Knútr and the Cult of St Óláfr: Poetry and Patronage in Eleventh-Century Norway and England

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An anecdote in the Flateyjarbók version of Óláfs saga helga tells how Knútr inn ríki learned of the burgeoning sanctity of his old adversary Óláfr Haraldsson (Sigurður Nordal and others 1944–45, II, 488; also printed in Johnsen and Jón Helgason, 1941, II, 832): Þórir hundr ferr til Englands ok segir Knúti konungi allt, hversu farit hafði. Konungr varð mjök óglaðr við þessa sögu. Þórir spurði, hverju þat gegndi. Konungr svarar: ‘Ek þóttumst þat vita, at annarrhvárr okkar mundi heilagr vera, ok hafða ek mér þat ætlat. Þó skal ek nú leggja fé fyrstr til skríns Ólafs konungs hans óvina ok trúa fyrstr helgi hans, ok eigi skal ek koma í Noreg, með því er Ólafr er heilagr.’ (Þórir hundr goes to England and tells King Knútr everything that had happened. The king became very unhappy at this narrative. Þórir asked what the reason for this was. The king answers: ‘I had expected that one of us would become a saint, and had intended that for myself. Nonetheless I shall now be the first of his enemies to give money to the shrine of King Óláfr, and the first to believe in his sanctity, and I shall not enter Norway for as long as Óláfr is a saint.’) Even though it is late and comic, this anecdote contains a recognition of two important points: first, that Óláfr’s sanctity posed a problem for Knútr, and second, that the best way of dealing with it was in fact to acquiesce and positively promote Óláfr’s cult. In this article I want to examine the genesis of Óláfr’s cult, and the important early poem Glælognskviða, from a Knútr-centred rather than Óláfr-centred perspective; as will be seen, this is more or less equivalent to taking a view from England rather than a view from Norway. In short, the question to be asked is: what was the attitude of Knútr and his dynasty towards the cult of Óláfr? In attempting to answer it, I shall place skaldic verse alongside Anglo-Saxon history, in the belief that the two are mutually illuminating; the investigation will also, I hope, cast light on various aspects of Anglo-Scandinavian elite culture in the second quarter of the eleventh century. In what follows, I shall look firstly at the context of Glælognskviða, secondly at its content, and thirdly for confirmation elsewhere of what it implies about Knútr and the cult of St Óláfr.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)251-279
Number of pages28
JournalViking and Medieval Scandinavia
Publication statusPublished - 2005

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