Olaf I Tryggrason (968-1000) was a Viking warrior, who acquired wealth and fame by his raids in Britain and strove to bring national leadership and Christianity to pagan, politically divided tenth-century Norway.
To appreciate King Olaf Tryggvason's role in Norwegian history, it is helpful to provide a brief picture of his time, place, and position. Prior to the tenth century, although most of Western Europe had been Christian for centuries, Norway remained a pagan bastion of politically divided small kingdoms. The warriors of the North, untouched by ecclesiastical and cultural influences, harassed continental Europe from the eighth century on and were considered a major threat to the well-being of their southern neighbors. The ultimate involvement of Norway in the Christian network was due largely to the efforts of an energetic young king, Olaf Tryggvason. His policy of political consolidation and Christianization in Norway—a process which occurred at roughly the same time in Denmark and Sweden—helped to bring about the waning of the viking ("pirate") problem that had plagued Europe for many years.
Harald Fairhair (c. 870-c. 930) is generally recognized as Norway's first true king. By conquering rival jarls (earls) and forcing them into subservient positions, he created the precedent of one ruler for the many districts of Norway. During the tenth century, belonging to the family of Harald Fairhair was a political bonus for aspiring kings; in fact, Olaf Tryggvason was Harald's great-grandson. When Harald died around 930, his kingdom passed to his unpopular son Eirik Bloodaxe. But Eirik and his widely detested wife Gunnhild proved unable to retain the throne, and Eirik's younger brother Haakon the Good—who had been raised as a Christian in the court of King Aethelstan of England—overthrew his sibling in 934. Although Haakon was the first Norwegian king who espoused Christianity, he found it politically necessary to revert to pagan ways. When he died in 961, his nephews—the sons of Eirik and Gunnhild—seized power. Among the five sons, the most prominent and politically effective was Harald Greypelt (961-70). During his nine-year reign, he eliminated many of his enemies, including his cousin Tryggve, the father of Olaf.
From 970 until Olaf Tryggvason's rise to power in 995, Norway was ruled by a series of jarls who owed allegiance to either the king of Denmark or the king of Sweden. One jarl in particular dominated the Norwegian political field: Jarl Haakon, who ruled for King Harald Bluetooth of Denmark and later for the latter's son Svein Forkbeard. Jarl Haakon regarded himself as the sole power in Norway, but his arrogance, violence, and lechery led to his defeat in 995, allowing Olaf Tryggvason to claim the throne as the successor of Harald Fairhair.
Olaf Tryggvason was born in 968, during a critical period in Norwegian history, to the recently widowed noblewoman Astrid. Young Olaf's life was immediately at risk: Gunnhild's sons plotted to kill their newborn cousin. According to the great medieval Icelandic historian Snorri Sturluson, who wrote around 200 years after the event but is considered to have used reliable older sources, Astrid sought refuge in Sweden in 969. By 971, she believed that her son's safety could best be achieved by seeking the assistance of her brother Sigurd in Russia, who enjoyed success as an aide to Duke Valdemar of either Novgorod or Kiev. But during the Baltic crossing, Astrid's party was assaulted by Estonian Vikings, and mother and son were separated and carried off into slavery.
Purchased by a kindly Estonian couple, the three-year-old Olaf Tryggvason was treated well. Six years passed. In 977, Valdemar sent Sigurd to Estonia to collect revenues. Then, according to Snorri:
In the market place he happened to observe a remarkably handsome boy; and as he could distinguish that he was a foreigner, he asked him his name and family. He answered him, that his name was Olaf; that he was a son of Tryggve Olafsson and Astrid…. Then Sigurd knew that the boy was his sister's son.
Impressed by the nine-year-old's adventures and touched to find his nephew still alive, Sigurd took Olaf back to the court of Valdemar. When Olaf's royal background was revealed to the Duke and his queen, the boy was granted every courtesy; indeed, says Snorri, Valdemar "received Olaf into his court, and treated him nobly, and as a king's son."
Remaining in Russia for nine years, Olaf Tryggvason used this time to develop the martial skills so crucial to a Viking career. One of the many poets who praised Olaf claimed that when Olaf was 12 years old, he successfully commanded Russian warships. Generosity toward his men was an essential component of his popularity, but this acclaim proved detrimental to Olaf's security in Russia. Valdemar allowed himself to be persuaded by Olaf's jealous detractors; the young Viking had to leave Russia with the covert assistance of Valdemar's queen. By 986, the 18-year-old Olaf was embarked on a Viking career in the Baltic, obtaining local fame and considerable wealth.
