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Olav Haraldsson and the Christianization of Norway

Olav Haraldsson, son of a chieftain, was born in the first half of the 990s, at a time when Norway was divided into numerous dominions. After several years as a viking and mercenary abroad, Olav returned to Norway in 1015 with the goal to unite Norway as one Christian kingdom. One year earlier he had been baptized in the city of Rouen in Normandy.

Olav quickly managed to gain control of the country, and in 1024 Christianity became the only legal religion in Norway. In 1030 Olav was killed in the battle of Stiklestad and buried in Nidaros.

The first Christians

The first Viking expeditions at the end of the 8th century were the prelude to a period that would influence Europe greatly. As Vikings influenced the development in Europe, the encounters also shaped the Viking world.

The greatest and most permanent influence was the introduction of a new religion, Christianity. At the end of the 8th century, stone crosses were erected along the Norwegian coast. These are early signs of the establishment of Christianity in Norway.

Olav becomes a Christian

Around the year 1008 Olav Haraldsson went on his first Viking expedition. Eventually he reached Normandy in France. In the city of Rouen he visited churches and monasteries, and in the winter of 1014 he was baptized. At the time, Olav was probably already planning to unite Norway under his rule. Through his baptism Olav abandoned the pagan Norse religion in which many gods in Valhall reflected the many chieftains of Norway. He became part of a European Christian society, where one God in heaven legitimized one ruling king.

One legal religion

After the death of king Olav Trygvasson in the battle of Svolder in the year 1000, Norway was ruled by Danish kings with Norwegian earls as local representatives. In 1015 Olav Haraldsson chased the powerful earl Håkon from the country and made himself king. Olav brought with him bishops and priests to Norway and changed the laws to reflect the new Christian religion.

In 1024 Christianity was accepted as the official religion at the governing assembly at Moster. Olav then travelled through the country to make sure that people were baptized. He often used violence to make people convert to Christianity.

Olav's defeat

In 1026 Olav tried to conquer Denmark together with the king of Sweden. At a battle in Skåne they were defeated by the powerful Danish king Cnut the Great. Olav fled to Russia and Cnut became king of Norway. In 1029 Cnut’s earl drowned in a shipwreck and Olav seized the opportunity to try to regain power. When he returned to Norway, he met an army of farmers from central Norway, supported by chieftains from the north and west. They remembered his harsh rule and did not want him as a king. On the 29th of July 1030, Olav was killed in the Battle of Stiklestad. His body was brought to Nidaros, where he was buried.

The heritage after Olav and the pilgrims

Legend tells us that at the Battle of Stiklestad Olav threw down his weapons and died defenceless as a martyr. Rumours of miracles happening around Olav’s body were told and a spring of holy water came out from the ground by his grave in Nidaros.

Because of these stories, his grave was opened a year after his death. A smell of roses arose from his coffin, and Olav’s hair and nails had continued to grow after his death. These were signs that he was a holy man, and Olav was canonised. Nidaros soon became the biggest and most important pilgrimage site in Northern Europe.

St. Olav

Saints were central figures in catholic Europe in the Middle Ages. Sinners and people afflicted by disease could ask for forgiveness and help if they turned to God through the help of a saint. 

Olav became one of the most important saints in Scandinavia. Churches dedicated to him were built in Scandinavia, around the Baltic Sea, on the continent and on the British Isles.  His grave in a silver shrine at the altar of Nidaros Cathedral became the most important pilgrimage site in Northern Europe, and people from near and far came to the cathedral to pray by the Saint’s grave.


The pilgrim church

The style and size of Nidaros Cathedral was influenced by its role as a pilgrim chuch. It was built to impress the pilgrims, who sometimes walked long distances to reach the goal. The cathedral must have seemed towering and magnificent in comparison to the small wooden houses of Nidaros.

Inside the cathedral there were corridors along the chancel which allowed the pilgrims to walk all the way up to the Octagon and the shrine of St. Olav. There were several chapels in the cathedral and more than 20 altars for the pilgrims to visit.

Pilgrimage today

Throughout the Middle Ages Nidaros Cathedral was the most important pilgrimage site in Northern Europe. Today this tradition has again come to life, and new pilgrims are walking the old pilgrim ways to visit the cathedral. While the pilgrimage in the Middle Ages was religiously motivated, today people are also attracted by history, local culture and the beautiful scenery along the routes to Trondheim.

