Return to Olaf Tryggvason

The Long Serpent


"They saw four ships come sailing, one of them a huge dragonship, all ornamented with gold....Then many said that the Serpent was a marvelous, big, and handsome ship, and that it was a grand thing to have so beautiful a ship built."

Snorri Sturluson, The Saga of Olaf Tryggvason (CI)

In AD 868, Harald Fairhair, the first king of Norway, constructed what is described in The Saga of Olaf Tryggvason as "a large dragon ship built and outfitted richly" (IX). Nothing is said of its size, but it can be surmised from the ships that King Alfred of Wessex ordered to be constructed three decades later to contend against those of the invading Danes. "They were almost twice as long as the others, some had sixty oars, some more; they were both swifter, steadier, and with more freeboard than the others" (Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, 897). If the English ships had thirty oars on a side and were almost twice as long, the Danish ships may be assumed to have had perhaps sixteen oars on a sidethe number of the Gokstad ship, which was built about the same time (circa AD 900).

It seems to have had no rival until, in the spring of AD 999, Olaf Tryggvason, king of Norway (and great-grandson of Harald Fairhair), led a large force north to Hålogaland, compelling all whom he encountered to convert and be baptized. "No one durst oppose him, and wherever he fared all the land was made Christian" (The Saga of Olaf Tryggvason, LXXVII). He sailed on the Crane, which had been built just four years earlier, at the beginning of his reign. "It had thirty rowers' benches, was high in stem and stern, but not large otherwise" (LXXII). There, at Saltenfjord, Olaf confronted Rauth the Strong, a wealthy pagan chieftain who owned "a large dragon ship with a gilded head. That vessel had thirty rowers' benches and was large in proportion" (LXXVIII). Rauth was defeated in battle and taken captive, but he refused to be baptized, even when assured that he would not be deprived of his property, gold and silver. Enraged at this recalcitrance, Olaf had him tortured to death, a wriggling snake forced down his throat through the hollow stalk of an angelica plant. The longship he appropriated for himself, "because it was a much larger and finer ship than the Crane. Its stem had a dragon's head on it, and on its stern, a crook shaped like a tail; and both sides of the neck and all the stern were gilded. That ship the king called the Serpent, because when the sail was hoisted it was to look like the wing of a dragon. That was the finest ship in all Norway" (LXXX). A story later is told of Olaf being able to walk along the oars of the Serpent while the ship was being rowed (LXXXV).

Returning south to Trondheim (Nidaros), Olaf determined to build a longship of his own for a voyage to Wendland (Pomerania, on the southern shore of the Baltic Sea). That winter, he began construction of "a dragon ship, on the model of the Serpent which the king had taken along from Hálogaland; only it was much larger and more carefully wrought in all respects. He called it the Long Serpent, and the other one, the Short Serpent. The Long Serpent had thirty-four compartments. The head and the tail were all gilt. And the gunwales were as high as those on a seagoing ship. This was the best ship ever built in Norway, and the most costly" (LXXXVIII). The Long Serpent was a skeið, a longship of thirty or more benches on a side, of which the dragon ship (drakkar or dreki) seems to have been an ornamented type. When, for example, Olaf was attacked the next year at Svolder, one of the large ships sighted that day was thought to be the Long Serpent and the king himself to be afraid "since he dares not sail with the dragon head fastened on his ship" (CI). The implication is that even an experienced eye could not discern the difference between a skeið and dreki. In fact, the ship, which had thirty-two benches and regularly carried two hundred men or more, belonged to a wealthy landowner, Erling Skjalgsson, who was married to Olaf Tryggvason's sister (Saint Olaf's Saga, XXII).

