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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 10,000 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 240 pence to the pound).

The entry for AD 994 indicates that Olaf returned to England, this time with Sweyn Forkbeard, the king of Denmark. On September 8, a flotilla of 94 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 16,000 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, in 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 Sweyn 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 to have effectively 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 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 Sweyn 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. (Adam of Bremen puts the encounter "between Scania and Zealand, where kings usually go forth to war at sea," History of the Archbishops of Hamburg-Bremen, II.40). 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." Sweyn 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.

"Then they received the Faith, and Olaf the kingdom. He was twenty-seven years old when he came to Norway and during the five years in which he bore the name of king in Norway he converted five lands, Norway, Iceland, the Shetlands, the Orkneys and, fifthly, the Faroes. He first built churches on his own chief estates, and put down heathendom and sacrificial feasts, and, to please the people, he introduced in their place certain solemn feasts, Christmas and Easter, beer-drinking at Johnsmas and an autumn ale-drinking at Michaelmas."


Olaf's determination to convert his heathen countrymen was unremitting: "All Norway should be Christian or die." And die they did, or were mutilated or punished or banished. Even in proposing to the mysterious queen of Sweden, Sigrid the Haughty, Olaf insisted that she be baptized. But when she demurred, saying that "'I must not part from the faith which I have held, and my forefathers before me; and, on the other hand, I shall make no objection to your believing in the god that pleases you best,'" Olaf was so incensed that he struck her with his glove, declaring, "'Why should I care to have thee, an old faded woman, and a heathen bitch?'" To this insult, she ominously replied that "This may well be thy death."

He was no more forgiving of others who would not renounce the old ways. Olaf once invited the sorcerers of the district to a feast and, when they all were drunk, burned down the house in which they were feasting. Another time, when asked to sacrifice to the Norse gods, he agreed, saying that he would make the greatest of sacrifices, that of men, and that these men would be the greatest in the district, those who had invited him there. Olaf then extended his own invitation: the pagans who had wanted him to sacrifice could, themselves, be baptized. Rather than die, so they were.

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.

The carved figure of a Viking warrior is one of the finials to the cradle on a beautifully decorated wooden cart recovered with the Oseberg ship.

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