Fairhair dynasty
  • Norse clan (Ætt)
  • Royal dynasty
Coin of Eric Bloodaxe
CountryKingdom of Norway
Place of originNorwegian
Foundedc. 865[1]
FounderHarald Fairhair
Final rulerOlaf Tryggvason, Magnus V or Haakon V (Norway)
Margaret (Scotland, disputed)
TitlesKing of Vestfold
King of Norway
King of Northumbria
King of Denmark
King of Rånrike
King of Trondheim
King of Vingulmark
Dissolution970 or 1387
Cadet branches
  • Vigen branch
  • Vestfold branch


The Fairhair dynasty (Norwegian: Hårfagreætta) was a family of kings founded by Harald I of Norway (commonly known as "Harald Fairhair", Haraldr inn hárfagri) which united and ruled Norway with few interruptions from the latter half of the 9th century. In the traditional view, this lasted until 1387, however, many modern scholars view this rule as lasting only three generations, ending with Harald Greycloak in the late 10th century. The moniker "Fairhair dynasty" is a retrospective construction: in their lifetime what little traces there are refer to them consistently as "Ynglings".

Dynasty itself: traditional view vs artificial construct

Kingdom of Norway (red) in 1020, with the territory of Finnmark

The Fairhair Dynasty is traditionally regarded as the first royal dynasty of the united kingdom of Norway. It was founded by Harald I of Norway, known as Haraldr hinn hárfagri (Harald Fairhair or Finehair), the first King of Norway (as opposed to "in Norway"), who defeated the last resisting petty kings at the Battle of Hafrsfjord in 872.

According to the traditional view, after Harald Fairhair first unified the kingdom, Norway was inherited by his agnatic (male) descendants. In the 13th century, this was codified in law. Unlike other Scandinavian monarchies and Anglo-Saxon England, Norway was never an elective monarchy.

However, in the first centuries after Harald Fairhair, there were several periods during which the country was effectively ruled not by a king but by one of the Jarls of Lade, (Old Norse Hlaðir), from the northern part of Norway. The first such period was from about 975 to about 995 under Haakon Sigurdsson (Hákon Sigurðarson, often called 'Jarl Haakon'). Also, although Harald Fairhair's kingdom was the kernel of a unified Norway, it was still small and his power centre was in Vestfold, in the south. And when he died, the kingdom was divided between his sons. Some historians put emphasis on the actual monarchical control over the country and assert that Olaf II (Olaf the Stout, who later became St. Olaf), who reigned from 1015, was the first king to have control over the entire country. He is generally held to be the driving force behind Norway's final conversion to Christianity and was later revered as Rex Perpetuum Norvegiæ (Latin: eternal king of Norway).[2][3] Some provinces did not actually come under the rule of the Fairhair kings before the time of Harald III (Harald Hardrada, r. 1046–1066). Either of these may therefore be regarded as further unifiers of Norway. And some of the rulers were nominally or actually vassals of the King of Denmark, including Jarl Haakon.

It is undisputed that later kings, until Magnus IV (Magnus the Blind, r. 1130–1135 and 1137–1139), were descended from Harald Hardrada: the 'Hardrada dynasty'. However, many modern historians doubt whether Harald III or his predecessors Olaf Tryggvason, Olaf II and Magnus the Good were in fact descended from Harald Fairhair (for example questioning the identification of Halfdan in Hadafylke with the father of Sigurd Syr[4] or Harald Fairhair's fathering of Sigurd Hrise on a Sami girl called Snæfrithr Svásadottir[5]) and whether they in fact made such a claim, or whether these lineages are a construction from the 12th century. Sverre Sigurdsson's claim to be the son of Sigurd Munn is also usually considered to be dubious, which would make Inge II (Inge Bårdsson) possibly the last king of a dynasty.

