Traditional histories and narratives of Norway have placed an oversized importance on the role of the Vikings during the Nordic Iron Age.
While these warriors expanded outward to cause havoc, create trade, and colonize vast swathes of Europe, the early medieval history of Norway cannot be simply explained by longships and battleaxes.
Whilst they indeed helped forge the boundaries of what would become the medieval kingdom of Norway, we cannot give the Vikings all the credit.
People in what would become Viking societies during the latter stages of the Nordic Iron Age (c. 500 BCE - 500 CE) may have seemed to be living on the very edges of the world to cultures and civilizations further south.
Still, they had established well-connected trading routes with the outside world.
Towards the collapse of the Roman Empire, in the late 5th century CE, trade flowed so freely (albeit mostly indirectly) that we have a wealth of Roman material that ended up in the far north.
One of the most lucrative trade routes into the early medieval period was the so-called "Northern Way."
The lucrative natural resources of the north – such as animal furs and timber – were ferried southward for markets in the Frankish realms, Constantinople, or even as far away as Baghdad.
Control of these northern trade routes became a significant source of conflict within the petty kingdoms in Norway throughout the early medieval period.
By the 9th century CE, the petty kingdom of Trøndelag exerted a significant amount of control and influence over this lucrative trade.
The ruler of this wealthy kingdom was Grjotgard Herlaugsson, and it was his son, Håkon, who would prove a key figure in the creation of the medieval kingdom of Norway.
Trondheim Fjord, where Håkon Grjotgardsson established his strategic residence, was an important location in the early medieval period, serving as a hub of political and economic activity in Norway. Photo: Jelena Safronova / Shutterstock
Son of a king
It was into this prosperous kingdom, perched at the northern end of significant economic trade routes, that young Håkon was born sometime in the mid-9th century.
There is some debate on his birth year, with historians giving the year anywhere between 838 and 860.
Regardless of the exact year he was born, Håkon was born into a society that was rapidly changing.
The several minor kingdoms of Norway – of which Trøndelag was but one – were slowly fragmenting and falling apart.
The influx of wealth from trade saw local powerful elites become richer and more powerful around the nation.
It appeared that the time was ripe for a strong man to seize control and try to unify the several kingdoms under his rule.
When his father passed away, Håkon ascended to the throne of Trøndelag and established his residence at the mouth of the Trondheim fjord at Ørlandet.
Following his father's footsteps, he aimed to be a strong and prosperous ruler and sought to extend his political influence and rule further south.
However, not everyone was happy with this perceived overreach.
In his quest to create a unified Norway, Harald Fairhair's journey northward to Trøndelag marked a crucial moment, leading to negotiations with Håkon Grjotgardsson and shaping the nation's future. Illustration. The Viking Herald
Enter the man with fair hair
Historians often cannot overstate the importance of Harald Fairhair in the creation of the medieval kingdom of Norway – to which the current Norwegian state traces its ancestry.
However, though Fairhair was indeed important, he did not act alone in forging a nation.
There are vast holes in the historical record concerning Fairhair's life, but this does not make his life any less exciting.
Ascending to the throne of the petty kingdom of Vestfold, centered in Norway's south, Fairhair went about exerting his influence by the point of the sword, trying to subjugate several of the nearby kingdoms under his rule.
This process only accelerated as Fairhair and his men marched northward to try and capture the kingdoms – like Trøndelag – that had dominance over the lucrative trading routes.
As Fairhair marched northward, across the mountains, to try and subjugate Trøndelag, he was on a collision course for battle with Håkon Grjotgardsson.
However, unlike other nearby kingdoms, Trøndelag was a fair distance from Fairhair's power base, and the supply lines (which existed in only the most basic form) were in danger of being wildly overstretched.
Furthermore, Grjotgardsson had a strategically secure and defensive position at the mouth of the Trondheim fjord.
It was with this view that Fairhair entered into negotiations with Grjotgardsson. These negotiations would seal the fate of both men as well as help forge a nation.
The Swords in Rock Monument in Hafrsfjord serves as a historical landmark, celebrating the unification of Norway under King Harald Fairhair after the Battle of Hafrsfjord. Photo: Tomas Eidsvold / Unsplash
Jarl of Lade
Given the considerable power and influence that Grjotgardsson had, it was no surprise that Fairhair looked to shore up a northern flank on his quest to unify all the petty kingdoms of Norway.
What Fairhair offered was the creation of a new title – the Jarl of Lade (like the English title of Earl) - for Grjotgardsson, making him one of the most powerful nobles under Fairhair's rule.
There was just the small matter of crushing all resistance first.
The negotiations were sealed with Grjotgardsson giving his daughter's hand in marriage to Fairhair, further solidifying the bonds with family.
As both a powerful northern baron and father-in-law to Fairhair, Grjotgardsson had ascended to the dizzying heights of power and influence.
With his northern flank secure and protected, Fairhair went on to concentrate on mopping up the remaining resistance to his unification project.
The final battle, which historians have seen as a turning point for early medieval Norway, was the naval Battle of Hafrsfjord – believed to have taken place in 872.
This great naval battle saw Fairhair's forces defeat the petty kings of Agder and Hordaland, the two last remaining pockets of resistance.
After this battle, Fairhair declared that he had unified all the small kingdoms under his rule and was the new king of a unified nation – Norway.
Gamlehaugen, the royal residence in Bergen, symbolizes the enduring legacy of Norway's monarchy, tracing its roots back to the era of unification under leaders like Harald Fairhair and Håkon Grjotgardsson. Photo: Marius Dobilas / Shutterstock
The man who made a king
Whilst Fairhair gets all the historical credit for being the first king of a unified Norway, Håkon Grjotgardsson should also be recognized for helping him achieve this.
Without his support, both in terms of men and security, one wonders whether Fairhair would have been able to secure his legacy and unify the kingdoms of Norway.
Instead, a long and protracted battle against Grjotgardsson's forces may have sapped the energy and morale of Fairhair and his men.
The negotiations that saw the creation of the Jarl of Lade proved to be historic, too.
Similar to the powerful northern barons of medieval England, the Jarls of Lade would prove to be vital allies and powerbrokers for many Norwegian kings following Fairhair.
These Jarls would be responsible not only for the acquisition of untold wealth thanks to trade but also for raiding and pillaging.
They were responsible for the organization and payment of Viking raids from the 10th century onwards.
It appears that Håkon, the first Jarl of Lade, lived a long life and was said to have passed away sometime between 900 and 930.
If the former, he would have been in his 50s; if the latter, well into his 90s, if we use one of his supposed birthdates of 835.
Regardless, both ages would have been considered ripe during the early medieval period, and he was often referred to as Håkon the Old (Håkon jarl hinn gamli) in the latter stages of his life.
Securing a political dynasty for his family, as well as helping secure a kingdom, has ensured that Håkon Grjotgardsson goes down as one of the most important political powerbrokers of early medieval Norway.
For more information on the life of people in Viking societies, visit Archaeology Magazine here.
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