Saturday 18 February 2023

Viking Saint

Now there are two words that are not normally associated: ‘Viking’ and ‘saint’. Vikings, after all, are usually depicted as bloodthirsty pagans, barbarians in all sense of the word, who appear out of nowhere, plunder, murder, rape, and rob, and then vanish whence they came. Oh, and they have these peculiar helmets with wings on them.

Inevitably, modern historiography has rather reduced the brutality of the Vikings. Originally, of course, they were raiders, and they did raid churches that were, after all, fairly rich. In fact, the early Viking raids did largely destroy the Christian infrastructure in the north of England in the ninth century and distinctly jeopardized Christianity in England, at least until the reign of Alfred in Wessex. But things are never quite as simple as older histories like to make out.

There are a few things to ponder. Firstly, the Norse invaders (as opposed to the early raiders) quite quickly settled and were Christianised in England (and other northern British territories). Secondly, many Vikings came as farmers, not warriors. I am not sure of the evidence, but I suspect that quite a lot of assimilation went on; certainly, some people I know hereabouts have Scandinavian blood according to those DNA tests you can buy (of, to me, unknown reliability). Thirdly the interactions of Britain with Scandinavia needs to be taken into account. Since the Normans, England has been largely focussed on north-western Europe, the southern coast of the Channel. While this was of perennial interest in the defence of England, before William (and, in fact, until at least 1086) there was as much interest in, and threat from, Scandinavia as there was from Normandy.

This brings me, by a roundabout route, to the subject of the latest book:

Carr, J., The Viking Saint: Olaf II of Norway (Barnsley, Pen & Sword, 2022).

As you can see this is a new book, which is unusual for these pages. The Estimable Mrs P saw a review of it and decided that I might like it for Christmas. She was, of course, correct.

Olaf might not be terribly well known in this country, although as a very young man, he was involved, perhaps even the key person, in Cnut’s campaigns, and he stands accused of being the Viking responsible for pulling London Bridge down. This event was possibly the origin of the ‘London Bridge is falling down’ nursery rhyme, although perhaps not, as who knows where such things come from really.

Anyway, this is a complex tale of intrigue, violence, treachery, and so on. Really, I think that we do not know how lucky we are to have had primogeniture in northern Europe for more or less a thousand years. Things have been bloody enough with it; if every passing noble thinks he could make himself king it could have been a lot worse.

Anyway, Olaf was a pagan who converted, became king of Norway through a complex web of intrigue, violence, and diplomacy, reigned for about fifteen years (1015 – 1030), and was killed in battle in his mid-thirties. He then became a saint, due to assorted miracles associated with him, and is recognised as such by Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Orthodox churches, which is a pretty good track record of a saint, especially a warrior.

His efforts at Christianising Norway had mixed results, it has to be said. He did upset a number of people, mostly those away from the coast who had received less influence from already Christian lands. He also was not the first person to try to bring Christianity to Norway, including earlier kings Hakon the Good and Olaf Tryggvason. But he did a bit more and when his body was recovered for reburial it was found to have not decomposed and, as I mentioned, there were miracles.

Actually, Olaf’s fall was not directly due to his Christianity, or his occasional habit of executing those who refused to be baptised (now, that is muscular Christianity). In fact, his reign was undermined by King Cnut, who claimed suzerainty over Norway as well as Denmark and England. The point here is that, in relative terms, Cnut was rich and his money was a persuasive argument for some more independent Norwegian nobles (of whom there were many) to abandon Olaf. The last battle, at which Olaf perished, was at Stikelestad, near Trondheim.

This is an interesting book on a subject about which I know little. The names are a bit confusing, but that is because most of the key players are called Olaf or Hakon. The geography is a bit tricky too, particularly as the borders between nations were, shall we say, a bit porous. But it is a rattling good tale, albeit without much analysis.

In wargaming terms, there are some splendid opportunities. There are a number of naval battles with dragon ships lined up against each other, followed by hand-to-hand combat on the decks. There are land battles ranging from murders and assassinations to full-scale set pieces. There is a great deal of diplomatic skulduggery. For example, Olaf was supposed to be marrying the legitimate daughter of the King of Sweden, but the latter substituted an illegitimate daughter. Olaf seems to have accepted this; the legitimate daughter, Ingegerd was married to Grand Duke Yaroslav of Novgorod and Kyiv. She died in 1050 as Saint Anna of Kyiv.

The tendrils of the Viking world spread far and wide. Olaf’s half-brother was Harald Hardrada, whose military career spread from Italy to Constantinople, much of northern Europe and, as most wargamers probably know, died at Stamford Bridge in 1066. The Normans, too, were sort of Vikings, in the same way that the inhabitants of York were. The Viking merchants, as I mentioned a couple of posts ago, ranged far and wide in northern waters, from Newfoundland to Greenland, Iceland, the British Isles and, as just noted, Baltic nations.

The scope, therefore, is enormous. There are plenty of opportunities for island landings, invasions, set-piece battles, sea battles (I know most wargamers ignore them), desperate deeds of daring do, and so on. I am nearly tempted.


  1. Don’t forget St Magnus, Viking and saint.
    Alan Tradgardland

    1. Ah, yes. Quite so. I'd never thought of St Magnus. Again, a lot of traffic between these Isles and Scandinavia.