prominence had been rocky. His father, Olvir of Egg, had resisted the aggressive Christianization policies of King Olaf II of Norway (aka Saint Olaf, r. 1015-1028), and Olvir was ultimately martyred around 1021 after he hosted traditional Norse religious celebrations without King Olaf’s permission. Along with Olvir’s life, King Olaf II also seized the executed man’s lands and wealth. This deprived Thorir Olvirsson and his surviving family members of their status and power. Yet, the family did not stay assetless for long. Thorir’s widowed mother married Kalf Árnason, another influential chieftain in the Trondheim region, and Kalf succeeded in regaining Olvir of Egg’s estates for his step-sons.
By 1028, Thorir Olvirsson was a promising eighteen-year-old young man, and a dramatic role-reversal was occurring between himself and King Olaf II. Whereas Thorir Olvirsson was becoming more popular and influential, King Olaf’s power in his own kingdom was quickly waning. At that time, Canute the Great—ruler of England and Denmark—was waging a campaign of conquest by diplomacy. He parked a massive, threatening fleet in Denmark, while also cultivating relationships with disgruntled chieftains and jarls in Norway. Canute’s offers of wealth, power, and a style of government that was less imposing than Olaf’s heavy-handed rule, proved to be enticing to many dissident denizens of Norway. King Olaf could not out-talk, out-fight, or out-spend his rival, Canute, and as a result Norwegians began defecting in droves to support the prospective usurper.
Thorir Olvirsson was one of the disgruntled nobles who was favorably considering Canute’s overlordship. He no doubt held a grudge against Olaf—after all, his father was executed by the king. Thorir eventually met with agents of Canute, and he reportedly received from them a golden arm-ring after their conversation. Gifts and sympathies aside, Thorir Olvirsson evidently tried to tow a neutral line while King Olaf still had some influence left in Norway. In keeping with this non-confrontational stance, Thorir Olvirsson even decided to host a feast for King Olaf. This feast, however, would prove to be disastrous for all involved.
As the story goes, Thorir Olvirsson made the fatal mistake of wearing his newly obtained golden arm-ring during the feast. As King Olaf knew that he, himself, had not given that pricey present to young Thorir, the distressed monarch quickly pieced together the arm-ring’s origins and its implications. Accusing Thorir of treason, Olaf had the popular eighteen-year-old nobleman arrested. Despite protests and offers of monetary payments by Kalf Árnason and other chieftains, King Olaf II promptly had Thorir Olvirsson executed for accepting a bribe from Canute.
In killing Thorir Olvirsson, King Olaf II also killed the remaining good-will he had in Norway at that time. When news of young, well-liked Thorir’s death spread, it further angered the already aggravated populace. As told by the Icelandic scholar, Snorri Sturluson (c. 1179-1241), “that deed created the greatest ill-will, both in Uppland Province and to no less degree north in the Trondheim District where Thórir had most relatives. And Kálf felt very keenly the slaying of this man, because Thórir in his youth had been his foster son” (Heimskringla, Saint Olaf’s Saga, chapter 166). At that time, however, it was Thorir’s brother, Grjotgard, who most vocally expressed anger—he raised a small rebellion and started waging war against King Olaf II. This impromptu rebel band, however, proved no match against King Olaf’s personal force of experienced fighters, and Grjotgard was reportedly killed in battle. Nevertheless, even with Grjotgard’s rebellion put down, Olaf still had to deal with Canute the Great and his huge army, mustered from England and Denmark. Olaf would need more than his personal entourage of loyal warriors to defeat this kingly rival. Yet, after his clash with the Olvirssons and their supporters, King Olaf found that few Norwegians were willing to follow him into battle against Canute. Unable to muster an effective army, Olaf II would flee Norway before the end of 1028.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Balders bål (ur Frithiofs saga), by August Malmström (c. 1829-1901), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the National Museum in Sweden.jpg).
- Heimskringla, by Snorri Sturluson and translated by Lee Hollander. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1964, 2018.