The Northern Way

Early Kings of Norway



Olaf Tryggveson (A.D. 995-1000) also makes a great figure in the Faroer Saga, and recounts there his early troubles, which were strange and many. He is still reckoned a grand hero of the North, though his vates now is only Snorro Sturleson of Iceland. Tryggveson had indeed many adventures in the world. His poor mother, Astrid, was obliged to fly, on murder of her husband by Gunhild,--to fly for life, three months before he, her little Olaf, was born. She lay concealed in reedy islands, fled through trackless forests; reached her father's with the little baby in her arms, and lay deep-hidden there, tended only by her father himself; Gunhild's pursuit being so incessant, and keen as with sleuth-hounds. Poor Astrid had to fly again, deviously to Sweden, to Esthland (Esthonia), to Russia. In Esthland she was sold as a slave, quite parted from her boy,--who also was sold, and again sold; but did at last fall in with a kinsman high in the Russian service; did from him find redemption and help, and so rose, in a distinguished manner, to manhood, victorious self-help, and recovery of his kingdom at last. He even met his mother again, he as king of Norway, she as one wonderfully lifted out of darkness into new life and happiness still in store.

Grown to manhood, Tryggveson,--now become acquainted with his birth, and with his, alas, hopeless claims,--left Russia for the one profession open to him, that of sea-robbery; and did feats without number in that questionable line in many seas and scenes,--in England latterly, and most conspicuously of all. In one of his courses thither, after long labors in the Hebrides, Man, Wales, and down the western shores to the very Land's End and farther, he paused at the Scilly Islands for a little while. He was told of a wonderful Christian hermit living strangely in these sea-solitudes; had the curiosity to seek him out, examine, question, and discourse with him; and, after some reflection, accepted Christian baptism from the venerable man. In Snorro the story is involved in miracle, rumor, and fable; but the fact itself seems certain, and is very interesting; the great, wild, noble soul of fierce Olaf opening to this wonderful gospel of tidings from beyond the world, tidings which infinitely transcended all else he had ever heard or dreamt of! It seems certain he was baptized here; date not fixable; shortly before poor heart-broken Dunstan's death, or shortly after; most English churches, monasteries especially, lying burnt, under continual visitation of the Danes. Olaf such baptism notwithstanding, did not quit his viking profession; indeed, what other was there for him in the world as yet?

We mentioned his occasional copartneries with Svein of the Double-beard, now become King of Denmark, but the greatest of these, and the alone interesting at this time, is their joint invasion of England, and Tryggveson's exploits and fortunes there some years after that adventure of baptism in the Scilly Isles. Svein and he "were above a year in England together," this time: they steered up the Thames with three hundred ships and many fighters; siege, or at least furious assault, of London was their first or main enterprise, but it did not succeed. The Saxon Chronicle gives date to it, A.D. 994, and names expressly, as Svein's co-partner, "Olaus, king of Norway,"--which he was as yet far from being; but in regard to the Year of Grace the Saxon Chronicle is to be held indisputable, and, indeed, has the field to itself in this matter. Famed Olaf Tryggveson, seen visibly at the siege of London, year 994, it throws a kind of momentary light to us over that disastrous whirlpool of miseries and confusions, all dark and painful to the fancy otherwise! This big voyage and furious siege of London is Svein Double-beard's first real attempt to fulfil that vow of his at Father Blue-tooth's "funeral ale," and conquer England,--which it is a pity he could not yet do. Had London now fallen to him, it is pretty evident all England must have followed, and poor England, with Svein as king over it, been delivered from immeasurable woes, which had to last some two-and-twenty years farther, before this result could be arrived at. But finding London impregnable for the moment (no ship able to get athwart the bridge, and many Danes perishing in the attempt to do it by swimming), Svein and Olaf turned to other enterprises; all England in a manner lying open to them, turn which way they liked. They burnt and plundered over Kent, over Hampshire, Sussex; they stormed far and wide; world lying all before them where to choose. Wretched Ethelred, as the one invention he could fall upon, offered them Danegelt (16,000 pounds of silver this year, but it rose in other years as high as 48,000 pounds); the desperate Ethelred, a clear method of quenching fire by pouring oil on it! Svein and Olaf accepted; withdrew to Southampton,--Olaf at least did,--till the money was got ready. Strange to think of, fierce Svein of the Double-beard, and conquest of England by him; this had at last become the one salutary result which remained for that distracted, down-trodden, now utterly chaotic and anarchic country. A conquering Svein, followed by an ably and earnestly administrative, as well as conquering, Knut (whom Dahlmann compares to Charlemagne), were thus by the mysterious destinies appointed the effective saviors of England.

