It can be quite easy to see Vikings as mere pirates, thieves, and destroyers of civilization. 

Yet many modern nations, from Ireland to Iceland, owe a debt of gratitude to the building (literal and metaphorical) skills of people in Viking societies. 

We don't often acknowledge that enough in history. Norway, that beautiful country tucked away in the far north, was quite literally built and forged by Vikings. 

This rugged country, full of mountains and sweeping fjords but not so full of arable land, saw human habitation, from time immemorial, stick to mostly the coastline.

By the beginning of the Viking Age (the most recent view is to push this as far back as 750 CE), what we now call Norway was a land divided into several smaller "petty" kingdoms. 

This was a time of scant historical records (one of the reasons why some 19th-century historians dubbed this the "Dark Ages" - but anyone living then in a Byzantine, East Asian, or Islamic civilization would disagree with that statement), so we not only know how many (or few) "petty" kingdoms they were – our best guess is 9 during this era – but we also do not know how big they were. 

Some have been assumed to be as small as just a smattering of a few villages, whilst others were as large as several modern Norwegian fylker today. One such petty kingdom was named Firdafylke.

Kingdom of the Fjords

Historians believe that the petty kingdom of Firdafylke (sometimes also called Fjordane, given an imperfect English translation of the "Kingdom of the Fjords") was one of these minor political entities that were present in Norway by the mid-8th century CE. 

This petty kingdom was stretched from somewhere near Bergen up the coast to the vicinity of the present Norwegian fylke of Møre og Romsdal. 

This stretch of rugged and treacherous coastline was along the eponymous "Northern Way" trade route, connecting southern Europe with northern Scandinavia, from which Norway gained its name.

Frustratingly for most historians today, the origins of this kingdom are lost in the mists of time. What little we know is based upon the work of later medieval historians, like Saxo Grammaticus, writing centuries after the fact. 

Most of the early rulers of this kingdom are found in the Norse sagas, but Grammaticus does his best to try and fill in the missing holes, silences, and gaps. Most of these rulers, like those of the other petty kingdoms, are semi-legendary and shrouded in legend and lore.

By the 830s CE, however, after decades of these petty kingdoms supplying the men and ships to kickstart the "Viking Age" (which was, in many ways, a sort of early medieval golden age of piracy), Firdafylke had obviously grown rich that we find the first record of a ruler, one Frøybjørn Frøygardsson. 

Little is known about him other than that he passed power to his son, Audbjörn.

A time of insecurity

About ¾ of a century after the first Viking raid occurred, the petty kingdoms of Norway had grown rich with the proceeds of raiding, trading, and settlement throughout Northern Europe and beyond. 

These kingdoms, which had been small and geographically isolated, soon began to encroach upon one another and, with an increased level of military sophistication thanks to the increased wealth, began an era of political insecurity and war. 

One such "petty king," Harald Fairhair, of the petty kingdom of Agder, soon set about trying to unify, by the point of a sword, these kingdoms under his rule.

In the past half century, there has been a revisionist view, amongst some historians, casting doubt on whether a historical Fairhair ever existed, but the process that he helped end, of the unification of Norway, is beyond doubt. 

By the mid-9th century CE, these petty kingdoms began to fight with each other. Audbjørn, the King of Fjordane, was one of these kings who refused to yield to outside influence.

The long and bloody process of the unification of Norway entailed several battles that saw Harald Fairhair set about trying to quell all potential opposition to his rule. 

Local elites and powerful rulers had the most to lose with Harald's ambitions for a united Norway, so fierce resistance was undertaken on the battlefields of Hakadal, Orkdal, and Solskjel, including the Kingdom of Fjordane. It was at a second battle at Solskjel that Audbjorn would finally meet his destiny.

A replica of the Myklebust Viking ship, the largest Viking ship ever discovered in Norway. Photo: Jorn Loset / Sagastad

A second Solskjel

Contrary to today's society, where power lies in the southeast of the country, the epicenter of power in early medieval Norway was often in the north. 

Following Harald Fairhair's slow and steady subjugation of the petty kingdoms of Norway, the Kingdoms of Nordmøre, Sunnmøre, and Fjordane saw the writing on the wall. 

They had joined forces to try and stop Harald from sailing southward but ultimately failed. Both the kings of Romsdal and Nordmøre were killed as Harald sailed away to continue his conquests. 

The son of the King of Nordmæøre, Solve Klove, managed to escape alive and lived to fight another day in the nearby Kingdom of Sunnmøre.

Seeking refuge in Sunnmøre, Solve Klove not only set himself up to raid Fairhair's newly acquired possessions but also agitated the local rulers, including in Fjordane, to take up arms. 

He was met with a sympathetic ear by both Arnvid, ruler of Sunnmore, and our friend, Audbjørn, further south in Fjordane. As summer broke, another year of campaigning by Harald and his men was imminent. 

Audbjørn committed to an alliance with Sunnmøre, egged on by Klove. The two sides met again near Solskjell, with Audbjørn himself in the thick of the action.

What little we know of the battle comes from the Heimskringla, which simply states that Audbjørn was one of many of the commanders who fell in battle unsuccessfully trying to defend against what they perceived as Harald Fairhair's egregious political ambitions and overreach. 

So Audbjørn is, according to legend, said to have perished in about 870 CE in a battle near Solskjell...but this is not his final resting place.

The Myklebust ship

In the late 19th century CE, archaeologists conducted a dig on the Myklebust farm near Nordfjordeid in Norway. 

Several burial mounds had been briefly uncovered, but they had no idea the riches that they would uncover. After careful excavation, they found the burnt remains of the largest Viking ship ever discovered in Norway. 

Later analysis has given an estimated size for the ship of some 30 meters / 100 feet, allowing a crew of as many as 44. Amongst the items were high-status objects, artifacts, and weapons from the late 9th century CE.

Modern historians have come to believe that the ship was burnt, as part of an elaborate Viking funeral, for a local ruler. This local ruler, according to legend, was Audbjørn, whose body was returned to his local kingdom following his death at the second battle of Solksjkell. 

The archaeological evidence uncovered supports this theory, but, frustratingly, any human remains were burnt along in this most grand of funeral pyres.

The finding of the Myklebust ship, as it has been known, shows how powerful and rich petty kings, like Audbjørn, were. 

Despite only ruling what we perceive as small kingdoms, the find illustrates the economic power, wealth, and social status of those rulers who dominated the "Northern Way." 

Despite the modern story of Norway often tracing its ancestry back to Harald Fairhair's battles of unification, the history of rulers like Audbjörn Frøybjørnsson helps us illuminate much earlier periods of the nation's history.

Visit Norway has a wealth of information on the Myklebust Viking ship and museum, available here.

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