The story of how the crude Viking Olav Haraldsson, after his death in Tröndelag
in 1030, was resurrected as a saint is one of the strangest transformations
in history. No one has been able to fully explain the booming increase in
the cult around Olav the Holy in the North and other parts of Europe. For
five hundred years, until the reformation, pilgrims flocked by the thousands
to Nidaros (Trondheim) every summer, to experience the power of the
saint’s relics, which were eventually placed in the cathedral of Nidaros.
We know quite a lot about Olav Haraldsson, thanks to the Icelandic scald
Snorre Sturlasson, who wrote the saga of Olav the Holy as part of
Heimskringla, the great work that tells the history of the Norwegian kings.
Snorre Sturlasson used old poems and songs as sources for the story. The
kings used poets to honour their accomplishments. These poems are viewed by
historians as quite trustworthy, as the events being written about are from
the days of the poets themselves. Also: empty flattering and bragging was
considered very poor within the poetic genre of this time
(Above) Detail from
Nidaros cathedral altar front
Olav Haraldsson was born in 995, son of a local Norwegian king, Harald
Grenske, and his queen Åsta. Just before he was born, his father Harald had
abandoned Åsta, to propose to the Swedish king’s daughter Sigrid Storråda.
She answered by getting him dead drunk and burning him alive.
Olav went to sea as a Viking already at the age of 12, and was described
as wise and well spoken, short and squat, and skilled in the art of combat.
Olav used the title “king” onboard, even if he had no land to govern. He
started by ravaging the Swedish east coast. Just outside where Stockholm is
situated today, the Swedish king Olof Skötkonung tried to cut off an
outlet, to close Olav and his men in. But Olav Haraldsson had his men dig a
canal over a spit, through which they escaped, to the bitter dismay of the
Swedish king. Olav continued laying waste to the areas around the Baltic Sea
and in other areas, and would serve under foreign sovereigns for shorter
periods of time, something quite common in these days. One winter Olav and
his men stayed over the winter on Gotland, where they behaved so violently
that the inhabitants offered them riches in return for not harassing them
anymore. Olav became renowned for trying to capture the city of London in 1009.
The defenders threw spears and rocks at the assailants from the bridge over
the Thames, but Olav had the idea of covering the ship with protective
Then the Vikings steered under the bridge, threw ropes around the
bridge-pillars and rowed, with all their might, downstream. Olav's plan
worked, and the bridge collapsed, often remembered as a well-known
children’s tune; “London Bridge is falling down” is actually believed
to be written after this specific episode.
'London Bridge is
But the Londoners seem to have
managed to defend their city during the attack. Canterbury wasn’t as
fortunate, when Olav attacked it in 1011. One English chronicler left this
description of when the city was sacked: “some of the inhabitants were run
through, others burned alive in their own houses, women were dragged by
their hair down the streets and burned alive; babies were crushed under
heavy wagon wheels.” When the Vikings left Canterbury, they took with them
not only a gigantic tribute, but also the archbishop Elfheah. During a
drinking-bout the Vikings entertained themselves by throwing “stones,
bones and oxen skulls” at their venerable prisoner, until one of them was
deeply moved by some sort of compassion, ending the misery of man of God by
splitting his head with an axe. The martyr’s death of Elfheah didn’t
seem to make any lasting impression on Olav Haraldsson – the halo of a
saint was still far away – and the king was praised in new poems for his
With lust the young sovereign
Made bloody the skulls of the English
The journeys of Olav Haraldsson also brought him to Normandy, where he
served for a while under the duke Richard II, joining him in his campaign
across Bretagne. Olav was christened and baptised in 1013 or 1014 in
Normandy. It is said to have taken place in Rouen, and the one to baptise
and give him the sacrament of the confirmation was the archbishop Robert,
brother of Duke Richard.
Despite several brutal attempts to reinforce the new Christian doctrine
in Norway, there had been no successful attempts, even though England,
France and other countries Olav Haraldsson had come in contact with had been
christianised already long before. The meeting with King Richard and his
court in Normandy had made a strong impression on the young Norwegian.
Normandy was, in these days, a well-organised duchy, ruled by a strong
central power, with the regent in total control of all aspects – spiritual
as well as worldly.
During his time in Normandy Olav Haraldsson made a trip further south,
all the way to the southern tip of Spain. His intention had been to continue
across the Mediterranean, but he had received a strange dream. A figure had
appeared before him, encouraging him to change his plans: “Go back to
Norway, for you shall be king over Norway for all eternity”.
