Harald Maddadson [Haraldr Maddaðarson], earl of Caithness and earl of Orkney (1133/4–1206), magnate
by Barbara E. Crawford

Harald Maddadson [Haraldr Maddaðarson], earl of Caithness and earl of Orkney (1133/4–1206), magnate, was the first earl of Orkney to be born of a native Scottish comital line: his father, Maddad, earl of Atholl (central highlands), married Margaret, daughter of Earl Hákon Paulsson of Orkney, so that their son Harald unusually claimed the earldoms of Orkney and Caithness through his mother. The Countess Margaret is implicated, in Orkneyinga Saga, in arranging for the removal of her brother, Earl Paul the Silent, and securing the succession of her son Harald to the joint earldoms at the age of five in 1139. It is probable that there were also weighty political considerations behind this activity, as there is evidence of strong Scottish interest in events in the northern earldoms at this time, particularly with a view to extending royal authority over Caithness.

Earl Rögnvald and his pilgrimage

Harald had to contend with the rivalry of his half-cousin Rögnvald Kali Kolsson [Rögnvaldr Kali Kolsson] (c.1103–1158), who claimed the two earldoms through his mother, Gunnhild, the daughter of Earl Erlend (d. 1099), and who conquered Orkney in 1136. Two years later Rögnvald agreed to allow Harald to hold half the earldom, perhaps in return for recognition of his own rights in Caithness. That an agreement was reached by ‘all the best men of Orkney and Scotland’ (Orkneyinga Saga, 72), shows the extent of the pressure from the south on behalf of the young Harald, whose grant of the title of earl at such an age was unprecedented. Moreover, it was done without any apparent reference to the kings of Norway, although some thirteen years later Rögnvald did take Harald to visit King Inge, one of the three rival sons of Harald Gilli. Scottish interest is clearly seen in a charter issued probably between about 1140 and 1145 by King David I to Earl Rögnvald and another, unnamed, earl and the ‘good men’ of Caithness and Orkney, ordering them to protect the monks—probably from Dunfermline—established at Dornoch in Sutherland.

The political situation changed markedly in 1151 when Earl Rögnvald departed for Palestine on his pilgrimage. This celebrated enterprise takes up five complete chapters of Orkneyinga Saga, which provide a unique account of such a journey by a northern magnate from this period. An entry (sub anno 1151) in the Icelandic annals records only ‘The journey to Jerusalem of Earl Rognvald Kali of the Orkneys: and of Erling Skakki’ (Anderson, 2.213). The impetus for the expedition was personal piety rather than the call to join a crusade, and it may have been undertaken in emulation of King Sigurd Jorsalafarer's (‘Jerusalemfarer's’) famous journey in 1108. The earl, with Bishop William and other well-born companions, including Erling Skakki, left Orkney in the late summer of 1151 in fifteen ships. The fleet sailed through the Strait of Gibraltar, after which Eindrid Ungi went straight to Jerusalem with six ships while Rögnvald tarried in Narbonne. During his stay there he composed several verses—included in the saga—in honour of the lovely lady Ermingard, verses which show strong influence from courtly love poetry, possibly the first such examples in skaldic verse. Further verses, many of them Rögnvald's own composition, record events which occurred during the rest of the journey, such as his swim across the River Jordan. Having visited Jerusalem, the party made its way back north via Constantinople, where they were received by the emperor and his Varangian guard, then sailed to Apulia where they took horses for the journey to Rome, arriving back in Orkney for Christmas 1153. This is most impressive evidence for the wide-ranging role of the earls of Orkney as players on the world scene of twelfth-century Europe. They were now fully participating in the cultural and religious activities of Christian Europe rather than threatening them from the periphery.

Rögnvald's return and death

Harald was left as sole ruler of the earldoms during Rögnvald's absence. The opportunity was seized by Eystein, joint king of Norway and rival to his brother Inge, to impose his authority on the young earl by a military expedition to the west (the first since that of Magnus Barelegs in 1098). Finding Harald was in Thurso in Caithness, the king sailed with only three skiffs from his fleet over the Pentland Firth to take Harald by surprise. In his submission Harald redeemed himself with 3 gold marks, a payment which has been interpreted as a feudal ‘relief’, although the relationship between earls and kings was as yet scarcely so formalized. In Rögnvald's absence another claimant, Erlend, son of Harald Smooth-Tongue and cousin to Harald Maddadson, rose to the fore and was given Rögnvald's half of Caithness by the Scottish king, Malcolm IV. Erlend then went to Norway and obtained a grant of Harald's half of Orkney from King Eystein. Behind him lay the support of many powerful kinsmen, including that of the unscrupulous Swein Asleifsson. The safe return of Rögnvald in 1153 from his pilgrimage led to the so-called ‘war of the three earls’, the events of which are graphically described in the saga narrative. It ended with the death of Erlend on the island of Damsay and the settlement of Harald and Rögnvald as co-earls.

