The Battle of Norafiord in 1184, according to the Sverrissaga

The Saga of King Sverri (Sverrissaga) is the only source still existing that chronicles the life and rule of Sverri Sigurdarson (1177-1202), son of King Sigurd Haraldsson. This saga can be considered a good historical source for this period. According to the prologue, “the beginning of the book is written according to the one that Abbot Karl Jonsson first wrote when King Sverri himself sat over him and settled what he should write.” The later portions of this Saga came from eyewitnesses of the many battles and sieges that took place during the King’s reign. The section below details the battle of Norafiord, fought in 1184, where Sverri defeats Magnus Erlingsson, King of Norway, thus allowing Sverri to gain the crown and country for himself.

King Sverri’s preparations for battle, and his speech to his men.

We must now tell of King Sverri. On the Friday after he had burnt the homesteads in Soknadale, he lay off Haugastrand, near a place called Fimreiti. He had twelve ships with him, two having remained behind in Soknadale. It was the hour of nones, and he sat at meat, and there were watchmen on the lookout opposite the King’s ship. When the men had sat a while at meat King Sverri heard the watch say that they saw several ships sailing towards them along the Sogn-Sea. Sometimes they saw six or seven; but when the ships were more scattered and sailed farther apart, ten or twelve could be seen. The watchmen were discussing what ships these might be: some said they were ferry ships which the men of Sogn must have brought in a fleet from Bergen; others said the sails were more like those of long-ships. When the King heard this talking he rose up from the table and went on shore to the watch, followed by others from the ships. Each man now gave his own opinion what ships they were. The King stood up a while, looked at them, and then said, ” We must not hide from ourselves that this is an enemy; those are certainly the sails of long-ships.” Then he summoned all his men straightway to land; and when they were come together he began to speak, and thus said:

“It may happen again to us Birkibeins, as it has happened before, to have work upon our hands. For there is no use hiding from ourselves, it seems to me, that King Magnus will soon come to visit us. You all know that a large part of our force has gone away from us: some south to Bergen, and what fate has befallen them it in God’s hands; others to the market town to burn it, and they can afford us no help. And though when encounters have occurred with King Magnus we have often been inferior in numbers, yet I expect, if we-await him here, we shall most likely never have had to face greater odds than now. I will, therefore, that we now take counsel together: shall we offer resistance with such force as we have, or do you think it better to abandon the ships and go on shore? You will doubtless feel that we have not made good friends of the people that dwell here in Sogn. Our condition is clear if we leave the ships; wherever we go King Magnus and his force will march after us, and the whole multitude of the inhabitants with him. And to tell the truth, considering the great labour and difficulty I endured before obtaining these ships, it seems certain that if I should now lose them I will never again attempt to acquire ships in Norway, and every one of us will have to look to himself. Now, I do not wish to lead you, by any self-will of mine, into such great danger, if you all see that it should not be done; but if the men of our force think it better to offer resistance, I shall not falter through fear.”

When the King finished his speech his men thought they perceived what he desired, and it seemed good to all of them to applaud what they saw to be his wish, although they did not see the promise of success. And now well-nigh all at once answered, and said they certainly wished for battle, and never without a contest would submit to flight, for which there was no cause whatever. They had constantly fought against great odds, they said, and yet won victory. And the King answered: ” You have now chosen the course which is the more agreeable to my mind; and I may tell you something which will make you more eager to fight, and more valiant – you will send this day a king to his grave.” This speech caused great anxiety to many: “Which King would it be?” Then King Sverri commanded the awnings to be taken down, and the ships to be rowed up the fiord close to land. “A cutter,” he said, “shall row with all speed up to Soknadale to our ships there, and bid them come to us. Of the three men in each half-cabin, let one sit at the oar, a second row in boats to land and fetch stones, the third, as well as all others who are free, prepare the ships and set up the war-bulwarks.” It was done as the King commanded; they took the nails which the King had given them, fastened rings of walrus hide all round the inner part of the ships’ sides, fixed in them the supports, and attached the war-bulwarks. Every man was now busily engaged, and it was easy to see that the Birkibeins were practised in such labour. The men sent with the cutter up the fiord met their comrades rowing down, and told them the rumour; and the crews of the long-ships bestirred themselves, struck in their oars and rowed with all their might. As they approached the fleet they came so close to each other, rowing in eager strife, that the oars collided and broke. “There is other business than smashing oars that you must see to,” said the King. And he bade them turn to shore, there to wait for King Magnus. Stones were then brought from land, as many as they wished, and the ships’ war-bulwarks set up. The King now commanded the stern-cables of all the ships to be brought on board, the prows to be turned seawards, and the oars placed for rowing. The King’s ship lay close to the strand, nearest the entrance of the fiord. Then the King bade his men arm themselves and take their places in the cabins.

