Battle of Stiklestad: Deposed King of Norway Defeated by Peasant Army

 
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300PX-~1 Today in Military History: July 29, 1030 For today’s tale of military prowess, I return to my comfort zone of Dark Ages Scandinavia. Olaf Haraldsson, the exiled king of Norway, was seeking to take back his throne. There are a few questions that the historians have not adequately answered, but did that ever get in the way of telling a good story? Of course not! As a result of his defeat at this fight, Olaf was canonized a bit more than a year afterwards, becoming Saint Olaf, now the patron Saint of Norway. Background Most of what we know about Olaf comes to us courtesy of the sagas, the word-of-mouth histories and stories that were not committed to paper until many years after their creation. Probably the best known saga compiler was Snorri Sturluson, who collected several skaldic tales of Olaf and presented them with little attempt at historical inquiry. 200px-Olof_Overselo Olaf’s birth has been set by various saga-writers in the year 995, but this is at best a guess. Olaf was a descendant of Harald Fairhair, who ruled Norway between 872 and 930. Fairhair is considered to have founded the first Norwegian royal dynasty, which ruled Norway – in fits and starts – until 1162. In his early life, Olaf was known as “the Big.” As an historical sidenote, when Olaf’s mother was widowed, she re-married and produced Olaf’s half-brother Harald Siggurdsson (better known as Harald Hardrada, “the Ruthless”) who would rule Norway from 1044 until 1066, when he died in battle in northern England. [For more on Harald Siggurdsson, please re-visit my very first Burn Pit post of September 25, 2009: “This Day in Military History: Battle of Stamford Bridge.”] According to various sagas, Olaf was a mere youth of 12 when he went on his first Viking expeditions in the eastern Baltic Sea. He is also said to have been a part of the Viking attacks on England in 1009, which would make him all of 14 years old. As a member of the Viking army of Thorkell the Tall which ravaged England between 1009 and 1012, Olaf probably laid the foundation for his wealth during his time with this army. [The English monarch Æthelred the Poorly-Advised, hoping to make the Viking army “just go away,” paid a danegeld – extortion money in modern parlance – of 48,000 pounds of silver, an enormous sum in that time period.] After leaving England, Olaf joined a Norse raiding force that cruised down the western coast of France all the way down to the Atlantic coast of modern-day Portugal. Wikinger On his way home from Portugal, Olaf stopped in the city of Rouen at the court of Duke Richard of Normandy. The Normans were only two generation removed from their life as Vikings, but were now Christianized, westernized warriors and scholars. It appears that Olaf was baptized in Rouen at some time around the year 1014. This seems to coincide with the death of Sven Forkbeard, who was not only king of Denmark and England, but had control of large areas of Norway as well. Seeing an opportunity, Olaf the Big contacted Forkbeard’s son Knut and offered his services to help Knut regain England. Within a year, Knut was master of Denmark and England, with Olaf Haraldsson’s military and monetary help, apparently. As a result, it appears that Knut (also spelled Canute) imposed his will on Erik the jarl (earl) of Lade. Erik was one of the more powerful rulers in Norway and had a desire to be king of Norway. In exchange for giving up a claim to the Norwegian throne, Canute offered Erik the earldom of Northumbria, which was a great prize in its own right. Consequently, in 1015 Olaf Haraldsson aka “the Big” became King of Norway. 290px-Norway_1020_AD However, Canute regarded himself as the actual ruler of Norway, with Olaf as a tributary king. In about 1023, Canute sent a letter to Olaf, reminding him of his “secondary status” and urging him to come to London and recognize Canute as his overlord. Olaf, on the other hand, heartily disagreed with Canute’s take and politely refused. [Olaf probably thought that Canute would be too busy ruling England and Denmark to bother with Norway.] 220px-Olav_der_Heilige07 King Olaf seemingly did everything to enhance his royal power. He defeated the last remaining local jarls who might contest his reign, and pushed for the national acceptance of Christianity. Since the death of King Olaf Tryggvasson in battle in the year 1000, the rulers of Norway had not been enforcing Christian teachings, allowing worship of the Old Gods to again flourish. Christianity had taken hold in mainly Norwegian coastal areas; King Olaf made it his business to expand the “White Christ” to the inland areas of his realm. Unfortunately, he adopted the methods of the former ruler: threats, coercion, maiming and executions. Snorri tells of five minor kings from the Uppland district who were plotting rebellion. King Olaf learned of the plan, swooped into the Uppland region and took them all captive. Three of the kings were lucky, as they were merely sent into exile. Another one was blinded, and the other had his tongue cut out. Finally, in 1026 King Canute sent a large fleet (one sources says it was 600 Danish and English ships) to punish the wayward Olaf of Norway. With help from the King of Sweden, Olaf assembled a fleet nearly as big, possibly 480 vessels. The subsequent battle, called the battle of Helgeå near Sweden, was inconclusive, with both sides taking minimal losses. Competing saga accounts give both sides the victory. Two years later, Canute sent another fleet to chastise Olaf. In addition, Canute made common cause against Olaf with the Lade jarls. This time, Olaf decided to flee the country, first going to Sweden, then proceeding on to Kievan Rus – known as “Gardariki” in Norse saga-lore. However, after only a year, Olaf received word that the holder of the Norwegian throne, Hakon the last of the Lade jarls, had drowned at sea. Seeking to regain his throne, Olaf promptly opened his purse, bought himself some troops and sailed back to Sweden (his wife was a Swedish princess, so he probably thought they he could get some support there). He managed to raise some more supporters, and also sent word into central Norway, announcing