Tuesday 29 July 2014

St Olaf in England

When Óláfr Haraldsson, King of Norway, was killed in battle on 29 July 1030, fighting against his own people, he was almost immediately hailed as a saint. He became one of the most popular Scandinavian saints in the Middle Ages - in England as much as anywhere else. In this post I thought I'd draw attention to some of the evidence for veneration of St Olaf in medieval England; it vividly illustrates the closeness between the English and Scandinavian churches, not only in the eleventh century (when it might be expected) but in the centuries after the Norman Conquest too.

At the time of Olaf's death in 1030 England, like Norway, was part of Cnut's great Scandinavian empire, and Cnut was an early adopter of the cult of his Norwegian rival. Ever alert to the political advantages of honouring the saints of the countries you've conquered, Cnut as king of England paid elaborate homage to English saints killed by Danes (especially Ælfheah and Edmund of East Anglia) and to murdered royal princes generally (notably Edward the Martyr and St Wigstan) - and Olaf, falling into both categories, was ripe for the same treatment. His death left Cnut - or more accurately his English wife, Ælfgifu of Northampton, and her young son Svein - as ruler of Norway, until Cnut's death in 1035. This is probably the most important factor in the early spread of Olaf's cult in England, but Olaf himself had been closely involved in English affairs (that's putting it diplomatically) in his early life. Before becoming king of Norway, Olaf spent his youth in Viking raiding around the British Isles and elsewhere. It's difficult to distinguish fact from later legend on this point, but he was probably involved in the siege of Canterbury in 1009 or 1011 - on which see this post - before going into alliance with the English king against the Danes. (At one point, legend says, he pulled down London Bridge.) During this period he converted to Christianity, and when he returned to Norway to claim his kingdom he took English churchmen with him. Some of these men later returned to England, doubtless bringing Olaf's story with them.

So it's no surprise, perhaps, to see his death and his sanctity noted in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (MS. C), under the year 1030:

Her wæs Olaf cing ofslagen on Norwegon of his agenum folce, 7 wæs syððan halig.

'In this year King Olaf was killed in Norway by his own people, and was afterwards a saint.'

Some of the earliest evidence for the liturgical celebration of Olaf is found in an English manuscript, in this mass for the saint in Cambridge, Corpus Christi College 422 (the so-called 'Red Book of Darley'); and here's Olaf's name in the calendar from the same manuscript. This might be the influence of his English clerical supporters like Grimkell, who became a bishop in England after returning from Norway. (He spent some time at Canterbury, studiously not mentioning, one might imagine, how Olaf had once burned the city!) But various members of the Anglo-Danish aristocracy also seem to have enthusiastically adopted Olaf's cult. Siward, the Danish-born Earl of Northumbria, founded and dedicated a church to St Olaf in York, where he was buried in 1055; as the Chronicle records (MS. D, 1055):

On þisan gere forðferde Syhward eorl on Eoferwic, 7 he ligeð æt Galmaho on þam mynstre þe he sylf let timbrian 7 halgian on Godes 7 Olafes naman.

'In this year Earl Siward died at York, and he lies at Galamanho in the minster which he himself had built and consecrated in the name of God and Olaf.'

(Galmanho was the area of York where the earls of Northumbria had a fortified residence.) This is Siward's church today:

Sadly Siward's tomb (above which supposedly hung a magical raven banner which had been given to him by a mysterious Odinic wanderer) is now nowhere to be found.

One of the saints in the east window, reconstructed from medieval glass, is said to be Olaf:

Meanwhile, down in Exeter, the Danish noblewoman Gytha - Cnut's sister-in-law, who had married the English earl Godwine - is recorded in the 1060s supporting a church dedicated to Olaf. It's still there too. There seems to have been particular enthusiasm for Olaf in Exeter, one would like to think because of the influence of the fascinating and formidable Gytha: Olaf's name appears in the Litany in a Psalter made in Exeter (now BL Harley 863) and in a Pontifical (BL Additional 28188) adapted for use in Exeter Cathedral, both from the second half of the eleventh century. This is well into the reign of Edward the Confessor, who was no fan of Scandinavians!

