The Battle of Hafrsfjord has traditionally been regarded as the battle in which western Norway for the first time was unified under one monarch. The eastern Norway was under the danish king. Although most scholars currently tend to regard the unification as a process lasting centuries rather than being the result of a single battle, the Battle of Hafrsfjord holds a strong position in the popular imagination of Norwegian history.
The only contemporary source to this event is from a lay written by Þórbjörn hornklofi (Modern Norwegian: Torbjørn Hornklove) shortly after King Harald "Fairhair" beat his enemies. The lay is very simple, dramatic and illustrative (first part translated into English here):
|Heyrði þú í Hafrsfirði,||width=40||Did you hear in Hafrsfjord|
|hvé hizug barðisk||how hard they fought|
|konungr enn kynstóri||the high born king|
|við Kjötva enn auðlagða;||against Kjotve the Rich.|
|knerrir kómu austan,||ships came from the east|
|kapps of lystir,||wanting to fight,|
|með gínöndum höfðum||with threatening throats|
|ok gröfnum tinglum.||of dragon fierce.|
The most well-known source of the battle is Harald Fairhair's saga in Heimskringla written by Snorri Sturluson more than 300 years after the battle took place. Snorre gives a vivid and detailed description of the battle. (Although historians continue to debate the historical accuracy of Snorri's work):
News came in from the south land that the people of Hordaland and Rogaland, Agder and Thelemark, were gathering, and bringing together ships and weapons, and a great body of men. The leaders of this were Eirik king of Hordaland; Sulke king of Rogaland, and his brother Earl Sote: Kjotve the Rich, king of Agder, and his son Thor Haklang; and from Thelemark two brothers, Hroald Hryg and Had the Hard. Now when Harald got certain news of this, he assembled his forces, set his ships on the water, made himself ready with his men, and set out southwards along the coast, gathering many people from every district. King Eirik heard of this when he same south of Stad; and having assembled all the men he could expect, he proceeded southwards to meet the force which he knew was coming to his help from the east. The whole met together north of Jadar, and went into Hafersfjord, where King Harald was waiting with his forces. A great battle began, which was both hard and long; but at last King Harald gained the day. There King Eirik fell, and King Sulke, with his brother Earl Sote. Thor Haklang, who was a great berserk, had laid his ship against King Harald's, and there was above all measure a desperate attack, until Thor Haklang fell, and his whole ship was cleared of men. Then King Kjotve fled to a little isle outside, on which there was a good place of strength. Thereafter all his men fled, some to their ships, some up to the land; and the latter ran southwards over the country of Jadar.
The little isle that King Kjotve fled to was probably Ytraberget, where there were some abandoned fortifications.
The traditional dating of the event, 872, is a 19th century invention. The exact year of the battle is likely to be unknown. This is due to lack of sources, and partly because the Christian calendar was not introduced at the time. The sagas follow the convention of counting the number of winters passed since an event.
In the 1830s, the historian Keyser counted the number of years backwards from the battle of Svolder (AD 1000) in Heimskringla, dating the battle to 872. Keyser's chronology was popularized by the works of the historian P.A. Munch, and by that time still unchallenged, this year was chosen for the millennial celebration of the unification of the Norwegian state in 1872. In the 1920s, using similar methods as Keyser but highly critical to the reliability of the sagas, the historian Halvdan Koht dated the battle to about 900. For the next fifty years, this chronology was regarded by most scholars as being most likely. In the 1970s, the Icelandic historian Ólafia Einarsdóttir concluded that the battle took place somewhere between 870 and 875. However still disputed, most scholars will agree that the battle took place during the 880s.
Earlier it was believed that the battle was the decisive event in the unification of Norway. According to Snorri's saga, King Harald controlled large parts of the southeast of Norway before the battle. But other sources claimes that the eastern Norway was under the danish king. The battle of Hafrsfjord marks the final crushing of the opposition from the southwestern part of Norway. This made it possible for him to subdue the country and collect taxes from a large part of it. Later historiography regarded him as the first legitimate King of Norway.