Hákon Eiriksson was a Norwegian nobleman with ties to the Danish royal family. His father, Jarl Eirik Hakonarson, had aligned himself with King Sweyn Forkbeard of the Danes (r. 987-1014) and had reportedly married one of Sweyn’s daughters, named Gyda—Hákon’s mother. By siding with King Sweyn, Jarl Eirik Hakonarson became an enemy of Norway’s ruler at that time, King Olaf Tryggvason (r. 995-1000). Nevertheless, it was a conflict that Eirik won, for he was a participant in a coalition of Danes, Swedes and dissident Norwegians that ambushed and killed Olaf Tryggvason at the Battle of Svold (or Svolder) in the year 1000. With the death of the Norwegian king, Jarl Eirik Hakonarson and his son Hákon became leading figures in Norway.
Eirik Hakonarson eventually sailed to the British Isles around the time when King Sweyn Forkbeard seized control of England in 1013. The jarl’s son, Hákon Eiriksson, stayed behind in Norway to see to matters there while his father was away. His father, however, would not return—Eirik Hakonarson died in 1013 of wounds he sustained in England.
Hákon Eiriksson, who succeeded to his father’s jarldom, did not have long to mourn. In 1014 or 1015, a Viking and mercenary named Olaf Haraldsson appeared in Norway to launch a bid for the Norwegian throne. Olaf (later called Saint Olaf) knew that the young jarl was a major obstacle in his path to power, so he targeted Hákon Eiriksson early. Olaf reportedly ambushed his opponent in a narrow waterway, and in the encounter that ensued, Hákon’s ship sank and he was captured. As the story goes, Olaf spared Hákon Eiriksson’s life in exchange for the jarl renouncing his authority in Norway. Whatever the case, Hákon survived the incident and fled to England, where he joined the ranks of his ascendant uncle, Canute the Great. This Canute (or Knut) became king of England in 1016, then king of Denmark in 1019, and he also decided to challenge Olaf Haraldsson for the throne of Norway.
In 1028, Canute the Great successfully used diplomatic and military pressure to usurp power in Norway from Olaf Haraldsson, who fled to his allies among the Swedes and the Rus. When Canute seized control of Norway, Hákon Eiriksson decided to sail back to his homeland to resecure his jarldom. His journey back to Norway, however, came at an awkward time, for Hákon had recently become engaged to be married. Nevertheless, he evidently left his fiancée behind in England while he and Canute toured their newly acquired Norway.
The initial change of leadership in Norway occurred in a fairly peaceful fashion, because Olaf Haraldsson quickly decided to flee from Canute’s formidable incoming forces in 1028. After the successful usurpation, Canute restored Hákon Eiriksson’s lands and regional status that had been stripped by Olaf Haraldsson. It was at that time, with his land and title regained, that Hákon decided to speedily sail back to England to pick up his fiancée. But, tragically, the two would not live happily ever after. The Icelandic historian and saga writer, Snorri Sturluson (c. 1179-1241), recorded the tale of what happened:
“[Jarl Hákon Eiriksson] had a bride there in England, and he had come in order to fetch her, intending to celebrate his marriage in Norway; and he had gone to England to procure such materials as he thought would be hardest to get in Norway. In fall he made ready for the journey home but was delayed rather long. He sailed finally, but the short and long of that voyage is that his ship went down with all on board” (Heimskringla, Saint Olaf’s Saga, chapter 184).
As the quote conveys, both Hákon Eiriksson and his fiancée were lost at sea, never to return again to either England or Norway. News of Jarl Hákon’s death, and the vulnerabilities that his absence in Norway entailed, were said to have been a catalyst for Olaf Haraldsson’s eventual return to Norway. Nevertheless, retaking the Norwegian throne proved a tougher task than the hopeful exile had imagined. Olaf Haraldsson was defeated and killed by a Norwegian-Danish coalition at the Battle of Stiklestad in 1030. Canute the Great retained control of Norway until his own death in 1035.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Cropped section from Avskedet (ur Frithiofs saga), by August Malmström (c. 1829-1901), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the National Museum in Stockholm, Sweden).
- Heimskringla, by Snorri Sturluson and translated by Lee Hollander. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1964, 2018.