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Biography of Olaf, II

Name: Olaf, II
Bith Date: c. 990
Death Date: 1030
Place of Birth: Norway
Nationality: Norwegian
Gender: Male
Occupations: king
Olaf, II

Olaf II Haroldsson (ca. 990-1030), also called St. Olaf, was king of Norway from 1015 to 1028. The first king of the whole of Norway, he organized its final conversion and its integration into Christian Europe.

Olaf was a son of Harold Graenske, a magnate, or kinglet, in eastern Norway and presumably related to Harold I Fairhair, the first king of Norway. From an early age he partook in Viking expeditions to the Baltic, to England (1009-1011), and to the north of France (1012), where he was baptized at Rouen, having been converted either in England or in France. He returned to England, supporting Ethelred against Cnut the Great (1014), and was back in Norway in 1015.

Western Norway was ruled by the two Lade jarls. This was the inheritance of King Harold Fairhair. Eastern Norway was ruled by a number of kinglets. After the death of King Olaf Trygvasson in the battle of Svolder (1000), both the jarls and the kinglets seem to have been in some sort of dependence upon the Danish king.

Olaf established himself immediately in eastern Norway as a sort of king of kings, and the next year he defeated the jarls at Nesjar. He then sailed north along the coast and was elected king by the yeomen. Olaf was thus the first king to rule over the whole country, both east and west. During the next years he traveled throughout the country, making this new institution, the national monarchy, physically evident to the chieftains, magnates, and people. He defended the peace, upheld the law, and forcefully converted to the Christian faith those areas that still lived by the old gods.

The general and official introduction of Christianity necessitated a thorough revision of Norwegian law and the addition of new church codes (kristenretten) by the yeomen in cooperation with the King and his bishop. Olaf embarked on a national program of church building, establishing and endowing one church in each county (herred). Although many of the early missionaries to Norway had come from England, Olaf turned to Germany when he needed more missionaries, and the Norwegian Church was organized as part of the North German church province of Hamburg-Bremen.

King Olaf's efforts to build a Norwegian Church were no doubt of importance in his work of uniting the Norwegian kingdom. This unification raised the most violent opposition. Olaf wanted to destroy the power of the kinglets, chieftains, and Viking warlords. He was determined to be the sole defender of the law with the right to tax all. His power rested on some regional support, the landed property of the Crown, and his housecarls. The King's wealth derived in a large measure from the alienated property of destroyed magnates. The opposition to him was strongest in the areas controlled by the Lade family-the Trondelag and the North. Cnut the Great of Denmark was their ally, and Olaf led an expedition against Denmark (1026) which was thoroughly defeated.

On Olaf's return to Norway his position became increasingly difficult as large sections of the nation turned against him. He fled the country without battle in 1028, first to Sweden and then to Russia. He returned in 1030 and was defeated by the Lade faction and Trondelag yeomen at the battle of Stiklestad, where Olaf died. The fruits of this victory were Cnut the Great's. He sent his son Svein to rule Norway, together with the boy's mother, Aegifu. It was not a happy choice. Their rule came to be regarded as foreign oppression. Harvests were bad. In 1035 Svein fled in the face of the unresisted advance of Magnus, the son of Olaf.

The dead king was firmly established as the national saint-Rex perpetuus Norwegiae, "eternal king of Norway," an extraordinarily powerful symbol for the new monarchy and the new Church which he in many ways had founded. The power of Olaf was evident months after his death, and even his enemies, the group around Svein, seem to have considered him the special guardian of the Norwegian monarchy. Olaf was the most popular of the medieval northern saints. His feast became one of the great turning points of the year; his tomb in the Trondheim Cathedral was the object of countless long pilgrimages; and Norway's traditional law came to be known as the law of St. Olaf.

Further Reading

  • A modern abridged English-language edition of the sagas, including the saga of St. Olaf, is From the Sagas of the Norse Kings by Snorri Sturluson (1967), utilizing the translation of Erling Monsen. For Olaf's place in Norwegian history see Halvdan Koht and Sigmund Skard, The Voice of Norway (1944); Wilhelm Keilhau, Norway in World History (1944); Karen Larsen, A History of Norway (1948); and T.K. Derry, A Short History of Norway (1957; 2d ed. 1968).

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