Yet so much of his life is shrouded in mystery and myth. As with most rulers from the early medieval period, separating fact from fiction is only half the story...

Troubled early life

For the king who was seen as the fundamental reason for the Viking societies' adoption of Christianity from the early 11th century CE, modern historians have scant historical records of the early years of Olaf Trygvasson. 

There are no contemporary written accounts of his life, with the first being written more than two centuries after his lifespan, in the 12th century CE. This work, Historia Norwegiæ, paints a picture of a turbulent and insecure start to young Olaf's life. He was supposedly born on the Orkney Islands in the early 960s CE. Despite being born in this remote outpost of the Viking world, Olaf was said to have endured a less-than-stable childhood.

The Heimskringla, a collection of Old Norse sagas about Norse kings, regales how Olaf was born sometime after his father had been murdered. The young Olaf was supposed to be of royal blood and said to be the distant relative of Harald Fairhair. Perhaps it was due to this fact that his father was murdered, and his mother took refuge in the supposed safety of the Orkney Islands

The man behind his father's murder, Harald Greycloak, had recently seized the throne from King Haakon the Good, and his father may well have been a supporter of the ousted king. With Greycloak's attention now turning to the mother and child in hiding, they fled to Oppland in Sweden, where Olaf's grandfather lived.

The long sleeve of the Greycloak was never out of sight, and the new ruler of Norway tried to bully the Swedish King to hand them over. Relenting by sending out a posse of men to return mother and son to Greycloak, Olaf's fierce mother, Astrid, was said to have beaten off the gang and fled with her son for the safety of the Kievan Rus, where her brother served the ruler, Vladimir the Great.

Kievan Rus

If life wasn't bad enough for this future king of Norway, the next phase of young Olav's life would only get worse. Again, the historical records are sketchy, so we must rely on later chroniclers like the author of the Heimskringla, 12th century CE Icelandic historian, politician, and man of letters, Snorri Sturluson

Fleeing Sweden and heading eastward, their destination was the recently established city of Novgorod, founded a little more than a century earlier by Olaf's Norse compatriots in 859 CE. Sturluson relates how, upon boarding a merchant's vessel headed for the city, Vikings (yes, literal Vikings) from the area that is now the country of Estonia, hijacked the vessel. The entire crew was either ruthlessly slaughtered or taken captive, including Olaf.

Whilst it is possible that Olaf was indeed taken as a slave – slavery was, after all, the backbone of the Viking economy, which saw people from as far apart as Iceland and Baghdad linked by the suffering of human bondage – there is no historical record of this. We must trust Sturluson when he tells of a visiting emissary of Vladimir the Great doing the rounds in the slave market of some Estonian town. 

The emissary spots a boy who is clearly not a native and buys the freedom of young Olaf. He was then brought to the court of Vladimir the Great, yet not without one bloody flourish. Olav was said to have spotted one of his captors in the Novgorod marketplace and, taking an axe, killed him with a swift blow to the head. An angry mob, unaware of the backstory between the two, chased Olaf all the way to the Royal Palace.

Olav was said to have spotted and killed one of his captors in a Novgorod marketplace. Illustration: The Viking Herald

Romantic and political relationships

This is the part of the story where a love interest arrives. After years of service in Vladimir's court (again, the exact details are unknown), Olaf became a true Viking warrior. 

He leads raids and campaigns against the Wends, especially in what is now Denmark and northern Germany. He was said to have been caught in a storm, with an exact date of 982 CE given (it appears that such metrological events were obviously worth recording in the early medieval period, foreshadowing weather reporters by about a millennium), and Olaf wound up in a port. 

Coming ashore, he made inquiries and ended up meeting the ruler and was smitten by the ruler's daughter, Geira. After a short courtship, they were married, and Olaf won her love and trust by recapturing the surrounding towns that had been lost from her father's grip.

Love was not the only basis for relationships in Olaf's life. The  Holy Roman Emperor, Otto II, had long been waging a border war against people in Viking societies along the Danevirke, a huge wall and series of fortifications constructed by Viking rulers, in Denmark, to keep the Saxon, and later Frankish, armies out. 

Otto assembled a huge force, including Olaf, to fight off the "pagan" armies of Danish king Harald Bluetooth and his Norwegian stooge, Haakon Jarl. The land battle proved indecisive, but a swift naval battle later with the huge coalition winning and forcing Bluetooth to convert to Christianity.