Tryggveson, on this occasion, was a good while at Southampton; and roamed extensively about, easily victorious over everything, if resistance were attempted, but finding little or none; and acting now in a peaceable or even friendly capacity. In the Southampton country he came in contact with the then Bishop of Winchester, afterwards Archbishop of Canterbury, excellent Elphegus, still dimly decipherable to us as a man of great natural discernment, piety, and inborn veracity; a hero-soul, probably of real brotherhood with Olaf's own. He even made court visits to King Ethelred; one visit to him at Andover of a very serious nature. By Elphegus, as we can discover, he was introduced into the real depths of the Christian faith. Elphegus, with due solemnity of apparatus, in presence of the king, at Andover, baptized Olaf anew, and to him Olaf engaged that he would never plunder in England any more; which promise, too, he kept. In fact, not long after, Svein's conquest of England being in an evidently forward state, Tryggveson (having made, withal, a great English or Irish marriage,--a dowager Princess, who had voluntarily fallen in love with him,--see Snorro for this fine romantic fact!) mainly resided in our island for two or three years, or else in Dublin, in the precincts of the Danish Court there in the Sister Isle. Accordingly it was in Dublin, as above noted, that Hakon's spy found him; and from the Liffey that his squadron sailed, through the Hebrides, through the Orkneys, plundering and baptizing in their strange way, towards such success as we have seen.

Tryggveson made a stout, and, in effect, victorious and glorious struggle for himself as king. Daily and hourly vigilant to do so, often enough by soft and even merry methods, for he was a witty, jocund man, and had a fine ringing laugh in him, and clear pregnant words ever ready,--or if soft methods would not serve, then by hard and even hardest he put down a great deal of miscellaneous anarchy in Norway; was especially busy against heathenism (devil-worship and its rites): this, indeed, may be called the focus and heart of all his royal endeavor in Norway, and of all the troubles he now had with his people there. For this was a serious, vital, all-comprehending matter; devil-worship, a thing not to be tolerated one moment longer than you could by any method help! Olaf's success was intermittent, of varying complexion; but his effort, swift or slow, was strong and continual; and on the whole he did succeed. Take a sample or two of that wonderful conversion process:--

At one of his first Things he found the Bonders all assembled in arms; resolute to the death seemingly, against his proposal and him. Tryggveson said little; waited impassive, "What your reasons are, good men?" One zealous Bonder started up in passionate parliamentary eloquence; but after a sentence or two, broke down; one, and then another, and still another, and remained all three staring in open-mouthed silence there! The peasant-proprietors accepted the phenomenon as ludicrous, perhaps partly as miraculous withal, and consented to baptism this time.

On another occasion of a Thing, which had assembled near some heathen temple to meet him,--temple where Hakon Jarl had done much repairing, and set up many idol figures and sumptuous ornaments, regardless of expense, especially a very big and splendid Thor, with massive gold collar round the neck of him, not the like of it in Norway,--King Olaf Tryggveson was clamorously invited by the Bonders to step in there, enlighten his eyes, and partake of the sacred rites. Instead of which he rushed into the temple with his armed men; smashed down, with his own battle-axe, the god Thor, prostrate on the ground at one stroke, to set an example; and, in a few minutes, had the whole Hakon Pantheon wrecked; packing up meanwhile all the gold and preciosities accumulated there (not forgetting Thor's illustrious gold collar, of which we shall hear again), and victoriously took the plunder home with him for his own royal uses and behoof of the state. In other cases, though a friend to strong measures, he had to hold in, and await the favorable moment. Thus once, in beginning a parliamentary address, so soon as he came to touch upon Christianity, the Bonders rose in murmurs, in vociferations and jingling of arms, which quite drowned the royal voice; declared, they had taken arms against king Hakon the Good to compel him to desist from his Christian proposals; and they did not think King Olaf a higher man than him (Hakon the Good). The king then said, "He purposed coming to them next Yule to their great sacrificial feast, to see for himself what their customs were," which pacified the Bonders for this time. The appointed place of meeting was again a Hakon-Jarl Temple, not yet done to ruin; chief shrine in those Trondhjem parts, I believe : there should Tryggveson appear at Yule. Well, but before Yule came, Tryggveson made a great banquet in his palace at Trondhjem, and invited far and wide, all manner of important persons out of the district as guests there. Banquet hardly done, Tryggveson gave some slight signal, upon which armed men strode in, seized eleven of these principal persons, and the king said: "Since he himself was to become a heathen again, and do sacrifice, it was his purpose to do it in the highest form, namely, that of Human Sacrifice; and this time not of slaves and malefactors, but of the best men in the country!" In which stringent circumstances the eleven seized persons, and company at large, gave unanimous consent to baptism; straightway received the same, and abjured their idols; but were not permitted to go home till they had left, in sons, brothers, and other precious relatives, sufficient hostages in the king's hands.

