Olaf, the Boy Viking of Norway
Olaf was only thirteen years old when his father, the king of one of the small countries of Norway, was put to death by the queen of Sweden with cruel tortures. When Olaf heard of how his father had been treated he vowed a great oath against Sweden to avenge his father's death.
His mother, Queen Aasta, fitted out a great dragon-ship, or war vessel, for her young son, and manned it with the toughest and hardiest warriors and sailors in all Norway. Olaf himself, though only thirteen, was large and fearless and his men had great respect for him, calling him Olaf, the King, though he had no land to rule over. But he was of Viking blood, the sea was his home and war was his most loved occupation.
With fire and sword the Boy Viking and his sea rovers ravaged the coasts of Sweden. Nothing could stay their hand. With every burned building and every slain man Olaf would cry out, "Vengeance for Harold! the death of my father is atoned for in blood!" And his men would raise their fierce war cries until the affrighted villagers fled far inland.
At last they came to Sigtun, which was the old name for Stockholm. Through the marshes and along the winding channels of the narrow straits their ships had made their way, until they anchored by the very gates of the town. Clambering over the walls, the pirates swarmed into Sigtun, and soon were holding high carnival in the halls of the Swedes.
But the king of Sweden was not idle all this time. His fleet was in fast pursuit of the marauders. While Olaf and his men were making merry in Sigtun a swift runner came bearing the news of approaching disaster.
"The ships of Sweden are upon us! The sea straits are already filled with their long prows. The way out is blocked, and they are a hundred to one!" was the startling cry.
Olaf laughed disdainfully. "Does he think to catch the sea-wolves of Norway in a trap? We are not so easily caught as he thinks. To your ships, ye Vikings, and let us show our teeth to the Swedish hounds!"
The men hurried to their ship and put out over the narrow strait, but they were too late. Across the passage the king of Sweden had stretched great chains and no ship could pass.
"I have trapped the wolves that are devouring our land," said he gleefully, when he saw the Norwegian ships coming.
Olaf saw the obstruction and shook his fist at the Swedish fleet. "You think I am caught, do you?" he cried. "There are more ways than one for Olaf to take his wolves out of a trap."
Turning to his old helmsman he said, "Can we cut that chain and fight our way through?"
The old helmsman shook his head and replied, "You could not cut that chain with our prows, and if you did there are many ships to our one."
"Then we will bite our way across the Swedish fen," said the young king. "Ho, ye sea-wolves of Norway, steer for the marsh and let the Swedish hounds think we are run aground!"
All night long Olaf and his men worked in the mud cutting a way through the marsh to the open sea. By daylight the canal was ready and the waters of the sea rushed in to fill it.
"Lift your anchors and unship the rudders and hoist the sails. All hands to the oars, and pull for the open sea and Norway!" were the lusty orders of the boy pirate. Up came the anchors and the rudders were unshipped to prevent their scraping the bottom of the marsh. A breeze from behind filled the sails and the rowers bent to their work.
With a great rush the tide and the wind carried them on to the open sea, to the dismay of the Swedish king, who thought it was a miracle, and that some saint was lifting the Norwegian ships over the marsh.
And so Olaf escaped from the trap of his pursuers and to this day the Viking's canal is still shown to those who are interested in stories of the old days.
After awhile word came from England that King Ethelred, the Unready, was calling for help to fight the Danes that were overrunning his country. This suited Olaf and his men, for they were ever ready for war and adventure. Therefore it was not long before his ships sailed up the Thames and came near to London town, where the Danes had already appeared and where the people were already in great distress.
King Ethelred heard the war horns of the pirates and greeted their dragon-ships with great joy. "You come in good time, King Olaf," said he, "for the Danes have built a great fort of earth and timber at Southwark, and have taken possession of London Bridge, so that we may neither pass up nor down the river, nor cross over to attack them."
"Why, then, we must pull down London Bridge, so that they shall all perish by our hands," replied the Boy Viking with great enthusiasm.
"Impossible!" replied Ethelred. "The Danes swarm upon it and will crush any boat that comes near. There is no force here strong enough for such a feat."
But Olaf was not unready like the weak king, and said to him, "Place your ships by the side of mine and you shall yet see London Bridge fallen down."
The old bridge was not the great structure of the present day, but a wooden bridge, wide enough for two wagons to pass and supported on piles driven into the river bed. On the bridge the Danes had fortified themselves, thinking they were secure against attack.
Olaf ordered great coverings like roofs to be made for the decks of his ships. For this purpose he tore down houses, and used the wood. Under these coverings or roofs he knew his men could work and fight, and still be protected from the stones and arrows of the Danes on the bridge above them.
When all was ready he gave out the order, "Lower all sails and take out the oars, and all hands pull for the bridge."
The Danes were greatly astonished when they saw those floating houses on the water, from the roofs of which their stones rolled into the river, and which their arrows and spears could not pierce. When the ships came to the bridge they anchored. The Danes hurled great stones upon them, and tried to break through the covering, but their efforts were in vain. Olaf and his men were safe under the stout wood of the English forests.