Kingdom of Norway at its greatest extent, around 1265

Scholars now consider the Fairhair dynasty at least partly the product of medieval invention.[6][7] One motive would be to increase the legitimacy of rulers by giving them a clear royal ancestry dating back to the foundation of the kingdom. Another was to provide pedigrees for other people by connecting them to the royal house. Versions of the royal descent are preserved in various works by Icelandic skalds and historians, some based on now lost works: Þjóðólfr of Hvinir's Ynglingatal, in Nóregs konungatal (which preserves information from a lost work by Sæmundr fróði), and at greatest length in Snorri Sturluson's Heimskringla (which preserves information from a now lost version of Ari Þorgilsson's Íslendingabók). These differ in some respects. Joan Turville-Petre explored the relationship between them and argued that the original aims were to establish a framework of regnal years for dating and to connect Icelandic chieftains to them,[8] and that the Vestfold origin of the dynasty was deliberately altered and they were connected to the Swedish Ynglings rather than the Skjǫldungs to fit Icelandic tradition.[9] Claus Krag argued that an important motive was to establish a hereditary claim to Viken, the region around Oslo, because the area had been paying taxes to the King of Denmark.[10]

Turville-Petre speaks of a "decisive reconstruction of Harald [Hardrada]'s ancestry probably carried out by Icelanders, some two hundred years after his time" which made Halfdan the Black the progenitor of a dynasty which stretched in three branches from Harald Fairhair to Olaf Tryggvason, Olaf II and Harald.[11] – in fulfillment of prophetic dreams, according to Heimskringla, in which the genealogy reaches its full form.

One particular point of doubt raised by historians is whether Harald III's father was actually descended in unbroken male line from a younger (and somewhat obscure) son of Harald Fairhair,[12] and Olav II in another obscure but unbroken male line. It has been suggested [by whom?] that their claims to the throne were bolstered by genealogical invention because although they shared the same mother, Åsta Gudbrandsdatter, the mother's descent was unimportant in inheritance according to traditional Germanic law.

In this critical view, only three generations of Fairhair kings reigned, from 930 to 1030, for 40 years altogether. The kings Olav Tryggvason and St. Olav, their family ties with the Fairhair dynasty perhaps a 12th-century invention, ruled for 18 years altogether and Harald Hardrada then founded a new dynasty. There may be as many as 6 dynasties altogether subsumed under the title of Fairhair dynasty: Harald Fairhair's, Olaf Tryggvason's, St. Olaf's, Harald Hardrada's, Magnus Erlingsson's and Sverre's.[13]


The problem points (points of broken genealogy) in the medieval royal lineage in the so-called Fairhair dynasty are:[13]

Each of them came from "nowhere" and won the kingdom, the three latter claiming to be hitherto unknown natural sons of an earlier king.

Olaf I is given a male-line descent from Harald I in the Icelandic sagas, as grandson of Harald's alleged son Olaf in Vika. However, Viken and its region of Norway, Vestfold, were not parts of Harald I's dominions but subject to the Danish kings at the time, making this connection dubious. Further, the future king Olaf is said to have been born posthumously to a mother who had taken refuge in the Orkney Islands, yet the age assigned him in other sources would place his birth years after the date attributed to the death of his father. The Heimskringla then relates that he was enslaved in Estonia as a three-year-old, only to tell his true parentage to the man who discovered him there and freed him six years later. Olaf II is likewise claimed to have been a male-line descendant of Harald I, as great-grandson of Harald I's alleged son Bjørn in Vestfold, yet he is first known to history as a successful Viking marauder rather than a landed prince. The reliability of these two claims depends on the credibility of the Icelandic accounts (in particular Heimskringla) and the sources used to compile them, and if deemed unreliable, their reigns would represent distinct dynasties from that of Fairhair.

Harald III is historically attested to have referred only to his kinship with his maternal half-brother, Olaf II. Much later legends (sagas authored under the patronage of royal courts of Harald III's descendants) claim Harald III's father also to have descended from Harald I (through Harald Fairhair's alleged son Sigurd Hrise). Thus, Harald III's 'Hardrada dynasty' is represented in the sagas as a branch of the Fairhair dynasty. They also became known as the 'St. Olaf dynasty' in honor of the founder's half-brother.

Harald IV arrived in Norway from his native Ireland and claimed to be the natural son of Magnus III, sired during the latter's Irish expedition. His claim seems, from historical sources, to be based on tales told by his Irish mother and family circle during his youth. Were one to view these claims as dubious, then Harald IV instead gave rise to a new dynasty, the 'Gille' (Irish) or 'Gylle dynasty'.

