The Kings of Vestfold - Björn and his son, Gudröd

This week’s people of interest are Harald Fairhair’s son, Björn, and grandson, Gudröd, both kings of Vestfold as their forebears Harald and Halvdan had been before them.

Harald Fairhair had many children by many wives. Björn is said to have been the son of Harald’s wife Svanhild, who was the daughter of Jarl Eystein, and the sister of Ragnvald the Mighty who I wrote about in my last post. We believe he had two full brothers, Olav and Ragnar, and many half-brothers from his father’s various wives and concubines.

When Harald Fairhair was approximately fifty years old, he divided his kingdom among his surviving sons, who, at the time, were said to be “unruly” and were no doubt fighting each other for dominance. Harald gave the Vestfold district to Björn and Vingulmark to Olav. We do not know if the third son, Ragnar, got a district to rule.

Björn Haraldsson is said to have been “wise, calm and full of promise to become a leader”. He “was seldom out fighting”, which is probably what earned him his byname “Chapman” and “Farman”, which mean “Trader” or “Skipper”. The one trading town in Norway that existed at the time was called Kaupang in Skiringssal and was located in Vestfold. Björn inherited the town and doubtlessly profited from that.

Holmgang. The background is believed to be Kaupang.

Holmgang. The background is believed to be Kaupang.

Those profits caught the eye of Björn’s half-brother, Erik Bloodaxe. It was customary each year for Björn to take the tribute from Vestfold and Kaupang to his father. However, when Harald turned eighty, he gave his High Seat to his favorite son, Erik, a move the other brothers did not like. Around that same time, Erik decided he wanted to take the tribute from the trade in Kaupang to his father, maybe as a show of the title and power his father had just bestowed upon him. Björn, however, did not want Erik meddling in his affairs and quarreled with Erik about this. So Erik attacked Björn in his hall one night, killing him and raiding his lands.

After Björn’s death, the people of the Vik took his brother Olav as king. Olav fostered Björn’s son, Gudröd, and raised him alongside his own son, Trygvi. When Harald died, Olav and another half-brother who ruled the Tronds, joined forces and battled Erik. Erik, of course, won, and the boys Gudröd and Trygvi fled to the Uplands.

Gudröd does not appear again until Hakon the Good arrives in the North and begins to hold things to win people to him. Hearing of this, Gudröd (and his cousin Trygvi) comes out of hiding and pledges “friendship” to Hakon. Hakon bestows upon Gudröd the title of “king” and gives him command of his father’s former realm, Vestold.

Heimskringla tells us that Gudröd was still a boy at this time and that Hakon set a regent over him, but here is where the story gets murky and the math doesn’t add up. We think Harald Fairhair died in 933 or 934 AD. Three years (according to Snorre Sturlason) before is when Harald gave his kingdom to Erik. And we think Erik killed Björn that same year, so 930-931 AD. Heimskringla tells us Harald died when he was eighty, and he divided his kingdom between his sons when he was fifty. If we believe Sturlason’s math (which is questionable at best given his words were written ~300 years after these events occurred), then Björn must have been at least a teen by 900 AD when he was given Vestfold to rule, and so in his forties by 930-931 AD when he died. Unless he had his son when he was in his thirties or forties (which is again doubtful), then we must think that Gudröd was actually born before Hakon and was older than Hakon when Hakon returned in 934 AD as a fifteen year old.

We know too that when it came time to oust Erik Bloodaxe, a “great army” assembled in the Vik. This could only mean that Gudröd and cousin Trygvi had gathered men in support of Hakon to overthrow Erik. He is not mentioned by name, but it is likely he was there.

We also know that Gudröd remained in charge of Vestfold for many years, for he was still ruling when Hakon’s life ended in 958-961 AD. There is no mention of strife between Hakon and Gudröd, so it is assumed that he ruled as a faithful supporter of Hakon in the Vik. While it is not known whether he was as industrious as his father, we are now learning that Kaupang fell into disrepair sometime around the mid-10th century, i.e. close to the end of Gudröd’s life. Whether Gudröd’s death had anything to do with that is unclear.

In my novels, I paint Gudröd as a crafty, industrious man who was loyal to Hakon to the end, but perhaps more skilled at trade than war-craft. Gudröd works hard to build Kaupang up, and profits well from its wealth. He outlives Hakon, but not by much, for the sons of Erik have returned and the times are chaotic.

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