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Viking - 21: Orkney - King Olaf's Verdict on Thorfinn Leads to a Change of Leadership

Updated on June 1, 2019

"Only fools hope to live forever by escaping their foes. Age offers no peace though the spear may spare them".


Warriors of the flame - the light of Orkney will soon be doused, however!
Warriors of the flame - the light of Orkney will soon be doused, however! | Source

Jarl Thorfinn sent Thorkel meanwhile to gather tribute in Orkney.

Einar held Thorkel answerable for the uprising when Thorfinn claimed his part of the islands, and Thorkel hastened back to Katanes to relay Einar's wish to have him done away with. Had friends and kinsmen not warned him, Thorkel said, he would not have left Orkney alive.

'Now I have a choice', Thorkel told his foster-son. 'Either I square up to Einar and settle this thing, or go far enough away he will be unable to lay his hands on me'.

Jarl Thorfinn agreed and counselled his leaving for Norway to speak to the king,

'You will gain the respect of the highest-born. I know neither you nor Einar could hold back from an outright clash'.

Thorkel readied himself for the long sea crossing in the after-year, spending the winter there with King Olaf Haraldsson on a cordial footing. Olaf often sought Thorkel's counsel, finding him astute and shrewd. From the way Thorkel spoke, Olaf knew his outlook on the Orkney jarls was not even-handed. In speaking of Einar he was bitter, but spoke of Thorfinn in glowing terms. Early in the fore-year Olaf sent a ship west for Jarl Thorfinn to join him and Thorkel. As the invitation was made with an offer of friendship Thorfinn returned with the ship to a friendly welcome from Olaf and stayed at his court for most of the summer. For a parting gift he was given a fine ship, fully equipped for warfare. The jarl have his foster-father the ship he had sailed in to Norway and they set out together, parting on good terms with Olaf and by the after-year were back in Orkney.

On hearing of their arrival there Einar summoned his men and took to his ships. Jarl Brusi again set out to calm the brothers, and again they came to a friendly agreement, sealing it with oaths. Thorkel 'the Fosterer' would be reconciled with Einar, to become friends and to hold feasts in one another's honour, and Thorkel would be the first to be hospitable. Einar was asked to the feast at Sandvik, arriving there in a foul temper in spite of the scale of hospitality. Came the last day of the feast, Einar readied himself to leave and Thorkel was to fo with him to the next feast. When he sent men to spy out the land over which he was to ride, they returned with word that armed men awaited him in ambush at three sites,

'It looks as though Einar had planned this all along', they warned Thorkel.

Thorkel held back when Einar told him to get ready, answering that he had a few last tasks to complete before he could leave. A fire burned in the hearth halfway along the hall, at either end of which was a door. Thorkel entered the hall by one of the doors with an Havard, an Icelander from the East Fjords. Hallvard closed the door behind them and Thorkel strode up through the hall to where Einar sat near the fire.

'Are you ready yet?' Einar asked as Thorkel passed between him and the roaring fire.

'I am now', Thorkel answered, wheeling and striking him across the head from behind. The jarl fell forward into the fire.

'I have never seen such a useless bunch of no-hopers', Hallvard half-laughed, asking,'Could you not pull Einar from the fire?'

He hooked the curved blade of his axe around Einar's chest and yanked him back onto the wooden walk-way. He and Thorkel then strode quickly out through the other door where Thorkel's own men awaited, fully armed.

The jarl's companions pulled him back upright, only to find he was dead. None of them raised a finger to avenge his death. There were a number of reasons for their not taking Thorkel to task, the most obvious one being that none of them thought Thorkel capable of such an act. Furthermore most of the men in the hall were unarmed, paying heed to the laws of hospitality. Lastly, Thorkel had many of his own friends there and everything had happened so suddenly, they had not seen it happen.

It was to Thorkel's credit that he should come out of this alive. He returned to his ship, Einar's men to theirs. On that same day, with the winter nearing, Thorkel sailed east to Norway, safe and sound, to give Olaf a report of the events. The king received him well, and was pleased with the outcome.

After the killing, with Thorkel still at the king's court, Jarl Brusi took over Einar's third of the isles. Most knew the terms of the agreement between them and Jarl Thorfinn thought it only right that he and Brusi should share the islands evenly between them. Yet even at the coming of the following winter Brusi still held two-thirds of the jarldom. Thorfinn demanded half the islands at a meeting the following fore-year, but Brusi turned him down. Further meetings were held to talk over the matter, and friends tried to bring them peacefully together but Thorfinn still held that half the jarldom should be his by right, going as far as to say 'a third of the isles was enough for a man of Brusi's [limited] abilities'.

'I was happy with the third share my father bequeathed me and no-one challenged my right. Now I have two-thirds again with the death of Einar. Although I cannot make an issue of it, Thorfinn, sooner than merely hand over my lands I shall find something I can do about it', Brusi told him and there the meeting ended. Brusi knew he could not hold out for long against Thorfinn's greater might and his links with the Scots' king Maelcolm (II) meant Thorfinn could do more than just demand the islands. He had hitherto been held back by brotherly concerns for Brusi, but that might not last much longer.

