Rognvald Eysteinsson

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Rognvald Eysteinsson
Earl of Møre
Title held late 9th century
Predecessor None
Successor Thorir Rognvaldsson
Spouse(s) Ragnhild
Ivar and Thorir
Hrolluag, Hallad and Torf-Einarr
Native name Rögnvaldr "The Wise"
Noble family Earls of Møre
Father Eystein Ivarsson
Died c. 890[1]

Rognvald Eysteinsson (fl. 865) sometimes referred to with the bynames of "the Wise" or "the Powerful" was the jarl of Møre in Norway and a key figure in the founding of the Earldom of Orkney. Three quite different sources for the creation of the Norse earldom on Orkney and Shetland exist. The best known are those in the Norse Sagas but older evidence is found in the Historia Norvegiae and the Fragmentary Annals of Ireland. This last source refers to a "Ragnall son of Albdan" who was active in Orkney in 865. The Historia includes a brief reference to Rognvald, which events are also referred to in the saga material.

The saga sources have much to say about Rognvald, his relationship to the Norwegian king Harald Fairhair, his brother and sons, and the founding of the Orkney and Møre earldoms. However, these are not contemporary, having been written down some three centuries after the events described, and must be treated with considerable care.

These complications have led to a variety of interpretations of the saga texts. Various conclusions have been reached as to the historical authenticity of Rognvald's role and the great voyage he is said to have undertaken to the south and west, led by King Harald, is now widely believed to date from a period some decades before Harald's reign. The meanings behind the sagas have also been interpreted in various ways and recurring themes, including strife between brothers, have been identified. Other scholars have emphasised brief contemporary accounts that may relate to the founding of the Orkney earldom, especially Irish sources, at the expense of the saga material.


The sources are for Rognvald's life are almost exclusively the Norse sagas, none of which were written down at the time of the events they record about his life. The Orkneyinga saga was first compiled in Iceland in the early 13th century and much of the information it contains is "hard to corroborate".[2] Rognvald is also referred to in the Heimskringla and the Historia Norvegiae. The former was written in Iceland and is of a similar vintage to the Orkneyinga saga; dating the latter has proven to be controversial but a recent analysis has the "majority of scholars in favour of dates between 1170 and 1220"[3] whilst admitting that "it remains to be established when, why, where, for whom and by whom it was written".[4] Rognvald may also be referred to in the Fragmentary Annals of Ireland. These annals survive only as incomplete copies made by Dubhaltach Mac Fhirbhisigh in the 17th century although the originals are believed to date from the lifetime of Donnchad mac Gilla Pátraic who died in 1039.[5]

Fragmentary Annals of Ireland[edit]

...for it was not long before this that there had been every war and every trouble in Norway, and this was the source of that war in Norway: two younger sons of Albdan, king of Norway, drove out the eldest son, i.e. Ragnall son of Albdan, for fear that he would seize the kingship of Norway after their father. So Ragnall came with his three sons to the Orkney Islands. Ragnall stayed there then, with his youngest son.
Fragmentary Annals of Ireland, FA 330. Edited and translated by Joan N. Radnor.

The oldest account that may refer to Rognvald and the earldom of Orkney is that found in the Fragmentary Annals of Ireland. The annals make Rognvald the son of "Halfdan, King of Lochlann." This is generally understood to mean Halfdan the Black, which would make the Rognvald of the annals the brother of Harald Fairhair. However, the later Norse sagas claim that Rognvald's grandfather was named Halfdan.[6]

These events are placed after an account of the devastation of Fortriu, dated to around 866,[7] and the mention of an eclipse confirms a date of 865.[8] The entry goes on to describe Ragnall's older sons raiding in Spain and North Africa but there is no specific mention of the earldom and it is by no means certain that this Ragnall is to be identified with Rognvald Eysteinsson. Runic inscriptions found inside Maeshowe dating to the 12th century mention that the mound was "built before Loðbrók", perhaps meaning Ragnar Lodbrok and it has been suggested that the Irish fragment may refer to this legendary 9th century saga character.[8]

Historia Norvegiae[edit]

The Historia Norvegiae's account of Rognvald and the foundation of the Orkney earldom contains some curious detail about pre-Viking Orkney, including an account of the Picts as small people who hid in the daytime, but it has little to say about Rognvald.

