The sanguinary saga of Norwegian King Olaf Tryggvason relates his bloody raids, mercurial romances, warped religious convictions and ultimate fate.
Lashed together, the 11 longships of Norwegian King Olaf Tryggvason’s flotilla formed a floating bastion,
with the monarch’s own massive vessel, Ormen Lange (Long Serpent), at the center. Resplendent in his red tunic and gilded helmet, Tryggvason urged his men to stand fast as the fleet of enemy ships approached.
Though he radiated confidence, the Norse leader was far from certain of victory. Several of his trusted jarls—nobles who had sworn fealty in return for his patronage—had suddenly deserted, offering their ships and swords to the combined Danish-Swedish fleet intent on Tryggvason’s destruction. Though what history records as the Battle of Svolder had not yet begun, the Norwegian king must have known his formidable Long Serpent would likely soon vanish beneath the frigid waters of the Baltic Sea, and with it his grandiose plans to forge a vast empire in Scandinavia.
Despite the increasingly dire situation Tryggvason—true to his Viking heritage—stood fast atop the raised aft section of Long Serpent, his personal guard raising a shield wall around him. No matter what fate intended for him, the avowed Christian king of Norway would not sell his life cheaply.
Surviving accounts of Tryggvason derive from early Scandinavian poetry and the semi-legendary Norse sagas, the latter including Oddr Snorrason’s circa 1190 Saga of Olaf Tryggvason. Historians largely consider the later chronicles written in Iceland—notably the circa 1230 Heimskringla sagas of the Norwegian kings, written by poet-historian Snorri Sturluson—more reliable than the mythological epics that preceded them.
Most scholars assume Tryggvason to have been the son of Tryggve Olafsson, a minor king of Norway, and his wife, Astrid. Tryggvason was born circa 964, shortly after usurpers to the throne had murdered his father. Astrid and son spent the next few years on the run from Olafsson’s killers. While crossing the Baltic Sea to seek refuge with Astrid’s brother, Sigurd Eriksson, in Novgorod (in present-day northeastern Russia), the pair’s luck ran out, as pirates boarded their ship. The boarding party killed all aboard who were old or infirm and sold all boys into slavery in Estland (present-day Estonia). Thus were Astrid and Tryggvason separated. A slave trader named Klerkon traded the captive boys for a goat. The one who traded the goat then swapped Tryggvason for a cloak to a man named Reas, who treated the boy relatively well.
Six years after the pair’s capture Astrid’s brother, Sigurd, was visiting Estland on business when he happened on young Olaf, whom he’d never seen. Noting the 9-year-old’s Norwegian features, Eriksson asked the boy his name and family. On learning the boy was his nephew, Eriksson bought Tryggvason out of slavery and took him back to Novgorod, raising him under the protection of Eriksson’s sovereigns, King Valdamar (Vladimir the Great) and Queen Allogia. Soon after arriving at his new home, Tryggvason spotted the slave trader Klerkon at a local market. Without hesitation the young Viking pulled his fighting axe from his belt and with a single swing split the man’s skull, killing him instantly.
If not for the boy’s connections at the royal court he would have faced death for the brutal public murder. But given the harsh circumstances of Tryggvason’s childhood, Valdamar—who had converted his people to Eastern Orthodox Christianity—took pity on the boy and welcomed him into court. Tryggvason remained in Novgorod through his teens.
Tryggvason’s chance to make his own mark came at age 18 when King Valdamar—wary of his ward’s increasing popularity—gave him several ships and encouraged him to undertake a plundering voyage for which the Vikings were infamous. The first stop for Tryggvason and his crew was Bornholm, a Danish island in the Baltic Sea, which they duly pillaged, yielding considerable spoils. As the flotilla lay at anchor, a gale whipped up, impelling them to sail south to the Baltic coast of Wendland (along the present-day German-Polish border). Smitten by the region’s ruler, Geira—one of Wendish King Burislav’s three daughters—Tryggvason courted her and within months married the princess.
