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Battle of the Svold

In 1000 CE a naval battle takes place in the seas between Norway, Sweden and Denmark. The history books call it the battle of the Svold (Svolder, Swold). It is fought between four Scandinavian armies during the Viking Age. A small fleet of eleven ships commanded by King Olaf Tryggvason meets the enemy head-on. Their opponent is an allied army of seventy ships. Their leader is Sweyn Forkbeard, the Danish king. His allies are the Swedish king and a Norwegian pretender. They fight and Olaf’s fleet is destroyed. According to legend, he jumps overboard to meet his death.1

Viking Age Relevance

Power play in Viking Age Scandinavia

The battle of the Svold is the culmination, or rather, a final reckoning of Olaf and Sweyn’s relationship. They are peers, princes, exiles, allies and in the end, enemies. They wield power in a time when Scandinavia is shaking off its pagan, tribal culture. New large, feudal and especially Christian kingdoms emerge.2 Olaf is a warrior-adventurer. A pagan for most of his younger years, he converts to Christianity by the 990s.3 Sweyn, too, is a warrior. He is raised by a father who converted Denmark to Christianity, and who also organises Denmark into a war machine. Sweyn, however, remains a pagan until his dying day.4 

No medieval source actually confirms Olaf and Sweyn raiding together before 994 CE. Based on analyses of chronicles and charters, some researchers do believe this to be true.5 The raids also seem more fierce, intense and organised by the 990s. After the battle of Maldon, even the Anglo-Saxons realise these are not mere attacks by mercenary bands. At the same time, the Vikings realise that their efforts result in large payments by the Anglo-Saxons king. So, they return again and again.

Sweyn’s Motivations

Sweyn Forkbeard (Source: Wikipedia)

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (ASC) mentions Olaf and Sweyn for the first time side-by-side in the attack on London in 994 CE. The attack on London fails because of the courageous defence of its citizens. In turn, Olaf and Sweyn ravage the countryside until Aethelred offers them a winter camp at Southampton. He then tries to negotiate a treaty.6 This process is lost on Sweyn. His signature is not on the treaty and he no longer figures in the ASC until 1002 CE when he returns to England to avenge his sister’s death.7 

Sweyn’s reasons for leaving England are many. First, he is not interested in converting to Christianity like Olaf. Perhaps, he also realises that there is less money to gain and more opposition now that Olaf and Aethelred are allies. Furthermore, he has another goal in mind, and that is reclaiming the Danish crown. It was lost to him when he was defeated and deposed by an alliance of Erik VI of Sweden and king Bolesław I of Poland. This exile is the reason why Sweyn spends all his time outside Denmark and raiding England. Upon Erik’s death in 994 CE, Sweyn can finally go back.8 

The sources don’t match up at this point. Researchers state that Sweyn raids Schleswig and Saxony for about three years after 994 CE.9 This would mean that Denmark meanwhile remained in the hands of Erik’s son, Olaf Skötkonung. No large battles or invasions are reported, so somehow Denmark must have fallen to Sweyn quite comfortably. Either by threat or because Sweyn marries Olaf’s mother (and Erik’s wife).10 Sweden is from that point an ally, and in the meantime, Norway is in the hands of a pretender who is loyal to the Danish crown.11

Olaf’s Opportunities

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

Olaf stays behind in England in 994 CE. He waits to hear what Aethelred has to say. He signs the treaty II Aethelred and agrees to stop raiding the country. More interestingly, he lets himself be baptised again, now with Aethelred as a sponsor. There is no shadow of a doubt that Aethelred gives him plenty in return. For within a year, Olaf has the means to sail to Norway and claim the crown. Still, there is somewhat of a win-win situation and the two men seem to strike up an unlikely friendship, a friendly alliance.12 

Later, Jarl Haakon faces a rebellion in Norway. Sweyn Forkbeard is too busy reclaiming Denmark to help. So, Olaf sails for Norway. He takes the crown in 995 as soon as Jarl Haakon is killed and does not waste any time bringing all parts of the country under his control. Rather forcefully, he then converts his people to Christianity. Whilst trying to expand his influence in Scandinavia, he offers marriage to the Swedish queen dowager. But she is a pagan and marries Sweyn instead.13 

Opportunity knocks on Olaf’s door again five years later. Sweyn’s sister Thyra flees from an unhappy engagement with her Wendish royal fiancée. She marries Olaf which cannot have made Sweyn happy. The sagas then go to claim that the women incite their men to battle. Thyra encourages Olaf to go to Wendland and get the riches she left behind. Sigrid tells Sweyn to punish Olaf for snubbing her with the marriage proposal and taking his sister for his wife.14 But even without the women’s interference, the men had enough reason to fight each other for a kingdom, opposing religions and their ambitions.

The Battle

The finale of the Battle of the Svold. (Source: Wikipedia).

The debate is still ongoing about the exact location of the battle. The options are either the Svold near the island of Rügen or alternatively the Øresund.15 Some sources state that the battle occurs before Olaf even reaches Wendland. However, another saga states that Olaf is stalled in Wendland to give Sweyn and his allies, Olaf Skötkonung of Sweden and Jarl Eirik Haakonsson time to bring their fleet into position.16 

The battle unfolds in the typical way of traditional Viking Age naval battles. Olaf brings his ships together to form a driving fortress with his famous ship the Long Serpent in the middle. Of course, with uneven numbers, the battle is a lost quickly. When his ship is about to be boarded, Olaf jumps overboard in full battle gear and is never seen or heard from again.17


Now Olaf is dead, Sweyn does not waste any time in reclaiming Norway and installs Jarl Eirik as his puppet ruler. Olaf’s sons are not in the picture. His second son dies shortly after birth, and his first son dies in his attempt to take the crown in 1033.18 Meanwhile, Olaf is created into a legend with stories how he might have survived and lived somewhere in anonymity, sending gifts to his friend Aethelred II and his sister upon their birthdays.19 But the likeliest story is that he indeed didn’t survive.