In the days of Harald Fairhair, king of Norway, certain pirates, of the family of the most vigorous prince Ronald [Rognvald], set out with a great fleet, and crossed the Solundic sea..., and subdued the islands to themselves. And being there provided with safe winter seats, they went in summer-time working tyranny upon the English, and the Scots, and sometimes also upon the Irish, so that they took under their rule, from England, Northumbria; from Scotland, Caithness; from Ireland, Dublin, and the other sea-side towns.[9]

This account does not specifically associate Rognvald with the earldom, attributing the "dominion" of the islands to the anonymous kinfolk of his son Hrólfr.[10]

Norse sagas[edit]

“Snorri Sturluson”, 13th century compiler of the Heimskringla by Christian Krohg (1890s)

The saga accounts are the best known, and the latest, of the three surviving traditions concerning Rognvald and the foundation of the Earldom of Orkney. Written, long after the events they describe, their contents must be treated with caution as a literal or accurate version of history.[2]

In the Orkneyinga saga Rognvald was made the Earl of Møre by King Harald Fairhair. The Heimskringla recounts that Rognvald caused Harald Fairhair to be given his byname by cutting and dressing his hair, which had been uncut for ten years on account of his vow never to cut it until he was ruler of all Norway.[11] Rognvald accompanied the king on a great military expedition. First the islands of Shetland and Orkney were cleared of vikings who had been raiding Norway and then continued on to Scotland, Ireland and the Isle of Man. During this campaign Rognvald's son Ivarr was killed and in compensation Harald granted Rognvald Orkney and Shetland. Rognvald himself returned to Norway, giving the northern isles to his brother Sigurd Eysteinsson.[12][13] Sigurd had been the forecastleman on Harald's ship and after sailing back east the king "gave Sigurd the title of earl".[13] The Heimskringla states specifically that Sigurd was the first Earl of Orkney.[14]


The Orkneyinga saga says that Rognvald was the son of Eystein Ivarsson, himself the son of Ívarr Upplendingajarl.[15] and was married to a daughter of Hrólfr Nose called Ragnhild,[13] although in the Heimskringla she is called Hild.[16] Their son Hrólfr "was so big that no horse could carry him", hence his byname of "Ganger-Hrólf",[13] and he is identified by the saga writers with Rollo of Normandy ancestor of the Dukes of Normandy[16] who signed the Treaty of Saint-Clair-sur-Epte with King Charles the Simple in 911. In addition to Ivar and Hrólfr, both sagas also refer to Rognvald's son Thorir the Silent, and three more sons "by concubines" called Hallad, Einarr and Hrollaug, all three being "grown men when their brothers born in marriage were still children".[13][16]

Orkney inheritance[edit]

A page from the Orkneyinga saga, as it appears in the 14th century Flateyjarbók.

Rognvald having given his earldom to Sigurd, according to the Orkneyinga Saga, the latter died in a curious fashion after a battle with Máel Brigte of Moray. Sigurd's son Gurthorm ruled for a single winter after this and died childless.[17][18]

Rognvald's son Hallad then inherited the title. However, unable to constrain Danish raids on Orkney, he gave up the earldom and returned to Norway, which "everyone thought was a huge joke."[19] The predations of the Danish pirates led to Rognvald flying into a rage and summoning his sons Thorir and Hrolluag. He predicted that Thorir's path would keep him in Norway and that Hrolluag was destined seek his fortune in Iceland. Turf-Einar, the youngest, then came forward and offered to go to the islands. Rognvald said: "Considering the kind of mother you have, slave-born on each side of her family, you are not likely to make much of a ruler. But I agree, the sooner you leave and the later you return the happier I'll be."[20]

His father's misgivings notwithstanding, Torf-Einarr succeeded in defeating the Danes and founded a dynasty which retained control of the islands for centuries after his death.[21]

Death and legacy[edit]

