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Medieval Scandinavia: The Formation of the Kingdom of Norway

By Beñat Elortza Larrea

For the fourth article in the series, Beñat Elortza Larrea details the transformation of Norway from a sheltered sailing route to the most centralised kingdom in medieval Scandinavia.

Scandinavian geography is crucial in order to understand the establishment of the Norwegian kingdom. Norway is a mountainous country, as tall mountains and deep fjords divide neighbouring valleys. At the same time, the western coast presents a sheltered sailing route that runs from north to south; it was in these sheltered inlets along the Norðrvegr, the northern way, that the first petty kings emerged. These local magnates built their fortified complexes near sheltered passages, and demanded tribute from the passing ships that were unwilling to risk sailing on the treacherous open waters.

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The initial unification of Norway took place around 900 CE, when one of the petty kings, Harald Fairhair, gained overlordship over his neighbours through military conquest. Harald’s political power was probably limited to western and south-western Norway; in the north, the powerful jarls of Lade submitted to his power only in name, while the lands around the Oslofjord – Viken – were controlled by the powerful Danish kings. It is not coincidental that Harald’s domains stretched along the Norðrvegr, as royal revenue largely originated from these manors. Harald’s son Håkon, who grew up in Wessex, attempted to introduce Christianity to Norway, but these efforts were not particularly successful, as the new religion’s justification of royal power undermined the regional aristocracy’s status. From the 950s onwards, the increasingly powerful Danish kings began to interfere in Norwegian conflicts, and ruled over Norway between c. 970 and 1035.

Danish overlordship over Norway was for the most part a formality, as the realm was ruled by the powerful northern jarls of Lade, whose seat of power lay in Trøndelag. Olav Tryggvason (r. 995-1000) and Olav Haraldsson (r. 1015-1028), took advantage of the tensions between the jarls and the Danish kings to claim the throne. These short interregna from Danish rule were characterised by the kings’ efforts to impose Christianity on the most remote areas of the kingdom, where the new religion had not yet taken hold; the evangelising efforts of Olav I and Olav II, however, are greatly exaggerated by the sagas. Their most conspicuous shared characteristic was the resistance they met, as the regional magnates, the Lade jarls and the Danish kings united their efforts against them; Olav I was killed in 1000, while Olav II found his demise in 1030, when he returned to Norway to reclaim the throne.

After Canute the Great’s death in 1035, the Norwegian aristocracy elected Magnus the Good, Olav II’s son; Magnus’s nomination was made possible by astute use of his father’s image, who was portrayed as a martyr and a saint. Magnus’s short reign was aggressively expansionist, as he secured Denmark in 1042 and possibly planned to attack England; however, he was opposed by Sweyn Estridsen and Harald Hardrada in Denmark and Norway respectively, and he agreed to make Harald his Norwegian co-ruler in 1046, shortly before his death. As soon as Harald became the sole king, he launched continuous campaigns against his former ally Sweyn, but agreed to make peace in the 1060s, when the opportunity of invading England arose. In 1066, Harald famously led a large fleet against England, but was defeated and killed at Stamford Bridge the same year.

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Harald was succeeded by his sons Magnus and Olav, but the former died early into their joint reign. Olav was nicknamed kyrri – peaceful – in Old Norse, and his reign was indeed marked by peaceful foreign policy and internal consolidation. Unsurprisingly, the sagas tell us very little about Olav III’s reign, as few martial deeds took place. He did, however, oversee the establishment of permanent bishoprics in Norway, which paved the way for a written administration; he also gave privileges to the town of Bergen, and it is likely that the royal court became increasingly Europeanised during this period. Following Olav’s death in 1093, his son Magnus Barefoot (d. 1103) became famed for continued expeditions against Ireland; his military – and amorous – conquests abroad marked his reign, which ended abruptly when he was ambushed by the Irish. Magnus was succeeded by three of his sons, who remarkably managed to maintain a durable power-sharing agreement. The longest reigning brother, Sigurd Jorsalfare – Jerusalem-farer – also led Norwegian forces to assist the Crusader Kingdoms.

After Sigurd’s death in 1130, the stability of the preceding decades was overturned by the arrival of a new claimant from the British Isles. Harald Gille, an Irish-Norse chieftain, claimed to be the son of Magnus Barefoot, and entered a power-sharing agreement with Magnus IV, Sigurd’s son. This agreement was fragile, and war broke out by 1134; this conflict was brutal – Magnus IV was blinded and emasculated following his capture in 1135 –, but the death of both claimants by 1139 solved nothing, as Harald’s children soon began fighting each other. These hostilities would continue sporadically until 1162, when a group of aristocrats led by Erling Skakke defeated any remaining opposition and placed Erling’s infant son, Magnus Erlingsson, on the throne. Magnus’s reign, albeit largely dominated by his father, oversaw the introduction of significant reforms, such as a succession law to ensure only legitimate children could inherit the throne.

