The Viking Age: Jarl Sigurd of Lade

One of my favorite characters in my Viking historical fiction novels about Hakon the Good is Sigurd Hakonsson, the jarl (or earl) of Lade in the area of Norway known as Trøndelag. Jarl Sigurd, or Sigurd Ladejarl, was the son of Hakon Grjotgardsson, the first Jarl of Lade (Old Norse Hlaðir), who was a friend and supporter of King Harald Finehair.

Sigurd consults Hakon the Good

Sigurd consults Hakon the Good

Sigurd was born around 890 A.D., some ten years before his father was killed in battle in 900 A.D. Sigurd inherited his father's position, either upon his death or a few years afterwards. That, in and of itself, is significant, because it means that, even as a child, either he had the support of the nobles of Trøndelag, or he had the support of the king, or both.

Sigurd married Bergljot Toresdatter, who was the daughter of the neighboring jarl to the south, Tore Ragnvaldsson of More, and his wife Ålov Årbot Haraldsdatter, who was the daughter of King Harald Finehair. Both Sigurd’s and Tore’s fathers were installed as jarls by King Harald. Now, through marriage and birth, both were kin to the king.

It is written that Sigurd was raised with King Harald’s sons, Halvdan the Black and Sigröd, who were fostered by Sigurd’s father, and stayed with Sigurd after his father’s death. They were of roughly the same age as Sigurd.

We don’t know how often Sigurd visited his king, but on one such visit, King Harald’s maid-servant gave birth to the King’s son. It so happened that Sigurd was with this maid-servant with she gave birth. Harald was not present at the time, so it fell to Sigurd to sprinkle water on the child’s head and name him. He named him Hakon after his own father.

As King Harald grew older, his sons began to squabble. As Heimskringla states: “Many of them were very unruly in the land and were not friends amongst themselves; they drove the king’s jarls out of their lands or slew them.” How much this affected Sigurd is unclear. To solve the problem, Harald called a law assembly and during it, divided the land between his surviving sons, giving them the title “king”, and placing them over the jarls. This move would have placed Jarl Sigurd beneath his foster brothers Halvdan the Black and Sigröd.

This may have solved the problem for awhile, but the ambition of the brothers soon led to infighting. Erik Haraldsson, who King Harald “loved best of all his sons” and had his father’s favor, began to systematically slay his brothers. First, it was Ragnvald in Hadeland, then Bjorn in the Vestfold. Halvdan the Black died in Trøndelag shortly thereafter, and it was said that he was poisoned by Erik’s wife, Gunnhild. Erik’s remaining brothers in the North, Sigröd and Olav, joined forces, but were defeated by Erik in battle and killed. It is reasonable to think that Sigurd Ladejarl was at this last battle, supporting his king, Sigröd.

This, of course, must have placed Sigurd and some of the other jarls, including Jarl Tore of More, in severe danger. It is at this point that Hakon, the child who Sigurd named, returned to the North. Whether Sigurd and the other jarls reached out to the young Hakon, who was being fostered in the courts of Wessex at that time, or whether Hakon took it upon himself to enter the fray, we do not know. Heimkringla tells us that Sigurd Ladejarl was “the wisest man in Norway”. The lad was the only remaining heir to Norway’s High Seat and thus, a vehicle for Sigurd to maintain his land and title in Trøndelag. Hakon might also have enabled Sigurd to exact vengeance on the man who killed his two foster-brothers. Further, as the man who named Hakon in birth, Sigurd may have had some built-in affinity for Hakon already. When Hakon arrives in the North, he does so in Lade. For all of these reasons, it is plausible to assume that Sigurd invited Hakon to return.

But there were three problems. First, Hakon was still young. Roughly fourteen or fifteen. Second, he had been gone from the North for years and was most likely unfamiliar with some of the nuances of the people he would rule. Third, he was a Christian. Sigurd, on the other hand, was a mature jarl and a devout worshipper of the old gods, as were his people. Still, it seemed he feared Erik enough to look past those shortcomings. The move earned Sigurd an influential position as young Hakon’s friend and adviser, but also put him in the awkward and precarious position of political, martial and spiritual counselor.

One of Hakon’s first moves was to re-establish the supra law assemblies and to restore the odal (or hereditary) rights of the land owners, a right that his father Harald had taken away. It is written that both of these moves proved to be highly popular and gained Hakon many followers. These moves came at the counsel of Torleiv the Wise, Sigurd Ladejarl, and more of the “wisest Tronds.”

As they spent time together, Sigurd and Hakon grew to be friends. Hakon spent much time in Lade, and even named Sigurd’s first and only son. However, they had their differences. Sigurd and his people were staunch worshippers. His people, in particular, wanted Hakon to be the same. Hakon, however, remained a Christian as long as was politically possible, and possibly even until his death. As the ruler of the Tronds, Sigurd was often the go-between whose job was to calm the fury of both sides. At one point, the religious requests of Sigurd’s people were so stringent, they drove the relationship with Hakon to the brink of battle.

In the end, Sigurd outlives his charge. Hakon dies in ~960 A.D. In 962 A.D., at the age of roughly 72, Sigurd was burned in his hall by one of Erik’s sons. Ironically, his death elevated rather than deflated the power of the Tronds and their relationship to the ruling family of Norway. But more on that in a later post.

We will never know what Sigurd was truly like, but in my novels, I chose to see Sigurd as a survivor, who uses cunning, courage, and humor to navigate the dangers and pressures of his position. He is outspoken, gregarious, hard-headed, and tough; but underneath it all is a big heart that always keeps the best interests of his king, his family, and his people in mind.

 Thanks for reading. As always, please feel free to leave any comments below.