The Northern Way

Early Kings of Norway



St. Olaf is the highest of these Norway Kings, and is the last that much attracts us. For this reason, if a reason were not superfluous, we might here end our poor reminiscences of those dim Sovereigns. But we will, nevertheless, for the sake of their connection with bits of English History, still hastily mention the Dames of one or two who follow, and who throw a momentary gleam of life and illumination on events and epochs that have fallen so extinct among ourselves at present, though once they were so momentous and memorable.

The new King Svein from Jomsburg, Knut's natural son, had no success in Norway, nor seems to have deserved any. His English mother and he were found to be grasping, oppressive persons; and awoke, almost from the instant that Olaf was suppressed and crushed away from Norway into Heaven, universal odium more and more in that country. Well-deservedly, as still appears; for their taxings and extortions of malt, of herring, of meal, smithwork and every article taxable in Norway, were extreme; and their service to the country otherwise nearly imperceptible. In brief their one basis there was the power of Knut the Great; and that, like all earthly things, was liable to sudden collapse,--and it suffered such in a notable degree. King Knut, hardly yet of middle age, and the greatest King in the then world, died at Shaftesbury, in 1035, as Dahlmann thinks [16],--leaving two legitimate sons and a busy, intriguing widow (Norman Emma, widow of Ethelred the Unready), mother of the younger of these two; neither of whom proved to have any talent or any continuance. In spite of Emma's utmost efforts, Harald, the elder son of Knut, not hers, got England for his kingdom; Emma and her Harda-Knut had to be content with Denmark, and go thither, much against their will. Harald in England,--light-going little figure like his father before him,--got the name of Harefoot here; and might have done good work among his now orderly and settled people; but he died almost within year and day; and has left no trace among us, except that of "Harefoot," from his swift mode of walking. Emma and her Harda-Knut now returned joyful to England. But the violent, idle, and drunken Harda-Knut did no good there; and, happily for England and him, soon suddenly ended, by stroke of apoplexy at a marriage festival, as mentioned above. In Denmark he had done still less good. And indeed,--under him, in a year or two, the grand imperial edifice, laboriously built by Knut's valor and wisdom, had already tumbled all to the ground, in a most unexpected and remarkable way. As we are now to indicate with all brevity.

Svein's tyrannies in Norway had wrought such fruit that, within the four years after Olaf's death, the chief men in Norway, the very slayers of King Olaf, Kalf Arneson at the head of them, met secretly once or twice; and unanimously agreed that Kalf Arneson must go to Sweden, or to Russia itself; seek young Magnus, son of Olaf home: excellent Magnus, to be king over all Norway and them, instead of this intolerable Svein. Which was at once done,--Magnus brought home in a kind of triumph, all Norway waiting for him. Intolerable Svein had already been rebelled against: some years before this, a certain young Tryggve out of Ireland, authentic son of Olaf Tryggveson, and of that fine Irish Princess who chose him in his low habiliments and low estate, and took him over to her own Green Island,--this royal young Tryggve Olafson had invaded the usurper Svein, in a fierce, valiant, and determined manner; and though with too small a party, showed excellent fight for some time; till Svein, zealously bestirring himself, managed to get him beaten and killed. But that was a couple of years ago; the party still too small, not including one and all as now! Svein, without stroke of sword this time, moved off towards Denmark; never showing face in Norway again. His drunken brother, Harda-Knut, received him brother-like; even gave him some territory to rule over and subsist upon. But he lived only a short while; was gone before Harda-Knut himself; and we will mention him no more.

Magnus was a fine bright young fellow, and proved a valiant, wise, and successful King, known among his people as Magnus the Good. He was only natural son of King Olaf but that made little difference in those times and there. His strange-looking, unexpected Latin name he got in this way: Alfhild, his mother, a slave through ill-luck of war, though nobly born, was seen to be in a hopeful way; and it was known in the King's house how intimately Olaf was connected with that occurrence, and how much he loved this "King's serving-maid," as she was commonly designated. Alfhild was brought to bed late at night; and all the world, especially King Olaf was asleep; Olaf's strict rule, then and always, being, Don't awaken me:--seemingly a man sensitive about his sleep. The child was a boy, of rather weakly aspect; no important person present, except Sigvat, the King's Icelandic Skald, who happened to be still awake; and the Bishop of Norway, who, I suppose, had been sent for in hurry. "What is to be done?" said the Bishop: "here is an infant in pressing need of baptism; and we know not what the name is: go, Sigvat, awaken the King, and ask." "I dare not for my life," answered Sigvat; "King's orders are rigorous on that point." "But if the child die unbaptized," said the Bishop, shuddering; too certain, he and everybody, where the child would go in that case! "I will myself give him a name," said Sigvat, with a desperate concentration of all his faculties; "he shall be namesake of the greatest of mankind,--imperial Carolus Magnus; let us call the infant Magnus!" King Olaf, on the morrow, asked rather sharply how Sigvat had dared take such a liberty; but excused Sigvat, seeing what the perilous alternative was. And Magnus, by such accident, this boy was called; and he, not another, is the prime origin and introducer of that name Magnus, which occurs rather frequently, not among the Norman Kings only, but by and by among the Danish and Swedish; and, among the Scandinavian populations, appears to be rather frequent to this day.