At this time Norway was divided – nationally, politically and
religiously. It was, in other words, the perfect time for a Viking chief
with great ambitions. Said and done – during the autumn of 1015 Olav
sailed for Norway with two merchant ships, boarding 260 men. This may not
seem like a lot for one who wishes to conquer an entire nation, but Olav
also brought along vast riches in silver and the likes – a prerequisite
for a successful enterprise of this kind. Priests and bishops, proving that
one of his goals from the very beginning was not only to claim the throne,
but also to make Norway Christian, also joined Olav. Everything went
according to the plans – he was well received, and more and more chiefs
gradually joined his side. At the same time as he was reinforcing his power,
he fought hard for the conversion of his fellow countrymen to Christianity.
Olav Haraldsson was not a missionary of the mild, self-sacrificing sort,
though. He built churches everywhere, destroying the old heathen religious
buildings and areas. Those who didn’t wish to convert to the new religion
were driven in exile, forced to leave their farmland. He would chop off the
arms and legs, or poke out the eyes of those who still put up a fight.
Others were hung or decapitated – “none of those unwilling to serve God
Olav Haraldsson worked out a law for the church together with an English
advisor, called the Christian Right, later referred to as “the Law of
Saint Olav”. It didn’t just regulate the structure and organisation of
the church, it also proclaimed rules for normal people to live by – from
birth to death. Among other things, putting newly born infants out in the
wilderness was made illegal and men had to be faithful to their wives. The
second demand was something Olav himself had a hard time living up to. He
later had a son with one of the maids of the court.
Fighting and complications with the Swedish king Olof Skötkonung
followed thereafter, as he saw it as his right to claim tax from the
Norwegians after winning the sea battle at Svolder.
The conflict was to be solved by Olav Haraldsson marrying the daughter of
Olof Skötkonung, Ingegerd, at Göta Älv on the border between Sweden and
Norway. But at the last minute, Olof Skötkonung changed his mind, marrying
his daughter off to the sovereign of Holmgård (Novgorod) in the east,
Jaroslav, who had also expressed an interest in the princess.
Olav Haraldsson was very offended by this, and wanted immediately to
start plundering Sweden, but was advised by his counsel to abandon the idea.
Olav Haraldsson got along much better with the successor of Olof Skötkonung,
Anund Jakob. The two gentlemen met in Kongahälla (Kungälv) and established
peace and reconciliation between the two countries. The two kings parted as
friends, after having gambled with dice over parts of Hisingen in Göteborg.
After this things started going worse for both the kings, as they had
come in conflict with the powerful Danish king Knut den store (Knut the
Great). When Knut was busy in England Olav and Anund Jakob took their
chance, plundering all along the Danish coastline. Knut soon returned
though, with a great fleet, and at Helgeå in Skåne a big battle was held,
ending in the retreat of Olav and Anund Jakob. King Knut also closed off Öresund,
so Olav and his countrymen had to walk the whole way home to Norway.
Back home new problems waited. Olav den digre (Olav the Bulky – as he
was called after growing to quite a voluminous shape) had, through his
heavy-handed governing, made quite a few enemies, of which many sought
refuge under the Knut the Great, who received them well. The Norwegian
nobles figured it to be better with a foreign king, with too much of his own
worries to care about their country. A revolt broke out, and when King Knut
showed up with a huge fleet in 1028 went ashore without any battles,
claiming the title of King over Norway, at counsel after counsel.
||There was no alternative for Olav but to leave the country. He fled
through Sweden, where he, according to the legend, managed to feed his
entire army, much along the lines of Jesus, until he reached the sovereign
Jaroslav and his wife Ingegerd in Holmgård (Novgorod), where he was
welcomed. Jaroslav generously offered him part of his country – Bulgaria,
to be more precise – as compensation for the land the earlier rival had
lost. Olav considered it, but his men advised against it – they still
hadn’t given up hope of one day returning to their home. Olav also
considered entirely giving up his worldly titles and possessions, and
entering a convent or travelling to Jerusalem. King Knut, meanwhile, had put Håkon Jarl the Younger as regent of
Norway, returning to England. On the other hand, Håkon was killed when his
ship sank in a storm, and when Olav heard this; he decided to go back to
Norway, to try to gain power once again. He also had a very timely dream,
confirming his ambitions.
St Olav in the Church
of Borgsjo, Sweden
With an army of 240 men, Olav started, in 1030, to sail back along the
frozen Russian rivers, until he reached the coast and eventually got to
Sweden. There he met his old friend Anund Jakob, who gave him approximately
500 well-equipped soldiers. On his way to Norway, which went through
Bergslagen towards Tröndelag, several relatives and nobles went along,
joing forces with Olav, so that, by the time he finally reached Norway, his
army had grown to 3000-4000 men.
His enemies, on the other hand, hadn’t been biding idle time. Olav
Haraldsson met an army of farmers from Tröndelag, three to four times the
size of his own army, and led by his main opponent.
