King of Dublin 934-941
King of Jorvik 939-941
Ruler of the Five Boroughs 940-941
Born ? Died 941
Olafr was the son of one Gothfrith 1, who was the Norse King of Dublin and succeeded his father as king in the year 934. He came to power at a time when it seemed that Viking power within Britain was on the wane, as succeeding kings of Wessex, specifically Edward the Elder and Athelstan had been sucessful in extending their authority over the former territories of the Danelaw.
However Olafr, like his father Gothfrith harboured ambitions of following in the footsteps of his illustrious great-grandfather Ivarr the Boneless. It was perhaps in pursuit of this ambition, and certainly as part of policy of establishing friendly relations with a neighbouring kingdom, that Olafr married the daughter of king Constantine II of Scotland, an event that may well have prompted Athelstan to launch his invasion of Scotland in 934. This did not however dissuade Olafr who later allied himself with both Constantine II and Owain of Strathclyde in their invasion of England in 937. The invasion was naturally resisted by Athelstan, ruler of Wessex and the resulting battle of Brunanburh was a convincing victory for Athelstan.
Athelstan took control of Jorvik and dominated the political landscape of Britain thereafter, but Olafr managed to escape unharmed from the defeat at Brunanburh. And having lived to fight another day, Olafr was ready to seize the opportunity two years later after Athelstan's death, and returned to seize control of Jorvik for himself. And he was not simply content with re-establishing Viking control of Jorvik he clearly had the ambition to unite all of the former territories of the Danelaw under his personal control. In 940 he invaded the territory of the Five Boroughs and appears to have rapidly won the support of its inhabitants and only at Northampton was he met any resistence.
Olafr then turned his attention to the west and attacked Tamworth and succeeded in storming the town. As the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reported, he
broke down Tamworth and a great slaughter fell on either side and the Danes had the victory and led much war-booty away with them (including a valuable hostage in the form of one Wulfrun)2.
Olafr then retreated to Leicester where he was surrounded by Edward the Martyr (who had succeeded Athelstan as ruler of Wessex), but Olafr succeeded in breaking out of Leicester and inflicted a defeat on Edward in the process. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reported that;
after that Olafr obtained obtained King Edmund's friendship and then the king received the king Olafr at baptism
Which is to say that the Archbishop of York, Wulfstan and the Archbishop of Canterbury negotiated a peace treaty between the two by which Edward conceded control of Jorvik and the Five Boroughs to Olafr.
Olafr then turned to the north, attacking the Lordship of Bamburgh and reached the Firth of Forth in the year 941, which is about the time that he died, apparently of natural causes.
Following his death he was briefly succeeded by a cousin named Olafr Sigtryggson but Edward took advantage of the situation and moved north the following year to retake the Five Boroughs. An event considered of sufficient import to merit its own panegyric poem inserted into the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Although Edward could not entirely reverse the gains of Olafr and it was not until the year 954 that Jorvik was finally brought under control with the death of Eirikr Bloodaxe.
The brief career of Olafr Gothfrithson illustrates the fragility of tenth century notions of kingship; he was clearly a military general of some capability and more than a match for his counterpart in Wessex. Had Olafr lived beyond the year 941 he might well have succeeded in creating a Viking 'superstate' that spanned the Irish Sea from Dublin to York. But his ambition of uniting the various Viking kingdoms of Britian into one political entity did not survive his death and he remains one of the might have beens of history.
1 Olafr Gothfrithson is often confused with his cousin Olafr Sigtryggson better known as Olafr Cuaran, a confusion that is evident even within source documents such as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.
2 Wulfrun was a wealthy Anglo-Saxon noblewoman; it is unclear who her husband was (he may have been a gentleman anmed Wulfsige the Black) but she was responsible for founding the religious centre at Wolverhampton, which was named after her.
The Clan Ivarr at
Nottinghamshire And The North: A Domesday Study at
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles translated and edited by Michael Swanton (Phoenix Press, 2000)
Ann Williams, Alfred P. Smyth and D. P. Kirby A Biographical Dictionary of Dark Age Britain (Seaby, 1991)