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Arland Fiske: The colorful Sigurd the Crusader

It is hard to find a more colorful Scandinavian than Sigurd (“Jerusalemfarer” – Jerusalem Traveler), son of King Magnus Barefoot. It was an exciting time to be a Christian ruler, for those were the years of the Crusades to wrest the “Holy Land” from the hands of the “infidels.”

Sigurd shared the rule over Norway with his brother Eystein. They were only about 13 or 14 years old when coming into power. Eystein ruled the north and Sigurd the south. It was decided, however, that while Sigurd was off to wage the “holy war,” Eystein should be in charge. It worked remarkably well.

Sailing with 60 ships in 1108, Sigurd first paid a visit to King Henry of England, the son of William the Conqueror, also of Norse descent. Sigurd’s crusade does not seem to fit into any of the nine noted Crusades, but he did fight a series of battles with the “heathens” in Spain, Portugal and the islands along the way. (It is not correct to call Muslims “heathens” by today’s definition, as they hold to a monotheistic view of God.) They also had a superior civilization to the Christians of Western Europe.

According to Snorri Sturluson in Sagas of the Norse King, Sigurd’s terms of peace were: “No man he spared who would not take the Christian faith of Jesus’ sake.” The people back home responded generously with gifts to support the cause. The crusades were profitable to the victors. Great amounts of booty were carried away in the Viking ships.

Sigurd stopped in Sicily to make Duke Roger a king. Roger was one a series of Norman rulers in Italy and Sicily. In Palestine, he was met by the Christian King Baldwin who spread valuable clothes on the road for the “red carpet” treatment.

Not only was Sigurd given a magnificent feast, but also he was given a splinter of the “holy cross” on condition that he would promote Christianity with all his power, secure an archbishop for Norway and collect a tithe for Rome. The fragment of the cross was to be placed by St. Olaf’s body in Trondheim. This induced more pilgrims to visit Trondheim to venerate St. Olaf’s relics.

Jerusalem behind, Sigurd sailed for Constantinople to visit Emperor Kirialax. Again precious cloths were spread over the road to impress the visitors. Sigurd had horses of his royal guard shod with gold shoes and gave instructions that one fell off in public view. They were to act as though nothing had happened. Upon leaving, he gave his fleet to the emperor and many of the Northmen joined the imperial guard. He made his way home across land, being entertained by Christian kings along the way. At age 23, he returned from three years of crusading, the most famous king of the North.

The Crusaders have left their mark in Palestine. The magnificent churches they built and by the ruins of the castles left behind from their 200-year period impressed me. Redeemer Lutheran Church in Jerusalem today worships in a Crusader built building. When I worshipped there, Pastor Calvin Storley of Minneapolis who has Norwegian ancestry led the English service in the side chapel. Sigurd would have liked that.

The Crusaders were finally defeated by a Kurdish warrior named Saladin who re-captured Jerusalem for Islam in 1187.While motivated by pious intentions, the Crusades remain one of the greatest scandals in the history of the Christian church.

King Sigurd, however, became the most renowned hero of the North. He died at age 40 and Snorri Sturluson wrote that the “time of his reign was good for the country; for there was peace and the crops were good.”

Next week: Carl Milles – Swedish artistic genius.


ARLAND FISKE, a retired Lutheran minister, formerly of Laporte, lives in Texas. He is the author of 10 books on Scandinavian themes, including “Sermons and Songs,” published in 2012.