This illustration, by the Norwegian artist Adolph Tidemand (1814-1876), depicts the death of powerful Jarl (or Earl) Hákon Sigurdsson of Lade. Jarl Hákon (also spelled Haakon) was a greatly influential Norwegian noble who was involved in the death of King Harald II Graycloak of Norway (r. 961-970). Following Harald Graycloak’s demise, Jarl Hákon became the leading authority in the kingless Norwegian realm and he maintained his supremacy in the region for a remarkable reign of over two decades. Yet, his luck eventually ran out. By the mid 990s, Jarl Hákon began to lose the support of the people in his realm, and his alliances with neighboring chieftains also began to strain. Unfortunately for Hákon, his weakening political circumstances were noticed by the exiled Norwegian nobleman Olaf Tryggvason, who would bring about the jarl’s downfall.
Olaf’s father was Tryggvi Olafsson—a grandson of the first King of all Norway, Harald Finehair (ruled approximately 860-940), and cousin to the sons of King Eirik Bloodaxe (r. 940-945). These sons of Eirik had conquered Norway around 961, after they dealt a mortal wound to King Hákon the Good (r. 946-961). Although Tryggvi was related to the sons of Eirik Bloodaxe, he ultimately decided to resist their regime, and there were plenty of rebels for him to support. This brings us back to the focus of the artwork above, Jarl Hákon Sigurdsson, who led an open rebellion against the sons of Eirik after his father was assassinated in 963. Tryggvi was one of the Norwegian chieftains who joined Jarl Hákon in rebellion, but this move, unfortunately, put a target on Tryggvi’s back and he was ultimately assassinated by the sons of Eirik around 968. According to tradition, Tryggvi’s wife, Astrid, was pregnant at the time of her husband’s death. When the grim news arrived, she immediately fled from Norway and her son, Olaf Tryggvason, was reportedly born while she was on the run. Elsewhere, Jarl Hákon Sigurdsson and his allies went on to defeat the sons of Eirik, killing the most prominent brother, the aforementioned King Harald Graycloak, in 970.
While Jarl Hákon Sigurdsson was enjoying his power in Norway, young Olaf was growing up in exile. Olaf Tryggvason traveled widely while he was living abroad. As told in the sagas, he and his mother traveled to Sweden and then to the lands of the Rus. He later adventured and battled as a Viking, and somehow became a companion of King Sweyn Forkbeard of Denmark, allowing him to join the Danish king on great Viking expeditions against England in 991 and 994. Therefore, Olaf was a powerful, wealthy and experienced Viking warlord when he decided to return to Norway and challenge the weakened Jarl Hákon Sigurdsson for power in the Norwegian realm.
Olaf Tryggvason launched his bid for power around 995. As the story goes, the disgruntled common masses of Norway quickly and overwhelmingly threw in their support with the newly arrived Olaf. With the public in revolt, Jarl Hákon Sigurdsson could not muster much of a defense force, and this realization prompted the jarl to go into hiding. Nevertheless, this choice made his position go from bad to worse. Jarl Hákon’s decision to lay low and hide caused the morale of his supporters to plummet. Adding to the tension, Olaf subsequently let news circulate that anyone who betrayed the hiding jarl would be honored and rewarded. Suffice it to say, Hákon Sigurdsson’s life was in grave danger.
Unfortunately for Jarl Hákon, his location was known by followers who were beginning to question their loyalty. This brings us to the other main character in the painting, Kark, a thrall in Jarl Hákon’s service. As the story goes, he was tempted by Olaf Tryggvason’s promises of honors and rewards for those who would betray Hákon. While he pondered over this temptation, Kark was also prodded to action by growing paranoia over whether the jarl was beginning to doubt his loyalty. In the end, Kark did, indeed, decide to betray his lord and ultimately assassinated him. The Icelandic scholar, Snorri Sturluson (c. 1179-1241), described this dark deed, writing, “Kark grew frightened and alarmed. He took a big knife from his belt and cut the earl’s throat, then slashed it clean through, and that was Earl Hákon’s death. Then Kark cut off the earl’s head and ran away with it. Next day he entered the estate at Hlathir and presented the earl’s head to King Oláf” (Snorri Sturluson, Heimskringla, Saga of Olaf Tryggvason, chapter 49). If Kark had believed that Olaf Tryggvason—now proclaimed to be King Olaf of Norway—would dole out honors and rewards for the deed of murdering Hákon Sigurdsson, then the assassin was sorely mistaken. Instead of giving him money or titles, King Olaf Tryggvason ironically sentenced Kark to death by beheading.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- Heimskringla, by Snorri Sturluson and translated by Lee Hollander. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1964, 2018.