This may have been the inspiration for the popular children's nursery rhyme, which has been sung for centuries. 

A Holy Viking king 

Despite many of their European counterparts giving their royals a boot over the course of the last century, Norwegians still love their monarchy. 

Current King Harald V can trace his royal lineage back to the early medieval period when, according to the sagas (if not reality), Harald Fairhair was said to be the first leader to unite and rule the country. 

Norwegians love their monarchy so much that some claim even the country's patron saint, Saint Olaf, known in life as Olaf Haraldsson, was a Norwegian king. 

Not only that, but centuries after his death, the Pope granted him the title Rex Perpetuus Norvegiae (Eternal King of Norway). 

Yet this Holy King was very much an earthy character. Olaf Haraldsson, as he was known before being crowned Olaf II and gaining his saintly epithet, ascended to the throne of Norway in 1015. 

He was a Viking warrior who spent years raiding and battling in what was then Anglo-Saxon England. 

He was heavily involved not only in warfare on the battlefield but also in the political machinations and maneuverings of Anglo-Saxon England, which still saw a large presence and influence of people from Viking societies. 

Somewhat surprisingly for a Viking, he was also employed as a mercenary to defend the very country he had been raiding against. 

In his service to the Anglo-Saxon King Æthelred the Unready, he was tasked with defending London against Viking incursions. 

In this capacity, he was said to have been responsible for the destruction of a bridge over the Thames in London. 

However, before we get to that, we must examine the Anglo-Saxon England in which Olaf Haraldsson fought and served. 

Marked by political strife, England in the early 11th century saw a power struggle between Danish and Anglo-Saxon rulers, culminating in the reigns of Sweyn Forkbeard and Cnut the Great. Illustration: The Viking Herald

A nation divided 

Before he was a king and a saint, Olaf was a mere Viking. 

He first enters the British history books as part of the Viking leadership that devastated the Anglo-Saxons at the Battle of Maldon in 991

Some historians have thrown doubt on whether the Olaf mentioned in the chronicles and sagas was THIS Olaf, but the general academic consensus seems to think so. 

Aside from inspiring a great Old English poem, though historically inaccurate, this battle was financially devastating for King Æthelred. 

He was forced to pay 10,000 "Roman pounds" (equivalent to 3,300 kilograms or about 7,276 pounds) of silver to the Vikings, hoping that this immense treasure would convince them to sail back to Scandinavia as richer men. 

However, Æthelred was mistaken. 

Historians have pointed out that this event sparked the last wave of Viking invasions and incursions into Anglo-Saxon England, traditionally bookended with the Battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066. 

For the best part of a century, Anglo-Saxon England was either under siege by Viking warriors or under their rule. 

Æthelred decided he needed a new strategy to deal with these Viking incursions. Going against all logic, he chose to hire Olaf to DEFEND England. 

Olaf was employed as a "sword for hire" to lead a mercenary army consisting of many of the warriors that Æthelred's forces had just been defeated by. 

The reasoning behind this strategy is best summed up by the famously foulmouthed former U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson, who said it was "better to have your enemies inside the tent pissing out, than outside the tent pissing in." 

At the Museum of London, a reconstruction drawing of Londinium from the year 120 depicts the city's Roman framework, which persisted until the mid-10th century. Illustration: Carole Raddato (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Old London Town 

By the turn of the 10th century, London was a small town but growing in importance. 

Nothing like the colossus it would become, it was not even the most important town in Anglo-Saxon England – Winchester held the King's treasury, and Canterbury was its religious heart. 

However, its strategic location on the river Thames, close to the English Channel, and thus trade with the continent, saw it gain more and more importance throughout the early medieval period. 

London was still largely built upon the Roman blueprint, with ruins dating back centuries. 

However, from the mid-10th century, Anglo-Saxon kings began investing in infrastructure throughout their realm. 

It should be noted that it was only in 954 that the last Viking ruler in England, Eric Bloodaxe, was expelled from Northumbria, ensuring Anglo-Saxon rule over what would become the Kingdom of England. 

Part of this rebuilding effort included the construction of a bridge across the Thames, connecting London to Southwark (then a separate village, now a suburb). 

