Olav Haraldsson - Olav the Stout - Olav the Saint

AD 995-1030

Hill Olav! Twelve year old Olav waved back to the men as he climbed aboard the longship. His heart was beating faster than normal. He was going 'a-viking' for the first time. He was the son of King Harald, in Vestfold County in Norway, and now he had been given men and ships to learn the trade of a Viking, so much loved by his late father. His father had raided and traded along the coasts of The Baltic Sea for years and his son was now to follow in his footsteps.

Olav spent his early teens with his men raiding towns and villages along the coasts of the Baltic Sea. His ‘mentor’ Rane taught him all the tricks of the trade, both at sea and on land. In Denmark Olav met Thorkell the Tall, a Danish Viking chief. They joined forces and decided to head west to England.

Olav in England

For three years they raided south-east England. They failed to take London, but they continued up the Thames to Oxford where they beat the local forces and raided the area. In 1011 they took part in the assault on Canterbury. King Aethelred had to pay the Vikings, including Olav and Thorkell, 4800 pounds in silver to get rid of them.

Olav then headed for Normandy and decided to offer his services to Duke Richard II of Normandy for a while. According to some sources he later sailed south along the coast of France and Spain heading for the Mediterranean, raiding towns and villages on his way. It is said that one night, somewhere along the west coast of Spain, Olav had a dream.

He returned to Normandy with his men and they stayed the winter (1013-1014) as Duke Richard’s guests in Rouen. During the long winter evenings, 18 year old Olav heard about King Carolus Magnus (Charlemagne) and how he had built and organised his empire. He was to become Olav’s big hero. Later Olav even named his royal longship ‘Karlshöfði’, after Charlemagne. That winter, in Rouen, Olav was baptised as a Christian.

Olav becomes a Christian

In Rouen Richard and his men often went to mass in the impressive cathedral and Olav went along. He also saw all the monasteries, priests, monks and nuns, and bishops, and he frequently talked with the archbishop. He became convinced that Christianity was the right religion for himself and for Norway.

In 1015 he left Normandy and headed for Norway. He stopped in London, where he traded his longships for two knarrs , and in the early autumn, with 220 hand-picked men on board his two ships, he headed for Norway. Four of the people on board were bishops of the English Church, including Bishop Grimkell, a man who was going to play an important role in Olav’s life and in Norwegian history. Olav was 20 years old.

Olav came home to a country split up and ruled by chieftains and local petty kings, but parts of the country were also ruled by the King of Sweden and Denmark. A couple of years and a few battles later, Olav was king of all Norway.

Olav becomes King of all Norway

Olav started out from his home-base in Ringerike, north of Oslo, where his step-father helped him to become accepted as king. A short time later he was acknowledged as king in all of south-eastern Norway except for the area between present day Gothenburg and the Oslo Fjord. This area was occupied by the King of Sweden. The area around the Oslo Fjord was dominated by the King of Denmark. The rest of the country was under the rule of petty kings, earls and even a commoner, Erling Skjalgsson, ruled a part of the country. In the spring of 1016 Olav fought and won a sea battle at Nesjar, in the Stavanger region, against Svein Håkonsson, Einar Tamberskjelve, Erling Skjalgsson and the local earls and chiefs. This enabled him to add south-western Norway and the Oslo fjord area to his kingdom.

Later that summer he went up to the Trondheim region and was accepted as king there also. In Trondheim he built the Klement’s Church.

Olav then headed south again and started negotiating with the King of Sweden to get back the Båhuslen region (the area between Gothenburg and the Oslo Fjord), and he succeeded. He also married Astrid, a daughter of the King of Sweden. He was to have married another daughter, Ingegerd, but the King of Sweden changed his mind at the last minute and sent Ingegerd to Novgorod to be married to King Jaroslav of Gardarike (Russia).

Olav next sailed north to Hålogaland and was accepted as king of the northernmost part of Northern Norway. At only 22 years of age, Olav He was king of all Norway.

