Rognvald Eysteinsson (fl. 865) was the founding Jarl (or Earl) of
Møre in Norway, and a close relative and ally of Harald Fairhair, the
earliest known King of Norway. In the
Norse language he is known as
Rognvaldr Eysteinsson and in modern Norwegian as Ragnvald Mørejarl.
He is sometimes referred to with bynames that may be translated into
modern English as "Rognvald the Wise" or "Rognvald the Powerful".
The earliest available sources regarding Rognvald are mutually
contradictory and were compiled long after he died. The best known are
the Norse Sagas, although modern scholars highlight many
inconsistencies and improbable claims regarding Rognvald in the sagas,
and believe that they must be treated with caution: The texts of
the sagas were compiled three centuries after the events described and
their accuracy in regard to Rognvald's life and historical
significance is now questioned. Hence some scholars instead emphasise
other accounts, closer to the historical period in question, such as
Irish and Scottish sources.
While Rognvald does appear to have had some kind of role in the
founding of the Norse Earldom of Orkney, most historians now doubt
claims in the Sagas that Rognvald led one particular "great voyage"
– a Norwegian expedition that attacked rebel vikings, who had been
Norway from bases on
Orkney and Shetland, before raiding the
Ireland and the Isle of Man. It is now generally
believed that any such expedition would have occurred after Rognvald's
lifetime. A modern authority on Orcadian history,
William P. L. Thomson, comments that the story of the "great
voyage is so thoroughly ingrained in popular and scholarly history,
both ancient and modern, that it comes as a bit of a shock to realise
that it might not be true."
Modern scholars also highlight inconsistencies and improbable claims
in the sagas' claims regarding: the relationship between Rognvald and
Harald; the names and biographies of Rognvald's immediate family, and;
the founding of the earldom of Møre.
Rognvald was the father of
Torf-Einarr (d. circa 910) an earl of
Orkney. Some Norse accounts claimed that another son, Hrólfr, settled
in France and, under the name
Rollo (d. 930), founded the Duchy of
Normandy. However, French sources suggest that Rollo's father was an
unnamed Danish or Norwegian nobleman, or a viking named Ketill.
1 Traditional accounts
1.3 Death and legacy
2 Modern interpretations
Harald Fairhair and the voyage to the west
2.2 Founding of the earldom of Orkney
2.3 Rognvald's brother and sons
2.4 Similarities to Ragnall ua Ímair
2.5 Broad themes
4 External links
The oldest account that may refer to Rognvald and the Earldom of
Orkney appears to be the Fragmentary Annals of Ireland. These annals
are believed to date from the lifetime of Donnchad mac Gilla Pátraic,
who died in 1039, although they survive only as incomplete copies
Dubhaltach Mac Fhirbhisigh (17th century).
...for it was not long before this that there had been every war and
every trouble in Norway, and this was the source of that war in
Norway: two younger sons of Albdan, king of Norway, drove out the
eldest son, i.e. Ragnall son of Albdan, for fear that he would seize
the kingship of
Norway after their father. So Ragnall came with his
three sons to the
Orkney Islands. Ragnall stayed there then, with his
Fragmentary Annals of Ireland, FA 330. Edited and translated by Joan
These events are placed after an account of the devastation of
Fortriu, dated to around 866, and the mention of an eclipse
confirms a date of 865.
Orkneyinga saga has proven to be controversial but a recent
analysis has the "majority of scholars in favour of dates between 1170
and 1220" whilst admitting that "it remains to be established when,
why, where, for whom and by whom it was written". Much of the
information it contains is "hard to corroborate".
Rognvald is also referred to in Snorri Sturluson's Heimskringla
(written c. 1230), written in Iceland.
Christian Krohg's portrait of Snorri Sturluson, 13th century compiler
of the Heimskringla.
Historia Norvegiae (written c. 1505) includes an account of
the foundation of the
Orkney earldom, as well as some questionable
details about pre-
Viking Orkney, it has relatively little to say about
It is not certain that the Ragnall of the Irish annals is synonymous
with Rognvald Eysteinsson. The relevant entry goes on to describe
Ragnall's older sons raiding in Spain and North Africa, but there is
no specific mention of the Earldom of Orkney. There is also a separate
piece of circumstantial evidence, suggesting a link between Ragnall
and the 9th century figure Ragnar Lodbrok: runic inscriptions found
inside Maeshowe, dating from the 12th century, state that the mound
was "built before Loðbrók".