King Sverri went on shore and walked up to a little brook; here the King had water given him to wash his hands, and had his clothes brushed as if he were about to attend a banquet. His dress was all dark-brown. After this he went down to the rock under which his ship lay, and spoke a few words. He laid hold of the ship’s prow, but his men removed his hands because the tar on the beak was not dry. And the King said: “Our ships shall not be tied together. We must reap advantage, if we can, from this, that our bulwarks are high, our men are bold and keen in fight. There is only one expedient whereby we may retain life – we must prove superior to our foes; flight will not avail us, nor yet begging for peace. Look to your weapons, and let no missile be thrown in vain from the ships. Defend yourselves first, let each man protect his neighbour, and may God protect us all.” Then he commanded the standards to be set up. Alongside the ships a little cliff jutted forward and almost prevented a view of the mouth of the fiord. He therefore sent a cutter to look out for King Magnus’s fleet; and after the oarsmen had rowed a few strokes from land they pulled back with half as much speed again, saying that the fleet was sailing in upon them. Straightway the trumpet sounded, and the Birkibeins began to row out all their ships to meet them, and raised the war cry. The Mariusud was steered by Thord, brother of Finngeir.

King Magnus’s speech to his men before the battle.

King Magnus now entered the fiord in pursuit of the Birkibeins. And when his men knew they were within a short distance, they lowered their sails and let the ships run under bare poles, keeping close together. The Heklungs had put on their armour and were ready for battle. King Magnus then made a speech to them and said:

“These large merchant-ships in our fleet are not fitted for rowing. Let them be tied between my ship and Orm’s. We shall row towards the big ship and attach ourselves to it; and I should not like the ships to be loosed until either theirs is cleared or ours. I know that to many, in thought and speech, the result would appear good, if brought about, that Sverri and I should no more both need to demand these war contributions. And I think such result, dear to my mind and hope, might well be asked from God. I was five years old when the chiefs and folk of this land gave me the name of King, and seven years old when consecrated King by the Legate from tome and Archbishop Eystein, assisted by all the people’s bishops of this land. I was then so much of a child that I could be master of neither word nor oath, and I thought it better to join in games with other young boys than to sit among chiefs. I strove not for the kingdom, and little pleasure and ease have I had in the kingdom. Now I am eight-and-twenty years old, and during the last eight my rule has been my own loss, and a loss to all the people of the land. But may God reward my men and the chiefs and the whole people for the loving help they have given me in many dangers. There is no need for me to urge you with words; you can all see our need that every one should do his manliest. We have abundant means; we have no lack of troops; God be praised, that wherever we touched land, men have joined our ranks. Sverri has now scattered his forces here and there, and has now but few men left with him, and they are enclosed here before us, in the fiord, like sheep in a pen. May God grant such an end to this encounter that we may have peace and freedom from our enemies hereafter, whether we remain alive or die.”

His speech was received with great applause. “Well spoken, thou best of kings,” they all cried at once; ” may God give thee to tread down thy enemies.” Then Orin Kings-brother spoke:

“I would advise, Sire, that we attack first of all the smaller ships where we shall meet with little resistance. I expect the big ship will be difficult to win, so long as there is both a plentiful force of ships, and of men from the other ships, to help it.” The King replied: ” It seems to me as if all the ships are won if the big ship is won.” So they did as the King commanded; the four ships were tied together, and the King’s ship sailed nearest the south shore.