Radiocarbon analysis indicates that trees were felled from 987 onwards, right in the middle of Æthelred's reign. 

Although not the first bridge to cross the Thames, his bridge was considered a vital link for communication and commerce to flow to and from London town. 

It was partially fortified to defend against Viking ships sailing up the Thames to lay siege to the town. 

He came in like a wrecking ball 

Following the fallout from Maldon, Viking warriors roamed England, proving a real headache for Æthelred. 

Things became even worse when Sweyn Forkbeard, a Viking king of Denmark, invaded the country to try to seize the throne and subdue the power and influence of Viking leaders there, like Thorkell the Tall

Sweyn stormed about England, and the boroughs fell like dominoes. 

London, too, fell to the power and brute force of the Viking invaders, but Æthelred was not finished yet. He had one Viking ace up his sleeve – Olaf Haraldsson. 

According to the sagas, it was at this critical moment, with the Viking force having captured London and holed up there, that Æthelred decided attack was the best form of defense. 

Wanting to cut off the Viking warriors, he was said to have ordered Olaf Haraldsson to destroy the bridge connecting London with Southwark. 

Sailing up the Thames with a flotilla of Viking ships, Haraldsson ordered his men to secure ropes to the wooden bridge and sail away, pulling it down. 

The bridge did indeed come falling down (though there probably wasn't a fair lady in sight, despite the nursery rhyme lyrics). 

According to the 13th-century poet and chronicler of the sagas, Snorri Sturluson, this action was done only in an effort to help defend Æthelred's grip on power. 

"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 moment of Saint Olaf's martyrdom. Source: Wikimedia Commons (Public domain)

Power, politics, and sainthood 

Sadly, for Æthelred, this tactic out of leftfield did not work. London fell soon after, and the king, along with his family, was forced into exile.

However, he did have the last laugh as Forkbeard, despite his successful invasion, died soon after in 1013. 

The Anglo-Saxon Witan, a sort of proto-parliament, called for Æthelred to return as king, while those of Scandinavian descent elected Forkbeard's son, Cnut, as their ruler.

Æthelred returned to claim the English throne but would die in 1016, leaving his son, Edmund, to defend the kingdom against another Viking invasion, this time by Cnut the Great

Edmund would be cut down on the battlefield, earning the nickname Ironside for his resistance against the Vikings, just months after his ascension to power. 

This event paved the way for Cnut to reintegrate England into what modern historians called the North Sea Empire, comprising the kingdoms of Denmark, England, and Norway under his rule. 

Of course, Olaf would go on to be crowned King of Norway in 1015 but lost a battle in 1028, forcing him into exile. 

He died at Stiklestad in 1030 while attempting to reclaim the Norwegian throne. However, his half-brother, Harald, managed to escape the battlefield alive to fight another day. 

It was his baptism during his time in England and his adoption of Christianity that ultimately led to a cult that helped unify Norway and consolidate Christianity in the kingdom

He was canonized by Pope Alexander III in 1164. 

The medieval London Bridge, completed in the late 12th century, stood for over 600 years until its replacement in the 19th century. Here it is depicted in 1757, just before the removal of its houses. Illustration: Samuel Scott (1702–1772)

Reconstruction spanning centuries 

London Bridge would be rebuilt, with further fortifications, during the 1030s, but this was not the last time it would fall. 

Fire wrecked this new bridge in 1136, finally prompting a ruler, King Henry II, to have it rebuilt not in wood but in stone. 

This was the "Old London Bridge" that survived until 1831. The Victorian-era bridge was responsible for millions of Londoners strolling across the Thames until a modern version was constructed in 1967. 

The first reference to the popular children's nursery rhyme dates back to the mid-17th century. 

However, we at The Viking Herald like to think that the sight of London Bridge being pulled down by Viking warships was a legend that lingered long in the memories of Londoners. 

It was in 1014, under the reign of King Æthelred, that London Bridge came falling down – for the first recorded time – very much thanks to a Viking Saint. 

Let's hope it never comes falling down again. 

For more information on the history of Vikings in England, visit English Heritage here.

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