There is no agreement in the available sources on Rognvald's
parentage. According to the Irish annals, Ragnall was the son of
"Halfdan, King of Lochlann". This is generally understood to mean
Halfdan the Black, which would make Ragnall the brother of King Harald
Fairhair. This is contradicted by later Norse sagas, which suggest
that Halfdan was Rognvald's grandfather. The
Orkneyinga saga says
that Rognvald was the son of
Eystein Ivarsson and grandson of Ívarr
He was married, according to the
Orkneyinga saga to Ragnhild, the
daughter of a man named Hrólfr Nose, although in the Heimskringla
his wife is named Hild.
Both sagas refer to six sons. The oldest, "by concubines", were
Hallad, Einarr and Hrollaug, who were "grown men when their brothers
born in marriage were still children". The latter were Ivar,
Hrólfr, and Thorir the Silent. Hrólfr, who "was so big that no horse
could carry him", hence his byname of "Ganger-Hrólf", is
identified by the saga writers with Rollo, founder of Duchy of
Normandy (in 911).
Orkneyinga saga Rognvald was made the Earl of Møre by Harald
Fairhair. The Saga of
Harald Fairhair in
Heimskringla recounts that
Harald Fairhair to be given his byname by cutting and
dressing his hair, which had been uncut for ten years on account of
his vow never to cut it until he was ruler of all Norway. Rognvald
accompanied the king on a great military expedition. First the islands
Orkney were cleared of vikings who had been raiding
Norway and then continued on to Scotland,
Ireland and the Isle of Man.
During this campaign Rognvald's son Ivarr was killed and in
compensation Harald granted Rognvald
Orkney and Shetland.
Rognvald thereafter returned to Norway, giving the northern isles to
his brother Sigurd Eysteinsson. Sigurd had been the
forecastleman on Harald's ship and after sailing back east the king
"gave Sigurd the title of earl". However, the
specifically that Sigurd was the first Earl of Orkney. According
to the Orkneyinga Saga, after Sigurd became earl he died in a curious
fashion, following a battle with Máel Brigte of Moray. Sigurd's son
Gurthorm ruled for a single winter after this and died
childless. Rognvald's son Hallad then inherited the title.
However, unable to constrain Danish raids on Orkney, he gave up the
earldom and returned to Norway, which "everyone thought was a huge
joke." Still, there is a tradition among the folk at Strath
Halladale, Sutherland, which is named for Hallad, that he returned and
was slain in battle at the beginning of the tenth century and was
buried near the battle site in a circular trench ten or twelve feet
wide. His sword, it is said, was placed beside him in the grave, and a
stone was placed in the center of the circle, part of which was still
visible at the beginning of the eighteenth century. The site was near
a little town called Dal Halladha, Halladha’s field.
A page from the Orkneyinga saga, as it appears in the 14th century
The Danish raids caused Rognvald to fly into a rage and summon his
sons Thorir and Hrolluag. He predicted that Thorir's path would keep
Norway and that Hrolluag was destined seek his fortune in
Iceland. Turf-Einar, the youngest, then came forward and offered to go
to the islands. Rognvald said: "Considering the kind of mother you
have, slave-born on each side of her family, you are not likely to
make much of a ruler. But I agree, the sooner you leave and the later
you return the happier I'll be." His father's misgivings
Torf-Einarr succeeded in defeating the Danes and
founded a dynasty which retained control of the islands for centuries
after his death.
Historia Norvegiae includes some questionable details about pre-Viking
Orkney – such as an account of the
Picts as a small people who hid
in the daytime – as well as the foundation of the
In the days of Harald Fairhair, king of Norway, certain pirates, of
the family of the most vigorous prince Ronald [Rognvald], set out with
a great fleet, and crossed the Solundic sea..., and subdued the
islands to themselves. And being there provided with safe winter
seats, they went in summer-time working tyranny upon the English, and
the Scots, and sometimes also upon the Irish, so that they took under
their rule, from England, Northumbria; from Scotland, Caithness; from
Ireland, Dublin, and the other sea-side towns.
This account does not specifically associate Rognvald with the
earldom, attributing the "dominion" of the islands to the anonymous
kinfolk of his son Hrólfr.
Death and legacy
Rognvald was killed by King Harald's son Halfdan Hålegg and Gudrod
Gleam, who engineered a sudden attack, surrounding the house in which
Rognvald was staying, and burned it to the ground with the earl and 60
of his men inside it. Harald "flew into a rage" when he heard about
this and sent out a "great force" against Gudrod who was then
banished. Halfdan escaped into the western seas and Rognvald's death
was later avenged by Torf-Einarr, who killed him on North Ronaldsay
and then made peace with Harald. Rognvald's son Thorir was then made
Earl of Møre by Harald, who also gave Thorir his daughter Alof in
The sagas thus identify Rognvald as the apical figure of the Norse
Orkney who controlled the islands until the early 13th
century, and a forerunner of important Icelandic families.