Earl Rognvald was killed by King Harald's son Halfdan Hålegg and Gudrod Gleam who engineered a sudden attack, surrounded the house in which he was staying, and burned it to the ground with the earl and sixty of his men inside it. Harald "flew into a rage" when he heard about this and sent out a "great force" against Gudrod who was then banished. Halfdan escaped into the western seas and Rognvald's death was later avenged by Torf-Einarr who killed him on North Ronaldsay and then made his peace with Harald. Harald made Rognvald's son Thorir Earl of Møre and gave his daughter Alof to him in marriage.[22][23][24]

The sagas thus identify Rognvald as the apical figure of the Norse Earls of Orkney who controlled the islands until the early 13th century, and a forerunner of important Icelandic families. Furthermore, through his son Hrolfr Rognvald he is an ancestor of the Dukes of Normandy who, following the Norman conquest of England in 1066, became the kings of England.[13]


Harald Fairhair and the voyage to the west[edit]

Black and white drawing of a snapshot showing shipmasts with flags and warriors marching below.
Magnus Barefoot's army in Ireland. Magnus' actions in the west clearly form the basis of the saga narrative about the submission of Orkney and Shetland to Harald Fairhair's fleet.[25]

Rognvald's life occurs within the first eight short chapters within the Orkneyinga saga and it is clear that in this early period it contains generally less detail and historical accuracy than in the later events it describes.[26] Recorded in the 13th century, the sagas are informed by Norwegian politics of the day. Once, historians could write that no-one denied the reality of Harald Fairhair's expeditions to the west recounted in Heimskringla, but this is no longer the case. Thomson (2008) writes that Harald's "great voyage is so thoroughly ingrained in popular and scholarly history, both ancient and modern, that it comes as a bit of a shock to realise that it might not be true."[27] The Norwegian contest with the Kings of Scots over the Hebrides and the Isle of Man in the mid 13th century is the backdrop to the saga writer's intentions[28] and in part at least the sagas aim to legitimise Norwegian claims to both the Northern Isles and the Kingdom of the Isles in the west.[25]

It may be that the saga writers drew on a genuine tradition of a voyage by Harald to the west, or that they simply invented it wholesale for political purposes, but it is clear that there are elements included in the narrative that are drawn from the much later expeditions undertaken by Magnus Barefoot.[25] The situation faced by Earl Harald Maddadsson of Orkney in 1195, shortly before the time that the sagas were first written down, when he was forced to submit himself to royal authority after an ill-judged intervention in Norwegian affairs would have made legendary material of this nature of considerable interest in Orkney at the time.[29] Nonetheless, the view that the Orkney earldom was created by "members of the Møre family" continues to receive academic support.[30]

Harald Fairhair's victory in the Battle of Hafrsfjord, which gave him dominion over parts of Norway, is traditionally dated to 872, but was probably later, perhaps as late as 900.[31] What little is known of Scottish events in the period from the Chronicle of the Kings of Alba would correspond equally well with Harald's attacks on Scotland in the reign of Domnall mac Causantín (ruled 889–900).[32] However, this would not correspond with the sequence in the earliest account of the origins of the Orkney earldom, which places this a generation earlier. The entry in the Fragmentary Annals at an early date also makes it difficult to reconcile the saga claims that Harald Fairhair was involved in Rognvald's conquest of the northern isles.

The monument at Haraldshaugen, erected to celebrate the millennial anniversary of Norway's unification under the rule of King Harald Fairhair after the Battle of Hafrsfjord.

