Trondheim travel riddle: how did a killer king become saint?

historic monuments medieval cities & towns norway trondheim Dec 27, 2023
Nidaros cathedral Trondheim

The main St Olav pilgrimage route to Trondheim’s Nidaros cathedral, a journey that had attracted more than 20,000 overnight stays a year before COVID-19, is regaining popularity. It is likely 2023 figures will show the number of pilgrims has returned to pre-COVID levels.

Trondheim has long been the best place in Norway to trace history. Now travellers are flocking back to a pilgrimage trail honouring a medieval Norwegian king.

But the fascination with St Olav has persisted through history. Why the mystique over a king banished and then “killed by his own people”? How did Olav, viking and bloody warrior king, become a saint recognised all over Europe?

Olav the ‘eternal king’

The year 2030 will mark the millennium of St Olav’s death. Olav is the patron saint of Norway and was celebrated from medieval times as “the eternal king of Norway”.

His fame came from being linked by folklore with the Christianisation of Norway, although the facts are uncertain.

Also going back centuries is Olav’s association with the battle axe, his symbol. How did a ruthless Viking, also known as Olav ‘the stout’ or Olav ‘the lawbreaker’, become a saint, honoured even by the Eastern church, and inspire pilgrimages to Trondheim?

And where are Olav’s remains, which almost two generations after his death were reportedly incorrupt?

A mighty cathedral honours a king

Trondheim’s cathedral, Nidarosdomen, has a complicated history. It was built as a shrine to St Olav 40 years after his death in battle. It is the earliest of northern cathedrals, northernmost of the great European cathedrals, and called the northernmost Gothic cathedral in the world. Tromsø's Catholic cathedral is further north and Luleå in Sweden and Reykjavík also have cathedrals at higher latitudes.

The name comes from the bishopric, Nidaros, which was the Old Norse name of the town ('at the mouth of the Nidelva'). Nidaros-Trondheim wasn’t founded until 997, but the area had been Norway's power centre since the ninth century and remained so until 1300.

Today’s church is 100 metres long and the spire is 91 metres. It was built largely of soapstone, but stone had to be quarried in many locations and carted to the site.

In spite of its Gothic character, today's cathedral is not as it was in medieval times. The oldest part is the octagon – which houses the high altar built for the shrine of St Olav – the ambulatory behind it, and three chapels.

The first cathedral, built by the later Norwegian king Olav Kyrre, was Romanesque and Gothic elements appeared more than a century later. The medieval building phase lasted from 1070 to about 1300.

Work on intricate the west front started in the mid-13th century. The facade is decorated in reliefs and 76 statues, most of which were probably painted, and has an eight-metre rose window in the French style. It has features in common with French and English Gothic cathedrals. A 14th century altar front shows the opening of Olav’s tomb a year after his death.

There have been at least five fires and most of the building burned down twice in the early 18th century. Restoration works have continued for more than 150 years. Even 1000 years ago, the cathedral lacked its west towers.
According to one legend, if the cathedral ever be finished, it and Trondheim will sink under the waters of Trondheimsfjorden. Honouring the tradition, a sculpture of a bricklayer hangs on the south-west tower, forever holding the final piece in his left hand. 

The holy remains – where is St Olav?

Olav’s remains, according to a late account, were first buried in a small church called Klemenskirken – many believe he had actually been buried on the Nidelva bank – and in the 1070s moved to a church named for Christ. A century later that church, already the largest in Norway, became the site of the first Romanesque Nidarosdomen. The burial, it was said, took place under the spot where the cathedral’s high altar is today.

In 1537 the cathedral became Lutheran, Olav's relics were moved and by the 1570s knowledge of their site had been lost.

Georadar indications in 2014 showed a probable grave in one of the cathedral’s octagon chapels, not far from the high altar. But whose remains these are is unknown.

In 2016 archaeologists thought they found the site of the original Klemenskirken, but had to reconsider when dating showed the building they found to be a generation too late.

