Dead Man Converting
IN JULY 1030, at the lonely moorland farm of Stiklestad, Norway, a dispossessed king perished beneath the spears and axes of his former subjects. Olaf Haraldsson, known as Olaf Digre ("stout” or “burly"), seemed to be just one more casualty in the shifting and brutal power politics of medieval Scandinavia.
Within a year, however, he was more than another Viking fatality. He was a martyr, a saint, a hero who brought Christianity to the heathens. In truth, none of those titles accurately describe the life of “Saint Olaf.” But in death, Olaf did more to Christianize Norway than he ever did in life.
A bloody beginning
The son and foster-son of Norwegian kinglets, Olaf Haraldsson (not to be confused with the earlier Olaf Trygvesson) makes his historical debut in 1007, when he was sent out, at just 12 years old, as a “sea-king” or raiding chieftain (under the eye of an experienced captain). His first raid, in Sweden, resulted in a hairbreadth escape from the irate Swedish king—later hailed as his first miracle!
In Denmark Olaf joined forces with the notorious Thorkel the Tall. Together they launched profitable raids on Jutland, Frisia, Holland, and that greenest of Viking pastures, England. There they tormented that unlucky king Ethelred Unræd—a nickname meaning not so much “unready” as “clueless” (this is the same Ethelred who was tormented by Olaf Trygvesson).
In the winter of 1009, Olaf and Thorkel attacked London and raided East Anglia. That September Olaf, the future saint, plundered Canterbury and killed the archbishop, whom he pelted to death with bones.
King Ethelred finally got a clue and bought Thorkel’s “services"—meaning he paid Thorkel protection money. Olaf raided Brittany, France, and Spain. The Norwegian planned on sailing to Jerusalem, but like many other legendary Viking heroes, he had a fateful dream. He saw a “great and important man, of terrible appearance” who told him to return home because, he said, “You shall be king of Norway for ever.”
Vision or no, Olaf’s timing was perfect. Norway, an unwilling part of the extensive empire of Knut the Great (reigned 1014-35), was ripe for revolt while the Dane was heavily engaged elsewhere.
Within a few months of his arrival home in 1015, Olaf had routed the Danes, proclaimed himself king, and established his capital in Nidaros (modern Trondheim). But a still greater change had taken place: somehow, somewhere, this fearsome young pirate had become a Christian.
Vikings often didn’t take baptism seriously, undergoing it repeatedly for the sake of the free white shirt the church gave to the newly baptized (as well as perhaps a cash bonus). Even genuine converts seldom changed their habits: Olaf Trygvesson, for example, had evangelized his enemies with the same tortures and head-loppings he had used as a pagan seeking extortion money.
Although accounts of Olaf Haraldsson are sometimes contradictory, they agree he was free of the besetting Viking sin of manic vengefulness. Ready to meet force with force, he was equally ready to be reconciled even with enemies and rivals. Olaf warred fiercely but preferred peace and law. And he was a man of his word, with Christ as with any bargain. He immediately proclaimed the Christian faith throughout his realm, and he built churches, including St. Clements in Nidaros.
The faith had highly practical attractions for a Viking ruler. Christianity made it easier to trade with the Christian heart of Europe. It was the faith of the Byzantine emperor and the wealthy kings of England and France; it smacked of civilization, wealth and status.
And Christianity, with its teaching about the divine right of kings, gave the king something Odin and Thor never could: a share of divine authority. Furthermore, whereas pagan cults were local, diffuse and traditional, Christianity was centralized, scholarly, and unifying—it could unite a country that paganism divided. And it was a faith that respected the importance of civil law.
The Vikings also had great respect for law; we owe them the very word. And Olaf was a great lawgiver. With his bishop, Grimkell, he created the Moster Law, which became the enduring model for the church throughout Scandinavia.
Destroying the infested idol
Olaf was ready to enforce Christian law. Norway’s outer regions were mostly Christian, but the less accessible Trondelag still observed the great pagan festivals, disingenuously excusing them as simple Yule and harvest feasts.
Olaf would have none of it and descended on the region, fining or executing offenders. But he did not rely on force alone. At Gulbrandsdal, in central Norway, militant locals confronted him with a huge wooden Thor-idol, which received offerings of food and gold ornaments. In turn, Olaf hailed the bright sunrise as herald of his God; with every eye on the sunrise, one of Olaf’s warriors clubbed the idol. The rotten wood broke, scattering the gold and spilling out rats (as large as cats) and vermin that had fed on the offerings. The horrified pagans bolted. Olaf had them rounded up, but only observed dryly that the destroyed idol’s gold ornaments would look better on their wives and daughters. Not surprisingly, they agreed and converted.
