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Thorfinn Sigurdsson

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Title: Thorfinn Sigurdsson  
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Subject: Macbeth, King of Scotland, Malcolm III of Scotland, Orkney, Malcolm II of Scotland, Magnus II of Norway, Sigurd the Stout, Thorkel, Ingibiorg Finnsdottir, Mormaer of Caithness, Finn Arnesson
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Thorfinn Sigurdsson

Thorfinn Sigurdsson (1009?–c. 1064?), called Thorfinn the Mighty,[1] was an 11th-century Earl of Orkney. He was one of five brothers (with Brusi, Sumarlidi, Einar and Hvelp), sons of Earl Sigurd Hlodvirsson by his marriage to the daughter of Malcolm II of Scotland. Thorfinn was the youngest of the five known sons of Earl Sigurd Hlodvirsson, but the only son of Sigurd's marriage to a daughter of Máel Coluim mac Cináeda. His elder half-brothers Einar, Brusi and Sumarlidi survived to adulthood, while a brother called Hundi ("the Dog") or 'Hvelp ("the Whelp") died in Norway, a hostage at the court of King Olaf Trygvasson. Thorfinn married Ingibiorg Finnsdottir, daughter of Finn Arnesson, Jarl of Halland.

The Heimskringla of Icelandic historian Snorri Sturluson, and the anonymous compiler of the Orkneyinga Saga, wrote that Thorfinn was the most powerful of all the earls of Orkney. He is said to have been earl for seventy-five years and ruler of nine earldoms in Scotland, of the Hebrides, and of part of Ireland. A sizeable part of the account in the Orkneyinga Saga concerns his wars with a "King of Scots" named Karl Hundason whose identity is very uncertain.


Thorfinn was the youngest of the five known sons of Earl Sigurd Hlodvirsson, but the only son of Sigurd's marriage to a daughter of Máel Coluim mac Cináeda. His elder half-brothers Einar, Brusi and Sumarlidi survived to adulthood, while a brother called Hundi ("the Dog") or 'Hvelp ("the Whelp") died in Norway, a hostage at the court of King Olaf Trygvasson.[2]

Earl Sigurd was killed at the Battle of Clontarf on 23 April 1014. Before setting out for Ireland, he had sent Thorfinn, then aged five, to be fostered by his maternal grandfather, the King of Scots. When the news of Sigurd's death came, Thorfinn's older half-brothers divided Orkney and Shetland between them. King Máel Coluim set Thorfinn up as ruler of Caithness and Sutherland with Scots advisors to rule for him.[3] The lands in the Hebrides which Earl Sigurd had held appear to have escaped control of the earls of Orkney at this time.[4]

The Orkneyinga Saga gives this description of Thorfinn:
He was unusually tall and strong, an ugly-looking man with a black head of hair, sharp features, a big nose and bushy eyebrows, a forceful man, greedy for fame and fortune. He did well in battle, for he was both a good tactician and full of courage.[5]

Joint rule

Sumarlidi died some time before 1020, and the disposition of his third share in Orkney and Shetland became a matter of dispute. Thorfinn had grown up fast,[6] and he claimed Sumarlidi's third as his. While Brusi was willing to grant it to him, Einar was not and took it for himself.[7] Einar was an unpopular ruler, and the farmers of the isles objected to his frequent calls for military service and taxes. A certain Thorkel Amundason led the opposition to Einar. Thorkel, in danger of his life, fled to Thorfinn's court in Caithness, and became his foster-father, from which the other name by which he is known, Thorkel the Fosterer. Einar and Thorfinn began raising armies to settle matters by force, but Earl Brusi made peace between them by persuading Einar to give Thorfinn what he asked for.[8]

Thorfinn appointed Thorkel the Fosterer as his tax-gatherer in the islands, but Einar had not forgotten their earlier dispute and Thorkel left the islands in fear of his life, returning to Caithness. Thorkel then travelled to Norway with Thorfinn's support, to meet with King Olaf Haraldsson. He was well received there, for Olaf bore his own grudge against Einar for the killing of his comrade Eyvind Aurochs-Horn some years earlier. Olaf invited Thorfinn to Norway, and he too was welcomed to Olaf's court. Thorfinn and Thorkel returned to Orkney, to find Einar raising an army against them. Brusi again made peace between them, but this ended with Einar planning Thorkel's killing and Thorkel killing Einar first.[9] The killing of Earl Einar is dated to 1020 by the Icelandic Annals.[10]