Over the next three years Tryggvason alternated between raiding parts of Sweden, battling Wendish noblemen over back taxes and joining Burislav in helping Holy Roman Emperor Otto II fight the pagan Danes. Though Burislav and Otto were professed Christians, as was Geira, Tryggvason had not converted. It would take both a personal tragedy and the predictions of a soothsayer for the Viking leader to give up his ancestral beliefs.
The tragedy befell Tryggvason at age 21, when Geira, his beloved wife of three years, fell sick and died. Inconsolable, the widower fled Wendland and set out with a small fleet to bury his grief by plundering Saxony, Friesland and Flanders. For the next four years he ravaged maritime Europe, raiding among the British Isles and along the French coast. In 988 Tryggvason arrived in the Isles of Scilly, off the southwestern tip of England, where he heard tell of a celebrated soothsayer—a man who was to alter the course of the Viking leader’s life and the history of Norway.
To test the soothsayer, Tryggvason sent a pretender to visit the man in his stead, but the seer knew instantly the visitor was an imposter. Intrigued, the Viking leader visited the man in person. The seer told Tryggvason he would become a renowned king who would bring many to “the true faith.” The soothsayer also predicted the Viking would face a battle against his own men in which he would be wounded, but he would heal in seven days and then be baptized. The sagas claim that soon after Tryggvason left the seer’s presence, the predicted events occurred, as the Viking defeated mutinous troops and healed from his battle wounds within a week. Tryggvason then returned to the seer to ask the root of his visions. The soothsayer replied that the Christian God revealed to him the events he saw. Convinced, Tryggvason agreed to be baptized, as did many of his followers.
After his conversion Tryggvason sailed to the British mainland. He arrived as free men of the region were gathering for a thing (an assembly at which to resolve debates and decide issues of community importance). Also in attendance was a widowed noblewoman named Gyda, who managed her late husband’s estates but sought a new spouse to help her. A local champion named Alwin wanted to marry Gyda, but the young woman wished to choose her own mate.
Alwin came garbed in his finest raiment, while Tryggvason was dressed in rough-weather clothes and a threadbare coat. Gyda nonetheless selected Tryggvason as her betrothed, a decision that incensed Alwin. The champion then made what proved a poor decision: He demanded combat. The battle-tested Viking made short work of Alwin, forcing him to yield. He then ordered the disgraced champion and his personal retinue banished. Heaping insult upon insult, Tryggvason then claimed Alwin’s lands and married Gyda.
Married life did little to temper the newly baptized Viking’s love of raiding, for Tryggvason soon embarked on a series of raids for plunder along the coasts of Essex, Kent, Sussex and Hampshire. He stayed the winter of 993–4 in Southampton, amassing booty from the surrounding countryside. Tryggvason then boldly offered England’s King Ethelred II a deal: In return for a ransom the Viking would cease his plundering of the king’s realms. Ethelred accepted, and, true to his word, Tryggvason stopped raiding in England—though he soon found greener pastures.
Around the time Tryggvason made his deal with Ethelred, Norway’s de facto ruler—Jarl Hakon Sigurdsson—was facing increasing unrest. He had enjoyed widespread support following his assumption of power around 975, but his penchant for taking highborn women as concubines and attempts to limit the power of the bondes (free landowners) occasioned growing hostility to his reign. When news reached Hakon that a man of noble Norwegian blood was gaining renown in England and Ireland, he feared a challenge to his throne. He quickly dispatched a trusted friend, Thorir Klakka, to determine if the mystery man was Tryggvason.
Klakka caught up with the Viking in Dublin, where he went by the name Oli. Hakon’s emissary nurtured a relationship with the man until he ultimately revealed his true identity. When Tryggvason inquired about Norway and its leaders, Klakka—apparently not the trusted friend Hakon thought him to be—persuaded the Viking that were he to return to Norway, the people would accept him as their rightful king. The idea of ruling the land of his birth proved irresistible, and Tryggvason sailed for Norway in the autumn of 995. He first made landfall on the western isles of Moss. There and at each following stop Tryggvason offered locals a choice: be baptized or die. While an unbiblical form of evangelism, the Viking’s method of spreading the Gospel was ostensibly effective—few chose death over conversion.
