This painting, by the Swedish artist Mårten Winge (c. 1825-1896), re-creates a curious legend from medieval folklore and saga storytelling about the reign of King Olaf Tryggvason of Norway. After an early life as a political exile and Viking leader, during which time he was known to have raided England, Olaf Tryggvason eventually returned to Norway in 995 and usurped power from Jarl Hákon Sigurdsson of the Trondheim, who had been the leading Norwegian hegemon since around 970. When Olaf Tryggvason successfully became King Olaf I of Norway in 995, he quickly began looking for a kingly marriage that would match his new monarchal status. According to medieval legend and folklore, his sights were set on a Swedish noblewoman named Sigrid Storråda, known to the Norwegian and Icelandic storytellers as Sigrid the Haughty. Unfortunately, the veracity of the stories told about Sigrid are more difficult to assess and prove or disprove as compared to tales about her male counterparts, but nevertheless, the medieval writers had a lot to say about this curious character and her influence. As the legends go, she was the daughter of a great Swedish warlord named Skolgar-Tósti. Sigrid went on to marry the important Swedish king, Eirík the Victorious (r. 970-995), and she maintained control of great wealth and land during the reign of Eirík’s son, King Olaf Skötkonung (r. 995-1022). Therefore, the widowed (but evidently still young) Sigrid, with her ample money, land, and political clout in Sweden, was quite the enticing candidate for a political marriage to a bachelor king like Olaf Tryggvason.
King Olaf Tryggvason of Norway, so the stories go, formally began to court Sigrid Storråda for marriage. He was said to have sent her gifts and paid her visits, and they allegedly began to negotiate a betrothal agreement. Yet, as the painting above portrays, the tale of their relationship did not end well. According to the folkloric tales of their courtship, King Olaf’s first mistake was sending Sigrid Storråda a gold ring that turned out to be a copper-filled counterfeit. On this incident, the Icelandic scholar, poet, historian, saga-writer and chieftain, Snorri Sturluson (c. 1179-1241), wrote, “They said that the ring was counterfeit. Then she had the ring broken in two, and there was seen to be copper inside it. Then the queen was furious and said that Oláf would defraud her in more things than that” (Snorri Sturluson, Heimskringla, Saga of Olaf Tryggvason, chapter 60). Despite this awkward incident, King Olaf was evidently able to do enough damage control to keep the betrothal agreement on track. Nevertheless, when the two next met in person, they allegedly began talking about the precarious topic of religion, and Olaf, a forceful Christian king, supposedly found something amiss with Sigrid Storråda’s faith. Now roles reversed—instead of Sigrid being angry at Olaf, this time it was Olaf who become irate with Sigrid. Snorri Sturluson narrated the dramatic episode, writing, “Then King Oláf said that Sigrid should be baptized and accept the true faith. She replied in wise: ‘I do not mean to abandon the faith I have had, and my kinsmen before me. Nor shall I object to your belief in the god you prefer.’ The King Oláf became very angry and said hastily, ‘Why should I want to marry you dog of a heathen?’ and slapped her in the face with the glove he had in his hand. Whereupon he arose, and she too.” (Snorri Sturluson Heimskringla, Saga of Olaf Tryggvason, chapter 61). It is this latter tense and shocking exchange that Mårten Winge re-created in his painting. King Olaf can be seen storming out of the room, carrying in his hand the glove that he used when he hit Sigrid.
Sigrid Storråda eventually had her revenge for the insults and disrespect she received. As the tales go, she became a wife of mighty Sweyn Forkbeard of Denmark (r. 987-1014), and she allegedly was instrumental in pushing King Sweyn of Denmark and King Olaf Skötkonung of Sweden to join together in a coalition against King Olaf Tryggvason of Norway. Olaf Tryggvason was killed by that coalition force at the Battle of Svold (or Svolder) in the year 1000.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- Heimskringla, by Snorri Sturluson and translated by Lee Hollander. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1964, 2018.
- The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, translated by Benjamin Thorpe in 1861 and republished by Cambridge University Press, 2012.