Today, 29 Jul 2012, is the feast day of St Olaf of Norway (a.k.a. Olaf II Haraldsson, Olav, Olafr) who is venerated as Norway’s perpetual King (Rex Perpetuus Norvegiae) and who rules Norway from 1015 to 1028. He was a Viking warrior who, once converted to Jesus, did all he could to unite his whole country under the banner of Christ’s Cross, although at times he used violent means of persuasion.
Olaf, the son of Earl Harald Grenske of Norway and Asta Gudbrandsdatter, was born around 990-995 into a strong Viking community. As soon as he was old enough Olaf took command of a Viking longboat and began to raid and trade along the coastlines of northern Europe. This was a normal progression of life for Viking men.
With his boat and crew Olaf explored much of the known world, and between trading and raiding managed to get in some warlike skirmish adventures as well. After plying the Baltic Sea for a few years, Olaf met a Danish chieftain who invited him to go on a raid of south-east England. Up for a challenge, Olaf and his men spent three successful raiding seasons in England until King Aethelred persuaded them with a handsome amount of incentive to strike England off their list of places to raid. From there is seems Olaf played mercenary warrior at the service of the Duke of Normandy. He then set off to explore the Mediterranean Sea, and had was well down the west coast of Spain when he was given a prophetic dream. In the dream a most powerful personage advised him to return to Norway and if he did, he would be ruler of Norway for all time.
To get back to Norway, Olaf wintered at Normandy where his smouldering interest in Christianity intensified and he requested and received baptism in late 1013, early 1014. Impressed with Norman culture, Olaf soaked up all he could about the leadership of kingdoms and churches. Particularly he was impressed with what he learned about Charlemagne. Now he carefully planned his return to Norway. Not only did he want loyal and able fighting men to return with him, but he wanted bishops, priests and religious to come and spread the Good News about the salvation offered by Jesus Christ to all of those in his homeland.
Despite all that had happened thus far in his life, Olaf was still in his early twenties when he finally returned to Norway. With this energy and the support of his family’s community, Olaf undertook to unite all of the communities and petty kingdoms under his rule. It was a big undertaking, but he was a season warrior leading seasoned warriors, and battle by battle and agreement by agreement, and obviously with some heavenly aid, over a few years all of the regions of Norway came under his rule.
Christianity already had some footholds in coastal settlements, but the inland regions of Noway had never heard the Gospel and still clung to pagan practices. Dismantling the pagan festivals and pagan holy sites was deeply unpopular, but necessary for faith in Jesus to take hold and to remain firm. It is easy for us living in a different culture and time to criticise the forceful ways Olaf used to bring his people to Christ, but in all likelihood among such a warlike people no other method may have had success.
Olaf also used the authority granted to him to make the laws of the land conform to the Gospel, and in harmony with the 10 Commandments. Adjusting to these new laws was not easy, eg not stealing, not murdering, not committing adultery, for a people used to pillage, plunder, rape and other violent ways of gettingrich at other people’s expense. In particular the earls and chieftains were against the new laws because they eroded their power base. If you couldn’t extort and threaten death to someone who didn’t agree with you, a power base quickly dwindled.
Another move which enraged the nobles, but which showed how serious Olaf was about bringing Christian rule to his people, was his decision to keep members of the royal guard at royal estates throughout the kingdom as enforcers of the law and as Olaf’s eyes and ears. Grumblings about Olaf reached the ears of King Canute of Denmark, who decided to take this opportunity to extend his empire. Norwegian nobles were only too willing to accept the largesse of King Canute in return for helping unseat Olaf. To save his life, Olaf was forced to leave Norway in 1028 and take shelter in Russia.
King Canute appointed Earl Hakon as overseer of Norway in his stead, and then went back to Denmark. When the Earl died two years later, Olaf formed an army to take back his kingdom. At the battle of Stiklestad, near Trondheim, Olaf was killed and his army beaten. Secretly his body was buried. However, the Lord Jesus hadn’t finished fighting. So pleasing was Olaf to Him, that He caused stranged lights and miracles to occur near Olaf’s remains. When people investigated and Olaf’s body was unearthed it was found to be incorrupt. Soon after Olaf was acclaimed by the local archbishop as a Saint, and Rome ratified this in 1164.
What Olaf hadn’t been able to do during his lifetime, the Lord Jesus accomplished through his holy remains. The more the holiness of Olaf was acknowledged, the more the nation was converted and the easier the people accepted his Christian laws for the land. St Olaf’s grave became a major place of pilgrimage for the people of northern Europe, and remained so until the Protestant reformation reached Norway. Despite that St Olaf is still held in high veneration by the Norwegian people, and the axe of St Olaf features as part of the coat of arms of the nation.
It took bravery, commitment and perseverance to bring the Norwegian peoples to Christ, and St Olaf undertook the task to the fullest of his ability. How much easier it would have been for him to govern like a pagan tyrant, but he chose the narrow path that leads to life and won an eternal kingdom in heaven. He truly cared about the salvation of his subjects, and wisely used his resources to aid their conversion. May St Olaf win for us the grace to seek the conversion of others to Jesus our Lord.
A good source for more detail on St Olaf’s life can be found at http://viking.no/e/people/st.olav/index.html .
St Olaf of Norway, pray for us.