THERE have been at least eight Church of England churches dedicated to St Olaf, the patron saint of Norway, of which the ones in Hart Street, in the City of London, and in York are the principal survivors. They testify to the posthumous reputation of this bellicose Viking, whose early exploits included destroying London Bridge (possibly inspiring the nursery rhyme “London Bridge is falling down”) and attacking Canterbury.
John Carr’s biography provides a detailed account of the life and times of the early 11th-century Norwegian king, who was canonised shortly after his death. He was just 35, and killed in an unsuccessful battle to save his country’s being taken over by the forces of the Danish King Cnut, who already ruled England. Carr portrays Olaf as a figure similar to Saul as described in the New Testament, who from “breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord” underwent a dramatic conversion, and became a zealous and uncompromising champion for Christianity. Baptised in Rouen Cathedral, Olaf acquired the Norwegian crown in battle, and established himself as a benevolent and just ruler, aided by an English bishop as his right-hand man.
AlamyA 13th-century image of St Olaf in Fresvik Church, Leikanger, in Norway
Olaf effectively turned Norway from a pagan to a Christian country by demanding that his subjects adopt the new religion that he had enthusiastically espoused. His techniques for securing their conversion to Christianity could be crude. Visiting a heathen household for dinner, he took delight in throwing to the family dog a horse’s preserved penis venerated as a symbol of strength and fertility. The husband accepted the new faith at once, but his wife took rather longer to follow suit.
Some of the author’s assertions are debatable, such as the statement that “in the late eighth century most of Britain had been Christian for half a millennium,” but he gives a lively account of the unhappy relationship between the early Christian inhabitants of these islands and their Norse neighbours, noting that, “In the Viking mind-set, the placid Christians of Britain — especially the contemplative, prayerful monks — were losers.”
He also graphically chronicles the miracles associated with Olaf after his death. One involved the restoration to full health of an English priest who had had his eyes gouged out and most of his tongue cut off by two brothers who suspected him of an affair with their sister. Perhaps that’s why those Anglican churches were dedicated in his honour.
The Revd Dr Ian Bradley is Emeritus Professor of Spiritual and Cultural History at the University of St Andrews.
The Viking Saint: Olaf II of Norway
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