In July 1030, at the lonely moorland farm of Stiklestad, Norway, a dispossessed king perished beneath the spears and axes of his former subjects. Olaf Haraldsson, known as Olaf Digre ("stout" or "burly"), seemed to be just one more casualty in the shifting and brutal power politics of medieval Scandinavia.

Within a year, however, he was more than another Viking fatality. He was a martyr, a saint, a hero who brought Christianity to the heathens. In truth, none of those titles accurately describe the life of "Saint Olaf." But in death, Olaf did more to Christianize Norway than he ever did in life.

A bloody beginning

The son and foster-son of Norwegian kinglets, Olaf Haraldsson (not to be confused with the earlier Olaf Trygvesson) makes his historical debut in 1007, when he was sent out, at just 12 years old, as a "sea-king" or raiding chieftain (under the eye of an experienced captain). His first raid, in Sweden, resulted in a hairbreadth escape from the irate Swedish king—later hailed as his first miracle!

In Denmark Olaf joined forces with the notorious Thorkel the Tall. Together they launched profitable raids on Jutland, Frisia, Holland, and that greenest of Viking pastures, England. There they tormented that unlucky king Ethelred Unræd—a nickname meaning not so much "unready" as "clueless" (this is the same Ethelred who was tormented by Olaf Trygvesson—see "Be Christian or Die").

In the winter of 1009, Olaf and Thorkel attacked London and raided East Anglia. That September Olaf, the future saint, plundered Canterbury and killed the archbishop, whom he pelted to death with bones.

King Ethelred finally got a clue and bought Thorkel's "services"—meaning he paid Thorkel protection money. Olaf raided Brittany, France, and Spain. ...

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