Saint Olaf and the End of the Viking World

One thousand years ago, an entire world was coming to an end. It was  the world of the pagan Vikings. It would be replaced by another: that of Christian Scandinavia.

The vanished world and the one that replaced it are not very well known to most U.S. Catholics. Most of us tend to think of the history of the Faith largely as it has been lived in Ireland and in lands that were once part of the Roman Empire, especially ones whose shores are washed by the Mediterranean-Italy, France, Spain.

Such an outlook is deplorably narrow. It ignores the very large role that the Scandinavians were playing in Europe one thousand years ago, that their activities as traders, artisans, mariner-explorers and warriors were far from being confined to the Scandinavian lands. For example, St. Vladimir, Prince of Kievan Rus in what we now know as Ukraine and whose conversion to the Faith presaged the conversion of all Russia, was certainly of Viking stock, certainly a descendent of a long line of Scandinavian trader-warriors who built fortified towns, including Kiev, all along the north-south waterways of Russia from the Baltic to the Black Sea.

Further, the Scandinavian influence has extended all the way over here to America, especially to the American heartland, the Midwest, especially the northern Midwest, where so many descendants of the Vikings settled in the 19th century and early in the 20th.

We want with this article to dispel some of the ignorance of Scandinavia that prevails among U.S. Catholics. Special attention will be paid to the Scandinavian saint whose name is probably best known after that of St. Bridget, a Swede. This is to speak of St. Olaf, who was King of Norway at the dawn of the Second Millennium.

The year of his birth is usually given as 995. It is certain that he died in battle on July 29, 1030. His death can be dated with certainty because it took place during a total eclipse of the sun-dramatic circumstances for the men on the scene who did not know the eclipse was coming. “God help me!” he cried as he fell, and then continued to pray as his lifeblood flowed from his wounds.

His praying thus is not the only edifying thing that can be told about him, as we conceive the edifying in modern times, but there are no pious legends attached to St. Olaf, no legends of the sort often associated with saints-especially martyrs-who died before rationalism turned history into-historicism. On the other hand, legends about his ferocity-most would say brutality-abound. A couple will here be related, but readers must be warned the stories may shock. That is because we are used nowadays to killing being done out of sight, as by cluster bombs dropped on a marketplace from three miles in the Serbian sky, instead of with a battle-axe face-to-face with an armed opponent. The stories can even leave us wondering how such a one as Olaf could be so widely venerated for his sanctity that within a year of his death his remains would be disinterred by a bishop, put by that bishop in a new coffin and placed on the high altar of the grandest church in the land, St. Clement’s, in what is now the city of Trondheim. Yet, that happened, even as the national arms of Norway, a nation that has been Protestant since the 16th century, show a lion with St. Olaf’s battle-axe in its forepaws. Those arms tell us that Olaf is a national hero to his countrymen as well as a saint in the calendar of the Church.

Royal Coat of Arms of Norway, showing St. Olav's battle axe, vector image by S. Solberg J. (source)

Royal Coat of Arms of Norway, showing St. Olav’s battle axe, vector image by S. Solberg J. (source)

He did not conquer Norway for Christianity. A predecessor on his throne did that. But he did convert the land, especially by his death, and he it was who forged the nation. Known in Scandinavia as Olaf Haraldsson, St. Olaf was born a pagan, but when he converted he was not the first of his line to become Christian. The first was Olaf Trygvesson, who became ruler of Norway soon after Olaf Haraldsson-St. Olaf-was born. It was Olaf Trygvesson who was the predecessor who conquered Norway for Christianity, but he did not live long enough to see to its conversion (he was King for merely four years).

Like Olaf Haraldsson, Olaf Trygvesson was a fearsome character. A story about him is related in a book published in 1998, The Last Apocalypse: Europe at the Year 1000 A.D., by James Reston. Figuring in it is Earl Hakon, Olaf Trygvesson’s great rival.

Hakon and some men were pillaging the countryside and a farmer sent word of it to Olaf Trygvesson. Hearing that the latter was looking for him, Hakon, together with a slave named Kark, found refuge at the home of a mistress of Hakon. The lady had a pit dug in her pigsty, Hakon and Kark climbed in, logs were laid over the top of the pit and manure piled on the logs, wet manure. This is the kind of man Olaf Trygvesson was. You would rather spend time lying in a hole with pig manure dripping on you than face him in a fight.

While Hakon and Kark were lying there, Olaf arrived at the farm and his men searched the house. When they found nothing, Olaf climbed onto a rock next to the pigsty and gave his troops a pep talk. He promised a reward to anyone who found Hakon and killed him. Naturally Hakon and Kark heard this.

