The Siege of the Rock of Tunsberg in 1201, from 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 following text deals with the final campaign of King Sverri, in which he besieges the Baglar forces under Hreidar Sendiman. One interesting note to this episode is the arrival of 200 ribbalds (perhaps mercenaries), sent by King John of England.

King Sverri besieges the Bagals under Hreidar Sendiman on the rock of Tunsberg [1201].

The next spring King Sverri called out the levy everywhere from the north of the land, and sailed with a great host east to the Vik. Hreidar abode on the rock in Tunsberg with scarcely two hundred men; Hallvard Bratti was there and many other captains of companies, but their young King and Sigurd Earlsson were up in the country with a large force. King Sverri sailed east over the Fold and visited the yeomen in the summer, and took fines from them; all the folk submitted to him except the Skeynir. After this he sailed up the river [Raum-Elf] to Borg, and had his cutters dragged past the waterfall Sarp, and rowed up the river. Then he marched his men up into Skaun and burnt all the homesteads. The yeomen then came to be reconciled and paid fines, and the King went back to his ships and sailed north across the Fold to Tunsberg. This was about the time of the later Mariumass.

King Sverri encamped about the rock and hindered the Bagals from leaving it. He set up tent-booths east of the rock, and between the rock and the town, and north to the sea. He had a trench dug outside his camp, from the bay in the north to Skeliasteins-sound in the south, and erected palisades inside the trench; all this was done to guard against sudden attacks of the land host. The King had his ships laid up on shore and protected. He divided the work of the siege among his force. The Gests were in the north by the road which comes down from the Froda-as; Petr Steypi was their chief, and they took buildings from the town below and removed them there, and it was called Gestabakki. The King slept for the most part in the town, and a large force with him.

Siege of the rock of Tunsberg. Unsuccessful attempt to storm the rock. Other devices.

King Sverri arranged his force for an assault on the rock. On the south his men ascended with his standard to the shelf of the rock, and the Gests advanced against the northern blockhouse. The Bagals were prepared for the defence, and as the Birkibeins marched up the rock, they hurled down on them stones and missiles. The Birkibeinn came quite close to the blockhouse, and men on both sides thrust at one another with spears. The Bagals in the blockhouse cast stones that flew so fast and were so big that they could not be withstood; they crushed both shields and steel caps, and the Birkibeins retired wounded to the shelf. The King then perceived that the vantage-ground was such that the rock could not be taken by assault. The Bagals then were jubilant and scornful in their language.

After the King had abode a long time by the rock he dispatched men into all the districts round to collect for him war-contributions and provisions, and the Birkibeins succeeded easily in this, so long as they were not prevented by ice from using the ships.

King Sverri thought it a grievous hurt that no one was found to tell him of the preparations on the rock. So he devised this plan. The church ladders in the town were taken and fastened to one another, and placed against the south side of the tower of Lafranskirk. A man then climbed up to the part of the roof that looked away from the rock. Clasping with his arms the ball at the top, he saw all that was to be seen on the rock. The Bagals observed him, and Hreidar Sendiman shot at him; he sent a first arrow into the ball, and a second instantly after, which struck it between the man’s hands. With that he loosed his hold, and the roof sheltered him from more shots. Then he came down and told the King what he had seen. The Bagals had dragged cutters up the rock; their well was a short distance below the northern blockhouse, and they had turned one of the cutters keel upwards, so that they might easily go to the well from the rock. The blockhouses were built on four pillars; on these were fixed sills and a raised platform; below, between the pillars there were hurdles.

One night during autumn, when it was pitch dark, the King sent a man on the rock whose name was Svein Munki; he took with him a cable, and carried two spears, one in his hand, the other, a short-shafted one, in his belt. Having ascended the rock, he fastened the cable round one of the pillars as high as he could. At the other end of the cable were more than a hundred men. Svein struck the cable as a sign to the men that the one end was fast, and they seized the cable and pulled hard. The blockhouse began to sway considerably, and the Bagals inside were greatly terrified; but at that moment the rope broke asunder. Svein Munki walked up the rock, and on the east side were two watchmen, both asleep. Through one he thrust his spear; the other sprang up, and Svein thrust at him as he stood, and thus slew them both. He then went down the rock on the east side and back to the Birkibeins.

