The 11th and early 12th centuries marked a golden age for the Kingdom of Norway. The Norwegians had only recently, within the last couple of hundred years, abandoned the old Norse gods in favour of the Christian monotheism and formed themselves into a single nation. The Kingdom of Norway encompassed not just the modern nation of Norway also areas of Sweden, Scotland, Ireland, Iceland and Greenland. The Norwegians had recently, under King Harald Hardrada, been thwarted in their attempts to reconquer England in 1066 by the Saxon King Harold Godwinson (who was killed a few days later at the battle of Hastings by William the Conqueror and his Norman invasion). However, this had not marked the end of Norwegian power in Europe as Harald Hardrada’s great-grandson would demonstrate in his epic crusade across Europe.
Sigurd Magnusson was born circa 1090 as the son of King Magnus III. He had two brothers Øystein and Olav and all three were illegitimate, being born of Magnus’ concubines. However, they had all been legitimized by their father and all shared an equal right to the throne.
At a young age, in 1098, Sigurd was given his first taste of war when Magnus took him on campaign to claim the Orkney Islands, and the Isle of Mann for Norway. The campaign was highly successful and Sigurd was made the King of Mann and the Scottish Isles as well as the Earl of Orkney. At the same time he was betrothed to the daughter of the High King of Ireland Muirchertach Ó Briain. However, during a campaign in 1103, to expand his lands in Ireland, King Magnus was ambushed and killed. Sigurd, roughly 14 years of age, abandoned his Irish bride-to-be and sailed back to Norway where he and his brothers were declared the joint kings and co-rulers of the Kingdom of Norway.
At first the gains of Magnus looked to be in peril as the Hebrides and the Isle of Mann (of which Sigurd was King) declared their independence from Norwegian rule. However, the rest of the islands and territories of Norway remained part of the Kingdom and were able to supply the three young rulers with enough wealth and manpower to allow Norway to continue to rival the other powers of Europe.
Sigurd would go on to earn his fame throughout Europe as a great Crusader. In 1100 the First Crusade had succeeded in re-capturing the Holy City of Jerusalem for Christendom and had established the Kingdom of Jerusalem. However, this new kingdom on the far side of the Mediterranean was vulnerable as the bulk of the first crusade returned to Europe. Jerusalem was left with barely 300 knights and a small sliver of land amidst a sea of hostile Muslim states.
Sigurd and his brothers decided to go on Crusade to help the fledgling kingdom, however, only one of them could go. At first there was a debate as to whether Sigurd or Øystein should lead the Crusade. It was decided that Sigurd should go as, of the three brothers, he was the one with the most experience in war and travel (albeit not much experience). In 1107 the Norwegian Crusade was declared and Sigurd became the first Christian King to embark on this holy mission, he was not yet 20 years old.
In the autumn of 1107 Sigurd embarked on his great journey with 60 ships and 5,000 men. The journey would last nearly 7 years during which Sigurd and his men would fight both Christian and Muslims and would earn Sigurd a fearsome reputation for his brutality and the fact that he did not lose a single battle during his voyage.
The first port of call was England, the kingdom his great-grandfather Harald Hardrada had failed to conquer, where Sigurd stayed for the winter at the court of King Henry I (Son of William the Conqueror). In the spring of 1108 Sigurd and his retinue set sail from England and headed towards Spain.
Spain at this time was another popular destination for crusaders as the Christian kingdoms of the north were seeking to drive out the Muslims and end the hundreds of years of Muslim rule. Sigurd landed in the Kingdom of Galicia near the town of Santiago de Compostella, the famous pilgrimage city. There Sigurd was allowed to spend the winter of 1108. However, the winter brought with it serious food shortages and the local lord refused to sell his food to the Norwegian crusaders. Sigurd remedied the situation by sacking the lord’s castle and looting all the supplies that he needed. Freshly supplied from this escapade Sigurd sailed down the Spanish coast, defeating some Viking pirates along the way (from which Sigurd gained additional ships),eventually landing in Muslim controlled Al-Andalus. Sigurd now assisted the Kingdom of Galicia in taking the cities of Sintra and Lisbon (modern day Portugal) from the Muslims. These two victories gave Sigurd and his men a bountiful supply of food and treasure from the looting of the two cities. Sigurd won another battle at Alcácer do Sal where, it is reported, such a large number of people were killed that whole villages were emptied of their inhabitants.
Following these events in Spain, and much enriched by loot, Sigurd sailed through the straits of Gibraltar, landing in Sicily in 1109 where he once again stopped for the winter at the court of Count Roger II.
In the summer of 1110 Sigurd and his crusaders finally reached the Holy Land. Landing at the port of Acre (now in northern Israel) Sigurd and his army were welcomed by Baldwin I, King of Jerusalem. Sigurd spent the following months visiting the holy sites in the kingdom and was baptized in the river Jordan. After their return from the river Jordan, Baldwin begged Sigurd to help Jerusalem take the strategically important port of Sidon (in Lebanon). Sigurd agreed and managed to take the heavily fortified city on December 5th 1110 after just a few months of siege. For his efforts in taking the city Sigurd was given a piece of the true cross to take back to Norway in order to continue to promote the Christian faith there.
His mission in the Holy Land accomplished Sigurd began his home journey. The Norwegians set sail for Constantinople, stopping briefly in Cyprus. On arrival in the capital of the Byzantine Empire Sigurd and his retinue were welcomed, in person, by Emperor Alexios I. Whilst in Constantinople Sigurd decided to take the shortest route back home to Norway, over land. To this end he gave all of his ships to the Emperor in return for horses. Some of the Norwegian crusaders, awed by the power and splendor of the Byzantines, decided to stay in Constantinople. These men would become part of the Varangian Guard, bodyguards to the Emperor recruited from Northern European peoples and famed for their prowess as warriors.
Sigurd’s return journey would take nearly three years during which he would be welcomed by the courts of the various places he visited, including Emperor Lothar of the Holy Roman Empire. On his return to Norway in 1113 Sigurd was greeted by his brother Øystein who had proven himself most efficient at ruling in his brother’s absence.
Sigurd set up his court in Kungälv (now in Sweden) and from there set about increasing the power of the church by creating new dioceses and introducing a tithe (10% benefit tax for the church). He would also continue to oversee the spread of Christianity among the Norsemen by all means necessary. In 1123 Sigurd set out again to fight for the church to force the conversion of the inhabitants of Småland province who had renounced their Christian faith and resumed worship of the Old Gods. This campaign was, yet again, a great success and the resurgence of Paganism was halted.
However, Sigurd would not live a long life and died at the age of (around) 40 in 1130. His death sparked a succession crisis as he had only managed to produce daughters and no legitimate sons. This succession crisis would last for 110 years as various illegitimate sons and pretenders claimed the throne.
Sigurd was the embodiment of the Nordic warrior. Starting his military career from childhood with his father, Magnus, he lived a life of fighting and travelling, never losing a single battle. His efforts in Spain and the Holy Land did much to advance the cause of Christendom in re-capturing former lands and earned him the respect of all Christian monarchs as well as the eponym “the Crusader”.
Sigurd was buried in Hallvard’s Church (Hallvardskirken) in Oslo. In the 17th century the church had fallen into such a state of decay that a student took Sigurd’s skull for safe-keeping. In 1957 the skull was interred in the wall of the Royal Mausoleum at Akershus Fortress.