In the Viking Age, Nordic noblemen and chieftains who were able to take time away from their homelands discovered that they could accumulate great military experience, influence and wealth by embarking on Viking raids or offering their services as mercenaries abroad. When a young Norwegian nobleman named Olaf Haraldsson was born in 995, there had been centuries of precedence for Viking activity and even members of the Norwegian royal family were involved. Royals who found themselves politically outmaneuvered or endangered by law or intrigue could set sail with an army and claim land and wealth overseas, biding time until an advantageous moment came about for them to return to their Nordic homelands. This is what happened when a power struggle erupted between the half-brothers, King Eirik Bloodaxe and King Haakon the Good, in Norway. Haakon (who had been living in England) returned to his homeland and wrested control of Norway around 946, prompting the defeated Eirik Bloodaxe and his immediate family to sail off with their loyalists and claim land in the British Isles. Eirik’s children, led by King Harald II Graycloak (r. 961-970), later returned home from their exile and defeated Haakon the Good in battle. History soon would repeat itself, as the sons of Eirik were deposed after a rebellion led by Jarl Hákon Sigurdsson of the Trondheim region. Once again, imperiled members of the royal family fled abroad, and this time a man named Olaf Tryggvason is the royal of interest. As a child, he was reportedly smuggled to the lands of the Rus and later became a companion of King Sweyn Forkbeard of Denmark (r. 987-1014), accompanying the Danish king on great Viking expeditions against England in 991 and 994. Finally, in 995, Olaf Tryggvason returned to Norway and usurped power from Jarl Hákon Sigurdsson. King Olaf I Tryggvason’s reign was brief, as he was killed by a coalition of his foes at the Battle of Svold (or Svolder) in the year 1000, leaving the throne of Norway vacant. Nevertheless, one of Tryggvason’s kinsmen would soon repeat the Viking-to-King pattern. This next contender was the aforementioned Olaf Haraldsson.
Born in 995, Olaf Haraldsson was a distant member of the Norwegian royal family and the alleged godson of the Christian King Olaf Tryggvason of Norway (r. 995-1000). During his childhood, Norway was fragmentedly occupied and ruled by a coalition of Danes, Swedes and Norwegians (the ones who had banded together to kill King Olaf I of Norway). When Olaf Haraldsson was a teenager, he participated in a massive wave of reinvigorated Viking activity that targeted England in the first decades of the 11th century. At the head of a fleet of ships with a veteran band of guardians and family friends, young Olaf reportedly reached the shores of England around 1009. Sources such as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Florence of Worcester (d. 1118), Henry of Huntingdon (d. 1160), and the 11th-century court poets, Sigvat the Skald and Óttar the Black, who are also cited in the Saga of St. Olaf from the Heimskringla, all agreed that Viking armies (in which Olaf was likely present) were at London in 1009, at East Anglia in 1010, and captured Canterbury between 1011 and 1012. After occupying Canterbury, the Vikings took Archbishop Ælfeah hostage and kept him captive for the remainder of the year, as well as several months into the next. They were apparently hoping to ransom the archbishop for a hefty sum of money, but, unfortunately, as the months went on and no ransom was promised, the Vikings reached their limit and ultimately executed the archbishop.
Perhaps the sack of Canterbury and the subsequent execution of Archbishop Ælfeah may have been a turning point for Olaf. Curiously, after slaughtering Englishmen for years, Olaf eventually switched sides and began fighting for the English as a mercenary. According to the Anglo-Saxon sources, a sizable force from the Vikings that sacked Canterbury decided to split from the rest of the raiders not long after the killing of the archbishop. This splinter group (which likely included Olaf) then formed a mercenary contract with the English king before the end of 1012.
