Stalking Olaf

In 2011 I went to Norway, specifically to a town on the west coast called Trondheim, Norway’s third “most populous municipality”. I know there are technical differences but for simplicity, let’s call it Norway’s third biggest city. Trondheim was founded as the capital in the late tenth century by the king at the time, Olaf Tryggvason. There’s a statue of him on a big pillar in the middle of the town square.

Later in the year I found myself in Orkney and I ran into good King Olaf again. He was either born here or he spent a big chunk of his childhood here, possibly both. Orkney belonged to Norway once upon a time and the evidence remains in the place names and in the cathedral, St Magnus Cathedral, named after a Viking who refused to raid, pillage and plunder. Later on, King Olaf forcibly Christianised the islands.

Later still in the year, I made my first trip to Iceland and yet again ran into Olaf Tryggvason, here operating under his Icelandic name, Olafur. He’d forcibly Christianised Iceland as well in 997, sending a missionary called Þangbrandr – the fiery Thangbrand – with the message of “renounce Odin and Thor and worship God and Jesus or I’ll kill you all”, which Þangbrandr tried to do. It didn’t work very well – they had more luck in 1000AD when two of the successful converts spoke peacefully at the Alþing and added “you can keep worshipping the Norse gods, just don’t let anyone see you doing it”.

Last night I went to Andover. I didn’t entirely plan to go to Andover, it came about very suddenly and very stupidly because I have terrible impulse control. This morning I did a little bit of reading about it, because I like to know things (I was the teenager who woke up at the crack of dawn and read an actual paper encyclopaedia in bed) and I stumbled across Olafur yet again. He was probably baptised in Norway but he was almost certainly confirmed right there in Andover. This Viking king, who I’d inadvertently followed over half of northern Europe, has been within an hour’s drive of my house. Alright, so it was more than a millennium ago but all the same.

Suddenly he seemed very real. He wasn’t just a name and a series of stories of violence and religious wars. Suddenly, in my imagination, he became a huge monster of a man with a long red beard who would glare at weedy little Æthelred the Unready, ineffectual king of England at the time who allowed the Vikings to invade and lost his throne to Sweyn Forkbeard, the Dane who also took the Norwegian throne after the death of – guess who? – Olafur Tryggvason.

Sweyn Forkbeard is interesting enough too. He was the son of Harald Bluetooth – you’ve heard of him, the Bluetooth on your phone etc is named after him – and he was the father of Cnut the Great, him who tried to turn back the tide, and who also took the throne from poor Æthelred’s son Edmund Ironside, who – true to his name – was a lot tougher than his father. To be fair, Cnut waited until Edmund was dead but a millennium on, no one’s quite sure how he died – possibly murder, possibly wounds sustained in battle. Certainly not natural old age.

I hated history at school. I’m looking at myself quite oddly now for finding this all as fascinating as I do. I wish they’d taught us this properly.