After Olaf left and night fell, Hakon and Kark tried to sleep. According to the story, Kark started moaning in his sleep. Hakon woke and asked what in the world was the matter with him. Kark said he had had a bad dream. “Olaf Trygvesson was laying a gold ring around my neck,” he said.

“It will be a red ring Olaf lays around your neck if he catches you,” said Hakon. “Take care. From me you will enjoy good things, so do not betray me.”

Now the two men were suspicious of each other and tried not to sleep, but they drifted off, and it was Hakon’s turn to have a nightmare. He cried out in his sleep and Kark, awakened with a fright, grabbed his knife from his belt and plunged it into Hakon’s throat, killing him. The deed done, he remembered the reward he had heard Olaf Trygvesson promise the day before. So he cut off Hakon’s head, found Olaf, and presented the trophy to him.

Olaf thanked him, rewarded him with the gift of a gold ring-With what else?-and then had him beheaded for betraying his master.

The pagan Vikings are best remembered today, insofar as we think of them at all, as marauding raiders. There is no question that they deserve their reputation for being that, though the sheer bloodiness of their deeds is doubtless exaggerated even as the usual artistic depiction of them is dead wrong. The exaggeration would have begun with themselves and their victims. They would have boasted of their exploits, and their victims would have wanted to make excuses for letting themselves become victims. As for their depiction, how do we think of them? It is always with helmets that have horns sticking out. Those helmets did not exist. Not one has ever been unearthed by archaeologists. Picturing them is simply an artistic convention that began in the heyday of the painting of historical scenes, the 19th century.

Though their deeds may have been exaggerated, the Vikings did much, as we have already allowed, to earn their reputation. We see that in the life of St. Olaf. He was sent on his first marauding mission, a raid on the coast of Sweden, at the ripe age of 12. He barely escaped with his life. In fact, it was such a close call that his escape was later counted as his first miracle.

No miracle saved St. Alphege, Archbishop of Canterbury in England. He was murdered by Olaf in 1009. Olaf, let it be noted, was then all of 14. He was fighting at the time alongside the most notorious Viking chieftain of the day, Thorkel the Tall, a Dane. They had staged raids on Jutland, Frisia and Holland before reaching England, whose current ruler was so clueless that he is known in history as Ethelred the Unready. It was in the winter of 1009 that Thorkel and Olaf raided London and, soon after, Canterbury. When the Vikings captured St. Alphege, they demanded a ransom for his release. When he refused to have it paid, they became angry. They also became drunk. This was at a banquet they put on with foodstuffs plundered from the locals. Alphege was hauled into the banqueting hall and the men began to amuse themselves by pelting him with meat bones. However, sport like that can soon become tiresome if the target does not run around trying to shield himself, and Olaf brought it to an end by striking the archbishop a fatal blow on the head with an iron axe.

This murder of one saint by another should not disturb us too much. There are stories about other violent acts from the very earliest days of the Church. Indeed, the very first involves, not a simple saint, but Our Lord. According to an ancient tradition, Longinus, the Roman centurion who thrust his lance into Our Lord’s side at Golgatha, later converted and was himself martyred in Mantua in Italy. That is how he became St. Longinus.

Olaf’s conversion came not too long after the murder of St. Alphege. What happened is that poor King Ethelred finally got a clue. He paid off Thorkel, which is to say paid him protection money. Olaf then moved on with most of the Viking force, staging raids along the coasts of France and Spain. Exactly what led to it is not known, but at the age of 18 he was baptized in Rouen, France. Not long after, he returned to England and entered the service of King Ethelred, for whom he fought loyally but unsuccessfully against the Danish king, Canute, who soon proclaimed himself King of the English as well as the Danes.

(This Canute who made himself King of England should not be confused with the St. Canute we find in the Church’s calendar. There was nothing about Canute of England that ever hinted at holiness. St. Canute was his nephew. Alas, history no longer recounts much that testifies to his holiness any more than his uncle’s. One work consulted for this article, Coulson’s biographical dictionary, The Saints, tells us: “It may be true that St. Canute had a genuine claim to sanctity; there is, however, little evidence of it in his biographies.” It is true that St. Canute was killed as he knelt before the altar of a church in Odense, Denmark, and that suggests his death could perhaps have been that of a martyr. However, he was actually killed by subjects in revolt against excessive taxes he had imposed on them.)

