Norway Part 1: “Be Christian or Die”

BY AGE 21, Olaf Trygvesson had grown into a superb Nordic specimen. In climbing and swimming and leaping, he was unmatched, and it was said that he could juggle five daggers in the air, always catching them by the handle. A favorite of his warriors, he went west to Holland with a fleet of nearly 90 ships, manned by Swedish Vikings from Russia (where the Norwegian had been serving in the court of Vladimir I). When he had finished with the Dutch, he went to France, then back to Jutland, leaving in his wake a great harvest for the ravens and wolves.

And then to England, the greatest prize of the northern pirates. At the mouth of the Thames, he fought the battle of Maldon, extorting the tribute of 10,000 pounds of silver from the weak Anglo-Saxon king, Ethelred. From there, he moved north, plundering in Northumberland and Scotland, then to the Hebrides and to fight other Vikings on the Isle of Man. After that, he turned south to Ireland, Wales, and Cornwall before he jumped over the Channel to taste again the pleasures of France. “The young king drove a bloody game,” a poet wrote. “The Irish fled at Olaf’s name, fled a young king seeking fame.”

With his fleet now fortified to 94 ships, he came back to England and joined forces with the Danish king Svein Forkbeard. Together they raided England, “burning villages, laying waste the lands, putting numbers of people to death by fire and sword, without regard to sex, and sweeping off an immense booty.” Seizing horses, they rode wildly through many provinces and slaughtered the whole population with savage cruelty, “sparing neither the women nor children of tender age.” This time Ethelred offered 22,000 pounds.

In the weeks it took to consummate this shabby deal and to refurbish his fleet, King Olaf lay off the Cornish coast, fatigued and fretful. Biding his time in the Scilly Islands, off Land’s End, the Viking heard of a local fortuneteller who was said to possess the gift of prophecy. Rowing off to the hermit’s rocky retreat, Olaf asked if the prophet could foresee Olaf’s future. Would the prince be successful in battle? Would he regain power in the north?

"Thou wilt become a renowned king and do celebrated deeds,” the hermit replied. “And that thou not doubt the truth of this answer, listen to this.” And then he predicted that Olaf would soon suffer a mutiny among his men. In the ensuing fight, he would be wounded and carried to his ship on his oblong shield. After seven days, he would recover and thereafter would allow himself to be baptized a Christian.

"Many men wilt thou bring to faith and baptism,” the prophet said, “and both to thy own and others’ good.”

Shortly afterward, the mutiny took place precisely as the hermit had predicted. After his recovery in seven days, Olaf hastened back to the seer and asked him how he had gained such wisdom.

"The god of the Christian has blessed me,” the hermit replied, “so that I can know all that I desire.”

At that, Olaf allowed himself to be baptized.

When King Ethelred heard about this, he sent his bishop and his high reeve (local administrator) to Olaf, proposing a glorious confirmation at Andover. Ethelred presented his tormenter with royal gifts and, in return, Olaf promised never again to visit war upon England. To Ethelred, Christianity was more effective than gold, and to Olaf, his new faith conferred upon him a dignity and stature among kings that he had lacked.

Double Betrayal

Early in 995, more news reached Olaf from Norway. A merchant from the north spoke of dissatisfaction in Norway with the current leader, Earl Hakon—the murderer of Olaf’s father. While the earl had consolidated his rule over coastal Norway, he had degenerated into a lecher in middle age, seizing the comely daughters of gentlemen, keeping them as his concubines for a week or two and then discarding them. This was causing an uproar in the land, although few dared to criticize the earl to his face.

The merchant told another story that raised the ire of Olaf even further. Earl Hakon had accepted Christianity under threat from the German emperor, Otto, but then had reverted to heathenism when he was safely home (see page 33, “Power Evangelism Checked"). He had been busy restoring many heathen temples to their honored place in the provinces. When the earl fought a terrible battle whose outcome was in doubt, he prayed to his personal heathen goddess, offering her his best horses as a sacrifice. But she seemed angry, for she did not respond. The earl offered more valuable things without any supernatural deliverance until he offered his youngest son, a handsome and promising 17-year-old, as a sacrifice. The boy was given to a slave, who broke the boy’s back on the sacrifice rock in the usual manner. Afterward, the tide of the battle turned in Hakon’s favor, and the court propagandist wrote his encomium, for the earl “restores Odin’s temples to Norway’s shores.”

"To tell the truth,” the merchant told Olaf, “many brave men would rather see a king of Harald Fairhair’s race come to the kingdom. But we know of no one suited for this, especially now when criticism of Earl Hakon is so pointless.”

The time was ripe, this great-grandson of Harald Fairhair decided, for his triumphal return to his homeland. He outfitted five ships and closed the English chapter of his life.

As Olaf sailed across the North Sea toward home, he must have felt the nobility and the grandeur of his holy mission. He was a hybrid of Odysseus and Michael the archangel, avenger, exile, and zealot all in one. He was coming, in justice and in glory, as the royal scion of Harald Fairhair, as the king of whom great deeds were predicted in the name of Norway and in the name of Christ.