Continuing tensions in this still-violent society led to the murder of Rögnvald on 20 August 1158 by Thorbjorn Clerk at Forsie in Caithness. One of the most talented and best-loved of all the Orkney earls, he was described as ‘very popular there in the Isles and far and wide elsewhere. He had been a friend in need to many a man, liberal in money matters, equable of temper, steadfast in friendship, skilful in feats of strength and a good skald’ (Orkneyinga Saga, chap. 104). He was buried in St Magnus's Cathedral in Kirkwall, the finest surviving Romanesque cathedral in Scotland, which was built in fulfilment of the vow which he took on his attempt to win the earldom in 1136. The expense of the building programme was partly borne by the earl's generosity, although an agreement was made with the Orkney farmers, according to which they contributed funds in return for the abandonment of the threat to impose an inheritance fee on their family estates. In this pious age, the violent death of the popular earl led to his rapid sanctification. His relics are said in Orkneyinga Saga to have been taken up by Bishop Bjarne in the 1190s, with leave of the pope, and he became the second Orkney saint.

Harald Maddadson and the kingdom of Scots

By contrast with Rögnvald, Harald was less highly regarded, it being said of him only that he was ‘a great chief, the tallest and strongest of men, obstinate and hard-hearted’ (Orkneyinga Saga, chap. 105). Now unrivalled within his own power base, Harald's ambitions seem to have extended in the next phase of his life beyond Orkney and Caithness and southwards to Ross, which had come under the influence of previous earls of Orkney. He became involved in the complex and dangerous situation created by the pretensions of the rebel Macheth dynasty in Moray and Ross, which caused the kings of Scots problems intermittently throughout the twelfth century. That Harald associated himself with the Macheth cause is clear from his bigamous second marriage (in the 1170s probably) to , daughter of [see under ], who was earl of Ross for at least six years until his death in 1168. Harald was probably also strengthening Orkney earldom claims to lands in Ross by this marriage. The military significance of this frontier zone was fully recognized by King William, who built and fortified two castles in 1179 at strategic points in Easter Ross just before the MacWilliam rebellion of 1181, in which, however, Earl Harald played no part. Not until 1196 did he show signs of acting rebelliously, which then gave the king good reason to send one, if not two, expeditions north, one of which actually reached Thurso on the northern coast of the Caithness earldom, the first time royal Scottish forces had penetrated into earldom territory. The explanation given in the later chronicle of John Fordun was that Harald had been goaded into rebelling by his wife's ambitions, and certainly one of the peace conditions demanded by King William subsequently was that Harald put Hvarflod away and take back his first wife, Affreca, daughter of Duncan, earl of Fife (d. 1154) (which he refused to do).

There are a remarkable number of contemporary accounts of the royal expeditions north to contain Harald, apart from Orkneyinga Saga itself (which is not very coherent or informative about this stage of Harald's life). Some of these accounts suggest that Harald's son Thorfinn had reacted to the presence of the Scottish king's feudal vassals on the southern frontier of earldom influence by leading an attack into Moray, thereby inviting retaliatory action by the royal Scottish forces. Fordun says that the king's expedition of 1196 subdued both the provinces of the Caithness men (Caithness and Sutherland), and also that the earl's son and heir, Thorfinn, was taken hostage. Roger of Howden says that the earldom of Caithness was first divided and then taken away from Harald altogether. Half of it was given to Harald Ungi (‘the younger’), the grandson of Earl Rögnvald, who was later killed in battle near Wick. There was also, according to the saga, an attempt to replace Harald with Rognvald Godredson, king of the Hebrides. At some point Harald was forced to go south to King William's presence, accompanied by the bishops of St Andrews and Rosemarkie, in order to beg for his earldom back, but whether in 1197 or after a later incident in 1202 is not clear. There is, however, no doubt either that Harald had to pay a large fine, or that his son Thorfinn died in prison after having been blinded.