Conversion and reign

The next phase of Olaf's life comes after the death of his wife. He was said to be so grief-stricken that he waged a bloody campaign of raidings throughout much of Northern Europe. 

Eventually, after more than four years, he landed on the Scilly Islands, where he met a seer – whether this was a practicer of the Norse magic seiðr is unclear, but the soothsayer told him a prophecy. Olaf would survive an assassination attempt and then be a great king only if he agreed to be baptized upon recovery from the murder attempt. 

When he ventured back to his ship, an attempt on his life unfolded exactly as the soothsayer had predicted. It was this that caused Olaf to be converted to Christianity and become, later, one of its most fervent proselytizers.

Whether this meeting with the seer actually happened is impossible to prove, and, if we use another medieval chronicle, The Saga of Olaf, it was said that he converted after hearing God's voice whilst living in what is now Russia. 

Nonetheless, this new spiritual belief must have spurred Olaf on. He ended up in Ireland – an important part of the Viking world – and soon became married to the sister of a King of Dublin. Yet events in Norway would drag Olaf across the North Sea to fulfill the prophecy.

Olaf's rule in Norway was characterized by a harsh attitude toward forced conversions. Illustration: The Viking Herald

Norway

The kingdom of Norway was, technically, under the rule of Harald Bluetooth but, in practice, overseen by Jarl Haakon. Haakon was, essentially, Bluetooth's stooge and became even more unpopular with the local population when he said he'd take his pick of the Norwegian elite's daughters to make his personal concubines. 

Furthermore, his alliance with Bluetooth was weakening as, after the conversion of Bluetooth to Christianity, Haakon had remained steadfast in his acceptance only of the Old Norse religion. Ever the opportunist, Olaf spotted a potential weakness and sailed for Norway.

Upon his arrival in Norway, the local population welcomed him, rising up in rebellion against Haakon. He met his untimely death, however, cowering in a pigsty with a servant who would ultimately decapitate the once ruler of Norway when he dozed off to sleep. Olaf then traveled all over Norway, not only submitting the regions to his rule but also making sure, by the point of a sword, that they would be baptized.

His rule in Norway was characterized by an apparent harsh attitude toward forced conversions, of the local population, to Christianity. Leif Erikson, the explorer who was said to have beaten Christopher Columbus to North America by about half a millennium, was personally baptized by Olaf and brought a priest with him on his travels. 

Olaf also oversaw the widespread conversion of the Orkney Islands, then a possession of the Norwegian crown, to Christianity.

Downfall and legacy

King Olaf, the son of a King of Viken and great-grandson to the unifier of Norway as a nation, Harald Fairhair, was perhaps not the best diplomatic ruler. All this forced conversion to Christianity, forcing whole communities, on pain of death, to give up the religion and the cherished beliefs of their ancestors, certainly disgruntled a lot of people. 

The powerful northern barons, the Jarls of Lade, often literal kingmakers in Norwegian politics for centuries, soon made overtures to Swedish King Olaf Skotkonung and Danish King (but perhaps a barber's nightmare) Sweyn Forkbeard.

Sailing home from a campaign (later sources called this a "Crusade" based on Olaf's predisposition for converting people with violence) in Pomerania (the Baltic shoreline of what is now Poland and Germany), King Olaf was ambushed by a huge naval armada of the two Scandinavian kings and the Jarls. 

A devastating naval battle was said to have taken place near the island of Svolder, in which Olaf's navy was decimated. All but one ship remained, King Olaf's flagship, the Ormen Lange, said to be the largest of the entire Viking era. Facing his inevitable defeat, Olaf chose death instead of surrender and was said to have jumped from the ship, in full armor, rather than get into the hands of his foes. A dramatic end to a life full of high drama.

Olaf Trygvasson is best remembered today as not only the founder of Norway but as a key force in converting the largely pagan Kingdom of Norway to Christianity. His use of forced means – especially violence and torture – has somewhat diminished his reputation. 

He was, however, a man and a ruler of his time and an important figure in the transition of Norway from a pagan to a Christian society, from a nation of Viking rulers to a medieval Kingdom.

Classical Music Magazine has published an article on the musical inspiration Olaf Trygvasson has provided down the ages, available to read here.

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