The death of Einar did not end the dispute over Sumarlidi's third of the islands. Brusi considered that it belonged to him, as he and Einar had agreed when Thorfinn received a third of the islands. Thorfinn thought that the islands should be divided equally. However, Thorfinn could count on the assistance of his grandfather, King Máel Coluim, while Brusi had only the forces he could raise from his share of the islands, making any conflict a very unequal one. Brusi went to Norway, to the court of King Olaf Haraldsson, to have Olaf judge the dispute, and Thorfinn joined him there. Brusi surrendered the earldom to Olaf, who granted a third to each brother, and kept a third for himself. Thorfinn attempted to use his relationship with the King of Scots as a means to avoid acknowledging Olaf as his overlord in Orkney and Shetland, but Olaf threatened to appoint another to rule Thorfinn's share. Following Thorkel the Fosterer's advice, Thorfinn agreed to Olaf's settlement. After Thorfinn left Norway, Olaf gave Brusi the disputed third to rule on his behalf, but kept Brusi's son Rognvald in Norway as a hostage.[11] These events are dated to 1021.[10]

The arrangement with Olaf Haraldsson lasted while Olaf was king. But in 1028 he was overthrown by the Danish king Canute the Great. After this, the islands were raided by Norwegians and Danes. To have the islands better defended, Brusi agreed to give King Olaf's third to Thorfinn, in return for Thorfinn seeing to the defence of the islands. This agreement lasted until Brusi's death, some time between 1030 and 1035. After that, Thorfinn was sole ruler of the earldom.[12] This resulted in Thorfinn holding the Earldom of Caithness from the King of Scots and the Jarldom of Orkney from the King of Norway.

Karl Hundason

The Orkneyinga Saga says that a dispute between Thorfinn and Karl Hundason began when Karl Hundason became "King of Scots" and claimed Caithness. In the war which followed, Thorfinn defeated Karl in a sea-battle off Deerness at the east end of the Orkney Mainland. Then Karl's nephew Mutatan or Muddan, appointed to rule Caithness for him, was killed at Thurso by Thorkel the Fosterer. Finally, a great battle at Tarbat Ness[13] on the south side of the Dornoch Firth ended with Karl defeated and fugitive or dead. Thorfinn, the saga says, then marched south through Scotland as far as Fife, burning and plundering as he passed. A later note in the saga claims that Thorfinn won nine Scottish earldoms.[14]

The identity of Karl Hundason, unknown to Scots and Irish sources, has long been a matter of dispute, and it is far from clear that the matter is settled. The most common assumption is that Karl Hundason was an insulting byname ("Churl, son of a Dog") given to Mac Bethad by his enemies.[15] Skene's suggestion that he was Donnchad mac Crínáin has been revived in recent years. Lastly, the idea that the whole affair is a poetic invention has been raised.[16]

Whoever Karl son of Hundi may have been, it appears that the saga is reporting a local conflict with a Scots ruler of Moray or Ross:
[T]he whole narrative is consistent with the idea that the struggle of Thorfinn and Karl is a continuation of that which had been waged since the ninth century by the Orkney earls, notably Sigurd Rognvald's son, Ljot, and Sigurd the Stout, against the princes or mormaers of Moray, Sutherland, Ross, and Argyll, and that, in fine, Malcolm and Karl were mormaers of one of these four provinces.[17]

Rognvald Brusason

Thorfinn ruled alone in Orkney until the return of his nephew Rognvald Brusason in about 1037. Rognvald had received the favour of King Magnus the Good, who granted him Brusi's share of the islands and the third which Olaf Haraldsson had claimed after Einar's death. Thorfinn agreed to this division, but presented the transfer of the third claimed by the Norwegian king as a gift to Rognvald in return for aid in Thorfinn's wars in the Hebrides and the Irish Sea.[18]

King Sigtrygg Silkbeard had died in 1035 or 1036, and the kingship in Dublin had come to Echmarcach mac Ragnaill, who was challenged by Imar mac Arailt and driven out in 1038. This instability in Dublin can only have helped Thorfinn and Rognvald, who raided far and wide and established their rule over some part of the lands around the Irish Sea. They are said to have won a major victory beside Vattenfjord, perhaps Loch Vatten on the west coast of the Isle of Skye.[19] The Earls are said to have raided in England, with mixed success.

