Olaf I of Norway

Olaf Tryggvason has been elected king, a painting by Peter Nicolai Arbo
Olaf Tryggvason has been elected king, a painting by Peter Nicolai Arbo

Olaf Tryggvason (born ca.963-969 died September 9? 1000) (Old Norse: Óláfr Tryggvason, Norwegian: Olav Tryggvason) was King of Norway from 995 to 1000. Son of Tryggve Olafsson, king of Viken (Vingulmark and Ranrike), and great-grandson of Harald Fairhair.

Birth and early life

There is some uncertainty regarding the date Olaf's birth, the Heimskringla states that he was born shortly after the murder of his stated father in 963, while other sources suggest a date between 964 and 969. The later dates cast doubt over Olaf's claim to be of Harald Fairhair's kin, and the legitimacy of his claim to the throne. Snorri Sturluson claims in Olav Tryggvson's saga that Olaf was born on an islet in Randsfjorden, where his mother Astrid daughter of Eirik Bjodaskalle, was hiding from her husband's killers, led by Harald Greyhide, the son of Eirik Bloodaxe. Greyhide and his brothers had seized the throne from Haakon the Good, but only had influence over the western region of Norway. They tried to remedy this by killing local rulers such as Olaf's father, Tryggve Olafsson. In the spring of 964 the brothers heard news that Astrid had given birth to an heir of King Tryggve, and they sent a troop of thirty men to find him. Astrid's father's men saw the troops coming, and warned her. Astrid had no option other than to flee. During flight they stayed with several allies in Norway, but eventually had to leave the country, and went to Sweden where Harald Greyhide held no power. The brothers sent an envoy to King Eric of Sweden, with gifts and messages of friendship, and asked for permission to take the boy back to Norway, where he would be raised by Greyhide's mother Gunhild. The Swedish king gave them men to help them claim the young boy, but to no avail. After a short scuffle Astrid (with her son) fled again. This time their destination was Gardarike, where Astrid's brother Sigurd was in the service of King Valdemar. Olaf was three years old when they set sail on a merchant ship for Novgorod. The journey was not successful -- in the Baltic sea they were captured by Estonian vikings, and the people aboard were either killed or taken as slaves. Olaf became the posession of a man named Klerkon, together with his foster father Thorolf and his son Thorgils. Klerkon considered Thorolf to old to be useful as a slave and killed him, and then sold the two boys to a man named Klerk for a stout and a good ram. Olaf was then sold to a man called Reas for a fine cloak. [1]

Life in Novgorod

Six years later when Sigurd Eirikson traveled to Estonia to collect taxes on behalf of Valdemar, he spotted a remarkably handsome boy, whom he figured was not a native. He asked the boy about his family, and the boy told him he was Olaf, son of Tryggve Olafson and Astrid Eiriksdattir. Sigurd then went to Reas and bought Olaf and Thorgils out from slavery, and took the boys with him to Novgorod to live under the protection of Valdemar.
According to Tryggvason's saga, one day in the Novgorod marketplace Olaf encountered Klerkon, his enslaver and the murderer of his foster father. Olaf killed Klerkon with an axe blow to the head. A mob followed the young boy as he fled to his protector Queen Allogia, with the intent of killing him for his misdeed. Only after Allogia had paid blood money for Olaf did the mob calm down.
As Olaf grew older, Valdemar made him chief over his men-at-arms. But after a couple years the king became wary of Olaf and his popularity with his soldiers. Fearing he might be a threat to the safety of his reign, Valdemar stopped treating Olaf as a friend. Olaf decided that it was better for him to seek his fortune elsewhere, and set out for the Baltic.


After leaving Novgorod, Olaf raided settlements and ports, with success for. But in 982 he was caught in a storm and made port in Vindland, where he met Queen Geira a daughter of King Burizleif. She ruled the part of Vindland in which Olaf had landed, and Olaf and his men was given an offer to stay during the winter. Olaf accepted and after courting the Queen, they were shortly married. Olaf began to reclaim the baronies that while under Geira rule had refused to pay taxes. After these successful campaigns, he began raiding again both in Skåne and Gotland.

Fighting for Otto III

The Holy Roman Emporor Otto III had assembled a great army from Saxland, Frakland, Frisland and Vindland to fight against the heathen Danes. Olaf was part of this army as his father-in-law was king of Vindland. Otto's army met the armies of King Harald I of Denmark and Haakon Jarl the ruler of Norway under the Danish king, at Danevirke, a great wall near Schleswig. Otto's army was unable to break the fortification, so he changed tactics and sailed around it landing in Jutland with a large fleet. Otto won a large battle there, and forced Harald and Haakon with their armies to convert to Christianity. Otto's army then returned to their homelands. Harald would hold on to his new faith, but Haakon began worshiping the old gods when he got home.