King Sverri planned many devices to win the rock. He had a great wicker shield made, which he fixed on stout pillars, and had it taken right under the blockhouse; but it was not easy to manage, and the device came to nothing. Every day the Birkibeins went within range, and the two armies exchanged shots, but the Bagals always had the advantage in the fight.

Siege of the rock of Tunsberg. The garrison send for help to Ingi and Sigurd Earlsson.

Ingi, chief of the Bagals, Sigurd Earlsson, Arni Bishops-kin, and many captains of companies besides, with the main force of the Bagals, were in the Uplands, and at times in the Vik. These chiefs had made an agreement with Hreidar that the one force should come to the assistance of the other if there was need at any time. But Hreidar and his men, being closely beset by King Sverri, thought the help of their men was slow in coming; they felt themselves placed m great danger, and determined to send messengers to Ingi and the other chiefs. For this purpose one night they took a little eight-oared cutter and dragged it over to the west side of the rock near the sea; and having laid oars in it and fastened ropes to it, they swung it off the rock by means of levers. Ten men went on board, under the command of Thord Dokka, and the cutter was lowered by the ropes to the sea. This was an exploit of great danger, especially so because there were Birkibeins in cutters opposite the rock who kept watch there every night. The Bagals dashed their oars into the water and rowed hard over the sound past the Birkibeins, and sprang on shore within Smiorberg. The Birkibeins rowed after them and captured the empty cutter, but nothing more. The Bagals went on their journey till they came to Ingi and Sigurd, and gave the message of Hreidar with tidings of what had happened. The Bagals declared that they heard only that about the Birkibeins which gave them no longing for an encounter, and said that King Sverri would turn away from the rock as soon as snow came or frost. The morning after the Bagals had escaped from the rock, King Sverri was told of it, and said to his men, “However weary you are of sitting around the rock, you see now that they are more weary still of sitting on it.”

King John of England sends King Sverri two hundred Ribbalds.

In the summer when King Sverri was in Bergen, John, King of the English, had sent him two hundred warriors of those called Ribbalds. They were swift of foot as deer, excellent bowmen, very brave, and did not shrink from evil deeds. King Sverri despatched them to the Uplands, and set over them, as their chief, a brother of Sigurd Skialgi, named Hidi, a man little praised by others. The Ribbalds came down into Haddingiadale, marched by the upper road over Soknadale, and down into Thelamork. Wherever they came they slew every one, young and old, women as well as men. They killed all the cattle they could, and even dogs and cats and every living thing in their way; they burnt, too, all the homesteads they came near. But if people gathered to encounter them, they fled to the fells and inaccessible places, and ever appeared where no one expected them. They plundered homesteads which no hostile force had ever before visited, and committed outrages the like of which no man knew. They came to King Sverri when he was besieging the rock, and ever marched boldly to attack the Bagals, and exchanged shots with them. One day the Bagals hit a Ribbald with an arrow so that he was instantly slain. The others uttered a loud yell at the sight and shot at the Bagals, running at one time towards the rock, and at another from it. Soon after, one of them shot Viking Nefia with an arrow, which struck him in the throat on the left side and caused his death. He had been a very great warrior.

Siege of the rock of Tunsberg: Stratagem of King Sverri.

Thord Dokka was sent from the rock because Hreidar felt that he needed help from Ingi and Sigurd. King Sverri had been told of this, and he said: “The Bagals will expect them to come, should they wish to be moved by the message. We will try one trick upon them. At night, in the thick darkness, our men shall march past the Froda-as with a large force, and take care that neither the Bagals nor the townsmen get to know. The Birkibeins who are left behind shall listen for the sound of the trumpet, and seize their weapons. Then both divisions shall draw up in battle array and make as though you were fighting, but, of course, forbear hurting one another. You who go from the town shall fall before those who are coming to it. Make as much noise as you can and act as if you were having the best of it, but in the end let all turn away and flee. I expect the Bagals will then come down from the rock; so we shall place some of our troops in ambush close to it, and ‘trolls will come between house and yeomen’.” This stratagem was carried out. In the morning as soon as it became light, the watchmen of the Bagals observed from the northern blockhouse a large and well-equipped force marching along the way down by the Froda-as. They went at once and roused Hreidar, telling him those must be their fellows coming. Hreidar rose up and bade his men take arms; and when they were armed they went to the northern blockhouse. Thence they saw two standards, one with the force descending the ridge, and the other with the force that went from the town; they heard also much blowing of trumpets. Next, swords were brandished, and they saw that the Birkibeins fled, and some fell. The Bagals then urged Hreidar to quit the rock and help their men, and not let the Birkibeins come again within the trench. Hreidar answered: “Let us see first how they deal with one another. If the Birkibeins are chased to the trench, they will be slow in getting over the palisades, and our men will slay as many of them as they like.” And again he said: “This flight proceeds strangely. It seems to me as if they were playing a game. Do you observe how they seek dry spots to fall on, or else fall on their shields? And do you see any marks of blood on their weapons or clothes? No! neither do I,” he said. ” This must be a trick of Sverri.” When the King saw that the Bagals were on their guard and did not quit the rock, he turned back to his camp with all his force.

