Olaf II of Norway

Olaf II Haraldsson (995July 29, 1030), king from 10151028, (known during his lifetime as the Stout and after his canonization as Saint Olaf), was born in the year in which Olaf Tryggvasson came to Norway. His father was Harald Grenske, great-grandchild of Harald I Fairhair.

Concerning the king's name

King Olaf II Haraldsson of Norway had the given name Oláfr in Old Norse. Olav is the modern equivalent in Norwegian, formerly often spelled Olaf. His name in Icelandic is Ólafur, in Danish Oluf, in Swedish Olof. Other names, such as Oláfr hinn helgi, Olavus rex, and Olaf (as used in English) are used interchangeably. He is sometimes referred to as Rex Perpetuum Norvegiæ, eternal King of Norway, a designation which goes back to the thirteenth century.


After some years' absence in England, fighting the Danes, he returned to Norway in 1015 and declared himself king, obtaining the support of the five petty kings of the Uplands. In 1016 he defeated Earl Sweyn, hitherto the virtual ruler of Norway, at the Battle of Nesjar, and within a few years had won more power than had been enjoyed by any of his predecessors on the throne.

Norway during the reign of St. Olaf (1015–1028) showing areas under the control of hereditary chieftains (petty kingdoms).
Norway during the reign of St. Olaf (10151028) showing areas under the control of hereditary chieftains (petty kingdoms).

He had annihilated the petty kings of the South, had crushed the aristocracy, enforced the acceptance of Christianity throughout the kingdom, asserted his suzerainty in the Orkney Islands, had achieved peace with king Olof Skötkonung of Sweden through Þorgnýr the Lawspeaker, and was for some time engaged to his daughter, the princess of Sweden, Ingegerd Olofsdotter without his approval, and had conducted a successful raid on Denmark.

But his success was short-lived, for in 1026, he lost the Battle of the Helgeå and in 1029 the Norwegian nobles, seething with discontent, rallied round the invading Knut the Great, and Olaf had to flee to Kievan Rus. During the voyage he stayed some time in Sweden in the province of Nerike where, according to local legend, he baptized many locals. On his return a year later, seizing an opportunity to win back the kingdom after Knut the Great's vassal Håkon Jarl was lost at sea, he fell at the Battle of Stiklestad, where his own subjects were arrayed against him.


Owing to Olaf's later status as the patron saint of Norway, and to his importance in later medieval historiography and in Norwegian folklore, it is difficult to assess the character of the historical Olaf. Judging from the bare outlines of known historical facts, he appears, more than anything else, as a fairly unsuccessful ruler, who had his power based on some sort of alliance with the much more powerful king Knut the Great; who was driven into exile when he claimed a power of his own; and whose attempt at a reconquest was swiftly crushed.

This calls for an explanation of the status he gained after his death. Three factors are important: his role in the christianization of Norway, the various dynastic relationships among the ruling families, and the needs for legitimization in a later period.

Illustration in wrought-iron of Olav's life on the door of a Stave church in Hardemo, Nerike, where Olav baptized locals during his escape
Illustration in wrought-iron of Olav's life on the door of a Stave church in Hardemo, Nerike, where Olav baptized locals during his escape


Olaf is generally held to be the driving force behind Norway's final conversion to Christianity. This is an exaggeration. Large stone crosses and other Christian symbols suggest that at least the coastal areas of Norway were deeply influenced by Christianity long before Olav's time; with one exception, all the rulers of Norway back to Håkon the Good (c. 920961) had been Christians; and Olav's main opponent, Knut the Great, was a Christian ruler. What seems clear is that Olav made efforts to establish a church organization on a broader scale than before, among other things by importing bishops from England and Germany, and that he tried to enforce Christianity also in the inland areas, which had the least communication with the rest of Europe, and which economically were more strongly based on agriculture, so that the inclination to hold on to the former fertility cult would have been stronger than in the more diversified and expansive western parts of the country.

Olaf's dynasty

For various reasons, most importantly the death of king Knut the Great in 1035, but perhaps even a certain discontent among Norwegian nobles with the Danish rule in the years after Olaf's death in 1030, Olaf's son Magnus the Good, assumed power in Norway, eventually also in Denmark. Numerous churches in Denmark were dedicated to Olaf during his reign, and the sagas give glimpses of similar efforts to promote the cult of his deceased father on the part of the young king.

Saint Olaf

Among the bishops that Olaf brought with him from England, was Grimkell (Grimkillus). He was probably the only one of the missionary bishops who was left in the country at the time of Olaf's death, and he stood behind the translation and beatification of Olaf on August 3, 1031.

At this time, a formal canonization procedure through the papal curia was not customary; in Olaf's case, this did not happen until 1888.

Grimkell was later appointed bishop in the diocese of Selsey in the south-east of England. This is probably the reason why the earliest traces of a liturgical cult of St Olaf are found in England. An office for St Olaf is found in the so-called Leofric collectar (c. 1050), which was testamented by bishop Leofric of Exeter to the church of Exeter, the neighbouring diocese of Selsey. This English cult seems to have been short-lived.

Adam of Bremen, writing around 1070, mentions pilgrimage to the saint's shrine in Nidaros, but this is the only firm trace we have of a cult of St Olaf in Norway before the middle of the twelfth century. By this time he was also being referred to as "The Eternal King of Norway". In 1152/3, Nidaros was separated from Lund as an archbishopric of its own. It is likely that whatever formal or informal – which, we do not know – veneration of Olav as a saint there may have been in Nidaros prior to this, has been emphasised and formalized on this occasion.

During the visit of the papal legate, Nicholas Brekespear (later pope Pope Adrian IV), the poem Geisli ("the ray of sun") was recited. In this poem, we hear for the first time of miracles performed by St Olaf. One of these took place on the day of his death, when a blind man got his eye-sight back again after having rubbed his eyes with hands that were stained with the blood from the saint.

The texts which were used for the liturgical celebration of St Olaf during most of the Middle Ages, were probably compiled or written by Eystein Erlendsson, the second archbishop of Norway (11611189). The nine miracles reported in Geisli form the core of the catalogue of miracles in this office.

The celebration of St Olaf was widespread in the Nordic countries. Apart from the early traces of a cult in England, there are only scattered references to him outside of the Nordic area. Several churches in England were dedicated to him (often as St Olave). St Olave Hart Street in the City of London is the burial place of Samuel Pepys and his wife. Another south of London Bridge gave its name to Tooley Street and to the St Olave's Poor Law Union, later to become the Metropolitan Borough of Bermondsey: its workhouse in Rotherhithe became the St Olave's Hospital, now an old-people's home a few hundred metres from St Olaf's Church, which is the Norwegian church in London.

St Olav's Church is the tallest church in Tallinn, Estonia and between 1549 and 1625 was the tallest building in the world.

The Royal Norwegian Order of St. Olav was founded in 1847 by Oscar I, king of Norway, in memory of this king.

The only country which keeps July 29th as a holiday are the Faroe Islands.

Preceded by:
Svein Forkbeard
Sveinn Hákonarson
Hákon Eiríksson
King of Norway
Succeeded by:
Knut the Great
Hákon Eiríksson


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