There are many sources and they are all written well after the battle took place. They also colour the story according to their origins. Among the most famous sources, for the Danish voice, are Adam of BremenGesta Hammenburgensis in the 1070s20 and the Gesta Danorum by Saxo Grammaticus (c. 1185) who follows the lines of Adam’s story.21 Most accounts are Icelandic and Norwegian, though, and they tend to picture Olaf, as well as Jarl Eirik in a positive light.22Three Norwegian chronicles refer to the battle. The oldest surviving is Historia de Antiquitate Regum Norwagiensium (c. 1177),23 then there is the Ágrip af Nóregskonungasögum (c. 1190),24 and last but not least The Historia Norwegiae. Its only surviving manuscript dates to the sixteenth century, but is believed to be written in the thirteenth century.25 Two further important sagas are Oddr Snorrason’s Saga of Olaf Tryggwason and Snorri Sturluson’s The Sagas of Olaf Tryggvason and of Harald the Tyrant.26


  1. Marit Synnøve Vea, ‘Olav Tryggvason,’ Avaldsnes. Last Accessed July 26, 2017.  ↩
  2. Sverre Bagge, Cross and Scepter: The Rise of the Scandinavian Kingdoms from the Vikings to the Reformation. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014), pp. 27–28.  ↩
  3. The Editors of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, ‘Olaf Tryggvason | Biography & Facts,” Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Last Accessed July 22, 2017.  ↩
  4. The Editors of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, ‘Sweyn I | King of Denmark and England,’ Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Last Accessed July 22, 2017.  ↩
  5. Dorothy Whitelock, English Historical Documents, 500–1042. (Psychology Press, 1996), pp. 625.  ↩
  6. Anonymous, ‘The Anglo–Saxon Chronicle | 994,’ The Avalon Project | Documents in Law, History and Diplomacy. Last Accessed December 8, 2015.  ↩
  7. Anonymous, ‘The Anglo–Saxon Chronicle | 1002,’ The Avalon Project | Documents in Law, History and Diplomacy. Last Accessed December 8, 2015.  ↩
  8. Sture Bolin, ‘Erik Segersäll,’ Svenskt Biografiskt Lexikon (SBL). Last Accessed July 24, 2017.  ↩
  9. E. V. Gordon, “The Date of Æthelred’s Treaty with the Vikings: Olaf Tryggvason and the Battle of Maldon.” In: The Modern Language Review Volume 32.1 (1937), pp. 29.  ↩
  10. Hans Gillingstam, ‘Olof ‘skötkonung,’ Svenskt Biografiskt Lexikon (SBL). Last Accessed July 24, 2017.  ↩
  11. The Editors of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, ‘Haakon Sigurdsson | Norwegian Ruler,’ Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Last Accessed July 24, 2017.  ↩
  12. Ian Howard, Swein Forkbeard’s Invasions and the Danish Conquest of England, 991–1017. (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2003), pp. 47.  ↩
  13. Marit Synnøve Vea, ‘Olav Tryggvason,’ Avaldsnes. Accessed July 26, 2017.  ↩
  14. Marit Synnøve Vea, ‘Olav Tryggvason,’ Avaldsnes. Accessed July 26, 2017.  ↩
  15. Svend Ellehøj, ‘The location of the fall of Olaf Tryggvason,’ in: Thridji Vikingafundur [Third Viking Congress], ed. Kristján Eldjárn Ritsjóri (Reykyavik: Ísafoldarprentsmiđja, 1958), pp. 63–89.  ↩
  16. Oddr Snorrason, munkr, The Saga of King Olaf Tryggwason Who Reigned over Norway A. D. 995 to A. D. 1000, Translated by John Sephton (London: D. Nutt, 1895), pp. 405–407.  ↩
  17. Snorri Sturluson, ‘The Sagas of Olaf Tryggvason and of Harald the Tyrant,’ The Project Gutenberg. Last Accessed July 24, 2017. §109–122.  ↩
  18. Charles Cawley, ‘Norway Kings,’ Foundation of Medieval Genealogy. Last Accessed July 26, 2017.  ↩
  19. Oddr Snorrason (1895), pp. 405–407.  ↩
  20. Adam of Bremen, History of the Archbishops of Hamburg–Bremen. Translated by Francis J. Tschan, edited by Timothy Reuter, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002).  ↩
  21. Saxo Grammaticus, Gesta Danorum. Det Kongelige Bibliotek. Last Accessed July 27, 2017.   ↩
  22. Lars Lönnroth, ‘Charlemagne, Hrolf Kraki, Olaf Tryggvason: Parallels in the Heroic Tradition,’ In: Les Relations Litteraires Franco–Scandinaves Au Moyen Age | Actes Du Colloque de Liège. Edited by Maurice Gravier Delbouille (Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1975), pp. 42.  ↩
  23. Katherine Holman, Historical Dictionary of the Vikings. (Lanham: Scarecrow Press, 2003), pp. 134.  ↩
  24. Katherine Holman (2003), pp. 23.  ↩
  25. Katherine Holman (2003), pp. 135.  ↩
  26. Snorri Sturluson, ‘The Sagas of Olaf Tryggvason and of Harald the Tyrant,’ The Project Gutenberg. Last Accessed July 24, 2017.    ↩

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