Who were the first Norwegian crusaders?

March 22, 2016 - 06:20

Several thousand Norwegians answered the call of the Pope to undertake the perilous journey to Jerusalem.

Sigurd I Magnusson riding with King Baldwin I of Jerusalem around 1110. (Illustration: Snorri Sturluson - Heimskringla, J.M. Stenersen & Co., 1899)

What would eventually be known as the Crusades began in 1095 in Europe, at the unwitting behest of Pope Urban II.  The Pope asked Christians in Western Europe to help the Byzantine Empire in Eastern Europe. The empire was under pressure from Seljuk Turks, who controlled their own vast empire in the Middle East and Southwest Asia.

Pope Urban II’s call for help was presented at a church council in Clermont, France, and the message spread like wildfire. But this was not just about saving the Byzantine Empire. Jerusalem, the holiest city in the world, was also the target of this radical new form of pilgrimage—the First Crusade.

The first Norwegian believed to have set out on the long journey in response to the Pope’s call was Skofte Ogmundsson, who was said to have left from Norway’s west coast with five ships in 1101.

But who were Ogmundsson and his ilk, and what do we know about them?

The Crusades begin

In the years after Pope Urban II’s call for help, thousands of people from all walks of life—nobles, knights, priests, monks, the poor, sick and old—undertook the journey to Jerusalem. The First Crusade ended in success when Jerusalem was conquered in 1099.

This was the beginning of a Latin kingdom in the Middle East, which held sway until 1291.

The Church councils Clermont in 1095, where Pope Urban II launched the Crusades. (Photo: Bibliothèque Nationale)

But Norway, the little windswept country at the edge of Europe, was also involved in what became a huge European joint effort.

Pål Berg Svenungsen is a PhD candidate in history at the University of Bergen who has tried to collect what we know about Norway and the Crusades from 1050 and 1350.

“Although research on the Crusades is extremely popular in Europe, there has been very little research on the topic in Norway,” he said.

A pilgrimage, not a crusade

The Crusades were originally seen as pilgrimages. In the centuries before the Crusades there was a religious resurgence in Europe. Pilgrimages were an important part of religious life.

Initially these journeys were both short and local, but during the 11th century they became more extensive and lengthy. One important goal was the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.

Many Scandinavians set off on pilgrimages to show their devotion to God. The most popular destinations in Europe were Santiago de Compostela in Spain, where the tomb of the apostle James was supposed to be. Rome was also a central goal, but Jerusalem became increasingly important over the course of the 11th century.

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. The church was consecrated in 335 AD, but it has been added on to many times since then. (Photo: Jlascar / CC BY SA 2.0)

Although there are very few sources that shed light on the number of Scandinavian pilgrims and where they were going, about 750 Scandinavian names were recorded in the register of a German monastery in the 11th and 12th centuries, which noted these visitors were pilgrims passing through.

“Norwegian participation in the Crusades should be seen as a continuation of the tradition of making a pilgrimage,” Svenungsen said, with one important difference: These pilgrims had weapons.

Unreliable sagas

There are not many sources from which the story of Scandinavians in the Crusades can be pieced together, Svenungsen says.

“I've read everything I can get my hands on,” he said.

The most famous Norwegian crusader is King Sigurd I Magnusson. He was also called Jorsalfare, in recognition of the fact that he had travelled to Jerusalem.

But the first Norwegian credited with making the journey was Skofte Ogmundsson, a rich magnate from Giske in western Norway who was said to have gone to Jerusalem in 1101, two years after the city had been conquered by the first Crusaders.

Baldwin of Boulogne came to Edessa in modern Turkey on the way to Jerusalem. This was said to have happened in 1098, two years before Baldwin became king of Jerusalem. The painting is from 1840 and shows a typical romanticized image of the Crusaders. (Photo: J.Robert-Fleury, “Les Croisades, origines et consequences”)

Exactly why Skofte decided to take this trip is unclear, and the only source is Snorri Sturluson’s Old Norsk saga, Heimskringla, Svenungsen said.

It may be that Skofte was exiled by because of a dispute with King Magnus Barefoot over an inheritance or treasure, but Snorri’s accounts are somewhat unreliable, especially since they were written more than 100 years after Skofte’s journey.

Skofte never made it to Jerusalem, because he died in the Mediterranean on the journey there. But some of the people who travelled in the five ships he was said to have brought with him returned with news about the religious city, which in turn spurred the well-known journey of Sigurd in 1108.

Sigurd and the 60 ships

“Part of what is so interesting about Sigurd is that we have multiple, concurrent sources about his journey to Jerusalem,” Svenungsen said.

Sigurd, who shared the throne with two half-brothers, launched a much larger expedition than Skofte, with a total of 60 ships that sailed from Norway in 1108.

Various historians have estimated that anywhere from 2,000 to 10,000 men were on the ships, Svenungsen said.

A coastal fort in Sidon that was established by Crusaders. The fort was built long after Sigurd was there in 1228. (Photo: Heretiq)

Sigurd helped Baldwin I, King of Jerusalem, to consolidate his position in the Middle East, and he participated in the siege of Sidon in 1110. Sidon is located in today’s Lebanon, and the city was besieged by Sigurd from the sea and by Baldwin from the land.

But this was also a pilgrimage, and Sigurd visited all the holy places while he was there. He returned to Norway in 1111. Sigurd donated all his ships to the emperor Alexeios I of Constantinople, today's Istanbul, and then travelled along country roads through Europe to return home.

Subsequently, the Earl of Orkney, Ragnvald Kale Kollsson, embarked for the Holy Lands in 1153. The magnate Erling Skakke travelled there between 1153 and 1155.
But why did they go?

“Many of those who went from both Norway and Europe were not poor, they were among Europe's most powerful and richest men. They had much more to lose than to win,” Svenungsen said.

But seen in the larger context of religious movements across Europe, the Crusades make sense, he said.

“A crusade became a kind of alternative to entering a monastery, and knights could thus serve God in other ways,” he said.


Read the Norwegian version of this article at forskning.no