Adam of Bremen relates how she was the wife of Swedish King Edmund the Old, who was no great fan of the new Christian faith. What do we know about the woman who helped secure a Swedish royal dynasty?

Equal opportunities and rights for women in Viking societies?

Before we delve into who Astrid Njalsdotter was, a little context is needed about the place of women in Viking societies. As was the case with many pre-modern cultures, the Viking societies were highly patriarchal. The vast majority of women were housewives, mere "possessions" of their husbands, fathers, or male relatives. Women were both officially and socially considered "inferior" to men.

Compared to some societies, some women in Viking societies achieved some independence and agency. Limited advancement, either financial or social, was available for some women. Economic independence was achieved through entrepreneurship or business, whilst political agency and importance were available for some women with "magical" skills. The seeress was a woman who could predict the future and cast magic spells. 

She was much sought after and had a high social status in Viking societies. Finally, women had some grounds for divorce, which seemed exceptionally enlightened for the time (the early medieval period). Physical violence, sudden poverty, and loneliness (often caused by husbands raiding or living overseas for long periods of time) were often cited in primitive divorce courts. The sagas are filled with divorced women who went on to lead adventurous lives.

Much has been made lately in academic literature about how some women in Viking societies had equal opportunities or rights. However, the fact remains that for most women, their milieu was the house and they were, more or less, treated as second-class citizens in their own societies. Even those women lucky enough to hold political power – as queens or the wives of rulers – could not rule in their own right. Women generally had little or no political, social, or economic voice or agency and were often subjected to the whims of their husbands / male family members.

The coming of Christianity to Scandinavia

As with most early medieval women, especially in Viking societies, there are exceptionally limited materials and sources about the life of Astrid Njalsdotter. Astrid is believed, according to modern academic work, to have been born sometime around the mid 980s CE in Nordland, Norway. Old Norse sources state that her father, Njal Finsson, was a distant descendant of the first King of Norway, Harald Fairhair. During her formative years, the land of Norway was changing. The Norwegian King, Olaf I, had made it a priority to convert as much of the kingdom to the new faith of Christianity as possible. 

Following a brief interlude after his death where paganism re-emerged, it was under the rule of Olaf II Haraldsson (later Saint Olaf, Norway's patron saint and Rex Perpetuus Norvegiae, eternal king) that Christianity became entrenched in Norwegian society. His death and later sainthood would encourage the flourishing of Christianity throughout Norway.

Across the border in Sweden, in 1004, when Astrid was a young woman, King Olof Skotkonung converted to Christianity and made it the official religion of the new Kingdom of Sweden. He would remain true to this religion throughout his reign. Following Olof's death in 1022 CE, his son Anund Jacob took over. During the following two decades, Anund Jacob played a delicate balancing act trying to subvert Danish rising power by supporting the Norwegian monarchy.

Olaf II Haraldson (also traditionally named Saint Olaf / Olave) was traditionally seen as the leading figure in the Christianization of Norway, posthumously crowned Rex Perpetuus Norvegiaee (Eternal King of Norway). Photo: Robin Mikalsen / Unsplash

Marriage and children

Astrid re-enters the record when Anund Jacob's long reign (one of the longest during the early medieval period) finishes in about 1050 CE. Having no male heirs, the throne passes to his brother, Edmund the Old. Little is known about his childhood other than he may have been sent off to live amongst his mother's Slavic relatives and thus held onto some of his ancestors' pagan beliefs.

Astrid was said to have been married, during this time, to Ragnvald Ulfsson. He was apparently forced to flee after a dispute with both the Norwegian and Swedish kings; however, there is little actual evidence of this. Nonetheless, it appears that Astrid, a noble-born daughter, moved in the circles of political elites in both Norway and Sweden.

When Edmund assumed the throne of Sweden following his brother's death, Astrid was said to have been his Queen consort. How they met and when they married is a mystery, but they are believed to have had two children: Anund and Ingamoder. Edmund the Old's reign is recorded, by Adam of Bremen, as a disaster. Though the border between the Kingdom of Denmark and Sweden was finally fixed, Edmund oversaw military disaster, schism with the Archbishop of Bremen, and crop and harvest failures.

Normally the crown would pass to Anund, the first son of a King, but he died before his father. The crown then passed to Stenkil, who is believed to have been the son of Astrid and Ragnvald, the stepson of Edmund the Old. He became the first king of the House of Stenkil, and, though he had had a short reign (1060 – 1066 CE), his ancestors would rule over Sweden for the next hundred years to be replaced by the House of Sverker in the mid-12th century.

Later life and legacy

Little is known about her later life, but Astrid is said to have lived into her early 80s, meaning she may have died sometime around the 1060s CE.

Like her more common subjects, the true history and story of Astrid Njalsdotter is very much mere guesswork. The fact remains that through her marriage to two Kings, she secured a dynastic legacy in Sweden. From a noble's daughter in Norway, she rose to the ultimate seat of power.

Yet like many women in early medieval history, tragically, so much of her life story is left unsaid, unrecorded, and unwritten.

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