Magnus, a youth of great spirit, whose own, and standing at his beck, all Norway now was, immediately smote home on Denmark; desirous naturally of vengeance for what it had done to Norway, and the sacred kindred of Magnus. Denmark, its great Knut gone, and nothing but a drunken Harda-Knut, fugitive Svein and Co., there in his stead, was become a weak dislocated Country. And Magnus plundered in it, burnt it, beat it, as often as he pleased; Harda-Knut struggling what he could to make resistance or reprisals, but never once getting any victory over Magnus. Magnus, I perceive, was, like his Father, a skilful as well as valiant fighter by sea and land; Magnus, with good battalions, and probably backed by immediate alliance with Heaven and St. Olaf, as was then the general belief or surmise about him, could not easily be beaten. And the truth is, he never was, by Harda-Knut or any other. Harda-Knut's last transaction with him was, To make a firm Peace and even Family-treaty sanctioned by all the grandees of both countries, who did indeed mainly themselves make it; their two Kings assenting: That there should be perpetual Peace, and no thought of war more, between Denmark and Norway; and that, if either of the Kings died childless while the other was reigning, the other should succeed him in both Kingdoms. A magnificent arrangement, such as has several times been made in the world's history; but which in this instance, what is very singular, took actual effect; drunken Harda- Knut dying so speedily, and Magnus being the man he was. One would like to give the date of this remarkable Treaty; but cannot with precision. Guess somewhere about 1040: [17] actual fruition of it came to Magnus, beyond question, in 1042, when Harda-Knut drank that wassail bowl at the wedding in Lambeth, and fell down dead; which in the Saxon Chronicle is dated 3d June of that year. Magnus at once went to Denmark on hearing this event; was joyfully received by the headmen there, who indeed, with their fellows in Norway, had been main contrivers of the Treaty; both Countries longing for mutual peace, and the end of such incessant broils.

Magnus was triumphantly received as King in Denmark. The only unfortunate thing was, that Svein Estrithson, the exile son of Ulf, Knut's Brother-in-law, whom Knut, as we saw, had summarily killed twelve years before, emerged from his exile in Sweden in a flattering form; and proposed that Magnus should make him Jarl of Denmark, and general administrator there, in his own stead. To which the sanguine Magnus, in spite of advice to the contrary, insisted on acceding. "Too powerful a Jarl," said Einar Tamberskelver--the same Einar whose bow was heard to break in Olaf Tryggveson's last battle ("Norway breaking from thy hand, King!"), who had now become Magnus's chief man, and had long been among the highest chiefs in Norway; "too powerful a Jarl," said Einar earnestly. But Magnus disregarded it; and a troublesome experience had to teach him that it was true. In about a year, crafty Svein, bringing ends to meet, got himself declared King of Denmark for his own behoof, instead of Jarl for another's: and had to be beaten and driven out by Magnus. Beaten every year; but almost always returned next year, for a new beating,--almost, though not altogether; having at length got one dreadful smashing-down and half-killing, which held him quiet for a while,--so long as Magnus lived. Nay in the end, he made good his point, as if by mere patience in being beaten; and did become King himself, and progenitor of all the Kings that followed. King Svein Estrithson; so called from Astrid or Estrith, his mother, the great Knut's sister, daughter of Svein Forkbeard by that amazing Sigrid the Proud, who burnt those two ineligible suitors of hers both at once, and got a switch on the face from Olaf Tryggveson, which proved the death of that high man.

But all this fine fortune of the often beaten Estrithson was posterior to Magnus's death; who never would have suffered it, had he been alive. Magnus was a mighty fighter; a fiery man; very proud and positive, among other qualities, and had such luck as was never seen before. Luck invariably good, said everybody; never once was beaten,--which proves, continued everybody, that his Father Olaf and the miraculous power of Heaven were with him always. Magnus, I believe, did put down a great deal of anarchy in those countries. One of his earliest enterprises was to abolish Jomsburg, and trample out that nest of pirates. Which he managed so completely that Jomsburg remained a mere reminiscence thenceforth; and its place is not now known to any mortal.

