Today, History Fans, we are going to look at the amazing life of Olaf Tryggvason. His story can be found in Snorri Sturluson’s masterpiece, Heimskringla, or, The History of the Kings of Norway. The lovable Snorri traces the lineage of kings, starting the Ynglings and all the way down through the last of the Magnuses. You might remember this book when I used it to illustrate Snorri’s bizarre urge to convince us all that the gods were really great kings who hoodwinked the old Scandinavians into believing they were more than men. Once he excuses his ancestors, however, Snorri rekindles his excellent story-telling demeanor and trudges through the lives of the men who held the Norwegian throne, including the fascinating tale of Olaf Tryggvason.
In order to understand the craziness of Olaf’s life, we need to understand the shape of Norway at the time of his birth. Harald Fairahair had “unified” Norway around 872. He had defeated all of the petty kingdoms that had come to define Norway for years. This made him a lot of enemies, many of which fled to Iceland as we saw in The Book of Settlements. On the eve of Harald’s death, however, he split up his kingdom like a moron. Instead of just handing over his life’s work to one heir, he divided it up between his twenty-some sons. Each son was dissatisfied with his lot and wanted more than what their father hand left them. Too many cocks in the hen house, right? Erik Bloodaxe was Harald’s favorite, but since he was a cuckoo, blood-thirsty Viking, he did not win the popular vote with the farmers. Instead, Hakon the Good, one of Harald’s sons, took up the crown. However, since Harald botched the whole thing, there now existed other “kings” in Norway. Probably more like earls, these powerful men maintained certain districts with a decent amount of autonomy. Hakon the Good set up his pal Tryggvi as a “king” in the Vik district. Tryggvi enjoyed all the benefits of being a lesser king in the Vik. That is, until Hakon’s death.
After Hakon died, the sons of Erik Bloodaxe scrambled for power in Norway. One of his sons, Harald Graycloak took the throne, but it was Erik’s widow, Gunnhild, who really called the shots. She and her sons attempted to do away with the earls and the kings, like Tryggvi, so that the sons of Erik could enjoy the tributes and the power that was meant for the sons of Harald. Guthroth, another of Erik’s brood, cut down Tryggvi in order to take the important Vik district. And that is where the story of Olaf Tryggvason really begins.
Scared for her life and for the life of her unborn child, Tryggvi’s wife Astrith makes a run for it. She is accompanied by her foster-father as she runs through the countryside. She eventually makes it to a small island where she gives birth Olaf Tryggvason. At this point, Gunnhild discovers that Tryggvi might have a son. She sends the terrible sons of Erik after Astrith. The last thing they need is someone to challenge their royal claims, especially someone who would have vengeance on the brain! Astrith finds her way into Sweden, where Hakon the Old takes her in. The horrible and disgusting sons of Erik follow her to Sweden and even get permission from the King of Sweden to take Astrith and her son Olaf back to Norway. When they get to Hakon the Old’s farmstead, the old man hides the woman and child and refuses to hand them over to the stinking, snarling, no-good sons of Erik.
Astrith knew she couldn’t stay with Hakon the Old with her enemies so close at hand. She decides to travel east at the invitation of her brother, Sigurth, who has been in the service of Vladamir the Great in Russia for a number of years. Hakon the Old sends her off with a decent company and a small skiff. And just when you think she and young Olaf are safe, they are captured by Vikings in the Baltic! Then, they are sold into slavery! Olaf was first bought by a man in exchange for a goat, then another by a good cloak. Separated from his mother, Olaf grew up a lonely slave on a farm in Estonia.
Then one day, Olaf’s luck finally changed. His maternal uncle, Sigurth, who was Astrith’s intended destination, happened to be in Estonia on official business for Vladamir the Great. Sigurth spotted Olaf, an obvious foreigner who towered above the other boys. He questioned the young Olaf about who he was and where he came from. Learning that this was indeed his nephew, not to mention a possible future king of Norway, Sigurth bought the boy from his owner and took him back to Novgorod. But his troubles didn’t end there! At one point, Olaf saw and recognized the Viking who had captured himself and his mother and killed him on the spot. At the request of Sigurth, Olaf was then kept under the protection of King Vladamir and his bride, Queen Allogia of Garthariki.