Furthermore, through his son Hrolfr Rognvald he is an ancestor of the
Normandy who, following the Norman conquest of England in
1066, became the kings of England.
Harald Fairhair and the voyage to the west
Magnus Barefoot's army in Ireland. Magnus' actions in the west clearly
form the basis of the saga narrative about the submission of Orkney
Shetland to Harald Fairhair's fleet.
Rognvald's life occurs within the first eight short chapters within
Orkneyinga saga and it is clear that in this early period it
contains generally less detail and historical accuracy than in the
later events it describes. Recorded in the 13th century, the sagas
are informed by Norwegian politics of the day.
Harald Fairhair's supposed expeditions to the west, recounted by
Snorri Sturluson in
Heimskringla are no longer accepted as historical
realities by many modern historians, including Thomson. Later
(mid-13th century) rivalry between the Norwegians and the Kings of the
Scots over the
Hebrides and the
Isle of Man
Isle of Man are seen to have driven
Sturluson's account. At least in part, the sagas aim to legitimise
Norwegian claims to both the
Northern Isles and the Kingdom of the
Isles in the west. The situation faced by Earl Harald Maddadsson
Orkney in 1195, when he was forced to submit himself to royal
authority after an ill-judged intervention in Norwegian affairs, would
have made legendary material of this nature of considerable interest
in Orkney, at the time that the sagas were written.
It is also clear that elements in the narrative are drawn from the
much later expeditions undertaken by Magnus Barefoot.
Nonetheless, the view that the
Orkney earldom was created by "members
of the Møre family" continues to receive academic support.
Harald Fairhair's victory in the Battle of Hafrsfjord, which gave him
dominion over parts of Norway, is traditionally dated to 872, but was
probably later, perhaps as late as 900. What little is known of
Scottish events in the period from the Chronicle of the Kings of Alba
would correspond equally well with Harald's attacks on
Scotland in the
Domnall mac Causantín
Domnall mac Causantín (ruled 889–900). However, this
would not correspond with the sequence in the earliest account of the
origins of the
Orkney earldom, which places this a generation earlier.
The entry in the Fragmentary Annals at an early date also makes it
difficult to reconcile the saga claims that
Harald Fairhair was
involved in Rognvald's conquest of the northern isles.
The monument at Haraldshaugen, erected to celebrate the millennial
anniversary of Norway's unification under the rule of King Harald
Fairhair after the Battle of Hafrsfjord.
Other saga material provides an alternative description. In the
Eyrbyggja saga the same story of a great expedition to punish unruly
Vikings who were raiding
Norway is undertaken, but here it is Ketil
flatnefr (Ketil Flatnose) who leads it. Although this is apparently
done at Harald's behest, Ketil then claims the islands as his own.
Once again, the chronology is flawed by Harald's inclusion in the tale
as other information provided about Ketil gives him a floruit of the
mid, rather than late, 9th century.
Furthermore, contemporary Irish sources have a great deal to say about
Viking raids on the coasts of
Ireland and southern
Scotland and those
who led them, but none mention King Harald. The earliest of the large
expeditions again belong to a period—the 840s—that pre-dates the
time of Harald's kingship.
Smyth (1984) credits the launching of the great voyage to the west to
Olaf the White, whom he provides with a royal
Vestfold origin along
with various military activities in
Scotland and for whom, assuming an
identification of Olaf with Amlaib "Conung" the King of Dublin, there
is a contemporary Irish reference dating to 853. Icelandic sources
also have Olaf marrying Aud the Deep-Minded, Ketil flatnefr's
daughter, and the ‘’Annals of Ulster’’ record what may be
dynastic in-fighting between Olaf and his father-in-law in
Founding of the earldom of Orkney
By implication the
Orkneyinga saga identifies Rognvald as the founder
of the earldom, although
Heimskringla has his brother Sigurd as the
first to formally hold the title. Other sources are less specific (see
above) and the sagas have been interpreted in various other ways.
Smyth (1984), having banished King Harald’s role in the voyage to
the west to the realms of myth concludes that the role of the brothers
Eysteinsson can be similarly so dispatched and that
be regarded as the first historical earl of Orkney”.