In time, Thorfinn and Rognvald fell out. The vivid account of the war between Thorfinn and Rognvald in the Orkneyinga Saga which survives may well be only a part of a much longer saga now lost.[20] Their enmity arose with the arrival of Kalf Arnesson and his followers in Orkney. Kalf was the uncle of Thorfinn's wife Ingibiorg Finnsdottir, and had left Norway to escape King Magnus Olafsson.[21] Rognvald, with Kalf's brothers, had shared Magnus's exile in Kievan Rus under the protection of Prince Yaroslav the Wise, and the saga says that when Kalf came to Ladoga to invite Magnus back to Norway, Rognvald almost attacked him.[22] Thorfinn, it is said, found hosting Kalf and his men a burden, and in time asked Rognvald to return the third of the earldom "which had once belonged to Einar Wry-Mouth". Rognvald refused, saying that it was for King Magnus to settle matters. Thorfinn began raising an army, and Rognvald's islanders were unwilling to fight Thorfinn, so Rognvald sailed to Norway where King Magnus supplied him with ships and men. He returned to the islands, facing Thorfinn and Kalf Arnesson in a sea battle which Arnor the skald commemorated in verse. The battle went Rognvald's way to begin with, but in the end he was defeated and forced again to seek refuge with King Magnus.[23]

King Magnus offered to fit out another expedition for Rognvald, but he decided to take just one ship and a picked crew. He sailed to Shetland in winter, and learning that Thorfinn was staying on a farm on the Orkney Mainland with only a few men, he set out at once to attack him. Rognvald's men surprised Thorfinn, and set the farm ablaze. The saga says that Thorfinn had to break down a wall and escape, carrying his wife in his arms, flying south to Caithness for safety.[23] Rognvald ruled in Kirkwall over the winter, believing Thorfinn dead, but in the spring, while staying on Papa Stronsay, Thorfinn and his men turned the tables, taking Rognvald by surprise, just as he had surprised Thorfinn. Rognvald escaped the house, but was tracked down, given away by the barking of his lap dog, and killed by Thorkell the Fosterer.[24]


Even with Rognvald dead, Thorfinn was not entirely secure. The saga recounts an attempt to make peace with Magnus Olafsson, who had sworn vengeance for the death of his men in Thorfinn's attack on Rognvald. Magnus was at war with the Danish king Sweyn Estridsson, and died before he could take any action. Magnus's uncle and successor, Harald Sigurdsson, better known as Harald Hardrada, was more friendly towards Thorfinn, and made a peace, accepting Thorfinn's gifts.[25]

Unlike his kinsmen, Thorfinn had been raised as a Christian. The Orkneyinga Saga knows of only two sons of Thorfinn, both by his wife Ingibiorg, as opposed to the multiple marriages which appear to have been common before his time. Among the signs of this change in outlook is Thorfinn's pilgrimage to Rome, which took place after his meeting with Harald Sigurdsson, probably beginning in 1048. The saga says that he travelled through Saxony, meeting with Emperor Henry (Henry III) on the journey. Although the saga does not say so, it is thought that he also met with Archbishop Adalbert of Hamburg-Bremen.[26]

As a result of Thorfinn's request, it appears that the first Bishop of Orkney was appointed at about this time. Named Thorulf, he may have been the same person as "Roolwer", Bishop of the Isles.[27] The original seat of the bishops of Orkney was Thorfinn's Christchurch at Birsay, or perhaps the Brough of Birsay, where he had his residence in his later years.[28]

Death and legends

The Orkneyinga Saga dates Thorfinn's death no more precisely than placing it "towards the end" of Harald Sigurdsson's reign, which is far from exact. Thorfinn returned from Rome in around 1050 and Harald Sigurdsson died at the battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066, leaving a period of perhaps a decade in which Thorfinn's death might be placed. Historians offering a later date, sometimes as late as 1065, propose that King Máel Coluim mac Donnchada married a postulated daughter of Thorfinn named Ingibiorg rather than his widow. If a date in the early 1050s is presumed, then Máel Coluim could well have married Thorfinn's widow as the saga says.[29]

