Gateway to the Classics: Stories of the Vikings by Mary MacGregor
Stories of the Vikings by  Mary MacGregor

King Olaf the Saint

The next King of Norway reigned for fifteen years. He also was called Olaf, and was of royal birth. Olaf Haraldson, or Saint Olaf, the name by which he is better known, was brought up by his foster-father, Hrane The Far-travelled.

He was a beautiful boy, with light brown hair, piercing eyes, and cheeks that were always pink and white. Before he was very old he had learned to handle a sword, throw a spear, and string a bow. He was very skilful at the forge, and could shape and temper weapons as well as any smith.

When the lad was twelve years old Hrane took him on a Viking expedition. No sooner had he stepped on board the long-ship than the boy was chosen captain of the band, and given the title of king. This was because he was of royal birth, though at that time he had neither land nor subjects over which to rule.

The first battle the lad fought was with another band of Vikings off the coast of Sweden.

Olaf's ships were larger than those of his enemy in this his first battle, but there were fewer of them. The lad, however, ordered his ships to be laid between two rocks, so that it would be difficult for the enemy to reach his fleet. As they approached slowly in single file, Olaf's men threw out grappling irons, and drawing one ship at a time close to their own vessels, they jumped on board and speedily cleared the decks. The enemy soon saw that they were worsted, and those who could took to flight.

Between the year 1009 and 1012 Olaf was in England helping King Æthelred against the Danes. To his care was intrusted the defence of the coast, and he sailed up and down with many warships proving a terrible foe to other Vikings who came to England in search of booty.

But it was not only in England that this brave warrior fought. In the Baltic, in Friesland, in France, and in many other far-off countries his name was known and dreaded. Fifteen of his expeditions are described in the old Sagas, but of these I must not stop to tell you.

It was not surprising that the people of Norway, as they heard of Olaf's prowess, thought that here was a fitting king to rule over them. Moreover, they wished to have a ruler of their own, and to throw off their allegiance to Denmark. Thus in 1015 Olaf was chosen at a great Thing to be King of Norway.

Now Svein of Denmark had come to England and wrested the kingdom from Æthelred the Unready, as he was called. He had even been proclaimed king, but before he had sat on the English throne he died, leaving the kingdom to his son Knut, who now became King of Denmark. Knut was Olaf's great rival.

When his father died, Knut came to England to find Æthelred the Unready had gathered together an army, and with his son Edmund Ironside, was prepared to fight to regain the English crown.

But soon after this Æthelred died, and then Knut and Edmund Ironside agreed to divide the land between them. Edmund ruled in the south, while Knut reigned over the north of England. Knut married Æthelred's Queen, Emma, and had two sons, named Harald and Hardaknut.

Though he was now king of two countries, Knut's ambition was not yet satisfied. He wished to be king of a third country, of Norway, Where Olaf was reigning. So in 1026 he fitted out a fleet, with larger and more formidable vessels than had ever before been seen, and sailed away to his realm of Denmark. Here he collected more men and more vessels, and set out to fight against Olaf, and if it might be, to take from him his crown.

Olaf heard of the great army that was coming against him and he also assembled an army, but in the great battle that was fought Olaf was defeated. Then finding himself forsaken by his subjects, Olaf wished to sail away to the Holy Land. As he lay in a harbour waiting for a fair wind, he had a dream, and he, like other Norsemen, believed that dreams were sent to him by the gods.

As he slept, Olaf saw a man with a very noble countenance, who asked him not to forsake his country. "Go back, for thou wilt be king over Norway for ever," said the man.

When Olaf awoke and remembered his dream, he made up his mind to do as the man had said, and instead of sailing to the Holy Land he returned to Norway. He did not, however, wrest the kingdom again from Knut, but was slain on the battlefield in 1030.

After his death wonderful tales were told of Olaf. Around the sandhill where he was buried many miracles were wrought. For a beautiful well of water sprang up, and those who were infirm or sick came to drink of the healing stream and were cured. Even in his lifetime the touch of the king had been said to banish disease.

When the tidings of the miracles wrought at the well spread, the king's body was lifted and carried to Saint Clement's, a church which he himself had built in Throndhjem, and henceforth King Olaf was called Olaf the Saint.

He left behind him a son named Magnus.

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