Regardless of faith and religious background, many people go through a mental change on their pilgrimage through the stunning landscape towards Trondheim and Nidaros Cathedral.

Nidaros Archbishopric

In the 12th century a new archbishopric for Norway was established. Nidaros, the city where St.Olav was buried, was chosen as its centre. The archbishopric was led by 29 archbishops during its 384 years from the establishment in 1153 until the Lutheran reformation in 1537. Apart from Norway, the archbishopric included Greenland, Island, The Faroe Islands, Shetland, the Orkney Islands, the Hebrides and Isle of Man. This was a vast area, which has later been known as the Hereditary Kingdom of Norway. The archbishop was the Pope’s representative in this area, responsible for promoting the interests of the Catholic Church

The establishment

In the 11th century the church of Norway belonged to the archbishopric of Hamburg/Bremen. However, most of the missionary priests who came to Norway were from England and the ties to Hamburg/Bremen were therefore weak.

At the beginning of the 12th century the Nordic countries were detached from Hamburg/Bremen because of the establishment of a new archbishopric in Lund in Sweden. In 1153 a new archbishopric for Norway was founded by a delegation from Rome under the leadership of the English cardinal Nicolaus Breakspear. When Breakspear came back to Rome later that year, he was elected Pope and chose the name Hadrian IV.

Nicolaus Breakspear

The Archbishopric

The archbishopric included four Norwegian and two Icelandic bishoprics, in addition to the bishoprics of Greenland, The Faroe Islands, Shetland/Orkneys and the Hebrides/Isle of Man. The archbishop was the bishop of one of the bishoprics which included Norway north of the Dovre mountains.

From his bishopric the archbishop earned a great income in form of taxes and rent. He also aquired income from the stockfish trade north of Bergen. All these sources of income, and donations from the pilgrims, constituted the economic foundation of the construction of Nidaros Cathedral.

The Archbishop's palace

The archbishop build his palace south of the cathedral. In the 12th century a grand hall in stone was built, where the archbishop hosted meetings and receptions. There were also several wooden buildings.

In the 13th century the palace was extended with new residential buildings in stone. During the Middle Ages there was also an armoury and a mint on the palace grounds.  The fortification of the palace gradually increased, with a curtain wall and guarded gates. Today one can visit three exhibitions in the Archbishop's Palace.

The Cathedral Chapter

The Cathedral Chapter consisted of several canon priests. They had different areas of responsibility, like the daily management of the cathedral school, finances and leading the construction work on the cathedral. When an archbishop died, the canon priests chose a new one.

In addition to their responsibilities at the cathedral, the canon priests also had offices in the bishopric.  These offices were attended to by substitutes or vicar priests, hence the term “vicar” in English for parish priests. In the late middle ages the archbishop ruled the country on behalf of the king who at this time resided in Denmark. Thus, the Cathedral Chapter functioned as the governing college of the country.

The Reformation

In 1319 the last Norwegian king died, and the country entered into shifting unions with Sweden and Denmark. The archbishop had a central position as the king’s representative in Norway and as leader of the Norwegian Council of the Realm.  

In the 1530s the union consisted of Denmark and Norway. The Danish monarchs were in a financial crisis, and in 1537 king Christian III abolished the catholic church in Denmark-Norway and introduced the new Lutheran church system. Now the church was subject to the state and the Pope had no influence. The king became the head of the church and gained control over the church’s grossing estates and acquired the church’s tax privileges.

Martin Luther

Martin Luther was a catholic priest and professor at the University of Wittenberg. In the Middle Ages the church sold indulgences, granting forgiveness for people’s sins. Luther disputed the Pope and the church’s right to waive other punishments than those the clergy themselves had imposed. Sins against God could be forgiven by God alone.

In 1517 Luther hung his 95 theses concerning indulgences on the door of the Wittenberg Cathedral. After this event, many people joined Luther in his protest against the Catholic Church. This marked the beginning of the Reformation.

Martin Luther

Norway becomes Lutheran

The archbishop was the Pops foremost representative in Norway, and he tried to defend the interests of the Catholic Church in the country as best possible. King Kristian III on the other hand, appointed reliable Danish noblemen in key positions in Norway. He could therefore force through the reformation by removing and replacing the catholic bishops and the archbishop with new Lutheran bishops.

