Olaf Haraldsson, born in 995, was a member of the Norwegian royal family and the alleged godson of the Christian King Olaf Tryggvason of Norway (r. 995-1000). Although Olaf Haraldsson eventually became the king of his homeland, he had to wait for his throne, as a Scandinavian coalition of Danes, Swedes and Norwegians killed Olaf Tyggvason and imposed a new regime on Norway. Nine years later, Olaf Haraldsson would have been in his early teens when England was hit by a massive wave of reinvigorated Viking activity—these invasions would eventually force the English king, Æthelred the Unready, to flee to Normandy. Olaf, who later became a respected figure in the medieval church, was among the Vikings who journeyed to England in the first decades of the 11th century. His behavior there, however, was not so saintly.
At the head of a fleet of ships with a veteran band of guardians and family friends, young Olaf reportedly reached the shores of England around 1009. Commentary on what exactly he did in England from this point on is a curious topic. Sources such as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Florence of Worcester (d. 1118), Henry of Huntingdon (d. 1160), and the 11th-century court poets, Sigvat the Skald and Óttar the Black, who are also cited in the Saga of St. Olaf from the Heimskringla, all agree on the same setting and timeline of events. According to all of these texts, Viking armies were present at London in 1009, at East Anglia in 1010, and captured Canterbury between 1011 and 1012. The 11th-century Nordic sources place Olaf Haraldsson usually on the side of the Vikings during these battles and sieges. Yet, Snorri Sturluson (c. 1179-1241), the compiler of poems and writer of the Heimskringla, contradicted his sources (Sigvat and Óttar) and oddly placed Olaf on the side of the English at all times during his stay in Britain. Snorri Sturluson, however, was writing long after Olaf Haraldsson had become a beloved and respected figure in the church, and he may have been trying to paint this unsaintly period of Olaf’s life as rosily as possible. Olaf did indeed eventually aid the English, but that defection came as late as 1012, by which point he had been slaughtering Englishmen for years.
The reason Olaf Haraldsson is believed to have been in England in 1009 is because he was a witness to (and participant in) a Viking siege of London during the reign of Æthelred the Unready. Only in the year 1009, were both King Æthelred and Olaf alive at the time of a Viking siege of London. For that year, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle stated, “And they [the Vikings] often fought against the town of London, but to God be praise that it yet stands sound” (ASC 1009). The aforementioned Scandinavian skald, Óttar the Black, also wrote of the event:
“Boldly brokest London
Bridge’s towers, thou Odin’s-
Storm-of-steel’s keen urger,
Striving to win England.”
(cited in Saint Olaf’s Saga, chapter 13)
Perhaps, as Snorri Sturluson claimed, Olaf’s participation in the attack on London Bridge was a move to help the English—Óttar the Black was also cited as stating, “Landedst, and land gavest, liege-lord to Æthelred [the Unready]. Much did need thee, mighty man of war, the sovran” (cited in Saint Olaf’s Saga, chapter 13). Then again, due to the unknown location of these lines in the skald’s original poem, the “land gavest” phase in Olaf’s relationship with Æthelred the Unready may have occurred years after the incident at London.
Olaf Haraldsson’s actions are easier to decipher when he reached East Anglia in 1010. The entry for that year in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle stated:
“the beforementioned army came to East Anglia, and went forthwith to where they understood Ulfkytel was with his force…And then the East Anglians immediately fled. Then Cambridgeshire stood firmly against them. There were slain Æthelstan, the king’s son-in-law, and Oswig and his son, and Wulfric Leofwine’s son, and Eadwig Æfic’s brother, and many other good thanes, and people out of number… And the Danes had possession of the place of carnage” (ASC 1010).
Óttar the Black, and his uncle Sigvat the Skald, both mentioned this event in their poems. They agreed with Anglo-Saxon sources that a large battle took place in the domain of Ulfkytel (or Ulfkel), specifically at a place that they called Hringmara Heath, which has been identified as Ringmere, East Anglia. Sigvat the Skald wrote:
“Even a seventh time Olaf
urged a bloody sword-thing
in the land of Ulfkel,
as I heard it told me.
Hringmara Heath full was—
high were piled the dead—of
Ella’s offspring [Englishmen], whom the
heir of Harald [Olaf Haraldsson] battled.”
(cited in Saint Olaf’s Saga, chapter 13)
Sigvat’s nephew, Óttar the Black, more clearly stressed that Olaf was battling the Anglo-Saxons, not fellow Norwegians or Danes, in his own poem about the battle:
“Liege-lord, then learned I that
laden was with corpses
Hringmara Heath all bloody,
when that inland you battled.
Bowed and overborne, king,
by you, country-folk of
England, awed, submitted
or else fled off headlong.”
(cited in Saint Olaf’s Saga, chapter 14)
After piling English dead high in East Anglia, Olaf followed a Viking force to Canterbury and participated in a Viking siege against the city in 1011. The poets, Sigvat and Óttar, claimed that Olaf played a leading role in the capture of Canterbury and caused great death and destruction in that city. Óttar the Black wrote:
“generous king, you captured
Canterbury in the morning.
Fiercely burning, firebrands
fell into houses, nor didst,
liege-lord, learned I, spare the
lives of luckless burghers.”
