The story of King Herlaug underscores how not everyone in Norway during Fairhair's unification campaign meekly submitted to this new paradigm.

The era of Fairhair

The traditional district of Namdalen, in central Norway, is just one of many districts that can trace their history back to the Viking Age (c. 750 – 1100 CE). 

Whilst it is now more famous for its salmon-filled rivers that attract fishing enthusiasts from all over the world, it was once among the many petty kingdoms scattered throughout what is now Norway during the early medieval period.

Towards the end of the 9th century CE, however, these petty kingdoms were rapidly becoming obsolete thanks to one man, Harald Fairhair.

Today, historians are divided over the rule of Harald, the man credited with unifying Norway.

Contemporary records are incredibly sketchy and scarce, and much of what we know about Fairhair was written centuries after the fact in faraway Iceland

Nevertheless, the sagas paint a detailed picture of how Fairhair, from 872, set out to expand his rule from Leikanger to include much of Norway.

This process saw a series of bloody conquests and fights where Fairhair was hellbent on uniting the many petty kingdoms of Norway under his will and control. In the first year of this campaign, he had his eyes on Namdalen.

Kingly Brothers

During the period when Fairhair was believed to have begun his campaign to bring Norway under his boot, the petty kingdom of Namdalen was under the rule of not one but two kings. 

King Herlaug and King Rollaug, the co-rulers of Namdalen, were connected not only in power and prestige but also by blood.

Like most brothers, these two kings – though they may have shared a throne – did not necessarily share the same ideas. 

When news reached Namdalen that Fairhair and his men were on their way, the two brothers had considerably different plans of action to deal with this approaching menace. 

Rollaug decided that his best course of action was to bend the knee to Fairhair.

His brother's plan of action (if historically accurate, it must be stressed) would echo down history for its combination of defiance and uniqueness.

According to the sagas, King Herlaug's warriors willingly accompanied him into the burial mound, embracing eternity by his side. Illustration: The Viking Herald

Entombed with 11 of his men

As Fairhair's men approached, King Herlaug realized he had two options: either flee his kingdom or bend the knee. 

It appears that news of Fairhair's destruction of several petty kingdoms in Western Norway had reached northward, and any sort of armed resistance was deemed futile by both the kings. 

Herlaug then decided that, along with 11 of his most loyal and brave warriors, he would be entombed in a burial mound on the island of Leka.

Not only did all the men enter the mound freely, but they were also allegedly supplied with provisions to last some time. The entrance was sealed, ensuring that while these brave warriors might meet their end, it wouldn't be at the hands of Fairhair.

Furthermore, by walking into that burial mound, they would achieve legendary status for this act of defiance.

The stuff of sagas

This act of defiance was so notable that it was passed down, in lore and legend, until the 13th century. 

A world away in Iceland (itself established by a hardy breed of peoples from Viking societies across Scandinavia), Snorri Sturluson, a poet, and politician, compiled some of the best sagas we know today. 

In one of these epic tomes, Haralds saga hárfagra (The Saga of Harald Fairhair), the tale of Fairhair's conquest of Namdalen is told.

Upon his eternal retirement to the tomb, Herlaug is said to have brought with him "a great quantity of meat and drink" - surely the best kind of nourishment should you be entombed in a burial mound.

The burial of Herlaug is one brief episode in an otherwise epic adventure of the telling of how Fairhair conquered kingdoms and forged a nation.

While Herlaug and his men faced a grim death by starvation, his brother appears to have suffered little. 

In acknowledgment of his submission to Fairhair, he lost his throne but was made a jarl for the nearby region. This region was of immense strategic importance, controlling the lucrative "Northern Way" trade route to and from kingdoms further south.

A local landmark and Herlaug discovered?

In the centuries after King Herlaug was said to have defiantly entombed himself, the burial mound was a widely known local landmark. 

It appears that the burial mound was disturbed, at least since the last Viking ship ever sailed. In the 17th century, local thieves appeared to have dug a series of tunnels into it, possibly stealing precious grave goods.

During this grave raid, a skeleton was said to have been found leaning up against a wall – could this possibly have been brave King Herlaug himself? 

Unfortunately, we will never know as much of the skeletal remains were lost during the 19th century.

Viking ships were both vessels of exploration and symbols that held profound significance in burial rituals. Photo: Unstphoto / Wikimedia Commons CC 4.0

Recent scientific findings

Summer is always a busy time for Norway's archaeologists. The warmer weather means not only more sun tanning but also greater opportunities to uncover Norway's rich history buried deep below.

When a team from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) started to work at Herlaughshaugen (Helaug Hill – the supposed resting place of King Herlaug and his men), they had a monumental task. 

Not only was the hill some 60 meters (196 feet) in diameter, but they were trying to uncover if it housed a Viking ship buried beneath. Nails had been uncovered in the 18th century, but this was before contemporary scientific methods could date these finds.

The team uncovered animal and natural remains (horses' teeth and some wood), which is helpful for radiocarbon dating, alongside several ships' rivets. This provides evidence towards the presence of a ship burial.

However, much more testing and research are needed before confirming the working hypothesis that the mound contains a Viking ship. 

Could Herlaug and his men have chosen eternal rest within the mound buried inside a ship?

The research by NTNU has rekindled contemporary society's interest in the courageous story of King Herlaug and his men. It is now their task to either validate this beyond a reasonable doubt or debunk one of the Norse sagas' most audacious acts of defiance.

We at The Viking Herald will keep an eye open for further findings from the team. 

In the meantime, the legendary history of King Herlaug, whose courage and conviction have echoed down the ages, will continue to inspire centuries after he walked into that burial mound.

For more information on the beginnings of the Viking Age in Norway, read a BBC History Extra article here.

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