Harald compounded his own problems by making the grave mistake of antagonizing the church, which was to the forefront of Scottish policies regarding Caithness. He was considered responsible for leading the attack on the residence of the bishop of Caithness at Scrabster in 1201, when Bishop John had his tongue cut out and was partially blinded. This was the culmination of problems between the bishop and earl which had been developing in the 1190s, provoked by the bishop's ban on the payment of a church tax instituted by the earl—the ban probably represented an attempt to impose Scottish order in a part of the earl's dominion which had hitherto been under the Orkney bishop's authority. Reports about the ban on the earl's grant of the tax had reached the ears of Innocent III, as, indeed, did information about the attack on the bishop, for which a heavy penance was laid on the chief perpetrator. The mutilation of the bishop provided the earl's Scottish overlord with the perfect opportunity for an avenging expedition north, and for the attempted appointment of more rival earls. Yet the evidence also suggests that Harald was a pious and generous benefactor to the church, giving an annual gift of 1 mark of silver to the canons of Scone, as well as the above-mentioned annual tax of 1d. from every house in Caithness for the papacy (modelled on the payment of Peter's Pence which had been recently instituted in Scandinavia, including Orkney). Earl Harald is also named in a lost charter as taking the monastery of ‘Benkoren’ (probably Bangor, in Down) under his protection, another indication of the range of his seaborne activities.

Defeat and recovery

In his Scandinavian earldom Earl Harald also played the dangerous game of being implicated in rebellion against the established king and of having to suffer the consequences. He gave support to the Eyjaskeggjar rebels (‘Island beardies’), who planned to restore the illegitimate son of King Magnús Erlingsson to the throne against the impostor Sverre. Two years after the defeat of the rebels at the battle of Floruvoe in 1193, Earl Harald was forced to go to Bergen and submit to King Sverre, with his close friend and relative Bishop Bjarne to plead his case. The peace terms were harsh and included the loss of the Shetland Islands and half of the revenues of Orkney, along with the imposition of a royal steward (sysselman) in his earldom to collect moneys and administer newly acquired royal estates. The permanent representatives of encroaching royal authority were tolerated only as long as their position was protected by their royal masters, and both the Caithness steward and the Orkney sysselman were eventually murdered on the earl's orders.

Harald Maddadson had the misfortune to live at a time when royal power was increasing markedly, making it inevitable that restrictions should be imposed on independent warlords of his class. He was also unlucky to be faced with determined and powerful kings in both Scotland and Norway who would not tolerate any signs of disaffection by the rulers of dangerously independent earldom dynasties, and who were able to reach out to the remoter parts of their kingdoms in their drive to extend their authority. Military expeditions into his territory, confiscations of his hereditary lands, and impositions of heavy fines for his failure to fulfil conditions and abide by restrictions imposed on him after his submission at humiliating peace meetings, all are symbols of the changed world of the late twelfth century in the most northerly kingdoms of Europe. Remarkably, when Earl Harald died in 1206, after a violent life in which he had been earl for nearly seventy years, he held the whole of Caithness once more and had also reacquired Shetland, a notable survival achievement by the last representative of the old-style free-ranging viking earl, whose authority had been challenged by new-style royal overlords.



A. B. Taylor, ed. and trans., The Orkneyinga saga (1938) · H. Pálsson and P. Edwards, eds. and trans., The Orkneyinga saga: the history of the earls of Orkney (1978) · P. Topping, ‘Harald Maddadson, earl of Orkney and Caithness, 1139–1206’, SHR, 62 (1983), 105–20 · B. E. Crawford, ‘Peter's Pence in Scotland’, The Scottish tradition, ed. G. W. S. Barrow (1974), 14–22 · B. E. Crawford, ‘The earldom of Caithness and the kingdom of Scotland, 1150–1266’, Essays on the nobility of medieval Scotland, ed. K. J. Stringer (1984), 25–43 · W. P. L. Thomson, History of Orkney (1987) · B. E. Crawford, ‘An unrecognised statue of Earl Rognvald?’, Northern Isles connections, ed. B. E. Crawford (1995), 29–46 · P. Bibire, ‘The poetry of Earl Rognvald's court’, St Magnus Cathedral and Orkney's twelfth-century renaissance, ed. B. E. Crawford (1988), 208–40 · A. O. Anderson, ed. and trans., Early sources of Scottish history, AD 500 to 1286, 2 vols. (1922) · A. A. M. Duncan, ‘Roger of Howden and Scotland’, Church, chronicle and learning in medieval and early Renaissance Scotland, ed. B. E. Crawford (1999), 135–60

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Harald Maddadson (1133/4–1206): doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/49351
Rögnvald Kali Kolsson (c.1103–1158): doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/49352