St. Olav

The Nidaros Cathedral as we know it today began as a wooden chapel erected over the tomb of St. Olav, the Viking King who became the patron saint of Norway.

The Viking Olav Haraldsson

Olav Haraldsson was born around the year 990 AD, in what today is the East-Norwegian county of Telemark. His father was the regional Viking chieftain Harald Grenske, who on behalf of the Danish kings, controlled greater parts of Eastern Norway. Being of such a lineage, it was natural that Olav at an early age went on Viking – the act of raiding and trading across Europe. Thus, at the age of twelve Olav travelled east with the purpose of gaining experience, wealth and good reputation, this would secure his future role as king. Through his plundering and battles Olav created mayhem in the Baltics, and it was during these years Olav built himself the reputation of being a mighty warrior.

In the year 1009, when Olav was around the age of sixteen, he went west - To England! Together with thousands of other warriors he fought with the great Danish army, under the command of the Viking King Thorkell the Tall. The Danes went on several raids, amongst others attacking Canterbury in 1012, burning the cathedral and killing the archbishop. Eventually the English king Ethelred managed to forge an alliance with the Danish-Norwegian battle force. When the Danish King Sweyn Forkbeard gained power in England, Ethelred fled to Normandy, the home of his wife Emma (of Normandy).

Olav Haraldsson followed Ethelred to Normandy. The future Norwegian king may have felt at home in this part of France, since the population at the time consisted of settled Vikings. A crucial difference to Scandinavia in this era, Christianity was established in Normandy as the dominant religion. It is likely Olav discovered that the Duke of Normandy controlled the church organisations, which also meant he had control of his subjects’ religious lives. Olav must have seen great benefits in such control.

Olav learnt much of the Christian teachings in Normandy. He may even have been baptised here in 1013/1014, though several sagas claims that, as a child, he was baptised in Norway. What is safe to say is, that during his time in Normandy, Olav truly became a Christian man. Whether or not baptised here, this is where his conformation most likely took place.

The Viking King

After the death of King Sweyn in 1014, Ethelred - assisted by Olav and Thorkell the Tall - defeated the Danish Vikings. However, Sweyn’s son summoned forces in Southern Scandinavia and travelled to England, with the hopes of recovering his father’s territory. This new Danish king would later come to be known as Cnut the Great. Persuading Thorkell and Olav to join his side - with the aid of their mercenaries - Cnut succeeded in his mission. In making this deal, Cnut may have promised Olav the power to rule on his behalf in Eastern Norway. This being the case or not, after a seven-year long Viking raid Olav and his now experienced worriers, returned to Norway in 1015 as powerful and wealthy men.

While Olav was set to rule over Eastern Norway, it was the Earls of Lade, Sweyn and Haakon, who on behalf of the Danish king, ruled the rest of the land. However, Olav was determined to gain power over the entire country. He proceeded to chase these two earls out of Norway and King Cnut the Great, occupied by trying to achieve total control over England, was not able to travel to the North to punish Olav for his actions.

At this time Norway already had a well establish law system based on local gatherings of free, well-established men called ‘Tings’. These Viking tings acted both as legislative assembly and as juristic gathering points for Norwegians. It was important for Olav to achieve acceptance through these political meetings, in order to be recognised as the rightful king of Norway. As a wealthy man with strong warriors, Olav managed to either buy off or scare the Norwegians into an alliance. In ca. 1022, he constituted his position as the King of the entire country. During his rise to power Olav actively attempted, often by force, to Christian the pagan part of the Norwegian population.

Olav was not the first king to work for the Christianisation of Norway by means of forces, but he was the first to institutionalise Christianity as the state religion by the means of establishing a church organisation. With this institution in place, he, in 1023/1024, arranged a church meeting at Moster in Western Norway. This meeting implemented a new Christian law. The law forbade all heathen cults, and only Christian practice were to be acknowledged as legal. Subsequently the various local Viking tings endorsed this as well.

From this point on, king and church were the administrative foundation for a new kind of absolute monarchy based on Christian laws, which the king enforced. This system of rule was already well established in other Western European countries, but it was unfamiliar and new for Norway and its population.

Olav is defeated

During the 1020ies, Cnut the Great gained complete control over England. Finally, he could start the fight against the rebel Olav. In 1026, he defeated Olav in a battle in Skåne (Sweden) and only two years later, he had again gained control over Norway. Olav fled east to Gardarike (today’s Russia), while Cnut went back to England and sent Earl Haakon to Norway.Haakon was once again to be the King’s regent, but the earl drowned on his voyage back to the north. The news reached Olav, who immediately saw the opportunity to regain the throne. Olav quickly gathered a small army and set back to his home country. On his journey through Sweden, additionally 1500 men joined his army, and Olav decided to cross the borders into Norway through Trønderlag.

