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Harald Hardrada
13th-century portrayal of Harald Hardrada, from The Life of King Edward the Confessor by the English chronicler Matthew Paris.
Preceded by Magnus I
Succeeded by Magnus II
Personal details
Born c. 1015
Ringerike, Norway
Died 25 September 1066 (aged 50–51)
Stamford Bridge, Yorkshire, England
Spouse(s) Elisiv of Kiev
Tora Torbergsdatter
Religion Christianity

Harald Sigurdsson (Old Norse: Haraldr Sigurðarson; c. 1015 – 25 September 1066), given the epithet Hardrada (harðráði, roughly translated as "stern counsel" or "hard ruler") in the sagas, was King of Norway (as Harald III) from 1046 to 1066. In addition, he unsuccessfully claimed the Danish throne until 1064 and the English throne in 1066. Prior to becoming king, Harald had spent around fifteen years in exile as a mercenary and military commander in Kievan Rus' and in the Byzantine Empire.

When he was fifteen years old, in 1030, Harald fought in the Battle of Stiklestad together with his half-brother Olaf Haraldsson (later Saint Olaf). Olaf sought to reclaim the Norwegian throne, which he had lost to the Danish king Cnut the Great two years prior. In the battle, Olaf and Harald were defeated by forces loyal to Cnut, and Harald was forced in exile to Kievan Rus' (the sagas' Garðaríki). He thereafter spent some time in the army of Grand Prince Yaroslav the Wise, eventually obtaining rank as a captain, until he moved on to Constantinople with his companions around 1034. In Constantinople, he soon rose to become the commander of the Byzantine Varangian Guard, and saw action on the Mediterranean Sea, in Asia Minor, Sicily, possibly in the Holy Land, Bulgaria and in Constantinople itself, where he became involved in the imperial dynastic disputes. Harald amassed considerable wealth during his time in the Byzantine Empire, which he shipped to Yaroslav in Kievan Rus' for safekeeping. He finally left the Byzantines in 1042, and arrived back in Kievan Rus' in order to prepare his campaign of reclaiming the Norwegian throne. Possibly to Harald's knowledge, in his absence the Norwegian throne had been restored from the Danes to Olaf's illegitimate son Magnus the Good.

In 1046, Harald joined forces with Magnus's rival in Denmark (Magnus had also become king of Denmark), the pretender Sweyn Estridsson, and started raiding the Danish coast. Magnus, unwilling to fight his uncle, agreed to share the kingship with Harald, since Harald in turn would share his wealth with him. The co-rule ended abruptly the next year as Magnus died, and Harald thus became the sole ruler of Norway. Domestically, Harald crushed all local and regional opposition, and outlined the territorial unification of Norway under a national governance. Harald's reign was probably one of relative peace and stability, and he instituted a viable coin economy and foreign trade. Probably seeking to restore Cnut's "North Sea Empire", Harald also claimed the Danish throne, and spent nearly every year until 1064 raiding the Danish coast and fighting his former ally, Sweyn. Although the campaigns were successful, he was never able to conquer Denmark. Not long after renouncing his claim to Denmark, the former Earl of Northumbria, Tostig Godwinson, brother of the newly chosen English king Harold Godwinson, pledged his allegiance to Harald and invited him to claim the English throne. Harald went along and entered Northern England in September 1066, raided the coast and defeated English regional forces in the Battle of Fulford near York. Although initially successful, Harald was defeated and killed in an attack by Harold Godwinson's forces in the Battle of Stamford Bridge.

Modern historians have often considered Harald's death at Stamford Bridge, which brought an end to his invasion, as the end of the Viking Age. Harald is also commonly held to have been the last great Viking king, or even the last great Viking.[1]

Early life[]

Harald's ancestry according to the younger sagas. Individuals whose existence is disputed by modern historians are in italics.[2]

Harald was born in Ringerike, Norway[3] in 1015 (or possibly 1016)[lower-alpha 1][4] to Åsta Gudbrandsdatter and her second husband Sigurd Syr. Sigurd was a petty king of Ringerike, and among the strongest and wealthiest chieftains in the Uplands.[5] Through his mother Åsta, Harald was the youngest of King Olaf Haraldsson's (later Saint Olaf) three half-brothers.[1] In his youth, Harald displayed traits of a typical rebel with big ambitions, and admired Olaf as his role model. He thus differed from his two older brothers who were more similar to their father, down-to-earth and mostly concerned with maintaining the farm.[6]

The Icelandic sagas, in particular Snorri Sturluson in Heimskringla, claim that Sigurd, like Olaf's father, was a great-grandson of King Harald Fairhair in the male line. Most modern scholars believe that the ancestors attributed to Harald Hardrada's father, along with other parts of the Fairhair genealogy, are inventions reflecting the political and social expectations of the time of the authors (around two centuries after Harald Hardrada's lifetime) rather than historical reality.[1][7] Harald Hardrada's alleged descent from Harald Fairhair is not mentioned and played no part during Harald Hardrada's own time, which seems odd considering that it would have provided significant legitimacy in connection with his claim to the Norwegian throne.[1]

Following a revolt in 1028, Harald's brother Olaf was forced into exile until he returned to Norway in early 1030. Upon hearing news of Olaf's planned return, Harald gathered 600 men from the Uplands to meet Olaf and his men upon their arrival in the east of Norway. After a friendly welcome, Olaf went on to gather an army and eventually fight in the Battle of Stiklestad on 29 July 1030, in which Harald took part on his brother's side.[8] The battle was part of an attempt to restore Olaf to the Norwegian throne, which had been captured by the Danish king Cnut the Great. The battle resulted in defeat for the brothers at the hands of those Norwegians who were loyal to Cnut, and Olaf was killed while Harald was badly wounded.[9] Harald was nonetheless remarked to have shown considerable military talent during the battle.[10]

Exile in the East[]

To Kievan Rus'[]