Speech of Asbiorn Jonsson before the battle.

Asbiorn Jonsson laid his ship alongside Orin’s ship, and the two were fastened together. Then Asbiorn spoke:

“The day is now come that we have all longed for, when Sverri and the Birkibeins are here in front of us, forced like sheep into a pen. There is an end now to his sleights and his tricks, for the Fiend, in whom he trusts, and by whom his counsels are inspired, will now fail him. Such is the Fiend’s way with his friends. He grants them prosperity for a time, and fails them at their life’s end. Sverri is now shiftless. He sent Svina-Petr away south to Bergen, an errand whereon he met his deserts. Others, the Gests, the worst of his men, limbs of the Fiend, he sent into Sogn, under one who has done most evil, Ulf, the peasant’s son. And now Sverri has added to his own evil deeds and violence the only evil he had hitherto left undone, for he has a wasted with fire a Christian land; and he shall now pay for it. Let us set on these Birkibeins, two or three on one if it makes the work lighter; and let us deal heavy strokes at all before us, careless where the blows fall, for we use no care in chopping meat for dogs or ravens. As for their souls, let the men of Soknadale show them where to go.” Great applause followed this speech, all saying that he had spoken well. Afterwards they fastened the ships together in fours or fives, and by means of oars on the outer side of the end ships rowed them all together side by side into the fiord near the southern shore.

King Magnus wore a kirtle of scarlet that was partly coloured, half white, half red; and a kirtle of the same colour and cloth was worn by Magnus Mangi, son of Eirik Stagbrell. The King carried a sword that was named Fish-back, the sharpest of all swords.

Battle of Narafiord: Attack on the Mariusud [15th June 1184].

We will now relate some events that occurred in the encounter between the two Kings, of which somewhat has been already said. We return to the Birkibeins. As they rowed from land they saw King Magnus’s fleet coming upon them, and there was an appearance in front of it such as is seen at sea when heavy rain falls during a calm. This shower soon passed over; it was a flight of arrows, and they had need of their shields. When they would turn the Mariusud, she described a large curve, and before she could be fully turned, the ships ran into one another. King Magnus’s ships came against the bows of the Mariusud, striking her in the side, and the prows of the King’s ships were turned towards her. The Skeggi lay against her fore pump-room, and the others in succession towards her prow, as they found place. Then a great and fierce battle began, King Magnus’s men being very eager, and the Birkibeins keeping rather under shelter, while all the ships drifted together towards the strand. The Birkibeins at first were hampered in the attack as the Mariusud lay between them and King Magnus’s ships. Thereupon King Sverri sprang into a boat, with one man, and rowed to Eirik Kings-son’s ship. The King then called to them and said they were behaving wretchedly and timidly, and he bade them row forth past the big ship and aim at the smaller ships of the Heklungs, and try what they could effect. Rowing from ship to ship, the King incited his men, and told them where they should attack. The King’s words had a good effect on the Birkibeins, and they pressed forward boldly, and made a fierce onset, which was returned in full by the others. Both sides now made use of every missile at hand. As the King rowed back to his ship, an arrow passed over his head and struck the prow of the boat; then a second, directly afterwards, struck the boat’s side above his knees. The King sat and moved not. “A dangerous shot, Sire,” said his companion. “Comes near when God wills,” answered the King. So thick was now the shower of weapons and stones upon the Mariusud that the King found he could not get back on board, and he rowed away to land. Munan Gautsson’s men drove their ship to land, and leapt ashore, and threw great quantities of stone on the Mariusud, all about the fore-room and forward to the pump-room, and those who were there stationed suffered severely. The men in the prow were the most exposed to the onslaught of the Heklungs and the shower of missiles, and they said to one another that the fore-room men ought now to pay the King for their mead and kirtle-cloth. The men in the stern now called to the starboard oarsmen to row forward. This was done, and the ship was moved so that the Skeggi now lay opposite the aft pump-room. All the men of the larboard side and the fore-room men had enough to do, for there lay fourteen ships against one side of the Mariusud. The Heklungs then shot bolts, and threw spears and lumps of hard whetstone which they had brought from the east with them, from Skida, very dangerous to life. They cast also short swords and palstaves, but were not so near as to fight hand to hand. The Birkibeins sheltered themselves, unable to do more; yet many fell, and almost all were wounded by missiles or stones. They were so wearied and harassed that some who were unwounded, or but slightly wounded, yet died of exhaustion. But the Heklungs delayed to board the ship because of the difficulty in reaching her over the prows of their own ships; whereas if the ships had been placed alongside, one of the crews might have boarded the other’s ship long before.

