During the last decade of the 10th century and the first decades of the 11th century, Norwegians must have been familiar with the name, Bishop Sigurd (or Sigurth). A bishop with that name was known to have traveled with King Olaf I Tryggvason of Norway (r. 995-1000). Snorri Sturluson (c. 1179-1241), an Icelandic scholar and saga writer, vividly narrated what it might have looked like to see this first of the Bishop Sigurds sailing with Olaf Tryggvason’s fleet. Snorri wrote, “Bishop Sigurth put on all his vestments and went forward to the prow of the king’s ship, and had tapers lit and incense borne. He set up a crucifix on the stern of the ship, read the gospel and many other prayers, and sprinkled holy water all over the ship” (Snorri Sturluson, Heimskringla, Saga of Olaf Tryggvason, chapter 80). Such blessings and rituals, unfortunately, did not save Olaf Tryggvason from being killed at sea in the Battle of Svold (or Svolder) in the year 1000. No monarch immediately succeeded to the throne of Norway after King Olaf’s death, and during this regal vacancy there was a lapse in the power and prominence of the fledgling Norwegian church. Yet, a new claimant would soon take the Norwegian throne and he would align himself closely with the church.
Around 1015, a Norwegian nobleman named Olaf Haraldsson ended a career as a Viking and mercenary to return home to Norway, where he launched a bid for the throne. Through a mixture of persuading, bribing, exiling, killing and otherwise forcing into submission the regional chieftains and jarls of the Norwegian countryside, Olaf Haraldsson was able to have the realm largely under his control by 1016. As King Olaf II (r. 1015-1028), he made it his mission to continue spreading Christianity into holdout regions of the country that were still practicing the traditional Norse religion. It was not a purely spiritual crusade, however, for militantly spreading Christianity helped King Olaf to bolster his own authority as king and to eliminate powerful regional figures who happened to still follow the traditional gods. Nevertheless, Olaf’s alignment with the church was greatly appreciated by the faithful, and for his efforts King Olaf II was eventually renamed Saint Olaf.
As Saint Olaf’s national agenda often involved the church, it is no wonder that a bishop was brought into his inner circle at court. Once again, a (or perhaps the) Bishop Sigurd made a reappearance in the Norwegian royal entourage. Whether this was the earlier Bishop Sigurd or a new Bishop Sigurd, explicit explanations are scarce. Whatever the case, this Sigurd died during King Olaf II’s reign and was succeeded by a Bishop Grimkel. Interestingly, one more Bishop Sigurd would be appointed over Norway during the lifetime of King Olaf II. Yet, this last Sigurd was not set up by King Olaf.
Unfortunately for the saint-king, his throne in Norway was ultimately usurped by powerful Canute (or Knút) the Great, who had been the ruler of England since 1016, and king of Denmark since 1019. Olaf’s dethronement came in 1028, after Canute ramped up enough diplomatic and military pressure on the Norwegian king to force him to flee from his country. As the new ruler of Norway, Canute had the task of appointing new people to oversee the realm’s government and religion. Following the trend, King Canute chose another man named Sigurd (or Sigurth) to be Norway’s next bishop. These events were described by Snorri Sturluson, who wrote: “Knút the Powerful had subdued all of Norway and had set Earl Hákon to rule it. As bishop for his court he had given him a priest called Sigurth. He was of Danish origin and had long been with King Knút. The bishop was a man of vehement temper and unusual eloquence. He gave King Knút all the support he could, and was most hostile toward King Oláf” (Snorri Sturluson, Heimskringla, Saint Olaf’s Saga, chapter 217). When Olaf returned to Norway in 1030 for an attempt to reclaim the throne, this Danish Bishop Sigurd joined the anti-Olaf warriors who gathered to repel the invasion and he rallied the troops before the decisive Battle of Sticklestad (c. 1030), in which King Olaf II was killed. Nevertheless, the slain king’s reputation began to soar after the battle and Olaf formally was proclaimed a saint. This put the Danish Bishop Sigurd in an awkward situation, and he was eventually replaced by Grimkel, who had been one of Saint Olaf’s former bishops.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Cropped Illustration by Gerhard Munthe (1849–1929), for an 1899 edition of Snorri Sturluson’s Heimskringla, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- Heimskringla, by Snorri Sturluson and translated by Lee Hollander. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1964, 2018.