After the defeat at the Battle of Stiklestad, Harald managed to escape with the aid of Rögnvald Brusason (later Earl of Orkney) to a remote farm in Eastern Norway. He stayed there for some time to heal his wounds, and thereafter (possibly up to a month later) journeyed north over the mountains to Sweden. A year after the Battle of Stiklestad, Harald arrived in Kievan Rus' (referred to in the sagas as Garðaríki or Svíþjóð hin mikla). He likely spent at least part of his time in the town of Staraya Ladoga (Aldeigjuborg), arriving there in the first half of 1031. Harald and his men were welcomed by Grand Prince Yaroslav the Wise, whose wife Ingegerd was a distant relative of Harald.[11][12] Badly in need of military leaders, Yaroslav recognised a military potential in Harald and made him a captain of his forces.[13] Harald's brother Olaf Haraldsson had previously been in exile to Yaroslav following the revolt in 1028,[14] and Morkinskinna says that Yaroslav embraced Harald first and foremost because he was the brother of Olaf.[15] Harald took part in Yaroslav's campaign against the Poles in 1031, and possibly also fought against other 1030s Kievan enemies and rivals such as the Chudes in Estonia, the Byzantines, as well as the Pechenegs and other steppe nomad people.[16]

In Byzantine service[]

After a few years in Kievan Rus', Harald and his force of around 500 men[3] moved on south to Constantinople (Miklagard), the capital of the Byzantine Empire, probably in 1033 or 1034,[17] where they joined the Varangian Guard. Although the Flateyjarbók maintains that Harald at first sought to keep his royal identity a secret, most sources agree that Harald and his men's reputation was well known in the east at the time. While the Varangian Guard was primarily meant to function as the emperor's bodyguard, Harald was found fighting on "nearly every frontier" of the empire.[18] He first saw action in campaigns against Arab pirates in the Mediterranean, and then in inland towns in Asia Minor that had supported the pirates. By this time, he had according to Snorri Sturluson become the "leader over all the Varangians". By 1035 the Byzantines had pushed the Arabs out of Asia Minor, and Harald took part in campaigns that went as far east as the Euphrates, where according to his skald Þjóðólfr Arnórsson (recounted in the sagas) he participated in the capture of eighty Arab strongholds, a number which historians Sigfus Blöndal and Benedikt Benedikz see no particular reason to question. Although not holding independent command of an army as the sagas imply, it is not unlikely that Harald and the Varangians at times could have been sent off to capture a castle or town.[19][20] During the first four years of the reign of Byzantine Emperor Michael IV, Harald probably also fought in campaigns against the Pechenegs.[21]

Near-contemporary depiction of Byzantine Varangian Guardsmen, in an illumination from the Skylitzis Chronicle.

Thereafter, Harald is reported in the sagas to have gone to Jerusalem and fought in battles in the area. Although the sagas place this after his expedition to Sicily, historian Kelly DeVries has questioned that chronology.[22] Whether his trip was of a military or peaceful nature would depend on whether it took place before or after the 1036 peace treaty between Michael IV and the Fatimid Caliph Ma'ad al-Mustansir Billah[22] (in reality the Caliph's mother, originally a Byzantine Christian, since the Caliph was a minor), although it is considered unlikely to have been made before. Modern historians have speculated that Harald may have been in a party sent to escort pilgrims to Jerusalem (possibly including members of the Imperial family) following the peace agreement, as it was also agreed that the Byzantines were allowed to repair the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Furthermore, this may in turn have presented Harald with opportunities to fight against bandits who preyed on Christian pilgrims.[23][24]

In 1038, Harald joined the Byzantines in their expedition to Sicily,[25][26] in George Maniakes's (the sagas' "Gyrge") attempt to reconquer the island from the Saracens, who had established the Emirate of Sicily on the island. During the campaign, Harald fought alongside Norman mercenaries such as William Iron Arm.[25] According to Snorri Sturluson, Harald captured four towns on Sicily.[26] In 1041, when the Byzantine expedition to Sicily was over, a Lombard-Norman revolt erupted in southern Italy, and Harald led the Varangian Guard in multiple battles.[27] Harald fought with the Catepan of Italy, Michael Doukeianos with initial success, but the Normans, led by their former ally William Iron Arm, defeated the Byzantines in the Battle of Olivento in March,[28] and in the Battle of Montemaggiore in May.[29] After the defeat, Harald and the Varangian Guard were called back to Constantinople, following Maniakes' imprisonment by the emperor and the onset of other more pressing issues.[30] Harald and the Varangians were thereafter sent to fight in Bulgaria, where they arrived in late 1041.[21] There, he fought in the army of Michael IV in the 1041 campaign against the Bulgarian uprising led by Peter Delyan, which later gained Harald the nickname the "Bulgar-burner" (Bolgara brennir) by his skald.[31][32]

Harald was not affected by Maniakes' conflict with Michael IV, and received honours and respect upon his return to Constantinople. In a Greek book written in the 1070s, the Strategikon of Kekaumenos, Araltes (i.e. Harald) is said to have won the favour of the emperor.[33][34][35] The book says that the Byzantine emperor first appointed him manglabites (possibly identified with the title protospatharios), a soldier of the imperial guard, after the Sicilian campaign.[31][36] Following the campaign against the Bulgarians, in which Harald again served with distinction, he received the rank while at Mosynopolis[37] of spatharokandidatos, identified by DeVries as a promotion to the possibly third highest Byzantine rank, but by Mikhail Bibikov as a lesser rank than protospatharios that was ordinarily awarded to foreign allies to the emperor.[31] The Strategikon indicates that the ranks awarded to Harald were rather low, since Harald reportedly was "not angry for just having been appointed to manglabites or spatharokandidatos".[38] According to his skald Tjodolv Arnorsson, Harald had participated in eighteen greater battles during his Byzantine service.[1] Harald's favour at the imperial court quickly declined after the death of Michael IV in December 1041, which was followed by conflicts between new emperor Michael V and the powerful empress Zoe.[39] During the turmoil, Harald was arrested and imprisoned, but the sources disagree on the grounds.[40] The sagas state that Harald was arrested for defrauding the emperor of his treasure, as well as for requesting marriage[41] with an apparently fictional niece or granddaughter[1] of Zoe, called Maria (his suit supposedly being turned down by the empress because she wanted to marry Harald herself). William of Malmesbury states that Harald was arrested for defiling a noble woman, while according to Saxo Grammaticus he was imprisoned for murder. DeVries suggests that the new emperor may have feared Harald because of his loyalty to the previous emperor.[41] The sources also disagree on how Harald got out of prison, but he may have been helped by someone outside to escape in the midst of the revolt that had begun against the new emperor. While some of the Varangians helped guard the emperor, Harald became the leader of the Varangians who supported the revolt. The emperor was in the end dragged out of his sanctuary, blinded and exiled to a monastery, and the sagas claim that it was Harald himself who blinded Michael V (or at least claimed to have done so).[42]

Back to Kievan Rus'[]

Harald's wife Elisiv of Kiev, daughter of Yaroslav the Wise.