Though Olaf’s 12-year reign was effective, the king was soon unpopular. Local divisions were strong; local lords still chafed at the loss of independence they’d enjoyed under the mostly absent Knut. Olaf punished the piracy and raiding that were the Viking way of life; he strove to bring Iceland and the Faeroes under his sway. And he enforced Christianity. His failures cost him prestige; his successes made him more enemies.
To the aging Knut, a powerful neighbor was bad news. When Olaf understandably rejected Knut’s claim to be his overlord, Knut began to suborn powerful nobles like Einar and Kalf Arnarson with what Viking noblemen most prized: money, and status. Apparently the Danish bishop Sigurd also helped to whip up feelings against Olaf. In 1028 Olaf had to flee, taking refuge with his cousin, King Jaroslav of Kiev.
Olaf attempted to reconquer Norway in 1030, but could raise few followers and had lost the fleet that brought him to power. He arrived at Stiklestad with 3,500 men—against Knut’s 13,000. Olaf could not turn back. Chronicler Snorri Sturluson says he gave his men a battle-cry: Fram, Fram, Kristsmenn, krossmenn, konungsmenn! “On, On, Christ’s men, Cross men, King’s men!”
It was stirring but useless (not to mention presumptuous: Knut’s army prayed to the same God for victory, and was personally blessed by Bishop Sigurd). Accounts of the battle by Olaf’s poets are full of drama, and it does no harm to believe them. Splendid in gold-decked armor, Olaf fought heroically as the sun became eclipsed overhead. As one chronicler wrote,
On they came in fierce array,
And round the king arose the fray,
With shield on arm brave Olaf stood,
Dyeing his sword in their best blood.
For vengeance on his Trondheim foes,
On their best men he dealt his blows;
He who knew well death’s iron play,
To his deep vengeance gave full sway.
But at last Olaf was struck down against a great rock. His men fled, and the army dispersed, but not, says Snorri, before the king’s spilt blood began to work miracles even for his slayers: “The king’s blood came on Thorer’s hand, and ran up between his fingers to where he had been wounded, and the wound grew up [mended] so speedily that it did not require to be bound up.”
Olaf’s body was smuggled away to Nidaros and hidden in a sandbank to safeguard it. There it lay throughout a year of enormous change: Knut’s promised rewards went unfulfilled, replaced instead by punitive taxes and Danes’ grabbing the most prestigious posts; weather worsened, harvests failed; men remembered Olaf more kindly and vilified the treacherous Tronders.
Soon even Sigurd was obliged to flee to England and was replaced by Olaf’s Bishop Grimkell. Barely a year after the Battle of Stiklestad, Olaf’s body was disinterred.
“There was a delightful and fresh smell,” Snorri recorded. “His appearance was in no respect altered, and his cheeks were as red as if he had but just fallen asleep. The men who had seen King Olaf when he fell remarked, also, that his hair and nails had grown as much as if he had lived on the earth all the time that had passed since his fall.”
Grimkell declared Olaf a saint, enshrining him in his own church of St. Clement. His shrine rapidly became a center of miracles, as did the cathedral where he was later reburied. “A multitude of lame and blind and other sick who came to the holy Olaf went back cured,” one early account records.
Now the Norwegian powerbrokers promoted their fallen king, memorializing him as a pious and noble Christian leader, to inspire national pride and win their country’s freedom from Denmark. Olaf’s son, Magnus (named after Karl Magnus, Charlemagne) was brought back to Nidaros from Kiev. The Danes were again driven out, and Knut died soon after. Suddenly, thanks to the dead Olaf, Norway was united and independent. And Christian.
The fact that Olaf, like Christ, had become more powerful in death was not lost on contemporaries. Olaf became “Norway’s king forever,” guardian of his people and the national interest; through him the church’s standing became too great for even the most obdurate pagans. After his story, tales of pagan resistance cease.
Soon Olaf’s influence extended far outside Norway—further even than his early travels. Olaf’s body in Nidaros became one of Europe’s most visited pilgrimage sites. Shrines and churches were constructed in his honor in England, Sweden, and Rome. (York’s famous minster was built “in God’s name and Olaf’s.”) Even in Byzantium, then the heart of Christian Europe, Snorri says a church was dedicated to St. Olaf by the Norse and English soldiers of the emperor’s bodyguard. (In fact, Olaf is the last Western saint accepted by the Eastern Orthodox church.) Above the altar hung the sword Olaf had borne at Stiklestad, and the hand that held it had stretched across the world. Olaf had not only converted Norway, he had become for many medieval minds the ideal ruler, even God’s regent over the earth.
By Michael Scott Rohan and Allan Scott
[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #63 in 1999]Michael Scott Rohan and Allan Scott, both science fiction writers, coauthored The Hammer and the Cross: The Conversion of the Vikings (Alder, 1980).
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