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King of the Northmen

  • ANTHONY ESOLEN

"What is your name, young man?" said the archbishop.


olaf22"Sir, I am Olaf, son of Harald," said the boy.  "Harald the king."

"Olaf the son of Trygve was a great friend of the Christian faith.  Will you be like the man whose name you bear?"

"I wish to learn," said the boy.

"Do you see this heap of burnt beams and stone?"  They were walking near a church, newly built, but ruins lay nearby.  "It once was a great cathedral.  Our people destroyed it."

"I don't understand," said the boy.  "Why would they destroy their own church?"

"I mean our people," said Robert, Archbishop of Rouen.  "Men of the north.  Have you been on many raids, Olaf Haraldsson?"

The boy furrowed his brow.  "Of course," he cried.  "I love to fight!"

"Do you wish to put on the full armor of God?"  The archbishop stopped and gestured toward the great port city.  "What kind of life is it, your raiding, your putting seacoast towns to the torch, when you go back to Norway and spend your time with goats and pigs and endless feuds with other raiders and sons of raiders?  What is it for?"

"I don't know," said the boy.

"Look at me," said Robert.  "We Normans are of your blood.  It is time you joined us in the Christian faith, the true faith.  It is time for more than raids and feuds.  You are the son of a king.  What is it to be a king?"

Olaf would try to solve that riddle for the rest of his life.  But in 1010, at the age of fifteen, he was baptized in Normandy.  So began his remarkable career of fighting for a unified and free nation, Norway, and for the faith he accepted in Rouen.

Sorting out the nations

"Sire," said the young man, "I can take down those armies, if you wish."

The English king shook his head.  His name was Ethelred, and he would be called "the Unready," not because he wasn't prepared, but because he was sometimes given bad advice.  So he hesitated.

"Young man, the Danes hold the bridge.  You can't get near them.  They drop great stones from that height.  They have crushed several of our ships.  We must storm them from the land."  A disastrous proposition, but Ethelred could think of nothing else.  That, or surrender.

The River Thames flowed on in its power past the city of London.

The River Thames flowed on in its power past the city of London.

"Let the responsibility be mine, and the loss be ours," said the lad, turning to his fair-haired countrymen.  He bore a grudge against the Danes for having murdered his father.  He craved action, too, and had been on many a Viking raid along the coasts of the North Sea and the Baltic Sea.

"Go then, and God be with you."

"Which god?" asked the lad.  The men he fought beside did not all agree.

Ethelred shook his head.  "There is only one."

"I know it," said the boy.  So the lad Olaf instructed his fellows from Norway what to do.  They would not hurl spears or shoot arrows at the Danes.  That would be suicide.  Instead they rowed in their several ships up toward the bridge.  Each ship was covered by a "roof" of planks bound up with hazel branches and supported by pillars underneath, so that the boulders would rebound from them without harm.

When they were under the bridge, Olaf had them loop iron cables around each of the great piers.

That done, he cried, "Row, my men! Row!" And the river's current and the men's strong arms wrenched the piles from their beds, and what with all the soldiers and their boulders atop, the bridge gave way — London Bridge, falling down, as it is remembered in the nursery rhyme.  The Danes drowned in the Thames or fled, and the English rebels gave way and acknowledged Ethelred as their king.  So continued the historical movement that would leave Danes in charge in Denmark, and the Normans and English in charge of England.

One of the Norse poets sang out, "Odin makes our Olaf win!" But Olaf did not believe in Odin.

The lawgiver

"It was the king's custom," says the author of the saga of Olaf, "to rise betimes in the morning, put on his clothes, wash his hands, and then go to the church and hear the matins and morning Mass.  Thereafter he went to the Thing-meeting, to bring people to agreement with each other, or to talk of one or the other matter that appeared to him necessary."  The Thing was what the people of the north called assemblies for the common good, the redress of grievances, and the settling of disputes.  Olaf, crowned king in 1015 at the age of twenty, sought out all the "things" up and down the coast of Norway, to bring together the petty princes and landholders, and to see that one law would prevail in a united nation.  Says another poet:

The king, who at the helm guides 
His warlike ship through clashing tides,
Now gives one law for all the land —
A heavenly law, which long will stand.