Harald became extremely rich during his time in the east, and secured the wealth collected in Constantinople by shipments to Kievan Rus' for safekeeping (with Yaroslav the Wise acting as safekeeper for his fortune).[43] The sagas note that aside from the significant spoils of battle he had retained, he had participated three times in polutasvarf (loosely translated as "palace-plunder"),[44] a term which implies either the pillaging of the palace exchequer on the death of the emperor, or perhaps the disbursement of funds to the Varangians by the new emperor in order to ensure their loyalty.[45] It is likely that the money Harald made while serving in Constantinople allowed him to fund his claim for the crown of Norway.[44] If he participated in polutasvarf three times, these occasions must have been the deaths of Romanos III, Michael IV, and Michael V, in which Harald would have opportunities, beyond his legitimate revenues, to carry off immense wealth.[46]

After Zoe had been restored to the throne in June 1042 together with Constantine IX, Harald requested to be allowed to return to Norway. Although Zoe refused to allow this, Harald managed to escape into the Bosphorus with two ships and some loyal followers. Although the second ship was destroyed by the Byzantine cross-strait iron chains, Harald's ship sailed safely into the Black Sea after successfully manoeuvring over the barrier.[42] Despite this, Kekaumenos lauds the "loyalty and love" Harald had for the empire, which he reportedly maintained even after he returned to Norway and became king.[47] Following his escape from Constantinople, Harald arrived back in Kievan Rus' later in 1042.[48] During his second stay there, he married Elisabeth (referred to in Scandinavian sources as Ellisif), daughter of Yaroslav the Wise and granddaughter of the Swedish king Olof Skötkonung.[44] Shortly after Harald's arrival in Kiev, Yaroslav attacked Constantinople, and it is considered likely that Harald provided him with valuable information about the state of the empire.[49]

It is possible that the marriage with Elisiv had been agreed to already during Harald's first time in Rus', or that they at least had been acquainted. During his service in the Byzantine Empire, Harald composed a love poem which included the verse "Yet the goddess in Russia/ will not accept my gold rings" (whom Snorri Sturluson identifies with Elisiv), although Morkinskinna claims that Harald had to remind Yaroslav of the promised marriage when he returned to Kiev.[50] According to the same source, Harald had spoken with Yaroslav during his first time in Rus', requesting to marry Elisiv, only to be rejected because he was not yet wealthy enough.[51] It is in any case significant that Harald was allowed to marry the daughter of Yaroslav, since his other children were married to figures such as Henry I of France, Andrew I of Hungary and the daughter of Constantine IX.[49]

King of Norway[]

Return to Scandinavia[]

Seeking to regain for himself the kingdom lost by his half-brother Olaf Haraldsson,[44] Harald began his journey westwards in early 1045, departing from Novgorod (Holmgard) to Staraya Ladoga (Aldeigjuborg) where he obtained a ship. His journey went through Lake Ladoga, down the Neva River, and then into the Gulf of Finland and the Baltic Sea. He arrived in Sigtuna in Sweden, probably at the end of 1045[52] or in early 1046.[44] When he arrived in Sweden, according to the skald Tjodolv Arnorsson, his ship was unbalanced by its heavy load of gold.[1] In Harald's absence, the throne of Norway had been restored to Magnus the Good, an illegitimate son of Olaf. Harald may actually have known this, and it could have been the reason why Harald wanted to return to Norway in the first place.[53] Since Cnut the Great's sons had chosen to abandon Norway and instead fight over England, and his sons and successors Harold Harefoot and Harthacnut had died young, Magnus's position as king had been secured. No domestic threats or insurrections are recorded to have occurred during his eleven-year reign.[54] After the death of Harthacnut, which had left the Danish throne vacant, Magnus had in addition been selected to be the king of Denmark, and managed to defeat the Danish royal pretender Sweyn Estridsson.[55]

Coin with the legend "MAHNUS ARALD REX". Generally held to date from Magnus and Harald's short co-rule,[56] depicting Magnus who had precedence,[57] but also speculated as Harald's alone, with Magnus an epithet adopted after his death.[58]

Having heard of Sweyn's defeat by Magnus, Harald met up with his fellow exile in Sweden (who was also his nephew), as well as with the Swedish king Anund Jacob,[1] and the three joined forces against Magnus. Their first military exploit consisted of raiding the Danish coast, in an effort to impress the natives by demonstrating that Magnus offered them no protection, and thus leading them to submit to Harald and Sweyn. Learning about their actions, Magnus knew that their next target would be Norway.[59] Harald may have planned to be taken as king of his father's petty kingdom, and thereafter claim the rest of the country.[60] In any case the people were unwilling to turn against Magnus, and upon hearing news of Harald's schemes, Magnus (abroad at the time) went home to Norway with his entire army.[60] Instead of going to war, Magnus's advisors recommended the young king not fight his uncle, and a compromise was reached in 1046 in which Harald would rule Norway (not Denmark) jointly with Magnus (although Magnus would have precedence). Notably, Harald also had to agree to share half of his wealth with Magnus, who at the time was effectively bankrupt and badly in need of funds. During their short co-rule, Harald and Magnus had separate courts and kept to themselves, and their only recorded meetings nearly ended in physical clashes.[61][62]