The battle came to be at the farm of Stiklestad, nine hundred kilometres
north of Trondheim, on the 29th of July 1030, and ended in a
catastrophic defeat for Olav and his men. Olav himself was killed.
The death of Olav from a
19th century print
Olav’s defeat was so absolute, that his campaign seemed hopelessly
lost. But, now strange things started happening. The man, Tore Hund, who had
forced his spear through King Olav, sought out the body of the king on the
battlefield, noticing that the king’s face was as healthy and full of
colour as when he was still alive. Also – one drop of the king’s blood
miraculously healed a wound on Tore Hund. A farmer, Torgils Hålmasson, and
his son Grim, later retrieved the corpse, wrapped it in linen cloths, and
laid it in an outhouse. A blind man came to them, asking for shelter in
their outhouse, and when he came in contact with the dead body, he regained
his sight. Torgils and Grim also seemed to see a strange light from the
outhouse, to the point where they worried that the enemies of the deceased
would find the body and desecrate it. So they made two coffins – one for
the king, and one full of rocks and dirt. After a few minor complications,
Olav’s enemies in the Fiord of Trondheim sank the coffin with King Olav
wound up in a sandbank by a river, while the false one, with dirt and rocks.
This could have been the end of the story of the Norwegian King Olav
Haraldsson. In a way it is – for now starts instead the story of Olav the
Nothing turned out as the winners of the battle at Stiklestad had
expected. King Knut of Denmark and England gave his son Sven the title King
of Norway. Sven initiated new harsh laws after foreign model, new taxes and
new duties. Also nobody was allowed to leave the country without the
king’s personal consent. The Norwegians, who had hoped for a more
autonomous rule, felt violated. The discontent was especially strong in Tröndelag.
On top of all this, the crop failed and prices were high. More and more
reached the conclusion that things had been better under Olav Haraldsson.
People started seeing omens – even previous enemies of Olav, started
viewing him as Holy.
Torgils and Grim from Stiklestad, now dared to come forth and the bishop
Grimkjell, Olav’s old friend and advisor, asked King Sven for permission
to unearth the corpse. Strangely enough, the king agreed. One year and five
days had passed since the king had been killed. It is told, that when the
coffin was opened, it smelled fresh, and the body of the king was completely
undecayed. His cheeks were rosy, as if he had only just fallen asleep, and
his hair and nails had grown, just as if he had been alive. One sceptical
spectator was Alfiva, the mother of King Sven: - Late rots the corpse that
lies in sand, she claimed. It wouldn’t have been that way if they had
buried the king in the earth! Bishop Grimkjell took a pair of scissors and
trimmed Olav’s hair and beard, to show how much it had grown, but Alfiva
refused to see it as a proof of holiness, unless the hairs were unharmed by
fire. Grimkjell then laid the hairs on a fire, after having blessed it, and
lo and behold – they remained unharmed.
The holiness of King Olav had now been confirmed, and his body was
carried into the Klemens-church, the church King Olav himself had founded,
where he was buried following a highly ceremonial procedure above the high
altar. Immediately omens started taking place, and in the sandbank where the
body had been buried, a fresh spring suddenly appeared. Its water cured many
sick people. The rumour of the holiness of Olav spread quickly, and people
started flocking to Nidaros from near and far.
Cripples, blind people and sick people would come here, and walk away
cured from their ailments. The sound of bells could be heard over the grave,
and the lights on the altar would light themselves. Remorseful Norwegians
raised the flag of revolt once again, and only five years after the battle
of Stiklestad, King Sven and his mother Alfiva were forced to flee to
England, where both Sven and his father Knut died within a few years.
The harsh Viking had become a saint – a surprising transformation, to
say the least. It was also strange due to the fact that Olav didn’t die
the martyr-death necessary for the title of saint. He died, weapon in hand,
fighting an entirely worldly matter. Also – the fight at Stiklestad was no
fight between Christians and heathens; among Olav’s opponents, as well as
among his own troops, both religions existed, even if Olav is said to have
tried to convert as many as possible before the battle. But only a few years
after the death of the king, pilgrims had started visiting his grave. When
Adam of Bremen wrote his great work about the history of the archdiocese of
Hamburg-Bremen in the 1070’s, the pilgrimages to Nidaros were already
widespread, attracting people from the North, as well as from the continent.
Olav was never given any affirmation of sainthood by the pope, but at this
time, it wasn’t required. The affirmation of the bishop was enough. It
wasn’t until the latter part of the 12th century that the
decision to make the affirmations of sainthood a matter for the pope only
That is the story of the Viking chief Olav Haraldsson, who by means of
violence and terror tried to christen his heathen countrymen, and who, after
a terrible defeat in 1030, died while trying to reclaim the Norwegian