The Crane, Short Serpent, Long Serpent were exceptional to be sure, as was the Bison of Olaf Haraldsson (St. Olaf), built in AD 1024 with more than thirty benches and the gilded head and tail of a bison at the stems (Saga of Magnus the Good, XIX, Olaf's illegitimate son). In fact, only six ships with thirty or more oars on a side are mentioned in the period between AD 995, when Olaf Tryggvason became king of Norway, and AD 1061, when Harald Sigurtharson (Hardrada, "Hard Ruler"), later king, evaded the Danes by dragging his ships across a narrow spit of land at the Limfjord in northern Jutland and escaping to the sea. Vowing to return "with a greater fleet and larger ships" (Saga of Harald Sigurtharson, LVIII), he built that winter a type of longship called a busse or búza, with a higher freeboard (the height of the ship above the waterline) and a deeper draft, "in point of size like the Long Serpent, and great pains were bestowed on it. It had a dragon head on the stem and a tail on the stern, and the neck of the dragon head was gilt. It had thirty-five compartments and was long in proportion and altogether handsome. The king had all of its equipment made of choice materials, both the sail, the hawsers, the anchor, and the anchor ropes" (LIX). Later, the number of men are indicated as well: seventy, two in each compartment or one man at each oar (LX). Thorir the Hound owned a similar ship, a "large vessel, half warship, half merchantman" that carried a crew of nearly eighty (Saint Olaf's Saga, CXXXIII).

"Compartments" and "rooms," "benches" and "thwarts" all are measurements of a ship's length and define the distance between its ribs. Measuring about three feet, each rúm allowed enough space for the rowers sitting on their bench or thwart to sweep an oar through its stroke. Thirty-five compartments represent the pairs of oars—that is, the number of oars along each side and, correspondingly, the number of men pulling them. A "half-room" was the space allotted to a single oar and, in battle, usually was occupied by three men: one to row, another to protect him, and one to fight. Smaller ships with fewer than twenty pairs of oars seem not to have been counted as warships, although they did participate in naval battles, most of which were fought with ships of twenty to twenty-five seats (Old Norse sesser and so a 20-sesser or 25-thwarter). The legendary dragon ships celebrated in the sagas had thirty or more. The number of oars, however, was not necessarily the number of men on board, as more than one man might row. The Gokstad ship, for example, has thirty-two oars but carried twice that number of shields, which suggests that the crew rowed in shifts. And the Long Serpent had two complete watches of four men to an oar for each of its thirty-four compartments—or 544 men, with thirty more in the high bulkhead at the prow (The Saga of Olaf Tryggvason, XCIV).

It was captured in AD 1000 at the naval Battle of Svolder, and Olaf killed when he was attacked by the combined forces of the kings of Denmark and Sweden and Eric Håkonsson, earl of Norway, who had his own ship Barthi ("beak") fitted with a ram at both stems and iron plates below them that extended to the waterline. With only eleven longships and overwhelmed by a fleet of seventy-one, Olaf had those around him lashed together. The Long Serpent had the highest freeboard and so was situated in the middle with the Crane and Short Serpent on either side, a stratagem that allowed the men to fight more freely from the decks. But Eric's beaked ship repeatedly wedged itself between those on the periphery, shearing their hawsers and separating the ships one by one until only the Long Serpent was left (CVI). Rather than be taken prisoner, Olaf jumped overboard, his shield held over his head to prevent himself from being pulled from the water, never to be seen again. The Long Serpent was taken by Eric as a prize of war, and the country itself divided between the three victors. Ironically, given Olaf's forced conversion of his countrymen, "during the time they ruled over Norway they let everyone do as he pleased about the keeping of Christianity, whereas they kept well the old laws and all customs of the land, and they were greatly beloved and governed well" (CLXXXIX).

There was some question whether ships of thirty-four or thirty-five oars on a side (more than twice the number of the Gokstad) actually existed in the Viking Age, especially since the Heimskringla (from which the sagas of Olaf Tryggvason and Olaf Haraldsson have been taken) was written two hundred years later, when Viking longships had become considerably larger. But then in 1996–1997 a longship was discovered at Roskilde, Denmark that is estimated to have had as many as thirty-nine or even forty oars on a side. Constructed in about 1025, Roskilde is the longest Viking ship yet known and measures approximately 122 feet in length (the keel alone is 105 feet long and constructed in three sections) and thirteen feet in width. Designed to transport as many men as possible, Roskilde 6 is almost ten times longer than it is wide, its great length, narrow beam, and shallow draft (only 2.7 feet), allowing it to get close enough to the coast that the men aboard easily could wade ashore. A shorter distance between the thwarts (2.5 feet), although cramped, also permitted more men at the oars, which in turn made for a faster and more maneuverable ship. Only twenty to twenty-five percent of it survives, however, which now is supported by a special steel frame that gives some idea of its size (above, in the National Museum, Copenhagen).

