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Viking - 9: Missionary Raider - Olaf Tryggvason Meets His Maker at Svold

Updated on June 28, 2019

"It is good to be regaled and well thought of. Unlucky it is, if ill befalls you, to have to fall back on the goodwill of your fellows".


Svold was Olaf's undoing

Otto Sinding painting of the Battle of Svold - Olaf had sown the seeds of his own downfall by imposing his new-found faith on the West Norse (Norwegians), by the sword
Otto Sinding painting of the Battle of Svold - Olaf had sown the seeds of his own downfall by imposing his new-found faith on the West Norse (Norwegians), by the sword | Source
Svold was east of the Jutland peninsula on what is now the Baltic coast of Poland. The battle was fought aboard ships chained in two rows facing. When the ships became detached it was every man for himself.
Svold was east of the Jutland peninsula on what is now the Baltic coast of Poland. The battle was fought aboard ships chained in two rows facing. When the ships became detached it was every man for himself.

From uncertain beginnings...

A child looked west from where, exiled he lived in slavery to an Estonian master, Reas. His fatherTryggvi Haraldsson had been slain by his mother Astrid's brother Harald Eiriksson, nicknamed 'Greycloak'.

As an infant he sailed in a merchant ship with his mother for Novgorod. From there they were to travel on to Kiev, where her other brother Sigurd served King Valdemar I, but were taken by Estonian freebooters. Everyone aboard was either slain or enslaved including Olaf himself. Now he stared longingly into the westerly breeze as he shivered, awaiting some kind of deliverance.

Sigurd Eiriksson was on his way through Estonia collecting tribute for Valdemar when he saw a lad who looked different from the other children around him.

'Who are you, and whose kin are you, child?' Sigurd asked.

'I am Olaf', came the hesitant answer. After all, he did not know the tall outsider. 'My father was Tryggve Olafsson, my mother - I think - is called Astrid, the daughter of King Eirik'

'Reas, I am taking the child', Sigurd knew from what the lad told him he was his lost nephew.

'I paid for him with a good cloak!' Reas objected.

'How much...?!' Sigurd had no time for the fellow, wishing to be back in Kiev as soon as he could get away from these silver-grubbing farmers that he had to almost threaten to get Valdemar's dues from them.

'Give me the saddle on that spare horse -', Reas began.

'I need that for the boy to ride on! Here, I will give you silver!' Sigurd drew his own money bag from his saddle and smacked them down onto the table Reas sat at. His wine cup jumped and fell over, spilling the wine onto his lap.

'What about these breeks you have spoilt?!' Reas demanded more silver.

'You have enough!' Sigurd almost spat the words out as he beckoned Olaf and Thorgils to follow him back to the horses.

'What happened to Thorolf and his son Thorgils?' Sigurd asked as they road across the flat lands back toward Novgorod between thick forests.

'A man called Klerkon captured us when we were on our way to Novgorod to see my uncle Sigurd -' Olaf began.

'I am Sigurd. Sorry, Olaf - you were saying?'

'Thorolf was killed because he was too old for them to be of any use. Thorgils and I were sold to a man called Klerk, and I was sold on to Reas'. Olaf pointed to a low building along the road. 'That is where Klerk lives - see, there is Thorgils!'

A reddish-haired young lad was being chased by an old woman with a besom when Sigurd stopped her,

'Hey, what are you doing to that child?'

'What is it to you? Oh, hell, you want your dues, I suppose! Take him, he is no use looking after the hogs!'

'Thorgils, come... ride with us!' Olaf shouted gleefully to his young friend. 'We are free!'

Some years later in the main market square in Novgorod Olaf spotted Klerkon. By this time Olaf had grown well, tall for his age and well built. With the axe he had been given by Sigurd he went up to the Estonian slave trader an felled him with a blow to the head. Olaf was hotly pursued by an angry mob to his protector, Queen Allogia, who felt she had to pay them blood money to rid herself of them before they got out of hand. Klerkon's kinsmen amongst the mob calmed down and began sharing out the silver before they were out of sight of Olaf. Klerkon was plainly not going to be missed!

In later years Valdemar put Olaf in charge of his household guard, but he became wary of the youth when the men befriended him. In fear of Olaf taking his place, Valdemar distanced himself. It was time for Olaf to find another lord and headed for the Eastern Sea coast. Taking ship he began a successful raiding campaign around the east, but was forced by a wild wind into taking shelter on the Wendish* coast. Queen Geira befriended Olaf and his crew, and offered room to overwinter. Friendship led to something deeper, and before long the pair were wed.