So far, little has been related here that does not reinforce our received notion of the Vikings as a very bloody lot. Again, however, much about them is certainly exaggerated. Further, many stories about their exploits, like St. Olaf’s escape as a 12-year-old boy-warrior eventually being regarded as a miracle, could be accepted by the early Scandinavian Christians, but “baptized” by them, which is to say, illuminated by them with the light of the Faith. This in the same way that the Church took certain Roman customs and practices and “baptized” them so that we have wound up, for instance, celebrating some of our most important feasts at times of the year when the ancients celebrated their pagan festivals or a site associated with the worship of a pagan goddess was sanctified by the erection of the great Cathedral of Notre Dame de Chartres.

Beyond that, if such stories and the depiction in Scandinavian iconography of Christian heroes as sword-wielding slayers make us uneasy, could our discomfort be as much a commentary on us as on the supposed bloodiness of the Vikings? That is, have we become too used to saints being presented to us-Francis of Assisi comes to mind-as little more than effeminate ninnies? Many early Viking converts seem to have been attracted to the Gospel story of Our Lord because they understood it as the heroic saga of a treacherously murdered young king willing to sacrifice Himself for His followers. (The Vikings, we ought to note, gave us the word, “saga.”)

How many Catholics today view Our Lord as King, or even priest, instead of solely as a victim? Everything He says is twisted to fit that picture. We hear Him exhort His followers to turn the other cheek and it does not occur to us that what He might mean is that if somebody knocks you down, pick yourself up and keep going. He tells Peter to put up his sword, and we hear a rebuke, correctly. But was Our Lord rebuking Peter for taking action, or taking action rashly? Who is more imbued with the spirit of the Church Militant as she has existed during most of history: St. Olaf of Norway, St. Louis of France, St. Ferdinand of Spain, St. Vladimir of Russia and other warrior-saints (all of whom shed blood, and not always in battle) or a post-Vatican II, tree-hugging pacifist who is militant about nothing except opposition to capital punishment?

With no room left for him in England after Canute’s triumph, St. Olaf gave thought to sailing to Jerusalem. Since most of another century would pass before Pope Urban II preached the First Crusade, it would be interesting to conjecture on how events in the Holy Land might have developed had there been on the scene long before then a man of Olaf’s courage, drive and convert’s zeal. But before he could depart for the East, he had a dream, one that changed his mind.

This is something else that is characteristic of the Scandinavians of old. Viking lore is filled with dreams (we heard an example with the story of Hakon and Kark). Like their bloodiness, the importance of dreams to them may make moderns imagine the Vikings as simply “primitive” and “barbaric.” That is pretty funny. After all, even as the unquestionable bloodiness of the past century ought to keep us from condemning the savagery of any preceding age, it really is bizarre of us to view any people of earlier times as superstitious because they took dreams seriously. It is, if we consider the centrality of dreams in the work of Sigmund Freud, that founding saint of the modern religion of psychiatry. If any who are Catholic instead of Freudian also see it as superstitious or primitive, it only shows how they have been polluted by the spirit of modernity. They ought to be mindful of St. Joseph. One of the few concrete things Scripture tells us about him is that at key moments of his life, he receives instructions from an angel who comes to him in his sleep-who comes in a dream.

As for Olaf’s, it was of a “great and important man, one of terrible appearance.” This man instructed him to return home. “You shall be King of Norway forever,” he said.

That was in 1015. Norway, like England, had become by then part of the empire Canute was building, but Canute just then was away. He was busy consolidating his rule in England. Within months of returning to his native land, Olaf drove out the Danish troops of occupation, was proclaimed King and set up his capital in Trondheim.

Even when he was still a pagan, Olaf was renowned as being a man of his word. Now that he was a Christian, he was true to Christ as he had been to other men. He decreed the Faith to be the religion of his kingdom and set about erecting churches everywhere, including St. Clement’s in Trondheim. Pockets of paganism would continue to exist for some little time, however. One such was the region of the Trondelags. Taking up his battle-axe, Olaf descended on them, imposed stiff fines on those who were slow to confess Christ and, yes, executed some who persisted in pagan practices.

It should not be concluded, however, that force was the only means employed by Olaf to promote acceptance of the Faith. One of the best-known stories about him concerns a huge wooden idol of Thor that he encountered at a place called Gulbrandsdad in central Norway. The custom was to offer food and gold ornaments to this idol. Olaf announced to the local Thorworshippers that a golden sunrise then in progress was the herald of his God. With all eyes trained on the sunrise, Olaf had one of his men strike the idol a terrific blow with a club. The rotten wood splintered, the idol collapsed. According to Snorri Sturluson, one of Olaf’s principal chroniclers, “out of it ran mice as big almost as rats, and reptiles, and adders.”

