The church was founded in the 11th century. Its dedication is to Olaf II, a Norwegian king. At the time that the church was founded, the area around Lower Bridge Street was largely occupied by Scandinavians, and it is thought that this is the reason for the dedication. The present church building dates from 1611.
Hemingway describes it as follows:
- "The church is a low miserable-looking building of red stone differing but little in its general appearance from the above facsimile of a drawing by one of the Randal Holmes' about the year 1660. In 1802 a new wooden steeple (not much better than a pigeon cote) was built covered with lead the old one was covered with slates."
St. Olave's cannot have come into being before the mid 11th century, since the dedicatee, the Norwegian king Olaf II Haraldsson, was killed (at the Battle of Stiklestad) only in 1030. St Bridget's, however, could well be earlier. The dedication was especially likely to have been favoured by immigrants from Ireland and was used also at West Kirby, in the Scandinavian settlement on Wirral. Moreover, since the medieval parish of St. Bridget's at Chester was in two portions, separated by parts of other parishes, it was perhaps once larger and had been eroded by later foundations. The church was probably the first to serve the Hiberno-Norse in Chester and dated from the period of their settlement in the city.
A more remote possibility is that St Olaves is associated with the family of Harold Godwinson (see links), who is also associated with the Chester Hermitage. A case can at least be made for the Godwin family endorsing the traditions of Olaf II. Their association with St Olave's church in Exeter is demonstrable: it was founded in 1053 by Gytha, the mother of King Harold. St Olave's church at one end of London Bridge in Southwark (which gives its name to Tooley Street) is highly likely to have been a Godwin-related foundation: the church’s probable beginning is as a private chapel of Godwin, Earl of Wessex from at least 1018 (before Olave died), and may have been later rededicated to Olaf. St Olave's church in Chichester is also likely to have been so: the Godwins owned land there and nearby Bosham (two miles away) is mentioned by name in the Bayeux Tapestry:
- "Ubi Harold Dux Anglorum et sui milites equitant ad Bosham ecclesia[m]" (Where Harold, Earl of the English, and his army ride to Bosham church)
Harold's strong association with Bosham and the discovery of an Anglo-Saxon grave in the church has led some historians to speculate that King Harold was buried there.
In 1119 the church was given by Richard the Butler to Chester Abbey. The living was a rectory in the gift of Chester abbey in the Middle Ages. It was united with St Mary on the Hill in 1394, separated in 1406, and thereafter independent until 1460 or later.
Seacome writes (in 1828) of it:
- "..is situated on the east side of Lower Bridge street opposite Castle street. It is a small oblong structure in outward appearance much resembling a barn. The interior is neatly fitted up but incapable of containing more than 200 sitters. This church is of great antiquity having been erected before the Norman Conquest. In the 11th century it was possessed by the Botelars by whom it was given with two houses in the market place to the Abbey of St Werburgh in 1101. After the great civil war St Olave's fell into disuse as a place of public warship being only employed for baptisms and burials on which occations the Minister of St Michael's officiated. It was however re-opened as a parish church about the middle of last century and has continued so ever since. The living is a perpetual curacy in the gift of the Bishop of Chester. The present incumbent is the Rev Wm Yarker."
Chester was well placed to take advantage of local traffic along the River Dee and, more importantly, long-distance seaborne trade. From the 10th century onwards it developed connections with Ireland and with Scandinavian settlements all round the Irish Sea. The importance which the Norse of Dublin, for example, attached to the link is apparent in their attempts to set up fortified quaysides, harbours, and navigation points along the north Welsh coast to ease the journey between the two ports. Chester almost certainly contained a sizeable Hiberno-Norse community involved in the Irish trade, located south of the legionary fortress in the quarter next to the early harbour where the clearest evidence for pre-Conquest settlement has been found.
Huts excavated in Lower Bridge Street have been interpreted as of the bow-sided type especially associated with Scandinavian sites in England. The dedications of the two churches in the area, St Bridget and St. Olave, were also appropriate for a Hiberno-Norse community. The settlement may well have extended across the river into Handbridge, which in 1086 was assessed for tax in "carucates" rather than the hides normal in Cheshire. Carucates occurred elsewhere in the county in association with Scandinavian place-names, and appear to be evidence of Scandinavian settlement.
Archaeological finds have confirmed a Hiberno-Norse presence in Chester. In particular, a brooch with Borre-Jellinge ornament found at Princess Street is identical with a brooch found in Dublin, and must have derived from the same mould.
