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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 11

Chapter XII. Olaf the Tranquil, Magnus Barefoot, and Sigurd the Crusader

Chapter XII. Olaf the Tranquil, Magnus Barefoot, and Sigurd the Crusader.

The new King Olaf, his brother Magnus having soon died, bore rule in Norway for some five-and-twenty years. Rule soft and gentle, not like his father's, and inclining rather to improvement in the arts and elegancies than to anything severe or dangerously laborious. A slim-built, witty-talking, popular and pretty man, with uncommonly bright eyes, and hair like floss silk: they called him Olaf Kyrre (the Tranquil or Easy-going).

The ceremonials of the palace were much improved by him. Palace still continued to be built of huge logs pyramidally sloping upwards, with fireplace in the middle of the floor, and no egress for smoke or ingress for light except right over-head, which, in bad weather, you could shut, or all but shut, with a lid. Lid originally made of mere opaque board, but changed latterly into a light frame, covered (glazed, so to speak) with entrails of animals, clarified into something of pellucidity. All this Olaf, I hope, further perfected, as he did the placing of the court ladies, court officials, and the like; but I doubt if the luxury of a glass window were ever known to him, or a cup to drink from that was not made of metal or iron. In fact it is chiefly for his son's sake I mention him here; and with the son, too, I have little real concern, but only a kind of fantastic.

This son bears the name of Magnus Barfod (Barefoot, or Bare-leg); and if you ask why so, the answer is: He was used to appear in the streets of Nidaros (Trondhjem) now and then in complete Scotch Highland dress. Authentic tartan plaid and philibeg, at that epoch,—to the wonder of Trondhjem and us! The truth is, he had a mighty fancy for these Hebrides and other Scotch possessions of his; and seeing England now quite impossible, eagerly speculated on some conquest in Ireland as next best. He did, in fact, go diligently voyaging and inspecting among those Orkney and Hebridian Isles; putting everything straight there, appointing stringent authorities, jarls,—nay, a king, ' Kingdom of the Suderöer' (Southern Isles, now called Sodor),—and, as first king, Sigurd, his pretty little boy of nine years. All which done, and some quarrel with Sweden fought out, he seriously applied himself to visiting in a still more emphatic manner; namely, to invading, with his best skill and strength, the considerable virtual or actual kingdom he had in Ireland, intending fully to enlarge it to the utmost limits of the Island if possible. He got prosperously into Dublin (guess A.D. i 102). Considerable authority he already had, even among those poor Irish Kings, page 281 or kinglets, in their glibs and yellow saffron gowns; still more, I suppose, among the numerous Norse Principalities there. 'King Murdog, King of Ireland,' says the Chronicle of Man, 'had obliged himself, every Yule day, to take a pair of shoes, hang them over his shoulder, as your servant does on a journey, and walk across his Court at bidding, and in presence of, Magnus Bare-foot's messenger, by way of homage to the said King.' Murdog on this greater occasion did whatever homage could be required of him; but that, though comfortable, was far from satisfying the great King's ambitious mind. The great King left Murdog; left his own Dublin; marched off westward on a general conquest of Ireland. Marched easily victorious for a time; had got, some say, into the wilds of Connaught, but there saw himself beset by ambuscades and wild Irish countenances intent on mischief, and had, on the sudden, to draw up for battle;—place, I regret to say, altogether undiscoverable to me; known only that it was boggy in the extreme. Certain enough, too certain and evident, Magnus Barefoot, searching eagerly, could find no firm footing there; nor, fighting furiously up to the knees or deeper, any result but honourable death! Date is confidently marked '24 August, 1103,'—as if people knew the very day of the month. The natives did humanely give King Magnus Christian burial. The remnants of his force, without farther molestation, found their ships on the Coast of Ulster; and sailed home,—without conquest of Ireland; nay, perhaps leaving royal Murdog disposed to be relieved of his procession with the pair of shoes.

