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Sigríð stórráða Tóstadóttir: Queen Sigríð the Proud

Dear Viking Answer Lady:

Please help me! I need to know something about Sigrid the Proud, who ran away from her husband Eric of Sweden, as mentioned in the Heimskringla. One of my webmates (?) says she is a myth, another that she burned two suitors to death and was not a nice person.

(signed) Proud But Nice

Gentle Reader:

Sigríð stórráða Tóstadóttir was born about 927 in Sweden, daughter to Tósti, a well-regarded Swedish warrior. The nickname carried  by Sigríð, stórráða, meaning "the Haughty", "the Proud", "the Ambitious", or "the Strong-Minded", is not perjorative -- in Viking culture it was expected that one would be proud about one's accomplishments and belongings, and it was no shame to boast of them.  A proud carriage showed a woman who knew her own worth.  It only became a vice when one was haughty but had no cause to be.  Sigríð definitely had much cause for her pride - she was the daughter of a well-known and respected war-leader, she was the wife of one king and the mother of another, and her personal riches and land holdings were vast.  And certainly Sigríð was strong-minded -- she was never one to duck a hard decision, nor to avoid hard conflict when honor so demanded.

Haralds saga Gráfeldar (The Saga of Harald Greycloak), chapter 11, explains that:

Tósti was the name of a man in Sweden, one of the noblest and most powerful there of those who were not of princely birth.  He was a great warrior and had been for a long time on Viking expeditions.  He was called Skoglar-Tósti 1.  Harald Grenski (Harald the Greenlander) joined his company, following Tósti in his expeditions in summertime; and Harald was esteemed highly by everybody.  In the winter following, Harald stayed with Tósti.  Sigríð was the name of Tósti's daughter, a handsome and very haughty young woman.  Later on she was married to the Swedish king, Eiríkr Sigrsæll (Eiríkr the Victorious), and their son was Óláf of Sweden, who afterwards ruled that country.  Eirík died of a sickness at Uppsala, ten years after the fall of Styrbjorn.

Sigríð married the first time ca. 948, wedding King Eiríkr VI Sigrsæll (Eiríkr the Victorious) of Sweden.  She had three children by this marriage:  Bjorn Eiríksson (b. 949), Edmund Eiríksson (b. 961), and King Óláf II Eiríksson, called Skotkonung (b. 970).

In Óláfs saga Tryggvasonar (The Saga of Óláf Tryggvason), chapter 43, we are told:

As set down before, Harald Grenski was king in the Westfold District 2.  He married Ásta, the daughter of Guðbrandr kúla 3.  One summer, when Harald Grenski had gone on a Viking expedition to the Baltic to acquire possessions, he came to Sweden.  At that time Óláf the Swedish was king there.  He was the son of King Eiríkr Sigrsæll and Sigríð, a daughter of Skoglar-Tósti. Sigríð was widowed then and owned many and large estates in Sweden.  Now when she learned that Harald Grenski, her foster brother, had come ashore not far away, she sent messengers to him, inviting him to a banquet.  He did not delay long and came with a large company of men.  They were entertained splendidly there.  The king and the queen 4 sat in the high-seat and drank together in the evening, and all his men were entertained most lavishly.  In the evening, when the king sought his bed he found it decked with covers of costly stuff and made up with sheets of precious material.  There were few persons in these lodgings.  And when the king had undressed and gotten into bed, the queen came to him and herself poured out a beaker for him, enticing him much to drink, and treating him in the most ingratiating way.  The king was dead drunk, and so was she.  Then the king went to sleep, and the queen also lay down 5.

Sigríð was an exceedingly clever woman and prescient about many things 6.  Again in the morning following, the entertainment was of the best.  But then it happened, as is generallythe case, when men have drunk to excess, that on the following day most of them go slow about drinking.  But the queen was merry, and she and the king talked with one another.  She said that she valued her possessions and the dominion she had in Sweden no less than his kingdom and his possessions in Norway.  The king became displeased with her utterances 7. He grew cool about everything and prepared to leave in great ill humor; but the queen was in a most cheerful mood and said farewell to him, presenting him with lordly farewell gifts.

In the autumn following, Harald returned to Norway and remained in rather poor spirits.  When summer came he sailed into the Baltic again with his fleet.  He steered to Sweden and sent word to Queen Sigríð that he wished to see her again.  She rode down the coast to meet with him, and they spoke together.  He soon came to the point, asking if she would marry him.  She said that he was insincere in proposing that, because he was so well married that he should be well-satisfied.  Harald replied that Ásta was, to be sure, a good woman and worthy, "but she is not as highborn as I am."

Sigríð said, "It may well be that you are of nobler birth than she.  But I should think that the good fortune of both of you reposes with her8."  Few more words were exchanged bewteen them before the queen rode away.

