In the 1100s, the crusaders invaded Europe to the extent that a Christian country could not escape being affected.
Several thousand Norwegians answered the call of the Pope Urban II to undertake the perilous journey to Jerusalem. The 11th and early 12th centuries marked a golden age for the Kingdom of Norway. The Norwegians had only recently, within the last couple of hundred years, abandoned the old Norse gods in favor of the Christian monotheism and formed themselves into a single nation.
The Norwegian king Sigurd Jorsalfar was the first Scandinavian king to go on crusade to the Hoiy Land. The crusaders did not lose a single battle during the Norwegian Crusade. The Byzantine Empire was under pressure from Seljuk Turks, who controlled their own vast empire in the Middle East and Southwest Asia, so the Pope asked Christians in Western Europe to help their fellow Christians in Eastern Europe. Pope Urban II’s call for help was presented at a church council in Clermont, France, and the message spread like wildfire.
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At that time the Kingdom of Norway encompassed not just the modern nation of Norway but also areas of Sweden, Scotland, Ireland, Iceland and Greenland. The Norwegians had recently, under King Harald Hardrada, been thwarted in their attempts to reconquer England in 1066 by the Saxon King Harold Godwinson (who was killed a few days later at the battle of Hastings by William the Conqueror and his Norman invasion). However, this had not marked the end of Norwegian power in Europe as Harald Hardrada’s great-grandson would demonstrate in his epic crusade across Europe. Sigurd and his men sailed from Norway in the autumn of 1107 with sixty ships and perhaps around 5,000 men.
In the autumn he arrived in England, where Henry I was king. Sigurd and his men stayed there the entire winter, until the spring of 1108, when they again set sail westwards. 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.
At a young age, in 1098, Sigurd was given his first taste of war when Magnus took him on campaign to claim the Orkney Islands, and the Isle of Mann for Norway. During the journey, the Norwegians encountered a great pirate fleet of galleys which were seeking peaceful trading ships to rob. However, Sigurd set his course straight for the pirates and stormed their ships. After a short time, all the pirates had been either slain or escaped, and Sigurd acquired eight ships from them.
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.
The Norwegians were given many treasures and relics, including a splinter off the True Cross that Jesus had allegedly been crucified on. This was given on the condition that they would continue to promote Christianity and bring the relic to the burial site of St. Olaf.
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However, the new kingdom on the far side of the Mediterranean was vulnerable as the bulk of the first crusade returned to Europe. Jerusalem was left with barely 300 knights and a small sliver of land amidst a sea of hostile Muslim states.
Sigurd, who shared the throne with two half-brothers, launched a much larger expedition 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. Sigurd was then just 20 years old.
In the spring of 1109, they arrived at Sicily (Sikileyjar), where they were welcomed by the ruling Count Roger II, who at that time was only 12-13 years old. In the summer of 1110, the finally arrived at the port of Acre (Akrsborg), where they were warmly welcomed by the ruling crusader king Baldwin I, King of Jerusalem.
Sigurd helped Baldwin I 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. Baldwin rode together with Sigurd to the river Jordan, and back again to Jerusalem.
When Sigurd was preparing to go back to Norway, he gave all his ships and valuable figureheads to Alexios I of Constantinople. In turn Sigurd received many horses, which he would use to travel home over land. Many of his men stayed behind to take up service with the Byzantines.
Sigurd’s journey back to Norway would take nearly three years during which he would be welcomed by the courts of the various places he visited, including Emperor Lothar of the Holy Roman Empire. On his return to Norway in 1113 he arrived in Denmark and was greeted by King Niles, who eventually gave him a shop so that he could sail home to Norway.
There Sigurd was greeted by his brother Øystein who had proven himself most efficient at ruling in his brother’s absence.
Sigurd was buried in Hallvard’s Church (Hallvardskirken) in Oslo. In the 17th century the church had fallen into such a state of decay that a student took Sigurd’s skull for safe-keeping. In 1957 the skull was interred in the wall of the Royal Mausoleum at Akershus Fortress.
A crusade became a kind of alternative to entering a monastery, and knights could thus serve God in other ways. It was kind of a Norwegian Games of Thrones. The Latin kingdom in the Middle East held sway until 1291.
The Norwegian Game of Thrones, compiled by Tor Kjolberg