With the archbishop gone, Norway was without a powerful and strong leader. The Norwegian political independence from Denmark was therefore considerably reduced. Norway was now essentially a province of Denmark until the dissolution of the union in 1814.

The resistance of the Archbishop

In the 1420’s, the archbishop built a modern fortress on Steinvikholmen island in the Trondheim fjord. Because of the increasing pressure from the monarchy, this fortress would function as a stronghold since the Archbishops Palace had several faults as a protective fortress.  

In 1537, king Kristian III sent a large military force to Norway to besiege Steinvikholmen. The archbishop’s forces was inferior, and he had to flee to the Netherlands to seek support there from the Holy Roman Emperor who was a catholic. However, he did not find support there, and died in exile in 1538. Steinvikholmen had to surrender, and the reformation was thus completed in Norway.

Nidaros Cathedral as a parish church

With the introduction of the reformation in 1537, the position of Nidaros Cathedral changed. From being the main church in the archbishopric, it was now reduced to a common parish church for the local congregation in Nidaros, or Trondheim as the city was called from now on. 

It was no longer the bishopric with its large income that paid for the maintenance of the cathedral, but rather the local population of Trondheim. It was not possible for the citizens of Trondheim to pay the maintenance costs of the church, and thus the cathedral entered a long period of decay that lasted until the 19th century. 

The fires

The construction of Nidaros Cathedral was finished at the beginning of the 14th century. However, in 1328 the cathedral was damaged in a fire, which was followed by two more fires in 1432 and 1531. The last fire was probably the most devastating one, because all the roofs in the cathedral collapsed. 

In the 1530’s the Archbishop used all his resources building the fortress at Steinvikholmen Island, and did not have the possibility to restore the church. After the reformation, the population of Trondheim only had the funds to pay for the restoration of the eastern part of the church. The nave was left roofless and eventually it fell apart. The surviving parts of the church was again damaged in fires in 1708 and 1719.

The cathedral today

In the 19th century the church was restored, but then as a Lutheran church. The room of the old cathedral was opened up, one could now see all the way to the high altar from the western entrance. In the Middle Ages when the cathedral was still a catholic church, it was divided into more or less separate rooms. 

Today it is still a Lutheran parish church for the congregation in Trondheim, and it has a comprehensive offer of religious services that are both used by the city’s population and other visitors to the cathedral.

The Restoration of Nidaros Cathedral

In 1814 Norway regained its independence from Denmark, and Nidaros Cathedral was the only building mentioned in the new constitution. This was because the church became the coronation church for the new Norwegian kings.

With the Romantic Nationalism flourishing in the 19th century the cathedral became a symbol of the Hereditary Kingdom of Norway from the Middle Ages. The restoration and reconstruction of the cathedral became important because it reflected the reconstruction of the nation at the time. In 1869 a comprehensive restoration project started, a project that was not finished until 2001.

The restoration work

In 1869 the restoration of the Chapter House started. The main idea was to restore the cathedral back to its former appearance, and remove all newer additions. There were on the other hand no agreement on how the cathedral looked like during the Middle Ages. 

In the 1870’s the restoration of the octagon and chancel started, and soon after the tower and transept.  This work was finished in the beginning of the 20th century, and in 1905 the reconstruction of the nave and western façade started. The nave was finished in 1930, and the façade in the 1980’s. It was not until 2001, however, that the last vault in the western towers were finished.

Nidaros Cathedral Restoration Workshop

A separate organization was established to carry out the restoration work in the cathedral, Throndhjems Domkirkes Restauration, Trondheim Cathedral Restoration. The organization was organized as a medieval workshop, with craftsmen and artists such as stone masons, blacksmiths, carpenters, masters of stained glass windows and plaster casts. The work was led by a cathedral architect. 

In time the organization changed its name, and today it is called Nidaros Cathedral Restoration Workshop. The organization is responsible for the management of the Archbishops Palace, the restoration of the cathedral and dissemination of its long history.

Nidaros Cathedral today

The cathedral as it appears today is characterized by the restoration in the 19th and 20th century. All of the stained glass windows are for example from the restoration period. Nevertheless, large sections of the cathedral are from the Middle Ages.

The cathedral is not only a monument over Norway’s powerful medieval past, but also a monument of an international church organization and an international architecture. The Romanesque style that we find in large sections of the cathedral is an inheritance from the Roman Empire. Moreover, both the Gothic and Romanesque styles have several similarities with Arabic architecture.