King Harald remained behind in heavy spirits.  He made ready to ride inland to meet Queen Sigríð again.  Many of his men advised against that, but he proceeded nonetheless with a numerous company of men and arrived at the estate belonging to the queen.  That same evening another king came there.  He was Vissavald from Garðaríki in the east 9.  He came to ask for her in marriage.  Both kings and their retinue were housed in a large and ancient hall furnished in the same manner.  Plentiful drink was served there in the evening.  It was so potent that all became dead drunk and that both their bodyguards and the watch posted without fell asleep.  Then Queen Sigríð had them assailed in the night with both fire and sword.  The hall burned, together with the men inside, and those who got out were slain.  Sigríð said that in this way she was going to break kinglets of the habit of visiting her to ask for her in marriage.  In after times she was called Sigríð Stórráða. 

Here Sigríð is protecting her rights, her personal freedom, and her possessions.  A widow with children in Norse culture had many rights, among them the right to select her own spouses (if she chose to remarry) and the right to own and manage her property, such of it as was not the inheritance of her sons.  Sigríð had shown great favor, and even erotic interest in Harald, however he made it quite clear that he did not want to marry her for herself, but only for the fact that she was wealthier than he, and that in fact he was so greedy he would set aside his good and noble wife to marry Sigríð instead.  When Sigríð reasonably refused, Harald intemperately continued to press his suit, bringing with him a small army to force Sigríð if need be.  It is not known whether Vissavald was a similarly poor choice as a bridegroom, but apparently so, for an enraged Sigríð had them both slaughtered.

Later in Óláfs saga Tryggvasonar chapter 60, Queen Sigríð's story continued:

Queen Sigríð of Sweden, who was called Stórráða, resided on her estates.  That winter messengers went between King Óláf Tryggvason and Queen Sigríð, and through them King Óláf asked for the hand of Queen Sigríð.  She received his suit favorably, and the betrothal was definitely agreed on.  Thereupon King Óláf sent Queen Sigríð the large gold arm ring which he had taken from the temple gate at Hlathir 10.  It was considered a splendid possession.  Their meeting to arrange matters for the wedding was to be in the spring following at the boundary on an island in the Gaut Elf River.

Now, as to this ring which King Óláf had sent Queen Sigríð and which was so greatly valued by all -- with the queem there were two smiths, brothers.  And when they held the ring in their hands and weighed it and talked secretly together, the queen had them called to her and asked them why they laughed in their sleeves about the ring.  They would not say.  Then she told them by all means to let her know what they had noticed.  They said that the ring was counterfeit.  Then she had the ring broken in two, and there was seen to be copper inside it.  Then the queen was furious and said that Óláf would defraud her in more things than that.

The importance of the false ring cannot be overstated here.  The whole status of the wedding turned around the bride-price paid by the groom -- if the groom could not come up with a certain minimum value (the so-called "poor man's price") the marriage was not even legal and any children born of it would be bastards.  It's impossible to say what the actual value of the arm ring was, but certainly a piece of gold-plated copper is worth far less than an equal amount of solid gold, so Sigríð has been mortally insulted by this.  The value of the ring in essence reflects the value or esteem in which the bridegroom holds his bride, and so Sigríð had been insulted 11.

Worse, the insult had been a major and public one -- folks all around the countryside had been talking about this fine and magnificent arm ring, and now the ring Sigríð was actually given turned out to be a cheap fake.  It doesn't matter at this point whether or not King Óláf knew it to be a fake or not, for the insult has occurred and Queen Sigríð made a public laughingstock.  And that is the most intolerable insult of all -- the Vikings put a high price upon personal dignity and honor, so much so that the laws insisted that a person who had been insulted three times can only settle lawsuits for the insults on the first two, and must avenge the third in blood or else be called coward and forever lose the right to legal redress for future insults 12.

The tale continues in Óláfs saga Tryggvasonar, chapter 61:

Early in spring King Óláf journeyed east to Kongungahella for the meeting with Queen Sigríð.  And when they met they discussed the matter which had been broached in winter, that they were to marry; and matters went very well.  Then King Óláf said that Sigríð should be baptized and accept the True Faith.  She replied in this wise: "I do not mean to abandon the faith I have had, and my kinsmen before me.  Nor shall I object to your belief in the god you prefer."

Here Sigríð espouses the typical pagan Norse response.  It is good and right to honor one's ancestors, and a part of this is tied up in the pagan religious worship, which included elements of ancestor worship as well.  But like most free-thinking Viking Age pagans, she has no desire to foist her religion on another, and is perfectly content that Óláf should worship in his own way as well.  However, in a re-enactment of the entire struggle between the Old Religion and the New, the laissez faire attitude of the pagan Sigríð was to meet determined and overwhelming deadly hostility from the Christian convert King Óláf...

Then King Óláf became very angry and said hastily, "Why should I want to marry you, you dog of a heathen?" and slapped her in the face with the glove he had in his hand.  Whereupon he rose, and she too.  Then Sigríð said, "This may well be your death!" With that they parted.  The king returned north to Vík, the queen east to Sweden.

