on face of it

Fairhair dynasty

St.Olav dynasty, Hardrada dynasty, Gille dynasty and Sverre dynasty all redirect here.

The Fairhair dynasty (Hårfagreætta or Hårfagreætten) was a family of kings, alternatively ruling Norway 890-1387 (traditional view), or through only three generations of kings, in the 10th century CE.

Dynasty itself: traditional view vs artificial construct

The Fairhair Dynasty is traditionally regarded as the first royal dynasty of the united Kingdom of Norway. It was founded by King Haraldr hinn hárfagri, known as Harald Fairhair or Finehair, around 890. Its last ruler was (according to traditional royal genealogy) king Olav IV who died in 1387. But its more likely that only three generations of rulers in lineage of Harald Fairhair himself are known, and all the rest afterwards just used the prestige and name of the country's first unifier.

The descent starting from Harald Hardrule (1046-1066) down to Magnus IV of Norway is undisputed, but it is debated among modern historians whether Harald III in fact descended from Harald Fairhair (for example Sjöström 2007 questions the identification of Halvdan in Hadafylke with father of Sigurd Syr) and whether he in fact made such a claim, or whether this lineage is a construction from the 12th century. Sverre Sigurdsson's claim to be the son of Sigurd Munn is also usually considered to be false, which would make Inge Bårdsson the last king of a dynasty.

The concept of a "Fairhair dynasty" is probably an invention from the later medieval period, when rivalry between throne pretenders, and desire to enforce the legitimacy of the whole dynasty compared with its early rivals, made it appropriate to trace royal lineages back to the 9th century in order to gain legitimacy for their rule. According to the medievalist Claus Krag, the claim that Norwegian kings after the 10th century were descendants of Harald Fairhair dates from about 1150 (early decades of the civil war era). The Norwegian kings had a false genealogy constructed to Harald Fairhair in order to claim the territories around Oslo ("Vika"), which most of the time had then been paying taxes to the Danish kingdom.

Many of the Norwegian kings allegedly of the early Fairhair dynasty were in fact tribute-paying petty rulers subjugate to Denmark, or outright Danish vice-kings, a fact later concealed when Norwegian national history was written in the 19th century. Tha sagas also conceals that until the rule of Olav II, the Ladejarl dynasty from the northern part of Norway actually held more power in large parts of Norway than the rulers of the Fairhair dynasty. Since the rulers belonging to the Hardrada (branch of the Fairhair) dynasty eventually won the power struggle, history was written as if the whole Norwegian kingdom had been under the rule of the Fairhair kings. Some provinces did not come under the rule of the Fairhair rulers before the time of Harald III, who may be regarded as second unifier of Norway.

The Kingdom of Norway as a unified realm was initiated by King Harald Fairhair in 9th century. His efforts in unifying the petty kingdoms of Norway, resulted in the first known Norwegian central government. The country however fragmented soon, and was collected into one entity only in the first half of 11th century. Norway has been a monarchy since then, passing through several eras.

Thus was born the medieval (or, as is sometimes said, the first independent) kingdom of Norway, the realm of the so-called Fairhair dynasty.

According to traditional view, Norway was the hereditary kingdom of this dynasty, i.e agnatic descendants of the first unifier-king. The throne was inherited by all of Harald's male descendants. In the 13th century, the kingdom was officially declared hereditary by law. Contrary to other Scandinavian monarchies (which were elective kingdoms in the Middle Ages) Norway has always been a hereditary kingdom.

Harald Fairhair was the first king of Norway, as opposed to "in Norway". The traditional date of the first formation of a unified Norwegian kingdom is set to 872 when he defeated the last petty kings who resisted him at the Battle of Hafrsfjord, however the consolidation of his power took many years. The boundaries of Fairhair's kingdom were not identical to those of present day Norway and upon his death the kingship was shared among his sons. Some historians put emphasis on the actual monarchial control over the country and assert that St. Olav, who reigned from 1015, was the first king to have control over the entire country. Olav is generally held to be the driving force behind Norway's final conversion to Christianity. He was later also revered as Rex Perpetuum Norvegiæ (Latin: the eternal king of Norway).

