This town of nearly 3,000 people, strategically situated just south of Haugesund, on the northeastern part of the island of Karmøy, was once the seat of royal power and prestige in Norway. 

Labeled as "Norway's oldest capital," the small village plays a huge part in the historical and cultural fabric of Norway.

A small, unassuming village on Norway's beautiful west coast

Norway's western coast is renowned worldwide for the sheer beauty and majesty of its fjords and islands. Drive about 9 kilometers south of the city of Haugesund, on Norway's west coast, crossing the Karmsund bru, which connects the mainland to the island of Karmøy, and you will find the small village of Avaldsnes. 

Not only is this part of Norway a beautiful place to visit for its scenery, but its history is almost as impressive.

The North Way?

One look at a map to situate Avaldsnes, and you will see it is situated in a strategically important part of Norway. For ships wanting to travel up and down the west coast of Norway – either heading north or south – Avaldsnes is the perfect position of power. Here, traffic can be controlled as it was forced through the narrow Karmsundet.

Scholars may disagree on the meaning of Norway, but Avaldsnes does play a part in both definitions. For some scholars, the name "Norway" comes from the Anglo-Saxon Norþweg, meaning "northern way" or "way leading to the north" – an obvious earlier development of the medieval northern trade routes that connect Norway with Europe. 

For others, "Norway" arises from the Old English Norðr vegr meaning "the narrow way northwards" and referring to the maritime route along the western coast of Norway and through the various narrow island archipelagos of which Avaldsnes is perhaps the most important.

Bronze Age burial mounds, Roman weapons, and King Augvald

There has been human settlement and activity in Avaldsnes since at least the Bronze Age (3300 – 1200 BCE). About one kilometer from the famous Avaldsnes Kirke (more on that later) lies the Reiha ridge – burial mounds lined up in a row that date from the Bronze Age. Several of these graves have been opened, and a rich treasure trove of Bronze Age artifacts has been uncovered.

In 1835, under the direction of the parish chuch, Lyder Brun, a huge burial mound (some 5 meters high and 43 meters in diameter) was excavated. This turned out to be one of the largest graves from Roman times ever uncovered in Norway, containing Roman-era weapons, musical instruments, and a necklace of over 600 grams of pure gold. 

This find showed how interconnected Norway was to other parts of Europe during late antiquity. It is believed that these items were buried sometime in the final years of the Roman Empire, showing that trade and goods flowed even to the far northern reaches of "Scandia."

Avaldsnes, though, receives its name from a semi-legendary petty king ruling in the political insecurity of the collapse of the Roman Empire. During the early medieval period, Norway was a series of petty and fragmented kingdoms. If we are to believe some of the old Norse sagas, then King Augvald ruled the strategically important area around modern-day Avaldsnes sometime in the 7th century CE.

Augvald set about conquering huge swathes of what is now the modern county of Hordaland. From his base on the islands off western Norway, he undertook a naval campaign culminating in the capture of the strategically important island of Karmøy on which Avaldsnes is located. His name is the origin of the village of Avaldsnes.

King Augvald was not only a conquering ruler but was said to have some interesting family and pets. He had several daughters who fought alongside him, on campaign, as shield-maidens, fierce female warriors who were said to be the inspiration of the Valkyries in Norse sagas. A pet cow was also kept in the King's retinue, and aside from worshipping this sacred animal, Augvald believed his superior martial skill was due to the cow's milk.

A photograph of the ruins of the Lindisfarne priory on the Holy Island in Northumberland. Photo: Ed Goodacre / Shutterstock

Strategic position: A royal seat in the making

Regardless of the historicity of Augvald's rule, the fact remained that Avaldsnes was a strategically important locus of power from the early medieval period onwards. Controlling the flow of goods and people from this island made the local ruler exceptionally rich. Yet it was the flow of goods and people from outside Scandinavia that began to change the very fabric of Norwegian and European societies.

A simple raid on a monastery on an island off the northeast coast of England doesn't seem like an epoch-defining event. Yet the Viking raid on Lindisfarne in 793 CE is exactly that. 

This raid is considered the traditional start of the so-called "Viking Age," which ended on the Battlefield of Hastings over 250 years later in 1066 CE. The petty kings of Norway soon took to the seas and began raiding societies and communities across the British Isles, the Baltic Region, northern France, and Germany, even as far away as Spain and Portugal.

Avaldsnes grew even richer and more important for the control of Viking-era traffic either across the North Sea from the British Isles and beyond or coming northward from more southern European areas.

It is during this early medieval period, with Norway fragmented into petty kingdoms, that Harald Fairhair first enters the scene. If we look to the Norse sagas, particularly the Heimskringla, we can paint a picture of how Harald was supposedly said to unify the petty kingdoms of Norway under one crown. 

Following a crushing naval victory at Hafrsfjord, in which Harald defeated two petty kings, he proclaimed himself the first "King of the Norwegians" and moved his royal estate to Avaldsnes, making it a royal seat of power and Norway's first capital.

Between Vikings and vicars

Over the course of the next two centuries, Avaldsnes would remain the center of Norwegian power. As Viking rules and warriors spread out across Northern Europe and beyond, their return with looted goods, people, and treasures saw Avaldsnes remain an important economic hub for the kings of Norway. However, it was Harald's great-grandson, Olaf Tryggvason, that would forever change the course of Norwegian history and Avaldsnes.

