Harald Hardrada

Posted: August 11, 2012 in Chat
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Harald Hardrada – they don’t make them like that any more.

Born 1015, died 1066.

His real name was Harold Sigurdsson, son of a king of Norway. He ascended the throne himself in 1047.


In 1030 he fought in the major Norwegian battle of Stiklestad. It didn’t go well for him, and the contending forces of Norway’s unsettled minor kingdoms drove him into exile. He didn’t take to  this easily, and later in life made darned sure he got back at them, claiming kingship even of Denmark, as well as Norway.

It must have been this period he earned that epithet Hardrada, that is, hard ruler.

Before this though, is when he really had the time of his life.

Exile meant travelling through Sweden, Finland, to Russia. Russia in those days consisted of principalities ruled over by separate princes, kings. The heart of old Russia was Kiev. And that’s where he headed.

He was a king’s son, he was used to privilege and the companionship of princes and the relatively affluent. Travelling as an exile was not exactly comfortable, nor was his company always what he was used to. So, he headed for the princes and kings. And they welcomed him!

If he followed the Viking paths down the rivers, most importantly from Novgorod south, or over and down the Volga, or the Don, then he was sure to make it the place. Why do I say this? Well, Yaroslav’s wife Ingegerd was a distant relative of his. She was a Swedish princess married off to a Kiev King.

In Kiev he spent some time as captain of the warriors of Yaroslav the Wise. He rode many campaigns with them. Most probably against the Polovetsians, a nomadic people from Siberia, who had settled in what we now know as the Ukraine.
See the Song of Igor’s Campaign, classic Russian geste for more on these battles.

By 1034 he was in Byzantium, once again pestering the kings and princes. He became a Commander of the Varangian Guard, until 1042. His campaigns were reputedly wide ranging, taking him into the Middle-East, even as far as Iraq in some chronicles.
It was said he had developed a habit of dipping his hand into the treasury; at one point he was imprisoned. He had to leave Byzantium under cover of night: he had requested permission to leave, but was refused.
He ended up back in Kiev.
It was here he married Elisabeth, Yaroslav’s daughter. His poem to Elisabeth has been suggested as the origin of The Lament of Yaroslavna, in the Song of Igor’s Campaign.

They returned to Norway, where he promptly set about claiming the throne for himself. There followed a period of fierce settlements amongst old enemies and detractors.

By 1066 we find him leading a force against Harold of England. They engaged forces at Stamford Bridge.
From what we know of this battle, he was killed – an arrow in the throat? And then English Harold had to tramp down with his forces to Hastings, way down in Kent, and King William.
And the rest,  they say, is history.


It is interesting to note the dates here; I know, dates are the bane of history.

It’s just somewhere to hang the structure to see it better. When you’re talking about life it’s just not chronological – we have lapses, go back a step or two, sometimes (if we’re lucky) race ahead, or more often than not have long periods of fallow: all over the place; any idea of chronology is crazy.

It’s just a device for ordering stuff in retrospect.

In this case they reveal to us a bit more of the man, and of the expectations, and mindset of the time he lived in.

Born 1015, ok. In Norway – don’t know where as such – but he was a part of the Norwegian ruling elite. His father Sigurd Syr was second husband to Asta Gundbrandsdattar. Why is this important? The form of his mother’s name became synonymous with Icelandic formations after the Settlement. Her first marriage resulted in the birth of Olaf, later St Olaf, king from 1025 to 1028.

It was after this the Norwegian throne was claimed by the Danish king, Cnut the Great. Yes, that’s right, that King Cnut, the one who also claimed the English throne.

The next date is 1030, the battle of Stiklestad, one of the most famous battles in Norway. It happened around Trondheim. Harald sided with his half brother Olaf against local claimants for the throne.

Oh, by the way – he was 15 at the time. Accounts say he acquitted himself well. Even if they lost the battle, and it was decided best for him ‘to live in exile’. His exile also entailed his taking his retinue, as a regal claimant.

1031 he had made it to Kiev: aged 16.

His reputation as a fighter travelled with him; so much so that he was taken on by Yaroslav the Wise. His wife, as mentioned, was a relation of Harald’s from Sweden.

He was involved in many campaigns there – against Poland, Estonians… there were many factional squabbles. He learned his trade, improved his craft.

1034 and he appeared in Byzantium, where he was eventually appointed commander of the Varangian Guard. They were an elite force, and bodyguards to the Emperor. There were and remained a predominantly Scandinavian group amongst the Byzantine Guard. The Guard began as a group of mercenaries paid to protect Byzantine interests. Empress Anna Komnene spoke of them highly for their valour, but found their manners and general bahaviour very weird. The Scandinavian warriors held highly the qualities of coolness under fire – and most other times; anyone who showed themselves to be unmoved by anything was highly esteemed.

It is possible his campaigns took him as far as the Euphrates (Iraq), and even Jerusalem.

A Greek book of 1070s, Kekaumenos’ Strategikon, recorded him winning favours from the Emperor. It was some time after this he was imprisoned by the new Emperor, and his powerful wife Zoe. There is some suggestion he dipped into the treasury coffers. William of Malmesbury, as well as Saxo Grammaticus all have their pennyworth to add – but it was all hearsay. New Emperors always distance themselves from the favoured ones of the Emperors they replace.

The new Emperor was not popular, and insurrections broke out – whether Harald was released to lead the fight back, is not clear. What is clear is that, when in 1042 he requested permission to leave Byzantium he was refused. And so he had to sneak away, with his loyal companions. And so, back to Kiev.

By 1047 he was married, back in Norway, and ascended the throne. Payback time for Denmark. Only, it didn’t quite end up like that. It did end up in a lifelong truce. So, if he could not claim Cnut’s Denmark, he looked to England, Cnut’s other legacy realm.

But before that, let’s take the instance of the great town of Hedeby near Schleswig, one of the few great towns of the region. Quite a lot has been unearthed about the town, but one significant period stands out. The period of the 1050s. Why? One source has it: ‘A thick layer of ash and charcoal in the central area represents the final destruction of the town just before 1050. Whether this fire was accidental or… by… Harald Hard-ruler… is unclear. This was the end of Hedeby…’

Submit, or be smashed.

Tostig Godwinson, who was the brother of Harold Godwinson, king of England, persuaded our Harald that he had a decent claim to the English throne. Brothers, eh! Can’t live with them, can’t trust them out of your sight!

September 1066, and the Harolds (well, HarAld, and HarOld) met outside York for a bit of the old heave-ho.  The first battle at Fulford went well for HarAld, but it seems it made him complaisant. The later one at Stamford Bridge finished him. And HarAld was killed.

He was 51.

According to Snorri Sturlson he was buried at Mary Church, Trondheim. A huge stone now commemorates his burial place.

Even the age of 51 is a little old and grizzled for some. Still, that was one life lived to the full.

A little like the Chinese curse: May you live in interesting time – it’s usually a disaster for the people trying to get by; always some sod trying to make them part of his big scheme for power. And he was one of those. Submit, or be smashed.

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