Herland Report: Our VIKING TV series on YouTube with Georg Olafr Reydarsson, Halvor Tjønn and other Scandinavia scholars and activists focus on the spectacular Viking age and its Norway kings: Harald Hardrada, Olav Trygvasson, Olav Haraldsson the Saint and their Russian friends.
The great Viking king of Norway, Harald Hardrada (1015 – 1066) was a true international warrior. His life was an adventurous Viking journey from Norway to Kiev, to Constantinople, to Palestine, Bulgaria, Turkey, England and more.
His Viking kinsman, William the Conqueror later conquered England in 1066.
A few days earlier the king of Norway, Harald Hardrada died at the battle of Stamford Bridge, outside York.
Harald Hardrada is considered to be the last great Viking king. Read his spectacular story below, details found in several historical sources, among them the Harald Hardrada Saga, by Snorri Sturluson.
From serving the Greek Emperor in the Middle East to fighting valiantly at Stamford Bridge in 1066, a year that forever changed British, and indeed world, history. Hardrada’s life story is as extraordinary as it is important.
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The Viking Warriors conquered England in 1066
What many fail to remember is that the Norman (“normann” means “Norwegian” or “man from the North”) William the Conqueror was of Norwegian decent.
His ancestor, Rollo of Normandie (860-930), was a Norwegian warrior from the Giske estate in the Møre region in Norway.
Rollo’s Norwegian name was “Gangerolf” and he was the first king of Normandy at the time when the Vikings were given Normandy by the French king, so that they would stop looting Paris and France.
In York, an Olaf church was built in 1050, in Rouen in Normandy more than 20 Olaf churches were built around 1066 AD. The Olaf cult became massive in Scandinavia with pilgrimages to the place of his burial.
The Viking leader, Olaf Haraldsson the Saint was christened in Rouen in Normandy and baptized there in 1014 by Robert, the Archbishop of Rouen, according to Norman history. Rollo or Gangerolf from Giske was also baptized int he same cathedral in 915 AD.
It was the “song of Rollo” that the Norman warriors sang when commencing the Battle of Hastings against King Harold Godwinsson at the Battle of Hastings in 1066.
This speaks for the closeness of the Norman rulers to their Viking kinsmen from Norway and Scandinavia. It adds to the likeliness of a coordinated attack between Hardrada and William the Conqueror on England in 1066 AD.
The era is described in the cult series, not always historically accurate, VIKINGS on History Channel Rollo is depicted as Ragnar Lodbrock’s brother.
In real life, when William the Conqueror attacked the English king, Harald Godwinsson at the battle of Hastings, south in England in 1066, the armies chanted “The song of Rollo” as they charged against the British.
A few days earlier, his Viking kinsman, the king of Norway, Harald Hardrada had attacked from the north, while William came ashore at Hastings a few days later. Was it a coordinated attack, from the north and the south?
Hardrada was surprised by the Godwinsson attack at the bridge of Stamford. The Norwegian king died there.
Some say he was intended for the English throne, but was caught by king Godwinsson off guard and without his army. Hardrada died at the battle of Stamford Bridge, not far from York.
This is an article in a series as we address the Viking Age in addition to the corresponding VIKING TV series on YouTube. Read more here:
- Snorri Sturluson and the warriors of Scandinavia.
- The Viking cradle of Odin, Norse history and migrations in Scandinavia.
- The VIKING raids, expansion and the creation of Russia.
- Viking King of Norway, Harald Hardrada and Orthodox Christianity in Scandinavia.
Harald Hardrada: Viking Warrior king of Norway: Harald Sigurdsson (later Hardrada, meaning “harsh ruler”) was King Olaf Haraldsson the Saint’s half-brother. In 1030, Olaf had returned to Norway to reclaim the throne.
Harald was just 15 years old, but he rode to Olaf’s camp and begged his half-brother to grant him permission to join the battle. Olaf initially denied him, saying he was too young, but Harald reportedly insisted: “Certainly I shall be in the battle! For I am not so weak that I cannot handle the sword; and if I am, then my hand should be tied to the sword-handle. No one has a greater will to do the farmers more damage than I.”
But the battle of Stiklestad, his beloved brother King Olaf lay slain on the field. Harald was lost in the chaos and severely wounded.
He perished into the dark woods, exhausted, alone and wounded. He composed these lines: “my wounds were bleeding as I rode; and down below the enemies strode; killing the wounded with the sword, the followers of their rightful lord; from wood to wood I crept along, unnoticed by the enemy-throng; ‘who knows’ I thought, ‘a day may come; my name will yet be great at home?’”
Harald crossed into Sweden, where he regrouped with other survivors from the battle. Together, they rode into Russia, all the way to Kiev, where Grand-Prince Yaroslav the Wise greeted them.