By unwearied industry of this and better kinds, Tryggveson had trampled down idolatry, so far as form went,--how far in substance may be greatly doubted. But it is to be remembered withal, that always on the back of these compulsory adventures there followed English bishops, priests and preachers; whereby to the open-minded, conviction, to all degrees of it, was attainable, while silence and passivity became the duty or necessity of the unconvinced party.

In about two years Norway was all gone over with a rough harrow of conversion. Heathenism at least constrained to be silent and outwardly conformable. Tryggveson, next turned his attention to Iceland, sent one Thangbrand, priest from Saxony, of wonderful qualities, military as well as theological, to try and convert Iceland. Thangbrand made a few converts; for Olaf had already many estimable Iceland friends, whom he liked much, and was much liked by; and conversion was the ready road to his favor. Thangbrand, I find, lodged with Hall of Sida (familiar acquaintance of "Burnt Njal," whose Saga has its admirers among us even now). Thangbrand converted Hall and one or two other leading men,; but in general he was reckoned quarrelsome and blusterous rather than eloquent and piously convincing. Two skalds of repute made biting lampoons upon Thangbrand, whom Thangbrand, by two opportunities that offered, cut down and did to death because of their skaldic quality. Another he killed with his own hand, I know not for what reason. In brief, after about a year, Thangbrand returned to Norway and king Olaf; declaring the Icelanders to be a perverse, satirical, and inconvertible people, having himself, the record says, "been the death of three men there." King Olaf was in high rage at this result; but was persuaded by the Icelanders about him to try farther, and by a wilder instrument. He accordingly chose one Thormod, a pious, patient, and kindly man, who, within the next year or so, did actually accomplish the matter; namely, get Christianity, by open vote, declared at Thingvalla by the general Thing of Iceland there; the roar of a big thunder-clap at the right moment rather helping the conclusion, if I recollect. Whereupon Olaf's joy was no doubt great.

One general result of these successful operations was the discontent, to all manner of degrees, on the part of many Norse individuals, against this glorious and victorious, but peremptory and terrible king of theirs. Tryggveson, I fancy, did not much regard all that; a man of joyful, cheery temper, habitually contemptuous of danger. Another trivial misfortune that befell in these conversion operations, and became important to him, he did not even know of, and would have much despised if he had. It was this: Sigrid, queen dowager of Sweden, thought to be amongst the most shining women of the world, was also known for one of the most imperious, revengeful, and relentless, and had got for herself the name of Sigrid the Proud. In her high widowhood she had naturally many wooers; but treated them in a manner unexampled. Two of her suitors, a simultaneous Two, were, King Harald Graenske (a cousin of King Tryggveson's, and kind of king in some district, by sufferance of the late Hakon's),--this luckless Graenske and the then Russian Sovereign as well, name not worth mentioning, were zealous suitors of Queen Dowager Sigrid, and were perversely slow to accept the negative, which in her heart was inexorable for both, though the expression of it could not be quite so emphatic. By ill-luck for them they came once,--from the far West, Graenske; from the far East, the Russian;--and arrived both together at Sigrid's court, to prosecute their importunate, and to her odious and tiresome suit; much, how very much, to her impatience and disdain. She lodged them both in some old mansion, which she had contiguous, and got compendiously furnished for them; and there, I know not whether on the first or on the second, or on what following night, this unparalleled Queen Sigrid had the house surrounded, set on fire, and the two suitors and their people burnt to ashes! No more of bother from these two at least! This appears to be a fact; and it could not be unknown to Tryggveson.

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