King Sigurd the Crusader, 1107-13

Norway decided to participate in the Crusade on its own schedule; it was at the outer rim of Christendom, so news arrived there slowly. Pilgrimages appealed to Scandinavians very much, since long voyages were part of their culture. At the time of the Pope’s call, King Magnus Barefoot was too busy conquering portions of Sweden, Scotland and Ireland to respond. But he died in 1103, leaving three sons to rule jointly. A group of scattered would-be Crusaders came back to Norway around this time, telling stories of the great lands to the south and the wonderful victories of the Crusade. There was a lot of popular enthusiasm in Oslo for mounting their own armed pilgrimage.

The three kings were all young, two teenagers and a little child. But they appear to have ruled harmoniously, perhaps because Magnus had left such a sprawling northern empire that there was room for all. Eystein, the oldest, seems always to have been an administrator at home. Sigurd, the second son, campaigned with his father as a teenager and was married to the Princess of Ireland. They decided that Sigurd was the obvious choice to lead a Crusade. It took some more time to build enough spare ships and recruit the men who would go.

Sigurd set out with sixty ships in 1107. They wintered over in England, with Henry I (son of William the Conqueror). In spring of 1108, they sailed south along France’s Atlantic coast, but it was slow going; they had to winter again in Santiago de Compostela. From this point on, the Norwegians began to run into fights. First, they battled pirates. Next, they passed along the coast of Portugal, fighting against apparent Arab holdings including Lisbon.

When the Norwegian ships entered the Mediterranean Sea, they were in the territory of the Taifa of Majorca, made up of the rich Balearic Islands. They fought several battles, though they considered the fortress at Majorca too tough to attack. Norwegian epics recount huge victories at the islands of Formentera, Ibiza, and Minorca.

The Norwegian stories tell how the Moors of Formentera hid with their booty in a cave that was halfway up a precipice. Sigurd attacked it by lowering two ships with ropes until they were level with the cave. The ships’ men attacked the cave with rocks, while more Norsemen climbed up to the cave from below. Then they set a bonfire in the cave’s mouth.

It’s not clear to me to whom the conquered islands and fortresses in Andalusia went. Perhaps Sigurd had found local Christians to set in power, or it may be that he considered it sufficient to kill and plunder. In 1109, the Norwegians arrived in Sicily, where Count Roger II, a boy of 12, welcomed them. At a feast, say the sagas, Sigurd proclaimed the Count to be a King, establishing the Kingdom of Sicily. (Of course, Roger was the young man who should have become the next King of Jerusalem, had King Baldwin I not divorced his mother.)

By 1110, they finally arrived in Jaffa or Acre and rode to Jerusalem.  In Old Norse, the city’s name was Jorsala, and the region was Jorsalaland. Sigurd’s nickname became Jorsalafarer (a step above his Barefoot father). King Baldwin welcomed Sigurd and honored him with feasts and an honorary trip to the Jordan River. Baldwin even gave Sigurd a splinter of the True Cross to take back to Oslo, with the condition that Sigurd should invest the city with its own Archbishop.

It happened that there was a siege the Norwegians could help with, so they joined the other Crusaders at Sidon. To the Norwegians, the whole thing was a walk in the park; they won every battle they started, and their participation quickly reduced Sidon to surrender. The grueling First Crusade experiences of near disaster seem to have skipped Sigurd entirely.

The Norwegians returned by way of Cyprus, where they spent some time, and then Constantinople. Sigurd made a point of waiting to arrive in Constantinople until the right sort of wind would make his ships look most impressive. They were welcomed by the Emperor, who held a sort of Olympic Games in their honor. A lot of Norsemen chose to stay on at this magical city, joining the Emperor’s special Varangian Guard. “Varangian” was the Greek name for Scandinavians or Rus. Unlike Byzantine conscripts, the Varangian Guard had a very high standard of loyalty to the Emperor as they applied the Norse custom of fealty.

Sigurd left his ships in the Mediterranean and traveled overland through Bulgaria, Hungary, and Germany. He arrived home to great fame. His Crusade is most notable for being so easy and successful. He left no impression on the Holy Land apart from the fall of Sidon. His story seems to come from a different book from the rest of the First Crusade hardships and disasters.

This entry was posted in Crusades. Bookmark the permalink.