Post-classical history

Sigurd Jorsalfar (1090-1130)

King of Norway (1103-1130) and leader of a seaborne crusade to the Holy Land.

Sigurd became joint king of Norway along with his brothers Eystein and Olaf after their father, King Magnus III Barelegs, was killed during a raid in Ireland (1103). Sigurd’s decision to lead an expedition to the East fell in the third or fourth year of the kings’ joint reign and was undoubtedly prompted both by the recent success of the First Crusade (1096-1099) and the experiences of Norsemen returning from travel—and in some cases military service—in Byzantium and Palestine.

The precise chronology of the Norwegian expedition is unclear. Sigurd and his followers seem to have left Norway between 1106 and 1108 and to have reached the Holy Land by 1110 at the latest. The Norwegian fleet of some sixty ships sailed first to England, where it overwintered, sailing on to Galicia in the spring. The crusaders spent a further winter in Spain, moving south along the Portuguese and Andalusian coasts the next spring; by the time they reached the Strait of Gibraltar they had defeated several Muslim forces on both land and sea and had captured a number of enemy vessels. The warlike, crusading character of the expedition was clearly confirmed when the fleet entered the western Mediterranean and carried out the first recorded attack by a Christian force on the Muslim-held Balearic Islands. The Norwegians landed on the island of Formentera, to the south of Ibiza, where they assaulted and stormed a cave fortress (probably a pirate base), capturing large quantities of booty, and they followed up this success with raids on the islands of Ibiza and Menorca (1108 or 1109). The fleet then proceeded to Sicily, where it made a lengthy stay, arriving at Jaffa (mod. Tel Aviv-Yafo, Israel) at the end of the summer sailing season.

The Norwegians were well received by King Baldwin I of Jerusalem, who presented Sigurd with a relic of the True Cross. After visiting Jerusalem and the river Jordan, they enlisted in Baldwin’s efforts to reduce the Muslim-held cities of the Palestinian coast, providing the naval blockade during the siege of the port of Sidon (mod. Saïda, Lebanon), which surrendered in December 1110. Probably in early 1111 Sigurd and his followers sailed for Constantinople (mod. Istanbul, Turkey), where they handed over their ships to the Byzantine emperor Alexios I Komnenos and returned to Norway by the land route through Russia.

Sigurd’s crusading exploits, which earned him his surname Jorsalfar (“Jerusalem-farer”), were celebrated in several Norse sagas (Agrip af Nôregskonunga sogum, Morkin- skinna, Fagrskinna, and Snorri Sturluson’s Heimskringla) and are also mentioned in Latin sources. The deaths of the cokings Olaf (1115) and Eystein (1123) left Sigurd as sole ruler of Norway; the remainder of his reign was largely peaceful.

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