Why was this battle, which very well may not have even taken place, dubbed as one of the most important duels in Norwegian history?
Fairhair's descendants and the battle for power
After Harald Fairhair's death in the early 930s, the legendary unifier of Norway, the country endured a century marked by intense internal strife, competing successors to the throne, and significant foreign interference.
The descendants of Fairhair engaged in conflicts with the influential northern barons, the Earls of Lade, to claim the Norwegian throne.
The nationwide division was exploited by outside actors, particularly the political and warrior elite in what was becoming the medieval kingdoms of Denmark and Sweden.
Not everyone was happy with this new political paradigm, however.
Olaf Haraldsson, a Viking and descendant of Fairhair, retired from his raiding adventures and was put forward as a locally-born King of Norway.
Following an epic sea battle against the combined forces of Swedish and Danish vassals at Svolder, off the coast of southern Norway, Haraldsson ascended to the throne with the support of the powerful chieftain Erling Skjalgsson and others.
Like his illustrious ancestor, Haraldsson then ruthlessly suppressed and subdued the petty kings and chieftains throughout central and northern Norway.
He also absorbed the Orkney Islands to extend his kingdom well from the Skagerrak to the tip of the British Isles.
Yet, this ruthlessness did not sap the spirits and only caused further bitterness and resentment against the powerful elite he had subdued.
Upon Harald Fairhair's death, Nidaros, modern Trondheim, turned into a focal point for political upheaval, as Olaf Haraldsson ambitiously returned from exile, aiming to overturn Danish influence and reclaim his kingship. Photo: saiko3p / Shutterstock
A sneak attack on Cnut and Kievan exile
Having reigned for over a decade, Olaf Haraldsson subdued internal opposition while forging alliances abroad with Swedish King Olof Skötkonung and his successor, Anund Jacob.
It was these foreign relations that would lead to Haraldsson's ultimate downfall.
With Danish King Cnut away on a campaign in England, Olaf would lead a military alliance with his Swedish counterpart, Jacob, to try and exploit this situation.
A huge naval flotilla tried to ambush Cnut's force upon his return to Scandinavia, meeting at the confluence of the Helge River in an engagement known as the Battle of Helgeå.
Despite the sneak attack, Cnut's overwhelming force (quantity has a quality all its own, as they say) won the day.
This naval loss weakened Olaf's position at home, and calls for change grew louder.
These calls would eventually lead to the support of King Cnut's invasion of Norway, forcing Olaf II into exile in the Kievan Rus.
He would be the first but not the last Norwegian king to seek refuge in this vast empire, established in part by Viking raiders and Norse traders.
He eventually made his way back to Sweden, where he stayed, waiting for his time to pounce and try to seize back his throne.
During this time in Sweden, particularly in the province of Nerike, local legend suggests he was not only a practicing Christian but an actively practicing one responsible for the baptism of many locals.
The historical record of this anecdote is sketchy, and many modern historians believe it was a later medieval addition to highlight Olaf's supposed saintly life.
With King Cnut reigning overseas, his regent in Norway, Hakon Eriksen, tragically drowned at sea in 1029.
This was the moment for the man formerly known as Olaf II to cross the Jämtland mountains and strike at Norway's then-capital, Nidaros, now modern-day Trondheim.
"'Olav the Holy's Fall in the Battle of Stiklestad,' a painting by Peter Nicolai Arbo from 1859, captures the dramatic moment of Olaf Haraldsson's downfall in the Battle of Stiklestad, where he fought as King Olaf II. Source: Peter Nicolai Arbo (1831–1892), Public domain
The Battle of Stiklestad
Regardless of how little historical detail there may be, we moderns owe a debt of gratitude to the many authors and chroniclers of the Norse sagas.
In these very sagas, we learn how Olaf Haraldsson crossed the mighty Jämtland mountains (echoes of Hannibal in his scope... minus the elephants) to launch a stunning surprise attack on the nation's capital at Nidaros.
With only 3,600 men, Olaf met a force – comprised mainly of peasants – of over 14,000 led by some of the powerful northern barons aligned with Cnut.
The exact historical details of the battle are sketchy, but thanks again to the sagas, we can add some historical color, if not accuracy.
According to the Heimskringla (a later medieval chronicle of the life of Scandinavian kings), Olaf led his men on with an inspiring Christian speech whilst the opposing force was spurred on by the simple cry of "Onward farmers, onward!"
Regardless of the exact details, Olaf's much smaller force was bound to lose, and Olaf himself fell in the battle.
It was claimed that he received three lance wounds, likely a later medieval embellishment likening his injuries to those of Christ on the cross.
Additionally, Thorir Hund reportedly delivered the fatal blow using a spear previously used by the former king to kill Thorir's nephew.
Olaf II fell on the battlefield, his forces melted away and were routed, and his younger stepbrother, Harald, fled to the Kievan Rus in exile.
Olaf's body was said to have been carried to the banks of the river Nid and eventually buried in Nidaros.
"The Death of Olav the Holy," an altarpiece from Trøndelag, believed to have been painted in Trondheim in the first half of the 14th century, depicts the significant moment of Saint Olaf's martyrdom. Source: Wikimedia Commons (Public domain)
Later holy myths and legends of Saint Olaf
A year after the battle, in 1031, some locals had a brilliant idea (as you do in the medieval period) to pry open Olaf's coffin and have a look.
The Heimskringla relates how, when the nosy locals opened the coffin expecting a skeletal discovery, they found Olaf's body incorrupt.
Not only that but his hair and nails had even grown! A local priest then started Olaf II's beatification process, which was eventually completed when he was declared a saint in 1164 by Pope Alexander III.
His burial site was chosen for a new cathedral, Nidaros, which evolved into one of the most important places of worship in Northern Europe throughout the medieval period.
It also marked the end of a lucrative pilgrim trail to come and pray at the tomb of Saint Olaf.
Historians are extremely skeptical about the hagiography of Olaf.
There are no contemporary records of his Christian conversion, proselytizing, or baptism of communities he stayed in.
Furthermore, the idea of an incorruptible body is one thing, but believing that his hair and nails continued to grow after being literally hacked to death takes a considerable amount of faith.
Nevertheless, his canonization as a saint and the legend of his life took on greater significance after his demise.
Pope Alexander III also granted him the title of Rex Perpetuus Norvegiae: Eternal King of Norway.
Nidaros Cathedral in Trondheim, the world's northernmost medieval cathedral, stands on Saint Olaf's gravesite, symbolizing the Battle of Stiklestad's impact on Norway's Christian heritage. Photo: Mikolaj Niemczewski / Shutterstock
A contentious legacy
So, was Stiklestad really the most consequential battle in Norwegian history?
Historians tend to err on the side of caution and argue that, though it is an important battle, it is probably not THE most consequential.
However, the myth and legend of Saint Olaf continue to be a powerful part of Norway's historical legacy and cultural cachet down through the ages.
For over a decade, from 1934 until 1944, the leader of the Nasjonal Samling (NS) party, Vidkun Quisling, gave several speeches at the supposed location of the Battle of Stiklestad.
In 1944, a 9-meter-tall NS monument was erected, in which Quisling tried to link his party to Norway's glorious past.
Thankfully, the political eyesore was taken down following Norway's liberation from Nazi German occupation in 1945.
Not for the last time would an extremist far-right party try to curry favor and appeal by linking to Norway's Viking history.
Experience the medieval journey of Saint Olaf worshippers by reading The Guardian's travel article on the subject, available here.
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