29 July 2012

The Feast of St Óláfr

It is the feast day today of Óláfr Haraldsson, warrior, king, saint and eventually rex perpetuus Norvegiae, killed in 1030 at the battle of Stiklarstaðir in Trøndelag by an army including many of his own countrymen. The best place to celebrate this feast is in Tórshavn, where it is also the national day of the Faroe Islands. On this day every year the Faroese celebrate their Ólavsøka by racing traditional rowing-boats (men and women), wearing patterned knitted socks and jumpers (men) and mass chain-dancing to the old ballads in the streets (everyone, including tourists) - an experience highly to be recommended, even if, like me some years ago, you had to do almost all of it in the driving rain. But what's weather to a true Viking?

One of the interesting things about St Óláfr is how quickly his saint's cult spread, especially in the British Isles. By no means the earliest reference to it is in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles which say that when Earl Siward of Northumbria died in 1055 he was buried in the church that he himself had built at Galma(n)ho, and which (according to version D) he had consecrated to St Óláfr. This is presumably the ancestor of the present St Olave's church in Marygate in York, which has a fifteenth-century stained glass window almost certainly depicting the Norwegian saint. There are also some more modern representations of him in both stained glass and sculpture, and a large Norwegian flag.

On my recent visit to York, we stayed in the Coach House Hotel, on the corner of Marygate and Galmanhoe Lane, and just yards from St Olave's. According to A.H. Smith's Place-Names of the East Riding of Yorkshire and York the name 'Galmanhowe' is lost, though there is a variety of evidence other than the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles to support its erstwhile existence.The current street-name appears to be a result of modern antiquarianism, and apparently dates from only the 1970s. 


  1. Anonymous29/7/12 10:25

    I'm so glad I started to follow you on Twitter and hence your blog. Recently I returned from holiday in Kragerø, passing a ruin dedicated to St Olav. Unfortunately I was on a bus and couldn't stop to look, but your post has reminded me of that and makes me want to go back to take a look! Thank you.

    1. Thank you for your interest. You seem to be enjoying living in Norway! Reminds me of my youth...