Text: Claire Lessiau
Photographs: Claire Lessiau & Marcella van Alphen
She is walking briskly. Past the old bridge, along the back side of the colourful wooden warehouses on stilts, towards the train station. It is Sunday afternoon, last day of the Norwegian holidays and the train to Oslo will depart soon. She is carrying a sturdy pair of hiking boots, a 40-litre backpack, and wearing a large smile between satisfaction and serenity. Her face is bright red after days spent in the outdoors. Like her, every year, many complete the Saint Olaf pilgrimage to Trondheim, and even more so during the Saint Olaf festival taking place around July 29, the Saint’s day. To get the official stamp, walking 100 kilometres along the millennium-old hiking path is required. However, many cover much more, and often the 640 kilometres (400 miles) between Oslo and Norway’s third city.
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Funnily enough, most pilgrims, while in Trondheim, fail to actually visit the holiest point in Norway and the cradle of the country that has been excavated only recently. Walk in the footsteps of the founder of Norway and let Saint Olaf, the Viking chief who Christianized and united Norway into one kingdom, be your guide in Trondheim and its beautiful surrounding region of Trøndelag…
Who is Olaf II Haraldsson, the Saint Viking Olaf the Holy?
At the turn of the first millennium, Norway was ruled by a king and a network of powerful chieftains, some of the most powerful of them were the Earls of Lade, controlling Central, Northern and Western Norway.
Olaf Haraldsson, son of a petty king, was born in this time, around 990, in a divided Norway under Danish rule. A Viking, he left at 12 on a drake to raid Europe, and participated in many lootings and battles. Estonia, Finland, the UK, Denmark, France… He was feared everywhere. The Franks referred to him as Olaf the Bloody as he was known for being unforgiving during his raids up the Seine River, stealing, killing, raping.
A young man, he spent a Winter at the Duke of Normandy’s court in Rouen, France, a Norseman enclave. Although Christianity had already been introduced in Norway, often along easily accessible routes, it was during this stay in Rouen that Olaf was taught Christianity by the duke’s own brother, the Archbishop Robert of Rouen. Very ambitious, Olaf realised fast how Christianity helped anchor power, and was baptized in 1014 in Rouen.
He returned to Norway with a vision and a call to unite his kingdom into one Christian country with new Christian legislation. Some petty kings followed, but this did not please everyone. Nevertheless, Olaf Haraldsson who had declared himself King of Norway, tamed the fierce opposition from the local nobility, defeating the Earls of Lade, and at last ruling on a self-standing unified country… At least from 1015 until 1028: Olaf and his Christianisation were not popular in Norway, and after a power game involving the earls and the Danish King, he was forced to flee.
In exile, Olaf had a dream. It was a call to return to fight for his country. He set out on his way home with a small army. Once in Trøndelag, his plan to get support to overthrow his enemies turned sour. Instead, they were met by a peasant army led by a few chieftains. The battle took place on 29 July 1030 in Stiklestad, amongst the rolling hills with the Trondheim Fjord in the distance.
Olaf the Stout was injured in what will become the founding battle of Norway: an axe wound above his left knee. He leaned against a rock – that will become known as Olafssteinen and that is still housed in the Church of Stiklestad – and asked God for help. Then, he was struck by a spear under his armour and up into his stomach before he received a final wound on the left side of his neck. He died from his injuries. A local farmer cared for the body of the former King. His legend was only about to start…
Saint Clement’s Church [Trondheim]
King Olaf was an ambitious man, a smart political leader and a brave fighter, but up until his death, he was not necessarily liked by his contemporaries, one must admit. His legend started to take a peculiar turn about a year after his passing.
After the battle of Stiklestad, Olaf was buried close to a river. About a year later, his coffin popped up to the surface. It was buried again. But then, it kept popping up, to be buried again by local farmers. After a while, some decided to open the coffin: his hair and nails had grown and, according to records, a nice fragrance emanated. This could only be a miracle!
Ironically, the same peasants who fought him decided to take his body to the nearby city of Trondheim to sanctify him on the altar of Saint Clement’s Church, the very church Olaf had established himself. Post-mortem, he instantly became the local Nordic Saint the Catholic Church needed to support its growth in the region, and the unifying political symbol that his very opponents used to place his own son, Magnus, on the throne of a unified Norway.
Norway was born precisely on the altar of Saint Clement’s Church when Olaf the Bloody became Saint Olaf, the eternal King of Norway.
Trondheim’s Nidaros Cathedral
At the time of Olaf’s sanctification, construction started immediately to house his precious relics in a majestic cathedral. It started modestly as a timber chapel, and it took about 269 years for the soapstone Nidaros Cathedral to be built. In the 1060’s, the body of the late King Olaf was moved to be displayed in the larger cathedral that became the end point of an important pilgrimage for Nordic Christians.
