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Viking - 16: Dark Before the Dawn - Misreading His Underlings Costs Olaf Haraldsson His Life

Updated on June 28, 2019

"Unwise is the man who when he sees men smile he thinks they are friends. He is taken aback at how few he can muster at a meeting to back him".


A king meets his end - and becomes a saint

Stiklest'Thorstein 'Knaresmed' struck at King Olaf with his axe and hit his leg above the knee... then Thore 'Hund' struck at him with his spear, and Kalf struck at him on the left side of the neck... These three wounds were the death of King Olaf...
Stiklest'Thorstein 'Knaresmed' struck at King Olaf with his axe and hit his leg above the knee... then Thore 'Hund' struck at him with his spear, and Kalf struck at him on the left side of the neck... These three wounds were the death of King Olaf...

Olaf the Fighting Saint

'I have a son for you my Lord!' the midwife cradled the new-born infant, and handed him to his father.

'You shall be named Olaf, my son!' Harald held the child up for all to see in his long hall.

Cups banged on benches, men yelled loudly, over and over until they were hoarse,

'Olaf! Olaf! Olaf!' Harald's retainers shouted.

The child whimpered and the father took him outside into the still raw spring night,

'Odin see my son, Olaf! One day he will call your name in battle, hear him!' He took the boy indoors again and handed him to the midwife, 'Take care of my son, and see my wife is well after her ordeal!'

With that the king went back to his men to celebrate this new addition to the kinship. In the year 995 Harald Grenske was a minor king in the south-east of the land we now call Norway. More than that, he was an offshoot of the bloodline of Harald 'Fairhair' Halfdanarson, one of the greatest of the northland kings.

We did not have to wait long to see Olaf set out on his adventures as a Viking raider. Aged twelve he was already fighting, selling his sword at the head of an army on behalf of Aethelred II, alternately alongside Thorkell 'Havi', ('the Tall'). One of his predecessors, a namesake Olaf Tryggvason, had fought against Aethelred's kinsman Byrhtnoth on Maldon years before this young Olaf was born, in 991. The West Saxon ealdorman was gullible enough to allow the Vikings onto the causeway at low tide and died regretting his foolishness.

Olaf Haraldsson was of the same mould. He would make sure his name was seen along with the other great Viking heroes. Not long after however, when in Normandy, Olaf accepted baptism from the bishop of Rouen, as Olaf Tryggvason had been. A year later, in 1014, when aiding Aethelred again, three of Olaf's ships were being rowed upriver on the Temese(Thames) when they came on an obstacle. London bridge at that time was of wooden construction, like its Roman predessor, and it was held by the Danes under Knut 'the Great'. Southwark and the city were both in Danish hands, and to break their hold Olaf formed a plan.

'Cowards!' the Danes yelled abuse at the crews of Olaf's three ships as they rowed back downriver. However, they put ashore at Rotherhithe and set about removing the thatched rooves of three of the hamlet's dwellings and erecting them amidships over the mast partner to shelter the rowers. Task complete, the crews rowed hard against the flow of the river, back to the bridge.

'Come, why hide under your thatch? Come and fight like men!' the Danes invited Olaf's men onto the bridge, to take them on.

Olaf had other ideas. Whilst arrows rained on them, his men secured grappling irons to the bridge piers. On making sure the cables were tied fast to the hooks, he shouted for his oarsmen to row downriver again.

'Had enough already, have you? Well give our regards to Hel when you see her. Odin will not want you in his hall!' the Danes taunted Olaf's men as they drew away. The bridge shook violently, decking timbers dropping into the swirling waters below, men with them. Olaf's men stood at their benches and cheered.

'Who of you is ready for a fight now?!' Olaf mocked as his men returned to the oars and pulled for Rotherhithe once more. Aethelred had his city once more, but not for long. However by the time Knut was crowned king - after the mysterious death of Eadmund 'Irondside' - Olaf was in Norway once more.

As the Danes were deeply involved in the conquest of England, Olaf took advantage of their absence on the ground. He roundly defeated the pro-Danish Jarl Svein Hakonsson at Nesjar on Oslo Fjord, and was acknowledged king throughout most of Norway by the winter of 1016, in the year Knut took the kingship of England. Olaf re-took the lands lost to the Svear (Swedes) after Olaf Tryggvason's defeat at Svold in 1000.