Once on Norwegian soil Tryggvason won over the people while crushing Hakon’s forces at every turn. Eventually, one of the bondes beheaded the hated jarl and brought the head to Olaf. In a subsequent thing at Trondheim the people joyously chose Tryggvason king of Norway. Their goodwill quickly faded, however, as Tryggvason instituted his religious decrees, ordering the destruction of pagan temples and “inviting” his subjects to accept his version of Christianity. Those who did not were mutilated, banished or killed.
While Tryggvason’s reign of terror led to the coerced baptism of people across much of Norway, some of the kingdom’s more powerful bondes resisted the elimination of their long-held pagan rituals and organized a series of things to condemn and halt the new king’s brutal actions. Yet at each gathering the presence of Tryggvason’s elite warriors so intimidated the bondes that they lost their nerve; rather than denouncing the king and his beliefs, they chose to preserve their lives and submit to his rituals.
Not everyone was cowed by Tryggvason’s power or ruthlessness, however.
According to the Heimskringla, during the first winter of Tryggvason’s conversion crusade he sent couriers to Sigrid, the desirable, strong-willed daughter of a nobleman in Svithjod (present-day Sweden). Known as Sigrid the Haughty, she had refused many suitors but agreed to be courted by Tryggvason. As a symbol of his intent the Norwegian king sent her a ring of gold he had pried from the door of a pagan temple. It turned out to have been a poor choice, for when Sigrid’s smiths assessed the ring, they found it filled with copper. Furious at the deception, the noblewoman wondered what other falsehoods her betrothed might have in store.
The sagas say a meeting took place in the spring of 998, when Tryggvason traveled to Svithjod to finalize details of the wedding. A grave breach developed between the prospective bride and groom, however, when Tryggvason insisted Sigrid be baptized. Already suspicious of the king’s motives and sincerity, Sigrid refused to give up the pagan religion of her forefathers. Outraged by her defiance, Tryggvason spurned her and struck her across the face with a heavy glove. The Heimskringla relates that Sigrid swore the king would come to regret the blow, and both angrily went their separate ways.
The collapse of the planned marriage to Sigrid did nothing to improve Tryggvason’s temper, and he redoubled his attacks on those who insisted on clinging to paganism. At one public gathering that summer of 998, rather than making animal sacrifices to Thor and Odin, as a group of bondes demanded, Tryggvason instead suggested sacrificing 11 of the best men present. Seeing they were outnumbered, all at the gathering renounced paganism and submitted to baptism. At a feast in Trondheim Tryggvason was even more blunt, toppling a statue of Thor before forcing baptism on all present.
Later that year Tryggvason ordered construction of a great longship with which to undertake a domestic conversion voyage. The ship was of Viking design, with a single mast and benches for 30 rowers. He named it Crane, and in the spring of 999 Tryggvason made it the flagship of a flotilla he led to Halogaland, the northernmost province of his realm. There he and his men forcibly converted the population, slaughtering any who resisted.
On his return from that crusade Tryggvason decided that to voyage farther abroad he required a far larger ship than Crane. The new craft he ordered was 148 feet long, with a towering central mast and 34 oars to a side. Sheathed in gold leaf from dragon-headed prow to stern, it was the best and most expensive vessel thus far constructed in Norway, capable of carrying several hundred fully equipped warriors. The ship was Long Serpent, and its launch marked the beginning of the end of Tryggvason’s reign.
As devoted as the Norwegian king was to his brutal methods of evangelism, he always made time for romance—especially if it offered the chance to further enrich himself. Around the time his shipwrights were laying down Long Serpent, Tryggvason met a woman who seemed to promise both love and loot.
According to the sagas, that woman was Thyre, wife of Tryggvason’s onetime father-in-law, King Burislav of Wendland. The unhappy young queen was on the run from her elderly and abusive husband when her arrival in Norway drew the king’s rapt attention. Tryggvason offered to marry her, and she, jumping at the chance to help herself, accepted his proposal. The two were married in late 999, and the following spring Thyre pleaded with Tryggvason to secure from Burislav the property she had abandoned in Wendland. Eager to both please his wife and amass greater wealth, Tryggvason set out with 30 ships and men. There was no need for a fight, as Burislav welcomed his former son-in-law with open arms and agreed to an equitable settlement.