Siege of the rock of Tunsberg: Speech of King Sverri.

And now the winter came on with frost and sheets of ice, and the Birkibeins found it harder to rake together provisions, as the yeomen grew more difficult to take by the horns. Their fare became much worse, and a general murmur arose throughout the host, and nearly all the levies wished to return home. The King held a council, and spoke and said: “I hear now that my men consider this a wanton siege, and that it would be good to be at home, and happy would he be that should go home. To murmur thus against your King is unworthy of warriors, even if you don’t fill your stomachs as labourers at the flail. You are unlike those men of the olden time of whom the story is told, how they besieged their foes to destroy them so stubbornly that their clothes rotted from them, and they devoured the sheaths of their swords and the upper leathers of their shoes, and abandoned not the siege till they were victorious. Though I take these men as an example, there is a nearer one to mention in the Bagals on the rock, who will not surrender, and show more steadfastness and stubbornness than you. Now, let me hear no longer of any murmuring, for here we shall sit whether it seems to you fair or foul, blithe or harsh, crooked or straight, until we have the Bagals in our power.”

As the winter advanced, food on the rock diminished, and Hreidar saw that they would soon be at their last gasp in the struggle if no help came from Ingi and Sigurd. But no answer came to their message, no answer save one which the Birkibeins made them every day, that their King Ingi would soon come with a mighty force to free them. To the Bagals this seemed a mockery, which it was.

The Bagals send a force into Bogn to divert King Sverri from the siege.

After this, Hreidar caused a letter to be written to Ingi and Sigurd, in which he said that though in evil plight they might hold the rock until Nicolas-mass; and he begged them with fair words to come with help. There was now a hard frost, and a sheet of ice lay from the rock over the bay. The next night Hreidar despatched a man from the rock, north, with the letter. The man had a pair of snow-skates and slipped away on them, keeping close to land until he was beyond the trench; and the Birkibeins knew nothing of it till he was quite gone. He went on his journey and came with the letter to Ingi, in Hamar-Kaupang. Ingi held a meeting of his captains and had the letter read before them. Sigurd Earlsson thus answered: “We have roamed about in bands a while, we have ever lost our men through King Sverri, and we have caused much loss of life among his men. We shall not now rush headlong to certain death though Hreidar would point the way. We shall try another plan. Let us march north to the fiords and procure ships; and Sverri will hear such news of us that he will think it more needful to defend the land there than to besiege a few men on the rock.” This important counsel pleased the whole meeting.

The Bagals went on their journey north into the dales, and came down into Raumsdale, where they procured cutters, and hastened south, coastwise. When they were opposite Sogn-Sea they turned into it, pulling hard against the wind. In the night they reached Vik, where they captured a cutter and all that it contained. Jon Stal was on it, and he intended to sail south to Bergen. Jon sprang on shore and escaped with all his men into the wood, and the yeomen supplied them with weapons and clothes.

The Birkibeins defeat the Bagals in Sogn.