In 1047, Magnus and Harald went to Denmark with their leidang forces. Later that year in Jylland, less than a year into their co-rule, Magnus died without an heir. Before his death, he had decided that Sweyn was to inherit Denmark and Harald to inherit Norway.[63] Upon hearing the news of Magnus's death, Harald quickly gathered the local leaders in Norway and declared himself king of Norway as well as of Denmark.[64] Although Magnus had appointed Sweyn his successor as king of Denmark, Harald immediately announced his plans to gather an army and oust his former ally from the country. In response, the army and the chieftains, headed by Einar Thambarskelfir, opposed any plans of invading Denmark. Although Harald himself objected to bringing the body of Magnus back to Norway, the Norwegian army prepared to transport his body to Nidaros (now Trondheim), where they buried him next to Saint Olaf in late 1047.[65][66] Einar, an opponent of Harald, claimed that "to follow Magnus dead was better than to follow any other king alive".[65]

Invasions of Denmark[]

Harald also wanted to re-establish Magnus's rule over Denmark,[1] and in the long term probably sought to restore Cnut the Great's "North Sea Empire" in its entirety.[67] While his first proposal to invade Denmark fell through, the next year Harald embarked on what would turn into constant warfare against Sweyn, from 1048 almost yearly until 1064. Similar to his campaigns (then together with Sweyn) against Magnus's rule in Denmark, most of his campaigns against Sweyn consisted of swift and violent raids on the Danish coasts. In 1048 he plundered Jutland, and in 1049 he pillaged and burned Hedeby, at the time the most important Danish trade center, and one of the best protected and most populous towns in Scandinavia.[68] Hedeby as a civil town never recovered from Harald's destruction, and was left completely desolate when what remained was looted by Slavic tribes in 1066.[69] One of two conventional battles was set to be fought between the two kings later the same year, but according to Saxo Grammaticus, Sweyn's smaller army was so frightened when approached by the Norwegians that they chose to jump in the water trying to escape; most drowned. Although Harald was victorious in most of the engagements, he was never successful in occupying Denmark.[70]

Penny minted by Harald, with a triquetra on the obverse, used both by Christians and in Norse paganism.[56] It was used on coins in Denmark by Cnut the Great and his sons,[lower-alpha 2] and Harald probably adopted it as part of his claim to the Danish throne.[71][72]

The second, more significant battle, a naval encounter, was the Battle of Niså on 9 August 1062. As Harald had not been able to conquer Denmark despite his raids, he wanted to win a decisive victory over Sweyn. He eventually set out from Norway with a great army and a fleet of around 300 ships. Sweyn had also prepared for the battle, which had been preassigned a time and place. Sweyn, did not appear at the agreed time, and Harald thus sent home his non-professional soldiers (bóndaherrin), which had made up half of his forces. When the dismissed ships were out of reach, Sweyn's fleet finally appeared, possibly also with 300 ships. The battle resulted in great bloodshed as Harald defeated the Danes (70 Danish ships were reportedly left "empty"), but many ships and men managed to escape, including Sweyn.[73] During the battle, Harald actively used his bow as an archer, like most others in the early phase of the battle.[74]

Fatigue and the huge cost of the indecisive battles eventually led Harald to seek peace with Sweyn, and in 1064 (or 1065 according to Morkinskinna) the two kings agreed on an unconditional peace agreement.[75] By the agreement, they retained their respective kingdoms with the former boundaries, and there would be no payments of reparations. In the subsequent winter of 1065, Harald travelled through his realm and accused the farmers of withholding taxes from him. In response, he acted with brutality, and had peopled maimed and killed as a warning to those who disobeyed him.[76] Harald maintained control of his nation through the use of his hird, a private standing army maintained by Norwegian lords. Harald's contribution to the strengthening of Norway's monarchy was the enforcement of a policy that only the king could retain a hird, thus centralising power away from local warlords.[77]

Domestic opposition[]

According to historian Knut Helle, Harald completed the first phase of what he has termed the "national territorial unification of Norway".[78] Having forced his way to the kingship, Harald would have to convince the aristocracy that he was the right person to rule Norway alone. To establish domestic alliances, he married Tora Torbergsdatter of one of the most powerful Norwegian families.[79] The primary opposition to Harald's rule would be the descendants of Haakon Sigurdsson, from the powerful dynasty of Earls of Lade who had controlled Northern Norway and Trøndelag with much autonomy under the Norwegian king. Haakon had even ruled the whole of Norway (nominally under the Danish king) from 975 until 995, when he was killed during the takeover by Olaf Tryggvasson. Even after Haakon's death his offspring held a certain degree of sovereignty in the north, and by Harald's early reign the family was headed by Einar Thambarskelfir, who was married to Haakon's daughter. While the family had maintained good relations with Magnus, Harald's absolutism and consolidation of the kingship soon led to conflict with Einar.[80][81]

Coin of Harald as the sole Norwegian king, "ARALD REX NAR[vegiae]". Imitation of a type of Edward the Confessor.[82]

It was from his power-struggle with the Norwegian aristocracy that Harald got himself the reputation which gave him the nickname "Hardrada", or "the hard ruler".[83] Although the relationship between Harald and Einar was poor from the start, confrontation did not occur before Harald went north to his court in Nidaros. One time in Nidaros, Einar arrived at Harald's court, and in a display of power was accompanied by "eight or nine longships and almost five hundred men", obviously seeking confrontation. Harald was not provoked by the incident. Although the sources differ on the circumstances, the next event nonetheless led to the murder of Einar by Harald's men, which threatened to throw Norway into a state of civil war. Although the remaining descendants of Haakon Sigurdsson considered rebellion against the king, Harald eventually managed to negotiate peace with them, and secured the family's submission for the remainder of his reign.[84][85] By the death of Einar and his son around 1050, the Earls of Lade had outplayed their role as a base of opposition, and Trøndelag was definitely subordinated to Harald's national kingdom.[78]