When the people in Trøndelag heard that Olav was on his way back, they gathered an army of peasants. They asked for more reinforcement from the western and northern part of Norway, and soon the army consisted of 3000-5000 men. The Norwegians remembered well Olav as a brutal and headstrong king, and did not wish to see him recover his former position. The 29th of July 1030, one of the most known battles in Norwegian history took place. At Stiklestad, Olav’s army prepared for war. His troops had strategically located themselves on the top of a hill, protected by trees, so that the peasant army had to attack them uphill. Olav managed to strike back at the first attack, but many of Olav’s warriors misunderstood the course of the battle. They thought they were winning and that their enemies were fleeing the battlefield. Olav’s men broke out of line to chase the peasants, and consequently ended out fighting men that had more battle experience. To preserve the moral, Olav ordered his men down the hillside.

Surrounded by his most professional warriors Olav himself started fighting. Nevertheless, the peasants were too strong, and Olav died after several severe injuries caused by his enemy’s weapons. When the King fell, his men lost all hope and resigned from the battlefield. Some of them saved their lives by hiding in the forest, but the prosecuting enemy killed most of Olav’s men.

Olav becomes a saint

The ambitious Olav was devoted to his two dreams; he wanted to unify Norway as an independent kingdom and he wished to establish Christianity as the state religion. The monotheistic religion with one god reflected a country with one king and in that way legitimised Olav as the absolute monarch. This lead to Olav challenging the established Norwegian constitutionalism with several kings and the Viking ting, which ultimately made the farmers rebel against him.

In the last battle against Olav, Cnut had promised to re-establish the former system with decentralised power. But the Danish king did not keep his word, instead he made his son, the fifteen year old Svein Alfivason, the vice king of Norway and demanded high taxes from the peasants. As a result, a cult after Olav’s death rose, which gained relatively high public support in Norway. The cult supported the church organisation, which Olav had introduced to the country, and which propagandised that the King’s death at Stiklestad as martyrdom.

It was said that Olav, right before he died, threw his weapon away, and died as a martyr – defenceless against his enemies. Miraculous and inexplicable things happened to/around the King’s dead body. For example, Olav was after the battle placed in a shed, where a blind man, looking for shelter, entered. Fumbling in the dark, he got the King’s blood on his hands and when he touched his eyes, he could suddenly see again. After the battle, Olav was brought to Nidaros, where he was buried in all secrecy at the highest point on the shore of the river Nid, and here a source of health-giving water sprung.

Soon, Olav’s cult became a political tool for the Norwegians, who wanted the Danes out of the country. One year after the King’s death, they opened his coffin and he smelled like roses. His fingernails and his hair had continued to grow. Modern historians dismiss this story, but it can be a hint of truth in the legends about Olav. Mummification of bodies were known at the time, and by desiccating a body, the skin will retreat/pull itself back so it seems as though the nails grew. Due to the miracles involving Olav, bishop Grimkjell, who came with Olav from England in 1015, canonised the King.

St. Olav’s cult

After the canonisation, Olav’s coffin was displayed in a beautiful shrine, which was moved to the high alter in the Clemens church in Nidaros. Where he had been originally buried, they began the construction of a wooden church in honour of the saint. In 1070, the wooden church was replaced with a stone church, which through time developed into the cathedral we have today. Here Olav’s shrine was placed upon the high alter, and the cathedral became quickly the northernmost important destination for pilgrims.

In 1035, King Cnut – only at the age of thirty-five – died, causing the political situation in Norway to change. The Norwegian Vikings took advantage of this opportunity, and brought St. Olav’s son, Magnus, from Gardarike to Norway. They instated this eleven-year-old as the rightful king. King Magnus and Harald Hardrada, who was Olav’s brother and ruled by Magnus’ side, helped with the further progression of St. Olav’s cult as it legitimised their regal rights. Their successor, Olav Kyrre, continued in the same line. Like that, the stories of the royal saint became known, not only in Scandinavia, but also in all of Northern Europe. Rapidly, churches in Scandinavia, Baltics, Russia and England were built in Olav’s honour.

St. Olav was called the holy protector and the eternal king of Norway, and the church strongly glorified him. In the prolonged Christianising process, which actually started long before Olav was born, Olav became known as the most important reason for the Norwegian Christianising. Hence, Olav’s enemies were by the church described as evil, and this perspective lasted until the late 20th century in Norway.

Today we can therefore find in the Nordic medieval art, Olav as the second most portrayed saint, right after Mary. The presentation of Olav is often a standing king with an axe in one hand, or he is sitting with a beast between his feet. The axe is his emblem, which makes him recognizable for us, while the beast symbolises the evil powers he overcame. Olav’s axe is also an important element in the Norwegian coat of arms, and has been since 13th century, when it was first included as a symbol. Still, the most special display of the saint is perhaps a painting of Olav on a pillar in the birth church in Bethlehem, which dates back to circa 1160.

The cult of Olav was so strong that it survived the reformation. The 29th of July, the day of the King’s death, was the most important national day of celebration in Norway. This was the tradition until the 19th century, when the Norwegian Constitution day, 17th of May, was established and replaced its status. Still, the celebration of Olav (Olsok) is important, but today we have a more nuanced picture of Olav’s character. He was a powerful Viking king, who played a very important part in the Christianisation of Norway. In addition, Olav was a key person in the founding of a Christian church organisation, and with this pacifistic religion, life in Norway became safer and more stable for the population. St. Olav is the Norwegian, who has been the greatest influence in the development of the Norway we have today.