Battle of Norafiord: Eirik Kings-son’s exploit

Now those who listen to this story will regard what we say of the end of the battle as improbable; yet we shall now tell what most availed, with good fortune, to turn the victory in a direction that seemed unlikely. Eirik Kings-son and the thirteen free ships of the Birkibeins rowed out past the big ship, as we have said above, and turned to the thirteen ships of the Heklungs which were the farthest from land and were not near the big ship. They laid the ships broadside to broadside, and a very hard fight took place. The Birkibeins had the larger ships and the more numerous force, and attacked with firmness and valour. The Heklungs offered a hard resistance, and fought so keenly that no one seemed able to judge whether the fight would be decided between them, or the big ship be cleared, the first. The men of Sogn had a great multitude of boats, and lay within range of the Birkibeins and shot at them. Eirik Kings-son placed his ship alongside the outermost one of those that had been tied together, and as his ship had much the higher bulwarks there was a very sharp fight, for the Heklungs resisted valiantly. A hand-to-hand contest having lasted for a time, the Heklungs were overborne by numbers; some fell, and others abandoned their half-cabins. Then the Birkibeins prepared to board the ship. A man named Benedikt, Eirik Kings-son’s standard-bearer, was the first to go up, and with him were the forecastle men. The Heklungs seeing them, rushed to meet them, and slew Benedikt and others who had boarded the ship. Then Kings-son urged on his men, and himself and a few others resolved on a second attempt to board the ship. They were able to recover their standard, and made so fierce an onset that the Heklungs recoiled and sprang upon the ship that lay nearest. The Birkibeins followed hard after them. And now happened what constantly happens when fear seizes men in battle and they flee; seldom are the fugitives inclined to face the enemy a second time, however valiant their resistance at first. There was less resistance here than on the former ship; all leapt to the ship that was nearest, and so from one to another. The Birkibeins, shouting and crying after them, smote and slew every one that came in their way. And when the mass of fugitives rushed to the large ships, men leapt into the water from the King’s ship because it lay nearest the land. But other four ships, which were the largest, sank under the weight of the crowd. Thus sank Orm’s ship, and Asbiorn’s ship, and the Gesta-Fley.

Battle of Norafiord: Death of King Magnus.

King Sverri was on land when he saw what was happening, and he went down to the boat with Petr, son of Bishop Hroi. The same moment a cutter rowed up, the crew intending to land. The King called to them, and said, ” Turn back, see now they flee.” The men did so, turned back, and seeing what has been told, struck in their oars and rowed away down the fiord. Petr said to the King, ” Did you know these men, Sire? Why spoke you so? ” And the King answered, ” Was it not the only thing to say, whoever they were?” The King then rowed out straight to his ship, went to the aftcastle and began the Kyrie to celebrate his victory; and all his men sung it with him.

King Magnus leapt overboard from his ship, together with all the troops on it, and the whole host of them perished. The Birkibeins sprang on shore and met on the beach those who strove to reach land, so that no great number of them succeeded; a few cutters sailed down the fiord and their crews escaped. The Birkibeins rowed out in small boats and slew those who were swimming, but to some they gave quarter. All were spared who obtained audience of the King; and King Sverri’s barons and other captains of ships gave quarter to their kinsmen and friends.

