Monday, August 4, 2014

Harald Hardrada of Norway

by Peter Whitaker

King Harald Hardrada of Norway was perhaps the most famous Viking of his time when he fought the Battle of Stamford Bridge in Northumbria, England, in 1066. He was a man of large size, his saga writer Snorri Sturluson describing him as being physically larger and stronger than other men, with big hands and feet. Hardrada created a reputation for himself as a successful war-chief of similar proportions. His name was feared from Norway to the Byzantine and with very good reason; he fought countless battles across the early medieval world and it is claimed that he only ever lost two of them; his first and his last.

Harald was born in Ringerike, Norway in 1015 or 1016; records were not exactly precise in those times. His step-father was Sigurd Syr, a minor king who enjoyed wealth and the support of a strong war-band. Harald’s mother, Asta Gudbrandsdatter, made Sigurd her second husband and the union gave Harald three half-brothers, the eldest of whom, Olaf, seems to have had a great influence over him.

In 1030 Olaf returned to Norway from an exile imposed two years earlier and young Harald, at the age of 15, gathered a force of 600 men to support his brother’s return. Later that year the two of them fought at the Battle of Stiklestad, a conflict arising from the seizing of the Norwegian throne by the Danish King Cnut. The battle did not go well, Olaf was killed and Harald was wounded. He escaped but was hunted by Norwegians loyal to the Danish king.

After this disastrous start to his military career Harald headed to Kievan Rus by way of Sweden. During some 3 or 4 years he acquired considerable experience as a commander in the army of Grand Prince Yaroslav. He had brought with him some 500 loyal Norwegian warriors who were to become the backbone of his companions and the cornerstone of his later success.

Harald eventually moved south to Constantinople and with his men joined the Varangian Guard, supposedly the Byzantine Emperor’s bodyguard, but this did not stop Harald from finding himself fighting against Arab pirates in the Mediterranean, sacking towns in Asia Minor, and pushing as far east as the Euphrates in the name of Emperor Michael IV.

His success in various campaigns over such diverse theatres led to Harald becoming the captain of the Varangians. On the orders of the Byzantine Emperor the Varangians and their Norse leader were sent to Sicily to fight against the Saracens who had established an emirate there. They fought alongside Norman mercenaries who were judged to be very effective soldiers. A revolt in Italy saw the Varangians fighting against the same Normans. Michael Doukeianos, the Byzantine Catepan of Italy, commanded the army and was defeated in the Battle of Olivento, and again at the Battle of Montemaggiore in 1041. As Michael was the supreme commander this allowed Harald to continue his claim that he had only known defeat once as a commander, although in truth he was the leader of the Varangian Guard and they fought in both battles.

After the military failure in Italy Harald found himself fighting in Bulgaria, a place where he earned the chilling moniker of ‘Bulgar-burner’ for his actions. During his time with the Varangians Harald enjoyed a series of promotions and honours bestowed upon him for his many successes. However, Emperor Michael IV died in 1401 and Harald quickly fell out of favour with the newly crowned Emperor Michael V. He was imprisoned but escaped and became the leader of the Varangain faction that supported a popular revolt against the new emperor. Harald was both active and prominent in the revolt and even claimed to have dragged Michael out of his hiding place and blinded him.

After the fall of the new emperor Harald Hardrada decided to leave Constantinople but was forbidden to do so by the new Empress Zoe. Despite this restriction he attempted to escape with two ships and a handful of loyal followers. Even though one ship was lost on the infamous chains that stretched across the Bosphorus to protect Constantinople Harald was successful and reached the Black Sea. From here he was able to return to Kievan Rus. During his time in the pay of the Byzantine Army Harald had sent money and valuables to Grand Prince Yaroslav who kept his treasure safe. Upon meeting his friend again Harald discovered that he had amassed a considerable wealth, enough to allow him to marry Yaroslav’s daughter Elisiv. This was a notable achievement considering that the prince’s other daughters were married to Henry I of France and Andrew I of Hungary.

In 1045 Harald Hardrada set off for Norway with the intention of staking his claim to the throne. He arrived in Sweden first and discovered that Norway was now ruled by an illegitimate son of his half-brother Olaf, a man by the name of Magnus. This meant that he was effectively uncle to the King of Norway. Harald joined forces with Sweyn Estridsson, another Norwegian exile who had tried unsuccessfully to usurp King Magnus, and together they raided the Danish coast to demonstrate Magnus’ inability to defend his people.

King Magnus returned to Norway from a foreign expedition with his army but instead of going to war he reached a remarkable compromise in 1046 with his uncle. The terms agreed by Harald Hardrada effectively meant that he ruled Norway alongside Magnus but that he acknowledged his nephew as his senior and handed over half of his treasure.

This agreement lapsed in 1047 when Magnus died without an heir but with a command that Harald inherit Norway and Sweyn take Denmark. The new King of Norway immediately announced his intention of turning upon his former ally and invading Denmark but the army and the nobility frustrated his ambition by refusing to follow his commands. They went further in opposing Hardrada by bringing the body of Magnus back to Norway even though Harald objected. They buried Magnus at Nidros, now known as Trondheim, with one opponent to the new king openly stating that “to follow Magnus dead was better than to follow any other king alive”.

By 1048 Harald had a more consolidated position within Norway and he was able to begin the war that he intended to return Magnus’ rule over Denmark. He probably expected the war to run quickly to a conclusion but King Sweyn proved far more resilient. From 1048 to 1064 the Norwegians met the Danes in a series of inconclusive battles that effectively bankrupted both countries. The great cost of this war drove both King Harald and King Sweyn to swear to a pact in which they would maintain the peace for the rest of their lives and retain their respective kingdoms without change but there would be no form or reparations sought. For Harald this was an ignominious result that damaged his reputation somewhat.