In 1025, Denmark and southern Sweden were ruled from England by Cnut the Great (whose father Sweyn Forkbeard had conquered that country a dozen years before), Norway by Olaf Haraldsson (St. Olaf), and Sweden by Anund Olafsson (baptized "Jacob," the Swedes objected to a name that had not been used before for a Swedish king). Cnut claimed sovereignty over Norway as well, prompting a war with Olaf and Anund, his brother-in-law. Both invaded Denmark, Olaf taking his fleet in the Bison, which had been constructed the previous winter; "as its figurehead it had the head of a bison, all gilded' (Saint Olaf's Saga, CXLIV). They ravaged the countryside, harrying the people until "most of them assented to all the conditions laid upon them in order to buy peace for themselves" (CXLV). Cnut levied his own men and ships, and sailed from England. "He had a tremendous force and huge ships. He himself had a dragon ship so large that there were sixty rowers' benches in it. It had gilded figureheads. Earl Hákon had another dragon ship, with forty rowers' benches [the same number as Roskilde 6]. It also had a gilded figurehead, and the sails on both ships had stripes of blue, red, and green. All their ships were painted above the water line, and all their equipment was of the best" (CXLVII). Later that year (or more likely in 1026), the two fleets confronted one another at the Battle of Helgeå, the "Holy River" somewhere in Scania in southernmost Sweden, possibly at Hanö Bay on the southeastern coast.

The battle began with a stratagem. Having sailed around Scania, Olaf eventually anchored at Helgeå, whereupon he dammed the outlet of the lake that fed the river, diverted creeks to create marshes, and felled large trees into the river bed. At the approach of Cnut's fleet, Anund abandoned the harbor and moved his ships up the coast, where they were lashed together and made ready for battle. When Cnut moved what ships he could into the estuary, Olaf ordered the dam to be breached. "Then all of a sudden the waters came rushing down upon them with the swiftness of a cataract, and along with them, big trees which drifted against their ships, which suffered damage from them while the waters flowed over all the fields. The men who had gone ashore were drowned, many died also who were aboard the ships." Swept by the surging current back out to sea, Cnut's dragon ship was surrounded and attacked by the Swedes. But it had "high sides as though it was a fort and had a multitude of men on board, a picked crew, well armed and fearless." Olaf and Anund were said to have "won as great a victory as fate allowed for the time being" (CXLIX-CL). But it was fleeting and, once the ships had disengaged and it was apparent that Cnut would not pursue them, they sailed away.

Although the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records for the year 1025 that "many men perished on king Cnut's side, both Danes and Englishmen; and the Swedes had possession of the place of slaughter," the Old English does not necessarily indicate a victory. In fact, the battle only was a reprieve. All the skalds quoted by Snorri celebrate Cnut as the winner, who would invade Norway in 1028 and force Olaf to take refuge with his brother-in-law, the prince of Kiev-Novgorod. Returning home two years later in an attempt to regain the throne, Olaf was killed in the Battle of Stiklestad, supposedly by his own people who "united to oppose him and fought against him, and he was there slain" (Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, 1030). Even the saga itself asserts that landed men and farmers, free men and thralls, cotters and laborers all were opposed to the king, fearful of losing their independence because of his own power. Indeed, "they had so great a host that there was no one who had ever seen so large a force gathered in Norway" (CCXVI).

This chronology relates to Roskilde 6 because it is not possible to determined exactly when the ship was built. A dendrochronological analysis of tree rings indicates that its timbers were cut sometime between 1018–1032. Falling in the middle of this time span, the year 1025 is cited as a matter of convenience. It is not possible to know, therefore, who might have ordered the construction of such a large troop transport. If used in the campaign against Denmark, it likely was built at the instigation of Olaf; if after the Battle of Helgeå and his flight to Russia, then it might have been constructed by the victorious Cnut, using the deposed king's own forests.