Harald agreed to enter military service for the Kievan Rus. The year was 1032 and Harald probably participated in the Kievan expeditions against the Pechenegs around the Black Sea. Due to his royal blood, he quickly became a leading commander in the army.
A Mighty Varangian Warrior in the Orient
Harald also befriended Yaroslav’s daughter, Elizaveta. He asked Yaroslav to grant him her hand in marriage, Yaroslav rejected him. Harald had yet to prove himself, Yaroslav said.
Harald decided to voyage to Miklagard, the Norse name for Constantinople, meaning the Great City. Here he could fight for the Eastern Roman Empire and make a fortune. Ahead of 500 warriors loyal to him, he sailed South.
The Varangian Guard was the imperial legion of elite warriors in the Byzantine Empire. Its origins can be traced back to a contract between the Rus and the Greek Emperors, where the former promised to supply Norse warriors to the latter.
But the formal establishment of the Guard did not happen until the end of the 900s, when Emperor Basileiros deployed Norse merchants in a battle versus Bulgarians. Overwhelmed by the Bulgarians, all of the emperor’s infantry fled – except for the Norsemen.
In the end, the Norsemen managed to exhaust the Bulgarians and force them to flee, ultimately winning the battle. So impressed was Basileiros that he decided to recruit more of these Scandinavians and use them as his personal guard.
Ever since, thousands of Scandinavians had voyaged to Grekerriket (“The Greek Empire”) and been recruited as elite soldiers for the Emperor. The term “Varangian” derived from the Old Norse word varya, meaning oath or pledge. Variangians therefore means “men of the pledge” or “men of oath.”
In 1034, Harald arrived and applied to join the Guard, but the Byzantines first deployed him in the Navy. His first mission took him to the Levant, hunting and fighting Arabic pirates. His unit first engaged with them at sea, but later, in Asia Minor. He joined the campaigns that pushed the Arabs all the way to the river Euphrates.
According to medieval writings, a staggering eighty Arab fortresses succumbed to Harald and his men.
Fighting in the Holy Land, Bulgaria, Sicily, Arab lands
He also fought in the Holy Land, allegedly cleansing the area from brigands and thieves. It is believable that he visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and bathed in the river Jordan.
Having served with distinction on numerous occasions, Harald was most likely admitted to the Varangian Guard by this point. He was already building himself quite a reputation and assumed a high rank.
In 1038, Harald was deployed to Sicily as one of the marshals of the famous Byzantine General George Maniakes to fight the Saracens. Harald appear frequently in the Byzantine source Advice to the Emperor under the name of Araltes – a ruthless and unstoppable “berserker”.
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Harald Hardrada: Viking Warrior king of Norway: The wealthy towns of Sicily underwent severe pillaging from Harald and his troops. Greek sources report of shocking atrocities as Harald sought to spread fear and terror in the hearts of the enemy.
He linked up with other Normans in the area, like William Iron-Arm, Drogo and Humphrey, and fought together with them. The Normans, of course, originally stemmed from Norway and Denmark, and could probably still speak the Norse language. Harald probably regarded them as his kinsfolk.
Sagas claim that Harald and his company conquered four towns, numerous fortresses – including one that had never been breached before – and won eighteen battles.
They overcame robust defenses often by ingenuity. One time, Harald had his men capture dozens of pigeons, soaked them in candle wax, lit them on fire and send them back behind the walls where they had their lairs. With the fortress now an inferno, Harald and his men easily scaled the walls and conquered.
Harald Hardrada assembled Massive Wealth
All the while, Harald amassed great riches. The origins of his wealth were many: riches seized from pirates, gifts from friends and subjects or plundered loot from Sicily and Africa.
He deliberately under reported the size of his loot and smuggled these riches to Kiev for safekeeping. However, Maniakes already suspected Harald for embezzlement and was determined to arrest him.
Emperor Michael IV favoured Harald and frequently promoted him. Harald led the troops in his usual style, earning him the name Harald Bolgara Brennir, meaning Harald the Bulgar-burner.
The rebellion was crushed and Harald returned to Constantinople alongside the Emperor in triumph. He was at the pinnacle of his Varangian career.
But when Emperor Michael IV died in 1041, the tide swung against Harald’s favour. He was despised by the new regent, Empress Zoe. She was probably suspicious of his increasing involvement in Imperial affairs. His close relationship with he former Emperor had already raised concerns.
Was this brute from Norway trying to gain Imperial power? To make matters worse, Harald allegedly had a romantic affair with Zoe’s granddaughter, Maria. But Zoe could not just rid herself of Harald, for the Varangian Guard loved him. They needed him to be guilty of a crime.