Some of the multiple churches dedicated to St Olaf in London were probably also founded in this period - the one at Southwark, for instance, where Gytha's husband Godwine owned land. There's also one in Chichester, an area closely associated with the family of Godwine:

All this is important evidence of an Anglo-Scandinavian aristocratic culture which was fostered in the reign of Cnut but survived several decades beyond his death; powerful men and women like Siward and Gytha, living in England and married into English families, clearly maintained an interest in Scandinavian affairs which they carried over into culturally significant practices such as the patronage of churches. But this culture could not survive the Norman Conquest - quite literally; Siward's son Waltheof was executed for treason against William the Conqueror, and Gytha lost three of her sons in one day at the Battle of Hastings, most famously, of course, Harold Godwineson.

So after the eleventh century we have to look for other factors to explain the evidence for St Olaf's cult in England. Connections between the English and Scandinavian churches continued to be close, as witnessed by the career of someone like Eysteinn, Archbishop of Nidaros, who spent three years in enforced exile in England between 1180-3, probably bringing a copy of his own Life of St Olaf with him. Such recorded examples of direct contact can help to contextualise, if not to explain, the spread of a saint's cult, and in some cases there may be other factors at work too: it's hard not to see significance in the fact that in Grimsby in Lincolnshire, a town particularly proud of its Scandinavian roots, an abbey founded in the twelfth century was dedicated to St Olaf. Does this reflect an expression of local identity, a sense of north-eastern Scandinavian origins such as those celebrated in Havelok the Dane? Quite possibly. But then, even Oxfordshire has a church dedicated to Olaf (in Fritwell), so the overall picture is more complicated than that.

St Olave's, Fritwell

The most striking post-Conquest evidence for Olaf's cult in England comes from Norfolk. It appears in the 'Carrow Psalter', Walters MS. W.34 (image from here, f.42):

The manuscript was made in East Anglia in the middle of the thirteenth century, and this page, the 'B' for 'Beatus' at the opening of the Psalter, depicts scenes from the life of St Olaf, identifiable by his huge battle-axe. This is a very prominent position within a Psalter manuscript, and it must suggest particular interest in Olaf. Let's take a closer look:

We see Olaf calming a storm at sea, having a vision of an angel, healing a man whose arms and legs have been cut off (no, really - middle row on the right), and seated in glory, axe in hand. We can't be at all sure who in thirteenth-century East Anglia might have been this interested in Olaf, or what value they saw in his story. Was his 'Scandinavian-ness' important to them? Or was it his role as a royal martyr, a king murdered by his own people? Or his visions and miracles? We can't really know. One thing we do know is that this manuscript later belonged to the nuns of Carrow near Norwich, where it has been suggested Julian of Norwich may have spent some time. This is perhaps the only point of contact between Julian of Norwich and a Norwegian Viking martyr!

On the eastern coast of East Anglia, on the border between Suffolk and Norfolk, there's a thirteenth-century priory dedicated to St Olaf of which the ruins survive:

Perhaps this is where the Carrow Psalter was made. But that doesn't begin to explain why - why Olaf, and why here? You could point to various possible reasons: trade links between the Norfolk coast and Scandinavia; ecclesiastical contact between East Anglian monasteries and Norway; anxiety about royal power in thirteenth-century England; some sense of 'Norse identity' in an area of former Scandinavian settlement? Any or all of these seem possible.

The image at the top of this post is from the church at Fritton, just down the road from St Olave's priory. That church also contains an early wall-painting of the murder of St Edmund which I posted about here.

St Edmund, king and martyr, who died at the hands of a Viking army a century before Olaf was born, and St Olaf, king and martyr, and Viking, thus come together on a distant corner of the Norfolk coast.