A decade before, in 1016, when Cnut sailed against England, his ships had been described with no less hyperbole in the Encomium Emmae Reginae (II.4), which was written about 10411042 in praise of Queen Emma of Normandy, the widow of Æthelred (by whom she had Edward the Confessor, the last Anglo-Saxon king of England) and wife of the victorious Cnut.

"So great, also, was the ornamentation of the ships, that the eyes of the beholders were dazzled, and to those looking from afar they seemed of flame rather than of wood. For if at any time the sun cast the splendour of its rays among them, the flashing of arms shone in one place, in another the flame of suspended shields. Gold shone on the prows, silver also flashed on the variously shaped ships. So great, in fact, was the magnificence of the fleet, that if its lord [Cnut] had desired to conquer any people, the ships alone would have terrified the enemy, before the warriors whom they carried joined battle at all. For who could look upon the lions of the foe, terrible with the brightness of gold, who upon the men of metal, menacing with golden face, who upon the dragons burning with pure gold, who upon the bulls on the ships threatening death, their horns shining with gold, without feeling any fear for the king of such a force?"

That such ships were a tangible demonstration of their owners' power and prestige, built both to intimidate and impress, is conveyed in the Orkneyinga Saga, a history of the earls of Orkney. Rognvald (Kali Kolsson), who had become earl in 1136, was challenged by Eindridi the Young, who recently had returned from Constantinople as a mercenary in the Varangian guard to the Byzantine emperor. Rognvald, he chided, seemed more interested in listening to stories of Jerusalem than going there himself. Persuaded to lead an expedition to the Holy Land, he ordered that a ship be built, fitted out with the best of everything. Two years later, Rognvald took delivery in Bergen of a thirty-five bench longship, "magnificently constructed, everywhere carved and inlaid with gold upon prow and stern, weather-vanes and so on and there was no ship to compare with it in value" (LXXXIV).

He stipulated, however, that no-one other than himself "should have a ship with more than thirty oars and that his would be the only one to be ornamented. This was to ensure that no one would envy anyone else for having more men or a better equipped vessel." Rognvald tarried at Bergen throughout the summer and into autumn, waiting with increasing impatience for Eindridi, who was to act as guide. When he finally arrived, Rognvald departed for Orkney, only to have Eindridi sail pass in "a superbly built dragonhead, heavily inlaid with gold upon both stern and prow, brightly painted in the bows and all above the water-line." The earl's men complained that Eindridi had not kept his word, but Rognvald dismissed such pride, saying only that it was difficult to see whether Eindridi's good fortune preceded or followed him. Fittingly for such presumption, the ship was wrecked on the Shetland coast and its valuable cargo lost. Eindridi spent the winter there, waiting for a new ship to be built. Eventually, in the summer of 1151, an expedition of fifteen ships left Orkney, Eindridi returning to Constantinople and Rognvald to Jerusalem, only to come home almost three years later to find his earldom in upheaval.

King Eystein Magnússon (1103–1122) modeled his own busse a full century after the Long Serpent had been built. "At the head there was a dragon's head and at the stern a dragon's tail, and both were gilded over. The ship was high-sided, but the fore and aft parts appeared less than they should be" (Saga of the Sons of Harald, XXXI). The number of oars is not mentioned, but, if patterned after the Long Serpent (with thirty-four on a side), there likely were at least thirty. Ten such ships with that many oars (or more) are mentioned in the sagas, all built to fight a seemingly interminable civil war in Norway that lasted for more than a hundred years throughout the twelfth and thirteenth centuriesfrom 1130 to 1240, when Duke Skule Bårdsson, the last contender for the throne, was killed at the Battle of Oslo.

In the winter of 1182–1183, Sverri Sigurdsson, determined to depose Magnus Erlingsson, king of Norway, ordered the construction of the Mariasuden (the "Mary"), "a much larger vessel than others then in the land. It contained thirty-three cabins for rowers, and there was room for more" (Saga of King Sverri, LXXIII). But he "displayed much self-will and arrogance in the building of the ship, and many foretold evil of it" (LXXX). While still under construction and nine strakes already fitted on each side, Sverri complained that his longship was not long enough, insisting that it was "much less spacious than I wish to see; it must be cut in two and a length of twelve ells laid in the keel.'" (Traditionally, an ell measured eighteen inches, and the addition to the Mariasuden would be eighteen feet; a Norwegian ell was about twenty-four inches, however—in which case, the ship would have been extended even more.) Although the work was done, it "was not a graceful ship, the prow and the stern being short in comparison with the middle; this was chiefly because of the part that had been added." (As with the busse of King Eystein, an ill-proportioned ship was remarked upon as readily as a handsome one.)