General Maniakes publicly accused Harald of embezzlement and Harald was immediately arrested and imprisoned. In such a short time, he had gone from the grandiose days of Imperial service, to the dirty pits of the dungeon.
Luckily for Harald, the entire city was soon thrown into anarchy. After an attempt by Michael V to oust Zoe, a rebellion struck the capital. Soldiers stormed the palace and freed numerous political prisoners – one of them Harald.
He joined the Varangians as they ravaged the Emperor’s palace. Harald probably took advantage of the situation, looting as much treasury as he could.
Covered by the disarray, he slipped to the docks where he prepared two galleys and filled them with treasures and his remaining friends. They set sail but found themselves trapped as the Greeks had bound a chain between the gates of the port.
Harald ordered his men to gather at the back of the ship, making it weigh lighter at the front so that the galley could slip over the chain. Once halfway, Harald and his men rushed to the front of the galley, making it tip over the chain. It worked for Harald’s ship, but his other broke in half, sending the men and the treasures to the bottom of the sea. Nonetheless, Harald Sigurdsson escaped Constantinople. His Oriental adventures had come to an action-filled end.
The Thunderbolt Warrior becomes King of Norway
Harald Hardrada: Viking Warrior king of Norway: Harald returned to Kiev, now a living legend. When summing the riches he had deposited in Kiev over the years with his latest loot from the palace, it was clear that he was rich beyond comprehension.
Grand-Prince Yaroslav finally gave his daughter, Elizaveta, to the Varangian prince, and they married. Harald wished to make her Queen of all his possessions.
However, the newly-wed Harald would soon embark on another adventure. Norwegians in Kiev told him about the plight in Norway, about Magnus the Good rise to power and stunning victories in Denmark.
Harald held that Magnus was too young and inexperienced to rule and viewed himself as a more promising ruler. Knowing he had a claim to the throne, he headed North. In 1045, Harald arrived back in Scandinavia. He had left it as a fugitive, but returned a rich and mighty warlord.
Harald seemed to have understood that war ought to be avoided, if possible. War drains resources and leads only to destruction. The intelligent general achieved his goals without bloodshed. Harald therefore negotiated with Magnus instead of fighting him, and the two reached an agreement.
Harald would cede half his Byzantine gold to Magnus in exchange for the throne of Norway. He essentially bought the throne in gold rather than manpower. With the treaty enacted, he returned to his homeland and became its King. His wife, Elizaveta, became Queen of Norway.
It was at this time that Harald Sigurdsson earned the name Hardradi, meaning Harsh-ruler. He remembered well the fate of his half-brother Olaf, and was determined to not suffer the same betrayal. He would strike at his conspirators before they could strike him.
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Doing so involved not only arrests, assassinations or executions, but also further centralisation of the state system. Under Magnus, Einar Thambaskelfer had worked to resurrect the pre-Olaf, old Norse system that favoured the earls.
With Harald’s arrival, all his progress was stopped and his reforms nullified. Harald disempowered the earls again. Einar realised he was in danger.
In the wake of Magnus the Good’s death in 1047, public support of Harald took a sharp drop. Compared to their beloved Magnus, Harald appeared as an oppressive tyrant. Einar Thambaskelfer saw an opportunity to make his move.
He fuelled this public resentment by speaking on things against the King. “To follow a dead Magnus is better than to follow any other living king!” he shouted. In an effort to smoothen his relations, Harald took a second wife in Tora Torbeigsdottir, a woman from a prestigious family in the Westlands and Lade (Giske family) – but it had little effect.
Einar continued to defy Harald’s orders, and began gathering a rebel army. The King decided to put an end to this rebellious Earl once and for all. While pretending to seek reconciliation, he invited Einar in for a meeting. As soon as Einar entered, he was struck down and murdered by one of Harald’s guards.
Einar’s death infuriated the people and the earls even more, but Harald’s iron fist struck hard and silenced all criticism. He was always one step ahead and trumped every revolt or opposition. Another revolt led by Earl Haakon Ivarsson, Einar’s counterpart, was also quickly put down. Earl Haakon fled to Denmark where he found a useful ally in Sweyn Ulfsson Estridsson – Denmark’s new King.
 In Harald’s time, people still referred to the Byzantine Empire as the Eastern Roman Empire. The term “Byzantine” is a more modern creation. The Norsemen also called it Grekerriket, meaning the Greek Empire.
 More stories like this can be found in the sagas Heimskringla, Fagerskinna and Morkinskinna.
 Tora became Harald’s second wife and never became Queen of Norway. Harald’s first wife however, Elizaveta, became the official Queen of Norway. Harald also wanted to make Elizaveta Queen of England.