Olav the warrior

Before becoming king, Olav was an accomplished and hardened warrior. He came from the line of Harald Fairhair (or Finehair), regarded as the first king of Norway. From his early teens he raided Viking style in Estonia, Finland, Denmark and the Netherlands.

From about 1009 he fought in England, both against and for the English, attacking Canterbury – a strange way to become a saint, you'd think. He has long been associated with causing London Bridge to fall down. He then fought on the side of Cnut, the Danish king of England.

Olav was baptised, probably in Rouen in 1014, but perhaps a few years earlier. In this period fought among mercenaries for the Norman ducal house.

Olav claimed the throne of Norway in 1015 and ruled until 1028. He defeated Danish and Swedish-backed chieftains in battle near Sandefjord in 1016, confirming his dominance. But his claims to unification of Norway by force are contestable.

We know that as an evangelising king he used the medieval tools of missionaries, fire and sword. His priests came from England and Normandy.
These methods were resisted and Cnut defeated Olav in battle in Skåne in 1026. In 1028 Cnut seized Norway and Olav travelled via Närke in Sweden, where he baptised Swedes, to the court of Kyiv, where he sought exile. There the princes were Christians from a Norse line under the influence of the Eastern church of Constantinople.

In 1030, Olav returned to Norway and met his enemies at Stiklestad, near Nidaros. His defeat was associated with a solar eclipse. July 29, the day he traditionally fell, is celebrated as St Olav’s day and the feast of Olsok takes place in Norway, as well as the Swedish border province Härjedalen, formerly Norwegian territory.

Olav’s son Magnus reclaimed the throne for his line in 1035, the year of Cnut’s death.

Olav is now usually referred to in Norway as Olav II. A knightly order was set up in his name in the 19th century. 

Olav the saint – a mysterious cult

Whatever the facts of his life, Olav’s legend was central to the Norway’s establishment as a medieval monarchy. After his death he was credited with introducing an organised Norwegian church backed by laws.

The cult of Olav spread, associated with miracles, and seems to have spanned Scandinavia a couple of generations later. His death was associated with miracles that struck terror into his killers. A night glow appeared above his body and a healing spring emerged from his grave. A year later his English bishop Grimketel (or Grimkel) claimed his uncovered body was incorrupt and proclaimed him a saint, but canonisation by Rome had to wait until 1164. By this time the Nidaros archbishop Øystein Erlendsson was proclaiming Olav “Norway’s eternal king” and planning a larger cathedral.

Olav’s picture was in the Church of the Nativity in Jerusalem.

Icelandic sagas were written about Olav until the 13th century. One describes how his coffin was wrapped in a pall and placed in a beautiful cover. There, his relics performed further miracles. Saga writer Snorri Sturluson, a  master storyteller, reported that  Olav appeared in a vision to his kinsman and successor Harald Hardradi, who invaded England before William the Conqueror, and foretold Harald’s fall at Stamford Bridge. 

Even in England, where the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reported that Olav was “killed by his own people”, churches in England were consecrated to  him and St Olave's Church in central London probably appeared about 1050. This link perhaps owes something to Olav's supposed involvement on the side of Ethelred the Unready in a battle for London against the Danes in 1014, and probably the return of Grimketel to his homeland in 1039. Grimketel was not the only English priest who Olav took to Norway, but he is the best known. Grimketel also served as a bishop in Sweden.

Perhaps Cnut had a role in Olav’s later celebrity, having replaced him as king of Norway.There have been at least four St Olave churches in London and many churches and other foundations were built in various parts of England. One church was built in Chichester, where Grimketel served as bishop.

A church of St Olave stood in York in the 1050s and its successor remains today.

Olav’s celebrity in York is less surprising – in the 11th century, the Northumbrian lands had closer links with Norway and Denmark than with London and had for a long time.

Olav was also adopted as patron in Normandy and the Channel Islands. Rouen’s cathedral claims a relic in the form of an arm bone.