It had been built at Trondheim, above the town, and there was fear that some of the houses would have to be demolished before the ship could be launched. But it slid down the slipway into the river without incident, although some of the scarfed joints at the bottom did open at the seams. Nevertheless, the Mariasuden was repaired and sailed on her maiden voyage with 280 men aboard (about four men per rúm or two men per oar), as well as three mysterious chests, so heavy that each required four men to carry it. Later, when the ship again began to leak, it was discovered that they contained spikes so any further work could be done at sea (LXXXI).

The next year, at the Battle of Fimreite (Norafiord) against Magnus, the high freeboard of the Mariasuden proved decisive. Sverri admonished his men: "'Our ships shall not be tied together. We must reap advantage, if we can, from this, that our bulwarks are high, our men our bold and keen in fight'" (LXXXVIII). Magnus recognized its importance as well. "'It seems to me as if all the ships are won if the big ship is won'" (LXXXIX). Determined that it be captured, his ships pressed against the Mariasuden, the men on board cowering under a shower of arrows, spears, and stones "so wearied and harassed that some who were unwounded, or but slightly wounded, yet died of exhaustion" (XCI). And yet, improbably, they were able to clear the king's ships, which had been lashed together in groups of four or five, forcing those aboard to retreat from one to another until the few still afloat were swamped under the weight of the desperate men, who were slain as they floundered in the water or killed when they struggled ashore (XCII). Magnus died when he jumped from his own ship, and the usurper Sverri became sole ruler of Norway (1184–1202). As to the ill-fated Mariasuden, it served only a few months at sea, from its launch in April (after Easter) to when it deliberately was beached at Bergen in mid-June. There was an attempt to drag it back into the water, but the ship was too badly damaged and the abandoned hulk set ablaze (CII).

The last of the great medieval longships was the Kristsuden (the "Christ"), the largest in Norway. With thirty-seven oars on a side, it was constructed in Bergen over the winter of 1262–1263 and served as the flagship of King Håkon Håkonsson (who had defeated Skule twenty years before) in a campaign against Scotland to contest possession of the Hebrides. Described in an account of the expedition for the year 1263, it was "ornamented with heads and necks of dragons beautifully overlaid with gold" (XXI). But the expedition was inconclusive and Håkon died of illness later that year, the same ship bearing his body home. His end marked that of the longship as well.

In the ship-yard, idly talking,
At the ship the workmen stared:
Some one, all their labor balking,
Down her sides had cut deep gashes,
Not a plank was spared!

"Death be to the evil-doer!"
With an oath King Olaf spoke!
"But rewards to his pursuer!"
And with wrath his face grew redder
Than his scarlet cloak.

Straight the master-builder, smiling,
Answered thus the angry King:
"Cease blaspheming and reviling,
Olaf, it was Thorberg Skafting
Who has done this thing!"

Then he chipped and smoothed the planking,
Till the King, delighted, swore,
With much lauding and much thanking,
"Handsomer is now my Dragon
Than she was before!"

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, The Building of the Long Serpent (selected verses)

Snorri writes that, in his own time more than two hundred years later, the slipway of the Long Serpent still was to be seen near Trondheim. Its prowwright was a man named Thorberg, who was responsible for constructing the stem and stern posts and laying the keel, which was hewn from a single piece of oak and measured seventy-four ells in length (about 111 feet, assuming an ell or cubit to be the length of the forearm, i.e., the distance from the "el-bow" to the finger tip). Others were tasked with shaping the timber, forging the nails, or simply carrying the wood. But Thorberg was away when the overlapping planks were fitted to the keel to form the curved hull. And when he returned, the work already had been done, and "everyone declared that they had never seen a ship as large and handsome" (The Saga of Olaf Tryggvason, LXXXVIII).