Drawing on Adam of Bremen's assertion that
Orkney was not conquered
until the time of Harald Hardrada, who ruled
Norway from 1043–66,
Woolf (2007) speculates that Sigurd “the Stout” Hlodvirsson,
Torf-Einarr's great-grandson, may have been the first Earl of Orkney
Rognvald's brother and sons
Shetland at centre, in relation to nearby territories
The notion that Rognvald could hand over his
Northern Isles estates to
his brother has been interpreted in various ways. For example, it may
be that he was aware of ongoing
Viking raiding in the area and
considered the gift from the king as a mixed blessing. This is
also one of a number of instances in which the writer of the
Orkneyinga saga attempts to reconcile the conflicting themes of
Norway (Rognvald gifts the islands to Sigurd) and
dependence on royal authority (Harald formalises the process by
confirming Sigurd as earl). Beuermann (2011) speculates that
Rognvald's transfer of power to his brother may have been an attempt
by the saga writers to imply that the
Orkney earldom had more
Norway than that of Møre and that Rognvald's
holdings in Caithness may have allowed for an even greater degree of
freedom of action. Such implications are more likely to be rooted in
the writer's interest in emphasising Orcadian independence at the time
of writing rather than the 9th/10th century events they purport to
After Hallad's failure in
Orkney there is a dialogue between father
and sons that has been interpreted as being about Rognvald's desire to
cement his own position as Earl of Møre and an allusion to the early
history of Iceland, where the sagas were written. Thorir is a
compliant son who Rognvald is happy to keep at home. Hrolluag is
portrayed as a man of peace who will go to Iceland. Einarr is
aggressive and a threat to his father's position so can be spared for
the dangers of Orkney. In the
Landnámabók version the equally
aggressive Hrolfr is also present, and his destiny is anticipated to
be in conveniently far-away Normandy.[Note 2]
Similarities to Ragnall ua Ímair
Alex Woolf suggests that saga authors may have synthesised elements of
the life of Ragnall ua Ímair, a later figure, into the figure of
Rognvald Eysteinsson of Møre. Ragnall ua Ímair, who was active
between 914 and 921 in the
Irish Sea region, was a grandson of Ímar,
the "king of the Northmen of all Britain and Ireland", whose death is
recorded in the
Annals of Ulster
Annals of Ulster in 873. (It is clear, therefore
that if Rognvald was the Raghnall recorded by the Irish Fragmentary
Annals as active in 865, he could not be literally synonymous with
Ragnall ua Ímair.)
There are at least two major similarities between the two figures
include: both are grandsons of an Ímar/Ivarr and; like Rognvald, a
close relative of Ragnall named
Ímar was killed in battle in Scotland
Ímar ua Ímair, d. 904).
There are several recurring themes in the Orkneyinga saga, including
strife between brothers, relationships between the jarls and the
Norwegian crown, and raiding in the Hebrides, all of which are
touched on during the saga's coverage of Rognvald's life and times. In
part, the saga's purpose was to "explore such social and psychological
tensions as these in the history of the people of Orkney, and to help
them understand themselves through a knowledge of their origins".
^ More controversially, Smyth also identifies
Olaf the White with Olaf
Geirstad-Alf, a legendary Norwegian king of the
House of Yngling
House of Yngling – a
suggestion dismissed by Ó Corráin (1979).
^ In the
Heimskringla Hrolfr is banished by King Harald.
^ Muir (2005) Preface: Genealogical table of the Earls of Orkney.
^ a b Woolf (2007) p. 242
^ a b c Thomson (2008) p. 25
^ Radner (1999) p. 322-23
^ Anderson (1990) p. 296; Annals of Ulster, s.a. 865.
^ a b Thomson (2008) p. 22
^ Phelpstead (2001) p. xvi
^ Phelpstead (2001) p. ix, quoting Inger Ekrem.
^ Crawford (1987) pp. 53-54
Orkneyinga saga (1981) Chapter 3 - "The Sea-Kings" p. 25-26
^ a b c d e f
Orkneyinga saga (1981) Chapter 4 - " To
Orkney" pp. 26-27
^ a b c d Saga of
Harald Fairhair Chapter 24 - Rolf Ganger Driven Into
^ Saga of Harald Fairhair, cc. 4 & 23
^ Anderson (1990) pp. 332-334; Saga of
Harald Fairhair Chapter 22-
King Harald's Voyage To The West.
^ Heimskringla. "Chapter 99 - History Of The Earls Of Orkney".
^ Thomson (2008) p. 28.
Orkneyinga saga (1981) Chapter 5 - "A poisoned tooth" pp. 27-28
^ Thomson (2008) p. 30 quoting chapter 5 of the Orkneyinga saga.
^ Pinkerton, John (1809). A General Collection of the Best and Most
Interesting Voyages and in All Parts of the World, Vol. 3. London.
p. 152. Retrieved 15 April 2017.
