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King Olaf of Norway Used Cruelty to Force Baptisms

Olaf estranged his people trying to impose Christianity and died in battle seeking to recover his throne.

KING OLAF II of Norway fell in battle on this day, 29 July 1030. In his dying moments, he is said to have cried, “God help me!” 

As a young man, Olaf Haraldsson fought as a Viking against Estonia, visited Denmark (which then ruled Norway), and at first fought against, then later served with, the army of King Ethelred II of England against the Danes. When Ethelred was defeated and fled to Normandy, Olaf went with him. 

While passing through Normandy, Olaf was baptized at Rouen under the sponsorship of the Norman king Richard II. But despite this, his battles show a man consumed with political ambition, and his writings reveal a man more interested in sexual exploits than holiness. 

When Olaf returned to Norway in 1015, he obtained the support of some northern earls and defeated Earl Svein, the effectual ruler of the country. Olaf brought all of Norway under his control. Still a young man in his early twenties, he attempted to extend Christianity to the inner parts of the country where it was weakest, most likely for reasons of political unity. He summoned a church synod to Moster, where his people accepted a code covering the building and maintenance of churches, establishments of the rights and duties of church officials, observance of holy days, instruction on baptism, restriction on the exposure of infants (placing weak infants outside to be killed by the elements), conditions for burial, and rules for marriage. The code also abolished the sacrifice of slaves to demons, requiring that anyone wishing to offer such a sacrifice free the slave instead. 

But despite some of the humane provisions of this code, Olaf still used deadly force and dreadful mutilations to compel baptism of the heathen and obtain “conversions.” This outraged his subjects. When King Canute and the Danes invaded Norway, several earls deserted Olaf, who fled to Kiev. Canute established a puppet king in Norway, but the man died in 1030, and Olaf saw an opportunity to regain his throne. He returned to Norway, showing more mercy than in the past. All the same, most Norwegians sided with the Danes. 

When the armies met at Stiklestad, Olaf chose as his battle cry, “On, on, Christ’s men! Cross men! King’s men!” Outnumbered, he died there. His mortal wound was delivered in revenge by a man whose ship he had captured. However, although his foes were largely of the old heathen party, they granted Olaf and his men Christian burials. 

Although he had offered no evidence of holiness while he lived, the people of Norway credited Olaf with miracles after his death. When Canute failed to keep his promises and raised taxes, the memory of Olaf began to look better to those who had revolted against him. His friend Bishop Grimkell declared him a martyr saint. In the following century, Pope Alexander III confirmed the declaration. 

Rulers of Norway, faced with the need to unite the country, found in Olaf’s memory an icon of national pride. They made him the nation’s patron saint, which proved to have a strong unifying effect. What Olaf had hoped to achieve in life was achieved through his name after his death.

Dan Graves

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For more on Christianity among the Vilings, consult Christian History #63, A severe salvation

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