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St Olave

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St Olave from a Randle Holme woodcut. As used by Hemingway. The ruins to the right are probably those of Paris Hall as discussed on page relating to Bridge Street. The tower has the appearance of a "stave church" possibly a link to its Norwegian connections.

The church was founded in the 11th century. Its dedication is to Saint Olave, 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."

Early History

St. Olave's cannot have come into being before the mid 11th century, since the dedicatee, the Norwegian king Olaf 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.

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."

Why Olaf?

St Olave and Rotten Row, from Batenham c1816

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.

St Olave in 2014, with the retaining wall supported.

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).

Later History

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.

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.

Sources and LInks