Now, if you worship an idol, it is destroyed, and the man who destroyed it is not struck down on the spot by the gods, you are likely to be shaken. Olaf seized the moment to proclaim: “Either accept Christianity or fight this very day, and the victory be to them to whom the God we worship gives it.” The former devotees of Thor promptly agreed to baptism.

That is according to one account. According to another, gold ornaments offered to the idol, as well as vermin, scattered across the ground. Olaf is supposed to have then observed to the locals that such pretty things would look better on their wives and daughters. That was enough to secure everyone’s conversion. Whatever, “they who met as enemies,” says Sturluson, “parted as friends.”

Three paragraphs ago there was mention of force as a “means employed to promote the practice of the Faith.” It was in reference to St. Olaf executing persons who persisted in pagan practices while pretending to convert. It ought to be understood that this is not the same thing as so-called “forced conversion,” the practice of which Catholics have sometimes been accused. There is a difference between penalizing someone for pretending to be Christian and putting a blade to his throat and promising to kill him if he does not become one. Even in U.S. law today there are stiff criminal penalties for impostors.

We are not going to dwell at great length on the subject here, but neither do we want to dodge this question of coercion, especially since the currently-reigning Pope has repeatedly apologized for supposed past Catholic misdeeds, including, according to some news media, “forced conversions.”

Media reference to those was especially widespread last year at the time of a “Ceremony of Forgiveness” conducted by His Holiness at the Vatican. It is true that the committee that wrote John Paul’s text for the occasion did include language that referred to sins against the “rights of peoples, their cultures and religions.” However, it was not stated by the Pope that these sins included “forced conversions.” It is impossible to see how that could have been stated by him, whatever spin the media chose to put on the Ceremony. Catholics are not Mohammedans. The latter really have put to the sword countless men, including Christians, who would not abjure their religion and proclaim Mohammed as God’s Prophet. The Church, by contrast, has always understood that conversion, true conversion, cannot be forced. On the other hand, she has also always understood that a man can say, “Yes, I believe,” and not mean it, and that is where the problem arises. That is where coercion has sometimes come into play. Was this always wrong? Is force never permissible?

Let us picture ourselves on a transoceanic flight. We have been airborne for an hour. It is too late to turn around when one of the passengers announces there is a bomb on board, it is set to explode in fifteen minutes, and only he knows where it is hidden. Are we going to spend the fifteen minutes talking sweet reason to this man? Let us hope not. If we have any sense of self-preservation at all, we are going to force him to reveal the bomb’s location.

Well, sometimes an entire society can be like that airplane. We can think, in this regard, of Spain at the end of the 15th century. The Spanish had just spent 800 years fighting to end the Mohammedan occupation of their country. Now the Mohammedans had been driven out-the Mohammedans and Jews who had collaborated with them in their occupation of the country. The trouble was that some number of men, in order to avoid expulsion, professed Christ as Lord, but did not mean it. Secretly, they were not Christian. They were bombs ready to blow apart newly-liberated Spain if anyone lit the match. Nobody knew how many they were. How identify them? One thing that was done was to start an Inquisition.

That brings us to another society, that of the Church. In every age there have been men who professed to be Christian, but who held views, wrong views, heretical views, that really made them bombs ready to blow apart the Church. At the time of the so-called Reformation, they did blow her apart. What to do in the face of a threat like that, in the face of heresy, in the face of false profession of faith? It is an important question. Souls are at stake.

As a bishop, St. Augustine struggled with the problem. The threat he faced was that of the Donatists. He found his answer to the problem, we know, in Luke 14:16-24. Therein is told the parable of the rich man who threw a party and nobody came, or at least none of the invited guests. So the rich man told his servants: “Go out into the highways and hedges, and compel them to come in, that my house may be filled.”

“Compel” is the operative word. It is a strong one, and Catholics taking it to guide them in acts of their own must be careful of the spirit with which it is applied. Whatever the means used to “compel,” it should be with a caring spirit, a spirit of love and friendship, a spirit of wishing only good for another. A footnote in the Haydock edition of Douay-Rheims is explicit about this: “The compulsion which [this verse] authorizes to bring infidels or heretics into the Church, is such as we use towards our friends, when we press them to accept of our hospitality.”

But what if the hospitality is still refused? It ought to be obvious that we should be prepared to pay some price if we insult someone by contemptuously ignoring or brushing aside his earnestly extended invitation for no good reason. At the least, insofar as our action shows us to be less than a friend, we must not be surprised if he no longer treats us as one.