Early the next morning, however, when the king again went to admire his longship, there were deep notches hacked into the uppermost planking all along one side. The ship was said to be ruined and Olaf swore an oath, promising that the man who had done this would die and offering to reward whoever revealed his name. Thorberg declared that he had done it. The king responded that, unless the ship was restored as before, Thorberg would forfeit his life. Taking his adze, he proceeded to plane the wood until even the deepest cuts were smooth. "Then the king and all the others declared that the ship looked far better on that side which Thorberg had cut out. Then the king bade him do so on both sides, and offered him thanks for what he had done." So pleased was Olaf that Thorberg was appointed shipwright and thereafter known as Thorberg Skafhogg, "Smoothing Stroke." What the prowwright had realized was that the thick planks were too heavy; in fact, the strakes of a Viking longship are only about an inch thick. Thinner ones would permit a lighter, more supple ship, one that would ride higher on the water and flex in rough seas.

The Viking Age is defined as the period between AD 800 and 1050, although more specifically, it often is marked from the first recorded Viking raid at Lindisfarne on the Northumbrian coast in AD 793 to a less specific terminal moment—usually the defeat of Harald Hardrada at the Battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066 (and the Norman invasion of England nineteen days later). "Viking," too, is a term equally muddled. Although the Norse peoples who lived in Scandinavia might consider some among them to be respectable raiders and traders, to those hapless folk who suffered their depredations, the Vikings were heathen marauders and murderous thieves. The English knew these raiders as Danes or Norsemen; to the Norse themselves, they were vikingar (singular vikingr), freebooters or pirates, the name probably deriving from vik, a creek or inlet. The activity in which they engaged was viking. When Harald Fairhair had become sole ruler of Norway, for example, "many of the nobility fled King Harald as outlaws and went on viking expeditions to the west, staying in the Orkneys and the Hebrides in winter, but in summer harrying in Norway where they inflicted great damage" (Saga of Harald Fairhair, XIX). Eventually, Harald tired of these raids and sailed to the western isles himself, "where he slew all vikings who did not escape by flight" (XXII).

The image (top) is from a bed found on the Oseberg Ship, the dragons that frame the headboard offering protection to the sleeper flanked between them. The illustration is from The Children's Longfellow, published in 1908, and shows the Long Serpent on its stocks while Thorberg ponders over plans for the ship. In fact, Viking society largely was illiterate and shipwrights fashioned their longships, not to drawn plans or fitted molds, but by eye and tradition.

References: The Viking Ships: Their Ancestry and Evolution (1951) by A. W. Brøgger and Haakon Shetelig (the standard work); Snorri Sturluson, Heimskringla: History of the Kings of Norway (1964) translated by Lee M. Hollander; Snorri Sturluson: Heimskringla (Part One, The Olaf Sagas) (1964) translated by Samuel Lang (curiously, Hollander omits in his translation the sentence in which the length of the keel is given as it rests on the grass); The Orkneyinga Saga (1981) translated by Hermann Pálsson and Paul Edwards; Icelandic Sagas and Other Documents Relating to the Settlements and Descents of the Northmen on the British Isles (Vol. III): The Orkneyingers' Saga (1894) translated by G. W. Dasent (where the "so on" in Pálsson's description of Rognvald's ship is expanded to read that it "was carved and painted in many other places") (Vol. IV includes a translation of the Saga of Håkon Håkonsson); Encomium Emmae Reginae (1949/1998) edited by Alistair Campbell; The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (1954) translated by G. N. Garmonsway; "Prehistoric Naval Architecture of the North of Europe" (1892) by George H. Boehmer, Annual Report of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution, pp. 527-647; The Norwegian Account of Haco's Expedition Against Scotland; A.D. MCCLXIII (1882) by James Johnstone (there is said to have been "twenty-seven banks of oars," which presumably is a mistake for thirty-seven); "Roskilde 6" (2013) by Jan Bill, in Viking (exhibition catalog) edited by Gareth Williams, Peter Pentz, and Matthias Wemhoff, pp. 228-233; "The Battle of Helgeå" (1989) by Ove Moberg, Scandinavian Journal of History, 14(1-2), 1-19; Sverrissaga: The Saga of King Sverri of Norway (1899) translated by J. Sephton.

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