Magnus Barefoot left three sons, all kings at once, reigning peaceably together. But to us, at present, the only noteworthy one of them was Sigurd; who, finding nothing special to do at home, left his brothers to manage for him, and went off on a far Voyage, which has rendered him distinguishable in the crowd. Voyage through the Straits of Gibraltar, on to Jerusalem, thence to Constantinople; and so home through Russia, shining with such renown as filled all Norway for the time being. A King called Sigurd Jorsalafarer (Jerusalemer) or Sigurd the Crusader henceforth. His voyage had been only partially of the Viking type; in general it was of the Royal-Progress kind rather; Vikingism only intervening in cases of incivility or the like. His reception in the Courts of Portugal, Spain, Sicily, Italy, had been honourable and sumptuous. The King of Jerusalem broke out into utmost splendour and effusion at sight of such a pilgrim; and Constantinople did its highest honours to such a Prince of Væringers. And the truth is, Sigurd intrinsically was a wise, able and prudent man; who, surviving both his brothers, reigned a good while alone in a solid and successful way. He shows features of an original, independent, thinking man; something of ruggedly strong, sincere and honest, with peculiarities that are amiable and even pathetic in the character and temperament of him; as certainly, the course of life he took was of his own choosing, and peculiar enough. He happens furthermore to be, what he least of all could have chosen or expected, the last of the Haarfagr Genealogy that had any success, or much deserved any, in this world. The last of the Haarfagrs, or as good as the last! So that, singular to say, it is in reality, for one thing only that Sigurd, after all his crusadings and wonderful adventures, is memorable to us here: the advent of an Irish Gentleman called 'Gylle Krist' (Gil- page 282 christ, Servant of Christ), who,—not over welcome, I should think, hut (unconsciously) big with the above result,—appeared in Norway, while King Sigurd was supreme. Let us explain a little.

This Gylle Krist, the unconsciously fatal individual, who 'spoke Norse imperfectly,' declared himself to be the natural son of whilom Magnus Barefoot; born to him there while engaged in that unfortunate 'Conquest of Ireland.' "Here is my mother come with me," said Gilchrist, "who declares my real baptismal name to have been Harald, given me by that great King; and who will carry the red-hot ploughshares or do any reasonable ordeal in testimony of these facts. I am King Sigurd's veritable half-brother: what will King Sigurd think it fair to do with me? "Sigurd clearly seems to have believed the man to be speaking truth; and indeed nobody to have doubted but he was. Sigurd said, "Honourable sustenance shalt thou have from me here. But, under pain of extirpation, swear that, neither in my time, nor in that of my young son Magnus, wilt thou ever claim any share in this Government." Gylle swore; and punctually kept his promise during Sigurd's reign. But during Magnus's, he conspicuously broke it; and, in result, through many reigns, and during three or four generations afterwards, produced unspeakable contentions, massacrings, confusions in the country he had adopted. There are reckoned, from the time of Sigurd's death (A.D. 1130), about a hundred years of civil war: no king allowed to distinguish himself by a solid reign of well-doing, or by any continuing reign at all,—sometimes as many as four kings simultaneously fighting;—and in Norway, from sire to son, nothing but sanguinary anarchy, disaster and bewilderment; a Country sinking steadily as if towards absolute ruin. Of all which frightful misery and discord Irish Gylle, styled afterwards King Harald Gylle, was, by ill destiny and otherwise, the visible origin: an illegitimate Irish Haarfagr who proved to be his own destruction, and that of the Haarfagr kindred altogether!

Sigurd himself seems always to have rather favoured Gylle, who was a cheerful, shrewd, patient, witty and effective fellow; and had at first much quizzing to endure, from the younger kind, on account of his Irish way of speaking Norse, and for other reasons. One evening, for example, while the drink was going round, Gylle mentioned that the Irish had a wonderful talent of swift running, and that there were among them people who could keep up with the swiftest horse. At which, especially from young Magnus, there were peals of laughter; and a declaration from the latter that Gylle and he would have it tried tomorrow morning! Gylle in vain urged that he had not himself professed to be so swift a runner as to keep up with the Prince's horses; but only that there were men in Ireland who could. Magnus was positive; and, early next morning, Gylle had to be on the ground; and the race, naturally under heavy bet, actually went off. Gylle started parallel to Magnus's stirrup; ran like a very roe, and was clearly ahead at the goal. "Unfair," said Magnus; "thou must have had hold of my stirrup-leather, and helped thyself along; we must try it again." Gylle ran behind the horse this second time; then at the end, sprang forward; and again was fairly in ahead. "Thou must have held by the tail," said Magnus; "not by fair running was this possible; we must try a third time!" Gylle started ahead of Magnus and his horse, this third time; kept page 283 ahead with increasing distance, Magnus galloping his very best; and reached the goal more palpably foremost than ever. So that Magnus had to pay his bet, and other damage and humiliation. And got from his father, who heard of it soon afterwards, scoffing rebuke as a silly fellow, who did not know the worth of men but only the clothes and rank of them, and well deserved what he had got from Gylle. All the time King Sigurd lived, Gylle seems to have had good recognition and protection from that famous man; and, indeed, to have gained favour all round, by his quiet social demeanour and the qualities he shewed.