He was asked by her to reclaim lands whose lords had witheld dues from Queen Geira to her satisfaction, leading to another season of raiding, this time in the Danish territories of Skaane and Gotland on the east side of the Kattegat and Skagerrak. Whilst engaged in attacking the Danes his services were offered to the Emperor Otto by his father-in-law King Burizleif of the Wends. Otto had amassed legions of Franks, Saxons, Frisians and Wends against the Danes under King Harald Gormsson, to convert them to Christianity.

The emperor's forces were sent against the Danes manning the the Danevirke, a line of fortifications in Slesvig, southern Denmark, where they were almost broken trying to assault the strongly held fortifications. Olaf talked Otto into going round, to land in Jutland*. Harald Gormsson and his regent in Norway, Jarl Haakon were defeated and accepted Christianity at the point of the sword.

Otto, thinking his task fulfilled allowed his forces to leave, taking the road home himself. King Harald kept his new faith, even having the remains of his father Gorm 'the Old' translated to a Christian burial place at Jellinge, along with his mother's bones. Jarl Haakon went back to his old beliefs. No southerner, not even an emperor was going to take that from him!

During the next three years in the Wendish kingdom, Queen Geira sickened and died. Unable to bear her death he set out again on the raiding trail. Raiding from between Frisia to the Hebrides he terrorised those living on the coasts of the Western Sea.

In 988 Olaf sailed to attend a thing, a meetingcalled by the queen, Gytha, sister to Olaf Cuaran the King of Dublin*. She had been widowed and was searching for a husband. Many fine men showed at the thing, but Gytha picked Olaf even though he wore he seafaring clothes, and the other suitors their finery. A noble by the name of Aelfwin took offence at her decision to marry Olaf and he challenged Olaf and his men to a holmgang, a series of fights, on a river island. Although Olaf and his men won each round, not one of Aelfwin's men was wounded or killed, but were bound. Aelfwin was told to leave, and Olaf wed Gytha.

During one spate of attacks in 991 he and his men ran their three ships ashore landed on the strand of an islet off the River Thames opposite Maldon. Ealdorman Byrhtnoth, a kinsman of King Aethelred was charged with the defence of East Anglia and summoned his fyrdmen and thegns to ward off the Vikings.

'Are you such a coward that you will not let us off this islet and fight you like men?' Olaf challenged Byrthtnoth. When the tide went out his men were allowed across the causeway. Some of the ealdorman's thegns were not convinced their lord was in his right senses, allowing the Vikings so close, and their fears were realised in the end. Byrthnoth was killed by a thrown spear after being wounded, losing the use of one arm in the fighting that ensued. Olaf's men chased and cut down some of those fleeing, and plundered freely along the East Saxon river front towards London.

In 994 he came ashore on the Scilly Islands, where he had heard a seer lived. To see if the old man knew what he was about, Olaf sent another of his men in his stead. The seer was unconvinced and demanded Olaf stop playing with him,

'He should come himself!' the hermit demanded. 'I have something to tell him only he should hear!'

Olaf duly let himself be scrutinised, and told of what the hermit foresaw.

'You will be be regaled widely as king, and achieve great things. Many will let themselves be baptised on your example, both to your credit and theirs. However, when you return to your ships some will plot against you. A fight will follow, in which many of your men will die and you will be badly wounded. You yourself will be borne on your shield to your ship where you will be feverish for seven days, after which you will recover from your wounds. You will let yourself be baptised!'

As was foretold, Olaf was beset by mutineers, he was badly wounded and lay stricken by a fever for a week. He let himself be baptised by Aelfheah of Canterbury and abandoned his raiding.

During the following year word spread around Norway of a king in Dublin of Norwegian blood. Haakon Jarl heard the rumour and sent Thorir 'Klakka' to pose as a merchant and find out if this king was Tryggvi Olafsson's offspring, and if he was he should ask him to return with him for Hakon to seize him. Thorir befriended Olaf, told him of the way things were at home, and that Haakon Jarl had lost support amongst the Norwegians, taking the nobles' daughters as his mistresses. When Haakon grew tired of them, Thorir told Olaf, he sent them packing after a matter of a few weeks. He had also been sapped of support because of his rejection of Christianity. Olaf took his cue and returned to Norway just as a revolt had forced Haakon into hiding. Olaf offered a reward for finding Haakon. One of Haakon's slaves, Kark handed over his master's head. If he was expecting to be rewarded he was in for a shock. Olaf had him executed instead.

