Olav Haraldsson was born in 995AD. He was the son of Harald Grenske and Åsta Gudbrandsdatter. Harald was the great-grandson of Harald 1 Fairhair, regarded as the first king to attempt to unite Norway under one ruler.
Olav’s father died when he was young. He “was brought up by his stepfather Sigurd Syr and his mother Åsta. Hrane the Far-travelled lived in the house of Åsta and fostered Olav Haraldsson. Olav came early to manhood, was handsome in countenance, middle-sized in growth, and was even when very young of good understanding and ready speech.” says the great medieval saga of the Viking kings, written by Iceland’s Snorre Sturluson at the end of the twelfth century.
|Olav is the spelling currently used, though ‘Olaf’ and other spellings have been variously used over time. When barely a teenager, he sailed southwards as a Viking chief and raided throughout Western Europe and the Baltic. |
Olav was famously involved with the burning down of London Bridge, when he allied himself with the English King Ethelred in a bid to beat off an invading force of the Danish king Svein Haraldsson. Snorri quotes extracts of a lay by the Norse poet, Ottar Svarte, including the following passage which is strikingly similar to parts of the rhyme we all learned as children:
London Bridge is broken down. --
Gold is won, and bright renown.
Hild is shouting in the din!
Mail-coats ringing --
Odin makes our Olaf win!
At some point, probably in France, he accepted Christianity. He returned to Norway in 1015, bringing Catholic bishops as missionaries. He claimed kingship over all Norwegians with the support of many chieftains who saw that he probably had the best chance of unifying an unruly country. He defeated his opponents and ruled with an iron fist for a decade, during which time he promoted Christianity, sometimes at the point of a sword. Seeing an opportunity, Canute, king of Denmark and England, forced him from power in 1029. He fled eastwards, where he plotted his return.
With a small army Olav Haraldsson returned to Norway in 1030. His intention was to regain the Norwegian crown. Opponents assembled a large army of farmers and soldiers against him at Stiklestad near Trondheim in central Norway.
|Snorre Sturlason relates, in the Saga of Olav Haraldsson, that Olav died from three wounds. First, a man called Thorstein Knarresmid struck the king on the thigh with an axe. The other two wounds were inflicted when Thore Hund’s spear penetrated Olav’s stomach under his chainmail and then Kalf Arneson is said to have struck Olav in the neck with an axe.|
Thorgils Halmason and his son Grim hid the king’s body from his enemies, who would have burned it. They took the dead King to Nidaros where they buried the body in a sand hill beside the river Nid. Beginning almost immediately after his death, miraculous cures were credited to King Olav. Within a year there was much talk about King Olav's sanctity. There were many who believed that King Olav must be a saint, even those who had fought against him. The body was exhumed a year after his death and witnesses attested to its uncorrupted state.
The King was eventually buried in a chapel. A larger church was built over the spot. The church was enlarged over the centuries to become the cathedral we see today.
His cult spread all over the Nordic countries and even to England. Many churches were dedicated to Saint Olav. The Battle of Stiklestad became regarded as the keystone event in the Christianizing of Norway, though there is still debate on this point. Olav’s popularity increased dramatically when he was declared to be a Christian saint. In years to come Saint Olav became the unifying symbol of the Norwegian nation: Rex Perpetuus Norvegiae, Norway’s Eternal King.
The grand cathedral ofNidaros, where the king’s coffin reposed, became the most important place of Christian pilgrimage in Norway and one of the most important half dozen in Christendom. This pilgrimage all but died out after the Reformation and became just a faint memory.
Mike Smith, 2006