European Medieval Pilgrimage Project -  Legends - Olav the Holy

Olav the Holy

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
 antemensale 1330

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 shields. 

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 falling down' 

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 great deeds:

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 were spared”.

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 Holy.

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 was taken. 

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 throne.


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