Harold Hardrada

Big Man, Big Reputation


Geoff Boxell

Harald Hardrada (hard counsellor, the word 'rade' being the same as the Old English word ræd as in King Æþelræd Unræd [noble counsel - no counsel]) was born in 1015, the son of Sigurd Syr and half brother of King Olaf of Norway).

In the saga of St. Olaf, the Icelandic scald, Snorri Sturluson, relates how King Olaf of Norway tested his young half brothers. One by one the three were put on his knee. When he angrily glowered at them, the two older boys began to whimper. But Harald, it is said, simply stared back. And when Olaf tugged the boy's hair, he grabbed the king's moustache and pulled it in turn, to which the king remarked: "You are likely to be vindictive when you grow up, kinsman."

Another time, Olaf came upon his brothers playing with toy barns and farmhouses, cattle and sheep. Harald, however, played with chips of wood on a pond, pretending that they were his longships. Olaf then asked each what he most would like to have. One boy wanted fields sown with grain; the other, as many cattle as could stand around the pond. But Harald wanted Huscarls, as many as could eat all his brother's cows at one time.

Another anecdote occurred just before the Battle of Stikestad in 1030, during the course of which Olaf was killed and Harald wounded. The battle was the culmination of King Knute the Mighty's conquest of Norway.

"'It seems advisable to me,' said the king, 'that my brother Harald be not in this battle as he is still only a child.'

Harold answered, 'By all means I shall take part in it, and if I am so weak as not to be able to wield a sword, then I know what to do: let my hand be tied to the haft.'"

The battle lost, and his half brother the king dead, the wounded Harald was led from the battle and hidden with a serf. Once his wounds were healed the serf's young son took Harald to Svithjod, where he joined Ragnvald Brusason and other survivors of King Olaf's army. In the spring of 1031 they left for the court of Jarisleif, king of the Rus, and remained there for the winter.

Whilst some of the others moved on to Constantinople (Miklagarde), the capital of the Byzantine Empire, there they intended to serve as mercenaries in the Varangian Guard, at the time an exclusively Viking elite force. Harald remained and with Ellif Rangnvalson led the Russian king's Huscarls. After spending some years fighting for Jarisleif as he subdued local Slavic tribes, Harald eventually gathered a band of hearth troops of his own and left for Constantinople.

The Empress Zoe ruled the Byzantine Empire at the time, in the name of her son, Michael. Harald presented himself and his men to the Empress and they were taken into service. It was not long before the other Varangians recognised Harald's skill in battle and he was elected their leader. Under the overall command of General Gyrger, Harald and the Varangians sailed the Greek seas, suppressing pirates and enforcing the authority of the Empress.

There were problems in the Byzantine army, as was to be expected in a mainly mercenary force. Harald's high handed manner and the independence exhibited by the Varagians was only tolerated because of their fighting ability. However, in a campaign against the Saracens, it was noted that Harald would only fully commit his men when victory was assured, the exception being when the Varagians fought independently. The fact that Harald, when acting on his own was more successful than Gyrger, was not missed on the other troops. Soon it became impossible for Gyrger to continue and he split the command, taking the Greek troops himself and leaving the Latin troops with Harald and the Varangians.

Harald and his men subsequently sailed to Africa where he was said to have taken 80 castles and thence to Sicily, which he took for the Byzantine Empire. Harald, however, kept much of the plunder taken in his campaigns. This treasure he sent north to Jarisleif for safekeeping.

Amongst the tactics Harald used to take castles, were those of subterfuge and cunning. One castle was taken after he got his men to capture birds who were nesting in the castle. These he set free with burning brands attached to them. The birds returned to their nests and started fires that burned the castle down. On another occasion he besieged a town, but made no effort to take it as it was too powerful for his resources. Rather, after many days of sitting outside the town he organised a sports day for his men. The townsfolk, who by now felt under no threat from the Greek army, came out to watch. At Harald's signal his men grabbed their concealed weapons, and stormed and took first the gate and then the town. Another story is told that in order to take a strongly defended town, Harald 'died'. His men approached the townsfolk and asked that he be buried in the church. Expecting to receive a large offering, the local church persuaded the military commander to agree. The funeral cortège passed through the gate, the coffin held high. At the door of the church it was put down to let the mourners pay their last respects. The coffin lid flew off, Harald sprang out and he and his men put everyone in sight to the sword and captured much booty.