Stop! We need to now go back and look at what’s been happening in Norway since Olaf’s exile. The last we saw, the sniveling, wretched, butt-munching sons of Erik were carving up the country and getting rid of the powerful men like Olaf’s father. One such powerful man put up a much stronger fight, though. Earl Hakon had taken over for his father as the ruler in the important Trondheim district. He had kept the evil sons of Erik at bay and even maintained his autonomy within his district. However, he eventually buckled and fled to Denmark, where he thrived in the court of King Harald of Denmark. This dude was cunning. He devised a genius plan that involved three Haralds. See if you can hang on here: King Harald of Denmark, King Harald Graycloack of Norway (stupid son of Erik), and Gold-Harald, the ambitious nephew of the Danish King, who believed he had a pretty good claim to his uncle’s throne. Gold-Harald was getting restless and confessed to Hakon that he wanted to challenge his uncle. King Harald, too, confessed to Hakon that his nephew was growing too big for his britches and asked his friend for advice. So Hakon hatched this devious plan: Gold-Harald wanted to rule a country, but King Harald did not want to give up any of his domain. Hakon invited the King of Norway, Harald Graycloak, to Denmark on the pretense that they owed him some tribute. Harald Graycloak was wary, but Norway was in bad shape at the time and he needed the extra money. Gold-Harald would be waiting for Harald Graycloak with the men and the blessing of the King of Denmark. Instead of giving him a piece of his own country, the king would give his nephew a whole different country to rule! So, Gold-Harald attacked Harald Graycloak on his way to Denmark and was victorious. But Hakon was deceitful. Not long after the victory, he found Gold-Harald, beat him in battle, and hanged him. Hakon had used Gold-Harald to get rid of his enemy and then double crossed Gold-Harald in order to eliminate a rival claim to the throne. He then sailed to Norway, with King Harald of Denmark’s blessing, and became the accepted ruler, an earl somewhat in service to the Danish crown.
Back to Olaf: Things were getting pretty hairy in the court of King Vladamir. He became the commander of the king’s army, as well as a member of the queen’s personal bodyguard. Rumors started flying about his relationship with the queen, who was very fond of Olaf. Seeing the mess he was about to be in, Olaf joined a ship crew and went Viking in the Baltic. Olaf eventually found himself in Wendland, which is in Northern Germany, present day Pomerania. The King of Wendland, Boreslav I, had a daughter, Geira, who took Olaf’s eye and eventually his hand in marriage. He made his home in Wendland but continued to raid throughout the Baltic.
Then, worlds start to collide. Otto II of Germany threatened King Harald of Denmark that if he didn’t accept Christ and get religion, he would invade and force him to be baptized at sword point. Just like Jesus intended! Well, King Harald wasn’t going to let go of his heathen ways that easily. He called upon his sort-of-vassal, Earl Hakon of Norway to come back him up in case of a fight. On the other side, Otto requested assistance from his neighbor Boreslav and his wonderful son-in-law… Olaf Tryggvason! Worlds colliding!
After a few battles, Otto II is victorious. According to the deal, the heathens were to be baptized. King Harald was unconvinced until Bishop Poppo grabbed smoldering hot iron in the name of the Lord and showed his unburned, uninjured hands to Harald. So, the King of Denmark was baptized, as was his sidekick, Earl Hakon of Norway. Otto II gave Harald and Hakon some clerics, priests, and learn-ed men to help them set up their new Christian nations. Harald seemed to be sincere in his conversion, while Hakon, as soon as he was out of sight of the others, dropped off all the Christians on his way home and made them walk to shore. What a bad ass!
Olaf returned to Wendland after the battle to find his beloved Geira had passed away. With nothing left for him in the Baltic, Olaf returned to the Viking life, wreaking havoc upon England, Ireland, and the Northern Atlantic. In fact, he probably joined forces with Svein Forkbeard, son of King Harald of Denmark, at some point in the tormenting of England, which eventually led to Svein conquering the country, and, of course, our favorite dude: King CNUT!
Olaf married Gytha, a daughter of an Irish King, and settled down in northern England. Earl Hakon catches wind that Olaf Tryggvason is indeed alive and not too far away. Old, cunning Hakon devises a plan to lure Olaf back to Norway in order to have him killed. But the plan doesn’t come to fruition. Hakon has a major flaw: women. He has slept with so many of the farmers’ wives that the country has turned against him. By the time Olaf returns to Norway, Hakon has been murdered and the throne left wide open. Talk about your all-time backfires!