Orkneyinga saga (1981) Chapter 6 - "Forecasts" pp. 28-29.
^ Thomson (2008) p. 29
^ Anderson (1990) pp. 330-331
^ Phelpstead (2001) p. 9
^ Saga of Harald Fairhair, cc. 29-30
Orkneyinga saga (1981) Chapter 8 - "Troublemakers from Norway" pp.
^ Heimskringla. "Harald Harfager's Saga, Part 30 - Earl Ragnvald Burnt
In His House".
^ a b c Thomson (2008) p. 27
^ Pálsson and Edwards (1981) "Introduction" p. 11
^ Crawford (1987) pp. 52-53.
^ Thomson (2008) pp. 27-28
^ Helle, Knut (2006) "Earls of Orkney": The
Impact and Influence,
Royal Society of Edinburgh
Royal Society of Edinburgh Conference 22–26
September 2006. Edinburgh (Rapporteur: Andrew Heald); retrieved 27
^ Crawford (1987) p. 55–56.
^ Anderson (1990) pp. 395–396.
^ Thomson (2008) p. 26
^ Smyth (1984) pp. 152-53
^ Smyth (1984) p. 156
^ Ó Corráin (1979) p. 298
^ Smyth (1984) p. 153
^ Woolf (2007) p. 307
^ Muir (2005) p. 6
^ Thomson (2008) p. 31
^ Beuermann (2011) p. 120
^ Beuermann (2011) p. 121
^ Pálsson and Edwards (1981) "Introduction" p. 13
^ Pálsson and Edwards (1981) "Introduction" p. 14
^ Ó Corráin (1998) p. 37
^ Woolf (2007) pp. 140, 148
^ Woolf (2007) pp. 300–303
^ Pálsson and Edwards (1981) "Introduction" pp. 15-16
^ Pálsson and Edwards (1981) "Introduction" p. 19
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The Orkneyinga Saga (1873 translation by Jón A. Hjaltalin &
Norse Earls of Orkney
Ragnvald Eysteinsson "the Wise" (9th century)
Sigurd Eysteinsson "the Mighty" (to 892)
Guthorm Sigurdsson (893)
Hallad Rognvaldsson (893–895)
Torf-Einarr Rognvaldarson (895–910)
Arnkel Torf-Einarsson (910–954)
Erlend Torf-Einarsson (910-954)
Thorfinn Torf-Einarsson "Skull-Splitter" (910–963)
Arnfinn, Havard, Ljot and Hlodvir Thorfinnsson (963–980)
Sigurd Hlodvirsson "the Stout" (980–1014)
Sumarlidi Sigurdsson (1014–1016)
Brusi Sigurdsson (1014–1031)
Einar Sigurdsson "Wry-mouth" (1014–1026)
Thorfinn Sigurdsson "the Mighty" (1025–1064)
Rögnvald Brusason (1036–1046)
Paul and Erlend Thorfinnsson
Paul and Erlend Thorfinnsson (1064–1098)
Sigurd Magnusson "the Jerusalem-farer" (1098–1103)
Haakon Paulsson (1104–1123)
Magnus Erlendsson (1106–1116)
Harald Haakonsson (1123–1130)
Paul Haakonsson (1123–1136)
Rögnvald Kali Kolsson
Rögnvald Kali Kolsson (1136–1158)
Harald Maddadsson "the Old" (1138–1206)
Erlend Haraldsson (1151–1154)
Harald Eiriksson "the Younger" (1191–1198)
David Haraldsson (1206–1214)
Jon Haraldsson (1206–1231)
Dates are approximate. Joint earldoms were frequent.
List of kings
Earls of Orkney
Lords of Argyll
Mormaers of Caithness
Aud the Deep-Minded
Bethóc, Prioress of Iona
Cacht ingen Ragnaill
Gormflaith ingen Murchada
Ingeborg of Norway
Ingibjörg the Earls'-Mother
Máel Muire ingen Amlaíb
Margaret, Maid of Norway
Margaret, Queen of Norway
Margaret of Denmark, Queen of Scotland
Other notable men
Olaf the White
Ragnall ua Ímair
Thorstein the Red
Kingdom of the Isles
Scottish–Norwegian War (1262-66)
Brough of Birsay
Cubbie Roo's Castle
Port an Eilean Mhòir boat burial
Rubha an Dùnain
Scar boat burial
St Magnus Church
Artifacts and culture
Chronicles of Mann
Sen dollotar Ulaid
St Magnus Cathedral
Law Ting Holm
Scottish island names
Battles and treaties
Isle of Man
Treaty of 1098
Treaty of Perth
Associated clans and septs
Macaulay of Lewis