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H. E. Marshall

The Beginning of Scandinavia—Norway

Harold Haarfager

N ORWAY appears in history about the same time as Denmark and Sweden. Harold Haarfager, or Harold of the Splendid Locks, conquered the petty chiefs who ruled Norway and made himself sole king. He extended his conquests far beyond Norway. Orkney and Shetland became Norwegian earldoms, and even the Isle of Man and Iceland owned his sway.

"On a summer he sailed with his host west-over-sea, and came first to Shetland, and there slew all the Vikings who might not flee before him. Then he sailed south to the Orkneys, and cleared them utterly of Vikings. And thereafter he fared right away to the South isles, and harried there, and slew many Vikings who were captains of bands there. There had he many battles, and ever gained the day. Then he harried in Scotland, and had battles there. And when he came west to Man, the folk thereof had already heard what warfare King Harold had done on the land aforetime, and all folk fled into Scotland, so that Man was a waste of men, and all the good things that might be were flitted away. So when King Harold and his folk went a-land they got no prey there." (Heimskringla).

Harold was a fierce barbarian fighter, but he had some statesmanship also. "Whensoever swift rage or anger fell on him, he held himself aback at first, and let the wrath run off him, and looked at the matter unwrathfully." He had also what was wonderful in those days, some respect for his neighbour's rights. "Harold was the greatest king in Norway, and he had to do with kings of the folk-lands, and broke them down under him; yet he knew what was meet for him, and not to covet the realm of the Swede king, and for that reason the Swede kings let him sit in peace."

He also laid a ban upon robbery in the land. Therefore, many restless malcontents left the country rather than submit to the tyranny of such laws. France, Great Britain, and Ireland suffered accordingly. Among those who sailed in quest of new lands was Rolf or Rollo Wend-afoot.

"Therefore, at a thing  he gave out that he made Rolf (who would be ever a-harrying in the East-lands) an outlaw. . . . Rolf Wend-afoot fared therefor west-over-sea to the South isles. Thence west he went to Valland, and harried there, and won therein a mighty earldom, and peopled all the land with Northmen, and henceforth has that land been called Normandy."

In the end Harold ruined his work of uniting Norway by giving lesser kingships to about twenty of his sons, and each of these sons determined in his own mind to be king after his father's death. So when at the age of seventy-three Harold died, the land was once more torn by civil wars, the brothers slaying each other and wasting the realm in the contest for supremacy.

Hakon the Good

But at length Hakon the Good, Harold's youngest son, got the better of all the others, and reigned in Norway for twenty-seven years. He had been brought up at the court of Athelstane, and was therefore "a well christened man when he came to Norway."

"So he was minded when he was set fast in the land, and had gotten all to him freely to hold, he would then set forth the Christian faith. And at the beginning he wrought in such wise that he lured such as were best beloved by him to become Christians, and so much did his friendship prevail therein that very many let themselves be christened, and other some left off blood-offerings."

But when Hakon tried to force Christianity on the whole people he failed. They not only refused baptism but compelled the king to take part in their heathen sacrifices. At this Hakon was so incensed that he determined to force Christianity upon the whole people at the point of the sword. He was only held back from this by the danger which threatened his kingdom through the attacks of his nephews, who had been disappointed of their heritage.

Hakon had need of a united people to repel these attacks, so he made peace with his heathen subjects, and they joined their swords with his in defence of the realm.

In one of these battles Hakon was slain. As he lay wounded he longed for Christian burial. "Yet," he said, "if I die here amongst the heathen, then give me grave such as seemeth good unto you." So the first Christian king of Norway was buried with heathen rites. "Such words they spake over his grave as heathen men have custom, wishing him welfare to Valhall."

Olaf Tryggvason

It was under one of Hakon's successors, Olaf Tryggvason, that Norway became Christian. In early youth he was a Viking as fierce and blood-thirsty as any. "He was a danger to the lives of the Gotland folk, and I hear he fought at Sconey. He hewed the mail coats with the sword in Denmark, and south of Heathby he cut down the vulgar carcases of the Saxons for the steeds of the witches (wolves). He gave the blood of many a Frisian to the night prowlers. He fed the wolves on the bodies of the Bretons of Gaul, and gave the flesh of the Flemings to the raven. The young king waged war against the English, and made a slaughter of the Northumbrians. He destroyed the Scots far and wide. He held a sword play in Man. The archer king brought death to the islander and to the Irish. He battled with the dwellers in the land of Wales, and cut down the Cumbrian folk." (Saga of Olaf).