Archie Duncan argued that Máel Coluim mac Donnchada came to marry Thorfinn's widow because he spent some or all of the period of Mac Bethad's reign in Orkney or Caithness at Thorfinn's court. Thorfinn and Máel Coluim were both descendants of Máel Coluim mac Cináeda, daughter's son and daughter's grandson respectively, and both had good reason to be hostile to Mac Bethad and his kinsmen, the Kings of Moray.[30]

A less orthodox suggestion was made by author Dorothy Dunnett in her 1982 novel King Hereafter. In the 19th century, William Forbes Skene noted that the historical sources which mention Thorfinn do not know of Mac Bethad, and vice versa. Pursuing this further, Dunnett wrote a novel taking Mac Bethad and Thorfinn to be the same person.[31]

He was followed as earl by his sons Paul and Erlend.

Thorfinn was buried in the grounds of St. Magnus Church, Birsay, Mainland Orkney. He is known to history as Thorfinn the Mighty, and at his height of power, he controlled all of Orkney and Shetland, the Hebrides, Caithness and Sutherland, and his influence extended over much of the north of Scotland. The Orkneyinga Saga makes a grander claim – that he controlled seven earldoms in Scotland. As there were only seven earldoms in total, this seems to claim he was King of Scots; but is more probably referring to the strong alliance he held with his half-brother or cousin (historians still debate on this) Macbeth of Moray, King of Scotia. This claim may reflect a royal pretension of his, derived from maternal descent from a king Malcolm (who probably was Malcolm mac Melbrigte, ruler of Moray and titular high king of Alba). Maternal descent, according e.g. Bede's historical accounts, was a strong right to Pictish throne, the lands of Moray and Alba ('seven earldoms').

Preceded by
?Sigurd II Lodvisson of Orkney?
Mormaer of Caithness
1014–c. 1064
Succeeded by
?Madadhan of Caithness?
Preceded by
Einar Sigurdsson
Brusi Sigurdsson
Sumarlidi Sigurdsson
Earl of Orkney
1020–c. 1064
with Brusi Sigurdsson −1030
with Rögnvald Brusason 1037 – c. 1045
Succeeded by
Paul and Erlend Thorfinnsson

Further reading

  • Orkneyinga Saga, ed by Hermann Pálsson & Paul Edwards. Penguin Classics – ISBN 0-14-044383-5
  • Kingship and Unity by G W S Barrow. Edinburgh University press – ISBN 0-7486-0104-X
  • Scottish author Nigel Tranter based one of his historical novels (MacBeth the King) on the historical figure, showing Thorfinn as a half-brother of Macbeth, with a common mother. It also seeks to tie together the pilgrimages made to Rome by both, as one and the same.
  • The novel King Hereafter by Dorothy Dunnett presents an alternate claim that Thorfinn and King Macbeth of Alba are actually one and the same. (A reading which supports the above claim that Thorfinn actually held seven earldoms within Alba.)



  • Anderson, Alan Orr, Early Sources of Scottish History A.D 500–1286, volume 1. Reprinted with corrections. Paul Watkins, Stamford, 1990. ISBN 1-871615-03-8
  • Anon., Orkneyinga Saga: The History of the Earls of Orkney, tr. Hermann Pálsson and Paul Edwards. Penguin, London, 1978. ISBN 0-14-044383-5
  • Crawford, Barbara, Scandinavian Scotland. Leicester University Press, Leicester, 1987. ISBN 0-7185-1282-0
  • Donaldson, Gordon, A Northern Commonwealth: Scotland and Norway. Saltire Society, Edinburgh, 1990. ISBN 0-85411-044-5
  • Duncan, A.A.M., The Kingship of the Scots 842–1292: Succession and Independence. Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, 2002. ISBN 0-7486-1626-8
  • Sturluson, Snorri, Heimskringla: History of the Kings of Norway, tr. Lee M. Hollander. Reprinted University of Texas Press, Austin, 1992. ISBN 0-292-73061-6
  • Taylor, A.B., "Karl Hundason: King of Scots" in the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, LXXI (1937), pp. 334–340.
  • Watt, D.E.R., "Bishops in the Isles before 1203" in The Innes Review, volume XLV, No. 2 (Autumn 1994). ISSN 0020-157X

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