29 July 2017

Óláfr inn helgi, King of Norway

Holy, Glorious and Right-Victorious Óláfr (Haraldsson) Martyr-King of Norway

Today in the Orthodox Church, alongside the Persian artisan Blessed Martyr Eustace of Mtskheta, we commemorate another convert and martyr: Saint King Óláfr II of Norway: one of the last martyrs to be glorified in the Undivided Church.

The son of Haraldr greski Guðröðsson, who ruled the middle Norwegian kingdom of Hringaríki, and his wife Ásta Guðbrandsdóttir. Before he was born, his father Haraldr greski was killed by his foster-aunt Sigríðr stórráða after attempting to force her to marry him; Óláfr’s mother thereafter remarried a man named Sigurðr sýr and had several children by him, including Haraldr harðráði, the later king of Norway who would die in England in 1066 at the hands of the Royal Passion-Bearer Harold II.

Óláfr himself went several times í víking, first to the Baltic, then to Denmark and Normandy, and finally to England. He entered the service of Æþelræd unrǽd against Cnut of Denmark, and fought successfully at the Battle of London Bridge to have the former restored to the English throne in 1014. Æþelræd could not, however, hold onto the throne: his son Éadmund revolted against him, and Cnut returned in force to pillage and capture the country. Óláfr ended up joining Cnut’s forces after his victory was complete, but Cnut, unforgiving and jealous, grew to distrust Óláfr in spite of his oath, and forced Óláfr to leave the country. Óláfr, having become interested in Christianity during his stay in England, was baptised into the Church at Rouen, at the behest of Duke Richard of Normandy. Upon returning to Norway, dreaming of uniting the country and converting it to his newfound faith, he began his campaign to be elected king. In the beginning, he earned the support of the Upplǫnd dróttnar by distributing generous gifts amongst them and the common people there. From this base he set out to subdue the other rulers of Norway, especially Sveinn Hákonarson, who was the most powerful lord – Óláfr routed him at Nesjar and forced him to flee to Sweden.

After his subsequent election, Óláfr ruled a mostly-united Norway for ten years, during which time the kingdom was largely at peace and free of strife between the local dróttnar. He upheld Christian norms and thus consolidated his hold on political power; his sway held over as large a territory as his ancestor Haraldr hárfagri had done. He brought over a number of English priests and monks to act as missionaries among the Norwegian people. He upheld even the old heathen laws (except those having to do with non-Christian cultus), cracked down on corruption and abuses of power among local þegnar, and generally behaved as a just and wise king ought to do.

In order to gain peace with Sweden, whose king Áleifr was not happy about losing his vassal Sveinn’s sway over Norway, Óláfr proposed to marry his daughter Ingegærð. Áleifr initially agreed, but instead married Ingegærð to Jarizleifr of Holmgárðr (Kievan Rus’). Óláfr wed instead Ingegærð’s half-sister Æstrið, and they had a daughter named Úlfhildr.

Óláfr again clashed with the jealous Cnut, however, who raised a great force against him and sought to instigate his own heathen dróttnar against him. Óláfr, seeing his situation grow tenuous, fled to his kinsman Jarizleifr’s hall in Kievan Rus’, though en route he continued his work sharing the Gospel among the Swedes: he baptised a large number of people at Närke during his flight eastwards.

According to some legends, as he stayed with the Rus’, Óláfr was pondering whether or not he should continue eastward and vie for the kingship of the Bulghars. When he fell asleep one night, he saw the ghost of his kinsman and namesake Óláfr Tryggvason, who upbraided him for abandoning his own folk and the kingdom that God had given him. It was at this time that Óláfr decided to return to Norway.

Óláfr made his bid with a small force of Swedes, Icelanders and his own Norwegian hirð, some of them promised by the king of Sweden. In total they did not exceed 3,600 men. However, when he crossed over the country to Stiklastaðir, he was met by an army of 14,400 landowners and noblemen led by Hárekr ór Þróttu, Þórir hundr and Kálfr Árnason. He fought bravely, but with his men that badly outnumbered he fell in battle, having received three deadly wounds, the last of which was dealt by Þórir hundr.

His body was taken by his hirð to the riverbank at Níðaróss and buried there: various miracles accompanied it. A light shone over his grave by night. A blind man’s sight was restored by touching his blood to his eyelids. And when his body was taken up to be removed to another grave, it was found to be incorrupt – a fact attested by the English Bishop Grimcytel on whose testimony the Martyr-King’s glorification was based. Upon hearing of these miracles, the Norwegians at once began to repent of their regicide, drove the Danes out of the country, and recalled Óláfr’s illegitimate son Magnús góði from Holmgárðr to rule them in Cnut’s stead. Though Óláfr himself had fallen in battle, his dream of a united, independent Norway came true after his martyrdom.

Many more miracles were attributed to Saint Óláfr, and a shrine at Constantinople was dedicated to his memory by Christian members of the Varangian Guard. The sword Hneitir, which Óláfr had wielded at Stiklastaðir, was taken up by one of his Swedish þegnar, one of whose descendants would later join the Varangian Guard. Emperor John II Komnenos, upon learning to whom the sword had once belonged, paid the Swede richly in gold for it, and placed Saint Óláfr’s relic in the chapel bearing his name.
With the faithful of Norway let us praise the divinely wise king as is meet,
For he was a most excellent champion of piety
And an undaunted martyr for the Truth of Christ.
As he hath boldness before the Lord our God,
Let us beseech him to ask mercy for us who glorify him
That with gladness we may cry aloud:
Rejoice, O ever-memorable Óláfr!

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