Olaf Haraldsson, a Christian convert with a background as a Viking and a mercenary, declared himself to be the next king of Norway in 1015. He waged war against his Norwegian rivals, as well as outside influences from Sweden and Denmark, until he reasonably consolidated power in 1016. Becoming King Olaf II of Norway, the new monarch went to work, systematically imposing his authority on the realm. He toured the kingdom and called assemblies, where the populace was expected to swear allegiance to the monarch and accept his laws and decrees. When the king’s new regime had stabilized, he became confident enough to start a crusade of cultural change in Norway—with ultimatums and military might, King Olaf II began forcing the people of Norway to abandon the Norse religion and convert to Christianity. For these religious efforts, he has become known as Saint Olaf.
Despite being labeled a saint, Olaf—as a Viking, mercenary and king—was quite a brutal man. Snorri Sturluson (c. 1179-1241), a Christian politician and historian from Iceland, described Saint Olaf’s militant campaign of conversion, saying, “he laid such stress on it that if he found anyone who did not want to abandon heathendom, he drove them out of the land. Some he had maimed, having their hands or feet lopped off or their eyes gouged out, others he had hanged or beheaded, but left no one unchastised who refused to serve God” (Heimskringla, Saint Olaf’s Saga, chapter 73). Such authoritarian measures caused vassals that had backed Saint Olaf’s ascendance to the throne to later decide to abandon him—King Olaf crushed one such conspiracy in 1017, when he unearthed and defeated a plot by five minor kings who were planning to rebel.
Dissident nobles were not the only people in Norway offering resistance to the king. Communities that did not want to abandon their traditional Norse religion refused to stop holding their religious banquets and festivals. One of the greatest hotspots of stubborn Norse worship was the Trondheim region, where a network of towns persisted in hosting religious events. Snorri Sturluson, in his Heimskringla, claimed that an agent of King Olaf II reported that “It is their custom to perform a sacrifice in the fall to welcome winter, a second at midwinter, and a third in summer to welcome its arrival. In this, the people of Eyin, and those of Sparabú, of Vera Dale, and of Skaun participate” (Heimskringla, Saint Olaf’s Saga, chapter 109). The community of Mærin, too, was involved in keeping Norse worship alive in Trondheim. All of these communities respected a certain man, named Olvir, who hailed from a farming estate called Egg. It was to him that these towns turned whenever the king started asking questions about their activities.
Between 1020 and 1021, when King Olaf was becoming increasingly annoyed at Trondheim’s religious insubordination, Olvir of Egg was sent as a representative to defend the actions of the region before the king. As Olaf was not a tolerant man, Olvir decided to downplay the feasts and festivals. According to Snorri Sturluson, Olvir described the celebrations in Trondheim as “drinking in company, or communal drinking bouts, and some entertainment between friends” (Heimskringla, Saint Olaf’s Saga, chapter 106). The king let the spokesman say his piece, but Olaf was not convinced—he left his spies and informants in place within Trondheim and continued to request information about Norse religious activity in the region.
In 1021, King Olaf II learned from his informants that Olvir of Egg was in Mærin, where he was personally organizing a traditional religious feast. Upon receiving this report, the king hounded the region of Mærin for answers as to the purpose of their upcoming banquets. Once again, Olvir of Egg was sent to make a verbal defense. Using the same tactic from his previous audience with the king, Olvir downplayed the scheduled feasts, merely saying that “people consider it good entertainment to drink in a large company” (Snorri Sturluson, Heimskringla, Saint Olaf’s Saga, chapter 106). As before, the king let Olvir say his excuse and leave. Yet, as Saint Olaf had spies in the region, he knew that Olvir was not being forthcoming with the religious significance behind the feasts that were being planned at Mærin. The king did not appreciate Olvir’s deceptive answers, and, by this point, Saint Olaf was beginning to lose his patience and restraint.
After his second audience with the king, Olvir of Egg was not dissuaded from continuing his preparations for the celebration scheduled to be held soon in Mærin. This did not escape King Olaf and his intelligence network. Instead of calling in Olvir for a third audience, the king of Norway decided enough was enough. Olaf readied five ships and mustered over three hundred warriors, then set off covertly toward Mærin, where he planned to make an example of the town. Snorri Sturluson described the scene:
“No one had imagined that the king would get there so quickly, but he arrived at Mærin during the night. The houses were at once surrounded. Olvir was captured and killed, together with many others. The king took all provisions and had them brought to his ships, along with all the properties, such as furniture, clothing, and valuables which had been moved there, and had them distributed as booty among his men. The king also had those men’s homes ransacked whom he suspected to have had most part in these doings. Some were captured and put in chains, some escaped by flight, and many had their goods confiscated” (Heimskringla, Saint Olaf’s Saga, chapter 109).
After the raid, an assembly was called of the surviving population from Mærin, where they were forced to renew their oath of allegiance to King Olaf II and to renounce the Norse religion. Before leaving, Olaf organized for priests to be relocated to the town and he also arranged for churches to be built in the region. Like Olvir of Egg, several of the people captured during Olaf’s raid were executed. Other punishments inflicted on those caught up in the ambush reportedly included mutilation, banishment and fines. As for Olvir’s family, his wife and two sons were deprived of their land and wealth. Olvir’s widow reportedly only regained status and wealth when a chieftain named Kalf Árnason later married her and succeeded in recovering her late husband’s estates.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Image by Erik Werenskiold (1855–1938) for an edition of the Heimskringla, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- Heimskringla, by Snorri Sturluson and translated by Lee Hollander. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1964, 2018.