Next morning nearly fifty men of the Bagals went on shore to the bath at Hof. They were seen to go by Jon Stal, who was on the fell with seventeen men; and when he thought the moment favourable he hurried down to the homestead. The Bagals saw him coming, and escaped; but he followed them down to Aldinhagi and there slew one of them. Then he turned back, and the next day began a march overland south to Bergen. In Bergen he found Einar Kings-kin and Dagfinn, and they made ready straightway the force they had got, took shipping, and sailed north to Sogn. Here they learnt that the Bagals were staying in Lusa-Kaupang, and had summoned an Assembly of the men of Sogn and called out the levy. Ingi was there accepted as King. Gunnthiof was the name of the yeoman who gave him the name of King, and the Bagals consented to his words. The Birkibeins rowed in the night into Sogn, and came to Kaupang at dawn. They went straight to the quays, sounded their trumpets, and marched up boldly. The Bagals seized their weapons and fled; some of them were slain. There was a man named Biorn Furulegg, a vagrant. In the fell above Lusa-Kaupang, in a mountain-shed, he came upon Arni Bishops-kin, who was sorely wounded and had not been able to escape further. Biorn slew him for the clothes he wore and his money, and concealed the deed. The body was found the following spring. The Bagals ran up into Kaupangs-fell and down to Svaforni; some fled to Folka, whence they sailed to Lustr on ferry-boats and smaller vessels. The Birkibeins seized their ships, a great part of their weapons and clothes, and all their money. The Bagals joined one another in Lustr, and then passed over the fell down to Ardale. Jon Stal heard of them and went there after them, but the Bagals had then gone beyond the lake, and the next morning they marched over the fell to Valdres, and so on to the Uplands.

Surrender of the rock of Tunsberg

King Sverri still lay encamped about the rock, and the day was now past until which Hreidar in the letter had said he could hold out on the rock. Their condition was now so hard and food so scarce that there was little to eat. They cut up their tackle of walrus-hide and had to manage with that when keeping Yule, and had not even half enough. One night in the early part of Yule, Hallvard Bratti and another man escaped from the rock and came to King Sverri, who gave them quarter. The next morning King Sverri’s men heard of it, and were not pleased that the Bagals should have quarter. The Bagals on the rock became aware that the King had given quarter to Hallvard, and many now hoped for quarter who hitherto had no expectation of it. Many escaped from the rock to the King, and all obtained quarter. Then the King became aware of the fact that the Bagals on the rock had lost all hope of life or help, and were at the last gasp, through want of food. Hreidar, too, had caused the King to be told that he would quit the rock the next day, and rather suffer death by the sword than by hunger; but would gladly receive quarter if he had the chance. He asked quarter, too, for all his comrades. King Sverri now summoned all his men to a council, and thus spoke: ” I desire now to consult with you, how we shall deal with Hreidar and his fellows, if they come into our power. Should this happen, all our men will rejoice to end this obstinate siege, and those will rejoice the most who behaved the worst in the autumn, and would have abandoned it. Shall we give quarter to any of these men or to none? What do you advise? ” Many answered and said: “Collected here on the rock are those who have done the utmost evil to us and our men. It will seem to us a hard lot, to have starved here this winter, and endured much toil on their account, and to take now the slayers of our fathers and our brothers and give them quarter, and hereafter to share our cabins with them.” And King Sverri replied: “Look, my good men, those of you who seem to me too proud, and will not endure to be on a level with me, and bethink you whether any will be reproached hereafter for following my example. Here in Tunsberg the Bagals slew Hidi, my brother; and in Oslo, Earl Philippus, my kinsman, and many besides. And now this winter you must have heard them call Sverri dog, mare, and many other bad names. I am willing to forgive them for God’s sake, and I hope from Him, in return, forgiveness of all I have done against Him. You have souls no less than I, and must bear this in mind. No man will ever call you cowards any the more because you so act.” All consented to let the King have his way, and the council ended. The King then sent word to Hreidar and his men that quarter was promised them. The next day at the time of the morning meal, Hreidar and his men left the rock. King Sverri had them brought before him, and they all swore fealty to him. They were then dispersed among the companies, and the King took Hreidar into his own company. He bade men have great care in nursing them, and this was done; and he bade the men themselves to be wary at first, both as to meat and drink, but they differed much in that. So near death had they come that they all fell ill before gaining strength, and many died; and of those who preserved life many pined for a long time. Hreidar was long ill, and King Sverri used many healing cures. The King was encamped around Tunsberg for twenty weeks, and soon after the rock was given up he prepared to leave, and launched his ships.

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

This entry was posted in Primary Sources and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.