History

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OLAV HARALDSSON

Olav Haraldsson was king of Norway from 1016 to 1028. At a young age he went on viking raids to the Baltic Sea, along the North Sea coast and in England. As a Viking, he met kings, dukes, earls and bishops, and he must have learnt how countries were governed. In the same way he became acquainted with Christianity and was baptized in Rouen in Normandy in 1014.

Most Norwegians were probably Christians before the time of Olav Haraldssons. But he acted as a missinoary king in various parts of the country and the Norwegian church organization was established in his time with the help of clergy Olav brought with him from England. He also introduced a Christian law code in 1024.

It appears that Olav Haraldsson was successful as a king for about a decade. He won over the Earls of Lade, who were leaders in Trøndelag, as well as other chiefs. Others submittet to him more or less voluntarily. However,  from the mid-1020s the situation was changed; Cnut the Great of the Danish/English kingdom managed to recruit many of the king’s domestic opponents. This alliance was ultimately too strong, and in 1028 Olav had to flee east to Gardarike, in what is Russia/Ukraine today.

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THE BATTLE OF STIKLESTAD

Early in the year 1030 the king departed from Russia in order to recover his kingdom. The last of the Earls of Lade had drowned the previous autumn and the country was perceived as being without a leader. From the Swedish king Olav received a few followers and headed northwards.
We do not know the reason why the king advanced on Trøndelag and Verdalen, but we know that his opponents assembled a large army there against him. This peasant army is said to have been twice as big as the king’s forces. It was probably mostly men from Trøndelag, and perhaps especially those around the innermost bays of the Trondheimsfjord, in the peasant army. Other chieftains from the western and northern parts of Norway were also present, but it is more doubtful wheter they had brought many people with them.

Why did the peasants gather against the king? We have no definite answer to this. But something emerges from the stories: First of all: Olav brought centralization of power to a new level, something that was bound to cause some disturbance among the Norwegian power elite. Furthermore,  King Olav was known to be brutal agains his enemies, so many had something to avenge. Moreover, King Cnut of Denmark/England had bought the loyalty of the Norwegian princes with money and gold. In addition, the law in Trøndelag had one special stipualtion – if a king, who had practiced violence agains peasant farmes, ever tried to return to the country, all had an obligation to resist him by force of arms.

It is also unclear how the battle evolved and what exactly happened in it. But it seems that the king arrived first and could choose his site. He organised the army on a ridge and thus could attack downhill. The peasant army stood on a plain which is probably the flat ara where Stiklestad Church stands today. The landscape here has been greatly changed due to mudslides in the later Middle Ages.

According to tradition, the king died from three wounds. The first was delivered by a man named Thorstein Knarresmed who struck Olav in the leg with an axe. Next, the king leaned against a stone and threw away his sword. The altar in the Stiklestad church is said to have been build over the place where this tone lay. Then Tore Hund stabbed him with a spear in the stomach and Kalv Arnesson stuck him in the neck with an axe. It is not difficult to understand that there are elements of legendary storytelling in this tale.

Neither do we know how many people took part in the battle. Snorre Sturalsson states in his saga of St Olav that there were 14 400 men in the peasant army. Historians today agree that this figure is too high and that we come nearer to the truth if we drop a zero. The oldest sources suggest that the battle did not last particularly long and that the king fell early in the day, Another thing to be considered is this: Later in the Middle Ages, this was seen as an important battleground, where a king had been killed – and so the batttle grew in the minds of the people. An important batttle often becomes a large battle in the tradition.

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FROM OLAV HARALDSSON TO SAINT OLAV

The sagas say that the king’s body was taken to Trondheim/Nidaros by the peasant Torgils and his son Grim. His body was burided on the river bank not far from where the Nidaros cathedral was later erected. Shortly after the battle, rumours began to be told of miracles and strange signs in the footsteps of the dead king. At the same time the new Danish rule, under Svein and Alfiva, bad quickly become very unpopular. In the course of events, this made the chiefs in Norway call Torgils from Stiklestad and Bishop Grimkjell from the south-eastern part of Norway to Trondheim. Torgils frist had to indicate where he burided the king, and then both the grave and the coffin were opened. The legend says that the king’s hair and nails had grown and it appeared as if he had just fallen asleep. In a subsequent ceremony bishop Grimkjell declared that Olav was a holy man «with the king’s approval and by the judgement of all the people» as Snorre says.

From this time on, we no longer talk about Olav Haraldsson, but about Olav the Holy or simply St. Olav. At this time it was not necessary to have the approval of the Pope to awards such saint status. And since Olav was canonised before the great schism in the church in 1054, he continues to be an important saint also in the Orthodox Church.

Thoroughout the Middle Ages numerous churches were dedicated to St. Olav. We know of about 300 Olav churches in Northern and Western Europe, most of them in Sweden and Iceland. The first Olav church mentioned in medieval sources was erected in York in England as early as 1055, but there might have been and even older one at Orkney. There are numerous medieval depitions of St Olav, as scultures, in paintings, on pilgrim badges and coins across musch of north-western Eriope. There expressions all indicate that the martyr king was the foremost saint in the Nordic countries.

Detailed knowledge of the battle is therefore not so critical, but the tradition that developed from it surely is.