15 May 2019

Hallvarðr the Martyr of Husaby

Saint Hallvarðr

Today in the Orthodox Church we celebrate the memory of a passion-bearing Norwegian youth of hathel mind and high bearing: Hallvarðr Vébjarnarson of Husaby, a worthy first cousin of Óláfr inn helgi. A young atheling born to the landowner Vébjorn and his wife Þórn‎‎ý Guðbrandardóttir, the daughter of Guðbrandr kula and sister of Ásta Guðbrandardóttir mother of Óláfr, he was raised at the family’s estate in Husaby near Lier, southwest of Oslo. His father, so the tales have it, took the boy with him sea-faring, especially around the Baltic Sea and into the lands of Garðaríki, and so he knew the whale-road’s ways from his early youth.

At one time he was on the isle of Gotland for trade, and a wealthy fellow named Barkviðr strode up to his kinsmen and asked where they hailed from. Having been told, Barkviðr, looking the lad with them up and down, asked after Saint Hallvarðr, who was then named to him along with his kin. Barkviðr having heard this, spoke: ‘You have a seldom-seen onsight, and you stand out among the rest. I’m iwis that you have a great destiny.’ Thereupon Barkviðr invited the youth and his kinfolk to a feast, and bought all his goods open-handedly, at better than Hallvarðr’s asking.

On the fifteenth of May in the Year of our Lord 1043, the young man left his father’s house on business, and came to the Drammen-Firth, which was then called Drafn in the Norræne tongue. He was about to ford in a small boat, when there came a woman, heavy with child, running toward him, trembling and in great fright – most likely a bondwoman, a þræll. Hallvarðr asked her who she was and what she wanted, and then she gave him her name and asked the lad to take her across the firth. He asked the woman to sit in the boat, and started to row out onto the firth with her.

Along the bank, he saw three men come running whence the woman had come; they got at once into another boat and began rowing in elt after Hallvarðr and the bondwoman. Hallvarðr asked the woman: ‘Do you know them?’

She answered: ‘Yes, I know them.’

‘From all I can see, they are seeking you. Tell me – what have you done to anger them?’

‘It is true they are seeking me; but of what wrong they hold against me I am blameless. They hold me guilty of theft.’

Hallvarðr asked the woman if she was willing to hold a red-hot iron to show her guiltlessness; and she said she would undergo such an ordeal gladly if the men would break off hounding her. But the men who were in the boat behind them called out:

‘Hallvarðr! How comes it that you – such a tall and fair youth – have given help and shelter to this wicked woman? Give her to us now, so she may die. It is no more than what she owes!’

‘What evil has she done?’

They answered him: ‘Our brother she has robbed, by breaking into his house.’

‘How was that done?’ Hallvarðr called back.

‘She lifted the crossbar that held the door locked!’

Hallvarðr lifted his roust high. ‘Lifting a crossbar on a door like that? You think that within a woman’s skill when even the strongest man would find it hard work? Is there maybe someone who saw her work this feat – or was she found inside the house? But if you are not iwis that she did, why should she die? Let her, rather, undergo trial as is fair – and even if she is found guilty at law, I shall render the weregild in her stead. She is with child, and that child’s life is not yours to take. Still your anger, and do nothing rash!’

The three following began to howl in wrath, and one of them grabbed his bow and shot an arrow toward Hallvarðr’s boat. The witness Hallvarðr stood with his body between the woman and the wound-bee, and the erne-feeder of Jordan’s atheling took the weapon-hail and was wounded to his death. When the boat went ashore, the three men killed the woman as well and buried her there. The three wrongdoers, to hide their nithing deed, tied a millstone around the neck of Hallvarðr’s lich and lowered it into the firth. But the stone did not sink. Hallvarðr was found later, with the millstone still on him, floating on the waves. His friends brought him ashore, and one of them knew the fletch-marks of the arrow that had felled him. From that, the whole tale came to light.

Hallvarðr’s body was borne back to Lier and buried with great honour. In the years that followed, many wonders were wrought at Hallvarðr’s grave – and the tale of his self-giving death, shielding a blameless woman from harm, spread far. Soon was he reckoned among the holies of Christ’s kingdom. Ten years after his death, his kinsman Haraldr harðráði (who was later to die in battle at the hands of Harold the passion-bearing English king) had Hallvarðr’s relics unburied and translated to Oslo. There the Norræne king had built a glistening hof for the holy one, decked in gilt silver and righted behind the high table at Saint Mary’s. From there, holy Hallvarðr was later shifted to the cathedral in Oslo, which was named for Christ’s righteous witness and completed in the year 1130. Hallvarðr’s church brought toward it many wayfarers and pilgrims, the sick and the suffering, who sought and were given Christ’s help through him. His name is indeed mentioned by Adam of Bremen in that historian’s church history (though he misrenders it as Ælfweard), which gives some indication of how early his cultus formed and grew. Holy witness Hallvarðr, friend to the armly and friendless, we beseech you pray to Christ our God for us sinners!
In his martyric death Hallvarðr cast aside riches
And trampled sinful pleasures underfoot;
And though his precious body was cast into the watery depths,
It rose from thence at the divine behest as a sign for the faithful
That his soul had ascended to paradise,
Where he prayeth unceasingly, entreating the compassion of God for us all.

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