Like all other people at the time, the Norwegians were a very religious people, but they worshipped different gods. Along the coast, many people were Christians, but inland, in the countryside, people still worshipped the old Norse gods. As a Christian, Olav now set out to make all of Norway a Christian country. Like his idols Charlemagne and his predecessor Olav Tryggvason, he let ‘the sword pave way for the cross’. It took him years.

Not until 1024, at a ‘thing’ on the island of Moster, Christianity was accepted as the official faith in Norway. A not too popular decision in many places.

Ccristian church law

Olav did not only make people accept Christianity, but on advice from Bishop Grimkell he also made ‘Christian law’ the law of the land. All other laws had to be changed to fit the ‘Christian law’. This meant big changes in everyday life of all people and it soon became very unpopular among many, especially the chiefs and earls. The new laws reduced their position in society! They too now had to abide by it!

The next thing Olav did made him even more unpopular. He had learned from what he had heard about Charlemagne that even if local chiefs paid homage to him, and accepted him as their king, when he was gone they would continue ruling their area/region just as before.

Olav had a lot of private estates all over the country. To make the local chiefs abide by all the new laws, along with everyone else, Olav left ‘årlmenn’, men from his ‘hird’ (royal guard), at each of these estates to keep an eye on the local chiefs. This didn’t make him more popular with them.

King Canute the Great, now ruler of Denmark and England, soon turned his eyes towards Norway and wanted to include this country in his empire.

Looking for allies in Norway, Canute started offering gifts and treasure from his enormous ‘treasure chest’ in England, to local chiefs around Norway. He also promised the chiefs they would have their old privileges back if they accepted him as their king. They were only too pleased to accept. Olav tried in vain to prevent what was happening.

When King Canute himself arrived in 1028 with a large fleet, he was accepted as king everywhere, without having to fight a single battle. Olav had to flee from the country and went to Novgorod in Russia, to King Jaroslav, the husband of his wife’s half-sister. He stayed there for two years.

King Canute didn’t stay in Norway for long. He went back to England and left Håkon as earl of Norway, which was now part of his North Sea empire.

In 1029 Earl Håkon died and King Canute sent his mistress, Aelfgifu (Alfiva), and their son, Svein, to govern the country. Olav heard of Håkon’s death and in 1030 he headed for home. On his way through Sweden he was warned that the chiefs had assembled a large army to meet him. Olav didn’t listen to the warnings. He kept on heading for Trondheim. He approached the town with an army consisting of the men who had stayed with him in Novgorod. Most of the rest of his army had joined him in Sweden and many of them were Swedes. On 29th July 1030 the armies met in battle at Stiklestad, east of Trondheim, where Olav’s army was beaten and Olav himself killed.

Shortly after Olav's death, the mood amongst the people changed. Some of King Olav's friends had buried him at a secret place. Rumours about strange lights at night and miracles taking place in the area where he was buried started spreading. His powerful enemies decided they had done wrong killing their king. Even King Svein agreed that Olav must have been a holy man and Bishop Grimkel, who had accompanied Olav from England and been his friend, was asked to go to Trondheim and officially declare Olav Haraldsson a saint. What Olav could not accomplish in life, all now came to be.

Not only Christianity, but also Christian Law was soon accepted by all. The laws of the country gradually came to include the Christian values. For the next 500 years the laws of the country were called St. Olav’s Law. During this time, for many hundreds of years, Olav's shrine was the one most visited by pilgrims in northern Europe.

The 29th July, the day of the Battle at Stiklestad, is even today marked in the calendar as Olsok (Olav’s vigil). For the last 500 years the Church of Norway has been a protestant Church. In spite of this, an Olav’s vigil takes place in many of the protestant churches all over the country.


A cathedral was built in Trondheim which is still the largest of its kind in Scandinavia. Olav’s churches were also built all over northern Europe, forty-nine of which can still be found in Norway alone.

Your contribution!

Is there a Saint Olav’s church or monestary where you live? Perhaps you are going to a St Olav school or college? If there is or you do, please write to us and tell us about your St Olav link. (We will include your letter in our listing of Olav’s churches and institutions.)

- 14. august 2004 -