Before the Battle of Niså, Harald had been joined by Haakon Ivarsson, who distinguished himself in the battle and gained Harald's favour. Reportedly even considering to give him the title of Earl, Haakon was greatly upset when Harald later backed down from his promise. With a strong hold over the Uplands, Haakon was additionally given the earldom of Värmland by the Swedish king Stenkil. In early 1064, Haakon entered the Uplands and collected their taxes, the region thus effectively threatening to renounce their loyalty to Harald. The revolt of Haakon and the farmers in the Uplands may have been the main reason why Harald finally had been willing to enter a peace agreement with Sweyn Estridsson. After the agreement, Harald went to Oslo and sent tax collectors to the Uplands, only to find that the farmers would withhold their taxes until Haakon arrived. In response, Harald entered Sweden with an army and quickly defeated Haakon.[86] Still facing opposition from the farmers, Harald embarked on a campaign to crush the areas that had withheld their taxes. Due to the remote location of the region in the interior of the country, the Uplands had never been an integrated part of the Norwegian king's realm. Using harsh measures, Harald burned down farms and small villages, and had people maimed and killed. Starting in Romerike, his campaign continued into Hedmark, Hadeland and Ringerike. Since the regions contained several rich rural communities, Harald strengthened his economic position by confiscating farming estates.[78][87] By the end of 1065 there was probably peace in Norway, as any opposition had either been killed, chased in exile or silenced.[88]


Harald's reign was marked by his background as a military commander, as he often solved disputes with harsh force. One of his skalds even boasted about how Harald broke settlements he had made, in his battles in the Mediterranean.[1] While the sagas largely focus on Harald's war with Sweyn and invasion of England, little is said about his domestic policies. Modern historians have taken this as a sign that despite his absolutism, his reign was one of peace and progress for Norway. Harald is considered to have instituted good economic policies, as he developed a Norwegian currency and a viable coin economy, which in turn allowed Norway to participate in international trade. He initiated trade with Kievan Rus' and the Byzantine Empire through his connections, as well as with Scotland and Ireland.[89] According to the later sagas, Harald founded Oslo, where he spent much time.[1]

Harald also continued to advance Christianity in Norway, and archaeological excavations show that churches were built and improved during his reign. He also imported bishops, priests and monks from abroad, especially from Kievan Rus' and the Byzantine Empire. A slightly different form of Christianity was thus introduced in Norway from the rest of northern Europe, although it should be noted that the East–West Schism had not yet taken place.[90] Since the clergy was not ordained in England or France, it nonetheless caused controversy when Harald was visited by papal legates. The protests by the legates led Harald to throw the Catholic clergy out of his court, and he reportedly stated to the legates that "he did not know of any other archbishop or lord of Norway than the king himself".[1][91] Norwegian historian Halvdan Koht has remarked that the "words seemed as if spoken by a Byzantine despot".[1] It is possible that Harald maintained contacts with Byzantine emperors after he became king, which could suggest a background for his church policies.[92]

Northern explorations[]

Once he had returned to Norway, Harald seems to have displayed an interest in exploring his own realm, as for instance the Morkinskinna recounts Harald's trip into the Uplands. Harald is also said to have explored the seas beyond his kingdom, as the contemporary Adam of Bremen reports of such naval expeditions conducted by Harald:[93]

The most enterprising Prince Haraldr of the Norwegians lately attempted this [sea]. Who, having searched thoroughly the length of the northern ocean in ships, finally had before his eyes the dark failing boundaries of the savage world, and, by retracing his steps, with difficulty barely escaped the deep abyss in safety.

—Adam of Bremen, Gesta Hammaburgensis ecclesiae pontificum, 4. XXXIX

Kelly DeVries has suggested that Harald "may even have known of and sought out the legendary land called Vinland which Viking sailors had discovered only a short time before," which Adam mentions earlier in the same passage to have been widely reported of in Denmark and Norway.[93] H. H. Lamb has on the other hand proposed that the land he reached may have been either Spitsbergen or Novaya Zemlya.[94]

Invasion of England[]

Background and preparations[]

With the truce and the recognition that he would not conquer Denmark, Harald turned his attention to England. England had belonged to Harthacnut, the son of Cnut the Great, until he died childless in 1042. Harald based his claim to the throne of England on an agreement made between Magnus and Harthacnut in 1038, which stated that if either died, the other would inherit the throne and lands of the deceased. When Harthacnut died, Magnus assumed the crown of Denmark and considered himself the lawful heir to Harthacnut. While Edward the Confessor had himself crowned English king in his absence, Magnus had planned to invade England in 1045, only to be forced to turn his fleet towards Denmark due to an uprising by Sweyn Estridsson. Although the threat was temporarily averted by Magnus's death in 1047, Edward's negotiations with his enemies throughout the 1050s gave Harald (as well as Sweyn Estridsson and William of Normandy) an impression that he was a possible heir to Edward. When Edward died in January 1066, he was to Harald's dismay succeeded by Harold Godwinson, a son of one of his advisors.[95]

Harald's son Magnus had previously been involved in Gruffydd ap Llywelyn's 1058 war against the English king with a Norwegian fleet, possibly indicating that Harald had tested the situation in England long before his 1066 invasion, only to find that he could not simultaneously be at war with Denmark and England.[96] After Edward's death, Harald allied himself with Tostig Godwinson, Harold's brother, who had been deprived of the earldom of Northumbria by Edward in 1065.[3] According to various sources, Tostig may have asked both or either of William of Normandy and Sweyn Estridsson to assist him in invading England before turning to Harald. According to the sagas, Tostig finally pledged his support for Harald, including that of the "majority of the chieftains", at a meeting in Norway. Some historians doubt that this meeting took place, as William of Malmesbury claims that Tostig did not pledge his support for Harald until they met at the Humber. This would indicate that the invasion originally was Harald's plan alone, and that his joining of forces with Tostig was merely a later agreement when the two met for the first time in Scotland or Northumbria. Another proposal by historians is that a meeting did indeed take place in Norway, but instead with Copsig, one of Tostig's early supporters and a fellow exile, as Tostig's mediator. If this is correct, it would both allow an agreement to have been made in Norway, and the first personal meeting between Harald and Tostig to have taken place in Britain.[97] Indeed, Morkinskinna mentions that "some men" claimed that Tostig only had sent an emissary to Norway, while he still remained in France.[98]

