Olof Skötkonung

Olof Skötkonung
Coin minted for King Olof in Sigtuna
King of Sweden
Reignc. 995–1022
PredecessorErik the Victorious
SuccessorAnund Jacob
Bornc. 980
Died1022 (aged 41–42)
SpouseEstrid of the Obotrites
FatherErik the Victorious
MotherSigríð Storråda/Świętosława?

Olof Skötkonung, (Old Norse: Óláfr skautkonungr; c. 980–1022) sometimes stylized as Olaf the Swede, was King of Sweden, son of Eric the Victorious and, according to Icelandic sources, Sigrid the Haughty. He succeeded his father in c. 995. He stands at the threshold of recorded history, since he is the first Swedish ruler about whom there is substantial knowledge. He is regarded as the first king known to have ruled both the Swedes and the Geats. In Sweden, the reign of king Olov Skötkonung (c. 995–1022) is considered to be the transition from the Viking age to the Middle Ages, he was the first Christian king of the Swedes, who ruled central Sweden. Norse beliefs persisted in parts of Sweden until the 12–13th century (with some keeping the tradition into modern times).

Olof was victorious alongside Sweyn Forkbeard when the kings created an alliance to defeat the Norwegian king Olaf Tryggvason in the Battle of Svolder. After the battle, the victorious leaders split Norway into areas of control. Heimskringla gives the most detailed account of the division. Olof received four districts in Trondheim as well as Møre, Romsdal and Rånrike.


One of many explanations for the name Skötkonung is that it is derived from the Swedish word "skatt", which can mean either "taxes" or "treasure". The latter meaning has been interpreted as "tributary king" and one English scholar speculates about a tributary relationship to the Danish king Sweyn Forkbeard, who was his stepfather. That explanation, however, is not supported by evidence or historical sources. Another possible explanation of the name refers to the fact that he was the first Swedish king to mint coins. An ancient land ownership ceremony which placed a parcel of earth in someone's lap (Swedish: sköte) was called scotting and may have been involved in this epithet.

The Old Norse "Óláfr sœnski" means "Olaf the Swedish", an epithet used to distinguish him from the Norwegian kings Olaf Tryggvasson and Olaf Haraldsson.


General knowledge of Olof's life is mostly based on Snorri Sturluson's and Adam of Bremen's accounts, which have been subject to criticism from some scholars. The eldest account by the German ecclesiastic chronicler Adam of Bremen (c. 1075), relates that Sweyn Forkbeard was expelled from his Danish realm by the Swedish King Eric the Victorious in the late 10th century. When Eric died (c. 995), Sweyn returned and regained his kingdom, marrying Eric's widow. Meanwhile, however, Olof had succeeded his father Eric, gathered an army, and launched a surprise attack against Sweyn. The Danish king was once again expelled while Olof occupied his lands. After this, however, the conflict was resolved. Since Sweyn had married Olof's mother, he was reinstated on the Danish throne and the two kings were thereafter allies. Snorri Sturluson (c. 1230) and the other Icelandic saga writers likewise say that Sweyn married Olof's mother after the death of Eric the Victorious, but without mentioning any conflict. Also, Snorri describes Sweyn and Olof as equal allies when they defeated the Norwegian king Olav Tryggvason in the battle of Svolder in 1000, and thereafter divided Norway between themselves (see below). It is commonly believed that Adam's account about Sweyn's defeats at the hands of Eric and Olof is partial and might have been misinterpreted; the marriage to Olof's mother may in fact have sealed Sweyn's senior position.

Olof Skötkonung as imagined by Ansgar Almquist in the 1920s, statue at Stockholm City Hall.

Viking expedition to Wendland

According to Snorri, Olof Skötkonung led a Viking expedition to Wendland early in his reign. He captured Edla, the daughter of a Wendish chieftain, and kept her as mistress. She gave him the son Emund (who was to become king of Sweden), and the daughters Astrid (later wife of Olaf II of Norway) and Holmfrid (married to Sven Jarl of Norway). He later married Estrid of the Obotrites, and they had a son, Anund Jacob, and a daughter, Ingegerd Olofsdotter.

Alliance with Sweyn Forkbeard

While Adam of Bremen praises Olof as a good Christian, Icelandic authors paint an unfavourable picture of the king as haughty and prickly. Olof is said to have preferred royal sports to war, which may explain the ease with which Sweyn Forkbeard retook the Danish lands Olof's father Eric had conquered. Olof may also have lost the right to tribute which his predecessors had preserved in what is now Estonia and Latvia.

In 1000, he joined forces with Sweyn Forkbeard and with the Norwegian Jarls Eric and Sven, against the Norwegian King Olaf Tryggvason. The circumstances have been much debated in modern historical research, but a contemporary poem confirms that Eric Jarl gathered auxiliaries in Sweden: "The belligerent jarl / gathered much manpower / in Svithiod, the chief went / southward to the battle." Olaf Tryggvason was attacked by the allied fleets in the Battle of Svolder, the location of which is uncertain. It may have been either in Øresund or Pomerania. Olaf Tryggvason disappeared during the battle and Norway was appropriated by the allied lords. The bulk of the conquests went to Sweyn Forkbeard while Olof gained a part of Trøndelag as well as modern Bohuslän. These lands were placed under Sven Jarl, son-in-law of the king.

Norwegian-Swedish War

When the Norwegian kingdom was reestablished by Olaf II of Norway (Olaf the Saint) in 1015, a new war erupted between Norway and Sweden. There is a circumstantial account of this in Snorri Sturluson's work. As he writes, many men in both Sweden and Norway tried to reconcile the kings. In 1018, Olof's cousin, the earl of Västergötland, Ragnvald Ulfsson and the Norwegian king's emissaries Björn Stallare and Hjalti Skeggiason had arrived at the thing of Uppsala in an attempt to sway the Swedish king to accept peace and as a warrant marry his daughter Ingegerd Olofsdotter to the king of Norway. The Swedish king was greatly angered and threatened to banish Ragnvald from his kingdom, but Ragnvald was supported by his foster-father Thorgny the Lawspeaker

Thorgny delivered a powerful speech in which he reminded the king of the great Viking expeditions in the East that predecessors such as Erik Anundsson and Björn had undertaken, without having the hubris not to listen to their men's advice. Thorgny himself had taken part in many successful pillaging expeditions with Olof's father Eric the Victorious and even Eric had listened to his men. The present king wanted nothing but Norway, which no Swedish king before him had desired. This displeased the Swedish people, who were eager to follow the king on new ventures in the East to win back the kingdoms that paid tribute to his ancestors, but it was the wish of the people that the king make peace with the king of Norway and give him his daughter Ingegerd as queen.

Thorgny finished his speech by saying: "if you do not desire to do so, we shall assault you and kill you and not brook any more of your warmongering and obstinacy. Our ancestors have done so, who at Mula thing threw five kings in a well, kings who were too arrogant as you are against us." Upon hearing this, King Olof complied with the demands of the peasantry for the time being.

However, far from keeping his promise Olof married his daughter Ingegerd-Irene to Yaroslav I the Wise instead. When Olaf of Norway heard about the arrangement he was furious and intent on attacking Olof Skötkonung. However, the Geatish jarl Ragnvald Ulfsson, colluding with Olaf II's skald Sigvat Thordarson, managed to avert the impending war. Olof's other daughter Astrid stayed with Ragnvald at the time, and it was agreed that she would take Ingegerd's place. Unbeknownst to Olof, she traveled to Norway and married Olaf II. That happened c. 1019. Olof Skötkonung was highly upset, but soon ran into trouble at home. Both the Swedes and Geats were displeased with the self-willed rule of the king. The lawspeaker of Västergötland, Emund, traveled to Gamla Uppsala and spoke to Olof's councilors, and a settlement was made. Olof agreed to share his power with his son Anund Jacob who was 10 or 12 years at the time. Olof was also forced to accept a settlement with Olaf II of Norway at Kungahälla. The veracity of Snorri Sturluson's account of Olof Skötkonung, written more than two centuries later, is difficult to assess; however, he quotes several probably genuine scaldic verses which allude to some of the related events.

One result of the hostilities between Olof Skötkonung and Olaf of Norway was, according to Snorri Sturluson, that the people of Jämtland and Hälsingland came under the Swedish rather than Norwegian king. Previously the Jämtlanders and part of the Hälsinglanders had adhered to Norway since the days of Hakon the Good. The veracity of this is not known, but the medieval provincial laws of Jämtland show Swedish influences, and there are indications that Christianity arrived from Central Sweden in the 11th century. Jämtland reverted to the Norwegian king in 1111, while Hälsingland was henceforth under Sweden.


Olof's ally Sweyn Forkbeard occupied England in 1013, but died shortly afterwards, and the Anglo-Saxon ruler Æthelred the Unready was able to return. According to Adam of Bremen, "the son of the king, Cnut, returned home with the army and prepared a new war against the English. Olav [II], whom the Norwegians had chosen as their commander, now separated from the Danish kingdom. Cnut, who felt threatened from two directions, then entered an alliance with his brother Olof Eriksson who ruled in Sweden, and planned to take power in England, and then in Norway, with his assistance. Equipped with a thousand large ships, Cnut thus traversed the British Sea". From Swedish rune stones it also appears that many people joined the Danish Viking expeditions of the early 11th century. After Cnut the Great became King of England in 1016, he sent the two sons of the deceased King Edmund Ironside to Olof (who was either Canute's half-brother or stepbrother), supposedly with instructions to have the children murdered. Instead of having them killed, the two boys were secretly sent either to Kiev, where Olof's daughter Ingigerd was the Queen, or to Poland, where Canute's uncle Bolesław I Chrobry was duke.

Christian King

Included in the Westrogothic law from c. 1240 is the first brief Swedish chronicle, which begins with Olof Skötkonung. It relates that Olof was baptized in Husaby in Västergötland by the missionary Sigfrid, and made generous donations on spot. At Husaby parish church, there is a sign commemorating his baptism; nearby is a well thought to be the same sacred spring where Olof was baptized.