St. Olaf would rule as King of Norway for twelve years, ably seconded by a Churchman, a bishop named Grimkell. Together, the men fashioned a code of law, features of which came to be adopted throughout Scandinavia. That was but one of their accomplishments.

Though the One True Faith, uniting all Norwegians as it did, made the political unity of the nation possible, not all of Olaf’s subjects welcomed that unity. There were local lords who missed the independence they enjoyed under Canute. Worse, the Christian Olaf acted vigorously to curb and then to end the marauding that was the way of life for the Vikings when they were still pagan. That rankled more than a few. The aging Canute, looking to undermine a ruler whose power challenged his own in the region, was only too happy to promote disaffection among the nobles. He took to heaping money and honors on them. Canute was abetted by an ecclesiastical puppet, a Danish bishop named Sigurd, who preached subversion. The outcome: In 1028 Olaf was obliged to flee his kingdom. He found refuge at the court of his cousin, King Jaroslav of Kiev. Canute reinstalled himself as King of Norway, with Sigurd as head of the country’s episcopacy.

Two years later, Olaf left his exile to try to reconquer Norway. This was with a force of 3,500 men. At the climactic battle at a place called Stiklestad, they had ranged against them 13,000 of Canute’s troops.

Snorri Sturluson gives us Olaf’s battle-cry on this occasion: “Fram, fram Kristmenn, Krossmenn, Konungsmenn!” “On, on, Christ’s men, Cross men, King’s men!”

The battle scene must have been dramatic with Olaf decked in gold-trimmed armor slashing away with his sword and the day growing dark as the sun was eclipsed in the sky overhead.

“On they came in fierce array,” one bard sang of it,
“And around the king arose the fray,
“With shield on arm brave Olaf stood,
“Dyeing his sword in their best blood.
“For vengeance on his Trondheim foes,
“On their best men he dealt blows;
“He knew well death’s iron play,
“To his deep vengeance gave full sway.”

When Olaf fell, as we know he did, his men abandoned the field and then dispersed, but it was now, in death, that the Norwegian national character would be stamped by him as it never was during his life. Indeed, what began now was a series of events and developments that often seemed miraculous. The first occurred as soon as his blood was spilt. As told by Snorri Sturluson (he speaks of one of Olaf’s slayers): “The king’s blood came on Thorer’s hand, and rose up between his fingers to where he had been wounded, and the wound mended so speedily that it did not require to be bound up.”

Fearing that they might be desecrated, some of Olaf’s men spirited his remains away from Stiklestad and hid them in a sandbank. There they remained for a year. During this time, nobles who went unrewarded by Canute started to turn against him. Their enmity intensified when new taxes were imposed and all the leading posts in the kingdom were bestowed on Danes. Then the weather turned bad and harvests failed. Nothing like that happened when Olaf was King. Norwegians began to remember the twelve years of his reign with fondness.

Bishop Sigurd, his finger in the wind, decided it would be politic to leave for England and Bishop Grimkell resumed his leadership of the Church in Norway. Almost exactly a year after the battle of Stiklestad, he had Olaf’s remains disinterred from their secret burial place and enshrined in St. Clement’s. Of the remains, Snorri Sturluson says, “There was a delightful and fresh smell. His appearance was in no respect altered, and his cheeks were as red as if he had just fallen asleep.”

Like Lourdes today, St. Clement’s, and a cathedral later built on the spot, became a miracle center. “A multitude of lame and blind and other sick who came to the holy Olaf went back cured,” we are told. These miracle cures increased popular devotion to Olaf, and this in turn fueled a growing national pride and a national will to win independence from Denmark. A son of Olaf who had gone into exile with his father, Magnus, was brought back from Russia and proclaimed King. (The son was named for Carolus Magnus-Charlemagne-whose coronation in 800 restored the Empire in the West-as the “baptized” Holy Roman Empire-after a hiatus of four centuries.) The Danes were driven out and, not long after, Canute died. Norway was now united, independent, and Catholic-as the country would remain until the Protestant revolt commonly referred to as the Reformation.

Further, Olaf’s influence in death extended beyond his native land. Become known as “Norway’s King forever” and seen as the guardian of the cause of the Faith, Olaf was regarded, in effect, as its patron everywhere in Scandinavia. After him, there are no more stories of armed pagan resistance to Christianity in the region.