his subsequent return. The Battle of Stiklestad According to Snorri, Olaf gathered a force of about 3600 men, most of them probably Swedes, likely with many Rus’ians thrown in. One source states that as Olaf marched overland through Sweden and into the mountains of Norway, he was forced to accept some less than savory characters into his employ. Some are described as bandits, and some were probably motivated by nothing more than the lure of loot and plunder. [It is interesting to note that the majority of the good Christian Olaf’s army was likely composed of heathens, as Sweden was still a hotbed of the Old Gods.] Olaf’s army arrived in a river valley called Verdal, which is about 50 miles north of the Norwegian capital of Nidaros. They established their camp at a farm called Sul near the town of Stiklestad, which was in the lower part of the valley. viking_waxe However, word of Olaf’s returned provoked a response, but not the one he had hoped for. Three forces of Norwegian warriors converged on the Verdal valley. They were led by Hårek from Tjøtta, Tore Hund from Bjarkøy, and Kalf Arneson – a man who had previously served Olaf – all of whom were either lower nobles or wealthy farmers who had gained the favor of the far-away Canute. The forces arrayed against the deposed king are numbered in the neighborhood of 7000 men, and they are usually referred to as a “peasant” army. More likely, they were small farmers who owed their allegiance to the three leaders. Also, they were all likely experienced in the use of arms, owing to the tradition of “going Viking” of the previous 200 years. 220px-Verdalselva One account states that Olaf’s forces arrayed themselves on a prominent hill, giving them some small advantage at least initially. However, when they saw the large force coming to fight them, Olaf probably thought the only way to win the battle was to attack and not defend. One could imagine the two forces of men charging each other, the ringing of sword on sword, the battle cries. One source states that Olaf’s men used the battle cry, “Fram, fram! Kristmenn, krossmenn, kongsmenn” (Forward, forward, Christ's men, cross men, king's men). In answer, their opponents shouted back, “Fram, fram, Bonder” (Forward, forward, farmers). As the fight continued, it is likely that the size of the “peasant” army began to take its toll on Olaf’s more experienced men. [Snorri also reported, incorrectly it turns out, of a near-total solar eclipse during the battle, with the sun’s face supposedly blood-red. Unfortunately, modern astronomers have determined the eclipse actually took place on August 31, over a month later.] 220px-Olav_den_helliges_saga_-_Kong_Olavs_fall_-_H__Egedius Finally, Olaf’s force was worn down by casualties, and his bodyguards were hard-pressed on all sides. The sagas say that Olaf was wounded three times, and he fell dead against a large rock. Olaf’s body was carried away by his fleeing retainers and temporarily buried in shallow grave on a riverbank. No casualty figures are known. In fact, if we are to believe Snorri’s account, the archaeological record for this battle should yield considerable finds. To the contrary, artifacts from the fight have been scant. The rocky soil of the area may have been a contributing factor, but we must also face the likelihood that this battle was not the large scrum that the saga-writers would have us believe. Olaf’s body was exhumed, carried to the capital of Nidaros and buried in the cathedral in a reliquary shaped like a church. Nearly a year later, Olaf’s coffin was opened in preparation for reburial. It was discovered that his body was not only fully intact and uncorrupted, but his hair and fingernails had grown. Olaf, a rather stubborn and rash ruler, prone to rough treatment of his enemies, ironically became Norway's patron saint. His canonization was performed only a year after his death by the bishop of Nidaros. The cult of Olaf not only unified the country, it also fulfilled the conversion of the nation, something for which the king had fought so hard. Olaf's role in Norwegian history had only just begun at his death. While nobles and rich farmers had expected their position to improve with the removal of the aggressive Olaf, the opposite happened. The rule of Canute's mistress Ælfgifu and their son Svein was exceedingly harsh on the Norwegian people. Even the church came under the squeeze. Thus, it accentuated the late king's martyr status, as it joined and egged on common folk in revolting against the hardships enforced by the succeeding Danish rule. Olaf’s heroic last stand made for great nation-building material in the fledgling Norwegian state. While divisive in life, in death Saint Olaf (styled “perpeetus rex normanni,” or the eternal king of the Norwegians) wielded a unifying power no foreign monarch could hope to undo. Canute, most distracted by the task of administrating England and Denmark, managed to rule Norway for five years after the battle through his viceroy son Svein. However, when Olaf's illegitimate son Magnus (dubbed 'the Good') lay claim to the Norwegian throne, Canute had to yield. Thus, a century of prosperity and expansion followed, lasting until the kingdom again descended into a civil war over succession. Footnote #1: Saint Olaf’s body was removed from the reliquary in the Nidaros Cathedral. The reliquary, made of silver, was melted down for coinage. His body was reburied in the cathedral, but at an unknown location. Footnote #2: A church stands today on the site of the battle. Supposedly, the rock against which Saint Olaf fell dead is contained in the church’s altar. 220px-Stiklestad_kirke_-_vinter Footnote #3: In 1954, the owner of the farm of Sul gave permission for the performance of a play, “The Saint Olaf Drama,” detailing the life and deeds of Saint Olaf and the battle. This performance led to an annual festival, still running today. 85px-Coat_of_Arms_of_Norway_svg Footnote #4: The modern coat-of-arms of Norway show a crowned lion rampant, clutching a battle axe with a silver blade, representing Saint Olaf.
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News from the World of Military and Veterans Issues. Iraq and A-Stan in parenthesis reflects that the author is currently deployed to that theater.