(cited in Saint Olaf’s Saga, chapter 15)
Anglo-Saxon sources corroborated that Canterbury was captured and burned by Vikings in 1011. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and the Chronicle of Florence of Worcester provided much more information than the Nordic Skalds. They claimed that the city was betrayed to the Vikings by a certain abbot or archdeacon named Ælmar, and that Archbishop Ælfeah of Canterbury (also spelled Elphege or Alphege) was among the prominent people captured during the sack of the city. In his entry for year 1011, Florence of Worcester wrote:
“they [the Vikings] dug a trench round Canterbury, and laid siege to it. On the twentieth day of the siege, through the treachery of the archdeacon Ælmar, whose life St. Elphege had formerly saved, one quarter of the city was set on fire, the army entered, and the place was taken…Meanwhile, Alphage, the archbishop, was seized, and being loaded with fetters was imprisoned and tortured in various ways. Ælmar, the abbot of St. Augustine’s monastery, was permitted to depart; Godwin, bishop of Rochester, was made prisoner, as well as Leofruna, abbess of St. Mildred, Alfred, the king’s reeve, with the monks and canons, and vast numbers of the people of both sexes…When the people had been thus slaughtered, and the city pillaged and burnt to the ground, Alphege, the archbishop, was brought out in fetters and dragged along, severely wounded, to the ships” (Florence of Worcester, AD 1011).
The Viking force that sacked Canterbury kept Archbishop Ælfeah captive for the remainder of the year, as well as several months into the next. They were apparently hoping to ransom the archbishop for a hefty sum of money. Archbishop Ælfeah and the Vikings, however, did not get along at all. As the months went on and no ransom was promised, the raiders became more and more loathsome of the clergyman. By April of 1012, the Vikings finally reached their limit and decided to kill the archbishop. Ælfeah’s gruesome and chaotic death was reported by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle:
“Then on the Saturday the army was greatly excited against the bishop, because he would not promise them any money, but forbade that anything should be given for him. They were also very drunk, for wine had been brought thither from the South. They then took the bishop, led him to their ‘husting’ [assembly]…and there shamefully murdered him; they pelted him with bones and with the heads of oxen; and one of them struck him on the head with an axe-iron, so that with the dint he sank down, and his holy blood fell on the earth, and his holy soul he sent forth to God’s kingdom” (ASC 1012).
The sack of Canterbury and the subsequent execution of Archbishop Ælfeah may have been a turning point for Olaf. According to the Anglo-Saxon sources, a sizable force from the Vikings that sacked Canterbury decided to split from the rest of the raiders not long after the killing of the archbishop. This splinter group (which likely included Olaf) then formed a mercenary contract with the English king before the end of 1012. On this event, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle stated, “Then submitted to the king [Æthelred the Unready], from the army, five and forty ships, and promised him that they would defend this country; and he was to feed and clothe them” (ASC 1012). The appearance of this band of 45 mercenary Viking ship crews meshes well with Snorri Sturluson’s statement that, after the events of Canterbury, “King Olaf had under him the defense of England” (Heimskringla, Saint Olaf’s Saga, chapter 15). The poet Sigvat also wrote a verse about Olaf, which emphasized that he battled both Englishmen and Danes during his expedition in England:
“Scatheless, in that skirmish
scalps red he gave the English.
Dark-red billowed blood on
blades in Nÿjamótha.
Now have I nine battles
named for thee, king of Norway.
Danes fell where the deadly
dart-storm raged ‘gainst Olaf.”
(cited in Saint Olaf’s Saga, chapter 15)
Olaf Haraldsson (and Æthelred the Unready, for that matter) would not be staying in England for long. King Sweyn Forkbeard of Denmark (r. 986-1014)—one of the leaders from the coalition that had killed the previous king of Norway—arrived in England with a large force in 1013. Either upon or just before King Sweyn’s appearance in England, Olaf Haraldsson decided it was the opportune time to end his mercenary contract with England and to instead go raiding and adventuring on the European mainland. He was said to have pillaged regions of Spain, and then sailed to Normandy by 1013, where he may have been baptized or re-baptized, as he had reportedly already been given a semblance of a baptismal ceremony as a child in 998, during the reign of his godfather, Olaf Tryggvason. Well-traveled and reinvigorated in faith, Olaf Haraldsson returned to his homeland to seize the Norwegian throne around 1015.
Back in England, the legend of the slain Archbishop Ælfeah grew and the martyr was considered a saint by the mid-to-late 11th century. Ironically, Archbishop Ælfeah might have been beaten to sainthood by one of the Vikings who possibly was present at his execution. King Olaf Haraldsson, upon seizing power in Norway, devoted great attention to converting his subjects to the Christian religion, if not by the persuasion of his missionaries, then by the force of his military. His dedication to the conversion of Norway to Christianity apparently far outweighed his earlier Viking career and his likely involvement in the killing of an archbishop of Canterbury. King Olaf Haraldsson was slain in battle in 1030, and only one year later he was canonized as a saint. Reverence for Saint Olaf spread far and wide in Christendom—both the Roman Church and the Orthodox Church of Constantinople recognized his sainthood.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (Scene from the Saga of Olaf Tryggvason, illustrated by Halfdan Egedius (1877–1899), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle translated by Benjamin Thorpe in 1861 and republished by Cambridge University Press, 2012.
- The Chronicle of Florence of Worcester translated by Thomas Forester. London: Petter and Galpin, originally published 1854.
- Heimskringla, by Snorri Sturluson and translated by Lee Hollander. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1964, 2018.