Olaf welcomed Brusi in a friendly manner, but told him firmly after hearing the reason for the visit,

'Listen well, Jarl Brusi, to what I have to tell you. Harald 'Harfagri' took possession of the odal rights of Orkney, since which time its jarls have held them as fiefs. They are not yours to give or withhold as you see fit. This is borne out by the knowledge that when Eirik Haraldsson ['Blood-axe'] and his sons were in Orkney the jarls paid them homage. When my kinsman Olaf Tryggvason was there, your father Jarl Sigurd became his man. Now I own all from my namesake, I shall offer you these terms. You can have the isles in fee as long as you, too, become my man. Once you have my support we will see whether Thorfinn is the stronger through king Maelcolm, or you with my help. Should you turn down my offer all the lands and odal rights my foregathers held in Orkney will be mine. Think this over well, or mark my words, Brusi, you will be mine in a manner you would not wish on yourself!'.

Brusi thought over Olaf's words, talked about it with his friends,

'Now the king has made me a straight offer, it raises doubts on what might happen on parting should I say 'no' to him. He says the lands are his, and now we have put ourselves in his hands, he could do whatever he wanted with us'.

Although neither choice was ideal, Brusi thought to yield himself - and the jarldom - to the king, which Olaf took on good faith together with Brusi's oath.

Jarl Thorfinn heard that Brusi had gone to seek help from the king, but he had faith in himself that many would rally to his standard. Had he not also been to the king and gained his friendship? Nevertheless he sailed to Norway, to come so close on Brusi's heels that his brother would have no time to finish his errand before he himself could speak to Olaf. Things turned out otherwise, however. By the time he reached Olaf, the king had come to the agreement with Brusi, sealed and settled. Only on meeting Olaf did he realise Brusi had given over his two-thirds of the jarldom. When Jarl Thorfinn finally met Olaf the king laid down the law to him, too. Thorfinn was ordered to yield his third of Orkney. Thorfinn answered politely, telling him he valued the king's friendship,

'Were you ever in need of help against other lords, it would be yours for the asking. I cannot pay homage to you, however, as I am already jarl and underling to the Scots' king, my grandfather Maelcolm'.

'Should you choose to deny me your oath, Thorfinn', Olaf warned, 'I can put any man I want over Orkney. I want you to swear an oath that you will never lay claim to these lands, and to leave alone any man I appoint. Should you have trouble understanding thst, you may see that the valley confronts the mountain*'.

Thorfinn asked for time to think the matter over as his right, which Olaf acknowledged. Thorfinn then told him that as all his friends and counsellors were overseas in Katanes, he needed until the next summer to give his answer,

'I am but a youngster yet, and would hate to commit an error without proper counsel from my elders', Thorfinn added.

'You will make up your mind here and now', Olaf put him on the spot, telling him he would wait no longer for an answer.

Thorkel 'the Fosterer' was still with the king, and warned Thorfinn through a third party that he was in the king's hands, and that he was on no account to part company with Olaf without first coming to an agreement. Thorfinn, seeing he had no choice let the king have his way. All the same, he was loth to yield his ancestral lands. Nor did he wish to grant lands to those - in particular a king of Norway - who had no right to them. He doubted whether he would be allowed to leave otherwise, and became the king's vassal, as Brusi had done.

Olaf could see Thorfinn was plainly more ambitious than Brusi. With that he also had divided loyalties, and he trusted him less because of that. He knew Thorfinn could fall back on the Scots' king for help if it came to breaking his oath. Brusi, on the other hand, gave away nothing more than he meant Olaf to have. Thorfinn seemed happy with the way things turned out, having yielded to Olaf's conditions without seeming to look for a way out, but Olaf suspected he was unlikely to keep to the agreement.

Having agreed to all the terms, the jarls attended Olaf's court to hear him dictate the terms. As he laid claim to Einar's third for the killing of Eyvind 'Aurochs-horn', that third was for Brusi to rule on Olaf's behalf, and both Brusi and Thorfinn would keep their own thirds in fief as the king's men. Further, both Brusi and Thorfinn had to allow Thorkel back to Orkney because although he was responsible for the killing of their brother Einar, he had avenged the killing of Eyvind.

*This is a reference by Olaf to Isiah XL, 4: 'Let every valley be filled in, every mountain and hill be laid low, every cliff become a plain, and the ridges a valley'.

**Soon afterward Olaf was made to leave Norway (AD1014) for the east. He stayed as the guest of the Prince of Novgorod and made his way back to Norway. He was king again in Norway for a short time before being slain at the Battle of Stiklestad in AD1030, defeated by a federation of Norwegians who resented Olaf's 'Christianisation by the sword'. Oddly enough they were supported by Knut the Christian king of Denmark

See description below
See description below | Source

For the full, unexpurgated translation of the 'Orkneyinga Saga, The History of the Earls of Orkney', translated from the Icelandic and with an introduction by Hermann Palsson and Paul Edwards is available in the Penguin Classics range (available through Amazon or Waterstones), ISBN 978-0-14-044383-7

The book, broken into short chapters, has extensive historical and literary notes to plough through, so if you only want to read it for entertainment I recommend 'passing through'. .

Orkneyinga Saga portfolio (vellum?) leaf

A page from the Flateyjarbok - the Flatey Book, part of the Orkneyinga Saga
A page from the Flateyjarbok - the Flatey Book, part of the Orkneyinga Saga | Source
The History of the Earls of Orkney, published by Hogarth Press, 1978
The History of the Earls of Orkney, published by Hogarth Press, 1978 | Source
Orkney bay - this is the last you will see of Scotland as you sail/fly away
Orkney bay - this is the last you will see of Scotland as you sail/fly away | Source
Usborne Card Model kit in book form of a Viking settlement in glorious colour with copious detail
Usborne Card Model kit in book form of a Viking settlement in glorious colour with copious detail | Source

© 2012 Alan R Lancaster


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