In 994 Olaf invaded England with Sweyn, king of Denmark, and while there he became Christian. He promised Ethelred "that he would never more come to England with war," and he kept his promise.

The year after this visit to England he suddenly appeared in Norway, and was received as king with acclamation. Like Hakon he determined to make his people Christian. With those immediately about him he was successful. "Then fared the king into the north parts, and bade all men take christianizing, but those who gainsaid him he mishandled sorely. Some he slew, some he maimed, some he drave away from the land."

So through all his kingdom Olaf passed, and by persuasion, threats, or at the point of the sword, he forced the whole people to accept the baptism of Christ. And when the haughty Queen Sigrid, whom he wooed as his wife, refused to become a Christian, he struck her in the face with his glove and left her straightway.

"This may well be the bane of thee," she cried, and thereafter Sigrid the Haughty was King Olaf's greatest foe. She married King Sweyn of Denmark and induced him to join with Olaf of Sweden in a war against Norway to avenge her wrongs.

The ships of the allies far outnumbered those of Olaf, but he disdained to flee, and after a desperate struggle off Stralsund the Norwegians were overcome. But rather than fall into the hands of the enemy Olaf leaped into the sea and was drowned. His people, however, could not believe that he was dead. So the legend grew up that he would return again, just as the legend of Arthur grew, and later that of Barbarossa.

Olaf Haroldson or St. Olaf

In 1015 Olaf Haroldson made himself king of Norway by force of the sword; but many of the people received him gladly, for it seemed to them that Olaf Tryggvason had come again, and in popular story many of the exploits of Olaf Tryggvason are ascribed to Olaf Haroldson. Among these is the Christianizing of Norway, and after his death Olaf Haroldson was named St. Olaf, and became the patron saint of Norway. In life, however, he was a vigorous statesman and warrior.

"It was proof of his stern rule that the wardens of the land had the heads of many pirates cut short with keen weapons. . . . They that made armed trespass ofttimes offered gold to the stern king for ransom; but he refused it and commanded their heads to be chopped off with the sword. The blessed king maimed the race of robbers and reivers, thus he cut short theft, he made every chief lose hands and feet, so he bettered the peace of the land. Nor did treason thrive towards the king." (Olaf's dirge).

Knut the Great

For ten years Olaf reigned undisturbed. Then in 1025, when Knut the Great had firmly established his rule over England, he sent messengers to Olaf demanding that he should do homage to him as overlord.

"Then answered King Olaf: 'I have heard it told in ancient tales that Gorm the Dane king was deemed to be a mighty enough king of the people, and he ruled over Denmark alone; but this the Dane kings that have been since deem not enough. And now it has come to this, that Knut rules over Denmark and over England, and, moreover, has broken a mickle deal of Scotland under his sway, yet now he layeth claim to my lawful heritage at my hands. He should wot how to have measure in his grasping in the end; or is he minded alone to rule over all the North-lands? Or does he mean, he alone, to eat all kale in England? Yea, he will have might thereto or ever I bring him my head, or give him any louting soever. Now shall ye tell him these words of mine, that I mean to ward Norway with point and edge whiles my life days last thereto, and not to pay any man scat for my own kingdom."

But Knut was minded to be emperor of the north. He was rich in men and money, so with gold and sword he invaded Norway. All those to whom Olaf's stern rule had caused discontent were easily bribed to join his foes against him, and after a short struggle he left his kingdom to the spoiler, and fled to Russia. Eighteen months later he returned to make a fight for his crown once more; but at the battle of Stiklarstad he was slain. "The Danish men had then in Norway mickle mastery, and the folk of the land were right ill-content thereat."

But on the death of Knut five years later the Norwegians made Olaf's son Magnus king and the connection with Denmark ended.

For nearly a century after this the land was more or less peaceful, then for another century, 1130 to 1240, there followed a period of civil wars, many would-be kings struggling for the crown. In 1240 the last of these claimants was killed, and better times began to dawn for the country. Then when Hakon VI, son of Magnus of Sweden, died, he was succeeded by his son Olaf, and Margaret his widow became regent, until all three Scandinavian kingdoms were united by the Union of Calmar.