1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Olaf (kings of Norway)

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17225861911 Encyclopædia Britannica, Volume 20 — Olaf (kings of Norway)

OLAF, the name of five kings of Norway.

Olaf I. Tryggvessön (969–1000) was born in 969, and began his meteoric career in exile. It is even said that he was bought as a slave in Esthonia. After a boyhood spent in Novgorod under the protection of King Valdemar, Olaf fought for the emperor Otto III. under the Wendish king Burislav, whose daughter he had married. On her death he followed the example of his countrymen, and harried in France and the British Isles, till, in a good day for the peace of those countries, he was converted to Christianity by a hermit in the Scilly Islands, and his marauding expeditions ceased since he would not harry those of his new faith. In England he married Gyda, sister of Olaf Kvaran, king of Dublin, and it was only after some years spent in administering her property in England and Ireland that he set sail for Norway, fired by reports of the unpopularity of its ruler Earl Haakon. Arriving in Norway in the autumn of 995, he was unanimously accepted as king, and at once set about the conversion of the country to Christianity, undeterred by the obstinate resistance of the people. It has been suggested that Olaf’s ambition was to rule a united, as well as a Christian, Scandinavia, and we know that he made overtures of marriage to Sigrid, queen of Sweden, and set about adding new ships to his fleet, when negotiations fell through owing to her obstinate heathenism. He made an enemy of her, and did not hesitate to involve himself in a quarrel with King Sveyn of Denmark by marrying his sister Thyre, who had fled from her heathen husband Burislav in defiance of her brother’s authority. Both his Wendish and his Irish wife had brought Olaf wealth and good fortune, but Thyre was his undoing, for it was on an expedition undertaken in the year 1000 to wrest her lands from Burislav that he was waylaid off the island Svöld, near Rügen, by the combined Swedish and Danish fleets, together with the ships of Earl Haakon’s sons. The battle ended in the annihilation of the Norwegians. Olaf fought to the last on his great vessel, the “Long Snake,” the mightiest ship in the North, and finally leapt overboard and was no more seen. Full of energy and daring, skilled in the use of every kind of weapon, genial and open-handed to his friends, implacable to his enemies, Olaf’s personality was the ideal of the heathendom he had trodden down with such reckless disregard of his people’s prejudices, and it was no doubt as much owing to the popularity his character won for him as to the strength of his position that he was able to force his will on the country with impunity. After his death he remained the hero of his people, who whispered that he was yet alive and looked for his return. “But however that may be,” says the story, “Olaf Tryggvessön never came back to his kingdom in Norway.”

Olaf (II.) Haraldssön (995–1030), king from 1016–1029, called during his lifetime “the Fat,” and afterwards known as St Olaf, was born in 995, the year in which Olaf Tryggvessön came to Norway. 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 Sveyn, hitherto the virtual ruler of Norway, at the battle of Nesje, and within a few years had won more power than had been enjoyed by any of his predecessors on the throne. 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 humbled the king of Sweden and married his daughter in his despite, and had conducted a successful raid on Denmark. But his success was short-lived, for in 1029 the Norwegian nobles, seething with discontent, rallied round the invading Knut the Great, and Olaf had to flee to Russia. On his return a year later he fell at the battle of Stiklestad, where his own subjects were arrayed against him. The succeeding years of disunion and misrule under the Danes explain the belated affection with which his countrymen came to regard him. The cunning and cruelty which marred his character were forgotten, and his services to his church and country remembered. Miracles were worked at his tomb, and in 1164 he was canonized and was declared the patron saint of Norway, whence his fame spread throughout Scandinavia and even to England, where churches are dedicated to him. The Norwegian order of knighthood of St Olaf was founded in 1847 by Oscar I., king of Sweden and Norway, in memory of this king.

The three remaining Norwegian kings of this name are persons of minor importance (see Norway: History).