Death of Geira and Conversion

After Olaf had spent three years in Vindland, his wife fell sick and died. He felt so much sorrow from her death that he could no longer bear to stay in Vindland any longer, and set out to plunder in 984. He raided from Frisland to the Hebrides, until after four years landed on one of the Scilly Isles. He heard of a seer who lived there. Desiring to test the seer, he sent one of his men to pose as Olaf. But the seer was not fooled. So Olaf went to see the hermit, now convinced he was a real fortune teller. And the seer told him:

Thou wilt become a renowned king, and do celebrated deeds. Many men wilt thou bring to faith and baptism, and both to thy own and others' good; and that thou mayst have no doubt of the truth of this answer, listen to these tokens. When thou comest to thy ships many of thy people will conspire against thee, and then a battle will follow in which many of thy men will fall, and thou wilt be wounded almost to death, and carried upon a shield to thy ship; yet after seven days thou shalt be well of thy wounds, and immediately thou shalt let thyself be baptized.

After the meeting Olaf was attacked by a group of mutineers, and what the seer had fortold happened. So Olaf let himself be baptised by the hermit. After his conversion Olaf stopped looting in England, since he didn't wish to harm the people of his new faith.

Marriage to Gyda

In 988 Olaf sailed to England, because a Thing had been called by Queen Gyda, sister of the King of Dublin, Olaf Kvaran. She had been widowed by an earl, and was searching for a husband. A great many men had come, but Gyda singled out Olaf, despite the fact he was wearing his bad weather clothes, and the other men wore their finest clothing. And they were to be married. But another man by the name of Alfvine took objection, and challenged Olaf and his men to holmgang. Olaf and his men fought Alfvine's crew and won every battle, but did not kill any of them, instead they bound them. And Alfvine was told to quit the country and never come back again. Gyda and Olaf married, and spent half their time in England and the other half in Ireland.

Ascent to the Throne

During the christianisation of Norway, king Olaf had male völvas (shamans) tied and left on a skerry at ebb. A long and terrible wait for death.
During the christianisation of Norway, king Olaf had male völvas (shamans) tied and left on a skerry at ebb. A long and terrible wait for death.

In 995 rumours began surface in Norway about a king in Ireland of Norwegian blood. This caught the ear of Haakon Jarl, who sent Thorer Klakka to Ireland, posing as a merchant, to see if he was the son of Tryggve Olafson. Haakon told Thorer that if it was him, to lure him to Norway, so Haakon could have him under his power. Thorer befriended Olaf and told him of the situation in Norway, that Haakon Jarl had become unpopular with the populace, because he often took daughters of the elite as concubines, which was his right as ruler. But he quickly grew tired of them and sent them home after a week or two. He had also been weakened by his fighting with the Danish king, due to his rejection of the christian faith. Olaf seized this opportunity, and set sail for Norway. When he arrived many men had already started a revolt against Haakon Jarl, and he had gone in hidding in a hole dug in a swine-stye, together with one of his slaves Kark. When Olaf met the rebels they accepted him as their king, and together they started to search for Haakon. They eventually came to the farm where Haakon and Kark was hiding, but could not find them. Olaf held a thing just outside the swine-sty and promised great reward for the man who killed the Jarl. The two men in the hole heard this speech, and Haakon became distrustful of Kark, fearing he would kill him to claim the price. But he could not leave the sty, nor could he keep awake forever, and when he fell asleep Kark took out a knife and cut Haakon's head off. The next day the slave went to meet Olaf and presented with the head of Haakon. But the king did not reward him, and instead beheaded the slave.
After his confirmation as King of Norway, Olaf traveled to the parts of Norway that had not been under the rule of Haakon, but that of the King of Danmark. And they too swore allegiance to him. He then demanded that they all be baptised, and most reluctantly agreed. Those that did not were tortured or killed.

Rule as King

In 997 Olaf founded his seat of government in Trondheim, where he had first held thing with the revolters against Haakon. It was a good site because the River Nid twisted itself before going in to the fjord, creating a peninsula, that could be easly defended against land attacks by just one short wall.

It has been suggested that Olaf's ambition was to rule a united Christian Scandinavia, and we know that he made overtures of marriage to Sigrid the Haughty, queen of Sweden, but negotiations fell through due to her steadfast heathenism. Instead he made an enemy of her, and did not hesitate to involve himself in a quarrel with King Sweyn I of Denmark by marrying his sister Thyre, who had fled from her heathen husband Burislav in defiance of her brother's authority.

Both his Wendish and his Irish wife had brought Olaf wealth and good fortune, but Thyre was his undoing, for it was on an expedition undertaken in the year 1000 to wrest her lands from Burislav that he was waylaid off the island Svold, near Rügen, by the combined Swedish, Danish and Wendish fleets, together with the ships of Earl Haakon's sons. The Battle of Swold ended in the annihilation of the Norwegians. Olaf fought to the last on his great vessel the "Long Serpent" (Ormurin Langi), the mightiest ship in the North, and finally leapt overboard and was seen no more.

Preceded by:
Haakon Sigurdsson
King of Norway
Succeeded by:
Svein Forkbeard
Eiríkr Hákonarson
Sveinn Hákonarson


  1. ^ Snorri Sturluson's Heimskringla saga.

Most of Wikipedia's text and many of its images are licensed under the
Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License (CC BY-SA)

Return to Main Index