Other saga material provides an alternative description. In the Eyrbyggja saga the same story of a great expedition to punish unruly Vikings who were raiding Norway is undertaken, but here it is Ketil flatnefr who leads it. Although this is apparently done at Harald's behest, Ketil then claims the islands as his own. Once again, the chronology is flawed by Harald's inclusion in the tale as other information provided about Ketil gives him a floruit of the mid, rather than late, 9th century.[27]

Furthermore, contemporary Irish sources have a great deal to say about Viking raids on the coasts of Ireland and southern Scotland and those who led them, but none mention King Harald. The earliest of the large expeditions again belong to a period—the 840s—that pre-dates the time of Harald's kingship.[33]

Smyth (1984) credits the launching of the great voyage to the west to Olaf the White, whom he provides with a royal Vestfold origin along with various military activities in Scotland and for whom, assuming an identification of Olaf with Amlaib "Conung" the King of Dublin, there is a contemporary Irish reference dating to 853.[34] Icelandic sources also have Olaf marrying Aud the Deep-Minded, Ketil flatnefr's daughter, and the ‘’Annals of Ulster’’ record what may be dynastic in-fighting between Olaf and his father-in-law in 857.[35][Note 1]

Founding of the earldom of Orkney[edit]

By implication the Orkneyinga saga identifies Rognvald as the founder of the earldom, although Heimskringla has his brother Sigurd as the first to formally hold the title. Other sources are less specific (see above) and the sagas have been interpreted in various other ways. Smyth (1984), having banished King Harald’s role in the voyage to the west to the realms of myth concludes that the role of the brothers Eysteinsson can be similarly so dispatched and that Torf-Einarr “may be regarded as the first historical earl of Orkney”.[37]

Drawing on Adam of Bremen's assertion that Orkney was not conquered until the time of Harald Hardrada, who ruled Norway from 1043–66, Woolf (2007) speculates that Sigurd “the Stout” Hlodvirsson, Torf-Einarr's great-grandson, may have been the first Earl of Orkney [38]

Rognvald's brother and sons[edit]

Orkney and Shetland at centre, in relation to nearby territories

The notion that Rognvald could hand over his Northern Isles estates to his brother has been interpreted in various ways. For example, it may be that he was aware of ongoing Viking raiding in the area and considered the gift from the king as a mixed blessing.[39] This is also one of a number of instances in which the writer of the Orkneyinga saga attempts to reconcile the conflicting themes of independence from Norway (Rognvald gifts the islands to Sigurd) and dependence on royal authority (Harald formalises the process by confirming Sigurd as earl).[40] Beuermann (2011) speculates that Rognvald's transfer of power to his brother may have been an attempt by the saga writers to imply that the Orkney earldom had more independence from Norway than that of Møre[41] and that Rognvald's holdings in Caithness may have allowed for an even greater degree of freedom of action. Such implications are more likely to be rooted in the writer's interest in emphasising Orcadian independence at the time of writing rather than the 9th/10th century events they purport to describe.[42]

After Hallad's failure in Orkney there is a dialogue between father and sons that has been interpreted as being about Rognvald's desire to cement his own position as Earl of Møre and an allusion to the early history of Iceland, where the sagas were written. Thorir is a compliant son who Rognvald is happy to keep at home. Hrolluag is portrayed as a man of peace who will go to Iceland. Einarr is aggressive and a threat to his father's position so can be spared for the dangers of Orkney.[43] In the Landnámabók version the equally aggressive Hrolfr is also present, and his destiny is anticipated to be in conveniently far-away Normandy.[44][Note 2]

Uí Ímair[edit]

The possibility that Ragnall ua Ímair represents the historical prototype of Rognvald Eysteinsson of Møre has been suggested by Alex Woolf. Ragnall, who was active in the Irish Sea region was a grandson of Ímar, the "king of the Northmen of all Britain and Ireland" whose death is recorded in the Annals of Ulster in 873.[45] The connections are that the sources make both individuals grandsons of an Ímar/Ivarr and that like Rognvald, a close relative of Ragnall's called Ímar dies in battle in Scotland, in the latter's case Ímar ua Ímair (d. 904).[46] It is unlikely that the Raghnall, son of Albdan recorded by the Fragmentary Annals in 865 could be the same individual as Ragnall ua Ímair (fl. between 914 and 921).[47]

Broad themes[edit]

There are several recurring themes in the Orkneyinga saga, including strife between brothers, relationships between the jarls and the Norwegian crown, and raiding in the Hebrides,[48] all of which are touched on during the saga's coverage of Rognvald's life and times. In part, the saga's purpose was to "explore such social and psychological tensions as these in the history of the people of Orkney, and to help them understand themselves through a knowledge of their origins".[49]



