Historical Figure Profiles

Historical Figure Profile: Olaf the White

This is going to be a long character study so I am just going to get on with it. Olaf the White or Amlaib Konung was a Norse viking king in Ireland who is also rumoured to be the brother of Ivarr the Boneless who attacked York in 866. He is not directly involved with the downfall of Northumbria, however events within his life affected Northumbria in an indirect way.

None of the Anglo saxon sources seem to write anything about Olaf the White, possibly because as I mentioned previously he doesn’t actually have a lot to do with the Anglo-Saxons directly.

He is known by his nickname only in Norse sources (Eyrbyggja Saga, Laxdaela Saga), whereas in the Irish sources (Annals of Ulster, The fragmentary Annals of Ireland), he is known as Amlaib or Amlaib Konung (King Olaf). In the Chronicle of the Kings of Alba (Scottish) he is known simply as Olaf.

Eyrbyggja Saga.
Olaf is only mentioned once in the Eyrbyggja Saga by way of explaining how Aud the Deep-minded had been given to him in marriage by her father Ketil Flatnose. The Saga explains that at the time, Olaf the White was the greatest war king west over the sea and was the son of Ingvald.

What follows is a number of names of his ancestors. What is curious here, is that amongst the names of his forebears on his grandmother’s side, is Ragnar Hairy Breeches (Ragnar Lodbrok). If this were true, then Ragnar Lodbrok would be Olaf’s great great grandfather, an interesting relationship seeing as Olaf is supposedly a contemporary with Ragnar’s very much alive and relatively young sons, Ivarr and Halfdan. It seems that at some point, as commonly found within many royal and heroic lineages, fact has blended in with fiction.

The Laxdaela Saga
This saga also associates Olaf the White with Ketil Flatnose’s daughter Aud the Deep-minded. Here, the author writes that again, Olaf’s father was Ingvald. However, there is no mention of there being any ties to Ragnar Lodbrok.

These are the only references specifically to ‘Olaf the White’ that I could find in any of the contemporary sources (If anyone has seen other references please feel free to comment!). In fact there is more known about his wife, Aud the Deep-minded. Aud lived in Scotland with her kin until the deaths of her father and her Son by Olaf, Thorstein. Thorstein was murdered at the hands of the people of Caithness in Scotland, who had rebelled after many years of subjection under his overlordship. Fearing for her life, Aud gathered her loyal followers and settled herself in Iceland where she lived out her days.

A scene from the Laxdaela Saga. Source: Wikepedia

The Annals of Ulster and The Fragmentary Annals of Ireland
The first mention of Amlaib/Olaf in both of the Irish sources I have used is in 853. In the Fragmentary Annals he is described as the son of the king of Norway yet in the Annals of Ulster he is described as the son of the King of Lochlann, a land alternatively described as being Norway or even Scotland. On his arrival in Ireland, the Foreigners/Vikings submitted to him and he took tribute from the native Irish. What then follows in both of the annals is a list of battles occurring almost yearly, where groups of Foreigners/Vikings are alternately attacking or being attacked by the Irish. For many of these conflicts, Amlaib/Olaf’s direct involvement is unclear and can only be guessed at. However, there are a number of years where his name and involvement is obvious, even joining forces with some of the warring kings against their enemies.

According to the Annals of Ulster, In 857, Amlaib and Imar/Ivar attacked Caitil the Fair and his norse-Irish in the lands of Munster. (Some people have noted the similarity of the spelling of Caitil with that of Ketil, Olaf the white’s father in law.)

In 859, Amlaib and his brother Imar/Ivar are joined by Cerball, the Irish King of Osraige and all three lead a ‘great army’ into the kingdom of Mide/Meath. They then joined forces with Aed Finnliath in defeating Mael Sechlainn/Sechnaill, the High King of Ireland.

In 862 three years later, Aed is apparently the new High King of Ireland (or possibly just the King of Tara) and Amlaib is described as being his son-in-law. For this year’s entry, the two kings went with their armies and plundered the plain of Mide/Meath and the death and destruction continued throughout 863 and 864 with many more kings of Mide being killed.

For the year 866, the year before York is attacked by Ivar and Halfdan, both Irish annals are unanimous in the order of events. Amlaib is joined by his other brother Auisle (who first appears in 863 plundering the lands of Mide with Amlaib and Imar) and the two leave Ireland with their men to Fortriu in Scotland where they plundered all of Pictavia/Pictland, stealing many hostages. In their absence, it seems that Aed Finnliath started having second thoughts about his Norse allies and goaded on by his new wife (who had previously been his enemy Mael Sechlainn’s wife), he attacked the foreigners camps in Ireland and killed many Vikings.

What then follows is the tale of Auisle’s demise. The Annals of Ulster state simply that Auisle was killed by his ‘kinsmen’. The Fragments elaborate a bit more. Jealous of their younger brother’s prowess on the field of battle as well as his strength, bravery and apparently good looks, the two elder brothers (Amlaib and Imar) conspired to kill him. Before this was carried out, Auisle visited Amlaib and asked his brother for the hand of his wife (the daughter of the Pictish King, Constantine), owing to an estrangement between the two. Naturally, Amlaib was angered by his brother’s audacity. He struck Ausile immediately on the head with his sword, killing him.

Later on in that year, the ‘Dark Foreigners’ (Danes) moved on to attack King Aelle at York. The Fragments add the enigmatic line that ‘…Aelle was slain there through the deceit and treachery of a young lad of his own household’, though fails to elaborate any more. Whilst this is happening, Amlaib’s fort just west of Dublin at Cluain Dolcain was attacked by the Irish with hundreds of his men apparently slaughtered.

