Norwegian Ruling Families and Adoption

Olof Trätälja (Tree-Feller) by Gerhard Munthe.
Hakon the Good by Peter Nicolai Arbo
Illustration for Halvdan Svartes (Halfdan the Black) saga, Heimskringla 1899-edition.
Coin of Eirik Bloodaxe


In the Middle Ages fostering was practiced between the great families of Norway, possibly as a means of cementing interfamily alliances or demonstrating reciprocal status relationships. According to the Heimskringla, the chronicle of the Kings of Norway, written by Snorri St usson about 1225 (Harald Harfager's Saga, part 42): "it is a common observation of all people, that the man who fosters another's children is of less consideration than the other."[!] From the Heimskringla, which covers the years 850 to 1177, and other ancient sources, these are some of the fostered men and women:

- Ingjald the Evil-Adviser, 9th century? Ingjald was the son of the high king, Onund. He was fostered by the regional king Svipdag the Blind of Upsal. Ingjald succeeded as high king when his father died in a landslide. He was famous "as a most ferocious person, and of the worst disposition." On ascending the throne he built a large banqueting hall and invited all his tributary kings to a feast. All came as invited except King Granmar of Sodermanland. During the feast Ingjald left the building and had it set on fire, killing everyone inside (including his father-in-law), except his two foster brothers and their troops, whom he had warned to leave with him, and he then took sole possession of their lands in Norway and Sweden.

- Olaf the Tree-Feller, 9th century? Olaf was the son of Ingjald the Evil-Adviser. Olaf was fostered by Bove in West Gotland. When Ingjald died Olaf succeeded him, but the Swedes, who had suffered under his unpopular father, drove him and his people out of Sweden. Later during his reign the crops failed. Some of the people held that the king was personally responsible for the fertility of the land by keeping up the sacrifices. Olaf was known to have been sparing in this duty, and people surrounded his house at Venner Lake and burned it down with him inside, "giving him to Odin as a sacrifice for good crops."

- Halfdan the Black, 9th century? Halfdan was the son of King Gudrod the Hunter and Åsa, daughter of King Harald of Agder. Gudrod died when Halfdan was a year old and his mother took him with her to Agder, where he was fostered by Olver Spake. He succeeded to Gudrod's throne when he became 18 and considerably expanded the kingdom. He was succeeded by his son, Harald Harfager, who is probably the first definitely historical king of Norway.

- Harald of Sogn, 9th century? Harald was the son of Halfdan the Black and his wife Ragnhild, the daughter of King Harald Goldbeard of Sogn. The young Harald was fostered by his maternal grandfather in Sogn, and appointed his heir. When Goldbeard died he succeeded him, aged about nine, but he himself died the following spring, and Sogn was taken over by Halfdan the Black.

- Gyda, 9th-10th centuries. Gyda was the daughter of King Eirik of Hordaland. She was fostered by a vassal in Valdres. When Harald I (Harfager) (ca. 850-933) called her to be his concubine, she refused, saying she would not be the concubine of a minor district king, when the kings of Denmark and Sweden held sway over large countries. This spurred Harald into conquering the whole of Norway, and he then married Gyda. Harald also married 12 other wives. "King Harald's children were all fostered and brought up by their relations on the mother's side."

- Eirik Blood-Axe, 9th-10th centuries. Eirik was the son of Harald I (Harfager) (ca. 850-933) by Ragnhild the Mighty, from Jutland. His mother died when he was a toddler ("three years after she came to Norway") and he was then sent to be fostered by Thorer Hroaldson in the Fjord district. He was his father's favorite, and when Harald divided his kingdom among his sons, Eirik received Halogaland, North More and Raumsdal. In 930 Harald abdicated in favor of Eirik as high king over his surviving brothers.

- Håkon I, The Good, 914?-61. Håkon was an illegitimate son of King Harald I (Harfager) (ca. 850-933). He was fostered by King Athelstan (895-939) of England, Harald's ally. Harald abdicated in 930 in favor of his eldest legitimate son, Eirik Bloodaxe, but Eirik was deposed by Håkon in 935 with Athelstan's help. Håkon tried unsuccessfully to convert Norway to Christianity, but this alienated many of his subjects.

- Magnus I, The Good, 1024-47. Magnus was the son of King Olaf II. He was fostered in Russia by Kalf Arnason, but became king of Norway (1035) on the death of Canute II, and later (1042) King of Denmark. He tried and failed to become king of England as well.

- Svein Ulfson, 11th century. Svein was the son of Earl Ulf and Astrid (sister of King Canute and daughter of King Svein Forkbeard and Queen Sigrid the Haughty). He was made Earl of Denmark, under King Magnus the Good, in 1042. Svein had been fostered by Einar Tambaskelfer, king of Sweden, after the assassination of his father on the orders of Canute the Great. In 1043 he assumed the title of King of Denmark and rebelled against Magnus but was defeated and fled to Sweden and the protection of the king.

- Håkon [of Trondheim], 1070?-95. Håkon was a cousin of King Magnus III, Barefoot. When King Olaf III died in 1093 he was succeeded by Magnus Barefoot as king of all Norway, but Håkon was elected king by a secessionist part of the country in the north. The two men began a struggle for control, but this was cut short when Håkon died of natural causes two years later. Håkon had been the foster son first of Sveinke Steinarson of Viken, and then of Thorer of Steig, who supported his claim to the throne and continued the rebellion after his death, until he was captured and hanged by Magnus.

- Magnus of Orkney (Saint), 1075?-1117. Earl of Orkney. Magnus was the eldest son of Earl Erlend, the joint Norwegian ruler of Orkney together with his brother Earl Paul. In 1098 Magnus Barefoot invaded Orkney and drove Erlend and Paul back to Norway, leaving his own son Sigurd as overlord. He took the young Magnus and Håkon (Paul's son) as hostages, while he went south to raid the west coast of Scotland, Man and Anglesey. At least one source states that Barefoot adopted Magnus. Magnus escaped and hid in Scotland for several years, returning after Barefoot, Erlend and Paul died. Håkon was already in possession of the earldom, but agreed to share it with Magnus. The joint reign was successful for a time, but rivalries developed which culminated in Håkon having Magnus assassinated in 1117. The cathedral in Kirkwall is dedicated to him, and he is the patron saint of Norway and fishmongers.

- Magnus the Blind, 1117?-?. Magnus was a son of King Eystein (died 1123) and his concubine Borghild, daughter of a wealthy commoner; and a grandson of King Magnus Barefoot. Magnus was sent as a baby to be fostered by Vidkun Jonson at Bjarkey. (This list is based on the following six sagas: Ynglinga Saga, Halfdan the Black Saga, Harald Harfager's Saga, Saga of Magnus the Good, Magnus Barefoot's Saga, and Saga of Sigurd the Crusader and His Brothers Eystein and Olaf. There are another 10 individual sagas in the Heimskringla which I have not investigated.)


Microsoft Encarta 98 Encyclopedia, 1993-9 "St. Magnus, the Martyr of Orkney." Available at: "Encyclopedia of the Celts." Available at: