Olav, Norway’s Arthur – Trondheim’s St Olav Festival

He’s ‘Norway’s Eternal King’, the Rex Perpertuus Norvegiae – and he reminds me a little of King Arthur, our own Rex Quondam, Rexque Futurus, ‘Once and Future King’ (why do these mystical titles always have to be in Latin?). But Norway’s Saint Olav has a rather more robust historical existence – and under Norway’s 1163 Succession Law he is in fact still King of Norway, with all monarchs since his time holding the throne as vassals. Every year, his life is celebrated in Norway and further afield – the Faroes throw a huge party for him, and he’s still revered in Rouen, in Normandy.

All of which is perhaps surprising given that he was a divisive and (to many) unpopular king, who was killed fighting an army of his own subjects, led by local chieftains and farmers who had risen up against him. ‘It’s a bit like England going mad for Saint Richard III’ said the perceptive friend I travelled to Norway with.

I’m interested in Olav because he was a viking, in addition to being a king, martyr and saint – and in that order. In his youth, Olav raided and pillaged with the best of them. In 1009 he harried England in the company of notorious viking mercenary Thorkell the Tall. Then he sailed to Normandy and entered the service of Duke Richard II, where he was paid to menace Bishop Odo of Chartres. It wasn’t a likely pedigree for a future saint, but in Rouen, as he prepared to travel onward to Jerusalem, Olav had a dream telling him instead to return home to Norway, whose king he would be forever. He converted to Christianity and was baptised, and sailed home to Norway in the company of 220 crack troops and four bishops.

He was swiftly acknowledged by lords in southern Norway, who were convinced he possessed the all-important quality of hamingja, personal favour and fortune. But in the north his claims were resented, and he never won the support of chieftains north of Trondheim. Nonetheless, following victory at the battle of Nesjar in 1016, Olav proclaimed himself King of Norway, and set about expunging the influence of Denmark and Sweden, both of which also claimed to rule Norway. (In fact, in the same year that Olav won Norway, one of the greatest monarchs of the day, Cnut the Great, was being proclaimed King of England, and insisting that not only was he ‘King of all Anglia’ but also ‘of Denmark, Norway and part of Sweden.’)

I’ve just got back from Trondheim, where all this week, celebrations of Olav’s life – the Olavsfestdagene – are in full swing. It’s a nonstop programme of concerts, drama, art and storytelling, complete with the obligatory historical market. I was there mainly for the religious events over the weekend – the blessing of pilgrims, the singing of Lauds to mark the end of the wake for St Olav (more on his death in the next post), and the high mass on the saints day itself. A wreath is placed on the saint’s statue on the spectacular facade of Nidaros Cathedral. It was a remarkable feeling to be part of celebrations that have been held ever since Olav died – in the cathedral Chapter House Museum is a medieval runic inscription recording how ‘Jon and Ivar held St Olav’s wake’.

And oh yes, I also enjoyed the handsome chap on a horse who was trotting round town in the guise of Olav. Why can’t we have a similar event celebrating Arthur?

The most spectacular Olav event isn’t in Trondheim, though, but 100 km north in Verdal, where Olav fell at the Battle of Stiklestad. More on that in my next post. Read more travel fun

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