Harald and his personal followers eventually left the Varangian Guard and went on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.

On returning to Constantinople Harald heard that nephew, Magnus, now ruled Norway and he wanted to return there himself. The Empress Zoe was not amused. She accused Harald of exceeding his authority, which he had done, and misappropriated much of the plunder he had taken, which he had also done. The rumour amongst the Varangians was that Harald had wanted to marry a niece of Zoe's called, Maria, but the Empress wanted to marry Harald herself. The Emperor now Constantine Monomachus, was persuaded by Zoe to have him arrested, together with two of his men, Haldor and Ulf.

That night, a 'lady of distinction' and two servants came and placed a ladder against the tower where Harald and his men were kept. The Vikings went to the Varangian barracks to gather support and thence to the palace where they captured the Emperor and put out his eyes.

Leaving the now blind Emperor, the Varangians went and abducted Maria. Reaching the strand, where the ships were kept, they took two and tried to leave the harbour. They ran into trouble as a chain stopped the mouth of the harbour. Harald ordered everyone that wasn't rowing to the back of the boat and the rowers rowed for their lives. When they had rowed the ship up on the chain he ordered everyone forward. The ship tipped forward and slid off the chain. The second ship tried to do the same, but broke in half. Many men were lost, but the survivors were taken aboard Harald's ship. They then sailed into the Black Sea and up through the river roads to Novgood and the court of Jarisleif. There they spent the winter of 1045. But before going on to Norway he graciously sent Maria back to Miklagard.

That winter Harald married Jarisleif's daughter Elizabeth. In the spring of 1046 Harald and his men left for the north. At Sigtuna Olaf the king of the Swedes met him. Olaf was related to both Harald and his new wife. Harald formed an alliance with Olaf's nephew, Swein Ulfson. Swein was the King of Denmark and was at war with Magnus, King of Norway. Magus at this time controlled much of Denmark proper (Denmark at the time included Scania, which now is the southern part of Sweden). The two undertook a raid on Denmark which raid went well for Harald, with him taking much booty and many slaves. Magnus the Good of Norway was a worried man and gathered together as big an army as he could.

Meantime Harald was being counselled by his men to try and avoid a war with his half-brother's son. Using Danes allied to Magnus as a go between, an agreement was made to split Norway and their own personal property between the brothers. Soon afterwards Swein got wind of what had happened and attempted to have Harald killed with an axe whilst he slept on board his ship. Harald, however, was a cunning man and had dressed a bulk of wood in his sleeping bag, while he slept elsewhere and the attempt failed. On being woken by the sound of the axe hitting the wood, Harald had his ships slip anchor and sail away. He returned to Norway to meet up with King Magnus and claim his half of the kingdom.

That winter, whilst Magnus and Harald went north into Norway Swein Ulfson left Scania and retook the south of Denmark.

In the late spring of 1047 the two Norwegian kings sailed for Denmark. Swein withdrew into Scania and Harald and Magnus subdued Denmark. That autumn Magnus fell ill. In a vision he saw his father St. Olaf and was persuaded to return Denmark to Swein. Near death he sent his brother, Thorer to Swein telling him of his decision, and also that Norway was to be Harald's.

On Magnus' death, Harald called a Thing-a-moot of the army and told them that he intended to go to the Viborg Thing and get himself proclaimed King of Denmark. Lead by Einar Tambasker the men of Norway said that it was better to take Magnus home to be buried beside his father. Seeing that he did not have the support of his men, Harald went with them. Whilst Einar and his men buried King Magnus Harald went about enforcing his claim to the throne of Norway. Meantime Swein had moved from Scania to Denmark and been proclaimed king.

Once winter was over, Harald called a levy of half the fighting men of Norway and struck at Jutland, where he harried and burnt, though he was unable to establish himself on the land. On returning to Norway that autumn he took Thora Thorbergdotter as his second wife.

Harald returned to raid Denmark the following year, but still he was unable to establish a foothold. During the winter of 1049 Swein sent word to Harald that, rather then continuing to devastate each others' land they should meet at the Gaut river and there let their armies fight until a winner was decided; the winner to be king of Denmark and Norway.