On being acknowledged king, Olaf travelled Norway widely, including those parts ruled directly by Harald Gormsson. Here he was sworn at, spat on. Instead of punishing the miscreants he demanded they be baptised. Reluctantly they agreed in fear of losing their lives should they refuse.

Olaf made Thrandheim (Trondheim) his capital, and held his first thing together with those who had deposed Haakon Jarl. He promoted Christianity, baptising Leif Eiriksson amongst others, even insisting on the Orkney islanders accepting the new faith. In his bid to become the ruler of a Christian north he offered marriage to Sigrid 'the Haughty', queen of the Svear*. She turned him down, preferring to keep faith with her old beliefs. He made an enemy of her, his friendship thrown back at him.

Svein Haraldsson, known as 'Forkbeard', had forced his sister Thyri into marrying the Wendish pagan king Boleslav. She had fled her husband, sailed to Norway and wed Olaf, embroiling her brother in a dispute with her new husband. In the end it was Thyri who was his undoing. In the year 1000 Olaf made a bid to wrest her lands from Boleslav but he was waylaid near the isle of Svold by a combined Svear-Danish-Wendish fleet under Haakon Jarl's sons. He put up a fight but was forced to accept defeat and, clad in his chain mail, with his sword and shield Olaf Tryggvason stepped overboard from his ship 'Ormen Lange' (The Long Serpent) and vanished into the depths.

*We know the kingdom of the Wends as Poland

See descriotion below
See descriotion below | Source

Told by a master craftsman of saga, Odd, son of Snorri Sturlusson, Olaf Tryggvason's saga takes you from violent beginnings to a violent end. Olaf tried to Christianise Norway at the turn of the 11th Century, as Olaf Haraldsson would do within thirty years. In trying to convert his kingdom by the sword, Olaf would not fall to the sword. His end would be different. Read on...

By river from the Eastern Sea through the lands of the Rus princes...

Here is where Olaf Tryggvason spent his fotmative years as a paid sword-hand. Holmgard was the Norse name for Novgorod, Konungagard was Kiev and Miklagard Constantinople
Here is where Olaf Tryggvason spent his fotmative years as a paid sword-hand. Holmgard was the Norse name for Novgorod, Konungagard was Kiev and Miklagard Constantinople
Olaf Tryggvason cornered at Svold - this is when he stepped onto the wall of his ship and stepped off in his armour, sword and shield in hand
Olaf Tryggvason cornered at Svold - this is when he stepped onto the wall of his ship and stepped off in his armour, sword and shield in hand

Olaf Tryggvason would not be the last to try the conversion of Norway. Olaf Haraldsson threatened those who would not convert with the sword. He was slain at Stiklestad on 29th July, AD 1030 by an alliance of his subjects who refused to follow his faith. They were helped by the Danish king, Knut. Although Christian himself, Knut sought to hold onto rule over Norway, and Olaf had drawn the Dane Jari Ulf to his cause, against his own king. Together, Olaf, Jarl Ulf and King Onund Jakob of the Swedes fought against Knut at the Helgeaa (Holy River) in Skaane four years earlier,

Long before either of these two, in the later mid-10th Century Harald 'Harfagri' ('Fair' or 'Fine Hair') had taken to Christianity; one of his sons Hakon 'the Good' had been fostered by King Aethelstan. Another son was Eirik 'Blood-axe' who had reverted to the earlier Norse gods and was made to leave Norway by half-brother Hakon because he had killed two of his brothers. He came to take up the kingship of Jorvik. That is a saga that crosses with that of court poet Egil Skallagrimsson.

Next - 10: Harald The Hard-ruler ('Hardradi')

"I heard a crack, like thunder", Olaf thought aloud. "My king, that was your kingdom being wrenched from your grip".

The answer to Olaf's voiced thought was given by his master bowman, Einar Tambarskelve. What happened to Einar after Svold is not recorded.
The answer to Olaf's voiced thought was given by his master bowman, Einar Tambarskelve. What happened to Einar after Svold is not recorded.

© 2011 Alan R Lancaster


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    • alancaster149 profile imageAUTHOR

      Alan R Lancaster 

      9 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

      Sorry about taking this long to get back, JSMatthew. Didn't know if I was on foot or on horseback! Hope you've read the other history hubs I've scratched together.

    • J.S.Matthew profile image

      JS Matthew 

      10 years ago from Massachusetts, USA

      Great Hub! Very interesting.



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