Norse King Case Studies
Aerial photograph of the trelleborg (ring-fortress) west of Slagelse, a western town on the eastern Danish island of Zealand. Image sourced from Wikimedia Commons.
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.
Harald’s origins, the extent of his kingdom and the length of his reign are unclear. The only contemporary references to Harald are in skaldic poetry, which only provide his name and describe his victory at the Battle of Hafrsfjord. Thjodolf of Hvinir and Thorbjorn Horn-cleaver are the only named poets whose verses about Harald have survived. The earliest details about Harald’s life and reign appear in twelfth-century narratives, such as the Norwegian synoptic histories and Islendingabok. The greatest detail is found in Heimskringla, but this is among the latest of the written sources. Skaldic poetry provides no clear information about Harald’s origins, although they do link him to areas in Rogaland. The sagas claim that Harald’s forefathers were kings in Viken in southeastern Norway, but it is possible that this connection was invented centuries after Harald’s death to connect him to the legendary kings of Ynglingatal. Scholars now argue that Harald was actually the offspring of a dynasty based in Rogaland. Furthermore, Islendingabok and Heimskringla differ in the dates they attach to Harald’s reign. Different sources also disagree on the extent of Harald’s power. Most sources suggest that Harald united all of Norway, whereas the Historia Norwegie suggests that his power over the interior was limited.
Extent of power: Traditionally, historians regarded Harald as the creator of the kingdom of Norway and its basic hierarchical structure. Heimskringla describes numerous rulers submitting to Harald from eastern Norway to as far north as Namdalen. Even if the sagas are accurate in their accounts, however, it is unlikely that Harald had direct rule in all of these areas. Beyond the heartland of his power in western Norway, Harald’s rule is likely to have been more than a loose overlordship: an arrangement with local rulers to pay him tribute, without him interfering with their kingdoms or local power structures to any great extent.
Domestic Policy: Heimskringla credits Harald with establishing the subordinate positions of jarl and hersir. However, there is no evidence that such a systematic hierarchy ever existed—even in Heimskringla. After Harald’s reign, very few individuals are described as a jarl or a hersir, whereas a number of subordinate regional rulers are described as kings. There are also individuals, such as the hersir Erling Skjalgsson, who wield far more power than their official title would suggest (Erling ruled the entirety of western Norway from c. 996–1028).
Foreign Policy: Although Harald’s foreign policy is unclear (although Heimskringla and the Saga of the People of Orkney claim that he conquered Orkney and Shetland, there is not strong evidence of this), he plays as a prominent role in twelfth- and thirteenth-century literature as a tyrannical figure who drove many Norwegian landowners to flee overseas after he confiscated their odal rights. This narrative is particularly apparent in the Icelandic text of Landnamabok. If Harald’s power did not extend far beyond western Norway, however, these claims of tyranny may have been exaggerated order to provide a noble cause for the earliest Icelandic settlers.
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.
Olaf’s activities in the British Isles are documented in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. For example, it is likely that he can be identified in the entry for 991 describing the infamous Battle of Maldon, which was commemorated in the Old English poem of the same name. These references cease when Olaf returned to Norway, and for his reign we are dependent once more upon skaldic poetry, the Kings’ Sagas and Adam of Bremen. Adam is particularly unflattering in his portrayal, casting Olaf as a violent pagan, but this should be taken with a grain of salt as it was undoubtedly influenced by the pro-Danish, anti-Norwegian perspective of Adam’s informant King Sven Astridsen. The sagas and other Icelandic sources (such as Islendingabok) are much more complimentary, crediting Olaf with the conversion of much of coastal Norway and the Norse colonies in the North Atlantic (including Iceland).
Extent of Power: Olaf was able to gain control of almost all of coastal Norway, even receiving the submission of the people of Viken, which had previously been under Danish control. He was also the first reigning Norwegian monarch to visit the northernmost district of Halogaland and may therefore have been the first to wield meaningful power there.
Domestic Policy: Olaf is credited with the foundation of Trondheim in Trondelag as the first Norwegian royal town. This town quickly supplanted the power centre of the Jarls of Lade, only two kilometres away. This began the slow transition away from itinerant monarchy, whereby kings were required to travel between the halls of chieftains to renew alliances and accept taxation in the form of food renders, towards an administrative system in which taxation in the regions was managed by centralised bureaucracies in the royal towns.
Foreign Policy: Olaf’s relationships with fellow rulers were in part defined by his career prior to becoming king. As a mercenary in the British Isles, Olaf had ultimately sided with Athelred the Unready and helped to beat back the raids of Sven Forkbeard. In return, Athelred had supported his bid to become king of Norway. Sven, whose father Harald Bluetooth had claimed overlordship of Norway, also coveted this title. This antipathy was exacerbated by Olaf’s conquest of Viken and his marriage to Sven’s sister Thyra, for which the Danish ruler did not give his permission. In 1000, Olaf sailed into the Baltic to try and regain Thyra’s lands from her previous husband, King Boleslaw of the Wends, but was ambushed and killed at Svolder by Sven and his allies.
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.
Harald’s reign is attested from as early as the 960s. At the site of Harald’s power base at Jelling are two mounds, one of which was raised to house the remains of Harald’s father, Gorm. Between the two mounds is a magnificent rune stone, which bears the inscription ‘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’. Harald is also referred to in contemporary German sources, such as the chronicle of Widukind of Corvey, who describes Harald’s conversion to Christianity. The most detailed account of Harald’s reign comes from the work of Adam of Bremen, written in around 1085. Adam got much of his information from Harald’s great grandson, King Sven Estridsen, but his account of Harald’s reign is inaccurate in certain particulars (such as his account of Harald’s conversion, which differs dramatically from Widukind’s). Harald’s relationship with Norwegian rulers can only be gleaned from sagas such as Heimskringla.