One perverse thing did at last turn up in the course of Magnus: a new Claimant for the Crown of Norway, and he a formidable person withal. This was Harald, half-brother of the late Saint Olaf; uncle or half-uncle, therefore, of Magnus himself. Indisputable son of the Saint's mother by St. Olaf's stepfather, who was, himself descended straight from Harald Haarfagr. This new Harald was already much heard of in the world. As an ardent Boy of fifteen he had fought at King Olaf's side at Stickelstad; would not be admonished by the Saint to go away. Got smitten down there, not killed; was smuggled away that night from the field by friendly help; got cured of his wounds, forwarded to Russia, where he grew to man's estate, under bright auspices and successes. Fell in love with the Russian Princess, but could not get her to wife; went off thereupon to Constantinople as Vaeringer (Life-Guardsman of the Greek Kaiser); became Chief Captain of the Vaeringers, invincible champion of the poor Kaisers that then were, and filled all the East with the shine and noise of his exploits. An authentic Waring or Baring, such the surname we now have derived from these people; who were an important institution in those Greek countries for several ages: Vaeringer Life-Guard, consisting of Norsemen, with sometimes a few English among them. Harald had innumerable adventures, nearly always successful, sing the Skalds; gained a great deal of wealth, gold ornaments, and gold coin; had even Queen Zoe (so they sing, though falsely) enamored of him at one time; and was himself a Skald of eminence; some of whose verses, by no means the worst of their kind, remain to this day.

This character of Waring much distinguishes Harald to me; the only Vaeringer of whom I could ever get the least biography, true or half-true. It seems the Greek History-books but indifferently correspond with these Saga records; and scholars say there could have been no considerable romance between Zoe and him, Zoe at that date being 60 years of age! Harald's own lays say nothing of any Zoe, but are still full of longing for his Russian Princess far away.

At last, what with Zoes, what with Greek perversities and perfidies, and troubles that could not fail, he determined on quitting Greece; packed up his immensities of wealth in succinct shape, and actually returned to Russia, where new honors and favors awaited him from old friends, and especially, if I mistake not, the hand of that adorable Princess, crown of all his wishes for the time being. Before long, however, he decided farther to look after his Norway Royal heritages; and, for that purpose, sailed in force to the Jarl or quasi-King of Denmark, the often-beaten Svein, who was now in Sweden on his usual winter exile after beating. Svein and he had evidently interests in common. Svein was charmed to see him, so warlike, glorious and renowned a man, with masses of money about him, too. Svein did by and by become treacherous; and even attempted, one night, to assassinate Harald in his bed on board ship: but Harald, vigilant of Svein, and a man of quick and sure insight, had providently gone to sleep elsewhere, leaving a log instead of himself among the blankets. In which log, next morning, treacherous Svein's battle-axe was found deeply sticking: and could not be removed without difficulty! But this was after Harald and King Magnus himself bad begun treating; with the fairest prospects,--which this of the $vein battle-axe naturally tended to forward, as it altogether ended the other copartnery.

Magnus, on first hearing of Vaeringer Harald and his intentions, made instant equipment, and determination to fight his uttermost against the same. But wise persons of influence round him, as did the like sort round Vaeringer Harald, earnestly advised compromise and peaceable agreement. Which, soon after that of Svein's nocturnal battle-axe, was the course adopted; and, to the joy of all parties, did prove a successful solution. Magnus agreed to part his kingdom with Uncle Harald; uncle parting his treasures, or uniting them with Magnus's poverty. Each was to be an independent king, but they were to govern in common; Magnus rather presiding. He, to sit, for example, in the High Seat alone; King Harald opposite him in a seat not quite so high, though if a stranger King came on a visit, both the Norse Kings were to sit in the High Seat. With various other punctilious regulations; which the fiery Magnus was extremely strict with; rendering the mutual relation a very dangerous one, had not both the Kings been honest men, and Harald a much more prudent and tolerant one than Magnus. They, on the whole, never had any weighty quarrel, thanks now and then rather to Harald than to Magnus. Magnus too was very noble; and Harald, with his wide experience and greater length of years, carefully held his heat of temper well covered in.


[16] Saxon Chronicle says: "1035. In this year died King Cnut. ... He departed at Shaftesbury, November 12, and they conveyed him thence to Winchester, and there buried him." [Back]

[17] Munch gives the date 1038 (ii. 840), Adam of Bremen 1040. [Back]

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