Harald landing near York (left), and defeating the Northumbrian army (right), from the 13th century chronicle The Life of King Edward the Confessor by Matthew Paris. Harald had a huge ship built around 1060, called Ormen ("The Serpent").[99]

The plans for the invasion were in any case completed by the start of September 1066, and had possibly begun already in March or April.[100] While he brought with him Elisiv, his daughters, and his son Olaf, he left behind Tora and made sure to have his oldest son Magnus hailed as king.[101] Gathering his fleet at Solund in the Sognefjord,[102] Harald departed Norway in August, and landed first in Shetland and thereafter in Orkney (both under Norwegian control). In both places he was joined by several important lords, chieftains, and soldiers, including the Earls of Orkney, Paul and Erlend Thorfinnsson. He next went to Dunfermline, where he met with Tostig's ally Malcolm III of Scotland (and according to some sources, with Tostig)[103] who allocated him a couple thousand Scottish soldiers.[104] According to most contemporary sources, Harald and Tostig met at Tynemouth on 8 September, Harald with a total force of, at the most, around 10–15,000 men on 240–300 longships,[105][106] and Tostig with a mere 12 ships with soldiers.[107] Not mentioned in the sagas, but accounted for by John of Worcester, Tostig had departed from his exile in Flanders already in May or June. He had then raided villages along the southern coast of Britain from the Isle of Wight to Sandwich. As Harold Godwinson gathered a large army in response, Tostig sailed north to meet with Harald, while Harold Godwinson remained in the south in expectation of invasion by William of Normandy,[108] who for a long time had openly claimed the English throne.[109]

Invasion and the Battle of Stamford Bridge[]

Embarking from Tynemouth, Harald and Tostig likely landed at the River Tees,[110] entered Cleveland,[111] and started plundering the coast. The first resistance was met at Scarborough, where Harald's demand for surrender was opposed. In the end, Harald managed to burn down the town, which in turn caused other Northumbrian towns to surrender to him. After further raiding, Harald and Tostig sailed down the Humber, until they disembarked at Riccall. News of the invasion soon reached the earls Morcar of Northumbria and Edwin of Mercia, and they fought against Harald's invading army at the Battle of Fulford on 20 September, two miles (3 km) south of York. The battle resulted in a decisive victory for Harald and Tostig, and they had York surrender to their forces on 24 September.[112] This would be the last time a Scandinavian army defeated English forces.[113] The same day as York had surrendered to Harald and Tostig, Harold Godwinson had arrived with his army in Tadcaster, just seven miles from the anchored Norwegian fleet at Riccall. From there, he probably scouted the Norwegian fleet, preparing a surprise attack. As Harald had left no forces in York, Harold Godwinson marched right through the town to Stamford Bridge.[114]

Harald at Stamford Bridge. Matthew Paris may have attributed the axe to Harald due to its general Norse association, or the royal iconography around St. Olaf.[115] According to the sagas, Harald wore a blue tunic and helmet, wielded a two-handed sword and Landøyðan as his royal standard, but not his mail-shirt ("Emma") and shield, which was left at Riccall.[116]

Early on 25 September, Harald and Tostig departed their landing place at Riccall with most of their forces, but left a third of their forces behind. They brought only light armour, as they expected to just meet the citizens of York, as they had agreed the day before, at Stamford Bridge to decide on who should manage the town under Harald.[117] Once there Harald saw Godwinson's forces approaching, heavily armed and armoured, and greatly outnumbering Harald's. Although the English forces were held up at the bridge for some time by a single Norwegian (according to non-saga sources), allowing Harald and Tostig to regroup into a shield-wall formation, Harald's army was in the end heavily beaten. Harald was struck in the throat by an arrow and killed early in the battle during a state of berserkergang, having worn no body armour and fought aggressively with both hands around his sword.[118][119] When the battle was almost over, some reserve forces from Riccall led by Eystein Orre finally appeared, but they were exhausted as they had run all the way. Eystein picked up Harald's fallen banner, the "Landwaster" (Landøyðan), and initiated a final counter-attack. Although they for a moment appeared to almost breach the English line, Eystein was suddenly killed, which left the rest of the men to flee from the battlefield.[120] Among those left at Riccall after the battle, who were allowed to return home peacefully by the English forces, was Harald's son Olaf.[121][122] Although sources state that Harald's remaining army only filled 20–25 ships on the return to Norway, it is likely that this number only accounts for the Norwegian forces. Most of the forces from Scotland and Orkney probably remained at Riccall throughout the battle (the earls Paul and Erlend Thorfinnsson are certainly known to have been stationed there the entire time), and has not been counted in the traditional figure.[120]

Harold Godwinson's victory was short-lived, as only a few weeks later he was defeated by William the Conqueror at the Battle of Hastings. The fact that Harold had to make a forced march to fight Hardrada at Stamford Bridge and then move at utmost speed south to meet the Norman invasion, all in less than three weeks, is widely seen as a primary factor in William's victory at Hastings.[123]

Personal life[]

Harald is described by Snorri Sturluson to have been physically "larger than other men and stronger".[54] He is said to have had light hair and beard, a long "upper beard" (moustache), and that one of his eyebrows was somewhat higher situated than the other. He also reportedly had big hands and feet, and could measure five ells in height. It is not known whether Snorri's description of Harald's physical appearance actually represents historical facts.[124] The tall stature of Harald is also substantiated by a story which relates that before the Battle of Stamford Bridge, Harold Godwinson offered Tostig back the earldom of Northumbria, and Harald "six feet of the ground of England, or perhaps more seeing that he is taller than most men" (according to Henry of Huntingdon),[125] or "six feet of English ground, or seven feet as he was taller than other men" (according to Snorri Sturluson).[126]

