Think of the Crusades, and you think of vast mobilizations across western Europe, initiated by the Pope and involving weeks of marching across the continent towards the Holy Land.
But the first European king to participate in this kind of religious venture was neither French nor English. He was Norwegian.
Who was Sigurd Magnusson?
Known as, in fact, "The Crusader," Sigurd Magnusson reigned from 1103 to 1130, leading what became known as the Norwegian Crusade between 1107 and 1110.
This was a time of economic prosperity and cultural growth in Norway, about a century after Christianity had been adopted. Sigurd had inherited the throne at 14, but his rule, along with his half-brother Øystein, proved to be a positive one.
The son of Magnus III, aka Magnus Barefoot, who headed brutal campaigns to conquer parts of the British Isles, Sigurd Magnusson was born in 1089.
When he wasn't even ten years old, he accompanied his father on one of them, to the Orkney Islands, where he was first made an earl and then king.
For the first time, these islands off the Northeast coast of Scotland came under direct Norwegian rule, a situation that would stay in place for nearly a further half-millennium. Even today, the flag of Orkney echoes this Norse heritage.
Four years later, Magnus III sailed on to Ireland, proclaimed himself king, and arranged for Sigurd to marry an Irish princess, Blathmuine ingen Muirchertach, daughter of the high king Muirchertach Us Briain. As both were still children, it is doubtful if the marriage was even consummated.
In any case, after Magnus III was attacked and killed by Irish forces in Ulaid, modern-day Ulster, in 1103, Sigurd sailed back to Norway at the age of 14. Once he arrived home, he and his half-brothers, Øystein and Olav, were proclaimed kings of Norway.
The Norwegian Crusade
When it was decided that Norway should embark on a Crusade in the aftermath of the successful First Crusade of the late 1090s, there was some debate as to which of Sigurd's half-brothers should go.
Given his recent travels as a boy, touring Orkney, the Hebrides, and Ireland with his father, Sigurd was chosen.
So it was that in 1107, Sigurd rounded up 5,000 men and gathered 60 longships, headed south, and kept going. The Norse armada wintered in England, reached Iberia, and looted Santiago de Compostela, then engaged in battle in Lisbon.
After lucrative raids of the Balearic Islands, the Vikings called in on the Norman monarch Roger II of Sicily, at the time even younger than the still teenage Sigurd.
After further attacks on various Mediterranean islands for treasure, the Scandinavians arrived in the Holy Land, probably landing at Acre. They then made for Jerusalem, where Baldwin I, a veteran of the First Crusade and King of Jerusalem, welcomed the Viking party.
Baldwin, then Baldwin of Boulogne, had had a good Crusade. Initially accompanying his brother, Godfrey of Bouillon, Baldwin teamed up with Norman nobleman Tancred to raid southern Turkey.
At Edessa, close to today's border between Turkey and Syria, he established the first Crusader state before his brother died in 1100.
As the new ruler of Jerusalem, Godfrey left a power vacuum that Baldwin was encouraged to fill, despite efforts to the contrary by his former ally, Tancred. On Christmas Day, 1100, in Bethlehem, Baldwin was crowned King of Jerusalem and had been successfully conquering major towns nearby – Acre, Beirut – when Sigurd and his men arrived.
Baldwin convinced Sigurd to help him wrest control of the coastal town of Sidon from Muslim hands. Illustration: The Viking Herald
By then, in his forties and conscious of carving out his legacy, Baldwin keenly created a quick alliance with the first king to visit him in Jerusalem, riding out with Sigurd to the River Jordan – possibly to have the Scandinavian baptized – and persuading him to help wrest control of the coastal town of Sidon from Muslim hands.
An important economic center under the Romans, Sidon would become a vital Crusader stronghold, but not before a brutal and lengthy barrage by land and sea.
While Baldwin's men rode the 200-plus miles from Jerusalem to Sidon, today Lebanon's third-biggest city just south of Beirut, Sigurd sailed his longships up, before coming under attack close to Tyre.
The Norwegians would have succumbed but for the vital intervention from a Venetian fleet, which tipped the balance and allowed the Vikings to invade.
The famous historian and Icelandic skald Snorri Sturluson describes the triumph exultantly in his seminal work, Heimskringla:
The town wall totters, too – it falls
The Norsemen mount the blackened walls.
He who stains red the raven's bill
Has won – the town lies at his will
The entire operation, for which Sigurd and his men would have flown their signature raven banner, took 47 days. As the invasion started out in the October of 1110, temperatures would have still been quite warm and oppressive. Sidon surrendered on December 5.
Alexios and the Varangian Guard
As Baldwin allowed citizens safe passage out of Sidon for them to settle in Tyre and Damascus, Sigurd was rewarded with a splinter from the True Cross.
His mission over and a friendship sealed, Sigurd set sail for Cyprus and probably wintered there. His fleet then headed for Constantinople, where the First Crusade had assembled in 1096.
It was the Byzantine emperor Alexios I Komnenos who had initially appealed to Western Europe for help to restore Christian control in the area, which had, in turn, initiated the First Crusade. Since then, Alexios reformed the monetary system and set in motion a significant economic recovery.
A huge construction program was taking place, trade flourished, and foreign merchants were flooding into a city awash with money. Sigurd had chosen the perfect time for his visit.
By now away for three years, rather than risk another perilous sea journey given his Sidon experience, Sigurd decided to return to Scandinavia by land. He gave Alexios his ships and the considerable booty he and his men had acquired, and received in return the finest horses the emperor could provide.
His force would be considerably smaller, however, as many of his men decided to stay in the golden capital and join the emperor's Varangian Guard.
Sigurd also helped set up the Diocese of Stavanger. Illustration: The Viking Herald
Sigurd headed up through the Balkans, from Bulgaria to Serbia to Hungary, and then Bavaria, a power base of the burgeoning Holy Roman Empire. From there, he rode to Denmark, where King Niels was long established in his reign.
Granted a ship by the monarch, Sigurd made for Norway, where his half-brother Øystein had strengthened the country's economic foundations and increased the power of the Church.
By now named Sigurd Jorsalefarer to indicate his voyage to Jerusalem, he helped set up the Diocese of Stavanger, funding the construction of its cathedral.
His motives were not only selfless, as he would then be granted permission to divorce and remarry, a facility denied to him by the Bishop of Bergen.
He duly installed Reinald, thought to have been an English Benedictine monk from Winchester Cathedral, as the first Bishop of Stavanger. His marriage to Malmfred of Kiev had been an unhappy one, though it had produced a daughter, Kristin Sigurdsdatter, his only legitimate offspring. Little is known of Sigurd's subsequent bride, Cecilia.
In 1123, Sigurd the Crusader had set out on yet another Crusade, this one to Christianize Småland, a pagan pocket of Sweden. In successfully doing so, he had made good on his earlier promise to the Danish King Niels.
Again, the rewards were not only spiritual, as Sigurd returned to Norway with cattle and treasure.
For his all epic ventures, partly for the good of Christianity, Sigurd left behind a prosperous country in a power vacuum. With no male heirs, feuds, and infighting dominated the political landscape in the later 11th century.
Sigurd kept in his possession the splinter of the True Cross given to him by Baldwin I, although it is not clear what happened to the relic after the monarch was buried at Hallvardskirken in Oslo in 1130.
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