The first European king to set sail for the Holy land was from Norway. In the summer of 1110, the crusaders who were fighting to protect the Kingdom of Jerusalem were worn out. Since the success of the First Crusade, there were few reinforcements. In the scorching summer heat, the Christian defenders at the Acre, a city in present-day Israel, saw a dreaded sight. It was the unmistakable dragonheads of Viking longships.
Sixty Norse ships showed up on the coast of Acre. The soldiers had heard the tales of the Vikings. The infamous Viking raids terrorized the Christian and Islamic worlds during the Middle Ages. Now the Norsemen were on the shores of the Holy Land. Thankfully for the crusaders, the Vikings were on their team.
Who comes to mind when I ask you to name a few great crusaders? You are probably thinking of Richard the Lionheart, Frederick Barbarossa, Raymond of Toulouse, and Godfrey of Bouillon. I am sure King Sigurd I is not on the top of your list.
Sigurd was the king of Norway. He led the Norwegian Crusade, which is not as well known as the other crusades. Sigurd was the first European monarch to lead his army to the Holy Land.
Though we don’t talk much about King Sigurd today, during the 12th century he was a celebrity. His heroics galvanized Christendom. He inspired other kings to lead their own crusades. Their campaigns set up an epic clash of civilizations that shaped the world during the Middle Ages.
The journey to the Holy Land
King Sigurd was the grandson of the legendary Viking Harald Hardrada. Sigurd’s father was Magnus III, the king of Norway. After the death of Magnus, Sigurd ruled Norway with his half brothers Olaf and Øystein.
By the time Sigurd became the king, Norway had embraced Christianity for a hundred years. But that doesn’t mean that the Pope and the Vikings got along well. The Norsemen had continued raiding European cities, even after their conversion to Christianity. King Sigurd wanted to prove he was a good Christian. When the Pope asked Sigurd to go on a crusade to the Holy Land, he agreed.
In 1107, Sigurd set sail for Jerusalem with 5,000 men in sixty ships. He didn’t take the usual land route across Europe, as the Crusaders from France, England, and Germany did. He preferred to travel by sea, a route taken by his Viking ancestors for centuries.
The first stop was England.
Sigurd landed in England in the fall of 1107 and enjoyed King Henry I’s hospitality till the spring of 1108. Henry must have been relieved that the Vikings left without destroying his kingdom.
Next on Sigurd’s itinerary was the northern Spanish city of Jakobsland. Jakosbland was the Norse name for Santiago de Compostela. The lord of the city welcomed the Vikings at first. But during the winter, the city ran out of food. Santiago’s ruler asked Sigurd to leave and refused to provide supplies to the Vikings.
Unsurprisingly, the Norsemen sacked and looted the city. Sigurd then sailed to Lisbon, a city that was half Christian and half Muslim. The Vikings had a few skirmishes with the Muslims and captured eight Muslim galleys. After the clashes, Sigurd sailed through Gibraltar for his next big destination: the Balearic Islands.
You know the Balearic Islands as Mallorca, Menorca, and Ibiza. The islands are some of Europe’s top tourist and nightlife destinations. But back then, they were no party hotspots.
The Muslim ruled islands were notorious for piracy. Pirates from the Balearic Islands invaded coastal European cities regularly. The raids proved to be a major headache for the European rulers.
Sigurd and his men laid siege to Ibiza and Menorca. They killed the pirates and plundered their wealth. The Vikings avoided Mallorca because it was well-defended.
Sigurd became a hero after capturing the Muslim-held Balearic Islands. The Christian kingdoms rejoiced. The Vikings had gotten rid of a major thorn in their flesh.
Sigurd’s exploits soon reached the ears of the king of Jerusalem Balduíno I, who was eagerly waiting to receive him.
The Vikings arrive in Jerusalem
King Sigurd made a quick pit stop in Sicily in the spring of 1109, where King Roger III hosted him. The Vikings set sail towards the Holy Land after recharging their batteries.
Finally, in the summer of 1110, three years after leaving Norway, Sigurd landed in Acre. King Baldwin welcomed him. They rode together to the River Jordan and then to Jerusalem. Some historians believe Sigurd was baptized in the River Jordan, but the claim is debatable.
The crusaders at Jerusalem gave King Sigurd and his men many gifts. The most famous of these was a relic that Baldwin said was a piece of the True Cross, the cross on which the Romans crucified Jesus Christ.
Having received a warm welcome, Sigurd was eager to help Baldwin. Since the conquest of Jerusalem in the First Crusade, King Baldwin tried to take capture the coastal cities of the Levant (modern Syria, Lebanon, and Israel). But it wasn’t a straightforward task. The Fatimid Caliphate, which ruled from Egypt, could reinforce the cities via the sea. Thus, any efforts to attack the cities by land proved pointless.
Sigurd asked Baldwin which city he desired the most. Balduíno had his eyes on the city of Sidon in modern Syria, for a while.
Sigurd left with his ships from Acre and launched an invasion of Sidon. Baldwin’s forces attacked the city from land. Venetian ships also joined the siege, and the Christian navy prevented the Fatimids from providing aid by the sea.
Sidon fell to the Christians after 47 days. A new kingdom known as the Lordship of Sidon was established. Conquering coastal cities meant the crusaders could receive help from the Christian kingdoms of Genoa and Venice via the sea. The pilgrims could now travel to the Holy Land without passing through enemy-controlled territory.
Goodbye and the journey home
Sigurd’s heroism made him a household name in the Christian world. Since his mission was complete, he headed back home. This time, he chose a different route.
He arrived in Constantinople, which the Vikings called Miklagrad. Sigurd’s grandfather, Harald Hardrada, was a member of the Varangian Guard, which was the bodyguard of the Roman (Byzantine) Emperor. Sigurd may have had a strong connection to Constantinople since he grew up hearing the stories of his grandfather’s glory.
Alexios Komnenos, the Roman Emperor, welcomed Sigurd. The emperor impressed the Viking. He gave away most of his wealth, which he got during the crusade, to the emperor. Many of the Viking crusaders stayed in Constantinople and joined the Varangian Guard.
In exchange, Alexios provided many horses and enough supplies for a comfortable journey to Norway. Sigurd passed through Bulgaria, Serbia, and Bavaria. He met the Holy Roman Emperor Lothair II, who welcomed him and ensured a safe passage through his realm.
King Niels gave a hero’s welcome to Sigurd in Denmark. Niels provided ships for Sigurd and his men for a safe journey to Norway. In 1111, Sigurd returned to Norway after a victorious campaign in Jerusalem. He was pleased that his brothers had taken care of the affairs of his kingdom while he was away.
The Viking crusade has been mostly forgotten because Christian historians in the Middle Ages had a negative view of the Vikings. But is this a fair way to show history?
The Vikings are just one of many powerful people who ended up being portrayed as the bad guys because their opponents were better storytellers.
Riley-Smith, Jonathan (1986) The First Crusade and the Idea of Crusading.
Asbridge, Thomas (2010), The Crusades: The War for the Holy Land.
Frankopan, Peter(2013) The First Crusade: The Call from the East.
SOURCE: History of Yesterday
Dasgupta, Prateek. “The Lesser-Known Viking Crusade That You Probably Never Heard Of”. History of Yesterday. Guildford. 10 may 2022. 16 may 2022. <https://historyofyesterday.com/the-lesser-known-viking-crusade-that-you-probably-never-heard-of-7a87391ff2fa>.
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