Battle of Svolder: Norse King Olaf Tryggvason Defeated by Coalition of Enemy Navies

 
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Battle of Svolder: Norse King Olaf Tryggvason Defeated by Coalition of Enemy Navies

"Battle of Svolder…" by Otto L. Sinding (c. 1883-1884), oil on canvas
(Unless otherwise indicated, all illustrations are courtesy of Wikipedia)

Today in Military History: September 9, AD 1000

Once again I will relate for my longtime readers the story of a battle from the Age of the Vikings. It involves a monarch seeking to unite and rule Norway, but he is ambushed at sea and a mighty battle was fought.

[Note: Most of the information we have on this fight come from the Viking saga collection known as the Heimskringla ("circle of the world"). This work chronicles the lives of a number of early Norwegian kings which was committed to writing in 12th-century Iceland. There are some earlier Christian chronicles which contain bits and pieces about it. I will do my best to keep the narrative concise.]

Background

Olaf Tryggvason's father had been a regional king in Norway, ruling the area known as the Viken, which encompassed the southeast area of modern-day Norway including the Oslofjord (future site of Norway's present-day capital of Oslo). His father was killed by a rival, his mother fled and Olaf was born sometime afterwards.

Olaf then led an eventful life: he was shipwrecked on the Baltic coast of Wendland (modern-day Poland); sold into slavery to the land of the Rus' (Russia), then freed; served in the retinue of Vladimir, ruler of Novgorod; recruited into a German army which attacked Denmark; and raided throughout the Baltic and England. Eventually, he converted to Christianity, married and settled in England. He returned to Norway, and in the year 995 Olaf was recognized as the king of Norway.

"Olaf Tryggvason Crowned King of Norway" by Peter Nicolai Arbo (1860)
"Olaf Tryggvason Crowned King of Norway" by Peter Nicolai Arbo (1860)

Almost immediately, King Olaf traveled throughout the country, seeking to extend his rule by asking homage of jarls (local nobles) who had not previously recognized central authority. In addition, Olaf began a systematic conversion of the Norwegians away from their old gods and into the fold of the "White Christ" (as many Scandinavians called Him). Most of his subjects reluctantly complied, while other vehemently refused. Those that refused were tortured, often to death, in a number of ways.

For most of his reign, King Olaf contended with the kings of Denmark and Sweden to keep Norway independent of foreign rule. It is also likely Olaf was trying to create a Scandinavian Christian kingdom. At one point during his reign, he sought the hand of Queen Sigrid the Haughty, widow of Swedish monarch Eric the Victorious, the first recognized king of the Swedes. Olaf proposed to Sigrid, but he required that she must convert to Christianity. When she refused, Olaf struck her, and she stated, "This may someday be thy death." Not long afterwards, Sigrid married Sweyn Forkbeard, king of Denmark. Sigrid began to manipulate her new Danish husband, intent on eliminating Olaf Tryggvason from the Norse throne.

"Sigrid the Haughty and Olaf Tryggvason" by Erik Werenskiold; From the 1899 Norwegian translation of Heimskringla
"Sigrid the Haughty and Olaf Tryggvason" by Erik Werenskiold
From the 1899 Norwegian translation of Heimskringla

Finally, King Olaf found himself a wife (I should say another wife, for he left his other wife behind in Ireland to become Norse ruler), marrying Thyre, sister of Sweyn Forkbeard. She was already married to a Wendish ruler named Burislav (or Boleslav), but she fled from his court because Burislav had mistreated her. King Olaf demanded her dowry from Burislav but was refused.

According to the Heimskringla, in the late summer of the year 1000 Olaf organized a fleet of ships to journey to Wendland to acquire Thyre's dowry. It seems more likely that Olaf was either raiding the eastern Baltic, or was looking for allies in a coming war with Denmark and Sweden but met with no success. A part of King Olaf's fleet was commanded by Jarl Sigvaldi, who at that time was a commander of the Jomsvikings, a semi-mythical Viking military brotherhood located in Wendland near Denmark. Sigvaldi, though nominally an ally of Tryggvason, had made a pact with the enemies of the king of Norway.

Norse Navy

Most of the sagas state that King Olaf of Norway had only 11 ships under his command during the battle. It seems clear from the various sources that Olaf actually had a larger fleet (one sources say 71 vessels). Part of his fleet deserted to the Danish-Swedish coalition, while other ships were allowed to pass the island of Svolder before the trap was sprung.

The Norse fleet was dominated by Olaf's favorite vessel the Ormen Lange, or "Long Serpent." It was the largest ship ever constructed in Scandinavia, extrapolated to be nearly 148 feet long, 24 feet wide, and a raised platform at the rear to allow the crew greater height in seabattles. The ship had a total of 68 oars, and was said to have very high gunwales. A dragon's head stood at the prow, a dragontail was in the stern, and both were covered in gilt. The crew was over 300 men strong. [Obviously, this vessel was not meant for the long-range Viking voyages of trade. It was a short-range warship, crewed by as many men as it could hold.] Most of the rest of King Olaf's fleet were probably regular Viking ships, with no more than 20-25 pairs of oars to a ship.

