Harald Hardrada: why there's more to the last great Viking than his death in 1066
Norwegian king Harald Hardrada is best known for his part in the tumultuous events in England in 1066, commanding one of the great Viking invasions and meeting his end on the battlefield at Stamford Bridge. But before all that, he led a life straight out of fantasy fiction that saw him journey to Byzantium and back. He was, writes Don Hollway, the last great Viking
King Harald Sigurdsson of Norway – remembered by the name Hardrada, meaning ‘hard ruler’ – was a complex, fierce and ultimately doomed antihero. If the myriad ancient sagas and tales of him bear any truth, he was one of the great Vikings worthy of epic television series such as Game of Thrones or Vikings. An outcast son of a petty king, he rose to win a fortune, romance an empress, marry a princess, and carve himself a kingdom by the strength of his sword arm.
Harald made his first mark in history as a 15-year-old warrior, when he fought alongside his elder half-brother King Olaf II (later Saint Olaf) against Danes loyal to Cnut the Great in the battle of Stiklestad in 1030. The day ended with defeat, and for Olaf, death.
According to the Icelandic poet Snorri Sturluson, the fighting took place in part under a total eclipse of the Sun; a night fight in the middle of the day. Pagans may have believed the hole in the sky was the one-eyed god Odin watching over the battle and choosing the slain for Valhalla, while Christians may have recalled the midday darkness at the Crucifixion, a thousand years past. Eclipses have customarily been regarded as a bad omen throughout history, and here it would have been no different. Not only was Olaf slain, but Harald barely got away from the battle with his life.
Hunted and exiled, Harald is said to have journeyed to the Kievan Rus and the court of Yaroslav, the Grand Prince of Kiev – a distant relation by marriage – where he enlisted as a mercenary. He is believed to have risen to be a captain in Yaroslav’s service and even aspired to marry his daughter, the princess Elisaveta, but without land and wealth he could not hope to win her hand.
Harald Hardrada: key dates and facts
Died: 25 September 1066 at the battle of Stamford Bridge
Reigned: King of Norway (1045-66) and attempted to claim the thrones of Denmark and England
Parents: Sigurd Syr, a Norse chieftain, and Estrid, who was also mother of King Olaf III
Nicknames: Born Harald Sigurdsson, he would earn many nicknames, including the Burner of Bulgars, the Hammer of Denmark, and the Thunderbolt of the North. He is best known as Hardrada, meaning ‘hard ruler’.
Known for: Harald became king of Norway in 1045, first ruling jointly with his nephew Magnus and then solely from 1047. He unsuccessfully laid claim to the throne of Denmark and, in 1066, led one of the most famous Viking invasions of England. His bid to take the crown ended at the battle of Stamford Bridge, when King Harold Godwinson launched a surprise attack on his forces and he was killed.
Harald Hardrada and the Varangians
Harald had to voyage further to seek his fortune. He sailed with hundreds of men downriver to Constantinople, capital of the Byzantine empire. It was here he joined the Varangian Guard, the predominantly Viking unit that served both as elite combat troops and as the imperial bodyguard. The Varangians were noted for drinking and carousing – earning them the nickname “the emperor’s wineskins” – and for their typical weapon, the two-handed axe.
This was still decades before the First Crusade, when the Byzantine empire was at war with the Fatimid Caliphate that encompassed the Middle East, North Africa and Sicily. Harald’s first encounter with Arab Muslims was in the summer of 1035, a sea battle in the Mediterranean between Byzantine galleys and Arab warships.
The Arabs would never have seen anything like Vikings swinging six-foot axes, while Harald and his men would never before have experienced anything like Greek fire, a medieval version of napalm. Against the Saracens’ wooden ships, it was a fearsome weapon.
Nonetheless the Byzantines were victorious, and afterwards they pushed the Arabs across Anatolia to the Syrian frontier, with Harald coming up through the ranks of the Varangians to become their de facto leader before peace was declared. As part of the treaty, a Byzantine delegation was allowed to travel to Jerusalem to restore the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which was destroyed in 1009, and Harald got his first taste of desert fighting when they travelled overland to visit the site of Christ’s baptism in the Jordan Valley.
The desert was plagued with marauders who preyed on the camel caravans plying trade routes between Cairo and Damascus. As attested by Scandinavian sagas, Harald cleared the road of bandits then washed away his sins in the River Jordan. It was as far east as his life would take him.
The Fatimids faced worsening internal troubles with the Emirate of Sicily (a kingdom within the dominion of the caliphate) in open rebellion, and the Byzantines spotted a chance to invade. Harald joined the expedition in command of the Varangians and helped conquer Messina, Syracuse and other island cities, profiting greatly through looting. He remained loyal even though heavy-handed imperial leadership caused a revolt in 1041 among their Norman and Lombard mercenaries.