Devotion to St. Olaf was not limited to Scandinavia. Christians elsewhere saw him as a model ruler. In England, the famous York Minster Cathedral was built “in God’s name and Olaf’s.” At the other end of Christendom, in Constantinople, a church was dedicated to him with the sword he wielded at Stiklestad hung over the altar. In fact, Olaf was the last Western saint to be accepted for veneration by the Eastern Orthodox before they fell into schism. Thus may we see the hand that held the sword which once hung in Constantinople as extending spiritually right across Europe to lands and peoples that have been separated for too many centuries from the unity of the Faith. Not simply does this remind us of the point made at this article’s beginning: The Scandinavian influence is more important than is often recognized by a Mediterranean-centered cultural bias. It should also remind us that Norway and the rest of Scandinavia are also separated, that they have been since the 16th century, and that separation, because so many sons and daughters of Scandinavia came to these shores after it took place, have helped keep our own land apart from the ancient unity. Let us keep in mind the idea, the image, of St. Olaf’s hand extending, reaching out spiritually, as we continue with this article.

We want to continue by correlating some Scandinavian events and developments to historical ones with which most of us probably are more familiar-like the revival of the Western Empire as the Holy Roman Empire in 800.

The lands of the old empire never included the Scandinavian ones, or any others that eventually went Protestant (with the exception of England), and though these territories likewise lay beyond the reach of Charlemagne’s rule, neither he nor his religion were completely unknown to the Norsemen, the Vikings. Ninety years before Charlemagne’s coronation, the father of Anglo-Saxon missionary efforts, St. Willibrod, had attempted (without success) to evangelize the Danes. By the time of the coronation, the Vikings, as we already know, were staging their raids on the coasts of western Europe and on Scotland and Ireland. These raids were terrifying to those who were raided, but they also brought the pagan Vikings into contact with the Faith and the higher civilization born of it.

A quarter-century after Charlemagne became Emperor, St. Ansgar, born of a noble family in Picardy in France and eventually the first Archbishop of Hamburg in Germany, preached several successful missions in Denmark and Sweden. When St. Ansgar died in 865 he was succeeded in Hamburg by St. Rembert, apostle to the Northern Slavs. Contemporaneously, Sts. Cyril and Methodius began their missionary labors among the Western Slavs of Moravia. By then the Vikings had turned Ireland into a winter base from which to stage raids on England and other places in clement weather. In 870, during such an expedition, they killed the King of East Anglia, whom we know and venerate as St. Edmund the Martyr.

In Iceland, where Irish hermits had settled at about the time of Charlemgne’s coronation (followed by Norsemen about 70 years later), a parliament, the Althing, was founded in 930. In 948, bishops were named to three sees in Denmark, the first sees set up anywhere in Scandinavia, and in 965, Harold Bluetooth, King of Denmark, converted to the Faith. His conversion was followed 30 years later by that of Olaf Skothonung, King of Sweden. We have already seen that at about the same time, in 996, Norway was brought under the Christian banner for the first time, if but temporarily, by Olaf Trygvesson. St. Olaf had just been born.

Elsewhere in a Christendom that was not yet sundered by schism, the first monastery on Mt. Athos in Greece was established in 963. Twenty-five years later, in 988, Prince Vladimir, whom we venerate as St. Vladimir of Russia, was baptized.

We already know that Olaf Trygvesson was killed in battle in 1000, but it needs to be mentioned that along about then-the exact date is not known-the Viking Leif Ericksson voyaged to North America. More evidence, some of it deliberately suppressed until very recently, keeps coming to light suggesting that earlier voyages may have been made to these shores by other Christian mariners, not simply from Scandinavia and maybe Ireland, but perhaps even from North Africa before that region’s Christian lands were overrun and turned into desert by the Mohammedans. Exploring the evidence is beyond the scope of this article.

We also already know that Olaf Haraldsson, St. Olaf, died in battle at Stiklestad in 1030. Let us here recall again that the son who succeeded him, Magnus, was named for the great Emperor of two centuries before.

Twenty-three years after the death of St. Olaf, the Archbishopric of Hamburg-Bremen, founded by St. Ansgar, was given jurisdiction over Norway, Iceland, Greenland, and the Danes.

The next year, 1054, was of course the year that Constantinople tragically and fatally broke from Rome. “Fatally,” we can say, because it was not the first break, but it was the one that was followed eventually by the downfall of Constantinople itself and, after the fall of the capital, the reduction of all of Eastern Christendom (outside Russia) to a shadow of what it once was. The immediate instrument of the East’s desolation was Mohammedanism. By the end of the 11th century, in 1095, forty-one years after Constantinople’s schism, Pope Urban II would preach the First Crusade against the false religion, understanding that it was as much a threat to the West as it had proved a scourge to the East.

