Today is the feast day of Saint Olav. Ora pro nobis.
Saint Olav was born Olaf Haraldsson in 995. Royalty was in the blood of the future saint. His father was King Harold Grenske of Norway, and Olaf was to follow in his footsteps. Referred to as “Olaf the Fat,” he spent his youth as a Norse raider until approximately age 15. According to Snorre, he was baptized in 998 in Norway, but more probably about 1010 in Rouen, France, by Archbishop Robert.
At 18, Olaf traveled to England and offered his services to the king, fighting against the invading Danes. One of the greatest impressions made on young Olav came from hearing the story of Charlemagne. This mighty king of the Franks who had lived some two hundred years before Olav’s time, had united much of Europe, established peace and law, and brought the people into the Faith. That he accomplished these things by the sword made him even more appealing to a Norseman. Olav resolved to do for Norway what Charlemagne had done for the pagan tribesmen of Europe. And he resolved to use the same methods.
Following his father’s death, and his ascension to the throne, Olaf traveled home to Norway, and fought tirelessly to free his lands and people from the Danes and Swedes. Succeeding, he immediately requested that Christian missionaries from England be sent to Norway, and the faith began spreading across the land.
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 Cnut of Denmark and England for help. This was willingly given, whereupon Olaf was expelled and Cnut elected King of Norway. 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 the Norwegians of our days as the great champion of national independence.
Most memorable among his accomplishments as King was the development of what came to be known as Saint Olaf’s Law. Ahead of its time, Olaf’s Law prescribed prayer to Christ for peace, required newborn babies to be allowed to live and not abandoned in fields or forests, slaves were to be ransomed each year, polygamy was forbidden, and severe penalties were exacted for rape and the kidnapping of women. Olaf himself traveled the length of Norway promoting his new Christian Law, and he insisted that it be applied equally upon both rich and poor.
After much soul searching, Olav decided that he and his men would go back to Norway, a land once more in chaos. They would fight. As the king saw it, they would do God’s will and take the consequences. There was at least some element of the old Viking idea of fate mixed in with this – the conviction that men’s efforts availed but little against the web woven for them before they were born – but it was not so hard to translate that fate into Christian terms. His followers were content with this. As they sailed home, more of the king’s friends joined them. Word came that the great clans of Norway had also massed a great army – a much greater army. And still, Olav and his men continued to advance.
The celebrated battle took place 29 July, 1030. Neither King Cnut 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”. 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 Trondhjem).
He was canonized the patron saint of Norway in 1164. What the sword couldn’t do even in “good faith, ”the Spirit did. The arms of Norway are a lion with the battle-axe of St. Olaf in the forepaws.
Image: Tore Hund, at right, spears Olaf at the battle of Stiklestad, Artist: Peter Nicolai Arbo, circa 1859. (5)