While the "Northern barons" of England, who forced King John to sign the Magna Carta in 1215 CE, may well be more known, there was a similar group of powerful barons across the North Sea in Norway centuries before.
From their base at Lake Gård, they were a dominant force in Viking politics for over two centuries.
With the fall of the Western Roman Empire, by the late 5th century CE, Europe's economic trade networks were shattered.
By the end of the Viking Age (c. 793 – 1066 CE), Europe saw a level of economic activity and trade that was reminiscent of the glory days of the Pax Romana.
Though the Vikings often get characterized as mere ravenous barbarians, the transition of Europe's economy, from its early medieval nadir to its later medieval peak, was thanks to the series of trade networks established and strengthened by peoples from Viking societies.
Following the end of the Nordic Iron Age (c. 500 BCE - 500 CE), several agricultural settlements had been established around the Trondheim fjord, Norway's third largest.
This fjord essentially divides the northern and southern parts of Norway (which, today, is, according to the Norwegian government, technically the northernmost part of southern Norway whilst also being a part of central Norway) and became an important crossroads for trade.
By the end of the 8th century CE, Trøndelag was divided into eight counties. Soon, this area became a vital economic hub for Northern Europe.
As agricultural development increased throughout the early medieval period, the Trøndelag region soon became extremely wealthy.
Whilst some money was made from agriculture – as well as animal husbandry – the major wealth lay with seabound trade. The Scandinavian Alps, which run down the western part of Norway, made overland trade almost impossible during the early medieval period.
The most efficient way to trade was via maritime routes. Laying just off the western coast of Norway is an unbroken procession of small islands, skjærgård, that form a protecting buffer from the ravages of the North Sea.
This allows a safe passage for ships sailing up and down the length of Norway, which is over 1600 kilometers, from Stavanger to the Northern Cape. This safe passage allowed the flow of trade from the north of Norway to trade towns in the south, from Birka (Sweden), Hedeby (Denmark), or closer afield at Kaupang (Norway).
These trade routes became even more profitable when a local tax (known in Norwegian as the "Finnish Tax") was tolled on both Sami and Finn populations in Northern Norway.
The most common form of payment was with leather goods which, with a little northern entrepreneurship, could then be sold in the trading markets in southern Scandinavian for a big profit.
One family soon came to dominate not only Trøndelag but also the lucrative trade networks. If we are to believe the sagas, by the late 8th century CE one local ruler, Grjotgard Herlaugsson, had not only built a seat at the entrance to the fjord but soon began to exert such economic influence that rulers in far-away southern Norway took notice.
One family soon came to dominate the lucrative trade networks. Illustration: The Viking Herald
The making of a noble family
Like most polities, important families need creation myths and stories. This was especially important during the early medieval period when the concept of underlying social, economic, and political "trends and forces" as to why some families rose and others didn't was beyond the general population's comprehension.
Towards the end of the 10th century, a poem was composed to honor one of the Jarls of Lade, Håkon. This skaldic poem was an attempt at legitimizing his family's rule and rise to power, explaining how they were descended from Norse gods (Odin and Thor) and had the same right to the royal throne of Norway as the contemporary king, Harald Fairhair.
Despite the lingering historical debate about whether Fairhair (Hårfarge) actually existed as he is portrayed in the Norse sagas (no contemporaneous accounts of Hårfarge exist, with the earliest record coming from the 12th century CE), Herlaugsson was said to be such an influential ally to the new king because his family, Håløygjarles, was the dominant noble family in northern Norway.
Any future ruler of Norway would seek an ally in the north to protect the lucrative trade routes as well as sure up their northern flank from either land-based or maritime threats.
Whilst he was raised on his family's farm in Selva, Herlaugsson was said to have met Hårfarge when he was campaigning to subdue the petty kingdoms in Trøndelag.
The place of their meeting, Strindafylket, where Hårfarge obtained an oath of loyalty from the powerful patriarch, would become their seat of power, Lade.
In return for his loyalty, Herlaugsson was raised to the highest rank of Norwegian nobility and became the first Jarl of Lade. Yet it was Herlaugsson's son, Sigurd, who would increase the power of this new noble family.
Whatever father can do, I can do better...
The man whose powerful political connections saw him become the first Jarl of Lade, Håkon, is believed to have died sometime during the early 10th century CE. His son, Sigurd, ascended to the title and continued to grow his family's influence.
Hårfarge was said to have followed Håkon to his grave sometime in the early 920s CE, and, within the space of a few years, a new power dynamic existed between these two new powerful scions.
Yet the new ruler of Norway, Eric Bloodaxe (the oldest son of Hårfarge), had a more troubled relationship with his powerful northern ally.