Harald went to the Gaut river and waited, but Swein never arrived. Harald then sent home a third of his troops and raided Denmark with the rest. At the end of the fighting season Harald sailed north. At Thioda Swein appeared with an army much larger than Harald's, that had seen losses during the campaign season. Swein challenged Harald to a battle on the land, Harald counter offered a battle at sea. Whilst Swein gathered his fleet Harald and his fleet tried to slip away in a sea fog. The Norwegian ships, laden with plunder, managed to escape, except for Harald's. First he jettisoned wood, clothes and other goods; some of the Danish ships stopped to salvage the valuables. The other Danish ships were catching him, so Harald had his men throw overboard the food and drink. The Danes continued to close, so then Harald threw overboard his prisoners. This last resort was successful as Swein ordered his ships to save his kinfolk. By the time the prisoners had been rescued, Harald was gone. However, seven Norwegian ships were still raiding to the south. These were caught, and despite pleas for them to be ransomed, the crews were slaughtered.

The raiding and counter raiding continued over the years, with Harald taking a break to raid England in 1057. There he formed an alliance with the renegade EarlÆlfgar of Mercia and King Gruffiðð of Wales. Whilst Ælfgar and Gruffiðð attacked the borderlands the Norse raided the north-western coast of England. The Norwegians, ships full of plunder, then sailed away, leaving his erstwhile companions to make a truce with Earl Harold Godwinson acting on behalf of King Edward the Confessor.

In 1062 Harald proposed that Swein's original idea of meeting at the Gaut River and the idea of fighting for the two kingdoms be reactivated. After gathering a great force, Harald boarded his new dragon ship and led his fleet to the rendezvous. As it was before, so it was now; Swein did not appear. Harald learnt that the Danes were gathered partly at Fyen and partly at Seeland. He released from service his lesser fighting men and took the remaining in a fleet of 150 ships to Halland, where they landed and pillaged the Danish countryside. Swein with 300 ships trapped them in Lofufjord. Rather than flee Harald ordered his men aboard the ships and to attack.

The normal tactic was to lay alongside another ship and tie it together, so that a sea battle was really a land battle with a heavy floor! For defence Swein had had many of his ships lashed together to block the Norwegian escape route. Whilst the men of the fleet fount with spear, axe and sword, Harald shot his bow. A leading Norwegian was Jarl Hakon. He did not allow his part of the fleet to make fast to other ships, and acted as a fighting reserve, sailing where ever he saw his countrymen in trouble and boarding the Danish ships and attacking the Danes from the rear.

The fight went on for most of the day with Harald and his men proving that numbers were not everything. Eventually they boarded and took King Swein's ship. As the flag was cut down the Danes broke off the fight and fled with the surviving Norwegians in pursuit. Although Swein's ship was taken, Swein was not.

Jarl Hakon could not join the other Norwegians as his ships were blocked in. Alongside came a rowboat. The sole occupant said his name was Vandrad and he sought sanctuary. The Jarl accepted Vandrad's word and had him sent to Karl ,a Danish friend of his. Vandrad was then fed and given a horse, which he rode to Seeland. Soon word came to Harald that Swein was at Seeland gathering the remnants of his men around him. Swein sent for Karl and rewarded him with a large farm.

That winter Harald heard how Jarl Hakon had been deceived. He gathered 900 huscarls and set off to take vengeance on Hakon for letting his enemy escape. Hakon was fortunate, for a friend of his was one of the huscarls and he received warning to escape.

By now Swein and the Danes were becoming exhausted by the continuing raids and warfare. Harald in his turn had almost exhausted the immense fortune he had brought back from his time serving the Byzantine Empire. During the winter of 1063 messengers and ambassadors went between the two countries. A meeting was arranged at Gaut river; this time to talk rather than fight. Despite much arguing about compensation it was eventually agreed that Swein would rule Denmark and Harald Norway with the boundaries as they had been before the time of Knute. There was to be no compensation and no blood feud.