Back then, at the time of stave churches, such a cathedral inspired by the English gothic cathedrals in a city strong of 2,000 inhabitants with hardly any knowledge of stone construction was quite an achievement. Builders from England, Northern Europe and France participated. The church burnt down several times and was rebuilt and expanded as more pilgrims congregated. It remained in a pretty poor state until the nineteenth century when young Norway decided to restore it as a unification symbol. The restoration lasted 150 years and a team of 30 still cares for the fragile northernmost Gothic cathedral.
Today, as we walk in at the end of July around Saint Olaf’s day, surrounded by pilgrims, we are surprised by the grandeur of the Nidaros Cathedral. Standing in the apse, the majestic rose widow softly filters the light. Below it, Northern Europe’s largest organ with its 9,620 pipes impresses. By the choir stands the baptism sculpted by the famous Norwegian artist Gustav Vigeland who also carved the wooden crucifix above the apse. Pilgrims queue towards the ambulatory: at the reformation, relics were banned and Saint Olaf was buried in an unknown location in the cathedral. It is said to be left of the beautiful chest depicting the battle of Stiklestad… That is, most probably…
The Archbishop’s Palace
It was so important for the Catholic Church to anchor better in the North thanks to Saint Olaf that the Archbishop’s Palace, a city within the city, was built next to the cathedral.
If the founding figure of Norway is Saint Olaf, the country did not gain its independence before 1905. For most of its history, its king actually sat in Denmark. The archbishop was all the more important that he was heading the national council here, and even melting his own mint, a rare privilege.
The palace has not been inhabited for a long time as the last archbishop of Norway left in 1537. Still, it remains an important symbol: today, the royal regalia – the crown, sceptre, orb, sword of state and royal standard – that symbolizes the Norwegian monarchy is showcased here and reverted by Norwegians.
With this cult to Saint Olaf, the very place where he fell also became part of the pilgrimage. Tradition says that the altar in the Stiklestad Church was later built at this very location, where Olafssteinen can still be touched.
In 1930, Alf Rolfsen painted a new altarpiece fresco to commemorate the 900th anniversary of the Battle of Stiklestad. Most likely it is the only place in the world where the saint depicted above the altar is carrying a weapon, probably understandable for a Viking Saint. The same themes as the ones of the Nidaros chest are represented: in the morning, the King calls his soldiers to rest. He himself dreams of climbing a ladder that reaches heaven. During the day, he is struck down and he sees death appearing. At night, lays the corpse of the King bathed in light amidst the battlefield.
The battlefield itself has become an important cultural centre. As we walk by the reconstructed Viking farm, we are witnessing life prior to the battle of Stikelstad. We enter the impressive long house typical of the 900’s, barely lit by the central fire and a few candles. On a large wooden table, a couple of students in Viking costumes play Viking chess. On another one, the archaeologist Per Steinar J. Brevik demonstrates how iron is obtained from ore that is roasted into a bloom before being welded into usable iron by the blacksmith. One of the most important commodities of the Vikings, iron allowed them to make weapons and tools, such as fire steels, that struck against the sharp edge of a flint stone were used to create sparks to make fire. Other crafts such as weaving, making skis or carving wood are also hosted in the long house that was the assembly hall of the Vikings. Outside, Per shows us the two-storey guest loft he built himself, using ancient techniques. The Viking farm is an ongoing project, being expanded over the years while ancient skills are passed down.
From our room at the Scandic Stiklestad hotel, the 1807 Olavsstøtten monument dominates a small mound. It marks one of Norway’s oldest and most important memorial sites, as according to the legend, this is where a blind man regained his sight after touching the blood of the late King on the night of 30 July 1030, one of the first miracles associated to Olaf the Holy.
Following the relics of Saint Olaf is not only a great way to visit Trondheim and its surroundings, making more sense of landmarks, but also a way to grasp today’s Norway better. From the most renowned stave churches, to the most hidden gems, Olaf the Holy is still omnipresent and remains a strong national symbol, almost a millennium after the legendary passing of the Viking Saint.
- The Scandic Stikelstad is an integral part of the Stiklestad National Culture Centre and the ideal place to stay to fully enjoy the area with its open-air museum, church and Catholic and Orthodox chapels, and Viking farm.
- The Stiklastadir beer brewed at the Inderoy Gardsbryggeri brewery in Inherred can even be enjoyed at the Skalden restaurant of the Scandic Stiklestad hotel, a stone’s throw away from the landmark church of Stiklestad!
- Check out this interactive map for the specific details to help you plan your trip and more articles and photos (zoom out) about the area (short tutorial)!
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