Olaf of Norway

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St. Olaf, King of Norway

The holy, glorious, right-victorious martyr and right-believing King Olaf II of Norway (sometimes spelled Olav) is also known as Olaf Haraldson and was a son of Earl Harald Grenske of Norway. During his lifetime he was also called Olaf the Fat. He was born in 995 A.D., and ruled Norway from 1015 to 1028, when he was exiled. He died two years later on the field of battle at Stiklestad, killed for his support of the Christian faith and his attempt to unite Norway into one nation. His feast day is July 29.

He should not be confused with his predecessor Olaf Tryggvason (King Olaf I of Norway).


According to Snorri Sturluson (a 12th and 13th century Icelandic historian), he was baptized in 998 in Norway, but more probably about 1010 in Rouen, France, by Archbishop Robert. In his early youth he went as a viking to England, where he took part in many battles and became earnestly interested in Christianity. After many difficulties he was elected King of Norway, and made it his object to extirpate heathenism and make the Christian religion the basis of his kingdom.

He is the great Norwegian legislator for the Church, and like his predecessor Olaf Tryggvason, made frequent severe attacks on the old faith and customs, demolishing the temples and building Christian churches in their place. He brought many bishops and priests from England, as King Canute IV later did to Denmark. Some few are known by name (Grimkel, Sigfrid, Rudolf, Bernhard). He seems on the whole to have taken the Anglo-Saxon conditions as a model for the ecclesiastical organization of his kingdom.

But at last the exasperation against him got so strong that the mighty clans rose in rebellion against him and applied to King Canute II of Denmark and England for help. This was willingly given, whereupon Olaf was expelled and Canute elected King of Norway. Olaf fled to Kievan Rus, and during the voyage he stayed some time in Sweden in the province of Nerike where, according to local legend, he baptized many locals.

After two years' exile he returned to Norway with an army. Upon landing in Norway, he met his rebellious subjects led by the Norwegian nobles at Stiklestad, where the celebrated battle took place July 29, 1030. Neither King Canute nor the Danes took part at that battle. King Olaf fought with great courage, but was mortally wounded and fell on the battlefield, praying "God help me."

It must be remembered that the resentment against Olaf was due not alone to his Christianity, but also in a high degree to his unflinching struggle against the old constitution of shires and for the unity of Norway. He is thus regarded by modern Norwegians as the great champion of national independence.

St. Olaf's cultus

Many miraculous occurrences are related in connection with his death and his disinterment a year later, after belief in his sanctity had spread widely. His friends, Bishop Grimkel and Earl Einar Tambeskjelver, laid the corpse in a coffin and set it on the high-altar in the church of St. Clement in Nidaros (now Trondheim). Olaf has since been held as a saint, not only by the people of Norway, whose patron saint he is, but also by Rome. Orthodox Christians also venerate him as one of the ancient western saints of the Church before the Great Schism.

In 1075, his incorrupt body was enshrined in what became the cathedral of Nidaros (Trondheim), which replaced the chapel, and became a site of pilgrimage. During the Protestant Reformation his body was removed and reburied. His cultus was aided by the unpopular rule of Swein, Canute's son; Canute's death in 1035 resulted in the flight of many Danes from Norway and the accession of Olaf's son Magnus. Thereafter his cultus spread rapidly. Adam of Bremen (c. 1070) wrote that his feast was celebrated throughout Scandinavia.

His cult spread widely in the Middle Ages, not only in Norway, but also in Denmark, Sweden, and even as far as England; in London, there is on Hart Street a St. Olave's Church, long dedicated to the glorified King of Norway. In 1856 a fine St. Olave's Church was erected in Christiania, the capital of Norway, where a large relic of St. Olaf (a donation from the Danish Royal Museum) is preserved and venerated. The arms of Norway are a lion with the battle-axe of St. Olaf in the forepaws.

The Norwegian order of the Knighthood of Saint Olaf was founded in 1847 by Oscar I, king of Sweden and Norway, in memory of this king. He is called Rex Perpetuum Norvegiæ, eternal King of Norway.

An interesting and somewhat bizarre episode regarding St. Olaf's relics is recorded regarding St. Olaf's successor, Harald III Haardraade, who was King of Norway 1040-1066 (co-ruler with St. Olaf's son, Magnus the Good, 1040-1047). Thirty-five years after St. Olaf's death, Harald was planning an invasion of northern England in 1066 at the provocation of the exiled Earl Tostig (brother of King Harold II of England). He visited the shrine of St. Olaf in Trondheim, unlocked the door, cut his hair and nails—which were still growing, for St. Olaf's relics were incorrupt—and then relocked the shrine and threw the key into the neighboring River Nid. Harald was eventually defeated and killed by the army led by King Harold II of England, who later that year was defeated by William the Bastard ("the Conqueror") at the Battle of Hastings.

Holy King Olaf is also seen as being instrumental in the Christianization of both Iceland and the Faroe Islands. Both countries, under the influence of the Danish monarchy under which the islands were heavily subject until the 20th century (Iceland now independent since 1945 and the Faroe Islands having been granted substantial autonomy), became Lutheran during the Protestant Reformation. Nonetheless, despite centuries of absence from either the Catholic or Orthodox fold, St. Olaf is held in high honour. His feast day of July 29th, called in Faroese Ólafsøka, or St. Olaf's Vigil, is the national holiday of the Faroe Islands.


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