Here Óláf has further compounded his prior insults against Sigríð.  One of the most demeaning and vicious insults that a man could offer a woman in Viking society was to slap her iin the face, and it was a much worse insult if done in public.  An analysis of the sagas shows that women who were slapped in this way always took revenge, and the usual revenge involved deadly force.  It always resulted at the least in divorce, at the worst in a feud between clans that killed dozens before the issue ground to a bloody halt 13.

Óláfs saga Tryggvasonar continues the tale of Queen Sigríð in chapter 91 where we find that Queen Sigríð finally remarries.  Sigríð married King Svein Tjuguskegg (Svein Forkbeard) of Denmark in 979, by whom she had  a daughter, Estrið Astrið Margaret (b. 980).  The sources are divided on Sigríð's next-to-youngest child, a daughter named Hólmfrið or Svantoslava (Swietoslava) (b. 972) and who has been listed as either the last child of Sigríð and Eiríkr or else the first child of  Sigríð and Svein14.

By chapter 98, Queen Sigríð's rage against Óláf for his insults has continued to simmer over the years at a long, slow boil:

As was written above, King Svein Tjuguskegg had married Sigríð Stórráða.  Sigríð was King Óláf's bitterest enemy, because King Óláf had broken the agreement with her and had slapped her face, as was written above.  She constantly incited King Svein to wage war against King Óláf Tryggvason, saying that sufficient reason for that was having shared the bed of Thyri, King Svein's sister, "without asking your permission; nor would your forebears have stood for that."  Such pleadings Queen Sigríð often made, and succeeded so well that King Svein was persuaded to follow her advice.  And early in the spirng King Svein sent messengers east to Sweden to the court of Óláf, King of Sweden, his stepson 15 and Earl Eiríkr Hákonarson, informing them that Óláf, king of Norway, had called out an army and intended to sail to Wendland in the summer.  The messengers furthermore were charged to request the Swedish king and Earl Eiríkr to levy troops and with them join King Svein, when they all together were to give battle to King Óláf.

Sigríð passes out of the saga's tale at this point, but the battle which was fought was the famous Battle of Svold in which King Óláf Tryggvason in his longship the Ormenlange ("Long Serpent") battled the combined Swedish and Danish forces.  Queen Sigríð won her vengeance that day, for King Óláf saw his Norwegian forces defeated and he himself leapt into the sea to drown rather than face capture by his enemies.

Sigríð herself lived a long life, happy in the knowledge that the grave insults paid her by King Óláf Tryggvason were avenged by his death. When King Svein Tjuguskegg went to England, Sigríð accompanied him there (ca. 1000).  Svein died in 1014, with his son Knutr suceeding him to the rule of England and Denmark. Sigríð herself died ca. 1014, apparently just after the death of Svein.




Notes

 1  The term skoglar does not appear in the Cleasby-Vigfusson dictionary.  The nearest term is skógar, "forester, forest-man, outlaw".

 2  Westfold or Vestfold is located in Norway.

 3  The by-name kúla means "ball, knob, hunch-back".

 4  Here the king is Harald and the queen is Sigríð.

 5  It was expected that children who were fostered together would often form close attachments, even romantic attachments.  However it is also possible that Sigríð deliberately took this action to make Harald believe that he had slept with her, perhaps to prevent a more forceful attempt at rape later. Scholars are divided on the interpretation.

 6  Traditionally throughout early Germanic history women had always been held to have the innate power of prophecy, a power that was increased in queens because of their sacral duties as representatives of the community.

 7  Apparently King Harald was angry and embarrassed because Sigríð was wealthier than he was.

 8  This is an instance of Sigríð's foretelling abilities.

 9  Garðaríki, "the land of garths or towns", meaning Russia.

10  This would have been an oath-ring sacred to the god Ţórr that the Christian king had looted from a desecrated pagan temple.

11  See the Viking Answer Lady article about Viking Weddings for further details about bride-price and legitimacy of children.

12  See the Viking Answer Lady article on Holmgang for more information on the area of insult and redress.

13  See the Viking Answer Lady article on Viking Weddings in the "Divorce" section for more details.

14  This latter is most likely -- probably the girl's name was Hólmfrið, and she gained the second name a nickname after her marriage.

15  This Olaf was Sigríð's son by King Eiríkr Sigrsæll.




Bibliography

  • Jones, Gwyn. A History of the Vikings. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1968.
    Buy this book from Amazon.com  Buy the book today!

  • Saxo Grammaticus. Gesta Danorum: The History of the Danes Books I-IX.  trans. Hilda Roderick Ellis-Davidson. Ipswich: D.S. Brewer. 1980.
    Buy this book from Amazon.com  Buy the book today!

  • Snorri Sturluson.  Heimskringla: History of the Kings of Norway.  trans Lee Hollander.  Austin: University of Texas Press.  1964, reprint 1991.
    Buy this book from Amazon.com  Buy the book today!

  • Strand, Birgit. "Women in Gesta Danorum." Saxo Grammaticus: A Medieval Author Between Norse and Latin Culture. ed. Kirsten Friis-Jensen. Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press. 1981. 135-167.
    Buy this book from Amazon.com  Buy this book today!

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