Olaf Haraldsson (Old Norse Óláfr Haraldsson, 995 – July 29 1030), was king of Norway from 1015–1028, (known during his lifetime as the fat (Olav Digre) and after his canonization as Saint Olaf). His mother was Åsta Gudbrandsdatter, and his father was Harald Grenske, great-grandchild of Harald Fairhair. In modern day Norway he is known as Olav den Hellige ("Olaf the Holy") or Heilag-Olav ("Holy Olaf") as a result of his sainthood.
He had annihilated the petty kings of the South, had crushed the aristocracy, enforced the acceptance of Christianity throughout the kingdom, asserted his suzerainty in the Orkney Islands, conducted a successful raid on Denmark, achieved peace with king Olof Skötkonung of Sweden through Þorgnýr the Lawspeaker, and was for some time, engaged to his daughter, the Princess of Sweden, Ingegerd Olofsdotter without his approval. After the end of her engagement to Olaf, Ingegerd married the Great Prince Yaroslav I of Kiev.
In 1019 Olaf married the illegitimate daughter of King Olof of Sweden and half-sister of his former bride, Astrid Olavsdttr. They had only a daughter, Wulfhild, who married in 1042 to the Duke Ordulf of Saxony.
But Olaf's success was short-lived, for in 1026, he lost the Battle of the Helgeå and in 1029 the Norwegian nobles, seething with discontent, rallied round the invading Knut the Great, and Olaf had to flee to Kievan Rus. During the voyage he stayed some time in Sweden in the province of Nerike where, according to local legend, he baptized many locals. On his return a year later, seizing an opportunity to win back the kingdom after Knut the Great's vassal as ruler of Norway, Håkon Jarl, was lost at sea, he fell at the Battle of Stiklestad, where some of his own subjects from central Norway were arrayed against him.
Olaf, a rather stubborn and rash ruler, prone to rough treatment of his enemies, ironically became Norway's patron saint. His canonization was performed only a year after his death by the bishop of Nidaros. The cult of Olaf not only unified the country, it also fulfilled the conversion of the nation, something for which the king had fought so hard.
While divisive in life, in death Olaf wielded a unifying power no foreign monarch could hope to undo.
Canute, most distracted by the task of administrating England, managed to rule Norway for 5 years after the Battle of Stiklestad, through the viceroyship of his son Svein. However, when Olaf's illegitimate son Magnus (dubbed 'the Good') laid claim to the Norwegian throne, Canute had to yield. Thus, a century of prosperity and expansion followed, lasting until the kingdom again descended into a civil war over succession.
This calls for an explanation of the status he gained after his death. Three factors are important: his role in the Christianization of Norway, the various dynastic relationships among the ruling families, and the needs for legitimization in a later period.
Although Olav was certainly not the first to introduce Christianity to Norway, his status as saint may have aided the transition from paganism to Christianity.
At this time, local bishops and their people recognized and proclaimed a person a saint, and a formal canonization procedure through the papal curia was not customary; in Olaf's case, this did not happen until 1888.
Grimkell was later appointed bishop in the diocese of Selsey in the south-east of England. This is probably the reason why the earliest traces of a liturgical cult of St Olaf are found in England. An office, or prayer service, for St Olaf is found in the so-called Leofric collectar (c. 1050), which was bequeathed in his last will and testament by bishop Leofric of Exeter to the church of Exeter, the neighbouring diocese of Selsey. This English cult seems to have been short-lived.
Adam of Bremen, writing around 1070, mentions pilgrimage to the saint's shrine in Nidaros, but this is the only firm trace we have of a cult of St Olaf in Norway before the middle of the twelfth century. By this time he was also being referred to as "The Eternal King of Norway". In 1152/3, Nidaros was separated from Lund as the archbishopric of Nidaros. It is likely that whatever formal or informal — which, we do not know — veneration of Olav as a saint there may have been in Nidaros prior to this, was emphasised and formalized on this occasion.
During the visit of the papal legate, Nicholas Brekespear (later Pope Adrian IV), the poem Geisli ("the ray of sun") was recited. In this poem, we hear for the first time of miracles performed by St Olaf. One of these took place on the day of his death, when a blind man got his eye-sight back again after having rubbed his eyes with hands that were stained with the blood from the saint.
The texts which were used for the liturgical celebration of St Olaf during most of the Middle Ages, were probably compiled or written by Eystein Erlendsson, the second archbishop of Norway (1161–1189). The nine miracles reported in Geisli form the core of the catalogue of miracles in this office.
The celebration of St Olaf was widespread in the Nordic countries. Apart from the early traces of a cult in England, there are only scattered references to him outside of the Nordic area. Several churches in England were dedicated to him (often as St Olave). St Olave Hart Street in the City of London is the burial place of Samuel Pepys and his wife. Another south of London Bridge gave its name to Tooley Street and to the St Olave's Poor Law Union, later to become the Metropolitan Borough of Bermondsey: its workhouse in Rotherhithe became the St Olave's Hospital, now an old-people's home a few hundred metres from St Olaf's Church, which is the Norwegian Church in London. It also led to the naming of St Olave's Grammar School, which was established in 1571 and up until 1968 was situated in Tooley Street. In 1968 the school was moved to Orpington, Bromley.
Recently the pilgrimage route to Nidaros Cathedral, the site of Saint Olav's tomb, has been reinstated. Following the Norwegian spelling the route is known as Saint Olav's Way. The main route, which is approximately 640 km long, starts in the ancient part of Oslo and heads North, along Lake Mjosa, up the Gudbrandsdal Valley, over Dovrefjell and down the Oppdal Valley to end at Nidaros Cathedral in Trondheim. There is a Pilgrim's Office in Oslo which gives advice to Pilgrims, and a Pilgrim Centre in Trondheim, under the aegis of the Cathedral, which awards certificates to successful Pilgrims upon the completion of their journey.