The most seriously discredited alleged scion, practically regarded as an impostor by many modern academics,[citation needed] was Sverre I, who arrived in Norway from his native Faroe Islands, took up leadership in the embattled and heirless Birkebeiner party of the civil war, and claimed to be the natural son of Sigurd II by Gunhild, Sverre's attested mother. Sverre was sired during his mother's marriage with another man, Unas the Combmaker. Only in adulthood, so the claim goes according to legends, did his mother tell Sverre his 'real' paternity. Based on historical sources, no one else appears to have given the story credence. During that stage of the civil war, the strife was so intense that genealogical truth had evolved to a relative concept. Many royal pretenders claimed to be sons of King Sigurd II, and that was mostly a political statement – their claims were at best dubious. It may have meant just that the claimant desired to continue the perceived policies of Sigurd and his party, and in that sense were his 'sons'. Sverre I would be viewed as starting the Sverre dynasty.

Haakon IV was born to a Norwegian peasant girl after the death of King Haakon III. She and the late king's inner circle affirmed that she had been the king's lover and that the boy had been sired by him. Of all the last-mentioned four problematic points of descent, this appears, on the face of it, as the most trustworthy.[citation needed] Were this disputed, Haakon IV, would be regarded as having started yet another new dynasty, though he is generally regarded as having continued the 'Sverre dynasty'.

Kings and pretenders in sub-dynasties

Original Fairhair lineage:

Viken, perhaps unrelated 'Tryggvason' dynasty:

Vestfold, the start of the St. Olav dynasty:

Hardrada dynasty:

Gille dynasty:

Philip Simonsson and Skule Baardsson cannot be easily placed into the Fairhair dynasty scheme. Their relation to an earlier Fairhair king was that of a half-brother.

Sverre dynasty:

bastard lineage of Sverre dynasty:

See also


  1. ^ "Harald Hårfagre". Store norske leksikon AS. Retrieved 22 January 2014.
  2. ^ Arno Borst, Medieval Worlds : Barbarians, Heretics, and Artists in the Middle Ages, University of Chicago, 1992, ISBN 0-226-06656-8, p. 132.
  3. ^ The phrase is first recorded in the contemporary Historia NorwegiæKnut Helle, The Cambridge History of Scandinavia Volume 1, Prehistory to 1520, Cambridge University Press, 2003, ISBN 0-521-47299-7, p. 379.
  4. ^ M. Sjöström, "Scandinavian medieval descendants of Charlemagne: A detailed genealogy of the issue of Agnes Haakonsdottir, of the so-called Fairhair dynasty", Foundations – Journal of the Foundation for Medieval Genealogy vol 2 (2007:4, July), pp. 253–276: "It is very likely that the lord Halvdan, father of kinglet Sigurd Syr, was not identical with a possible Halvdan in Hadafylke, grandson of king Harald".
  5. ^ Helle, p. 191.
  6. ^ Helle, p. 185.
  7. ^ Birgit and Peter Sawyer, Medieval Scandinavia: from Conversion to Reformation, circa 800-1500, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993, ISBN 0-8166-1738-4, p. 61.
  8. ^ Joan Turville-Petre, "The Genealogist and History: Ari to Snorri", Saga-Book 20 (1978-81), pp. 7–23 (pdf), especially pp. 8, 10: "The numbers suggest that this was a professional genealogical document, made up in sets of ten generations".
  9. ^ Turville-Petre, pp. 14: "According to Ynglingatal, the first five members were all buried in Vestfold; which implies that this was the centre of their power. Yet Ari entitles the first member Upplendingakonungr. In Icelandic historical tradition the emphasis is on the mountain regions"; 15: "The Skjǫldungs were not in question . . . ; the Ynglings of Sweden were chosen".
  10. ^ Claus Krag, Ynglingatal og Ynglingasaga: en studie i historiske kilder, Oslo: Universitetsforlaget 1991, OCLC 256562288, pp. 231, 243 (in Norwegian)
  11. ^ Turville-Petre, p. 15
  12. ^ Sjöström, for example, regards this as evidence of later invention: "[T]he male-line descent of Sigurd Syr from Harald Fairhair/Schönhaar is very uncertain, redolent of a later, possibly 12th-century, creation in support of the established royal Hardraada dynasty's legitimacy claims".
  13. ^ a b Jo Rune Ugulen, "Kongar i dei norske ættetavlene" Archived 28 February 2007 at the Wayback Machine (Kings in the Norwegian genealogies), Norsk Slektshistorisk Forening 1999/2000, reprinted from Genealogen 99.1, pp. 20–23 (in Nynorsk)