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History of Norway
 
 
 

Early History

Archaeological findings indicate that Norway was inhabited at least since early in the 6th millennium BC. Pytheas description of Thule as a land six days sailing north of Britain, where there is no nightfall in summer, might be the first written reference to Norway. Later Scandinavia is known for its Iron Age culture. Most historians agree that the core of the populations colonising Scandinavia came from the present-day Germany.

From around the time of the Roman Empire until about 800 AD, many stone inscriptions can be found, written in Runes. In the first centuries AD, Norway consisted of a number of petty kingdoms. According to tradition, Harald Fairhair (Harald Hårfagre) unified them into one, in 872 AD after the Battle of Hafrsfjord in Stavanger, thus becoming the first king of a united Norway.

Viking Age

The period from 800-1066 AD is referred to in Norwegian history as the Viking age. During this period, Norwegians, as well as Swedes and Danes, travelled abroad on longships, as raiders, explorers, settlers and traders. Viking raids affected large parts of Europe. The Norwegian Vikings mainly travelled west, to Britain and Ireland. Emigrants from Norway colonised Shetland, Orkney, the Faroe Islands and Iceland. From Iceland, Greenland was also colonised, and voyages were even made to North America, where remains of Viking dwellings have been found in Newfoundland.

Several historic works, known as the kings' sagas were written in Norway and Iceland in the 12th and 13th centuries, the best known of which is Snorri Sturluson's Heimskringla (ca. 1220). These provide our main sources for the early history of Norway. However, their accuracy for the earliest period is uncertain, and a much debated topic among modern historians. The stories about the earliest times are partly legendary in nature, and can hardly be taken as accurate history.

The period of the Viking age coincides with the first consolidation of a single Norwegian kingdom. By the time of the first historical records of these events, about the 700s AD, Norway was divided into several petty kingdoms. It is also assumed that Danish rulers often held sway in the Oslofjord-area.

King Harald Fairhair is the king who is credited by later tradition as having unified Norway into one kingdom. According to the sagas, he ruled Norway from approximately 872 to 930. Modern historians assume that his rule was limited to the coastal areas of southern Norway. Kings of Norway until King Olav IV, who died in 1387, claimed descent from Harald Fairhair. After Harald's death, the unity of the kingdom was not preserved, and for the next century, the kingdom was variously ruled, wholly or in part, by descendants of King Harald or by earls under the suzerainty of Denmark.

During this period, Christianity was introduced to Norway, probably mainly from the British Isles. In terms of church organisation, Norway remained part of the Archdiocese of Bremen until 1152 or 1153. The first Norwegian king to have adopted Christianity was, according to the sagas, Harald Fairhair's son, King Haakon the Good (ca. 934-961). Haakon did not force his subjects to accept the new religion. His successors, Olaf Tryggvason (ca. 995-1000), and Olaf Haraldsson (1015-1028), resorted to forceful means to convert the Norwegian people. Olaf Haraldsson was probably the first King of Norway to extend his rule to the inland regions of eastern Norway, and to have ruled more or less the whole of the present-day country. His death in the battle of Stiklestad in 1030 is traditionally considered a milestone in the history of the Christianisation of the country, although religion was not one of the issues at stake in that battle. After his death, Olaf was revered as a saint. He became the patron saint of Norway, and by the end of the century, Christianity was the only religion allowed in the country. In theory, later kings of Norway were said to hold the kingdom as vassals of St. Olav.


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