Olaf I Tryggvason12 min read

Historical People, The Archive

Olaf Tryggvason is born in the 960s. He is a child slave, commander in the Rus’ army in Kiev, raider and adventurer. On his many travels, he marries twice, first to a Wendish queen and later a Viking princess from Dublin. By 995 he sails for Norway and successfully claims the crown. In the following years, he succeeds in uniting many Norwegian regions. However, his attempt to forge an alliance results in his third wife trying to stab him on their wedding night. Unfazed, Tryggvason continues to establish his authority in Norway and beyond. At the same time, he uses every opportunity to convert his people to Christianity. His fourth and last marriage leads to his downfall and he dies in a sea battle in the year 1000. He leaves no heirs, though he possibly may have had two sons.[1]

Life & Viking Times

A Selection of Sources
Eleventh Century

The reconstruction of Olaf Tryggvason’s life is an exercise in textual research. It has to be, for there is little direct or circumstantial archaeological evidence proving his existence.[2] Thankfully, there are plenty of medieval texts to work with. Among the oldest works is the Erfidrápa Ólálfs Tryggvasonar written shortly after 1000, by the Icelander Hallfreth ‘the Troublesome’. It is the saga about Hallfreth’s own life that tells us he is a skald at the Norwegian king’s court. When he hears of Olaf’s death, he immediately travels from Iceland to Norway and composes this lament.[3] Other sources from the eleventh century do not share much more news. Adam of Bremen mentions Olaf in his impressive Gesta Hammaburgensis ecclesiae pontificum, but he is clearly not impressed with Tryggvason’s Christianity, instead accusing him of using magic.[4]

Twelfth Century
Olaf Tryggvasons Saga title page by Gerhard Munthe (Source: Wikipedia).

Then, around 1122, the Icelander Ari Thorgilsson refers to Olaf as the instigator of the conversion of the Icelanders in his Íslendingabók.[5] Both Hallfreth’s poem and Ari’s work only cover parts of Tryggvason’s life. Toward the end of the twelfth century, Oddr Snorrason and Gunnlaugr Leifsson tell his life in full for the first time. Their works date to c. 1180 and are part of a new trend: the Kings’ saga aimed at glorifying a king’s life and deeds. Snorrason’s Olafs Saga Tryggvasonar does exactly this as both epic poem and hagiography. Olafs Saga also inspires later stories including Snorri Sturluson’s Heimskringla (c. 1220).[6] Though only separated by forty years, Snorri’s rendition takes a more rational approach than Oddr’s, combining a strong voice for Iceland as well as a respectful tone for the Norwegian kings.[7]

Fact and Fiction

An intricate analysis can be made of the patronage and historical events of the sources mentioned above. However, elaborating on it here will steer away from the focus on Tryggvason’s life. What is interesting to mention, is how fact and fiction can be hard to distinguish in sagas. For example, Snorrason tells a detailed story about Olaf, but it cannot be taken at face value. This much becomes clear from the results of researchers slowly peeling away at the layers of the text. Certain events in Olafs saga sound remarkably like scenes in various older works. For example, Luke’s Gospel, Dialogues by Gregory the Great, and Virgil’s Dido and Aeneas.[8] Considering that Icelandic clergymen travel all across early medieval Europe, their visits to royal courts and monasteries increase the chances of finding new manuscripts. They bring this knowledge back to Iceland to use it in their own writings.[9]

Olaf Tryggvason’s Life
Lineage and Birth

Snorrason starts the saga by tracing Tryggvason’s lineage back to Harald I ‘Fairhair’ in order to legitimise the claim to the Norwegian throne.[10] If it is indeed a correct claim, is not known for sure. The scene of Olaf’s birth echoes that of another boy in the Gospel of Luke.[11] The story then continues as an epic tale. Olaf and his mother flee Norway. After travelling to the Baltic Estonian Vikings enter their ship. His foster-father is murdered before his eyes, and Olaf is sold into slavery. Eventually, his maternal uncle who works for Vladimir I, the ruler of Kiev, rescues him.

Kiev and Wendland

As Olaf settles into life in Kiev and raises through the ranks of the army, his growing popularity makes Vladimir uncomfortable. In time, Tryggvason leaves Kiev and starts raiding the north European coastline. He stays in Wendland where he marries princess Geira. He successfully fights alongside the Wends with their ally German Holy Roman Emperor Otto against the Danish king Harald Bluetooth. After Geira dies, though, Olaf leaves Wendland and sails for the British Isles to continue his raiding.

The British Isles and Ireland

Once in Britain, Tryggvason meets a hermit on the Scilly Isles who makes prophecies about his kingship. Olaf converts to Christianity and the hermit baptises him. The literary element of prophecy is well-known in the sagas.[12] In this case, the event is very similar to the story of St Benedict and the Gothic king Totila in Dialogues by Gregory the Great.[13] After his baptism, Tryggvason Olaf sails to Ireland to attend a thing during which he marries Gyda, the Viking princess of Dublin. The couple spends their days both in England and Ireland.

