The Legend Of The Capture And Reconquest Of King Olaf II’s Flagship, The Bison

A former Viking and mercenary named Olaf Haraldsson seized the throne of Norway around 1015, becoming King Olaf II. As monarch, he devoted himself to two main goals—increasing his crown authority and spreading Christianity to the jarls, chieftains and commoners who still practiced the region’s traditional religion. King Olaf, however, was too aggressive in his policies of government centralization and social Christianization. In the end, instead of stabilizing his position as king, Olaf’s heavy-handed policies and practices had the opposite effect of causing unrest among large swaths of the peasantry and nobles in his kingdom. Watching this faction of dissent with interest was Canute the Great, ruler of England since 1016 and king of Denmark as of 1019. Knowing that he could take advantage of the unrest, Canute began encouraging revolt and rebellion in Norway. Finally, after a campaign of bribes and promises of a less imposing style of rule, King Canute was able to pull off a remarkable usurpation of power in Norway, forcing Olaf Haraldsson and his family to flee the country in 1028.

As the coasts of Norway and Denmark were now hostile waters, Olaf reportedly traveled on land to Sweden, and then gained passage to the territory of the Rus. During this retreat, Olaf had to leave behind much of his possessions, including, apparently, his recently-built flagship, called the Bison. The king’s abandoned fleet of ships was found by Olaf’s enemies and they were divvied up as war plunder by the discoverers. According to folklore and legends collected by the story-hungry medieval Icelanders, an adventurer named Jokul Bardarson somehow managed to barter, bet, and jostle his way to possessing the Bison. Jokul was mentioned in several medieval Icelandic texts, including the Heimskringla by Snorri Sturluson (c. 1179-1241), as well as the Book of Settlements and Grettir’s Saga. Jokul Bardarson’s supposed physical characteristics and temperament were described in Grettir’s Saga, which claimed, “Jokul was a big, strong man with a violent temper. A seafarer, he was very difficult to deal with and yet extremely capable” (Grettir’s Saga, chapter 34). Snorri Sturluson’s Heimskringla, for its part, recorded the tale of Jokul aiding King Olaf’s enemies, leading to his acquisition of the Bison. As for the Book of Settlements, it skipped the tale of Jokul taking the helm of the abandoned flagship, but it and the Heimskringla both agreed on Jokul’s ultimate fate.

Rather than sail back to Iceland or another secure region with his prize, Jokul Bardarson instead apparently decided to leave the safety of Denmark and Norway behind to loiter with the Bison around the island of Gotland for a few years. Jokul was allegedly still at Gotland with the Bison around 1030, when Olaf Haraldsson departed from the land of the Rus and sailed back toward Sweden, intent on launching a campaign to retake his lost kingdom of Norway. Unfortunately for Jokul Bardarson, Olaf and his band of loyalists allegedly decided to stop by Gotland before sailing the rest of the way to Sweden. What happened next should be no surprise—Olaf and Jokul crossed paths and the former king recognized his opponent’s ship as the long-lost Bison. As the story goes, Jokul Bardarson was hunted down, captured, and shown no mercy. Snorri Sturluson wrote, “Jokul fell in with King Olaf’s force on the Island of Gotland and was captured. The king had him led forth to be beheaded…” (Heimskringla, Saint Olaf’s Saga, chapter182). Snorri Sturluson’s tale went on to say that Jokul tried to dodge the executioner’s blow, an act that only resulted in a slower, more painful, death than had been originally intended. He allegedly lingered on the precipice of death long enough to recite a poem. Almost all of this storytelling, however, was cut away from the Book of Settlements account, which concisely reported, “Bard Jokulsson had a son called Jokul, who was put to death by King Olaf the Holy” (Landnámabók, Sturlubók manuscript, chapter 93). Olaf would soon join Jokul Bardarson in death, for his reconquest of Norway did not go as planned. King Olaf II died at the Battle of Stiklestad in 1030. The Bison, however, survived and was said to have been used by Olaf’s son, King Magnus the Good (r. 1035-1047).

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Picture Attribution: (Frithiof går i landsflykt (ur Frithiofs saga), by August Malmström (c. 1829-1901), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the National Museum in Sweden).



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