The Fairhair dynasty can, however, be seen just as an artificial construct. It has been proposed (most vociferously by Claus Krag) that the genealogical lines between Harald Fairhair and the generation of Olav the Saint and Harald Hardraade is a construct in a later attempt to legitimize the then monarchs, and also provide a claim to the region of Viken (the area around the present-day Oslo), a claim challenged by the Danish.

From our sources, it seems reasonable to assume that Olav II and Harald III were half-brothers, with a common mother but two different fathers. Descent from the same mother was not in Germanic understanding a proper dynastic tie.

Only much later, emerged a claim that Harald III's father were a descendent, in unbroken male line, from a younger (and somewhat obscure) son of Harald Fairhair (this lineage is historically unattested, as pointed out by, for example, assessment of Sjöström, 2007). The same unbroken male line has been claimed regarding Olav II's line. To researchers, the latter or perhaps both of these somewhat obscure male-line descents may be myths and typical examples of fantasy genealogy.

The idea of three separate genealogical male-line descents of Harald Fairhair to Olav I of Norway, Olav II of Norway and Harald III of Norway, is based on saga material compiled a few centuries later, out of the material preserved or created by supporters of these monarchs. Research has generally shown a tendency to create a more prestigious past to the country, and to strengthen the claims and legitimacy of its rulers.

There could have been other lines of descent from King Harald I than the three embellished by Heimskringla. On the other hand, there is no evidence that even these three are factual.

961-1066: Harald Fairhair unified Norway, at least the coastal areas north to Trøndelag. After his death, the fragmentation back into petty kingdoms happened almost instantly. However, most of them were now in hands of Harald's putative sons, descendants or allies. Although there were districts in hands of other dynasties (such as Ladejarls), the concept of a central power on an hereditary basis had come into existence. It remains uncertain whether Norway can be defined as an hereditary kingdom even after succession of Eric I of Norway and Haakon I of Norway, sons of the Fairhair himself. Only when the "half-brothers" Olav II and Harald III ascend to power, is there any weight given to the claim that the successor was predestined by some rules of inheritance and not simply through force.

The (original) Fairhair dynasty is traditionally regarded as the first royal dynasty of the united Norway, a branch of Ynglings. It was founded by king Harald Fairhair around 890 CE.

It is more likely that only three generations of Fairhair rules were in power: Between 930-1030: three members of the Hairfair dynasty ruled, altogether for 40 years. Lade Earls acted as viceroys under the Danish king, for 41 years. The kings Olav Tryggvason and Saint Olaf, their family ties with the Fairhair dynasty is perhaps a 12th century invention, ruled altogether for 18 years.

The concept of a "Fairhair dynasty" is probably an invention from the later medieval period, when rivalry between throne pretenders made it appropriate to trace royal lineages back to the 9th century in order to gain legitimacy for their rule.

Kings of the Fairhair dynasty


After Olav II of Norway's recognition to sainthood, successors of his half-brother, Harald III, were also known as dynasty of Saint Olave.

Sub-dynasties of Fairhair dynasty

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

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

Olav I is historically known to have claimed male-line descent from Harald I, to be grandson of Harald's alleged son Olav in Vika. And Olav II is known to also have claimed male-line Fairhair descent, as great-grandson of Harald I's alleged son Bjørn in Vestfold. Opposite sources claim that Vika and its part, Vestfold, were not parts of Harald I's dominions but subject to the Danish. These two claims are not based on being natural sons appearing from nowhere, but on reliability of folklore sources, i.e Icelandic sagas and sources used to compile them.