Harald himself composed skaldic poetry. According to Lee M. Hollander, composing poetry was normal for Norwegian kings, but Harald was the only one who "showed a decided talent."[127] According to one poem, Harald had mastered a number of activities that were considered sports in the Viking Age, including in addition to poetry, brewing, horse riding, swimming, skiing, shooting, rowing and playing the harp.[128][129] The sagas state that Harald and his Varangians at least once took a break during the siege of a town to enjoy sports.[130]

With regards to religion, Harald had, according to DeVries, a "religious inclination towards Christianity" and was "publically close to the Christian Church", although he was influenced by the Eastern Christian culture of Russia and the Byzantine Empire, having spent most of his life there. He was clearly interested in advancing Christianity in Norway, which can be seen by the continued building and improvement of churches throughout his reign. Despite this, DeVries notes that Harald's "personal morality appears not to have matched the Christian ideal", citing his marriage arrangements.[91]


Harald married Elisiv of Kiev (c. 1025 – after 1066) around 1044/45,[131] and they had an unknown number, possibly several children. According to Snorri Sturluson, they had two daughters:[132]

  • Ingegerd (c. 1050 – 1120). Married first to the future Olaf I of Denmark, and after his death, to the future Philip of Sweden.[133]
  • Maria (died 25 September 1066). Promised away for marriage to Eystein Orre (brother of Tora Torbergsdatter), but reportedly died on Orkney the same day that Harald (and Eystein) died at Stamford Bridge.

According to the sagas, Harald married Tora Torbergsdatter (c. 1025 – after 1066) around 1048.[134] Some modern historians have disputed this, since Harald in that case would be in a bigamous marriage, as he was still married to Elisiv.[135] It is nonetheless possible that such a marriage could take place in Norway in the 11th century, and although Harald had two wives, only Elisiv is noted to have held the title of Queen.[136] Harald and Tora had at least two children:[1][132]

  • Magnus II (c. 1049 – 1069). Reigned as king of Norway from 1066 to 1069.
  • Olaf III (c. 1050 – 1093). Reigned as king of Norway from 1067 to 1093.



A year after his death at Stamford Bridge, Harald's body was moved to Norway and buried at the Mary Church in Nidaros (Trondheim). About a hundred years after his burial, his body was reinterred at the Helgeseter Priory, which was demolished in the 17th century.[137] On 25 September 2006, the 940th anniversary of Harald's death, the newspaper Aftenposten published an article on the poor state of Norway's ancient royal burial sites, including that of Harald, which is reportedly located underneath a road built across the monastery site.[137] In a follow-up article on 26 September, the Municipality of Trondheim revealed they would be examining the possibility of exhuming the king and reinterring him in Nidaros Cathedral, currently the burial place of nine Norwegian kings, among them Magnus the Good and Magnus Haraldsson, Harald's predecessor and successor respectively.[138] A month later it was reported that the proposal to exhume the king had been scrapped.[139]

Modern memorials[]

Two monuments have been raised in honour of Harald in Oslo, the city which he is traditionally held to have founded. A bronze relief on granite by Lars Utne depicting Harald on horseback was raised on the eponymously named square Harald Hardrådes plass in 1905. In 1950, a large relief by Anne Grimdalen, also of Harald on horseback, was unveiled on the western façade of the Oslo City Hall.[140]

Unveiling of the monument to Harald at Harald Hardrådes plass, Oslo, in 1905

Oslo City Hall, with relief depicting Harald (centre of image)

Window with portrait of Harald in Lerwick Town Hall, Shetland

In fiction[]

Harald appears in a number of historical fiction books. He serves as the protagonist in two children's books by Henry Treece, The Last of the Vikings/The Last Viking (1964) and Swords from the North/The Northern Brothers (1967).[141] He also appears as the protagonist in the trilogy The Last Viking (1980) by Poul Anderson, and in Byzantium (1989) by Michael Ennis, which chronicles Harald's career in the Byzantine Empire.[142]

The alternative history book Crusader Gold (2007) by marine archeologist David Gibbins features Harald as a key figure, as it follows him in acquiring the lost Menorah among his treasures during his service in the Byzantine Varangian Guard.[143] Harald also makes an appearances in Meadowland (2005) by Tom Holt.[144]

In film, Harald was portrayed by Richard Long in the first episode of the BBC series Historyonics (2004), titled "1066", which explores the background of the Battle of Hastings.[145]

Harald's unorthodox departure from Constantinople is featured in music by the Finnish folk metal band Turisas in the song "The Great Escape"; in addition, he is followed loosely throughout the story of the albums The Varangian Way (2007) and Stand Up and Fight (2011).[146]