He was returning to avenge the death of his father, the exile of his mother, the slavery of his youth— all the doings, directly and indirectly, of Earl Hakon. His passion was to convert his heathen homeland, and he was prepared for holy war. By his athletic stature, by his superior skill in the martial art, by his campaigns across the Baltic and through England, and by his zealot’s faith, he was the Viking warrior non pareil: bold, cruel, and skilled.

When Olaf finally approached the nose of Norway, he touched land offshore on Moster Island, pitched a tent, and held a great mass, and moved quietly to the mouth of the Trondheim fjord. On its southern point, he sent a few spies inland, and they came back with excellent news. Earl Hakon was indeed in the area, and he was up to his old escapades. He had just tried to seize the wife of a respectable farmer and had been turned back by a rabble of the farmer’s friends.

He then sent his slaves to seize the beautiful wife of another freeholder named Orm. But Orm was no more compliant. He delayed the earl’s messengers with food and drink while he sent a call to arms, and the farmers were gathering in great anger, ready to kill Earl Hakon. Olaf could scarcely have wished for better intelligence.

But word reached Hakon that Olaf was on his way, so he escaped to the home of one of his mistresses, who dug a pit beneath her pigsty. Logs were placed over the hole, and manure on top of the logs. With his slave named Kark, the earl crawled into the poke, hoping to wait out the trouble, if he could stand the smell.

Olaf’s rebels searched the house inside and out, and when they could not find the earl, Olaf climbed up onto a large rock next to the pigsty and gave a speech to his troops, promising great reward and honor to anyone who could find the earl and kill him. Hakon and Kark heard the speech through the seeping timbers, and the earl turned on his slave suspiciously.

“Why are you so pale?” he whispered. “Do you have a mind to betray me?”

“By no means, master,” Kark replied.

"Remember this,” the earl said. “We were born on the same night. The time between our deaths will be short.”

After Olaf went away and the night came, the earl and his slave tried to sleep. But Kark had a bad dream, and at his moans, Earl Hakon woke him up. “What on earth is the matter with you?”

“I had a bad dream,” the slave replied. “Olaf Trygvesson was laying a gold ring around my neck.”

“It will be a red ring Olaf lays around your neck if he catches you,” the earl snapped. “Take care. From me you will enjoy good things, so do not betray me.”

They tried to go back to sleep, but each was now so suspicious of the other, they tried to keep an eye open. Eventually, the earl dropped off, and he too slept so fitfully that he cried out in his sleep. Horror-struck, Kark woke up with such a fright that he pulled a knife from his belt and plunged it into Earl Hakon’s throat, killing him. Then thinking of the reward and honor that Olaf Trygvesson had promised from the rock, Kark cut off the earl’s head and presented it proudly to Olaf.

Olaf thanked him, gave him a gold ring, and then had him beheaded.

“Be Christian or die”

In 996 a national assembly was held, and Olaf Trygvesson was proclaimed the king of all Norway. One by one, the petty earls and chiefs of the country paid him homage, even the leaders of the Uplands and the Vik, who before had been in league with Svein Forkbeard, the king of Denmark. In his first winter and summer as king, Olaf traveled along his rocky coast to consolidate his realm, as the heirs of Earl Hakon, full of vengeance, fled to Sweden.

Toward the end of the first millennium, Norway was a sparsely peopled kingdom. It was ruled by a motley group of petty lords and cultivated by self-reliant freeholders who farmed and fished along the coast and the riverbanks and took orders from no man. The total population of the country did not exceed 50,000, and it was spread along the rocky, crenellated coastline. Even the trading towns had no more than about 500 people in high season. The greatest concentration of people was in the Vik, that region encompassing Oslo’s fjord which was the domain of Olaf’s martyred father, King Trygve. It was there that Olaf began his crusade to Christianize his land.

In the Vik, during the summer and fall of 996, he had easy sailing. Many of his relatives were still powerful, and the supporters of his father were legion. In the preceding decades, when the Christian king of Denmark Harald Bluetooth held sway over the area, many had converted to Christianity. But when the Thor-loving Earl Hakon took over, the converted reverted, and once again, the gods of Aesir were transcendent. King Olaf burned with messianic fire, however, and the days of choice were over. Olaf gathered his relatives together and deputized them as Christ’s captains.

“I shall make you great and mighty men for doing this work,” he told them. “All Norway will be Christian or die.”

The east and west shores of the Oslofjord acceded immediately to the king’s demand, but in the northern part of the Vik, the resistance was greater. He treated the holdouts without mercy, killing some, mutilating others, and banishing the rest. By the end of the year, between his sword and his axe, he had claimed all of the Vik for Christ and dared anyone to claim otherwise.

The king moved on, west, then north to the fjord country. Sometimes he began whimsically, challenging a heathen to a swimming race or a shooting contest, and to the winner’s faith goes the loser. Once he is said to have shot a chess piece off the head of a boy to impress the child’s agnostic uncle. Generally, however, the challenge was more direct: Christianize or fight. Few were ready for the latter.