In 869 Ard Macha (Armagh) is plundered by Amlaib, whose men kill, rape and subject to slavery ‘ten hundred’ of the nearby inhabitants. He then moves back east across the sea to Ail Cluaithe/ Alt Cluath (Dumbarton rock) on the river Clyde in Strathclyde where he is joined once more by Imar. The two forces siege Dumbarton for four months after which the stronghold’s well dried up, forcing the inhabitants to give up or perish. The Vikings set about destroying and plundering the surrounding area, eventually returning to Ath Cliath/Dublin with 200 ships filled with the captives of Angles, Britons and Picts.

Dumbarton Rock, by Elamcelt on Flickr
Dumbarton Rock, by Elamcelt on Flickr

Amlaib seems to have left for Norway soon after his return from Dumbarton. According to The Fragments, he left in order to aid his father, Gofraid, who had sent for him to help subdue his kingdom in Norway. This name is markedly different from the names given by the sagas, which at first glance suggests that perhaps we have been talking about two different people.

It would seem that Amlaib’s story as far as the Irish annals are concerned, ends here. However, there is an interesting entry for the year 875 which states that Oistin/Thorstein, son of Amlaib, King of the Norsemen, was deceitfully killed by Albann/Halfdan who was king of the ‘Dark Heathens.’ It would now appear that there may be some truth to the Norse Sagas after all. If Oistin/Thorstein is the same Thorstein of the Sagas who attacked much of Scotland, this would mean that Oistin/Thorstein’s mother was Aud the Deep Minded and that his father Amlaib/Olaf was Olaf the White.

The Chronicle of the Kings of Alba
Only a few short lines are found within this chronicle about Olaf. Two years into the reign of Constantine the first of Pictavia/Pictland, it is written that Olaf laid waste to the kingdom with his foreigners (Vikings), and dwelt there. This would be in the winter of 864/865. According to both Irish annals, Amlaib/Olaf attacked Scotland in 866, which could possibly be the same event recorded in the Scottish source but with a slightly different year.

The only other mention of Olaf within the Chronicle concerns his death in 874, apparently at the hands of King Constantine. This fact is different from those stated in the Irish Annals, however technically these sources never said when or where Olaf died, only that he left for Norway in 872. Was he delayed for two years in Scotland on his way to Norway? Or delayed on his way back from fighting alongside his father?

Constantine the First of Scotland (Causantine mac Cinaeda), source: Wikepedia

Where does that leave us, other than very confused? Well, this is my personal interpretation.
It seems that most of the sources agree that Olaf was the son of the/a king of Norway. In 853 he arrives with his men in Ireland where he subdues and collects tribute from some of the islands occupants. He then allies himself with Aed Finnliath, and along with his two younger brothers Ivar and Auisle, he attacks several kingdoms including Mide/Meath, and the Norse held lands at Munster. At the time of attacking Munster, it is possible that a peace was agreed upon with the Norse chief Caithil/Ketil Flatnose, in which Olaf is married to his daughter Aud the Deep-minded as a show of allegiance.

Around about 862, Olaf’s Irish ally is made High King of Ireland and Olaf is given another wife in the form of Aed’s daughter (possibly, Olaf had two wives at once or else he gave up Aud?). Four years later, whilst on a successful raid in Scotland, Aed attacks the Norse settlements which had once been his allies, inflicting a great slaughter and a blow to the absent Olaf. Olaf is forced for the time being to be contented with overlordship of Constantine of the Picts, and it seems with a Pictish Princess as yet another wife (Again, possible that he had three at a time, though giving the circumstances he probably ditched Aed’s daughter at this time. Also, he may have brought Ketil and Aud with him as allies to fight Constantine and then made a strategic marriage alliance afterwards with Constantine).

Discontent then erupts amongst the three brothers over (though not limited to) wife number three and as a result Olaf kills his younger brother Auisle. Whilst the Danes attack York further south, Olaf returns to Ireland and concentrates his attacks around Ard Macha/Armagh. This proves very successful and even productive yet despite success, he returns to the south-west of Scotland where he attacks Dumbarton rock with Ivar for four months, returning with even more treasures and slaves.

Soon after his return, his father recalls him back to Norway to help defend his lands, which is the last time we can accurately say that we hear of him alive. There is however, a brief mention of him being in Scotland two years later being killed by King Constantine.

So that is Olaf the White, but what exactly has he got to do with Northumbria and the Viking attacks? Well firstly, there is the suggestion that Olaf’s brother Imar/Ivar is the same as Ivar the Boneless who attacked York with Halfdan. Again, this history is complicated in the fact that there are different genealogies for each figure, as well as differing nationalities (Olaf and Imar are described as Norse, whilst Ivar and Halfdan are apparently Danish). I hope to go into this a little more in the next post on Ivarr the Boneless.

Secondly, up until now most of the sources on 9th century Northumbria (and England in general) are from an English/Anglo-saxon perspective which creates a bit of a bias. After all, the Anglo-Saxons didn’t live in a bubble. They were affected as much by external politics as internal ones. Northumbria shared half of its very extensive border with the Picts and the Strathclyde Britons which meant that what was happening in these kingdoms (i.e. power struggles and invasion by Olaf the White and Constantine the 1st) was just as important as what Alfred the Great was reading with his mother on the other side of the island.

But as I said, more on these subjects in later posts!

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