The peaceful resolution of Thyre’s claims did not prove an omen of continued success for Norway’s king, however, for Sigrid the Haughty, Tryggvason’s jilted fiancée, remained determined to bring him down. By then married to King Sweyn Forkbeard of Denmark, Sigrid convinced her husband to join forces with Sweden’s King Olaf, who was her son, and Norway’s Jarl Eirik Hakonsson, son of Tryggvason’s late enemy Hakon Sigurdsson.
All three had good reason to wish the Norwegian king ill, and they soon hatched a plan. Rather than engage Tryggvason on land, where he could call up large numbers of fighters, the trio plotted to force him into a surprise sea battle in which he would be outnumbered. Knowing their enemy was returning to Norway from Wendland, they chose the waters around a small Baltic island known as Svolder in the sagas.
Tryggvason was not expecting trouble on the voyage back to Norway, and his ships were strung out rather than grouped together in battle formation. The sagas relate that the first inkling the Norwegian king had of danger was the sudden appearance of some 70 enemy vessels from behind the island. The mere sight of the Danish-Swedish-Norwegian fleet prompted his trusted jarl Sigvalde to hastily defect from Tryggvason’s flotilla, leaving the king with just Long Serpent and 10 other longships.
After sounding the war horns, Tryggvason ordered his ships lashed together, knowing a floating-fortress tactic offered the only real defense against the stronger enemy fleet. The king then took his place on Long Serpent’s raised aft deck. The sagas relate that Tryggvason was not concerned at facing the Danes or Swedes, but on learning Eirik was present, he exclaimed that the jarl’s forces would put up the fiercest fight, as they were fellow Norwegians.
The battle opened with determined assaults first by the Danes and then the Swedes, but each faltered after running a gauntlet of fire from Tryggvason’s archers, who shot down into the smaller vessels. Heavy casualties forced Sweyn and Olaf to withdraw, at which point Eirik threw his fresh and unbloodied Norwegians into the fight. His ships pulled alongside Tryggvason’s floating fortress, their crews methodically clearing and cutting loose each outlying vessel.
Finally, only Long Serpent was left, surrounded by enemy vessels. Einar Tambarskelfir, one of Tryggvason’s archers, launched a shaft that buried itself in the mast above Eirik and a second that passed between the jarl’s arm and body. The nobleman’s own bowman then fired back, his arrow snapping Einar’s bow in half. When Tryggvason asked what had broken, Einar prophetically cried out, “Norway.”
As the battle raged on, Tryggvason was wounded. When it became clear defeat was imminent, he leapt overboard rather than be captured, his heavy armor and sword immediately pulling him under. Eirik’s men could only watch as he sank into the depths.
The Battle of Svolder was a turning point in Scandinavian history. The Danish, Swedish and Norwegian victors divided Tryggvason’s kingdom, carving out areas of cultural and linguistic influence that remain to this day. Though Sweyn Forkbeard, King Olaf and Jarl Eirik were all pagans at the time of the battle, the sagas affirm that each man ultimately adopted Christianity but allowed their people to practice whatever faith they desired. While their decision initially undid many of Tryggvason’s forced conversions, the Viking’s misguided efforts had laid the foundation for the unification and conversion of Norway under King Olaf II Haraldsson (995–1030), canonized in death as St. Olaf.
As for 36-year-old Tryggvason, his apparent death following the leap from Long Serpent did not preclude several reported post-battle sightings of him in places as far away as Jerusalem. Dubious as such reports might have been, most sources agree Queen Thyre was inconsolable, refused to eat and died just nine days after the Battle of Svolder.
Whatever Tryggvason’s ultimate fate, the course of his life and accounts of his valor in combat off Svolder ensured his fame lived on in sagas, stories and song.
Deborah Stadtler is senior editor for Military History, Vietnam and MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History. For further reading she recommends The Saga of Olaf Tryggvason, by Oddr Snorrason, and The Story of Norway, by Hjalmar Hjorth Boyesen.
First published in Military History Magazine’s May 2017 issue.