"Ormen Lange" (Long Serpent) by Halfdan Egedius, from an 1899 edition of Olaf Tryggvason
"Ormen Lange" (Long Serpent) by Halfdan Egedius, from an 1899 edition of Olaf Tryggvason's saga

Coalition Navy

The coalition of King Olaf of Norway's enemies was much larger than the Norse fleet, but how much larger is unknown. Various sources give the size of the Danish-Swedish fleet as anywhere from as little as 70 to as large as 139. The figure of 71 seems to be the likely number. As mentioned before, the coalition contained vessels led by: King Sweyn Forkbeard of Denmark (who was married to Sigrid the Haughty); King Olof Skötkonung of Sweden (the meaning of his cognomen is possibly "tribute king" or "treasure king"); and ship contingents commanded by the Norwegian jarls, brothers Eric and Sven Haakonsson, whose father was a former Norse king deposed by Tryggvason. Each of these men had a reason to despise Olaf Tryggvason.

One of the unique ships in the Viking coalition flotilla was a vessel owned by Jarl Eric Haakonsson. It was the Iron Ram (or so it is named in the sagas). The prow of the vessel is described as being "bearded." In other words, it had bands of iron attached to it, reinforcing the stem of the ship. [The vessel's worth would be proven later…]

Prelude to the Battle

King Olaf of Norway's enemies watch his fleet pass Svolder before the battle; Illustration by Halfdan Egedius, from an 1899 edition of Olaf Tryggvason's Saga
King Olaf of Norway's enemies watch his fleet pass Svolder before the battle
Illustration by Halfdan Egedius, from an 1899 edition of Olaf Tryggvason's Saga

The Danish and Swedish kings and the Norse jarls gathered their fleet near the island of Svolder, probably located in the Baltic either near the Danish island of Zealand or the German island of Rügen. The enemy coalition allowed most of the Norwegian fleet to sail past Svolder unhindered (it was likely at this point that Jarl Sigvaldi deserted King Olaf's fleet and joined the enemy). Thus, Olaf Tryggvason was left with only 11 ships, but they were among the very best of his navy.

As the Norse fleet sailed past the island, King Olaf contemptuously viewed his enemies and gave his opinions of them. He said the Danes were of little consequence, calling them "forest goats." Similarly, Olaf wrote off the Swedes with a reference to their pagan customs, saying, "The Swedes will have an easier and more pleasant time licking out their sacrificial bowls than boarding the Long Serpent in the face of our weapons and succeeding in clearing our ships. I expect that we will not need to fear the horse eaters." However, he did say that the Norse jarls who opposed him would give them the most problems, because "They are Norwegians like us."

As the conspirators boarded their ships and began to pursue King Olaf's flotilla, the Norwegian king realized he was in for the fight of his life. He could have ordered his ships to deploy both their sails and rowers and escape danger. Perhaps Olaf Tryggason realized that his fate had caught up to him, and became determined to go to his death in the proverbial blaze of glory.

Consequently, King Olaf ordered his eleven ships to row alongside each other, and then chained or roped them all together. Essentially, Olaf formed a huge fighting platform with his own Long Serpent in the middle. Since the Vikings were excellent fighters on land, the Norwegians basically transformed their ships into a floating fort. The Norwegians would use the forward and aft raised decks as platforms for bowmen and javelinmen, while the remainder of the sailors engaged in hand-to-hand combat.

Battle of Svolder

If we are to believe the compilers of the Heimskringla, King Olaf's evaluation of his enemies was spot-on. The Danish and Swedish contingents attacked the front of the Norwegian ship-fort, sustaining heavy casualties in men and the loss of vessels. However, Jarl Eric made ingenious use of his ship Iron Ram: making use of his vessel's reinforced prow, he wedged the Iron Ram in between each Norwegian ship, followed by other associated ships. The king's ships would be individually boarded and the crews killed or captured. Then, the chains or ropes connecting the ships to the Norwegian fighting platform would be severed. In this way, Jarl Eric peeled each ship away from King Olaf's floating fort one by one.

One of the best known episodes from the battle involves Einarr Thambarsklfir, an archer in King Olaf's fleet who survived the sea-battle and later became a cunning politician. The Heimskringla describes his attempt at killing Jarl Eric and saving the day for King Olaf:

Einar shot an arrow at Jarl Eric, which hit the tiller end just above the earl's head so hard that it entered the wood up to the arrow-shaft. The earl looked that way, and asked if they knew who had shot; and at the same moment another arrow flew between his hand and his side, and into the stuffing of the chief's stool, so that the barb stood far out on the other side. Then said the jarl to a man called Fin, -- but some say he was [a Laplander], and was a superior archer, -- "Shoot that tall man by the mast." Fin shot; and the arrow hit the middle of Einar's bow just at the moment that Einar was drawing it, and the bow was split in two parts.

"What is that", cried King Olaf, "that broke with such a noise?"

