Kingdom of the Vikings: The Rise and Fall of Norway

Book review

Laguna Woods, Calif.

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Kingdom of the Vikings tells the story of Norway’s ascent to power in the medieval world.

Today, we often think of Norway as a small nation with little sway on the world stage beyond setting a good example as a compassionate, prosperous, and well-run country. This was not always so; in the Middle Ages “little Norway” rose to become one of the most powerful and influential kingdoms in all Europe. The newly published book, Kingdom of the Vikings: The Rise and Fall of Norway by Simon Vincent, a Norwegian, tells the story of Norway’s ascent to power and influence in the Western World and its sudden and unfortunate descent into near obscurity as a viable nation at the very end of the medieval period.

Vincent’s book, published in 2021, is among the few popular histories available in English that cover this important period in Norwegian history. The author has also published a very similar book on the same topic in Norwegian called Fryktløse Nordmenn; Historien om Norges grunnleggere (Fearless Norwegians: The History of Norway’s Founders), in 2017. He is to be thanked for sharing a version of this history with those of us in the English-speaking world.

The new book is a good introductory companion volume to Snorri Sturluson’s masterful history of the Norwegian kings, the Heimskringla. Written in Old Norse in the 13th century by one of Iceland’s most lauded scholars and leaders, the Heimskringla provides an epic chronicle of Norway’s kings from the early Viking times to the end of the 12th century. Though it is available in a number of excellent English translations, many people find Sturluson’s book a challenging read because of its length and detailed narrative. Vincent’s slim volume covers the same territory, and more, in only 146 pages, making it accessible to anyone interested in the history of early Norway.

If you want to learn about medieval Norway but do not want to delve too deep, Kingdom of the Vikings is the book for you. Yet, this is also the book for you if you hope to dig deeper into Norway’s history and one day tackle the Heimskringla and other more detailed histories of medieval Norway. Kingdom of the Vikings will provide you with a quick introductory overview to the topic that will both inform and help guide a more in-depth exploration of Norway’s medieval history.

Sturluson’s Heimskringla concludes with the reign of King Magnus Barefoot at the end of the 12th century; Vincent’s modern history of the medieval kingdom of Norway continues through to the close of 14th century. Kingdom of the Vikings, like Heimskringla, begins with the turbulent Viking Age, when ambitious Viking sea kings sought to break out of their regional provinces and take over all of Norway. However, Kingdom of the Vikings takes the reader well beyond the Viking era and well into the late Middle Ages, when Norway enjoyed its “Golden Age” as a medieval power, in many ways the equal of England and other larger European nations.

What I found refreshing in Vincent’s book is his emphasis on Norway as a major player on the world stage during the Middle Ages. Norway’s emergence as power to be reckoned with begins with the reign of the first high king of Norway, Harald Fairhair, who gained his status by conquering most of the petty regional kings of the country by the end of the ninth century. As a former Viking raider, the new king’s ambitions extended well beyond Norway’s borders and he organized Viking expeditions on a national scale. With hundreds of ships and a battle hardened army, he went on to conquer the Orkney Islands, the Hebrides, and the Isle of Man. Finding King Harald of Norway on his doorstep, King Athelstan of England quickly extended the hand of friendship to his new northern neighbor who reciprocated the gesture by allowing his son, later King Harald the Good, to be raised as a foster son to Athelstan.

By the end of the Viking Age, Norway had become rich from both raiding and trading. Its kings had close diplomatic relations with many nations including the far-off Kievan Rus in Ukraine. One of these later Viking kings, Harald Hardrada, had made his reputation as a general in the armies of the distant Byzantine Empire. Ambitious, and a hardened fighter, he turned his sights on England itself. At the Battle of Stamford Bridge in Northern England, Harald Hardrada challenged King Harald Godwinson of England for the English crown. Hardrada lost both the battle and his life, but if he had won, England would have become part of the Kingdom of Norway.

As it turned out, William the Conqueror of Normandy had had the same ambitions as Hardrada, but he won the fight at Hastings against the English some three weeks after the Battle of Stamford Bridge. If things had gone differently that fall of 1066, perhaps the English, as well as Americans and Australians, would be speaking Norwegian today or something blended that might have been called “Norlish.”

By the beginning of the 12th century, Norway had indeed become a major international player in the power politics of both Europe and the Mediterranean. Unfortunately, after 1130, Norway fell into more than 100 years of contentious civil war over who could legitimately succeed to the throne. Rival claimants killed each other again and again in the bloody chaos that dragged on for decades. Norway’s civil war era was a true “game of thrones.”

This extended civil war continued unabated until Haakon Haakonsson won the throne of Norway in 1240. As an enlightened and visionary leader, he secured the support of the people of Norway and ruled over what has been often called the “Golden Age” of medieval Norway. He revised the law code, encouraged trade, and proved to be a nimble diplomat. Under his rule, Norway regained its status as a nation to be reckoned with in terms of its power and influence. King Haakon was the first king to officially incorporate Finnmark as a province of Norway and he reasserted Norway’s control over the Shetlands, the Faeroes, the Orkneys, the Hebrides, and the Isle of Man. He also pulled in both Iceland and Greenland into Norway’s northern empire. Norway’s political reach was never larger than under King Haakon.

Unfortunately, in the 14th century Norway’s fortunes plummeted, when the erratic and cold weather of the “Little Ice Age” began to wreak havoc on Norway’s harvests. Then, came the Black Plague in 1349, and this deadly disease wiped out nearly two-thirds of Norway’s population. On top of that, the German merchants of the Hanseatic League took over most of Norway’s export trade and pocketed most of the profits for themselves. By the end of the 14th century, Norway had become an impoverished and underpopulated shadow of its former self. In 1397, as a greatly weakened country, Norway was absorbed into the Kalmar Union with Sweden and Denmark and lost both its independent kingship as well as its independence as a nation for the next 400 plus years.

Simon Vincent (a pseudonym) tells the story of medieval Norway’s rise and subsequent fall with enthusiasm and insight. This is a welcome book for anyone with an interest in Norwegian history who does not have a command of the Norwegian language. The only criticisms I have with the book are with the illustrations and the editing. The maps and the royal family trees are too small to read. The book also contains a number of typographical errors and some odd mistakes in word choices. I assume these derive from the fact that this book is self-published and the author, who is not an academic historian, did not have access to either a professional editor or translator before its printing.

Despite these problems, it is a good read overall, and it is clear that the author is passionate about his subject matter. Kingdom of Vikings: The Rise and Fall of Norway is available from Amazon in both paperback and Kindle editions.

This article originally appeared in the April 9, 2021, issue of The Norwegian American.

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Terje Birkedal

Terje G. Birkedal was born in Stavanger, Norway, in 1946. He immigrated to the U.S. as a child and grew up in Colorado. After earning a Ph.D. in Anthropology he served as an archeologist with the National Park Service for 36 years. He has conducted fieldwork in Alaska, the American South and Southwest, Canada, the Great Plains, Guam, and Norway. He served five years as President of Sons of Norway Bernt Balchen Lodge in Anchorage, Alaska, and he has always been passionate about Norwegian prehistory, history, and culture.