Olaf Haraldsson (and the English king, Æthelred the Unready, for that matter) would not be staying in England for long. The aforementioned King Sweyn Forkbeard of Denmark (r. 986-1014) arrived in England with a large force in 1013. Either upon or just before King Sweyn’s invasion, Olaf Haraldsson decided it was an opportune time to end his mercenary contract with England and to instead go raiding and adventuring on the European mainland. He reportedly pillaged regions of Spain, and then sailed to Normandy by 1013, where he may have been baptized or re-baptized, as he had reportedly already been given a semblance of a baptismal ceremony as a child in 998. Around 1015, Olaf Haraldsson—now a well-traveled, wealthy, and militarily-experienced Viking warlord with reinvigorated faith—finally returned to his homeland to seize the Norwegian throne. Putting his warriors, treasure and military expertise to good use, King Olaf II Haraldsson (also known as Saint Olaf) managed to bring most of Norway under his control by 1016 after killing, exiling, or otherwise forcing into submission the regional jarls who were beholden to other Nordic kings.
Despite having been a Viking himself, King Olaf II (r. 1015-1028) quickly changed his attitude in regard to Viking activity after he ascended the throne. For one, considering his own history, Vikings warlords could presumably become potential political rivals. Yet, this aside, he had a much simpler reason to curtail Viking practices—lowering domestic crime rates. Although the most famous Viking armies sailed on long journeys to raid locations such as the British Isles, France and Spain, a large portion of Vikings actually never left the Nordic coastlines, instead opting to engage in local piracy and theft. It was this latter form of Viking activity, the domestic piracy, that King Olaf II decided to aggressively punish. Although it seems like a good and common-sense move for a king to punish domestic Vikings as if they were common highwaymen or bandits, medieval Norwegians evidently thought that the spectacle of a former Viking warlord executing smaller bands of Viking raiders was a hypocritical and ironic turn of events. On this topic, the scholar Snorri Sturluson (c. 1179-1241) wrote:
“It had been a fixed custom in Norway for the sons of landed-men or powerful franklins to take ship and acquire goods by harrying, both inside and outside the country. But after Oláf became king he gave it peace by abolishing all plundering within the land. And if he could catch those guilty of that, nothing would do but the guilty ones lost life or limbs, and neither the entreaties of men nor the offers of money availed them…he let punishment go over both the great and the small. But that seemed presumptuous to the people of the land, and a hate against him arose among them who had lost kinsmen through a just verdict of the king, even though there was good cause for it. That was the reason for the revolt against King Oláf…” (Snorri Sturluson Heimskringla, Saga of Olaf Tryggvason, chapter 181).
Such was the trade-off that King Olaf II made during his campaign to curtail domestic Viking activity. On the one hand, he was trying to make the Norwegian waters free from piracy and its shores safe from pillaging—a laudable and just ambition. On the other hand, by cracking down on Norwegian Viking activity (especially through the use of mutilation and execution), Olaf angered and alienated prominent clans that were participating in the Viking lifestyle. This tension between King Olaf II and his disgruntled subjects was seized upon by powerful King Canute (or Knút) the Great, who had been the ruler of England since 1016 and king of Denmark since 1019. In 1028, Canute masterminded an impressive campaign of diplomacy and military posturing, ultimately forcing King Olaf II to flee from Norway. With the Norwegian king ousted, Norway fell under Canute’s control.
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. 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. In the Battle of Stiklestad that ensued that year (1030), King Olaf II was killed in action and his supporters were defeated. Following Olaf’s death, the king’s half-brother, Harald Sigurdsson, would repeat the feat of launching a political career after living the life of an adventurer in exile. In the wake of the Battle of Stiklestad, Harald Sigurdsson fled to the Rus and then to Constantinople, where he became an accomplished mercenary and member of Constantinople’s elite Varangian Guard. After gaining renown as a warrior and amassing an unimaginable treasure, which he hid from his Byzantine employers, Harald Sigurdsson returned to Norway in 1045, where he negotiated a deal with his nephew, Magnus Olafsson, in which he reportedly bought half of Norway in exchange for half of his treasure. With the agreement reached, Harald Sigurdsson became King Harald III of Norway (r. 1045-1066), known by such epithets as “the Ruthless” or “the Hard Ruler.”
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.
- The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle translated by Benjamin Thorpe in 1861 and republished by Cambridge University Press, 2012.
- The Chronicle of Florence of Worcester translated by Thomas Forester. London: Petter and Galpin, originally published 1854.