Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Olaf the Black

OLAF (1177?–1238), called the Black, king of the Isles, was the son of Godred, king of the Isles, and of Fingola, granddaughter of Muircheartach (d. 1166), king of Ireland [see O'Lochlainn, Muir]. His parents had been united in religious marriage through the intervention of Cardinal Vivian, papal legate, in 1176 (Chron. Regum Manniæ et Insularum, ed. Munch, i. 76, Manx Soc.) Olaf's father died in 1187, and though he had bequeathed his dominions to his legitimate son Olaf, the latter, being a child, was set aside in favour of his half-brother Reginald. Some years later Reginald assigned to Olaf the miserable patrimony of the island of Lewis in the Hebrides, where he dwelt for some time. Growing discontented with his lot, he applied to Reginald for a larger share of his rightful inheritance. This was refused, and about 1208 Reginald handed Olaf over to the custody of William the Lion of Scotland, who kept him in prison until his own death in 1214. On the accession of Alexander II Olaf was released, and returned to Man, whence he shortly set out with a considerable following of men of rank for Spain, on a pilgrimage to the shrine of St. James at Compostella. On his return, Reginald, who was apparently reconciled to him, caused him to marry his own wife's sister, the daughter of a noble of Cantyre, and again assigned to him Lewis for his maintenance (ib. pp. 82-4). Olaf accepted the gift, and departed to Lewis. Soon after his arrival there, Reginald (?), bishop of the Isles, visited the churches, and canonically separated Olaf and his wife as being within the prohibited degrees of relationship, whereupon Olaf married Christina, daughter of Ferquhard, earl of Ross.

Aroused to anger, Reginald's queen, the sister of Olaf's divorced wife, called upon her son Godred to avenge the wrong done to her house. The latter collected a force and sailed for Lewis, but Olaf escaped to his father-in-law, the Earl of Ross, abandoning Lewis to Godred. Olaf was shortly joined by Paul Balkason, the leading chieftain of Skye, who had refused to join in the attack on Lewis. Entering into alliance, the two chieftains in 1223 successfully carried out a night attack upon the little island of St. Colm, where Godred was. The latter was taken and blinded, it is said, without Olaf's consent (ib. pp. 86-8; cf. Ann. Regii Islandorum, ap. Langerek, Scriptt. Rer. Dan. iii. 84).

Next summer Olaf, who had won over the chiefs of the isles, came to Man to claim once more a portion of his inheritance. Reginald was forced to agree to a compromise by which he retained Man, with the title of king, while Olaf was to have the isles—namely, the Sudreys. The peace was of short duration, for in 1225 Reginald, supported hy Alan, lord of Galloway, attempted to win back the isles. The Manxmen, however, refused to fight against Olaf and the men of the isles, and the attempt failed. Shortly after Reginald, under pretext of a visit to his suzerain, Henry III of England, extorted one hundred marks from his subjects, wherewith he went to the court of Alan of Galloway and contracted a highly unpopular alliance between his daughter and Alan's son. The Manxmen rose in revolt, and called Olaf to the kinship. Thus, in 1226, the latter obtained his inheritance of Man and the Isles, and reigned in peace two years (ib. p. 90).

That Olaf did, however, possess both the title of king and considerable influence before this date, would seem probable if two extant documents are rightly held to relate to him. The former of these shows him to have been at issue with the monks of Furness in Lancashire with regard to the election of their abbot, Nicholas of Meaux [q. v.], to the bishopric of the isles (Dugdale, Monasticon Anglicanum, viii. 1186). The second, dated 1217, is from Henry III of England to Olaf, king of Man, threatening vengeance should he do further injury to the abbey of Furness (Oliver, Monumenta de Insula Manniæ, ii. 42, Manx Soc.)

In 1228 an attempt was made at negotiation for the settlement of the differences between Olaf and Reginald. Letters of safe-conduct to England were granted by Henry III to Olaf for the purpose (Rymer, Fœdera, i. 303). The attempt, however, seems to have failed, for about 1229, while Olaf was absent in the isles, King Reginald took the opportunity to attack Man in alliance with Alan, lord of Galloway. Olaf, on his return, drove them out, but during the winter of the same year Reginald made another attempt. Olaf, who appears to have exercised great personal influence over his men, met and defeated him at Dingwall in Orkney. Here Reginald was slain on 14 Feb. 1230 (Annals of England, i. 148; cf. Chron. Manniæ, i. 92; Ann. Regii Islandorum, ap. Langebek, Scriptt. Rerum Danicarum, iii. 88).

Soon after this event Olaf set out to the court of his suzerain, the king of Norway; for in spite of Reginald's formal surrender of the Kingdom to the pope and king of England in 1219, Olaf had remained faithful to Hakon V of Norway (Annals of England, i. 147; Flateyan MS. ap. Oliver, Monumenta, i. 43). Before Olaf's arrival in Norway, however, Hakon had appointed a noble of royal race named Ospac to the kingship of the Isles, and in his train Olaf and Godred Don, Reginald's son, were obliged to return. After varied adventures in the western islands of Scotland (ib. i. 43 seq.), Ospac was killed in Bute, and Olaf was chosen as the new leader of the expedition, which was next directed against Man. The Manxmen who had assembled to resist the Norwegians, again, it is said, refused to fight against Olaf, and he and Godred Don divided the kingdom between them. Shortly after Godred was slain in Lewis, and Olaf henceforth ruled alone.

In 1235 Olaf appears to have been in England on a visit to Henry III, who granted him letters of safe-conduct and of security to his dominions during his absence (Rymer, Fœdera, i. 303). It was possibly during this visit that Henry committed to him the guardianship of the coasts both of England and Ireland towards the Isle of Man, for which service he was to receive one hundred marks yearly and certain quantities of corn and wine (ib. p. 341). In accepting this duty Olaf apparently renounced his allegiance to Hakon V of Norway, who at this time threatened the coasts, and who, in consequence of Olaf's defection, had to abandon his expedition. In 1236–7 Olaf appears, nevertheless, to have been in Norway on business to the king, and with the consent, moreover, of Henry III, who guaranteed the safety of his dominions during his absence (ib. pp. 363, 371). Shortly after his return he died on 21 May 1238 (Annals of England, i. 150; cf. Chron. Mannicæ, i. 94).

Olaf had several sons: Harold (d. 1249), who succeeded him; Godfrey (d. 1238); Reginald (d. 1249), king of Man; Magnus (d. 1265, king of Man from 1252; and Harold (d. 1256) (Langebek, Scriptt. Her. Dan. ii. 212).

[In addition to the authorities cited in the text, see Robertson's Early Kings of Scotland, ii. 98 seq.; Beck's Ann. Furnesienses, pp. 169, 187; Torfæus's Orcades, pp. 161–2; Hist. Rer. Norveg. iv. 195–6.]

A. M. C.-e.