olaf ii, saint

Olaf II of Norway

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.

Concerning the king's name

King Olaf Haraldsson of Norway had the given name Óláfr in Old Norse. (Etymology: Anu - "forefather", Leifr - "heir".) Olav is the modern equivalent in Norwegian, formerly often spelt Olaf. His name in Icelandic is Ólafur, in Danish Oluf, in Swedish Olof. Other names, such as Oláfr hinn helgi, Olavus rex, and Olaf (as used in English) are used interchangeably (see the Heimskringla of Snorri Sturluson). He is sometimes referred to as Rex Perpetuus Norvegiae, eternal King of Norway, a designation which goes back to the thirteenth century. The term Ola Nordmann as ephithet of the archetypal Norwegian may originate in this tradition, as the name Olav for centuries was the most common male name in Norway.


Olaf was the subject of several biographies, both hagiographies and sagas, in the Middle Ages, and many of the historical facts concerning his reign are disputed. The most well known description is the one in Snorri Sturluson's Heimskringla, from c. 1230. That saga cannot be taken as an accurate source for Olaf's life, but most of the following description is based on the narrative there. After some years' absence in England, fighting the Danes, he returned to Norway in 1015 and declared himself king, obtaining the support of the five petty kings of the Uplands. In 1016 he defeated Earl Sweyn, hitherto the virtual ruler of Norway, at the Battle of Nesjar. He founded the town Borg by the waterfall Sarpr, later to be known as Sarpsborg. Within a few years he had won more power than had been enjoyed by any of his predecessors on the throne.

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.


Owing to Olaf's later status as the patron saint of Norway, and to his importance in later medieval historiography and in Norwegian folklore, it is difficult to assess the character of the historical Olaf. Judging from the bare outlines of known historical facts, he appears, more than anything else, as a fairly unsuccessful ruler, who had his power based on some sort of alliance with the much more powerful king Knut the Great; who was driven into exile when he claimed a power of his own; and whose attempt at a reconquest was swiftly crushed.

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.


Olaf is generally held to be the driving force behind Norway's final conversion to Christianity. However, large stone crosses and other Christian symbols suggest that at least the coastal areas of Norway were deeply influenced by Christianity long before Olav's time; with one exception, all the rulers of Norway back to Håkon the Good (c. 920–961) had been Christians; and Olav's main opponent, Knut the Great, was a Christian ruler. What seems clear is that Olav made efforts to establish a church organization on a broader scale than before, among other things by importing bishops from England and Germany, and that he tried to enforce Christianity also in the inland areas, which had the least communication with the rest of Europe, and which economically were more strongly based on agriculture, so that the inclination to hold on to the former fertility cult would have been stronger than in the more diversified and expansive western parts of the country.

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.

Olaf's dynasty

For various reasons, most importantly the death of king Knut the Great in 1035, but perhaps even a certain discontent among Norwegian nobles with the Danish rule in the years after Olaf's death in 1030, his illegitimate son with the concubine Alvhild, Magnus the Good, assumed power in Norway, and eventually also in Denmark. Numerous churches in Denmark were dedicated to Olaf during his reign, and the sagas give glimpses of similar efforts to promote the cult of his deceased father on the part of the young king.

Saint Olaf

Among the bishops that Olaf brought with him from England, was Grimkell (Grimkillus). He was probably the only one of the missionary bishops who was left in the country at the time of Olaf's death, and he stood behind the translation and beatification of Olaf on August 3, 1031.

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.

Other instances of St Olaf

See also


External links



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