A little before then, in 1066, took place the event that we may see as the culminating one in the history of the Vikings. This was the Norman conquest of England.  It was an event in Viking history because a century-and-a-half before, a Viking chieftain named Rollo ceased merely to stage raids on the northern coast of France. He and some of his men settled there, taking possession of land. In 911 Rollo became the first dux, the first Duke, the founder, of the Duchy of Normandy. William the Conqueror, the Duke of Normandy who led the Norman invasion and won the battle of Hastings in 1066 and thus became King of England, was his descendent.

Of all the Viking exploits, this one may be seen not simply as the last, but the greatest, insofar as history soon stopped talking about Viking pirates, but Normans, and then ceased to speak of Norman conquerors, but of the English royal family.

There is a historical give and take in all this that is wondrous to consider. Think of how the pagan world of the Vikings was coming to an end and the Norsemen entering into the unity of the Faith at the same time the East was breaking away. This even as, in the 16th century, the lands and peoples of the Western Hemisphere, our Hemisphere, were evangelized at the very time Scandinavia and England were lost to Protestantism. Treasures from this Hemisphere would provide means whereby Emperor Charles V and his son Philip II of Spain could prevent more of Europe than did from becoming permanently Protestant, but when England did-England, that land conquered in 1066 and then ruled by descendants of Viking pirates-the stage was set for the separation from Catholic unity of our own section of the Western Hemisphere. For, in the next century, English settlers along our eastern seaboard would begin to undo the labors of the Spanish and French who made all the Americas, North as well as Central and South, Catholic. If the English-Protestant takeover was consolidated by the transformation of the original thirteen eastern colonies into the independent United States, and was at first confined to that area, its extension westward into lands that were still indisputably French and Spanish at the beginning of the 19th century would be assisted and strengthened in a few decades by the arrival, especially in the Midwest, of Scandinavian Protestants.

Perhaps on another occasion we can tell something of the story of how Scandinavia became Protestant. It is worth telling, if only because it is so much like England’s. It unfolded in largely the same way and largely for the same reasons: the pride and greed of princes and nobles, and the ambition and cowardice of bishops. That is to say, there was no revolution of the people from below. The revolution was imposed from above.

If the motives of the apostates in Scandinavia were the same as drove Henry VIII and Cranmer, there was also heroism as in England, and it ought to be as much honored today, but will not as long as we know nothing of it. We all know about St. John Fisher, for instance, but how many have heard of Joachim Ronau of Roskilde, the one bishop in Denmark to stay faithful? He had his counterpart in Sweden, Peter Jakobsson. How many have heard of him? Or of Jan Arason, the last Bishop of Catholic Iceland? He fought the Protestants-literally fought-and died because of it. (Alas, his heroism was flawed. Though willing to die for the Faith, he had openly lived outside the Church’s law on clerical celibacy. Yet, even in his personal failure, the example he set as a shepherd was enough for two of his sons to die with him when he was beheaded in 1550.)

But we cannot speak of the flawed without speaking of Sweden’s Queen Christina. Born in 1626 in Stockholm, she died in Rome in 1689. If the reader does not know that from his own study of history, he will if he has ever visited St. Peter’s in Rome. Christina’s funerary monument-it is on the right when you walk in-is one of the first things you see. She is the only female whose remains are interred in the Basilica. Surely, her monument is as deserving of its place in St. Peter’s as that, just across the nave, which honors England’s last Catholic monarch, James II. Both lost their thrones for the Faith, he because he clung to it, she because she converted to it.

If she was no saint, and she certainly was not, it is no small thing in any circumstances to quit a throne. Unlike the pathetic 20th-century monarch who did it so famously for the love of a woman, only to live out his life as little more than the woman’s lapdog, Christina did it for the sake of her soul. In the search for truth that she began early in life, that she continued as Queen when she brought to her court the likes of Rene Descartes to discuss with her the weightiest philosophical questions, she had come to understand that there is no salvation outside the One True Church. So, prohibited from becoming a member of that Church if she remained Queen, she abdicated. Another monarch is remembered for saying that Paris was worth a Mass. For Christina, being Catholic was worth a life in exile. It cannot be known to us whether in Heaven’s scale of justice Christina’s sacrifice weighed as much, or more, as her sins. But as much can be said of every man and woman, for all sin, and all therefore are called to sacrifice.

