Norse King Case Studies
Although the Viking Age is named for the impact of Scandinavian activities throughout Northern Europe, the channels of communication those activities created worked both ways, and rapidly European political, religious and cultural influences began to flow back to Scandinavia, fundamentally changing its social landscape. In this period, unified kingdoms with signs of centralised administrations began to arise from the jumble of petty kingdoms and chieftaincies that had previously existed and the polities that would eventually become the kingdoms of Norway, Denmark and Sweden began to develop.
This module addresses the development of kingship in Viking Age Scandinavia through case studies of four kings: Harald Finehair and Olaf Tryggvason of Norway, Harald Bluetooth of Denmark and Olaf Skotkonung of Sweden. In the process, three key areas of discussion are highlighted:
How did the concept of Viking Kingship evolve in Scandinavia throughout the Viking Age?
What is the evidence for the lives and actions and the following kings?
Which of the following kings had the most/least impact?
King of Norway (c. 870–c. 931)
Harald Finehair is traditionally considered the first king to unify the kingdom of Norway. According to Harald’s saga in Heimskringla, Harald inherited a kingdom in southeastern Norway from his father Halfdan the Black. Following a campaign in which he received the submission of petty kings throughout the Norwegian interior and Trøndelag, Harald won the Battle of Hafrsfjord in Rogaland in the southwest, thus achieving the submission of the remaining Norwegian petty kings and becoming sole king of Norway. All subsequent kings of Norway claimed descent from him. Saga sources also identify Harald’s tyrannical regime as the catalyst for Norwegian migration to Iceland and the British Isles.
Illustration of Harald Finehair in the late fourteenth-century Icelandic manuscript Flateyjarbok. This image has been sourced from Handrit.is.
King of Norway (995-1000)
Olaf Tryggvason’s rule of Norway was brief but impactful. Olaf was the son of the petty king of Vestfold, who was killed by King Harald Greycloak. Following a career as a raider and mercenary in the British Isles and Ireland, Olaf returned to Norway to claim the throne, which was then occupied by Jarl Hakon of Lade. Olaf was the first of Norway’s great missionary kings (the second being St Olaf Haraldsson, who ruled from 1016–1028). His reign is most notable for his rather aggressive policy of Christianisation in Norway, confiscating land and even killing recalcitrant pagan nobles. He also did not cultivate good relations with the kings of Denmark and Sweden. After a brief but eventful reign, he was ambushed and killed while sailing in the Baltic at the unknown location of Svolder by the combined forces of King Sven Forkbeard of Denmark, King Olaf Skotkonung of Sweden and Jarl Erik of Lade (the son of Jarl Hakon).
Illustration of Olaf Tryggvason in the late fourteenth-century Icelandic manuscript Flateyjarbok. This image has been sourced from Handrit.is.
Photograph of the runestone of Harald Bluetooth, the older of the two Jelling stones. The runes on this side read: 'King Harald commanded this stone to be raised in memory of Gorm, his father, and Thyrvi, his mother. That [same] Harald who won all of Denmark and Norway and made the Danes Christian'. The image has been sourced from Wikimedia Commons, and is freely available under the CC BY-SA 3.0 licence.
King of Denmark (c. 958–c. 985)
Harald Bluetooth is regarded as the founder of the Danish monarchy, which has remained intact until the present day. Based at Jelling on the Jutland peninsula, Harald is credited with unifying the Danish kingdom on the basis of dynastic claims established through the marriage of his parents Gorm and Thyrvi. The area of his direct rule spread from Jutland to Scania (now part of Sweden) and Viken (southeastern Norway). Harald’s reign is known for his interactions with neighbouring polities. The sagas credit him with securing the submission of various Norwegian rulers, allowing him to claim loose overlordship of Norway. In the 960s, Harald converted to Christianity and began the process of establishing a Christian infrastructure in Denmark.
King of Sweden (c. 995–1022)
Olaf Skotkonung (tribute king) was considered to be the first king of Sweden in medieval king lists and may have been the first to rule both of the petty kingdoms of Uppland and Gotaland, although the extent to which he united the two kingdoms is unclear. His reign is known most for his ongoing conflicts with Norwegian kings and his unsuccessful attempts to Christianise his kingdom. He is also the first known Swedish king to have minted coins in his own name.
A coin of Olaf Skotkonung, probably minted in Sigtuna. The image has been sourced from Wikimedia Commons, and is freely available under the CC BY-SA 3.0 licence.
Maps of key locations
Each of the four maps in the slideshow below identify the key locations for each of the kings named above. The base image used for all of these maps has been sourced from Wikimedia Commons, and is freely available under the CC BY-SA 3.0 licence.