Encounter with Aethelred II ‘the Unready’

The saga then turns to events in Scandinavia, and Jarl Haakon’s reign in Norway. It stays silent about Olaf in England. Here, the Anglo-Saxon sources come to the rescue. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (ASC) records him raiding England, and fighting at the battle of Maldon in 991 CE. He attacks London alongside Sweyn I ‘Forkbeard’ in 994 CE.[14] The attack fails, but Olaf and his Vikings remain a threat to the English king. They set up a winter camp in Southampton and another Anglo-Saxon document elaborates on the events that unfold. It is a peace treaty known as II Aethelred, signed by Aethelred and an ‘Anlaf’. After 994, there is no further record of Olaf raiding England, therefore it is generally accepted that this ‘Anlaf’ must be Tryggvason. The ASC further explains how Aethelred arranges Olaf’s second baptism, an act that further strengthens the alliance between them.[15]

To Norway and A Kingdom
Olaf’s Arrival in Norway, c. 995 by Peter Nicolai Arbo (Source: Wikipedia)

The saga picks up again when Thorir Klakka arrives in Ireland on Jarl Haakon’s orders. As Thorir tells Olaf about the situation in Norway, the latter then decides it is time to sail to Norway and claim the throne. The Orkneyinga Saga reveals that Tryggvason stops on the Orkney islands along the way to force Jarl Sigurd to convert to Christianity.[16] To ensure that the Jarl keeps his oath, his son is taken as a hostage to Norway.[17] In Norway, Jarl Haakon is killed after hiding with his slave in the pigsty. Olaf then doesn’t make light of taking the crown and establishes himself at the ancient royal seat of Avaldsnes.[18] He quickly moves around Norway, and many regions, including the southern ones, to swear allegiance to him. Along the way, he also ensures everyone converts to Christianity, forcefully or otherwise.

A New Royal Seat and the Mint
Olaf Tryggvason coin, c. 995 (Source: Wikipedia)

After his time in Avaldsnes, Olaf moves to Nidaros (Trondheim) by 997, where he founds a merchant town and making it his royal residence. Though the area seems to have been inhabited long before he arrived,[19] it could well be that he actually turned a local village or settlement into a thriving town. Around the same time, he introduces his own mint. A few coins have been found with his name dating back to c. 995. The signature on the coin further suggests that Olaf brought an Anglo-Saxon mint master with him to Norway.[20] Then, shortly before 1000, he meets with Leif Eriksson who is baptised and sails for Greenland, and onwards to discover Vínland.

A Place in Scandinavia

After securing his crown and initiating his people’s conversion to Christianity, Olaf seeks to strengthen his position within Scandinavia. To the West, everything already belongs to the Norwegian crown or falls within his alliance with Aethelred II. To the South, Sweyn Forkbeard has complete control over the northern European coastline. Whilst they collaborated in the attack on London in 994, this had been about the money. There is little love left between them. Olaf has taken Norwegian lands that Sweyn considers Danish and therefore his. Olaf then tries to woo the Swedish queen dowager, Sigrid the Haughty, in an attempt to secure an alliance with Sweden. The story goes, however, that she refuses him on the basis of her pagan beliefs. Sweyn, ever mindful to grasp an opportunity, steps into the void and marries Sigrid himself.

The Battle of the Svold

Tryggvason really puts his hand in the hornet’s nest when he agrees to marry Thyre, Sweyn’s sister who flees from her fiancé (or husband) king Burislav of Wendland. Sweyn uses his alliances with the Swedish king and the Norwegian Jarl Erik Haakonson (son of the previous Jarl). Together, they lay an ambush for Olaf who returns with his fleet from the Wendland. A sea battle takes place in the Svold and when all is lost, Olaf jumps overboard. He leaves no heir and thus Sweyn immediately takes back control of Norway and installs Jarl Erik as his puppet ruler.

The Aftermath

So, not Olaf, but Sweyn Forkbeard rules Scandinavia at the start of the millennium. There are final rumours that Olaf survived and sent presents to his sister Ingvald and his ally Aethelred II. There is also the rumour that a man named Tryggve Olafsson invaded Norway, claiming the throne as a son of Olaf Tryggvason. Some believe his parentage, but he meets his end at the battle of Bokn in 1033 before he can make an impact.[21]

Further Reading

The Gutenberg Project – The Saga of Olaf Tryggvason and of Harald the Tyrant.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow – The Saga of King Olaf. In 1863, the American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote a poem about Olaf Tryggvason in his Tales of a Wayside Inn.

Further Listening

The Saga Thing Podcast

Edvard Grieg – Olav Tryggvason, Op. 50. Grieg wrote the opera with the Norse poet Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, but it was never finished.