He was the first Swedish king to remain a Christian until his death. However, the circumstances about his baptism are not clear. A document from 1008 says that a certain bishop, dispatched by Archbishop Bruno of Querfurt, visited the Suigi tribe and managed to baptize the king, whose queen was already Christian. 1,000 people and seven communities followed his example. The Suigi have sometimes been identified as the Swedes, though this has been rejected by several other scholars. On the other hand, Olof's coinage (see below) indicates that he was a Christian already at the time of his accession in c. 995.

According to Adam of Bremen, Olof planned to tear down the Uppsala temple, which was allegedly an important cult centre. The fact that a large part of the Swedes were still pagan forced him to abandon this aim. The pagans, weary of his plans, made an agreement with Olof to the effect that he, if he wished to be a Christian, must exercise his royal authority in a province of his choice. If he founded a church, he was not supposed to force anyone to convert. Olof was content with this and installed a bishopric in the province of Västergötland, closer to Denmark and Norway. On the wishes of Olof, the Archbishop of Hamburg-Bremen anointed Thurgot as the first Bishop in Skara. This Thurgot was successful in disseminating Christianity among the West Geats and east Geats.

The legend of St. Sigfrid, known since the 13th century, relates that the still pagan Olof called in the English Archbishop of York, Sigfrid, to teach the new faith in his realm. On his way, Sigfrid and his three nephews came to Värend in southern Småland where the twelve local tribes endorsed Christianity at a Thing. Sigfrid left his nephews to tend matters in Värend and proceeded to Olof's court where the king and his family were baptised. Meanwhile, a heathen reaction in Värend cost the lives of the nephews, whose heads were sunk in the Växjö Lake. Hearing about this, Sigfrid returned to Värend where the heads were discovered through a miracle. King Olof then appeared in Värend with a force, punished the murderers, and forced the locals to yield properties to the Church. Whether the legend reflects the expansion of Olof's realm to the south is unsure. The account seems to incorporate various elements in order to legitimise the establishment of the Bishopric of Växjö in c. 1170. It is nevertheless known from Adam of Bremen that an English missionary called Sigfrid preached among the Swedes and Geats in the first half of the 11th century.

Coinage and extent of the realm

When he stamped coins in Sigtuna in the province of Uppland Olof used the word rex for king--OLUF REX as in the coin displayed above or OLAF REX. The use of Latin seems to suggest that he was already baptised at this time but on the other hand the coins were imitating English pennies in type and style. Sigtuna is written SITUN, ZINT (in the coin above), ZTNETEI, or SIDEI. The two last have been deciphered as Si(gtuna) Dei meaning God's Sigtuna. The earliest of Olof's coins merely depict him as "King in Sigtuna", while the later ones have "King of the Swedes".

It has been suggested that this change in nomenclature relates to a widening of Olof's base of power around 1000. Sigtuna may be understood as the area in Uppland ruled from the town of this name, while rulership over the Swedes may indicate a more extensive realm. Contemporary scaldic poetry indicates Olof as the ruler of the Swedes as well as the Geats (Götar), and the same goes for the account of Adam of Bremen. The exact nature of the relation between the Swedes and Geats, and the process by which a unified kingdom was created, has been intensively debated. While the unification has traditionally been thought to depart from the provinces around lake Mälaren some scholars hold that the Geatic provinces were leading the process, and that the construction of a Swedish kingdom was a long process that was only concluded in the 13th century.

Óláfsdrápa sænska

The Icelandic skald Óttarr svarti spent some time at Olof's court and composed the poem Óláfsdrápa sænska describing Olof's war expeditions in the east. The poem is interesting, since it gives a view of the reign of Olof: "The warrior guards his land, few kings are as mighty as him; Olof pleases the eagle, the Swedish king is outstanding". Other skalds who served Olof were Gunnlaugr ormstunga, Hrafn Önundarson and Gizurr svarti.


The alleged Olaf Grave at Husaby Church

Judging from Snorri Sturluson's chronology of events, Olof died a natural death in the winter of 1021–1022. Adam of Bremen asserts that he died at approximately the same time as Cnut the Great (1035), which is certainly too late.

Claims that he was martyred after refusing to sacrifice to pagan gods are likely due to a mix-up with the king Olof from Vita Ansgari and Olof Trätälja from Norse sources.

Since the 1740s, it has been claimed that he was buried in Husaby in the Christian part of his kingdom, but such identifications are controversial.


Olof was the son of Eric the Victorious (Erik Segersäll) and a woman whose identity is debated. According to Adam of Bremen she was the sister or daughter of Boleslaw I Chrobry of Poland, but, according to Icelandic sources, she was Sigrid the Haughty (Sigrid Storråda), a daughter of the Viking chief Skoglar Toste. Certain sources say that Olof had a brother called Emunde.

With his mistress Edla, daughter of a Slavic chief, he first had three children:

With his spouse Queen Estrid he had two children:

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