This drawing, by the Norwegian artist Halfdan Egedius (c. 1877-1899), was inspired by the last battle of the Norwegian king, Olaf I Tryggvason (r. 995-1000). The end of his reign and his life came after King Olaf I was confronted by a coalition of Danes, Swedes and dissident Norwegians at the sea battle of Svold or Svolder. In the battle, King Olaf’s forces were overwhelmed and surrounded, ending with the king’s flagship, the Long Serpent, being boarded by opposing warriors. The ensuing defeat of Olaf’s fleet and the king’s last moments in the battle were described by the poet, historian and saga-writer, Snorri Sturluson (c. 1179-1241), who wrote:
“And because so great a host of the earl’s men had come aboard the Serpent—as many as there was room for—and because his ships surrounded the Serpent on all sides and there was but a small band of defenders against so many, even though they were both strong and brave, most were cut down in a short while. But both King Oláf himself and Kolbjorn leapt overboard, each on his side. The earl’s men had surrounded the Serpent with small skiffs and killed those who leapt overboard; and when the king himself had leapt into the sea they wanted to take him prisoner and bring him to the earl. But King Oláf held his shield over his head when he plunged into the sea…it was soon said by many that King Oláf probably had cast off his mail-coat under water and dived out of sight of the warships…But howsoever that be, King Oláf Tryggvason never thereafter returned to his kingdom in Norway” (Snorri Sturluson, Heimskringla, Oláfs saga Tryggvasonar, chapters 111-112).
Halfdan Egedius, in his artwork, attempts to re-create that chaotic battle. It seems to show the early portions of the fight, perhaps the back-and-forth archery skirmishing phase, before King Olaf Tryggvason’s forces were ultimately overwhelmed, boarded, and defeated by the opposing crews. Unfortunately for King Olaf—who is likely represented by the white-clothed figure standing proudly among his more shadowy fellows—the Battle of Svolder would be the end of his story. Whether he met a watery grave during the battle or somehow miraculously escaped to a peaceful retirement, Olaf Tryggvason disappeared from the historical record and never was seen again in Norway or the courts of the neighboring Nordic power-players of the age.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- Heimskringla, by Snorri Sturluson and translated by Lee Hollander. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1964, 2018.