All this evidence for Olaf's cult in England paradoxically makes me think, more than anything, about what such evidence does not tell us. From the complex politics of the eleventh century - the mixture of piety and parade in the actions of that astute operator Cnut, or Gytha and Siward's performance of Scandinavian identity in their new English lives - to the exiled Archbishop Eysteinn, bringing Olaf's story to England in a kind of exchange for Thomas Becket's; from Grimsby's fascination with its Scandinavian roots to the unknown benefactor of the Carrow Psalter, there are cross-currents of cultural influence which we cannot fully reconstruct. It's so tempting to make a simple story out of this, to enjoy (as I just did) the historical irony of a Viking saint being commemorated alongside the victim of Vikings, as if ninth-century Danes and eleventh-century Norwegians can all easily be called 'Vikings'; or to think about Olaf 'pulling down London Bridge', a stone's throw from the church later dedicated to him at Southwark, as if a medieval legend about what he might or might not have done in 1014-16 really has anything to do with how a church got its dedication in the 1060s; or to talk as if honouring a Norwegian saint automatically and straightforwardly suggests sympathy towards Norway or Scandinavia (maybe it doesn't). There may be some degree of truth in these ways of interpreting the facts, but they are only interpretations, if well-informed ones; history is always more complicated and more interesting than that.

I found many of the details in this post via the following articles, though the images (except of the Carrow Psalter) are mine:

Bull, Edvard, ‘The Cultus of Norwegian Saints in England and Scotland’, Saga-book of the Viking Society VIII (1913-4), 135-48.
Dickins, Bruce, ‘The Cult of S. Olave in the British Isles’, Saga-book of the Viking Society XII (1937-45), 53-80.
Townend, Matthew, ‘Knútr and the Cult of St Óláfr: Poetry and Patronage in Eleventh-Century Norway and England’, Viking and Medieval Scandinavia 1 (2005), 251-79.

There's much more evidence for Olaf's cult in England than I could include in this post, so do have a look at all these articles, especially the last.


Steffen said...

Thanks for a brilliant blogpost, and one that will be of great help in my own PhD research (especially the bibliography and the Carrow psalter!).

I think the evidence presented here is an interesting counter-argument to those who tend to depict Olaf as merely a local saint of Nidaros - which has increasingly become the vogue. This wave is in turn a response to the exaggerated status given Olaf at the time of the millennial jubilee of Trondheim in 1997, in which the cathedral of Nidaros was depicted as the fourth most important site of pilgrimage in all of Christendom, next to Jerusalem, Rome and Santiago. This is of course nonsense, but as ever in academia, the reaction to this bold claim has tended to overlook the English devotion (and to some extent also the Swedish).

Otherwise, there's little to add to this, although I have heard that Eysteinn may indeed have written Passio et miracula sancti olavi after his exile, as there are some evidene for this work being modelled on the literature of St Edmund. So although Eysteinn probably did carry with him some hagiography of Olaf to England, the Passio et miracula was probably inspired by things he picked up at Bury St Edmunds. I haven't read these works myself so I can't vouch for this, but it is at least something I will have to look into.

Thanks again!

Clerk of Oxford said...

Thanks, Steffen - interesting to have the Norwegian perspective. You're right about Eysteinn, I expressed that badly - I should more accurately have said there's a twelfth-century English manuscript of his Passio (Corpus Christi College 209), rather than that he brought the work to England himself.

Harold Rennie said...

The theme of former enemies being brought together in commemoration appears again in English literature. In his poem "Little Gidding", T.S. Eliot writes of the 17th century:
"These men, and those who opposed them
And those whom they opposed
Accept the constitution of silence
And are folded in a single party.
Whatever we inherit from the fortunate
We have taken from the defeated
What they had to leave us - a symbol:
A symbol perfected in death.
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
By the purification of the motive
In the ground of our beseeching."

I thought of this poem when reading your blog post. Thank you for such a well-written and stimulating article.

Clerk of Oxford said...

Oh, what a wonderful connection to draw - and there's Julian of Norwich again, of course! Thank you so much for quoting that.

Anonymous said...

I just wandered into this nice site.
Why is the third vignette St Olaf healing a man? It looks to my unschooled eye as though he is wielding his axe and cutting the limbs off. (Unless the next picture is the healed man, but why would that be?)


Clerk of Oxford said...

Yes, those two pictures are sequential - the man's limbs are cut off (not by Olaf!) and then the man is shown in front of Olaf with his miraculously healed limbs.

Tor Salomonsen said...

In his earthly life though, I fear Olav was more used to chopping men's limbs off than healing them, mercenary that he was.