It was light, breaking into darkness.  Let's not be too romantic about the Viking culture.  The great novelist of Norway, Sigrid Undset, tells what might have happened during a time of plague, when some of the Norse in ­desperation slid back into their pagan practices: the ritual sacrifice of a small boy, to placate the dark gods beneath the earth.  The Vikings were skilled sailors, brave and ferocious in battle, more admirable in defeat than in victory, for they believed that a man should rather die on the field after his chief had fallen than flee and save his life.  They had much going for them, but they did not have the truth.

And we must not confine these Northmen to Scandinavia.  They swarmed over all the seas, raiding ports from Sicily and Russia to Ireland and Iceland.  They traveled overland and sailed down the great Russian rivers to Constantinople.  Waves of German pagans and heretics had once toppled Roman rule in the west, to usher in several centuries of cultural decline.  This last wave of German pagans acted as a brake against a Europe ready to burst out into one of the greatest cultural flowerings in the history of the world.  The last pier of the old bridge would fall and a new bridge would be built up in its place: the Vikings would accept the Christian faith.  King Olaf was a central figure at the change.

Let one story suffice as an example.  The farther north you went in Norway and the farther up the mountains, the more likely were the people to cling to their old gods.  So Olaf went with his bishop to a place called Gudbrandsdal, governed by a man named Gudbrand, who had many warriors loyal to him.  In a skirmish along the way, Olaf captured Gudbrand's son, but spared him and sent him home to his father, telling him that he would be coming soon to bring the law and the true faith.  Gudbrand scoffed, but that night he dreamed of a man surrounded with light, who warned him that if he rose against King Olaf, he would get no glory of it, and his flesh would be meat for the ravens.

When Olaf arrived at Gudbrandsdal, the people looked askance.  They were set in their ways.  Said Gudbrand to Olaf, "We don't know anything about this God of yours whom we cannot see.  But we can see our god, and you will see him too, mighty and terrible.  But if your God is so great, let him make it a cloudy day tomorrow, without rain, so that we may meet again."

Olaf kept watch all night in prayer.  The next day the weather was cloudy, without rain.  Then one of Gudbrand's men challenged Olaf to ask God to make it clear and sunny the next day, so that they might fight, or be converted.  Again Olaf kept watch and prayed.

The next day the people brought out their god, the hammer-throwing Thor, a huge hollow statue inlaid with silver and gold.  "Where is your God, Olaf?" they taunted.

Olaf turned toward Kolbein, one of his men, armed with a big war-club.  "When they look away from their idol, strike," he said.  Then Olaf said to the people, "Your god is blind and deaf, and cannot even move unless somebody carries him.  But our God is advancing in great light.  Do you not see him?"  He motioned toward the rising sun.  The people turned to the east.

Then Kolbein struck.  The idol was shattered, and from its hollow innards came forth mice and snakes.  Gudbrand's people fled in terror.  But Gudbrand, he was a practical man.  "This idol cannot help us," he said.  "We will accept your God."  So did the rest of the people of that valley.  Olaf left them some teachers of the faith, and Gudbrand himself built their church.

Exile and death

Olaf's measures were often severe, and powerful rivals, joining with his perennial enemy Canute of Denmark, drove him into exile in Russia.  Olaf returned, and was slain at the battle of Siklestad in 1031.  He was only thirty-six years old.

In a relatively short time, though, he had accomplished much, and the Norse people revered him as a patriot and a Christian king.  Soon pilgrims came to visit his tomb in Trondheim, where many miracles were attributed to his intercession.  He was canonized Saint Olaf in 1164.

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Acknowledgement

Magnificat Anthony Esolen. "How the Church Has Changed the World: King of the Northmen." Magnificat (July, 2020).

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The Author

esolen54smesolen7Anthony Esolen is a professor and writer in residence at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts, in Warner, New Hampshire. He is the author of many books including: Life Under Compulsion: Ten Ways to Destroy the Humanity of Your Child, The Beauty of the Word: A Running Commentary on the Roman Missal, Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching, Reflections on the Christian LifeIronies of Faith: Laughter at the Heart of Christian Literature, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization, and is the translator of several epic poems of the West, including Lucretius' On the Nature of Things: de Rerum Natura, Tasso's Gerusalemme liberata, and the three volumes of Dante's Divine Comedy: Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise. He is a graduate of Princeton and the University of North Carolina. Anthony Esolen is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

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