  1. Marit Synnøve Vea, ‘Olav Tryggvason.’ Avaldsnes. Accessed July 26, 2017, http://avaldsnes.info/en/informasjon/olav-tryggvason/.
    Charles Cawley, ‘Olav Tryggvason.’ Foundation of Medieval Genealogy. Last Accessed 28 December 2017. http://fmg.ac/Projects/MedLands/NORWAY.htm.  ↩
  2. It is really difficult at this time (Jan. 2018) to find any online information linking archaeological finds to Olaf Tryggvason. Apart from his founding of Nidaros, which will be discussed later in this piece.  ↩
  3. The Skaldic Project, ‘Hallfreðr vandræðaskáld.’ Last Accessed 08 January 2018. http://skaldic.abdn.ac.uk/db.php?id=1256&if=default&table=text.  ↩
  4. Carole M. Cusack, Conversion Among the Germanic Peoples. (London and New York: Cassell, 1998), pp. 147.  ↩
  5. Ari Thorgilsson, Íslendingabók. Trans. Siân Grønlie. (London: Viking Society for Northern Research, 2006), pp. 7–9.  ↩
  6. ‘Oddr Snorrason.’ The Skaldic Project. Last Accessed 07 January 2018. http://skaldic.abdn.ac.uk/db.php?id=420&if=default&table=skalds.  ↩
  7. Diana Whaley, Heimskringla, An Introduction. (London: Viking Society for Northern Research, 1991), pp. 28, 123–124, 131 http://www.vsnrweb-publications.org.uk.  ↩
  8. Theodore M. Andersson, ’The First Icelandic King’s Saga: Oddr Snorrason’s “Óláfs saga Tryggvasonar” or “The Oldest Saga of Saint Olaf?” In: The Journal of English and Germanic Philology, Volume 103, Issue 2 (2004), pp. 141 [pp. 139–155]. http://www.jstor.org/stable/27712412.
    Oddr Snorrason, The Saga of Olaf Tryggvason. Edited by Th. M. Andersson (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2003), pp. 15–16.  ↩
  9. Judith Jesch, ‘Geography and Travel.’ In: A Companion to Old Norse-Icelandic Literature and Culture edited by Rory McTurk (Oxford: Blackwell, 2005), pp. 120 [pp. 119–135].  ↩
  10. The general storyline of Tryggvason’s life is taken from: Oddr Snorrason, The Saga of Olaf Tryggvason. Edited by Th. M. Andersson (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2003). Where deviation occurs, a footnote gives the appropriate reference.  ↩
  11. Theodore M. Andersson, ’The First Icelandic King’s Saga: Oddr Snorrason’s “Óláfs saga Tryggvasonar” or “The Oldest Saga of Saint Olaf?” In: The Journal of English and Germanic Philology, Volume 103, Issue 2 (2004), pp. 143 [pp. 139–155]. http://www.jstor.org/stable/27712412.  ↩
  12. This literary element is used not only in the sagas in general but also in another kings’ saga of Sverris Saga. There, the prophecy is used as a way of God to speaking to king Sverrir directly. See: Ármann Jakobsson, ‘Royal Biography.’ In: A Companion to Old Norse-Icelandic Literature and Culture edited by Rory McTurk (Oxford: Blackwell, 2005), pp. 393 [pp. 388–402].  ↩
  13. Peter Sawyer, ‘Ethelred II, Olaf Tryggvason, and the Conversion of Norway.’ In: Scandinavian Studies, Volume 59, Issue 3 (1987), pp. 302 [pp. 299–307].  ↩
  14. Anonymous, “The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle | 994,” The Avalon Project | Documents in Law, History and Diplomacy. Accessed November 22, 2017, http://avalon.law.yale.edu/medieval/ang10.asp.  ↩
  15. Peter Sawyer, ‘Ethelred II, Olaf Tryggvason, and the Conversion of Norway.’ In: Scandinavian Studies, Volume 59, Issue 3 (1987), pp. 299 [pp. 299–307].  ↩
  16. George W. Dasent (ed.), The Orkneyingers Saga (Edinburgh: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1894) http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/ice/is3/is302.htm.  ↩
  17. Russell Andrew McDonald and Angus A. Somerville (ed.) ‘The Conversion of Orkney’ In: The Viking Age: A Reader (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2010), pp. 420.  ↩
  18. Marit Synnøve Vea, ‘Olav Tryggvason.’ Avaldsnes. Accessed July 26, 2017, http://avaldsnes.info/en/informasjon/olav-tryggvason/.  ↩
  19. ‘Secrets in Stone.’ Norges Teknisk-Naturvitenskapelige Universitet – NTNU. Last Updated 31 January 2011. Last Accessed 26 December 2017. https://www.ntnu.edu/news/secrets-in-stone. Hans Andersson, ‘Urbanisation.’ In: The Cambridge History of Scandinavia, Volume I edited by Knut Helle (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), pp. 325–326 [pp. 312–344].  ↩
  20. University of Oslo Coin Cabinet Exhibition, ‘Olaf Tryggvason’s Coinage.’ Last Accessed 05 January 2018. http://www.dokpro.uio.no/umk_eng/myntherr/ot_hist.html.  ↩
  21. Snorri Sturluson, Heimskringla, Volume II Trans. by Alison Finlay and Anthony Faulkes (London: Viking Society for Northern Research, 2014), pp. 275 http://www.vsnrweb-publications.org.uk.  ↩

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