So, finally, the scared little former slave returns to his home and becomes king! Hooray! Wait a second…the scared little former slave has turned into a religious nut and is converting Norway the way God intended: through violence! An interesting side note: those dastardly, sons-of-bitches, rude dudes with attitudes, rotten-to-the-core sons of Erik had tried years earlier to convert the farmers. So had Hakon the Good! They were absolutely appalled at the idea that they had to stop working on Sundays. They thought for sure that the kings were trying to starve them, keep them in the dark, or pull a fast one on them. But there had at least been a discussion. King Olaf used his sword for talking. Only when he met substantial resistance would he stop to listen. The people Rogaland said that they would become Christians if the king’s sister would marry their kinsmen, Erling. His sister refuses because Erling is just a commoner. So King Olaf gives Erling an earldom and forces his sister to marry the guy.
Again, he meets resistance with the Trondheim farmers. They refuse to convert and instead demand that the king sacrifice with them to the old gods. Olaf says he will make the ultimate sacrifices to Odin: human sacrifices. He then reads off a list of the names of the most prominent chieftains and leaders of the Trondheim district. These men, he says, will have the honor of being sacrificed. Seeing the trap, the farmers have no choice but to bend the knee and be baptized. More than anything, though, we see the farmers from both districts are less concerned with losing their old faith and more upset that their king is breaking laws. It was Hakon the Good who had really helped develop the Gulathing and the laws that came to define medieval Norway and later medieval Iceland. And their king was trouncing upon those laws as if they meant nothing. These Scandinavians of the Viking Age cared more about their freedom and their liberty than they did about religion. I can relate.
As Olaf grew older, he was mainly concerned with forcing those around him to convert to Christianity. He had already spread the good news to the Orkney's and the surrounding islands, and he was also meddling in Iceland’s affairs, sending the awful Thangbrand, as well as Gizur the White, to help in the conversion process there. But Olaf had one last adventure up his sleeve that involved his old buddy, Svein Forkbeard, and his former father-in-law, King Boreslav.
Years ago, Svein had been captured by the Wends. He wriggled out of trouble by marrying Boreslav’s daughter, Gunnhild, and by promising Boreslav his own sister’s hand in marriage. Svein’s sister, Thyri, had no desire to be a Boreslav’s wife. And the first chance she got, she fled from Wendland. She couldn’t go to Denmark for fear that her brother, now the king, would ship her straight back. So she went to Norway to seek Olaf’s protection. King Olaf liked what he saw and asked Thyri to marry him when she was supposed to marry his ex-father-in-law! What the heck, Olaf?! Thyri agreed, but soon proved to be much more trouble than she was worth. She complained about life in Norway and finally goaded Olaf into challenging Boreslav for her property and lands in Wendland.
Refusing to be challenged by a woman, Olaf sets sail for Wendland. But there is a secret alliance waiting for him. Svein Forkbeard has had enough of Olaf. He and the King of Sweden, also named Olaf, joined forces to take down King Olaf once and for all. They were joined by Earl Erik the son of the insatiable ladies-man, Earl Hakon. A huge battle ensues. Snorri is incredibly descriptive about the battle tactics and the carnage. Svein and Olaf of Sweden are no match for Olaf Tryggvason. But it is his fellow Norwegian, Earl Erik, who proves to be too much. Olaf is wounded during the fight and jumps overboard. Some say he drowned. Others say he swam to shore. Sightings of him start popping up around the Viking world but none are confirmed. It’s a mystery!
Norway is then divided between the victors. Earl Erik gets his hands on the Trondheim, Svein Forkbeard takes the Vik, and Olaf of Sweden gets a small share that he puts in the hands of another son of Hakon, Svein! The sons of Hakon were both baptized, but they allow both Christianity and the old religion to exist in their Norway. And so ends the saga of Olaf Tryggvason. There is plenty to learn from Olaf and his crazy life, but in the end, it is simply a very good story. A troubled past that invokes sympathy. A tortured and insane future that makes you hate him. He’s like John Locke! I hope you’ve enjoyed it as much as I have. It will be a while until our next update as I attempt to swallow Snorri’s next treat: The Saga of St. Olaf. We also learned what kind of nutballs religion can turn us into. Until next time, History Fans. Keep the faith and force it on your neighbors.