Extent of Power: At points throughout his reign, Harald is believed to have ruled over Jutland, the islands of Zealand and Funen, Scania and Viken. It is possible that he ruled these areas directly (as is indicated by the Trelleborg fortresses). Despite having his heartland in Jelling, Harald lost control of most of Jutland to German forces for much of his reign. Harald’s offspring relocated their power to Roskilde in Zealand. Harald’s claim on the Jelling stone to have won Norway may refer to his control of Viken but is more likely to suggest some form of overlordship with successive Norwegian rulers such as Harald Greycloak and Jarl Hakon of Lade. Both of these rulers reportedly threw off this overlordship, suggesting Harald’s practical control of Norway was limited.
Domestic Policy: The most significant aspect of Harald’s domestic policy is his claim to have converted the Danes to Christianity. According to Widukind, Harald was converted by the missionary Poppo, after the latter performed an ordeal by carrying hot iron. It is, however, possible that Christianity had already made some progress among the population of Denmark, due to the missionary activities of Anskar in the ninth century. During Harald’s reign, a series of impressive public works were undertaken that attest to the king’s direct power and ability to call draw upon local labour and resources. The most significant of these public works are the so-called Trelleborg fortresses: ring-shaped earth ramparts enclosing central longhouses. These fortresses are likely to have been primarily administrative rather than defensive. As in contemporary Anglo-Saxon England, the king’s subjects may have been required to maintain the defences and garrisons of the fortresses as a form of taxation or military service. Despite this indication of central control, Adam of Bremen relates that Harald’s reign ended with an uprising led by his son, Sven Forkbeard.
Foreign Policy: Relations with the German Empire to the south dominated Harald’s foreign policy. The empire was a looming threat throughout the ninth and tenth centuries. Harald’s decision to convert to Christianity may have been partially motivated by a desire to minimise the threat posed by the pagan Danes to the Christian emperors. However, Harald was prepared to be antagonistic. In retaliation for Danish raids in northern Germany, Otto II invaded and occupied southern Jutland from c. 974–983. Harald was eventually able to beat back the German forces with the assistance of the Obodrite Slavs. Harald also cultivated diplomatic relations with surrounding kingdoms by means of marriage alliances. Throughout his reign, he was married to Thora, the daughter of Prince Mistivoj of the Obodrites, and Gyrid, whose brother Styrbjorn was a contender for the Swedish throne (which in c. 980 went to his cousin Olaf Skotkonung).
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.
Sources for early medieval Sweden are less comprehensive than those for Denmark and Norway. Denmark received a lot of attention in contemporary sources and Norway formed the main focus for Icelandic Kings’ Sagas. Nevertheless, Olaf Skotkonung receives does receive attention in Heimskringla, although his opposition to successive Norwegian kings Olaf Tryggvason and Olaf Haraldsson guaranteed that this portrayal was not favourable. A more favourable account is found in the work of Adam of Bremen, who describes Olaf’s attempts to convert the Swedes. Olaf’s reign is unique among those examined, however, for being attested by numismatic evidence, i.e., by the coins that Olaf had minted in his name in the royal town of Sigtuna during his reign.
Extent of Power: Sweden was not a unified kingdom for the majority of the Viking Age. Instead, it was comprised of a number of petty kingdoms, of which the most powerful were the kingdom of the Svear, based around the capital of Uppsala in Uppland, and the kingdom of Gautar in Gotaland. Olaf Skotkonung is credited with becoming the first known ruler to become king of both of these polities. However, it is possible that he never controlled both at the same time. The nature of Swedish kingship limited the ability of the king to exercise power of an unwilling populace. Particularly in Uppland, aristocratic assemblies played an important role in Swedish politics and were able to overrule the decisions made by the monarch. The intransigence of the Uppsala assembly forced Olaf to relocate his power base from Uppland to Gotaland, where he was more successful in implementing his Christian agenda. It is unclear whether he continued to exercise (at best limited) power in Uppsala from this point. Furthermore, even in Gotaland he was beholden to the whim of the peasantry, who forced him to accept terms with Olaf Haraldsson towards the end of his reign.
Domestic Policy: Olaf is known for being one of the first Scandinavian kings to have coins struck in his name. Coinage was an innovation in late Viking Age Scandinavia and the ability for rulers to mint their own coins was a significant indicator of both their prestige and the administrative power they commanded. Despite this, Olaf encountered many difficulties in trying to establish a centralised administrative framework in Sweden due to the resistance of his subjects. Most significantly, the Christian king’s attempts to the convert the kingdom were staunchly resisted by the Uppsala assembly, forcing Olaf to relocate to Gotaland. Nonetheless, Olaf was able to create the first semblance of a Christian infrastructure in Gotaland by creating the bishopric of Skara.
Foreign Policy: Olaf’s epithet ‘skotkonung’ (tribute king) is usually taken to mean that he was had acknowledged the overlordship of his step-father, Sven Forkbeard, a relationship which can explain the presence of Swedish forces on the side of the Danes at the Battle of Svolder. However, this does not necessarily mean that Olaf was not a powerful king on the Scandinavian stage in his own right. Furthermore, following Sven’s death he did not accept the overlordship of his son and successor Knut the Great, creating tension between the two. He was allied to the Obodrites through his marriage to Estrid, an Obodrite princess. Olaf’s poor diplomatic relations with Norway were renewed 15 years after the death of Olaf Tryggvason with the accession of Olaf Haraldsson. According to the sagas, diplomatic conflicts of diplomatic marriages led to tit for tat conflict between the two kings, until the unimpressed Swedish peasantry forced Olaf Skotkonung to come to terms with the Norwegian ruler.
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.