The Mad Norse King

What happens when the mental health of a medieval King of Norway declines into madness? The story of Sigurðr the Crusader, who reigned for over 25 years, provides a fascinating account of mental illness from the 12th century.

This topic was recently explored by Ármann Jakobsson, a professor of medieval Icelandic literature at the University of Iceland. His research is detailed in the article titled “The Madness of King Sigurðr: Narrating Insanity in an Old Norse Kings’ Saga,” published in Social Dimensions of Medieval Disease and Disability.


The article delves into the reign of Sigurðr Magnusson, who served as King of Norway from 1103 to 1130. He is most renowned for leading the Norwegian Crusade—during which approximately 60 ships and 5000 men voyaged from Scandinavia to the Holy Land. Beginning in 1107, the four-year journey involved engaging in battles in Portugal and the Mediterranean, and ultimately aiding the Crusader King of Jerusalem in capturing the city of Sidon in present-day Lebanon.

Jakobsson writes:

The splendour of King Sigurðr’s magnificent journey in his youth ends up standing in stark contrast to his life at home and his sad fate later in life. The dark side of this famous journey emerges when King Sigurðr returns from his voyages – eventually his sad fate as a lunatic on the throne, but immediately in the disruption he and his men cause upon their return. At first, King Sigurðr receives a hero’s welcome, and the treasures he brings back with him cast glory on all of Norway. All hail King Sigurðr when he comes back, but soon his men start strutting around in their finery and thinking themselves above everyone who did not go on the journey, provoking a backlash from those who stayed home.


As the reign continued, those around him began to notice signs of what they referred to as ‘unsteadiness’ or ‘lack of control’ in the king. This included his demand for meat to be served on Fridays during his feasts, which violated Christian law, as well as the peculiar way he rolled his eyes while scanning the room. A more ominous episode is reported in Heimskringla:

When the king lay in the bath and the tub was covered by a tent, he thought that fish were swimming in the bath near him. Then he began to laugh so loudly that unsteadiness followed and thereafter it happened very often to him.

Jakobsson explains that “the narrative of King Sigurðr’s madness in Morkinskinna is lengthy, graphic, and striking.” This saga, written around the year 1220, contains several stories where the king inexplicably strikes out violently at the people around him, such as nearly drowning a man after hearing of his swimming prowess. On another occasion, he insists on divorcing his own wife to marry another woman, though his advisors manage to dissuade him from this idea.

Jakobsson adds that:

It is remarkable how often Sigurðr mends his ways, never punishing his subjects for preventing him from fulfilling his misguided plans, but they remain very frightened of him and at loss how the behave. On every occasion when he refuses to speak, people become afraid ‘at Þa myndi enn koma at honum vanstilli’ (that another attack would come over him). The state of confusion that the mental illness initiates is graphically depicted in the texts, not least how baffling and terrifying the changes that come over the king appear to his court. 


Sigurðr was acutely aware of his mental instability. In one episode, he candidly spoke about his half-brother and son vying for power and hoping to replace him. Addressing his followers, the king remarked:

You are badly off, you Norwegians, to have a crazy king ruling you, but I suspect that you would soon pay in red gold for me to be your king rather than either Haraldr or Magnus. The first is cruel, and the other foolish.

Sigurðr’s prediction proved prescient—after his death in 1130, Norway was plunged into a decades-long civil war.


Though historical sources provide little insight into why the king descended into madness— one chronicle suggests it was possibly a poisoning—Jakobsson highlights the fascinating details they do offer:

What it is possible is to say that Old Icelandic sagas demonstrate a sensitivity and an awareness of mental illnesses that today’s scholarship might not expect from the 13th century North. Though the court society depicted in Morkinskinna offered no cure for King Sigurðr, the sympathy for his condition shines through. The madness was not explicable, and both king and subjects had to survive without those handy labels available to make people feel as if they understood what is happening.

The article “The Madness of King Sigurðr: Narrating Insanity in an Old Norse Kings’ Saga”, appears in Social Dimensions of Medieval Disease and Disability, edited by Sally Crawford and Christina Lee. You can read it on Ármann Jakobsson’s page.

Ármann Jakobsson is a Professor in Old Icelandic Literature at the University of Iceland.