  1. ^ More controversially, Smyth also identifies Olaf the White with Olaf Geirstad-Alf, a legendary Norwegian king of the House of Yngling – a suggestion dismissed by Ó Corráin (1979).[36]
  2. ^ In the Heimskringla Hrolfr is banished by King Harald.[16]


  1. ^ Muir (2005) Preface: Genealogical table of the Earls of Orkney.
  2. ^ a b Woolf (2007) p. 242
  3. ^ Phelpstead (2001) p. xvi
  4. ^ Phelpstead (2001) p. ix, quoting Inger Ekrem.
  5. ^ Radner (1999) p. 322-23
  6. ^ Crawford (1987) pp. 53-54
  7. ^ Anderson (1990) p. 296; Annals of Ulster, s.a. 865.
  8. ^ a b Thomson (2008) p. 22
  9. ^ Anderson (1990) pp. 330-331
  10. ^ Phelpstead (2001) p. 9
  11. ^ Saga of Harald Fairhair, cc. 4 & 23
  12. ^ Anderson (1990) pp. 332-334; Saga of Harald Fairhair Chapter 22- King Harald's Voyage To The West.
  13. ^ a b c d e f Orkneyinga saga (1981) Chapter 4 - " To Shetland and Orkney" pp. 26-27
  14. ^ Heimskringla. "Chapter 99 - History Of The Earls Of Orkney".
  15. ^ Orkneyinga saga (1981) Chapter 3 - "The Sea-Kings" p. 25-26
  16. ^ a b c d Saga of Harald Fairhair Chapter 24 - Rolf Ganger Driven Into Banishment.
  17. ^ Thomson (2008) p. 28.
  18. ^ Orkneyinga saga (1981) Chapter 5 - "A poisoned tooth" pp. 27-28
  19. ^ Thomson (2008) p. 30 quoting chapter 5 of the Orkneyinga saga.
  20. ^ Orkneyinga saga (1981) Chapter 6 - "Forecasts" pp. 28-29.
  21. ^ Thomson (2008) p. 29
  22. ^ Saga of Harald Fairhair, cc. 29-30
  23. ^ Orkneyinga saga (1981) Chapter 8 - "Troublemakers from Norway" pp. 29-33
  24. ^ Heimskringla. "Harald Harfager's Saga, Part 30 - Earl Ragnvald Burnt In His House".
  25. ^ a b c Thomson (2008) p. 27
  26. ^ Pálsson and Edwards (1981) "Introduction" p. 11
  27. ^ a b Thomson (2008) p. 25
  28. ^ Crawford (1987) pp. 52-53.
  29. ^ Thomson (2008) pp. 27-28
  30. ^ Helle, Knut (2006) "Earls of Orkney": The Vikings and Scotland - Impact and Influence, Royal Society of Edinburgh Conference 22–26 September 2006. Edinburgh (Rapporteur: Andrew Heald); retrieved 27 January 2014.
  31. ^ Crawford (1987) p. 55–56.
  32. ^ Anderson (1990) pp. 395–396.
  33. ^ Thomson (2008) p. 26
  34. ^ Smyth (1984) pp. 152-53
  35. ^ Smyth (1984) p. 156
  36. ^ Ó Corráin (1979) p. 298
  37. ^ Smyth (1984) p. 153
  38. ^ Woolf (2007) p. 307
  39. ^ Muir (2005) p. 6
  40. ^ Thomson (2008) p. 31
  41. ^ Beuermann (2011) p. 120
  42. ^ Beuermann (2011) p. 121
  43. ^ Pálsson and Edwards (1981) "Introduction" p. 13
  44. ^ Pálsson and Edwards (1981) "Introduction" p. 14
  45. ^ Ó Corráin (1998) p. 37
  46. ^ Woolf (2007) pp. 300–303
  47. ^ Woolf (2007) pp. 140, 148
  48. ^ Pálsson and Edwards (1981) "Introduction" pp. 15-16
  49. ^ Pálsson and Edwards (1981) "Introduction" p. 19
General references

External links[edit]