In the spring of 1064 Harald again sought Jarl Hakon, who had been gathering men and money from his holdings outside of Harald of Norway reach. Harald heard that Hakon was in Gautland and took a fleet up the river seeking him. Hakon with an army mainly drawn from Gautlanders, withdrew before him. Leaving his fleet, Harald continued to seek the Jarl. On reaching a wood they saw Hakon and his men. It started to snow, and Harald stopped his men on a hillside and they sought shelter under their shields. Hakon raised his banner that had belonged to King Magnus. Whilst talking to the local law-giver, the Norwegians lifted their shields, gave a shout, and began to advance. The noise startled the law givers horse and it reared up, knocking the banner and causing the lawman to be struck on the head by the pole. Hakon and his men advanced, as they came up the hill, Harald led his men forward in a charge and Hakon's force disintegrated and then fled. Thinking Hakon dead, Harald took the captured banner and rode with his men through a forest in pursuit. A horseman appeared and put his spear through the man carrying King Magnus' banner and rode off with the prize. Harald now knew that the Jarl lived!

The Norwegian army withdrew back to their ships and sailed for home.

The following year Harald spent stamping out dissent in his own lands, dealing out harsh justice to those who would not bend to his will.

During that year a matter of importance had happened in England. Tosti Godwinson, Earl of Northumberland, and brother of Harold, Earl of Wessex and the King's right hand man, had been expelled from his earldom. In a revolt primed by local politics and fuelled by what the locals felt was untraditional taxation, the men of Northumberland had named a new earl and expelled or killed Tosti's men. Rather than face a civil war, the pragmatic Harold had convinced King Edward to take the earldom from Tosti, no doubt expecting to be able to compensate his brother, to whom he was close, with lands elsewhere. Tosti, rather than wait and see what alternative power-base King Edward would grant him argued so much with King Edward that he found himself exiled. He took ship with his wife and family and sought refuge at Bruges with his brother-in-law, the arch mischief-maker, Count Baldwin. From there he sought out his cousin, Swein Ulfson King of Denmark. Ulf had had enough of war, and declined to support Tosti. The exile then went to see if King Harald of Norway would help him. Harald had a distant claim to the English throne through Knute. Edward had no children. Harald had spent all his fortune on his war with Denmark and was facing problems at home getting people to pay his taxes. England was the wealthiest nation in Europe outside the Byzantine Empire. Of course he would help Tosti regain his earldom, if Tosti would help him become King of England. On 05 January 1066 King Edward of England died and the throne was vacant.

In England the traditional Christmas meeting of the king's council, the Witangamot, had seen all five earls, both archbishops, eight bishops and most of the country's leading thegns gathered to attend the king for what was obviously the last time. From his deathbed King Edward summonsed the English Witan. There he commended his kingdom and the protection of his queen to Harold Godwinson, Earl of Wessex. He then bound his foreign servants to take out oaths of loyalty to Harold. The Witan then acclaimed Harold King of the English, and no one opposed them. In Normandy Duke William the Bastard started to plot how he could steal the throne, whilst in Norway, Harald Haradrada did the same.

In May Tosti went to his father-in-law Count Baldwin, and with a fleet of his own followers added to the mercenaries he had been able to hire, returned to England. He was rebuffed wherever he landed. Eventually, with only 12 ships instead of the 60 he had started with, Tosti fled to Scotland and King Malcolm. There he spent the rest of the summer.

In Normandy William the Bastard's preparations for invasion went ahead, despite the problems he was having persuading his nobles to support him in the venture. After much effort, and not a little gold, William's fleet was ready in the mouth of the river Dives in July 1066. Contrary winds kept it confined to harbour for about a month. Subsequently the fleet sailed to St Valery on the Somme. The move may have been deliberate, reducing the sea trip to England. However, as it sailed with men and horses loaded, it was more likely an attempted invasion that got blown off course. It certainly suffered losses of ships and men. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and other sources hint at a sea battle between the fleets, which may allow for the Norman losses and losses in the English fleet before it returned to London for decommissioning, but from this point in time it is purely speculative.

Across the North Sea Harald Hardrada was gathering a force from wherever the Norse lived. In addition to his own Norwegians, battle hardened during their recent war in Denmark, he had Danes, Swedes, Irish Norse, Icelanders, Greenlanders, men from the Faeroes, Orkney, Mann, the north of Scotland, Cumberland and the sundry isles.

After joining Tosti in Scotland, Harald used the very winds that were keeping Duke William in port to sail down the English coast. Their first target was Scarborough, which they burnt to the ground. Then, sailing up the rivers Humber and Ouse, the fleet landed at Ricall in Yorkshire. Harald led his force towards York, which for many years had been the capital of an independent Viking state. Outside the city Earl Morcar of Northumberland, his brother, Earl Edwin of Mercia, and Earl Waltheof of Northampton waited for him. With the three young and inexperienced earls were their Huscarls and such elements of the Fyrds of their shires as they has managed to assemble in the short time they had had since the invading fleet had been sighted.

