Sunday, July 29, 2018

Rex Perpetuus Norvegiae

Today is the memorial for King St. Olaf II Haraldsson. He was born in Ringerike in Norway in the eleventh century and became king, of course, but it's difficult to pin down much of his life because his accomplishments were often confused with those of other kings.

St. Olaf was in one sense a failure as a king, but part of this was that he devoted his reign to a very ambitious cause, namely, the unification of the Norse kingdoms. In his early sojourns, he ended up staying for a while with Norman allies and was baptized as a Christian. Afterward, he declared his intentions and pulled together an alliance of various petty kingdoms that then set out to seize the main power bases of Norse politics, with some success. After preliminary fighting established that neither could be certain of gaining the upper hand, he made peace with King Olof Skötkonung of Sweden, and married his daughter; he continued the alliance with Olof's son, Alund Jacob. So far, so good. But it was downhill from there, because neither Norway nor Sweden was the most powerful military force in the region. Denmark was, and they happened to have the good fortune of a leader who was a military juggernaut, King Cnut (or Canute) the Great. Up to this point, the Danes hadn't been much involved because they had been successfully invading England, but now Cnut had the time to give his attention to this potential threat. Allied Sweden-Norwegian forces were given a serious defeat at the Battle of Helgeå; they had an excellent tactical plan that was carried off successfully, but Cnut showed up with a navy more massive than any that had ever before existed in Scandinavia, and their best effort could only barely make dent in it. Cnut invaded and, Olaf, who had not done as much consolidation as he needed, was betrayed by a number of his noblemen, and was forced to flee to Kievan Rus, which was also part of the Scandinavian-ruled realms at the time. He wandered around for a few years and then attempted to make comeback in 1030. It was a well chosen moment, but he died in the attempt, although we're not certain how. The tradition is that he died at the Battle of Stiklestad due to yet another overwhelming Danish force; early sources say instead that he was either ambushed or murdered by one of his nobles. He was buried in Nidaros, although we no longer know the exact location because the Lutherans destroyed all traces of it. A year later he was given local canonization by Bishop Grimkell, and in 1164 he was raised to the universal calendar by Pope Alexander III.

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