The Norwegian king Olaf II Haraldsson was born in 995, became King of Norway in 1015 and ruled until 1028. During his life he was known as "Olaf the Fat" (Ólafr digri). His history according to the Norwegian and Icelandic legends goes as follows:
- About 1008, Olaf landed on the Estonian island of Saaremaa and demanded money with menaces. The locals refused to pay, so Olaf attacked them;
- In his later teens he went to the Baltic, to Denmark and to England, where in 1014 he pulled down London Bridge and helped restore the English throne to Æthelred the Unready by removing Canute;
- On the way home to Norway, he wintered with Duke Richard II of Normandy, an ardent Christian. Before leaving, Olaf was baptised in Rouen;
- Olaf returned to Norway in 1015 and declared himself king, obtaining the support of five petty kings. In 1016 at the Battle of Nesjar he defeated Earl Sweyn, the only real rival;
- In 1025/6 he lost the naval Battle of the Helgeå against Canute, and in 1029 the discontented Norwegian nobles, supported an invasion by Canute. Olaf was driven into exile. He travelled southwards to Novgorod (Holmgard), where Olaf sought assistance from Grand Prince Yaroslav the Wise. Yaroslav, however, did not want to become directly involved in the Scandinavian power-struggles, and declined to help;
- In 1029, Canute's Norwegian regent, Håkon Eiriksson (who was also Earl of Worcester), was lost when he was shipwrecked on the Pentland Firth. Olaf seized the opportunity to win back the kingdom, but he fell in 1030 at the Battle of Stiklestad. According to Snorri Sturluson, Olaf received three severe wounds: in the knee, in the neck, and leaning against a large stone the final mortal spear thrust up under his mail shirt and into "his belly";
- Canute, though distracted and over-stretched by the task of governing England, managed to rule Norway for five years after Stiklestad, with his son Svein and Svein's mother Ælfgifu as regents. However, the regency (due to severe rule and heavy taxation) was unpopular, and when Olaf's illegitimate son Magnus (dubbed 'the Good') laid claim to the Norwegian throne, Svein and Ælfgifu were forced (1035) to flee to England.
Olaf himself is portrayed in later sources as a wise and saintly, miracle-working figure, although the historical Olaf did not act this way: he was a rather harsh ruler and prone to rough treatment of his enemies. He did import Bishop Grimketel from England and it was Grimketel who declared Olaf a saint less than a year after the king died. At this time, local bishops proclaimed a saint, and a formal canonisation procedure through the papal curia was not customary (in Olaf's case, this did not happen until 1888). As an historian and mythographer Snorri Sturluson is remarkable for proposing the hypothesis that "gods" begin as human war leaders and kings whose funeral sites develop cults. This possibly explains Olaf, and many of the other kings who became saints shortly after their death (such as Oswald of Northumbria).
A photograph from the 1960's shows an opening into a void beneath St Olave. This is located in some fairly impressive-looking masonry which was exposed during the redevelopment of an adjacent site, once a brewery known as "Rotten Row".
- "Immediately adjoining is a very singular ancient building now occupied as a brewery the date of which is likewise uncertain. From the prodigious thickness of its walls and its huge beams and supporters it appears that the builder whoever he was intended it as a perpetual monument to his fame nor is there any reason to doubt its security. In the interior are several entrances to vaulted passages now blocked up but what communication they ever had is not known. In addition to this it may be stated there is a very popular opinion which we can neither confirm nor disprove that subterranean communications have been made between the Castle and various public buildings in the city though what their purpose was or why discontinued is wholly unknown. The many remains of arches still to be seen both here and in the cellars of certain houses in the principal streets are however strongly corroborative of the belief."
The building in question was initially the home of "Richard the Engineer" ("Richard L'Ingenour") the royal master mason of Edward I. L'Ingenour held the manor of Belgrave and was responsible for the purchase of materials and making of contracts with craftsmen. In 1275 he was granted the lease on the Dee Mills, and later renewed this lease (in 1284 for 12 years at the immense cost of £200 year - however it was compulsory for most citizens to have their corn ground there). Under the supervision of L'Ingenour, Richard de Paris made considerable alterations to Chester Castle. The building was known as "Pareas Hall" after its sale by Richard the Engineer's son Almaricus, in 1321, to Robert Pares (or Praers). There appears to be some confusion as to whether Robert Pares and Richard de Paris are the same person or two different people.
What we know of Richard the Engineer is that he first appears as the superintendent of works on the outer bailey of Chester Castle in 1265. He is therefore unlikely to have been born after 1240. His first mention in the royal records is in 1277 when he was put in charge of 1850 men (including 970 diggers, 330 carpenters, 320 woodmen, 200 masons, 12 smiths and 10 charcoal burners) at Flint to begin work on Flint castle. Richard then vanishes from the royal records for a while. One possible reason for this could have been the great fire of Chester of 15th May 1278. It has been suggested that this fire led to the opportunity to rebuild Chester with The Rows. Richard reappears on 16th March 1281, when he joins Master James of St George at Flint and is now paid 10d a day, but may have been called back to Chester quickly as the Old Dee Bridge was swept away that year. In 1282 he is back in Wales again supporting a military expedition by first repairing Hope (Caergwrle) Castle, and then building a bridge of boats to cross the Menai Strait. In 1283 he is associated with early work on Caernarfon's castle and walls. 1284 has him procuring tools for Conwy. In 1287 he is at Carmarthen building a siege engine. This was used successfully but as Rhys ap Maredudd moved to another castle (Newcastle Emlyn) Richard's engine was hauled there by 60 oxen and used successfully again. Another revolt in 1287 under the leadership of Madog ap Llywelyn brought Richard back to military matters, preparing another bridge of boats for crossing the Menai Strait at Beaumaris. In 1303 Richard undertook a series of repairs at Chester Castle following a fire and the same year in January he was consulted over the possibility of building pontoon bridges during Edward I's war with Scotland. These were constructed in Norfolk, and sailed up to Stirling on 24th May. The abbot of Chester pledged substantial sums to Richard in 1310 and 1312–13 for work at the cathedral. Richard was elected Mayor of Chester in 1305. He also (before 1309) built a house at Belgrave, after beginning to acquire land in Eccleston in 1284. Little of the house remains other than the moat.
