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St. Olaf, King and Martyr

St. Olaf, Patron Saint of Norwayolaf-statue

Olaf Haraldsson (c. 995 – 1030) was born in Ringerike, Norway, the son of Harald Grenske, a Viking lord who died while Olaf was still a young boy. As a young man, Olaf became a Viking warrior and quickly distinguished himself as a leader and strategist, succeeding his father as head of one of a number of extended families who ruled areas of Norway also divided among the Danes and Swedes. It was during a trip to Normandy that Olaf experienced the vibrant life of French Christianity and, exchanging Viking lore for the Christian faith, he was baptized at Rouen. Inspired to unite Norway under Christ, Olaf returned to his native land and won recognition as King of a united Norway over a period of years (1015-1030).

The Christianization of Norway was aided by the synod of Moster which established a legal framework for governance, known as King Olaf’s law, which looked to Christ as the standard for action and law. In 1028, however, King Olaf fled to Russia in exile due to an invasion of Norway by King Canute of Denmark. While in exile, where he led an ascetical life marked by prayer and fasting, Olaf had a vision to return to Norway so as to allow God to determine his fate.

And so it was that in 1030 King Olaf returned to Norway in pursuit of God’s will. At Stiklestad near Trondheim, Olaf and his outnumbered forces were opposed by Danish and rebel Norwegian troops, forces against whom they fought valiantly until the king fell to the blow of a rebel’s axe (symbol of his martyrdom and part of Norway’s royal coat of arms). Olaf was subsequently buried in a steep bank by the River Nid, from which soon thereafter a spring flowed forth; the water was accredited with miraculous healing power. The following year, the bishop of Nidaros (Trondheim) declared Olaf worthy of the veneration due a martyr and ordered a chapel built on the spot of Olaf’s grave. In 1075 the chapel was replaced by a larger church, which became the Metropolitan Cathedral of Nidaros and Olaf’s remains, still intact, were interred under the altar. A century later, in 1164, St. Olaf received pontifical recognition and soon his grave became a popular destination for European pilgrims. It is thus for his faith, his ascetical life, and his heroic death that we honor St. Olaf, the perpetual King of Norway and servant of Christ.