This is the story of Harald Hardrada, the last of the great Viking warriors, whose epic life stretched from England in the north to Constantinople in the south.
He was born Harald Sigurdsson in 1015, and he was not born a king. He was King Olaf’s half-brother, and third in line to the throne. Legend has it that as a boy, Harald was brought before the King with his brothers.
Later, when Olaf asked the boys what they would like to own, Guthorm and Halfdan replied that they would like, respectively, great fields of grain and large numbers of cattle. Harald, when posed the same question, replied that he wanted to own enough housecarls to devour all of his brothers’ grain and cattle in a single meal.
In 1030, the legendary King Canute, who once tried to command the tides of England in mockery of his flattering courtiers, invaded the lands of Olaf in Norway. Harald was only 15 at the time, and King Olaf was uncertain if he should fight. In response, Harald said, “If I am so weak as not to be able to wield a sword…let my hand be tied to the haft.”
The Battle of Stiklestad raged around him as Vikings fought in close quarters with battleaxe and shield. King Olaf was killed, and Harald himself was wounded. He was merely a teenager, in pain and likely frightened out of his wits, but none the less he managed to escape along with a core of devoted fighters. He went first to Sweden, and then made the journey to the city of Kiev, a trek of nearly 1000 miles. The city of Kiev was home of the Kievan Rus, Vikings who had made their way south along the rivers of Russia to build the great city. In time, Harald arrived at the capitol of Yaroslav the Wise, King of Kiev.
The women of Kiev were renowned at that time for their great beauty, and the princesses of Kiev were sought as brides throughout Europe. One girl in particular caught his eye. She was Ellisif, daughter of the King. Boldly Harald sought her hand, but he was still only a teenager, and he had not acquired the wealth and great deeds necessary to marry a princess.
So Harald and his men set off for Constantinople (known to the Vikings as Miklagard), the richest and most powerful city in the world, to make their fortunes. At that time the Byzantine Emperor employed Vikings in the elite Varangian Guard. Harald and his men joined, and quickly gained renown for their abilities in battle during campaigns in Sicily and Bulgaria. Before long, Harald had earned the titles of Spatharokandidatos, or Colonel, and Manglavites, a title of honor, and become leader of the Varangians.
His wealth and prowess were growing. Soon, he would have enough money and prestige to return to Kiev for the hand of Princess Ellisif.
But things did not continue as planned. In 1041, Emperor Michael IV Katalaktes died, and his son Michael V came to power. The new Emperor disliked the Varangians, and Harald was imprisoned on a charge of misappropriating funds. Harald languished in the Byzantine prison for months, until the new Emperor made a crucial mistake.
The Empress Zoe was popular with the people, but Michael V chose to exile her to protect his throne. The people revolted. During the chaos, Harald made his escape from prison. When Michael was deposed, Harald asked the new Emperor, Constantine Monomachus, for leave to leave the city and return home. The Emperor refused.
Harald left anyway.
After all, he had accumulated a great deal of wealth from his wages, spoils in battle, and the Byzantine custom of polutasvarf.
Harald had participated three times in polutasvarf, a Byzantine custom in which the Varangians were allowed to enter the palace and cart off whatever riches they could carry. The polutasvarf was held every time an Emperor died, and Harald had been in Constantinople through the reigns on Romanos III, Michael IV, and Michael V.
Harald returned triumphantly to Kiev at the age of 27 to claim the Princess Ellisif as his bride. He was rumored to be seven feet tall, and he was at the height of his strength and prowess in battle. He was an experienced and wealthy warrior, who had traveled through much of the known world. Despite his success, his ambition was not sated.
Harald wanted to be a King.
Canute died in 1035, leaving the Kingdom of Norway ruled by King Olaf’s bastard son, Magnus the Good. Harald arrived in Norway with his men after leaving Constantinople and Kiev. He felt his claim to the throne as Olaf’s half-brother was stronger than that of Magnus. Tensions mounted, and war drew closer. Fortunately, a compromise was reached. Magnus agreed to share his kingdom in exchange for half of Harald’s wealth.
Within a year, Magnus was dead, supposedly of natural causes. While it is certainly possible he fell ill in the harsh Scandanavian winters, it is also possible that Harald had him removed to consolidate his claim to the throne.
Harald took the name Hardrada, meaning ‘hard rule’. He was brutal in suppressing opposition. He spent the next 15 years trying to conquer Denmark, but he could not make any permanent progress, and eventually agreed to peace.
In 1065, at the age of 50, Harald Hardrada turned his eye toward England, and a course of action that would alter British history forever.
King Edward the Confessor died without heir. An Englishman, Harold Godwinson, a Norman, William of Normandy, and Harald Hardrada of Norway all laid claim to the throne. Harald was accompanied by Tostig Godwinson, Harold’s brother.
With a force of 300 Viking longboats, Harald set sail for England. He landed on the northern coast and was quickly confronted in battle. He defeated the English at the Battle of Fulford Gate. The sagas tell of Harald’s elite warriors, fighting beneath his raven banner, turning the tide of the battle and forcing the English to retreat. After his victory, Harald sacked York.
Harold Godwinson rushed north with his English army. Unaware of the approaching threat, Harald left many of his troops behind to guard the longboats while he camped at Samford Bridge. His troops were lightly armored, while the English had arrived in full battle gear.
Harold supposedly offered Tostig a third of his kingdom. When Tostig asked what he would offer Harald Hardrada, Harold famously replied, “Six feet of English ground, or as much more as he might need as he is taller than most men.” So ended the negotiations.
Rather than retreat and try to unite his forces, Harald stood his ground. Runners were sent to the boats for reinforcements. We can imagine Harald, then 51, towering over the battlefield, fighting the English to the last, outnumbered and underequipped, his giant battleaxe glinting with the spilled blood of his enemies. Harald was finally felled by an arrow to the throat. Reinforcements eventually arrived, but they were too little to turn the tide. The Vikings invasion was destroyed. Of the 300 longboats that left, only 25 returned.
After defeating Harald Hardrada in the north, Harold Godwinson had to march rapidly south to meet another invader, William of Normandy, at the Battle of Hastings. In a closely fought battle, Harold’s forces were defeated, and England came under Norman control. Historians site the forced march after the Battle of Samford Bridge as the leading factor in Harold’s defeat.
The Normans were descendants of raiders of the northern coast of France who had decided to remain and settle instead of return to their Scandanavian homes. Like the founders of Kiev and the body guards of the Byzantine Emperor, the Normans were also Vikings. Every Russian Czar through Ivan the Terrible was a descendant of the men from the north. The Vikings settled Iceland and Greenland and discovered the coast of Canada.
Harald Hardrada is often regarded as the last great Viking warrior. After Hastings, England became more involved in continental Europe, the Dark Ages gave way to the High Middle Ages, and the Age of the Viking slipped into history.
In his life, Harald travelled from Norway and Sweden, all the way to Russia, south to Constantinople, where he was both commander of the elite Varangian guards and thrown into prison. He fought in Sicily and Bulgaria, and visited Jerusalem. He married a Russian princess, and ruled as a Norwegian King. He died a thousand miles away from Byzantium and Kiev, fighting on the shores of England.
Conan’s got nothing on this dude.