One of Olaf Tryggvason's marauding expeditions took him to Wendland (an area of northern Germany occupied by a fierce Slavic people in the late tenth century). There the king, Burislaf, allowed his daughter Geyra to marry Olaf, but the union proved short, as Geyra died three years later. Olaf's response to her death was to initiate another round of plundering, this time concentrating on areas from Frisia to Flanders.
Several sources attest to Olaf's presence in England by the year 991, including the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle:
In this year came Anlaf with ninety-three ships to Folkestone, and harried outside, and sailed thence to Sandwich, and thence to Ipswich, overrunning all the countryside, and so on to Maldon. Ealdorman Byrhtnoth came to meet them with his levies and fought them, but they slew the ealdorman there and had possession of the place of slaughter.
Snorri Sturluson extends Olaf's British activities to include all of the period 991-94, noting battles waged in Northumberland, Scotland, the Hebrides, and the Isle of Man.
Olaf Tryggvason's acceptance of Christianity most likely occurred in the year 994, during his British campaigns. Snorri attributes his conversion to a legendary hermit who correctly predicted Olaf's future and claimed to have acquired this ability from the Christian God. Olaf was so impressed with the accuracy of the predictions that he and his men were immediately baptized. According to Snorri, Olaf then left the hermit's home in the Scilly Islands and sailed to England, where he "proceeded in a friendly way; for England was Christian and he himself had become Christian." On the other hand, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle attributes no such refined manners to Olaf, stating that in 994 the Christian Olaf was every bit as dangerous as the pagan Olaf had been:
Anlaf and Svein came to London with ninety-four ships, and kept up an unceasing attack on the city, and they … set it on fire. But there, God be thanked, they came off worse than they ever thought possible; so they went away thence, doing as much harm as any host was capable of … wherever they went. Then the king and his councillors decided to offer him tribute: this was done and they accepted it.
To seal the efficacy of the bribe, the English king Ethelred the Unready stood as Olaf's sponsor in the sacrament of confirmation.
Having traveled widely, Olaf Tryggvason had firsthand knowledge of the splendor of Christian courts and the ecclesiastical ritual that permeated Christian kingdoms. It is very likely that such observations—combined with the opportunity to topple the unpopular, lecherous Jarl Haakon in Norway—led Olaf to begin his mission to both conquer and Christianize the native land he had scarcely lived in.
By 995, Norwegians were tired of the rule of Jarl Haakon who, apparently lacking in moderation in his libidinal appetites, was subjecting many noble girls to the indignity of becoming short-term concubines. When Olaf learned of the extensive discontent in Norway, he decided to leave England (financed in large part by the bribe paid by Ethelred), return to his native land, and restore the rule of Harald Fairhair's line. Shortly after Olaf Tryggvason's arrival in Norway, Jarl Haakon was treacherously beheaded by his own slave. The Jarl's son Eirik fled to Sweden and nursed his discontent with the sympathetic support of King Olaf of Sweden. Thus, a drawn-out conflict was unnecessary, and in 996 Olaf Tryggvason was proclaimed king of all Norway at a general meeting, called a thing in Scandinavia.
Tenth-century Scandinavian kings were constantly in motion: there was no fixed residence (such as a palace), and it was necessary to have the royal presence felt from district to district in order to prevent insurrections. Olaf Tryggvason, only 27 years old in 995, had the energy and charisma to leave his imprint on all of Norway. Perhaps his success may be attributed to his unyielding personality: as Snorri puts it, "He would … either bring it to this, that all Norway should be Christian, or die." Certainly Olaf did not hesitate to resort to extreme coercive measures to convert his new realm; Norwegians who refused Christianity were killed, banished, or mutilated. Various sources affirm Olaf's energetic approach to convert not just Norwegians, but Icelanders and Greenlanders as well. Twelfth-century Icelandic historian Ari the Wise mentions the arrival in Iceland of priests sent by Olaf Tryggvason. It is suggested by Snorri that the great Viking Leif Eriksson adopted Christianity at Olaf's insistence, and in this way Christianity was brought to Greenland.
