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Vassals or Vikings?: Orkney‘s identity in the changing Norwegian world (1151-1206)

orkney islandsVassals or Vikings?: Orkney‘s identity in the changing Norwegian world (1151-1206) 

By Stephanie Kirby

Groundings Ancients, Vol.2 (2014)

Abstract: Throughout the Middle Ages, the Jarldom of Orkney and Caithness maintained a fine balance between its geographical proximity to the Scottish mainland and its political and cultural proximity to the kingdom of Norway. On the periphery of both kingdoms, its rulers developed an independent, native identity that strongly reflected the classical ideal of the Viking ruler and warrior. However, the European-style transformation of the Norwegian crown in the second half of the twelfth century, and its consequential push to consolidate its outlying vassals, led to the decline of this autonomous rule, a decline many historians believe resulted from the static weakness of Orkney‘s Viking-style rule. This essay seeks to re-evaluate the changing relationship between the Orcadian earl and the Norwegian king and attempts to challenge the current view of Haraldr Maddaðarson‘s rule as ‘weak’, suggesting instead that circumstance, not incompetence, hastened the subjugation of Orkney to Norway after 1195.

Introduction: In his Discourses on Livy, written in 1517, Niccolò Machiavelli wrote that the successful man ‘is he who suits the times.’ This phrase is particularly resonant when studying Norway and her position in the Northern world in the late twelfth century. The periodic civil wars from 1155 until 1184 and the subsequent rise of a new dynasty resulted in radical transformations for Norway and its client states, like the Jarldom of Orkney. New European ideas on the nature of kingship and vassalage challenged the old identities of the Viking-style state and the Viking-style ruler. This clash of ideologies and identities was personified in this period by the contemporaneous careers of King Sverrir Sigurðarson of Norway (1184-1202) and Haraldr Maddaðarson, Jarl of Orkney (1158-1206).

In the period under question, Norway had only recently emerged from a chronic state of civil war that had divided the country and regions between two main parties. Since 1174, Sverrir Sigurðarson fought for the Norwegian crown, claiming to be the son of Sigurð Jorsalfarí, who had shared the Norwegian throne with his brothers from 1103-1130. Erling Shakke, (one of Norway‘s most powerful jarls or nobles), and Magnús Erlingsson (his son) challenged Sverrir‘s claim to the throne, but Sverrir was ultimately victorious and established a sole, united kingship in 1184. Sverrir‘s reign, however, differed enormously from that of his father; the unceasing civil wars had corroded the traditional Viking-style rulership of previous centuries. Then, the king acted as a ‘first among equals’ (primus inter pares). Instead of succession by divine right, he was elected to the throne by popular acclamation at the many different regional assemblies. Furthermore, royal inheritance was agnatic (open to all of the king‘s sons, whether legitimate or illegitimate) as opposed to primogeniture (whereby only the king‘s eldest legitimate son inherited). Hence, the throne was frequently shared between several brothers.

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