The peace with Denmark led to active opposition to Harald’s rule in Norway and he responded with brutality, earning his name of Hardrada, which means ‘hard ruler’. As he had spent the largest part of is life as the commander of fighting men he displayed a habit of settling disputes with violence. His time in Byzantium did have some uses, however, it is generally accepted that he was responsible for the introduction of a reliable coin based economy and foreign trade with the countries with which he had strong personal links, such as Kievan Rus and the Byzantine Empire. He is also acknowledged as being an advocate for Christianity and expanded it throughout Norway.

When King Edward of England died in January 1066 King Harald of Norway claimed a right to the now vacant crown. His argument depended upon a supposed agreement between King Magnus and King Harthacnut, made in 1038, that whoever died first then the survivor would inherit their lands. When King Harthacnut died without an heir in 1042 Magnus assumed the crown of Denmark and left the English throne vacant for Edward the Confessor to assume. Hardrada’s claim was weak and the Saxon Wittan was not likely to recognise but England was, at this time, a very rich country, and Harald needed to restore both his treasury and his reputation. He joined forces with Tostig Godwinson, the embittered younger brother of Harold Godwinson, Eorl of Wessex, and now King of England. Tostig had been Eorl of Northumbria in 1065 but a popular revolt had seen him deposed. Tostig believed that his borther Harold had sided with the rebels and advised King Edward to exile him. This belief led Tostig to ally himself with the Saxons’ ancient enemy to achieve his revenge.

Together Harald and Tostig invaded Northumbria and sailed to Riccall to attack the city of York. Coincidently the brothers Edwin, Eorl of Mercia, and Morcar, the newly appointed Eorl of Northumbria, were present and on the 20 September 1066 they chose to fight a pitched battle at Fulford Gate. Hardrada defeated the young noblemen, destroyed their army, and captured York. He did, however, fail to capture the brothers.

The campaign had achieved a significant objective with surprising speed and this success seems to have lulled Harald into a false sense of security. On September 25th he rode to Stamford Bridge to accept provisions and hostages from the men of York only to find a huge Saxon army led by King Harold of England bearing down on their position. The Vikings had chosen not to wear their heavy armour, believing that they were only going to accept the homage of beaten men, and they had not expected the Saxons to be able to field another powerful host in such a short time.

The battle that followed was brutal but the odds were stacked against the Norwegians and their allies. King Harald entered the fight but was killed early on. The Saxons eventually made their advantage count and revenged the earlier defeat at Fulford Gate by slaughtering their enemy, including Harold’s brother Tostig. It is estimated that some 300 ships had constituted the Viking fleet when it sailed down the River Humber towards York but that the Viking force that was allowed to leave by Harold Godwinson could only muster crews for 30 ships for the return journey.

The fall of Harald Hardrada saw Norwegian involvement in England wane considerably. A year after his death his body was repatriated to Norway and laid to rest in the Mary Church, Nidaros; modern day Trondheim. A hundred years later his body was moved again and interred at the Helgeseter Priory. On the 940th anniversary of Harald Hardrada’s death it was revealed that the Viking king’s grave lay under a road that was built across the site of the former priory. There were plans to reinter him once again but these were later shelved.

His memory is enshrined in Harald Hardrades plass in Oslo, including a bronze relief on granite by Lars Utne. There is a relief of him on the western façade of Oslo City Hall. Perhaps most fitting is that his name and exploits are remembered in the sagas, particularly the ‘Saga of Harald Hardrade’ by Snorri Sturluson, this being the kind of legacy that the great warrior-chieftains of the Norse always aspired to achieve.


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Peter C Whitaker was born in Kingston Upon Hull and grew up with two brothers. His father was an engineer and his mother worked in the printing industry. After leaving school with mundane grades he went on to study English Literature and Philosophy at the adult education institution of Coleg Harlech, North Wales, going on from there to work in the food industry and the public sector. Having a life-long love of reading a trip down the A1079 from Hull to York gave him the inspiration to begin writing a book about the Battle of Stamford Bridge, a project that turned into 'The Sorrow Song Trilogy' of which 'The War Wolf' is the first instalment. He is married with two children and three cats.


  1. Excellent article; thoroughly enjoyed it. Coming from Holderness I've always thought the people at the time, who doubtless spoke a bastardised form of Norse/English, would be part excited, part terrified at the sight of Harald's longship force heading down the coast for the Humber. Certainly Scarborough didn't think much of being looted. I'm sure it wasn't the only township.

  2. Thank you for a great article. Fascinating!

  3. Thanks for the post. I'm about half through a Great Courses course on the Vikings and just finished the section on the initial invasions of England. Harald is coming up in the next lesson or two.

  4. This is the best information and its really helped me with my homework and this is exactly what I need thank you 👍

  5. I have great respect for Harold Hardrada...

    It is very sad his grave is under a road...perhaps he should be moved to a more honourable location.

  6. Can we start a program to have his remains moved..

  7. Any thoughts on where in the Orkneys Harald would have left his wife Queen Elizabeth and daughters while he went off to do battle. Birsay perhaps? Looking forward to reading your book.

  8. Thank you thank you thank you! Your article was the only place I could find confirmation that King Harald's grave hadn't been moved after the priory was demolished. My quest has ended! (Long story! 😃)

  9. If they can dig one king out from beneath a car park, surely they can dig another from beneath a road.

  10. Excellent article Mr Whitaker, thank you.
    Harald was certainly an interesting character and I think possibly the greatest warrior of the age.
    I do wonder what England would have been like had he taken Harold’s crown.
    Cheers, Garrett Pearson


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