Somewhat unsurprisingly, Erik's path to power consisted of, dare we say, a few bloody axes. Using the Heimskringla as our guide, he was said to have murdered five brothers on the path to becoming the nominal King of Norway.
This way of obtaining power seemed to have ruffled more than a few feathers, and the general population was less than thrilled with their new ruler. Dipping his toes into political scheming, the new Jarl of Lade, Sigurd, managed to retrieve one of the brothers not chopped in half by Bloodaxe, Håkon the Good, who was hiding in England.
Eventually, Bloodaxe was expelled, and Sigurd's stock rose as he became, quite literally, the man who placed Håkon on the throne.
Håkon's rule, however, was less than peaceful as he attempted to introduce (either by persuasion or the pointy end of a sword) the new Christian faith.
Sigurd managed to be a man of two worlds – he was an important ally of the new Christian king yet refused to convert. In fact, the loyalty of his subjects to the king was, in part, based upon the fact that he, like them, was still an adherent of the Old Norse religion.
Sigurd would eventually die in a scene reminiscent of Game of Thrones – whilst attending a banquet with his brother near their ancestral seat of power, the building was set alight, and Sigurd burnt alive. His son, Håkon, had to come to terms with this trauma whilst huggling a new relationship with a powerful Danish king hellbent on conquest.
Some of the sagas mention that Håkon Sigurdsson went on multiple Viking raids. Illustration: The Viking Herald
Connecting Bluetooth to power
It was this new Jarl, Håkon Sigurdsson, who represented the pinnacle of the influence and power of this noble family. Avenging his father's death, the Norse sagas differ on the career path of this new Jarl.
Some of the sagas relate how he went on Viking raids, especially around the eastern Baltic, and came back fabulously wealthy. Other sagas relate how he apparently withheld the income tax of the entire north of Norway, for three years, as a means to avenge his father's gruesome death.
Nonetheless, Håkon soon became a wealthy man and drew the attention of Harald Bluetooth.
Through a combination of scheming and conspiracies, Bluetooth, with the help of the new Jarl's men and money, ruthlessly seized the throne of Denmark. In Håkon, he had a powerful and rich ally to whom he gifted the overlordship of Norway in 970 CE.
Håkon further cemented his alliance with Bluetooth when he fought with the Danish King against the Holy Roman Emperor, Otto II. There had been pressure on the Holy Roman Emperor to properly convert the "pagans" of the Viking societies to Christianity, and a great battle was fought at the Danevirke – the fortifications in northern Germany separating the Viking world from the Holy Roman Empire.
Another great strategic military battle, against the Jomvikings (Vikings from what is now northern Poland) took place about a decade later, securing Håkon's military legacy.
We must now remember that aside from being an overlord, a military powerhouse, and a northern noble of the highest importance, it was during the reign of this Jarl of Lade that the Håløygjatal was commissioned.
In fact, under his reign, Lade underwent a cultural blossoming. The huge coffers, from the alliance with Bluetooth as well as the traditional trade routes, soon began to fund all sorts of cultural pursuits from blacksmiths to poets, from skilled artisans to bards.
The old saying that absolute power corrupts absolutely seems to have been true for our Jarl. During his older years, he became harsher and more tyrannical until a local uprising ousted him from his throne.
He was said to have fled and been betrayed by his slave, who apparently beheaded him in a pigsty. With his death, the power of the Jarls of Lade would remain constant, with Håkon's son, Erikir, remaining de facto governor of a majority of Norway until the 1020s CE.
North Sea Empire and decline
By the time the final Earl of Jade, Håkon Ericsson, ascended to his title, the world was a changing place. Norway, which had been a mere collection of petty kingdoms at the beginning of the creation of the noble title, was, by the early 11th century CE, not only a unified polity but was becoming more integrated into the broader network of European Christian kingdoms.
The powerful allies that a ruler needed in the north of Norway was, by the 11th century CE, becoming less and less important as new trade routes connected Norway to different civilizations, like the Abbasid Caliphate and the Byzantine Empire via the river systems of Eastern Europe.
When the final Jarl of Lade ascended to his title, it was in an era of what some historians have described as the pinnacle of Viking power, the era of Cnut the Great.
This Danish king seized the thrones of both Norway and England and made Ericsson the governor of Norway, his regent in the north. When Cnut died in 1035 CE, the empire he forged (connected by the North Sea) shattered, and power politics divided his three kingdoms.
The Jarls of Lade were the real losers in Norway as, following Cnut's death, they would never reach the heights of being the nation's kingmakers and political bigwigs.
The rise of the Jarls of Lade coincides with the rise of Norway as a medieval kingdom, and, however distant they may seem to us today, they played an important part in forging a nation.
While the Jarls of Lade dominated the maritime trading routes, Science has published a recent article on the Norwegian trade route used during the early medieval period.
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