That is the reason for speaking of Queen Christina, of Bishop Arason in Iceland, of St. Olaf (sometime murderer), and all else that has here been related. All of it asks us, What is our “throne”? What earthly pleasure must we forsake? What idols must we shatter? What must we do in order to secure, if not a resting place in the Vatican, a place in Heaven?

For the answer, let us recast the questions in other terms.

All men are guilty of sin. However, we are still obliged to do our duty. It is the essence of the gift given us by God of free will, a gift that today is too widely misunderstood. Of what it truly consists is the power of doing evil and of not doing good. That power, or faculty, is misunderstood, however, when it is imagined that, in granting it, God would have us impartial in choosing between truth and error, between good and evil. Our only choice is between two eternities, and to refrain from choosing between them is to have chosen already. In a word, every man’s first duty is to seek salvation.

Here again we can think of St. Olaf, and also of Jan Arason in Iceland and Queen Christina in Sweden. They all sinned, but also did their duty. She sacrificed her throne to do hers. They sacrificed their very lives. Yet, whatever sacrifices we, like them, must make in order to do our first duty, there is still at least one more we are commanded to perform. This duty-we are called to it by the last commandment Our Lord’s followers heard directly from His lips-is to make disciples of all the nations, which is to say, make the world Catholic, as today’s is as far from being as the pagan one of the Vikings once was.

We do the duty that obedience to Our Lord’s last commandment imposes on us when we demolish idols, demolish the false gods that are worshipped today as Thor once was. We know what they are. Material security, fame, scientific “progress”, freedom, beauty, pleasure, longevity-those are some of them.

The work of demolition must begin, first of all, with ourselves, if we find an idol set up in our household or in our own heart. Then we further do our duty when, in place of the overturned idols, we make truth known.

How make it known? By living in accord with it, which is to say, by living the Faith. If we do that, the Faith will be seen in action, and everybody, with grace, can do that. When enough do, this world, the world we know today, a world every bit as truly pagan and bloody as that of the Vikings (even if it flatters itself by calling itself “civilized”), will have ended as the other one did one thousand years ago. The world will be Christian.

That does not mean sin will be absent from it. Such a world has never existed, not even when Christendom did, which is to speak of the days of St. Olaf, and of Jan Arason and Queen Christina. After all, Christ is King, all power is given to Him on earth as it is in Heaven, as He tells us Himself, but there is also a prince of this world who does not want Christ’s Kingship recognized. He does not because it would limit his sway, and he and the forces he commands are and will be arrayed against all who would limit it. This means our violent and pagan world of today will not be ended, no more than was the Viking one, without a fight.

In that fight, individuals may fall. The fallen may include ourselves. We must not lose heart in face of the possibility. St. Olaf fell at Sticklestad, but so great was the spiritual victory won by him, that not simply was the sword he wielded soon hanging over the altar of that church in distant Constantinople. It also solidified his nation in the Faith for five centuries and could well-indeed, probably did-inspire even the flawed Jan Arason and Queen Christina to do their duty.

The hand that wielded the sword extends spiritually across space and time to all who will continue St. Olaf’s fight, to all who would do their duty, and even if they, too, are somehow, or at times, flawed.

  • Tobias

    A fine article. It is especially gratifying for me, a Midwestern Catholic of partial Norwegian ancestry. When I was in Rome in 2007 I happened — by the Providence of God, no doubt — to stumble upon the Norwegian National Chapel in the church of Sts. Ambrose and Charles. Of course, the altar is surmounted by a large painting of St. Olaf.

    I would quibble with one point in the article, however. The first Catholic King of Norway was Haakon I, aka Haakon the Good. His Catholicism is largely forgotten today as he was not successful in evangelizing his countryment. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Haakon_the_Good

  • Tobias

    Also, I am curious about the claim that York Minster was built in honor of St. Olaf. York Minster is formally dedicated to St. Peter:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/York_Minster

    There is another church in York dedicated to St. Olaf: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St_Olave's_Church,_York

    Perhaps these two churches have been confused in the article?

  • Tobias

    One modern Norwegian who returned to the Catholic Faith is Sigrid Undset, the Nobel Prize winning author who wrote of life in medieval Catholic Norway.

  • Haig Adomian

    Great article, fine writing, enjoyed it, thank you. Hope you do more!

  • NM156

    Heavy Metal Catholicism. Who knew…

  • Ablemom

    Excellent article. I am grateful to God that I was able to visit Nidaros Cathedral and St. Olaf’s shrine at Stiklestad, after converting to Roman Catholic faith in Canada. I thank you for this – I will be sharing it.