Using military posturing and diplomatic negotiations with Norwegian vassals, King Canute (or Knut) the Great—ruler of England since 1016 and Denmark since 1019—was able to oust King Olaf II of Norway (r. 1015-1028) from his throne and usurp power over the Norwegian kingdom. When King Olaf II, also known as Saint Olaf, was subsequently killed in battle while attempting to reclaim his realm in 1030, Canute the Great remained in control of Norway, leaving its day-to-day administration to trusted officials, such as his son, Sweyn (also spelled Svein). With the threat of Saint Olaf out of the way, Prince Sweyn went on a law-making spree, enacting statutes on topics such as outlawry, taxation and military readiness. He also reportedly put into effect occupation measures to give the outnumbered Danes in Norway an advantage in Norway’s legal system. As the story goes, he decreed that a single Dane’s testimony as a witness would outweigh ten testimonies given by Norwegian witnesses in legal proceedings. Understandably, such measures caused outrage and unrest in Norway. This was mentioned by the Icelandic scholar, Snorri Sturluson (c. 1179-1241), who wrote, “Among these statutes was also this one that Danes were to have such weight in Norway that one Danish witness was to outweigh the witnesses of ten Norwegians. Now when these laws were made known to the people there was immediate opposition and there arose grumbling as they met together” (Snorri Sturluson, Heimskringla, Saint Olaf’s Saga, chapter 239). Although Sweyn managed to hold onto power in Norway for several years under such unrestful circumstances, he was ultimately forced to flee to Denmark in 1035, when the Norwegian lords threw in their lot with Saint Olaf’s son, King Magnus the Good (r. 1035-1047).
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Cropped image labeled “Ill til Harald Haarfagres saga, by Snorre Sturlason,” artwork by Erik Werenskiold (dated 1899), [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.