Moreover, he set about the conversion of Norway to Christianity. Although Olaf Tryggvason had already set the process in hand around the coastal lands, inland the population was largely still heathen. However, Olaf Haraldsson's way of converting his new subjects was questionable. The evangelisation was brutish but that seemed to work. Those who took Christianity were favoured with royal patronage. Those who resisted might be maimed, blinded or even killed. In 1024, with Bishop Grimkell Olaf began the ecclesiastical reforms in proclaiming the Moster Law on Christian observance. He was also remembered for secular regional law reforms, but there was already disquiet in the kingdom due to his bloodthirsty methods of securing his place as a king of a Christian state.

Growing threat of invasion by Knut led Olaf to agree a treaty with his neighbour, the Svear king Olof Skotkonung in 1019, and married Olof's illegitimate daughter Astrid. Seven year later Olaf attacked the Danish territory of Skaane (now South-western Sweden) with Anund Jakob, Olof Skotkonung's successor. Together they defeated Knut's force at Helgeaa (Holy River), but dark days threatened despite his successes. His forced conversion of Norway had brought about a growing hatred among his senior chieftains. Drawn by the idea of indirect rule from Denmark they sided with Knut and Jarl Hakon Eiriksson of Hladir (Lade), forcing Olaf out of Norway in 1028. Having spent a year in exile in Holmgard (Novgorod, Russia), he was pleased to hear of Hakon's death by drowning and set off for home, recruiting men in Sweden on the way. Desperate to take the throne again he attacked the Trondelag, aided by his half-brother Harald Sigurdsson [more on him elsewhere], but was beaten and killed at Stiklestad on 29th July, 1030 (see the last text entry for details, below the picture showing Olaf's death).

He was buried secretly in Thrandheim (Trondheim) by a few loyal supporters. Miracles at his grave site were spoken of, and a year after he died he was declared a saint by Bishop Grimkell. The cult grew, helped by growing dissent at Danish rule under the regentship of Svein Knutsson, and a spate of poor harvests was seen as God's anger with them for having sided with Knut in the first place. By the 12th Century Olaf's standing earned him the label of having been a 'just king' - short memories! - and the architect of the Christian Norwegian state.

Seagull's eye view of a Viking ship under sail - could be in a fjord, with the water being relatively calm
Seagull's eye view of a Viking ship under sail - could be in a fjord, with the water being relatively calm | Source
Ships moored in a haven - a familiar sight to Olaf, who spent much of his earlier life  aboard ship around the Baltic and British Isles before taking the kingship of Norway
Ships moored in a haven - a familiar sight to Olaf, who spent much of his earlier life aboard ship around the Baltic and British Isles before taking the kingship of Norway
See description below
See description below | Source

Snorri Sturlusson's major work, Heimskringla follows the stories of Norse kings. This is the saga reader's saga that will take you from the earliest claimant to a crown over Norway to Harald Sigurdsson, half-brother of Olaf Haraldsson (Harald was a favoured name with Norsemen and Danes)

Stiklestad, where Olaf met his end and the hands of his angered subjects (who were aided by danish king Knut 'the Great' Sveinsson) and a new episode began in Norway's history, AD 1030, verified by Icelandic scribe Snorri Sturlusson, who wrote of that fateful day:

"Thorstein 'Knaresmed' struck at King Olaf with his axe and hit his leg above the knee... then Thore 'Hund' struck at him with his spear, and Kalf struck at him on the left side of his neck... These three wounds were the death of King Olaf, and after his death the greater part of his forces which had advanced with him fell around and beside him".

With Olaf on that fateful day was his nephew Harald Sigurdsson, who was pulled wounded from Olaf's side and spirited away from the battlefield. He was taken first to the kingdom of the Svear to recover from his wounds, and then on to Holmgard - Novgorod - to the court of Prince Jaroslav 'the Wise', out of Knut's reach. He would then pass on through Koenungagard - Kiev - to Miklagard - Constantinople - where he offered his services to the Empreror, to enlist in the Varangian Guard. On his return to his homeland his nephew Magnus was on the throne You can read his story in VIKING - 10: Harald 'the Hard Ruler'.

© 2011 Alan R Lancaster


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