The tragic tale of Saint Olof, patron saint of Norway

Olof Haraldsson became king of Norway at the age of twenty in 1015 and was to rule for only thirteen years before he was deposed in 1028. He was a remarkable traveller. Even before his accession to the throne he raided Estonia in 1008 and later England in 1014, in support of King Ethelred, helping to temporarily depose King Canute. Legend has it that he destroyed London Bridge in that year. He spent a winter in Normandy and there became baptised as a Christian. From then on his aim was to unite and Christianise Norway. His methods of conversion were harsh and he alienated many of his people.

In a joint campaign in 1026 with the Swedish navy, King Olof suffered a disastrous setback in the battle of the Holy River in southern Sweden, against the combined Danish and English navies. With his fleet destroyed, he had to travel back to his capital, Nidaros  (Trondheim), over land.

Within three years, discontent with his reign was so great in Norway that the nobles invited King Canute of Denmark to rule the country. Olof fled to Russia and lived as a guest of Prince Jarolsav in Novgorod. In 1030 he returned to Norway to reassert his claim to the Norwegian throne. He was killed at the battle of Sticklestad near Nidaros.

Viking longhouse

                       A replica Viking longhouse on the site of the Battle of Stiklestad


Subsequently, the English missionary he had taken to Norway, Bishop Grimkell [1], declared the late king as a saint and this was confirmed by the Pope. And thus the legend of Saint Olof was born. Paradoxically, after death, through his canonisation, Olof had more influence on the Christianisation of Norway than he had when he was alive. Not only did he become the patron saint of Norway, but his cult was embraced by all the Scandinavian countries and even in England, where several churches were dedicated to him.

At the end of Danish rule in Norway, Olof’s illegitimate son by his concubine, became King Magnus.

Through various royal lines of descent across Europe, the current royal family of Norway is related to King Olof.


St Olof monument

                                                 Saint Olof’s monument at Stiklestad

[1]Subsequently, Grimkell became the first Bishop of Sigtuna in Sweden and then later Bishop of the Selsey Diocese in southern England.

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