Thorstein the Shipbuilder (also known simply as Thorstein Shipbuilder) was, as his name conveys, a man who built ships in 11th-century Norway. He specifically was known for constructing trade ships (as opposed to warships), but his proclivity for building mercantile sea crafts instead of war vessels was jolted out of balance when King Olaf II of Norway (r. 1015-1028) one day commandeered Thorstein’s most prized trade ship. Although the date and circumstances of this incident were left vague by medieval historians and storytellers, the seizure of the beloved ship was a traumatic and life-altering event for Thorstein. After the confiscation of the prized ship, he evidently held an undying grudge that festered for years.
Thorstein the Shipbuilder was likely happy when King Olaf II of Norway began to face trouble in 1028. That year, powerful Canute (or Knút) the Great, who had been the ruler of England since 1016 and king of Denmark since 1019, spectacularly dethroned Olaf II with an impressive campaign of diplomacy and military posturing, ultimately forcing the Norwegian king to flee from Norway. King Olaf II, however, was not willing to relinquish Norway to Canute without a fight, even if that fight came belatedly. In 1030, Olaf invaded Norway with an army in an attempt to reclaim his kingdom.
When Olaf II returned to Norway, he was not given a warm reception. Canute’s deputies in Norway were able to recruit enough anti-Olaf Norwegians to build a defending army that was larger than the invading force. Thorstein the Shipbuilder, still holding his grudge, was quick to answer the call of the anti-Olaf recruiters. He was not a recruit that would have been looked down upon, for he was quite experienced in war. Like many other Nordic seafaring merchants of that time, Thorstein had dabbled in Viking raids and had proved himself to be effective in that line of work. Therefore, the ship builder was no stranger to the armor and axes with which he equipped himself for battle.
In the Battle of Stiklestad that ensued that year (1030) between Olaf and his resistors, Thorstein was said to have played an incredibly significant role. As the story goes, he fought his way into the thick of the action, eventually reaching the target of his bitter grudge. According to the Icelandic historian, Snorri Sturluson (c. 1179-1241), “Thorstein Shipbuilder hewed at King Olaf with his battle-axe, and the blow struck his left leg above the knee” (Snorri Sturluson, Heimskringla, Saint Olaf’s Saga, chapter 228). Thorstein’s revenge came at a price—he was immediately killed by Olaf’s guards after the blow was delivered. Nevertheless, the damage was done. Slowed and weakened by Thorstein’s axe blow, Olaf could no longer defend himself, and he was quickly killed in battle by Thorstein the Shipbuilder’s comrades in arms.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Viking Ships, painted by Hans Gude (c. 1825-1903), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the National Museum in Norway).
- Heimskringla, by Snorri Sturluson and translated by Lee Hollander. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1964, 2018.