Religious Tolerance In The Reign of Hákon The Good Of Norway

Harald Finehair, the first king to unite Norway, is believed to have retired or died around the year 940, ending his momentous reign. His ruthless son, Eirik Bloodaxe, succeeded to the throne and killed several of his brothers while trying to press his claim as the next ruler of all Norway. During his short, but bloody, reign, Eirik lost not only the support of the average Norwegian farmer, but also of the nobility, who were the backbone of the king’s power.

Hákon was the name of Eirik’s youngest brother. Harald Finehair had arranged for this son to be raised by the powerful King Athelstan (r. 925-939), the first true king of all England. The young Norwegian prince was well-received by King Athelstan and he must also have gained the respect of Athelstan’s brother, King Edmund I (r. 939-946), for Hákon received aid from England when he decided to challenge Eirik Bloodaxe for the throne of Norway around 945.

According to the sagas, Hákon’s first step in usurping power in Norway was to gain the support of Jarl Sigurd (or Sigurth) in Hlathir, the dominant figure of the Trondheim region. As Eirik Bloodaxe had not won many friends among the Norwegian nobility, it was not difficult for Hákon to bring Jarl Sigurd over to his side, but the jarl was more than just a bribed official—he would go on to be one of Hákon’s most trusted lieutenants.

Jarl Sigurd was reportedly a charismatic speaker, and he successfully convinced the farmers of Trondheim and Uppland to hear Hákon speak. The people were evidently won over by Hákon’s promises of restoring land rights to the farmers, and in return, they promptly declared him to be their king. With jarls and commoners alike both defecting to Hákon, Eirik Bloodaxe decided to flee Norway and start a new life in England. As a result, King Hákon took control of Norway around the year 946 in a virtually bloodless coup.

King Hákon would have a decently lengthy reign in Norway, ruling until his death in 961. The support he received from the Norwegian population was an impressive feat considering the key difference that separated him from his countrymen—he was a Christian ruling over a kingdom that worshipped Norse gods.

During his stay in England, Hákon had converted to Christianity and he still professed this faith when he became king of Norway. In contrast, most of the Norwegians that he ruled, including Jarl Sigurd, retained their traditional belief in the old gods and were not receptive to the idea of an evangelist king. Sensing the weary, if not hostile, attitude toward his religion, Hákon began his reign by practicing his Christian beliefs in secret, while simultaneously doing nothing to impede the traditional religious ceremonies of his people.

When King Hákon had ousted Eirik Bloodaxe and believed that he had obtained the support of the Norwegian people, the king decided to practice his religion more openly. As the stories go, he requested for a bishop and priests to come over from Britain to organize the construction of churches. Yet, the Norwegian Jarls and chieftains were hostile toward these new arrivals and allegedly murdered the priests and burned down the foundations that had been constructed for three planned churches.

Instead of mustering an army and creating a civil war over the wrongful deaths of the priests, King Hákon was said to have allowed the people of Norway to debate in local assemblies about whether they wanted to adopt or tolerate Christianity in their respective regions. When the assemblies ultimately refused to convert, Hákon apparently did not press the issue. Instead, he tried to find a way forward that would allow him to practice his own Christian beliefs, while also being able to participate in his kingdom’s traditional Norse ceremonies.

As portrayed in the sagas and skaldic poems, King Hákon was never a man to flee from a battle, even when greatly outnumbered. Yet, when it came to religion, the king was incredibly lenient and diplomatic. For the sake of national unity, King Hákon worked with his friend, Jarl Sigurd, to find ways he could participate in Norse religious ceremonies, such as sacrificial feasts. The Icelandic historian and saga writer, Snorri Sturluson (c. 1179-1241), wrote about a few such supposed ploys, including Hákon making the sign of the cross over a horn of ale before drinking a ceremonial toast to Odin, and, on another occasion, breathing in fumes from a sacrificial meal as a substitute of actually partaking of any sacrificed meat. On the other hand, if his people were particularly grumbly during a sacrificial feast, it was not unheard of for King Hákon to take a small sip from a ceremonial horn or to eat a sliver of sacrificed meat in order to placate his people.

According to the sagas and poems, King Hákon was surprised in 961 by an invasion launched by the sons of Eirik Bloodaxe. These sons had been living in exile ever since Hákon usurped the throne of Norway, and the refugee brothers used nearby safe havens, such as Denmark, for launching attacks and raids against their father’s former kingdom. In the 961 invasion, the sons of Eirik Bloodaxe reportedly caught King Hákon off-guard and heavily outnumbered in the vicinity of Fitjar, Norway. In adherence to his heroic flaw, Hákon decided to attack instead of flee—he was said to have won the resulting battle, but suffered a mortal wound during the fight. Knowing he was dying and cognizant of the fact that he had no sons, King Hákon reportedly gave his kingdom willingly to his defeated killers, the sons of Eirik Bloodaxe.

Despite his differences with his countrymen, Hákon was a greatly loved figure and he eventually became known by the title, King Hákon the Good. The respect that the king received from his people is palpable in the poem, Hákonarmál (Lay of Hákon), written by Eyvind Skáldaspillir, who was one of King Hákon’s Norse vassals. In it, the poet mentions Hákon’s religious toleration:

“Then it was seen     how that sea-king had
honored the ancient altars
since that Hákon     hailed and welcomed,
all gods and heavenly hosts.”
(Hákonarmál, stanza 18, trans. Lee M. Hollander)

In the final stanzas of the poem, Eyvind Skáldaspillir went on to write of his belief that no other king would surpass Hákon in benevolence before the apocalypse of Ragnarok:

“On a good day is born     that great-souled lord
who hath a heart like his.
His time will aye     be told of on earth,
As good and glorious.

Unfettered will fare     the Fenris Wolf
And ravage the realm of men,
Ere that cometh     a kingly prince
As good, to stand in his stead.”
(Hákonarmál, stanzas 19 and 20, trans. Lee M. Hollander)


Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (Cropped section of an artwork labeled Håkon Jarl og Kark, made by Adolph Tidemand in 1845, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the National Museum of Norway).


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