"Norway, king, from thy hands," cried Einar.

"No! not quite so much as that," says the king; "take my bow, and shoot," flinging the bow to him.

Einar took the bow, and drew it ... "Too weak, too weak," said he, "for the bow of a mighty king!" and, throwing the bow aside, he took sword and shield, and fought valiantly.

The battle continued nearly all day, as the rebel-Norwegian ship Iron Ram and its crew continued to scrape one Norwegian ship after another away from King Olaf's Long Serpent. As each ship is separated from its companions, the rest of the coalition fleet boards and captures each vessel in bloody hand-to-hand fighting. Many of the men from these ships retreat onto the Norwegian flagship. Finally, only the Long Serpent is left, and the ships of Jarls Eric and Sven Haakonsson attack King Olaf's lone vessel.

"Eirikr Hákonarson [sic] and his men board the Long Serpent at the battle of Svolder"; Illustration by Halfdan Egedius, from an 1899 edition of Olaf Tryggvason
"Eirikr Hákonarson [sic] and his men board the Long Serpent at the battle of Svolder"
Illustration by Halfdan Egedius, from an 1899 edition of Olaf Tryggvason's Saga

The battle for control of the Long Serpent is long and hard, as each of King Olaf's men know they must sell their lives dearly, never mind that victory is impossible but staving off the inevitable is the paramount concern. The Norwegian king commanded his men from the stern platform, where he was protected by a ring of shields held by his personal bodyguards. Enemy ships began to attack the Norwegian flagship from all sides, like a pack of dogs worrying a bear. The Heimskringla contains this passage, attributed to a skald named Haldor the Unchristian:

"Sharp was the clang of shield and sword,
And shrill the song of spears on board,
And whistling arrows thickly flew
Against the Serpent's gallant crew.
And still fresh foemen, it is said,
[Jarl Eric] to her long side led;
Whole armies of his Danes and Swedes,
Wielding on high their blue sword-blades."

Some of King Olaf's men were so intent on protecting their monarch that they threw themselves off the Long Serpent to get at the enemy, but instead were drowned in the attempt.

Finally, most of the Norwegian flagship's crew is killed, drowned or captured. All that is left is King Olaf Tryggvason and his immediate retinue, loyal to the end. The final confrontation is hard-fought, and men fell victim to sword strokes and axe-blows. Apparently spurning the protection of his shield-wall, King Olaf took his place at the front of the fight, laying low one foe after another. Finally, he was left essentially alone, and his enemies were intent on capturing him. Deciding he will never allow himself to be taken alive, Olaf made a fateful decision. In full armor and carrying his shield, King Olaf Tryggvason jumped overboard, his heavy equipment quickly taking him to the depths of the Baltic Sea. With the death of the Norwegian monarch, the battle of Svolder ends.

[There are two variants to this death scene. Some of the Christian chronicles say that as Jarl Sven Haakonsson was approaching King Olaf, a great flash of light blinded him. When the light subsided, Olaf was nowhere to be seen. Another chronicle says that after Olaf jumped overboard, he doffed his armor and swam to shore. In any case, Olaf Tryggvason was never seen in Norway again.]

Scene from "King Olaf Tryggvason
Scene from "King Olaf Tryggvason's Saga" by Angus McBride
Climactic episode of the battle of Svolder (King Olaf left of center)
[Image courtesy of http://www.armchairgeneral.com]

Aftermath

As a result of the Norwegian loss at Svolder, Norway is divided into a number of areas of control. Most of Norway (the area in blue on the map below) was ruled by Jarl Sven Haakonsson, as a subject of King Sweyn Forkbeard of Denmark. His brother Eric was assigned three Norwegian provinces (the areas in green), and swore allegiance to King Olof Skötkonung of Sweden. Finally, the area called the Viken (the area in brown, and the former home of Olaf Tryggvason) was ruled directly by Sweyn Forkbeard.

Norway divided after Svolder (see text above for explanation)
Norway divided after Svolder (see text above for explanation)

Footnote #1: Within a decade of the battle of Svolder, Sweyn Forkbeard would create a North Seas empire, encompassing Denmark, Norway, England, and part of Sweden. After his father's death in 1014, his son Canute would rule this empire until his own demise in 1035.

Footnote #2: Norway would have its own king temporarily from 1015 to 1030, under Olaf II Haraldsson – later Saint Olaf, Norway's patron saint – who would be deposed in 1028 and eventually die at the battle of Stiklestad in 1030 (which was the subject of a Burn Pit post from July 28, 2010, which you may read at battle_of_stiklestad).

Footnote #3: This battle inspired a number of tributes over the next 1000 years, including a Japanese manga volume. In the late 1800's, Norwegian writer Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson wrote a short poem about the fall of King Olaf Tryggvason. He tried to collaborate with famed Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg to write an opera based on the poem, but the plans fell through. Nonetheless, modern Norwegian composer Ragnar Søderlind took Grieg's music and completed the opera "Olaf Tryggvason," which premiered in September of 2000, 1000 years after the battle.

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