Olaf Tryggvason spent his five years as king of Norway battling not only pagans, but political enemies as well. For example, the last son of Eirik Bloodaxe and Gunnhild was defeated by Olaf's forces in 999. Despite an earlier alliance with the Danish king Svein Forkbeard during his Viking days in Britain, the political opposition of Olaf's fellow Scandinavian kings remained a constant feature of his five-year reign. Snorri credits Olaf Tryggvason's successful kingship to his Christian zeal and no-nonsense domestic policy:
King Olaf … was distinguished for cruelty when he was enraged, and tortured many of his enemies. Some he burnt in fire; some he had torn in pieces by mad dogs; some he mutilated, or cast down from high precipices. On this account his friends were attached to him warmly, and his enemies feared him greatly; and thus he made such a fortunate advance in his undertakings, for some obeyed his will out of the friendliest zeal, and others out of dread.
During Olaf's brief reign, pagan temples were torn down and churches were erected throughout Norway. Legends tell of the attempts Olaf made to rid his country of pagan spirits, including witches. By demonstrating his superior power over evil spirits, Olaf accomplished two purposes: winning converts to Christianity, and expressing his fitness to rule.
While not all of the sources mention Olaf Tryggvason's four marriages, there seems to be general agreement regarding the major details of his last union. This wedding took place in 999, and the lady was Thyre, a sister of King Svein Forkbeard of Denmark and the ex-wife of Olaf's former father-in-law, King Burislaf. Thyre had fled from Wendland to Norway, appalled at the prospect of married life with an old, pagan king such as Burislaf. Olaf proposed and Thyre considered what "luck it was for her to marry so celebrated a man."
Soon after the wedding, Thyre began to complain to Olaf of her relative poverty. She had left the dowry her brother Svein Forkbeard bestowed on her in Wendland; since Svein disapproved of her flight from old Burislaf, he refused to help her retrieve her dowry. Thyre begged Olaf Tryggvason to go to Burislaf to accomplish this task. Always keen for a foreign adventure, Olaf agreed to gather his warships for an expedition to Wendland. In the summer of 1000, he set out with a large number of warships and men. The reunion with his former father-in-law was a peaceful one, and Olaf was able to obtain Thyre's dowry.
But while Olaf spent the summer in Wendland, the rival Scandinavian kings plotted to ambush him on his way back to Norway. Svein Forkbeard formed an alliance with King Olaf of Sweden and the Norwegian Jarl Eirik, who had gone to Sweden in exile when Olaf Tryggvason came to power in 995. The three leaders met and waited for Olaf Tryggvason's return to Norway, planning to ambush him as he sailed near Svold, an island off of Denmark.
The Battle of Svold is given great attention in Snorri's account, which relates touching anecdotes about Olaf Tryggvason's last fight. Although it is nearly impossible to separate embellishment from fact, there can be no doubt that as a result of the battle, Olaf lost his kingdom. Svein Forkbeard and Olaf of Sweden were successfully repulsed by the Norwegian king, but Olaf Tryggvason was unable to withstand the attack of his fellow Norwegian Jarl Eirik. When the latter's men boarded Olaf's magnificent ship called the Long Serpent, Olaf Tryggvason and his few remaining supporters jumped overboard and drowned or disappeared.
Legends immediately sprang up after Svold, claiming that Olaf Tryggvason escaped; some held that he was rescued by one of Burislaf's ships and that he embarked on a long pilgrimage to the Holy Land to atone for his youthful Viking days. "But however this may have been," writes Snorri, "King Olaf Tryggvason never came back again to his kingdom of Norway."
King Olaf Tryggvason was not the first to unite all the districts of Norway, nor was he the first Norwegian ruler to espouse Christianity. His significance stems from the vibrant way he managed to combine both of these accomplishments, firmly turning Norway away from its isolated pagan past and focusing the nation's attention on becoming a settled member of the European Christian community.
Further Reading on Olaf I Tryggvason, King of Norway
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Translated by G. N. Garmonsway, J. M. Dent, 1953.
Sturluson, Snorri. Heimskringla: The Olaf Sagas. Vol. 1. Translated by Samuel Laing, J. M. Dent, 1914.
Foote, P. G., and D. M. Wilson. The Viking Achievement. Praeger, 1970.
Jones, Gwyn. A History of the Vikings. Oxford University Press, 1973.
Larsen, Karen. A History of Norway. Princeton University Press, 1948.
Turville-Petre, G. The Heroic Age of Scandinavia. Greenwood Press, 1951.