Rognvald Kali Kolsson
Rognvald Kali Kolsson was born in 1103 and grew up in Agder, in the south of Norway. His mother was Gunnhild, daughter of Erlend Thorfinnsson, who had been joint Earl of Orkney and who was a nephew of Magnus Erlendsson (better remembered as Saint Magnus). His father, Kol Kalisson, was well known in Norway as a wise and noble man.
He became involved in the wrestle for power throughout the Norse kingdom from the age of fifteen, when he travelled to Grimsby in England on one of his fathers trading ships. There he met and became friends with Harald Gillichrist, a future king of Norway. Kali returned to Norway with new English gear, and became known as something of a dandy. He was also a powerful man, and became involved in several skirmishes, due to the quarrels of men in his charge, and to his and his father’s allegiances with other nobles in Norway.
It was as reparations for one of these battles that King Sigurd of Norway awarded Kali the Earlship of half of Orkney, a title previously held by his uncle Magnus . He would share the isles with his cousin, Earl Paul Hakonsson. King Sigurd also conferred upon Kali the name of Earl Rognvald, as Kali’s mother Gunnhild considered the first Earl Rognvald Brusisson to be the most accomplished and best liked of the Orcadian earls.
Earl Paul, however, was not inclined to give up half his earldom to so distant a relative; he swore to fight the claim as long as he lived. Kali’s father orchestrated a plan to help Kali claim his title. Six longships were sent west, with Kali onboard, to attempt to wrest control of the earldom from Paul. More ships would be sent by allies in Caithness. Bad weather delayed the expedition, and Kali’s ships anchored in Yell sound to reprovision. There they spent many days awaiting a fair wind, feasting with the farmers of Shetland and forging allegiances. Earl Paul got wind of their plans; he defeated the ships from Caithness, then sailed north to Shetland and captured Kali’s ships. Kali and his supporters, including many Shetlanders, urged Paul to come ashore and fight; but instead he returned to Orkney with the captured ships. Kali returned to Norway as a passenger on a trading vessel with little gained, but with the Shetlanders firmly on his side.
The second time Kali set out for Orkney, his father Kol made him promise that if he was succesful he would build a cathedral in Kirkwall, in honour of his uncle Earl Magnus the Holy. This would help win the favour of the people in Orkney who had always held Magnus in high regard. In 1136 he sailed west again, having made this vow. They first sailed again to Shetland, and when the correct conditions prevailed they made a swift invasion taking first Westray, then the rest of Orkney. Earl Paul was captured, and to avoid fighting and bloodshed he was taken to Scotland, and was never heard of again.
Kali, or Earl Rognvald as he was now known, continued to make up verses and songs, and was often known to talk in rhyme. The building of St Magnus cathedral commenced as promised in 1137, and Orkney settled into many years of rule by Rognvald.
On a visit back to Norway, Rognvald was persuaded by a man recently returned from service in Constantinople that he should lead a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Rognvald agreed to do so, and in 1151 set out with fifteen ships. The fleet stopped in Verbon, in the west of France, where they were royally entertained; and Rognvald was offered marriage to Ermingerd, daughter of the late Earl who had ruled the city. Songs were written of this voyage, several of which are attributed to Rognvald himself.
Maids in lace and snow white linen
Bring us here the white wine sparkling
Fair to see was Ermingerda
When we met her in our travels
Fare we now to try the castle
With our flaming oaken firebrands
Quickly leaping from the scabbard
Gleams the sharp edged smiter. Forward!
They sailed on instead, to Galicia, in Spain; where they made an allegiance with a nobleman and aided him in taking the castle of one of his enemies. Passing through the Straits of Gibraltar, which the vikings knew as Njorfasund, they called next at Sardinia; here they attacked and burned several merchant ships, claiming as justification the fact that the sailors were not Christians.
Finally their voyage took them via Crete to Acre, from where they travelled to Jerusalem, and they bathed in the river Jordan. On their return journey they sailed to Constantinople, known to the Norsemen as Mikligard, and were entertained by the Turkish Emperor and his Norse Varangian guard. After a winter spent in Mikligard, Rognvald laid up his ships and returned overland to Norway and then Orkney, visiting Rome and Denmark on the way.
When he returned to Orkney in 1153, he found that there had been considerable political intrigue in his absence. Rognvald had appointed young Earl Harald Maddadsson to rule for him, but Erlend Haroldson, who had been granted half the Earldom of Caithness by King Malcolm of Scotland, had also been granted half the Earldom of Orkney by King Eyestein of Norway. What followed was to become known as the War of the Three Earls. This ended with Harald and Rognvald killing Erlend.
Rognvald was later ambushed on a hunting trip to Caithness and killed by Thorbjorn Klerk, whom he had outlawed from the Earldom. Then the whole Earldom of Orkney passed to Earl Harald Maddadsson, who was to rule it for the next 46 years.
Rognvald Kolsson had been an earl of Orkney for twenty-two years, and had lived an impressive life: he had conquered Orkney; had Saint Magnus Cathedral built; had travelled throughout much of the world known to the northern Europeans at the time; and had even found time to visit Yell.