And so they did what he asked. They pretended to convert and wept battle tears at their loss. The heathen gods were proclaimed to be evil spirits: anyone who trafficked in such evil was to be banished, especially the sorcerers. Once, at a place on the river Gota, he gathered all the wizards and high priests of the region in a longhouse for a great feast, then closed the doors and burnt the building to the ground. But their leader escaped through the smoke hole, and when he was caught, King Olaf marooned him and his fellow incorrigibles on a rock far offshore at low tide.

When he came to Trondheim, the lair of the late Earl Hakon, he took more extreme measures, burning heathen temples and desecrating heathen idols. At one temple, he found a gold ring of Earl Hakon, hung it on the door of the pagan temple, and when the crowd gathered, he torched the place. This caused anger in the fjord and again, the local chiefs rose against him, sending out the war arrow through the region as a message to prepare for battle.

Faced with this unrest, King Olaf went away to the Vik for the winter but returned the following summer with a larger army and 30 ships, weighing anchor in the river Nid. Inviting the local chiefs to a fine feast, as an apparent gesture of peace, he indicated his willingness to attend a heathen sacrifice.

At the feast, the guests got quite drunk on Viking ale. The following morning, King Olaf attended a mass and then gathered the hungover chiefs together. “It has been agreed between us that we would meet and make a great sacrifice,” the king said. “If I am to return to making heathen sacrifices, then I will make the greatest sacrifice of all. I will sacrifice men, not slaves. I propose to take the greatest men only and offer them to the gods.” And he named the 11 most prominent leaders of the opposition. When the horrified farmers howled in protest, instead of killing them, he took the 11 hostage until everyone was baptized. Finally, he set the eminent men free only when their sons and brothers were swapped for their prominent fathers.

In nearby Trondheim, King Olaf employed another method. Again at the assembly of the local farmers, he appeared open to attending a heathen ritual. “We want, King, that you should offer sacrifice, as other kings before you have done,” said the leader, whose name was Iron Beard. The king agreed readily, and the crowd went to the local temple. Once the door was closed, Olaf raised his golden axe, struck the image of Thor and ransacked the niches of the other gods, and then killed old Iron Beard. After the survivors agreed to be baptized, King Olaf took Iron Beard’s comely daughter as his wife.

As the king moved still farther north, the population of potential converts grew sparser and more obstreperous. None was more obstinate than a rich farmer and devout heathen named Raud the Strong, who was the chief of the region, had a large company of Laplanders at his disposal, and commanded a formidable long ship, larger than the king’s flagship, with a gilded dragon head on its prow and an upturned serpent’s tail in its stern. When Raud heard that the king was coming with his bitter message, Raud mobilized his force, and a fierce sea battle was fought, with predictable results.

Raud, however, escaped and took refuge in his island hideout in the Saltenfjord. The entrance of the fjord was protected by a narrow throat through which the tidal water gushed in torrents, and only the most skilled sailor could navigate it. For more than a week, King Olaf lay offshore, waiting for the wind to calm and the high seas to slacken, trying to figure out when to make a run for it. The problem was greater, we are told, because Raud was expert in witchcraft and had placed a hex on the king.

Countermeasures were called for, and so King Olaf summoned his bishop, who laid his holy robes on the stern of the king’s ship, sprinkled holy water over the ship, read the Gospels, and then gave his blessing to proceed. By some miracle, it is said, the Christian ships passed through the narrow passageway, the water curling gently around the keels, while a few paces away the waves raged so furiously that the nearby mountains were obscured.

Once in the fjord, the royal men quickly apprehended Raud and brought him to the king, who ordered the chief to accept baptism.

"I will not take your property from you but instead will be your friend,” said Olaf sweetly, “if you make yourself worthy to be so.”

Raud declined and even made fun of Christ and the Christian God. This enraged Olaf, and he declared that Raud would die “the worst of deaths.” The blasphemer was bound to a wooden beam, his mouth was forced open with a wooden pin, and the king’s henchmen tried to force an adder down his throat. But Raud’s breath came from the pits of hell, and the adder recoiled at the first whiff. So the king took a horn, placed it in Raud’s mouth, stuffed the reluctant adder in again, and put a hot iron to the snake’s tail. The treatment of Raud was a powerful lesson, and the region, feeling the heat of Olaf’s poker, quickly came to Christ.

By the end of the millennium, Olaf Trygvesson, as Christ’s supreme hatchet man, had conquered all of Norway for Christianity. To say that Norway was conquered for Christ did not mean that the country was converted. Conversion is a slower process. Still, in Olaf’s violent way, the process of conversion was begun. To hasten it, the great pope at the hinge of the first millennium, Sylvester II, was in touch with his rough instrument. Eliminate the runic script of Norway, the pope commanded, and teach your scribes to write in Latin. For the runic script underpins the pagan era that must end.

Olaf Trygvesson did not live to make the change. In the year 1000, he was killed in a spectacular sea battle called the Battle of Svold, where he was trapped off the coast of Denmark by two pagan kings and a tough old pagan queen called Sigrid the Haughty whom Olaf had jilted.

But that is another story. CH

By James Reston

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #63 in 1999]

James Reston is the author of The Last Apocalypse: Europe at the Year 1000 A.D. (Doubleday, 1998), from which this article is adapted.
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