In 1028, King Olaf II of Norway was forced to flee from his kingdom due to a brilliant campaign of diplomacy and military pressure orchestrated by Canute the Great—ruler of England (since 1016) and Denmark (since 1019). Although Olaf fled from Canute’s incoming forces in 1028 to live to fight another day, Olaf did not give up his ambition of one day returning to Norway to reclaim his throne. This put Norwegians at that time in a difficult predicament of choosing sides between Canute the Great and exiled Olaf. It was not an easy choice, as both men were admired and respected rulers. Furthermore, Canute was willing to give cooperative Norwegian jarls a relatively high degree of autonomy (whereas Olaf was a more heavy-handed ruler), and this pushed many regional Norwegian chieftains into Canute’s camp. Olaf, nevertheless, was a charismatic and impressive figure who could inspire loyalty. Norwegians, therefore, were caught between an enticing foreign ruler and an exiled home-grown king with a magnetic personality. Inevitably, the people became divided over the leader they preferred, and the political schism split communities and families.
Among the more prominent family units that was split by the political situation in Norway were the Arnason brothers. Prominent Kalf Arnason decided to join the camp of Canute the Great, whereas his brothers, Finn and Thorberg, chose to stay loyal to King Olaf II. When Olaf and his armed supporters ultimately returned to Norway in 1030 to attempt a reconquest of Norway, the Arnason brothers rallied to fight on opposite sides of the war. Finn and Thorberg fought under Olaf’s banner, while Kalf Arnason became a major commander of the anti-Olaf forces. The two sides clashed at the Battle of Stiklestad (1030), pitting Olaf against his resistors, and Kalf Arnason against his brothers.
In the Battle of Stiklestad, Olaf was killed and his supporters were defeated. A man named Dag Hringsson rallied the survivors from Olaf’s side of the battle and led an organized retreat of warriors who were healthy enough to run away. Finn and Thorberg Arnason, however, were not among those who were fit enough to join the withdrawal. They were laying on the battlefield severely (but not mortally) wounded. Kalf Arnason may have spotted them during the battle, for he reportedly knew where to look to find his injured brothers. Kalf removed himself from command so as to see to his wounded siblings—duties such as chasing down Dag Hringsson’s retreating force were left to other leadership figures, such as Thorir the Hound. Kalf’s attention, meanwhile, shifted to bringing his brothers under his protection and caring for their injuries. Nevertheless, his brothers (or at least Finn) still resented Kalf for siding against King Olaf. The family reunion, therefore, was reportedly quite tense. Snorri Sturluson (c. 1179-1241), an Icelandic scholar, historian, and saga writer summarized the tales of the Arnason brothers’ emotional after-battle encounter. Snorri Wrote, “Kálf sought for his brothers who had fallen there. He found Thorberg and Finn, and we are told that Finn hurled a sword at him and wanted to kill him. He spoke harsh words to him, calling him a truce breaker and a betrayer of his king. Kálf paid no attention to him and had him borne from the battlefield together with Thorberg. Their wounds were investigated and none of them found mortal” (Heimskringla, Saint Olaf’s Saga, chapter 230). After having the wounds of his brothers inspected, Kalf Arnason had Finn and Thorberg loaded onto his ship and they sailed home together.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Artwork labeled “Variant av illustrasjon til Olav Trygvasons Saga i Snorre Sturlason, Kongesagaer”, made by Erik Werenskiold c. 1899, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the National Museum of Norway).
- Heimskringla, by Snorri Sturluson and translated by Lee Hollander. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1964, 2018.