In the Faroes, where the Norwegian crown met strong resistance during Olav’s lifetime, July 29 is the Faroese national holiday, Ólavsøka.

Even a 15th century Swedish fortress built in Finnish Karelia was named for Olav, and the regional centre Savonlinna, where the castle Olavinlinna stands, still celebrates July 29.

A church in Rome has a chapel in St Olav’s name, dedicated in the 19th century, along with an artwork. The church is used by Norwegian expatriates.

A chapel in Olav’s name was built in a Constantinople church for Varangian mercenaries in the service of the Byzantine emperor. The cult was also taken up by the Orthodox Church, which by 1054 had formally split with the Catholic Church. Yet Olav is still venerated and a service in his name was composed for Orthodox worshippers in recent times:

With what wreaths of praise shall we crown the righteous Olav, for whose sake we celebrate today: the pillar of piety, the adornment of his people, the true advocate and intercessor for all Christians, who shone forth with splendour in his martyrdom?

St Olav is also one of the patrons of Uppsala domkyrka in Sweden.
The cult travelled to North America with Scandinavian emigrants, where it still resonates, mostly in the United States mid-west.

We can perhaps thank Grimketel for much of Olav’s fame in England and Sweden, Rouen for his status in Normandy, and Kyiv for his recognition by the Orthodox Church. Archbishop Øystein sponsored and probably wrote a Latin text about St Olav’s passion and miracles. His journey to Rome and work there likely assisted Olav’s canonisation there. Archbishop Øystein also spent three years of exile in England. But much remains unclear.

It goes without saying that Olav’s sainthood was useful in Christianity taking hold in Scandinavia. Heathendom was durable in many parts of Norway and Sweden. Descent from a saint also legitimised his successor kings.

Modern pilgrims seek their Olav adventure

A pilgrimage route to Trondheim existed by 1070 and continued through the medieval period. Then, the St Olav pilgrimage was one of the great European pilgrimages. Pilgrim traffic went into decline after the Reformation and petered out after the arrival of a rail line, reviving only in recent years.
Today the Pilegrimsleden path has regained popularity, exploiting the Olav tradition, historical reminiscences, and Scandinavia’s natural beauty and hiking trails.

There are several approved variants, including the St Olavsleden from
Selånger, near Sundsvall in  Sweden, across the mountains to Trondheim. One map shows nine variants, including a Norwegian coastal route.

There is a Pilegrimsleden website as well as brochures and pilgrim centres have been set up in Oslo and Trondheim as well as along the routes.
Trails are marked by a looped square interwoven with a stylised pointed cross.

The most direct route, known as the Gudbrandsdalsleden, runs just over 640km from the eastern end of Oslo city, where the medieval town stood, through the Gudbrandsdalen around Lillehammer, Dovre and Oppdal to Trondheim. The walk is said to take 32 days.

More than 800 pilgrims registered to travel this route in 2022. The Nasjonalt Pilegrimssenter in Trondheim is coordinating the building of approved pilgrim stops with sustainability goals.

The St Olav pilgrimage was recognised as a European Cultural Route by the Council of Europe in 2010.

The legend lives

While Olav’s cult was a rallying cry for the church, his saintly status made him a lasting national icon. From 1397 to 1814 Norway was joined to Denmark and, after a dispute with Sweden, emerged as an independent nation under the Swedish king. The 19th century often looked back to the medieval past for national inspiration and Olav’s memory served as a rallying symbol. Norway did not regain full sovereignty until 1905, but when it did its royal and national arms became a lion holding Olav’s battle axe.

Today Norway has the highest proportion of Catholic worshippers among the Scandinavian nations, all of which have Lutheran state churches.
Legends are more powerful than history. Two eternal truths, that St Olav is forever the king, and that Nidarosdomen will never be completed, rule far more certainly than Olav did in his lifetime.

What is also certain is that St Olav’s story proves that the church and the crown combined forge ideas mightier than the sword – mightier than time itself.

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