The armies clashed at Fulford on the Ouse, where the English army blocked both road and river, with their flanks protected by marshes. It was a long and bloody battle with successes and failures on both sides. Eventually the experience of Harald and his men overcame the resistance of the Fyrd and the English defence collapsed. Although both Edwin and Morcar escaped with their lives, few of their army did. The Vikings, however, had also suffered heavy losses and it was noticeable that men from the Danelaw had not joined them as Harald had hoped. The Viking army then moved on and took the city of York. There they demanded, and received, supplies and hostages.

Whilst they had enough to go on with, the Viking hoard needed more supplies and additional hostages. These were to be brought and handed over at Stamford Bridge. Awaiting the expected hand over, Harald, Tosti, and the army divested themselves of their armour, which they sent back to the ships, and enjoyed the sunshine, some even going swimming. On seeing a dust cloud, they took it to be the men of York. Then the sun glinted on steel, and they realised that this was an army coming towards them.

King Harold and his brother Gryth, Earl of East Anglia, had gathered their Huscarls and ridden north, collecting elements of the Mercian and East Anglian Fyrd as they went. They covered 320 km in six days. Despite the army marching past York itself, no word had reached Harald Hardrada. Shock at the arrival of the English was soon overcome, and whilst a rearguard held the bridge. The Viking army drew itself up in battle array on the other bank to await the onslaught. Hardrada also sent word back to Eystein Orre, who was in charge of the men left at Ricall to guard the ships.

King Harold rode up and offered his brother, Tosti, his earldom back if he would lay down his arms and join him, possibly knowing that the offer was unlikely to be accepted, but knowing that, if it were, it would damage the Viking army's morale.Tosti asked what English lands Harald of Norway could expect if he dismissed the army. King Harold's reply was that 'he would offer Harald him seven foot of good English soil, or as much as he needed as he was taller than other men'!

As at Fulford, the battle was long, hard fought, and bloody. The Vikings lack of armour would have counted against them. The English were also at a disadvantage having had a 25 km march that morning from Tadcaster to Stamford Bridge. In order to draw his battlelines, Harald Haradrada left a small force to hold the bridge across the river. Soon all were dead except one axeman. Soon he too was dead, speared from beneath the bridge and the English were on the same side of the river. As soon as they made an open order shield wall they advanced and the fight commenced. The slaughter on both sides was high and the battle was balanced. The saga tell us that King Harald Hardrada was felled by an arrow in his windpipe. Tosti took Hardrada's banner, 'Landwaster' and continued the fight till he, too, fell.

Even though both of their leaders were killed, the Vikings, who were now fighting in small groups, were still defending themselves valorously when Eystein Orre arrived with the reinforcements. However, these troops proved to be of no assistance because the forced march they had been compelled to make on this unusually hot day had spent their energy and they, too, were quickly overwhelmed. The remaining Vikings tried to make it back to the ships, only to be hunted down and slain. King Harold and his men reached the fleet and the surviving Vikings capitulated to Harold. Desiring total victory but not maddened with blood lust to kill the entire enemy, Harold rounded up all the surviving Vikings and let them go. Amongst the captives was Olaf, Harald Hardrada's son.

Of the 360 or so ships that brought the invading Vikings, only 36 were needed to take the survivors home.

 "With falcon eye, and courage bright,

Our king saw glory in the fight; to fly, he saw, would ruin bring,

On them and him - the folk and king.

'Hands up the arms to one and all!'

Cries out the king: 'We'll win or fall!

Sooner than fly, heaped on each other

Each man shall fall across his brother!'"

Most of the information for the above was taken from Snorri Sturlason's Saga of Harald Hardrada in the Heimskringla.

Snorri, although a kinsman of Harald Hardra, was writing some 200 years after the events he wrote about. He did, however, have access to the works of scalds that were contemporaries of those who feature in the tale. Most of these works are now lost.

Heimskringla does contain many known inaccuracies, and this allows speculation as to the accuracy of the rest. Where possible I have cross-referenced the information and taken that which appears to be the most accurate.

Geoff Boxell's page on 1066