He is seen, to paraphrase one of Winston Churchill's more famous quotes, as a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. For some, he is a proletarian icon who revolted against religious and political subjugation. 

Yet for others, this working-class tag is rubbish as they point to the fact he was one of the greatest chieftains in all of Norway. Who was Tore Hund, the man that many believe killed Norway's patron saint?

Man of the North

The man today that is often credited with the downfall and slaying of Norwegian King Olaf II at the Battle of Stiklestad in 1030 CE was born in the far north of Norway at the turn of the 10th century CE. 

Thorir Hund (or in Old Norse Þórir hundr, literally "Thorir the Hound") was believed to be born on the island of Barkøy off the northern Arctic coast of Norway in what is now the country of Troms og Finnmark in about 990 CE. 

Thorir was a member of the famous and prestigious Barkøy clan. With the clan's main seat on Barkøy, this powerful clan held sway over much of northern Norway and had extensive lands in the south too.

By the time Tore was born, the so-called "Viking expansion" had been underway for more than two centuries. From their base on Barkøy, his family and clan exploited the coastal trade between the north and south of Norway. 

Furthermore, several of his family members had been away on trading or raiding missions to other areas of Norway and further abroad. The young Tore followed in his familial footsteps and helped lead several expeditions into the White Sea. 

It is believed he oversaw a trading mission to what the Norse called "Bjarmaland," what is now Archangelsk in Russia.

Northern powerbroker

Thorir's family had always exerted a high level of independence from political elites further south. 

This only increased when familial ties saw his brother become an important leader in Trondenes and his own marriage to a daughter of a powerful chief in Rogaland. 

This powerful position as a northern powerbroker saw Thorir carry on the family legacy as a northern powerbroker and man of profound influence in the north of the only recently unified Kingdom of Norway.

Whilst Thorir was growing into a man of northern influence, further south, Olaf Haraldsson was on a campaign with Viking forces in England. 

Legend has it that he participated in a naval attack that felled London Bridge, but there appears to be no recorded evidence of this. 

Nonetheless, Olaf was involved with the political machinations of power of the "Danelaw" area of the British Isles, at the time assisting the local Anglo-Saxon population and at other times helping his Viking brethren.

By 1015 CE, Olaf had returned to Norway. Gaining the support of the five petty kings of the Norwegian uplands, he was crowned King of Norway. 

Olaf not only wanted to properly solidify a united Norway under his rule but, having been baptized at Rouen Cathedral on the way back from his British campaigns, he saw it as his divine mission to convert the heathen masses of Norway to Christianity.

This mission would lead him onto a collision course with Thorir.

Thorir is said to have wielded a spear when he clashed against Olaf. Illustration: The Viking Herald

The Christian problem in Norway

Thorir came of age during a seismic time in Norwegian history. The prolonged process of the Christianization of the country, which had started with barely a few missionaries centuries beforehand, was slowly gaining pace. 

Though the Old Norse religion was still popular, it became increasingly politically important to convert to the Christan religion as Scandinavia was one of the last places in Europe to link into the broader Christain network of European kingdoms.

During the early 11th century CE, it became more and more important for elites to convert to Christianity as the Catholic Church grew in size and political influence in the country. 

Though Christianity had gained a foothold in the south, it was still a religion, indeed a way of life, that was met with, at best, skepticism and, at worst, downright violent opposition where Thorir held sway.

In and out of power

King Olaf's proselytizing mission – often at the point of a sword – did not exactly ingratiate himself with the powerful northern clans and powerbrokers. 

What made matters worse was that one of the King's lackeys murdered one of Thorir's nephews in cold blood. By 1026 CE, Thorir had colluded with Canute the Great to drive Olaf out of Norway and was made Canute's representative in Norway.

Canute had forged what would later be called the "North Sea Empire," in which he ruled over Denmark, Norway, and the majority of "Danelaw" and Anglo-Saxon England. 

However, five weeks after his coronation in England, Canute died, and Olaf seized this opportunity to return to a Norway convulsed in a political power vacuum to try and reclaim his throne.

An illustration of a scene at the Battle of Stiklestad, created by Halvdan Egedius, taken from Snorre Sturluson's Heimskringla. Source: Halfdan Egedius / Public Domain

The Battle of Stiklestad

Olaf returned to Norway but not by the easiest route. If we are to believe the Heimskringla, complied by 13th century CE Icelandic man of letters, Snorri Sturluson, Olaf led his 3,600-man force over the rugged Swedish mountains to try and cut off a peasant army in part led by Thorir. 

Powerful noble clans joined in a peasant's army who were not only unhappy with the forced conversion by a series of descendants of Harald Fairhair – of which Olaf II was just the latest – but sought to try and reclaim some of their political autonomy, which they believe had been stolen by the former King.

A huge peasant army of between 10-14,000 (again, using the notoriously dubious numeric sources complied in the Heimskringla) met the forces led by Olaf, outnumbering them by at least 3 to 1, in Stiklestad in northern Norway. 

Whilst Olaf's men marched for Christ, it was mostly farmers that led the charge for Thorir's force. Thorir himself is said to have given Olaf his fatal wound – thrusting a spear under his mail shirt and into his belly. 

Yet this was only after Olaf himself was said to have nearly killed Thorir with a battle axe. Whatever really happened, a bitter and deadly duel resulted in Thorir being widely credited with killing the wannabe usurper.

Later life and fall from power

Despite his martial prowess in the battle, Thorir, it appears, did not lead a peaceful later life. His role in killing a king only saw him politically marginalized when Olaf's son, Magnus, eventually claimed the Norwegian throne in 1035 CE, in part backed by some of Thorir's old allies.

Sturluson recounts that he never saw his ancestral home again and may have died after journeying to the Holy Land. 

A pilgrimage to Jerusalem was often a penance that a Christian, living in medieval Europe, performed after committing a grave sin like say... killing a Christian King.

 If true, this may suggest that Thorir, despite his opposition to Christianity, may indeed have "found (the Christian) God" later in life.

Nowadays, Thorir is remembered through a roadside monument in his ancestral familial seat of Barkøy, crafted by Norwegian artist Svein Haavardsholm.

For more on the often-bloody battle over Viking souls, visit the BBC History Extra website here.

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