As a result, the Byzantines lost everything they had gained, not only in Sicily but Italy too. The Normans would eventually take it all for themselves, founding a kingdom that would almost 700 years. By that time, Harald had been recalled to Constantinople, where intrigues were rife in the imperial palace.
Emperor Michael IV was dying. The empress, Zoe, had taken a liking to big blond Harald and wanted him and his Varangians on her side when her nephew, Michael V, assumed the throne. Zoe was a famous beauty and famously treacherous. It has been suspected that she and her lover, the incumbent Michael IV, had drowned her previous husband, Emperor Romanos III, to make room on the throne.
Yet Michael V was even more viperous. When his uncle died in late 1041, he quickly assumed power, replaced the Varangians with his own guards, and had Zoe arrested and banished to a nunnery. She still had the love of the people, however, and her imprisonment sparked a popular revolt in Constantinople. Large parts of the city were destroyed in heavy street fighting.
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Harald’s Varangians led the way and triumphed, placing Zoe back on the throne. Michael V was banished just four months after becoming emperor, though not before, it is claimed, Harald personally put out his eyes. The ex-emperor died soon after.
Harald had reached an apex of power. As head of the Varangian Guard, he was Zoe’s protector, and according to Scandinavian sources her lover as well. He may even have aspired to be emperor, but the imperial court would have never tolerated a ‘barbarian’ on the throne. Instead, Zoe married a bureaucrat named Constantine.
Harald’s conquests and plundering had made him fabulously rich, more than enough to make him a worthy match for Yaroslav’s daughter, princess Elisaveta. They were soon married, and on his return to Scandinavia in 1045 Harald took her with him.
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Harald Hardrada’s return to Scandinavia
They found that Cnut the Great's North Sea Empire – England, Norway and Denmark – had fallen apart after his death in 1035. England was a separate kingdom being fought over by Cnut’s sons, while Harald’s nephew Magnus had become King of Norway and Denmark – though by the time Harald’s arrival, Magnus was embroiled in a civil war with Sweyn Estridsson, the grandson of Sweyn Forkbeard, for the Danish throne.
Initially rebuffed by Magnus, Harald joined forces with Sweyn first, prompting something of a volte face: Magnus secretly offered a deal to his uncle, in he would the share power with Harald if Harald would share his wealth. Harald accepted. Their joint rule saw continued fighting against Denmark, but was brief, ending when Magnus died unexpectedly in 1047.
Magnus willed the Norwegian throne to Harald, but gave up his claim to the Danish throne in favour of Sweyn. This time Harald did not accept, and soon after would launch a war of attrition that would last until 1064.
In the course of that war, Harald laid waste to the great Danish trading centre at Hedeby, a linchpin of the Scandinavian economy dealing in goods from as far away as Greenland and Constantinople. Harald burned it to the ground and took many of its richest citizens hostage. Arguably that ended Scandinavia as the driver of northern European culture. Yet it didn’t end the war.
In August 1062, Norway and Denmark fought the greatest sea battle of the Viking Age, just off the River Niså in what is now Sweden. According to the saga of Snorri Sturluson, Harald had 150 dragon ships and Sweyn twice as many. In contrast to their swift surprise raids on land, Viking battles at sea were long and bloody affairs.
They lashed their ships together into huge rafts and fought their way from deck to deck. The battle lasted through the night (though at that latitude, in summer, it never gets totally dark). Harald knew he didn’t have to defeat the Danes, only defeat their king. He captured Sweyn’s ship and took the victory, although Sweyn did manage to escape. The war dragged on a couple of years until, in 1064, Harald finally had to settle for a stalemate.
Why is Harald called Hardrada?
In his day, Harald was called the Burner of Bulgars, the Hammer of Denmark, and the Thunderbolt of the North, but it was as king of Norway that he earned the nickname Hardrada, or ‘hard ruler’. While Norse politics were more egalitarian than the rest of Europe’s, Harald ruled in the manner of bloody handed kings of old. His failed war with Denmark left him with nowhere to loot, so he plundered his own people, drove off rebellious nobles and in some cases killed them himself.
Then when Earl Tostig, banished brother of the Anglo-Saxon king Harold Godwinson, came looking for support to invade England, he found Harald eager for new lands to conquer.
The tale of that invasion – from the surrender of York to the surprise English counterattack at Stamford Bridge, which resulted in Harald’s very Viking death in battle – is better known than most of his life, and all this barely tells his whole story. From stripling prince to the court of Byzantium and the throne of Norway, Harald personified the high point of the Viking Age. In many ways, he really was the last Viking.
Don Hollway is a historian and author of The Last Viking: The True Story of King Harald Hardrada (Osprey Publishing, 2021). Buy it now on Amazon | Waterstones | Bookshop.org
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