The following chiefs fell with King Magnus: Harald, son of King Ingi; Magnus Mangi, son of Eirik, and grandson, on his mother’s side, of Earl Rognvald; Orm Kings-brother; Asbiorn Jonsson; Rognvald, son of Jon Hallkelsson; Pal Smattauga; Lodin of Mannvik; Olaf Gunnvallsson; Eindridi Torfi, son of Jon Kutiza; Ivar Elda; Vilhialm of Torga; Andres, son of Eirik, the son of Gudbrand Kula; also Ivar Steig, son of Orm Kingsbrother; Hallstein Snak Botolfsson, a kinsman of King Magnus; Ketil Lafransson; Sigurd Hit, and Ketil Fluga. According to the general reckoning not fewer than eighteen hundred perished. The battle was fought on the evening of Vitus’s mass-day; about sunset the main body of the host broke into flight; by midnight the slaughter was at an end, the Birkibeins had moved all their ships to the anchorage, put up the awnings, and got ready for bed.

Speech of King Sverri the morning after the battle.

Early the following morning the King summoned a council, at which he spoke, saying: “God Himself we must praise for our victory, for much more evidently in this battle than aforetime has He granted us strength and might. We cannot claim this victory as ours in any other way than as it comes through God’s will and disposal. Therefore let us yield Him due thanks and acceptable return. First, we must keep truce firmly with all those who sued for life; let us also afford aid to the wounded; we must grant burial, too, with Christian rites, to all the dead that we may find. I bid all my men dutifully to search the strand for the dead, every man affording such help and means as he can. That will not only be pleasing to God, but will bring gain, for all must have had money on them, and some a great deal. The government of this land, I hope, has now passed to me, whether we wish to govern it well or ill. Thanks be to God that we are now peaceful and upright; and of this, many must feel there is need. I must now say to you, my men, may God reward you for the loving devotion you have shown me; I too will reward you with good, to the very best of my power. Sufficient to know that the estates and all the property lately owned by these gold-necks who lie here on the strand shall be yours. In addition, you shall make the best marriages to be found in the land, and receive such titles of rank as you yourselves wish. You have gained more in this sharp fight than in others; yea, and something besides of which we had enough already, the envy of ill-wishers, against whom we must diligently guard ourselves; and may God guard us all.”

Loud applause followed this speech, and they thanked the King heartily for it.

The search for the dead. Finding of King Magnus’s body.

After this, King Sverri caused the ships to be rowed up the fiord on the strand side, and anchored near shore at a place where it was hoped the smell from the bodies might not be perceived. Here the King lay for a time. The men of Soknadale and the market town then came and made peace with him, and they said not a word now against the King’s wish, but bound themselves by oath to perform it. And here was the saying fulfilled, “Many a man kisses the hand that he would fain see lopped.” The King obliged them and other yeomen to carry the bodies to burial; he also allowed every man to perform as fully as he wished the last rites for his kinsmen or friends. Many men, both King’s men and yeomen, went out every day in boats to search for bodies off the strand. One day they found the body of Orm Kings-brother, which his friends took and carried south to Bergen; here the Vikmen received it and bore it east to Oslo; and Orm was laid in the stone wall of Hallvardskirk beside his brother King Ingi and King Sigurd Jorsala-fari.

The second Sunday after the battle, as evening drew to a close, many men went in boats to seek for bodies. The King rowed to them in a small cutter. In one of the boats was a man named Liot, son of Harald, and two others with him, Arid Gudmundarson and Jon Koll. And the King said to them, “You sit hard a-fishing here; how does the catch go?” At that moment they dragged up a body. And the King said, “A noble man you have drawn there to the boat’s side; you have good luck in this.” “Yea,” answered Liot, “an excellent bite that has been, Sire, if it is the King’s body.” And King Sverri said, “That is King Magnus’s body.” The men thrust a shield under and lifted the body into the cutter where the King was. Then they rowed to land, the body was taken on shore, and many went to look at it. It was easily recognised, for the features showed no change, the cheeks were still ruddy, and the body had not become rigid.

This text is from Sverrissaga: The Saga of King Sverri of Norway, translated by J. Sephton (London, 1899).

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