In the later C17, Randle Holme, the Chester Herald, noted that the building in Lower Bridge Street was a rare fortified town house:
- "This in ancient tyme was a famous structure of stone much like a castle or fort having an high tower".
Large stone town house with high towers are very rare in English medieval cities, so the builder must have held considerable influence as Richard the Engineer did. But what of the stories of the tunnels connecting various places around Chester with the Castle? Hemingway writes:
- "Opposite to Boarding-school-yard there is an antique structure now used by Messrs Newell and Gaman as an extensive brewery; the date of its erection is unknown, as well as the purpose to which it was formerly appropriated, but it may certainly be placed as early as the fifteenth century, and the row adjoining bears evident marks of remote architecture. In the interior are several entrances to vaulted passages, now blocked up, but what communication they ever had is uncertain. A very popular opinion has long prevailed that there anciently existed subterranean passages between the castle and various public buildings in the city, though for what purpose or why or when discontinued is wholly unknown. This idea received the authority of the author of the Polychronicon who says: "In this cyte been ways under erthe with vowtes and stone werke wonderly wrought; three chambred werkes". In remarking upon this passage Mr Pennant observes that of these not a trace nor even the least memory is left notwithstanding the most diligent search and inquiries have been made. None says he have ever been discovered by the frequent sinking of cellars for new buildings on the site of the old tradition has delivered no such accounts to us nor is their exit to be traced beneath the walls in any part of their circumference. It should be recollected however that Mr Pennant wrote upwards of fifty years ago and that since his time a greater number of reliques of antiquity has been discovered than before his time. I am not prepared to speak decidedly on the question but confess I am less sceptical on the affirmative part of it than formerly. There is some difficulty in accounting for the blocking up of passages and arches several yards below the surface of the ground without admitting the existence of continuous ways for some purpose or other and if we cannot ascertain their direct object yet the palpable fact is not to be denied or evaded. But what has most tended to incline me to a persuasion of the existence of these hollow ways were the appearances of a subterranean passage discovered on sinking the cellars for the buildings now standing on the site of the old Lamb row. Here was found a distinctly marked road about five feet wide and more than five yards deep from the level running the whole length of the building in an oblique direction and without termination at either end. The road seemed to proceed in a direct line from the site of the old Friary situate between Commonhall street and White Friars taking a slanting direction across the latter and pointing obliquely across Bridge street. At the time of sending this sheet to press the author is engaged in prosecuting a closer research into this subject the result of which will be given when he comes to notice our antiquities."
So whether Richard the Engineer had his own private escape route to Chester Castle or not, remains a mystery.
At the dissolution of the abbey the advowson seems to have passed into private hands, and in the earlier 17th century belonged to the Vawdrey family. After a prolonged dispute it was sold in 1661 to Hugh Harvey, in whose possession it remained in 1685. Before 1722, perhaps in the 1690s, the living passed to the bishop of Chester, and afterwards was regarded as a perpetual curacy until its union with St. Michael's in 1839.
- "Only a step or two from the Albion and on the same side near the residence of Mr Snape the eminent dentist is St Olave's Lane so named from the Lilliputian church dedicated to that saint at its south west corner. This Church dates back earlier than the Conquest. The advowson in the eleventh century was vested in the Botelers or Butlers from whom it passed by gift of Richard Pincerna in 1101 to the Abbey of St Werburgh. St Olave's appears to have been always in low water a starving rather than a living for in 1393 on account of its poverty the parish was temporarily united with St Mary's. Down to the seventeenth century however it eked out a precarious existence but after the close of the civil war the ordinary services of the church were discontinued for about a century when they were again resumed until the final extinction of St Olave's as a distinct parish in 1841. In that year the Church was finally closed and the parish united to that of St Michael. The "powers that be" are fast allowing this ancient structure to develop into a ruin."
In 1841 the parish of St Olave's was united with that of St Michael's, and the church closed. The building was restored in 1849 by James Harrison and converted into use as a school. The churchyard, which existed by the 17th century, was closed for burials in 1851. It was declared redundant by the Church of England on 3 October 1972. It has since been used as the Chester Revival Centre, a Pentecostal church, and as an exhibition centre.