Harald III is historically attested to have referred only to his kinship with his maternal half-brother king Olav II of Norway, and as mentioned, whose father in turn is claimed by folklore to have descended from Harald I (even that descent is subject to some doubt). Much later legends (sagas authored under patronage of royal courts of Harald III's descendants) claim Harald III's father also to have descended from Harald I (through Harald the Fairhair's alleged son Sigurd Rise). On the face of historical sources, this claimed descent from Harald I is of much later origin than the claims of descent of Olav I and Olav II whose claims apparently were known to their contemporaries, not made only century or so after as it seems to be the case with Harald III. Thus, Harald III started the Hardrada dynasty, a putative branch of the alleged ancient dynasty. They also became known as St.Olav dynasty in honor of founder's half-brother.

Harald IV arrived to Norway from his native Ireland and claimed to be natural son of Magnus III, sired during the latter's Irish expedition. His claim seems, from historical sources, based on tales told by his Irish mother and family circle during his youth. Thus, Harald IV started the Gille or Gylle dynasty (the "Irish branch"), a putative branch of the alleged ancient dynasty.

The most seriously discredited alleged son, practically regarded as impostor by much of current research, was Sverre I of Norway, who arrived to Norway from his native Faroe Islands, took up leadership in the embattled and heirless Birkebeiner party of the civil war, and claimed to be 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 the mother, tell Sverre his "real" paternity. His claim seems, from historical sources, based on tale told only by his mother, and no one else giving any affirmance to it. 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". Thus, Sverre I started the Sverre dynasty (the "Faroese branch"), a putative branch of the alleged ancient dynasty. House of Sverre is mentioned in non-Norwegian contexts too, for example as its one female member was Heiress of Scotland.

Haakon IV was born posthumously of a Norwegian peasant girl. She, and the late king Haakon III's inner circle, affirmed that she was king's lover and that the boy was sired by him. Of all the last-mentioned four problematic points of descent, this appears, on face of it, as the most trustworthy of these four less-than-well attested descents directly between Harald I Fairhair and Haakon IV himself. Thus, Haakon IV who can be regarded as having started yet another new dynasty, is generally regarded as having continued the Sverre dynasty (the "Faroese branch"). Whichever the case was, it was just a putative branch of the alleged ancient dynasty.

Kings and pretenders in sub-dynasties

Original Fairhair lineage:

Vigen branch:

Vestfold branch, the start of the Saint Olav dynasty:

Hardrada dynasty:

Gille branch:

House of Sverre:

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

bastard lineage of Sverre dynasty:

Descendants of sub-dynasties

Realities (untrustworthiness) behind the official medieval succession within the so-called Fairhair dynasty often leads to ask whether their kings left any other known descent than through impostor sons. Following materials give some details of attested lineages from kings of various sub-dynasties:

  • . (Harald Gille possibly was not their descendant, contrary to what is given in the referred external link). There is that clear line through Ragnhild, a daughter of king Magnus Barefoot, which has descendants through Swedish royal House of Eric. Magnus IV of Sweden, a descendant of Ragnhild Magnusdottir according to legend sources, ascended the Norwegian throne in 1319, after which all Norway's kings, except Charles VIII, Charles XIV and Oscar I of Sweden, have similarly been her descendants.
  • In case of Sverre being genealogically not his descendant (contrary to what is given in the referred external link), through Birgitta Haraldsdottir (who was married to earl Birger Brosa) Harald Gille has legend-attested descendants among Scandinavian nobility and through that lineage, among current European royalty. Charles I of Norway seems to have descended from Birgit, as did also Gustav I of Sweden and thus all his descendants.
  • Observe that in the referred external link, the known lineage does not continue to present time through anyone else than Haakon IV, whose father is not fully certain. Haakon IV married Margret Skulisdottir, who descended from certain earlier Norwegian petty kings and magnate families, and their children continue also that ancestry. From Haakon IV onwards, from him descend Norway's all kings except Charles I, Charles III and Oscar I.
    • From St.Olav himself, according to legend-based material there is two main descents:

include line of earls of Orkney through his illegitimate granddaughter, and line of Dukes of Saxony through his only legitimate daughter Ulvhild. Eric II of Norway was the first to descend from him, and afterwards all Norway's monarchs so do except Charles I, Charles III and Oscar I.


See also


  • Sjöström (2007): "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), ISSN 1479-5078, pp 253..276

External links

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