Before Olaf Tryggvason seized the throne of Norway, he had a peripatetic upbringing. Traveling and fighting his way throughout the Kievan Rus, the Orkneys, Russia and Sweden, England and Ireland, Tryggvasson sailed to Norway to claim the throne. 

Leading a rebellion, he dethroned King Håkon, who had taken refuge in a pigsty while fleeing and was killed by his once loyal servant. Waging a campaign against the other regions of Norway not under his rule, he moved the royal capital, from Avaldsnes to Trondheim, in 997 CE.

What is interesting about the ascent of Trygvasson to the throne is that he was one of the first Christian rulers of Norway. According to the sagas, his path to Christianity was either sparked by a dream, in which he conversed with God, or by a visit to a seer who foretold a path to power that was only possible with baptism and conversion of the masses. It was in Avaldsnes, on the royal grounds of the old Norse pagan Kings, that Trygvasson was said to have constructed a chapel in about 1024 CE.

Trygvasson's relentless campaign to convert Norway would not be finished in his lifetime. However, by the end of the 11th and into the 12th century CE, Norway was brought into the Christian fold of European nations. The little wooden chapel that stood on a hill on the royal grounds would be improved by the reign of King Håkon Håkonsson. 

From 1250 CE, the construction of a stone church would begin, but it would take more than 70 years to complete. Dedicated to St. Olaf, Norway's patron saint, it became one of the great stone churches of medieval Norway and an important stop on the Pilegrimsleden (Pilgrim's Route) to Nidaros Cathedral in the new capital of Trondheim.

The royal capital was moved from Avaldsnes to Trondheim in 997 CE. Photo: Robin Mikalsen / Unsplash

Four great burial mounds

Aside from Avaldsnes Church, the other landmarks forged in the Viking era that are visible in the area surrounding Avaldsnes are two great Viking-era burial mounds. These are :

Storhaug (Great Mound) – a ship's burial mound found on the once royal grounds of Avaldsnes. Excavation began in 1886 CE and uncovered a Viking-era ship – made of oak – between 2.5 and 6 meters wide.

Grønhaug (Green Mound) – Excavations in 1902 CE uncovered an even larger ship here. Not only was the ship over 15 meters long, but it also held the remains of a man's grave from the 10th century CE.

There is another burial mound Flagghaugen (Flag Hill), from where the Roman-era artifacts were uncovered. There is also a stone monument nicknamed Mary's Needle. This is the only reaming stone monument that once surrounded St. Olav's Church. Legend has it that when the stone, which is on a slant, touches the church, "the day of Judgement will arrive." Apparently, locals used to climb and chip away at the stone in the past when it came perilously close to the church.

Later events

The following centuries have been less kind to the national prominence of Avaldsnes. Its place as a national focal point of political power waned since the capital was moved to Trondheim. However, during the later medieval, Avaldsnes was again an important crossroads of commerce and trade. It was here that the first Hansa kontor (Hanseatic League office) was established to exploit the maritime trade between the north and south of the country as well as between Norway and Northern Europe.

The village, however, fell from national prominence and withered thanks to the spread of the Black Death in the mid-14th century. However, the church was used as a polling station during the 1814 elections for the Norwegian Constituent Assembly. These were not only Norway's first elections but were also responsible for the establishment of the Norwegian Constitution.

Since then, the sight of St. Olav's Church, high on the hill, overlooking the Karmsundet, has been a landmark for many a sailor and ship. In fact, during the Nazi occupation of Norway, the locals were forced to camouflage the historic church with wood to stop it from being used as a landmark by Allied bomber planes.

A Viking settlement situated on the nearby island of Bukkøy. Photo: paffy / Shutterstock

Small village, big history

Due to its rich history, Avaldsnes was selected as one of the Millennium Sites of Norway for Rogaland County. These were often places with a national cultural or environmental legacy that reached far beyond the county itself. 

Due to this renewed interest in Avaldsnes past, the Nordvegen historiesenter (Nordvegen Historical Center) was opened in 2005. Next to St. Olaf's Church, much of this center is located underground to preserve the historical landscape and burial mounds that dot the area. As part of this center, there is a reconstructed Viking village, including a farm, a replicated longhouse, and even a Viking boathouse on the nearby island of Bukkøy. 

Guided tours are offered in the summer months, and it is perhaps the best way to experience Viking-era village life in a historical setting. There is also a Viking festival that takes place annually in June. The Viking Festival will be held, in 2023, between June 8 - 11.

A short walk away is St. Olav's Church, where guided tours, complete with a colorful retelling of the history of Avaldsnes, are offered throughout the summer. It is also worth a visit to see just how close Mary's Needle is to touching the church walls…

Avaldsnes, though now only a small village of some 3,000 people, lies large in the historical imagination of Norway. Nowhere else in Norway can you find a combination of a rich and interesting Viking past, medieval Christian monuments, and the sheer majesty of an island archipelago rolled into one charming village. 

A trip to Avaldsnes is a must for anyone who wants to experience a small town with a large history. You might even say that Avaldsnes is fit for a king…

For more information on Avaldsnes, visit the local tourist information website here, whilst for the latest information on the hunt for more ship burial mounts in Avaldsnes, click here.

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