We look at the son of a warrior who was given the moniker "the Peaceful" and how his reign built the foundations of medieval Norway. 

Tough act to follow 

One thing about tracing Norwegian royalty is that there are, let's face it, lots of Haralds and Olafs to get confused about. The current King, Harald V, is the son of the much-loved King Olav V, adding more names to the mix. 

Separating your Haralds from your Olavs and Olafs can be a tough historical task. These names have been popular for Norwegian monarchs for more than a millennium. 

If we go back to the very end of the Viking Age, we see a father and son – Harald and Olaf – who both ruled over Norway but were very different in their personalities and approaches to ruling. 

Harald Sigurdsson – better known as Harald Hardrada – was perhaps the greatest Viking warrior of his age

Young Harald spent a lifetime fighting his way across Europe and its surroundings. He was only 15 when he was lucky to survive after being on the losing side during the Battle of Stiklestad, where his older half-brother, Olaf (later Saint Olaf), died. 

After fleeing the country, he spent years building an impressive reputation as a warrior, fighting in the Varangian Guard and rising to lead it. 

Olaf III's mother, Tora Torbergsdatter, gave birth to him around 1050, during a period when his father Harald Hardrada was also married to Elisiv of Kiev, a princess from the Kievan Rus. Illustration: The Viking Herald

Marriage is politics 

His years in exile, however, were wisely spent. Harald not only amassed a vast amount of wealth and military experience but also married a princess of the Kievan Rus, Elisiv

Yet despite this seemingly fruitful union, which produced three children, Harald appears to have also possibly married Tora Torbergsdatter, a Norwegian noblewoman, a few years later, around the late 1040s. 

Their union – or perhaps dalliance – produced two sons in two years, with the youngest, Olaf, born around 1049. 

His two marriages spoke of the realities of power in the medieval world. Historians believe he married Elisiv to secure favor and forge alliances with the Kievan Rus, who had close relations with his former employer, the Byzantine Empire. 

However, when he returned to Norway to claim the throne, which he won shortly after, he needed to ingratiate himself with the Norwegian nobility. 

Marrying Tora was the best way to secure, through marriage, the support and loyalty of the local nobles. 

Olaf III accompanied his father during the 1066 invasion of England and played a supporting role in the Battle of Stamford Bridge, where Hardrada was ultimately defeated by Harold Godwinson. Illustration: Peter Nicolai Arbo (1831–1892)

The Year of Three Kings and Stamford Bridge 

So, young Olaf Haraldsson was born into the Norwegian court with three siblings, all of whom were about the same age. 

We have little record of the relationship between Olaf and his father, but the "Thunderbolt of the North" must have seen something in Olaf to warrant bringing him along on campaign in 1066. 

Hardrada's eyes gazed across the North Sea and saw an England that was still very much part of the Viking world, in chaos. 

The Anglo-Saxon King Edward the Confessor died early in January, and Harold Godwinson reigned for the next nine months. 

However, Harold's claim to the throne was weak, and a rival claimant from the Viking-founded Duchy of Normandy, William, was eager to set sail and wage battle to secure his claim to the throne. 

We may never know whether Edward designated William as his successor, but William certainly thought so. He spent much of the summer of 1066 amassing a flotilla to transport his army across the English Channel. 

Yet, as Harold was keeping a nervous eye on his southern borders, a thunderbolt struck in the north. 

Harald Hardrada decided to invade England and stake his claim to the throne based on a supposed agreement between a former king of England, Harthacnut, and the King of Norway, Magnus. 

When Magnus died in 1047, Harald inherited his claim and planned to invade northern England in 1066 to seize the throne from Harold, whom he saw as a usurper. 

He took with him a very young Olaf, who stayed behind with the rearguard to protect the Viking ships, ensuring their escape route. 

As we know now, the Battle of Stamford Bridge was to be the high point of Harold Godwinson's career and reputation. 

Racing up to Yorkshire with his army, he managed to surprise Hardrada's men and landed a devastating blow by defeating this existential Viking threat. 

Hardrada fell in the battle, and most of his force was cut down fleeing the field. 

According to G.A. Auden in his 1927 article in the Journal of the Society for Army Historical Research, Hardrada's choice to have Olaf accompany him on the campaign may have been seen as anointing him as a successor. 

However, his father's sudden death closed the path to the English throne and made the path to the Norwegian throne decidedly more complicated. 

Following his coronation as Olaf III Haraldsson, he is credited with establishing the village of Bjorgvin (now Bergen) around 1070, which quickly developed into a vital hub for maritime trade. Photo: Marius Dobilas / Shutterstock

Return to Norway 

We have no firsthand account of Olaf's thoughts on this traumatic campaign. 

However, learning of his father's death and seeing the bloody and mauled remnants of his army scurry back to the safety of the ships must have left a strong impression on him. 

Upon his return to Norway, he shared the throne with his brother, Magnus, until Magnus' untimely death in 1069. 

Olaf was then crowned Olaf III Haraldsson, and his sole reign would be a rare respite of peace in what was becoming a very insecure and bloody era. 

Due to his father's bloody exploits and adventures, Olaf first set about securing his kingdom by making peace with his neighbors in Denmark and William I, also known as the Conqueror, the eventual winner in the English Year of Three Kings. 

After securing his borders from external threats, Olaf focused on internal stability by gaining the support of the Catholic Church, recognizing its authority, and overseeing the construction of Nidaros Cathedral in Trondheim. 

He was also credited with founding a village on the western coast of Norway named Bjorgvin (Bergen). 

According to an 1877 article in the Art Journal by T.R. Pritchett, Olaf III was responsible for the construction of Bergen's medieval cathedral, Christ Church. 

War and peace 

Olaf III was given the moniker Kyrre, which is best translated into English as "peacemaker," but that gives one the impression he may have been a submissive and meek king. He was not. 

Securing his borders from external and internal threats – be they kings or bishops – showed great strategic intelligence and pragmatism. 

Having seen what happens when kings venture overseas to pursue fame and glory, he decided that his most important role was to secure his throne, his kingdom, and his life rather than being hacked to pieces chasing foreign glory. 

His reign of more than a quarter-century is best remembered as a period of stability and peace. 

Only a few decades after his death in 1093, Norway plunged into more than a century of civil war and strife. 

Stepping out of his father's shadow, Olaf III made his mark in history as a pragmatic peacemaker who did his best to ensure peace and security in his realm in an increasingly violent and insecure era. 

For more information on how a coin minted during Olaf III's reign found its way to America, visit Numismatic News here.

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