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Olaf Tryggvason

"The Briton's foe, he who held wide lands, who knew no fear, in no wise drew back from the fierce, swift doom of Hethin's warriors. In a true sense he made many a weapon to be reddened in blood. The din of swords grew loud about the prince, so I am told."

Hallfreth, Óláfsdrápa ("Dirge for Olaf")

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records that, in AD 991, ninety-three ships, led by Olaf Tryggvason, the future king of Norway, raided the town of Maldon, just north of the Thames. There, the English were defeated and their ealdorman killed. The chronicler goes on to say that, "Because of the enormities which they wrought along the sea coast," a tax of ten-thousand pounds was paid (the Danegeld, a sum which can be better appreciated when one considers that a sheep was valued then at five silver pennies and a pig, ten pence, and that there were two hundred and forty pence to the pound).

The entry for AD 994 indicates that Olaf returned to England, this time with Swein Forkbeard, the king of Denmark. On September 8, a flotilla of ninety-four ships attacked London but was not able to breach the English defenses. Retreating, the Vikings took horses and harried the countryside and "wrought the greatest harm which any raiding-army could ever do, in burning and raiding and slaughter of men." Æthelred was forced to sue for peace. Again, tribute was paid, this time sixteen-thousand pounds. Hostages were given and provisions for the army to stay the winter. Olaf was baptized with Æthelred, himself, as sponsor, and promised that "he would never come back to the English race in hostility." Nor did he, possibly because Olaf had allied himself with the king.

Æthelred's treaty with the Viking army survives, although it is not certain whether it was negotiated after the raids of AD 991 or, more likely, AD 994 (indeed, it may be that the two Chronicle entries have been conflated and later events included in the earlier account; Olaf therefore may not have been at Maldon or Swein may have). Among its provisions, the treaty stipulated that "Concerning all the slaughter and all the harrying and all the injuries which were committed before the truce was established, all of them are to be dismissed, and no one is to avenge it or ask for compensation." Twenty-two thousand pounds in gold and silver also were to be paid. With such repeated and ever greater Danegeld, the English can be said effectively to have financed their own subjugation.

Such is the chronicler's account of Olaf Tryggvason (AD 968-1000). That of Snorri Sturluson, an Icelandic poet, historian, and politician who wrote early in the thirteenth century, is told in the Heimskringla, a collection of sagas about the kings of Norway.

Olaf is said to have remained in England through the winter and married Queen Gyda, the widowed sister of the king of Dublin, which was then a Viking town. While there, Olaf learned that Earl Håkon, who now ruled Norway, had become, in the words of the saga, "very intemperate in his intercourse with women, and even carried it so far that he made the daughters of people of consideration be carried away, and brought home to him; and after keeping them a week or two as concubines, he sent them home." The earl (jarl) also had renounced Christianity and reverted to pagan beliefs.

Fired with missionary zeal and determined to reclaim his kingdom, Olaf returned to Norway in AD 995 to depose Håkon. He discovered that he had attempted to seize the wife of a local farmer and that the outraged populace had forced the lecherous earl to take refuge with his mistress, who hid him beneath a pigsty. There Håkon was killed by his own thrall. The next year, Olaf was proclaimed king of Norway, just as his great grandfather had been more than a hundred years before. The vengeful heirs of Earl Håkon fled to Sweden.

In time, relates Snorri, the enemies of Olaf Tryggvason conspired to defeat the king and divide Norway between them. They were led by Swein Forkbeard, the king of Denmark, who had married Sigrid, still smarting from the insult Olaf had given her and now his "greatest enemy," as well as the king of Sweden and Earl Eric, the son of Earl Håkon. They gathered a large fleet and laid in wait for Olaf at an unidentified island called Svold. As the ships of the unsuspecting Olaf came into view, each was commented upon. The Crane was sighted, then the Short Serpent, until, finally, the majestic Long Serpent was recognized "and nobody had a word to say against it." Seeing his adversaries arrayed against him, Olaf refused to flee but ordered that the three ships be lashed together. His men would fight from there.

"This battle was one of the severest told of, and many were the people slain." Swein Forkbeard and the king of Sweden were driven back, but Earl Eric managed to pull the other ships away and clear their decks until only the Long Serpent remained. The Norwegian defenders were overwhelmed, and, when all was lost, Olaf jumped into the sea, throwing his shield over his head as he sank to prevent his enemies from pulling him from the water.

It was the millennium and Olaf Tryggvason had been defeated.


In 1015, Norway would be ruled by another great king, Olaf Haraldsson (St. Olaf), about whom more stories are told than any of his contemporaries.

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