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  4. Tjønn (2010) p. 13
  5. Tjønn (2010) p. 14
  6. Tjønn (2010) pp. 15–16
  7. See, for example, Joan Turville-Petre, "The Genealogist and History: Ari to Snorri", Saga-Book 20 (1978–81), pp. 7–23 (pdf), Claus Krag, Ynglingatal og Ynglingasaga: en studie i historiske kilder, Oslo: Universitetsforlaget 1991, OCLC 256562288 (Norwegian), and Knut Helle, Cambridge History of Scandinavia, Volume I, Prehistory to 1520, Cambridge University Press, 2003, ISBN 0-521-47299-7, pp. 185, 191.
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  10. DeVries (1999) p. 25
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  12. DeVries (1999) pp. 25–26
  13. DeVries (1999) p. 26
  14. Tjønn (2010) p. 16
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  66. DeVries (1999) p. 57
  67. Moseng et al. (1999) p. 81
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  69. Hjardar & Vike (2011) p. 118
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  72. Hertzberg, Ebbe and Bugge, Alexander (1915). Norges historie: andet binds første del tidsrummet 1030–1103. Kristiania: Aschehoug. p. 280. 
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  77. Popperwell, Ronald G., Norway (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1972), 79.
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  81. Tjønn (2010) p. 115
  82. Schive (1865) p. 26
  83. Tjønn (2010) p. 114
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  85. Tjønn (2010) pp. 115–120
  86. Tjønn (2010) pp. 144–153
  87. Tjønn (2010) pp. 153–155
  88. Tjønn (2010) p. 155
  89. DeVries (1999) pp. 46–47
  90. Jakobsson (2008)
  91. 91.0 91.1 DeVries (1999) pp. 47–48
  92. Bagge (1990) pp. 176–177
  93. 93.0 93.1 DeVries (1999) p. 49
  94. Lamb, H. H. (1982). Climate, History, and the Modern World. Taylor & Francis. p. 165. ISBN 978-0-416-33440-1. 
  95. Hjardar & Vike (2011) pp. 283–284
  96. DeVries (1999) pp. 66–67
  97. DeVries (1999) pp. 231–240
  98. Tjønn (2010) p. 163
  99. Hjardar & Vike (2011) pp. 141, 143
  100. DeVries (1999) p. 230
  101. Tjønn (2010) p. 169
  102. Tjønn (2010) p. 168
  103. DeVries (1999) pp. 250–251
  104. Hjardar & Vike (2011) pp. 284–285
  105. Tjønn (2010) p. 167
  106. DeVries (1999) pp. 264–265 & 269
  107. DeVries (1999) pp. 251–252
  108. DeVries (1999) pp. 242–243
  109. Tjønn (2010) p. 165
  110. DeVries (1999) p. 252
  111. Tjønn (2010) p. 170
  112. DeVries (1999) pp. 250–261
  113. Tjønn (2010) p. 172
  114. DeVries (1999) pp. 267–270
  115. Fuglesang, Signe Horn (1997) (in Norwegian). Bilder og bilders bruk i vikingtid og middelalder. Norges forskningsråd. p. 77. 
  116. DeVries (1999) pp. 199 & 276–278 & 284 & 290
  117. Tjønn (2010) pp. 172–174
  118. DeVries (1999) pp. 276–296
  119. Hjardar & Vike (2011) pp. 289–291
  120. 120.0 120.1 Hjardar & Vike (2011) p. 291
  121. DeVries (1999) p. 296
  122. Stenton (1971) p. 590
  123. Stenton (1971) p. 592
  124. Bagge (1990) pp. 187–189
  125. Barclay, Cyril Nelson (1966). Battle 1066. University of Michigan. p. 35. 
  126. Carrington, C. E. and Jackson, J. Hampden (2011 [1932]). A History of England. Cambridge University. p. 68. ISBN 978-1-107-64803-6. 
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  128. Hjardar & Vike (2011) p. 60
  129. Translated in Hollander, p. 200.
  130. DeVries (1999) p. 32
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  • Bagge, Sverre (1990). "Harald Hardråde i Bysants. To fortellinger, to kulturer". In Andersen, Øivind and Hägg, Tomas (in Norwegian). Hellas og Norge: kontakt, komparasjon, kontrast : en artikkelsamling. University of Bergen. pp. 169–92. ISBN 82-991411-3-3. 
  • Beeler, John (1971). Warfare in Feudal Europe: 730-1200. Cornell University. ISBN 978-0-8014-9120-7. 
  • Bibikov, Mikhail (2004). "Byzantine Sources for the History of Balticum and Scandinavia". In Volt, Ivo and Päll, Janika. Byzanto-Nordica 2004. Tartu, Estonia: Tartu University. ISBN 9949-11-266-4. 
  • Blöndal, Sigfús with Benedikz, Benedikt S. (ed.) (2007). The Varangians of Byzantium. Cambridge University. ISBN 978-0-521-21745-3. 
  • Gravett, Christopher; Nicolle, David (2007). The Normans: Warrior Knights and Their Castles. Osprey. ISBN 978-1-84603-218-9. 
  • DeVries, Kelly (1999). The Norwegian Invasion of England in 1066. Boydell & Brewer Ltd. ISBN 978-0-85115-763-4. 
  • Hjardar, Kim and Vike, Vegard (2011) (in Norwegian). Vikinger i krig. Spartacus. ISBN 978-82-430-0475-7. 
  • Jakobsson, Sverrir (2008). "The Schism that never was: Old Norse views on Byzantium and Russia". Byzantinoslavica. Slovanský ústav Akademie věd ČR, v. v. i. and Euroslavica. pp. 173–88. 
  • Moseng, Ole Georg, et al. (1999) (in Norwegian). Norsk historie: 750-1537. I. Aschehoug. ISBN 978-82-518-3739-2. 
  • Schive, C. I. (1865) (in Norwegian). Norges Mynter i Middelalderen. Christiania: H. Tønsberg. 
  • Skaare, Kolbjørn (1995) (in Norwegian). Norges mynthistorie: mynter og utmyntning i 1000 år, pengesedler i 300 år, numismatikk i Norge. 1. Universitetsforlaget. ISBN 82-00-22666-2. 
  • Stenton, F. M. (1971). Anglo-Saxon England. Oxford History of England. II (3rd ed.). Oxford: Clarendon Press-Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-821716-9. 
  • Tjønn, Halvor (2010) (in Norwegian). Harald Hardråde. Sagakongene. Saga Bok/Spartacus. ISBN 978-82-430-0558-7. 

External links[]

Primary sources with biography[1][2]
  1. DeVries, Kelly (2008). "Medieval mercenaries: methodology, definitions and problems". In France, John. Mercenaries and paid men: the mercenary identity in the middle ages: proceedings of Conference held at University of Wales, Swansea, 7th-9th july 2005. BRILL. p. 58. ISBN 978-90-04-16447-5. 
  2. DeVries, Kelly (1999). The Norwegian Invasion of England in 1066. Boydell & Brewer Ltd. pp. 11–13. ISBN 978-0-85115-763-4. 
Harald Hardrada
House of Hardrada
Cadet branch of the Fairhair dynasty
Born: c. 1015 Died: 25 September 1066
Regnal titles
Preceded by
Magnus I
King of Norway
with Magnus I (1046–1047)
Succeeded by
Magnus II
Titles in pretence
Preceded by
Magnus I
King of Denmark
Reason for succession failure:
House of Estridsson
Claim abandoned
Preceded by
Edward the Confessor
King of England
Reason for succession failure:
Battle of Stamford Bridge
Claim abandoned

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