Magnus’s stable reign was interrupted by the formation of a new faction, the Birkebeiner, in 1174. By 1177, their leader was Sverre Sigurdsson, a former priest who claimed royal lineage. Although the Birkebeiner were small and weak initially, Sverre’s cunning guerrilla tactics and understanding of propaganda were extremely successful, and by 1184, Sverre managed to defeat his opponents and establish himself as the sole king. During the closing years of the twelfth century, the Birkebeiner were accosted by several new factions, most notably the Bagler, who received strong support from the Church. Sverre died in 1202 – the first Norwegian king to die of natural causes since 1130 –, but the war between his Birkebeiner and the Bagler continued.

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The military and propagandistic successes of Sverre’s reign strengthened the Birkebeiner’s hold on power; the early years of the thirteenth century, however, were rather unstable, as Sverre’s successors died early into their reigns. Nevertheless, the conflict between the Birkebeiner and the Bagler ended in 1208 with the Kvitsøy Agreement, whereby both parties agreed to divide Norway among them, as long as the Bagler claimant, Philippus, renounced his title. Remarkably, one of the main proponents of the treaty was bishop Nikolas, a notable Bagler supporter and Philippus’s kinsman; the long decades of continuous warfare, after all, had created a strong sentiment of war-weariness, particularly among the peasantry and the clergy. The agreement became void in 1217, when both faction leaders died without heirs. The Birkebeiner proposed Håkon Håkonsson, Sverre’s grandchild, as candidate for kingship, and the Bagler accepted the proposal, possibly due to Håkon’s young age and prospects of power-sharing agreements. Smaller-scale revolts continued to take place in eastern Norway, and in 1239 Skule Bårdsson, a prominent Birkebeiner aristocrat, rebelled against Håkon and proclaimed himself king; following Skule’s demise in 1240, the period of internal struggles finally came to an end.

The reign of Håkon Håkonsson oversaw meaningful changes in Norway; Håkon was the first Norwegian king to receive a formal education in cathedral schools, and the young king’s literacy and legal knowledge would make a strong impression on his approach to governance. One of Håkon’s direst priorities was to ensure future succession; an illegitimate child, Håkon’s volatile situation had been highlighted when his mother had to undergo a trial by ordeal in order to prove his royal parentage. Through crafty negotiations, Håkon obtained the Papacy’s permission to be crowned, and he also formally introduced primogenital succession, and Norway thus became the first Scandinavian kingdom to ensure the succession of the eldest legitimate son. He also ordered the construction of a large stone residence in Norway, which would function as the first permanent royal chancery. Throughout his reign, Håkon only engaged in limited wars abroad, chiefly against Denmark; following Scottish hostilities against the Norwegian-held Hebrides, however, Håkon gathered a large fleet and sailed westwards to protect his dominions. After an unsuccessful clash against the Scots, Håkon Håkonsson retreated to his wintering quarters in Orkney; he fell ill during the journey and died in Kirkwall in 1263.

Håkon was succeeded by his son Magnus Lagabøte – the Lawmender –, who had been his junior co-ruler since 1257. Magnus seldom engaged in external warfare, and one of his main priorities was the sale of the Hebrides to Scotland; he also secured the incorporation of Iceland into the Norwegian realm. Internally, however, Magnus continued his father’s far-reaching reforms. He promulgated a unified law, the Landslov, in 1274, and a town law in 1276; these centralised laws, hitherto non-existent in Scandinavia, greatly strengthened royal power, as certain crimes were regarded as trespasses against society as a whole, and therefore, against the Crown. Magnus also signed a concordat with the Church, thus recognising certain ecclesiastical privileges.

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Following his death in 1280, Magnus was succeeded by his sons Eirik II (r. 1280-1299) and Håkon V (1299-1319). Their reigns marked a return to expansionist policies in Scandinavia, prompted undoubtedly by the instability in Denmark and Sweden, as well as by the strong royal power that had developed in Norway during the preceding decades. After an unsuccessful war against the Hanseatic League, Eirik offered his support to the Danish aristocrats who had been accused of Erik V’s murder. The outlawed Danes and their allies plundered Denmark extensively, and Norwegian forces occupied northern Halland. Håkon V, on the other hand, intervened in the Swedish Brothers’ War, aiming to secure recent Norwegian gains in the area, but also actively supporting the Swedish dukes, Erik and Valdemar, who opposed their brother Birger.

Håkon Magnusson’s support for the dukes would have an unexpected consequence; aiming to strengthen the ties with his allies, Håkon had married his daughter to Erik Magnusson, the eldest of the two dukes. When Håkon died without a male heir in 1319, his grandson Magnus Eriksson inherited the Norwegian throne. Magnus, however, was elected Swedish king shortly after, following his father’s death and his uncle Birger’s banishment. For the first time since the 1040s, a single person reigned in two Scandinavian kingdoms. The political landscape was about to change very much indeed.

Beñat Elortza Larrea has a PhD from the University of Aberdeen, and he is currently finishing a Bernadotte postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Gothenburg. His research interests include state formation in medieval Scandinavia, military history from a social perspective, and maritime societies in the Middle Ages. Click here to visit his page on Academia.edu.

Click here to read more from Beñat’s series on Medieval Scandinavia

Top Image: Picture of Håkon Håkonsson, King of Norway, and Skule Bårdsson, from Flateyjarbók, which dates to the 1380s.

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