"Now for the cables! Wrap them around the piles, over and over, and tie them well," were the orders that were issued to the men.
In spite of the thunder of rolling stones, and the noise of spears striking the roof, and the cries of the Danes, the sturdy sailors of Norway wrapped their strong cables twice around the piles of the bridge. One by one they were fastened to the ships, the Danes above not knowing what was going on.
Then Olaf shouted his orders above the noise of the stones and the spears, "Man the oars, and pull with all your might! Down stream and steady all! Let the cable out and pull with a mighty tug!"
With a great shout the rowers cast loose their ships from the bridge, dragging the cable ends with them, leaving the other ends tied to the wooden pilings. The ships gathered speed as the rowers bent their mighty arms; the Danes uttered a great cry as they saw their impending fate; the cables stretched, tugged, and with a mighty lurch the piles gave way and London Bridge came tumbling down.
The Danes upon the bridge fell into the water, and many were drowned in their heavy armor. Some few fled into Southwark where they were easily captured. There was great rejoicing by the people, and who knows but that the song of "London Bridge is fallen down" may have been first sung upon the day when Olaf showed Ethelred how to outwit an enemy?
Again Olaf and his men sailed away in quest of adventure. Along the French coast they spread consternation and created havoc. Towns were destroyed, spoils were gathered, ships were sunk, until at last the sea rovers lay at anchor in the harbor of Bordeaux, waiting for a fair wind to take them to the land of Jerusalem.
One day Olaf lay asleep in his cabin. Suddenly he dreamt a wondrous dream, in which a great figure of a man with a terrible countenance appeared before him. The vision spoke to him as follows:
"King Olaf, thou art too brave and too noble for the deeds of a pirate. Thy country of Norway needs thee now more than the land of Jerusalem. Son of Harold, turn again to thy home and to thy mother, for thou shalt be crowned king of all Norway."
The vision was gone and Olaf awoke. He called his old friend, the helmsman, and told him of the vision and described the man who had appeared to him.
"It is thine own uncle, whom my eyes have beheld in life," said the old sailor. "I take it as an omen that Norway stands in need of Olaf, and that our ships should be turned homeward."
"Then homeward we go, and the kingdom of Norway shall be mine," shouted the young pirate, for he was only sixteen or seventeen years old at the time, and being a king was very much to his liking.
Now the king of all Norway, Earl Eric, had just died. For thirteen years he had held the kingdom away from the rightful heir, and so when his son Hakon came to rule in his stead, there were many who declared that the rule of the usurpers should be at an end. Olaf had been warned in a vision, and was on his way to claim a throne that could just as well be his as Hakon's.
The Boy Viking's dragon ships came in sight of the shores of Norway. A bold challenge was sent to Hakon to make good his claim to the throne, for Olaf was come to demand it of him. Hakon made haste to meet his antagonist, for he also was young, and would like to be king.
Hakon had one warship and Olaf now had only two of all the fleet that once had sailed with him. But those two had been tried by storm and battle, and the men on them were sea-worn veterans.
"It is an easy task to trick such a sailor as Hakon. We will turn him over in the sea," said Olaf with a laugh.
Thereupon he ordered a stout cable to be laid between the two ships, each end attached to a capstan. The ships then stood on either side of the strait through which Hakon's one ship must pass, the cable lying on the bottom across the strait and between the ships. All war gear was carefully removed and the men went below so that the vessels of Olaf looked like two harmless merchantmen lying quietly at anchor.
On came Hakon's one warship seeking for the foe. The banners were flying, the horns were sounding, and Hakon himself was on deck. The rowers pulled between the harmless looking merchant ships, on their way out to the open sea, where they supposed Olaf was lying in wait.
There was a quick stir on the supposed merchant vessels. The capstans began to revolve rapidly; there was a creaking of chains and a rush in the water. Suddenly the ship of Hakon stopped amid stream and one end began slowly to rise out of the water caught by the ever-tightening chain. Higher and higher rose the stern of the doomed boat, until her prow plunged into the water and she sank to the bottom of the strait. Olaf and his men laughed loud and long at the overthrow of their enemy.
King Olaf took all the men he could out of the water, Hakon among them, and made them prisoners. The next day he ordered Hakon to be brought before him.
The two were of the same age. Hakon was fair and well mannered, while Olaf was darkened by exposure and rough with the wild life of piracy.
"I am thy prisoner," said Hakon. "Do with me what thou wilt. One can die bravely as he has lived. Speak thy will and let me know it quickly."
But Olaf had no heart to slay his captive. Looking at him intently he replied, "Earl Hakon, I intend thee no harm. Do thou but kneel and confess me king of Norway and thou shalt be free."
The young earl bowed low and said, "Thou art King Olaf indeed, and henceforth I am thy vassal."
And so Hakon took the oath of allegiance, and departed to his uncle, King Canute, of England. Olaf sailed into Norway and in less than a year's time was crowned king of all that country. He turned out to be so wise and able a ruler and did so much good for his people that in after years they made him a saint, and the shrine of Saint Olaf is still to be seen in the cathedral of the old town where the Boy Viking was crowned king.