Harald Hardrada

gigatos | December 17, 2022


Harald Hardrada, Harald Sigurdsson or Harald III (c. 1015 or 1016 – 25 September 1066) was king of Norway from 1046 until his death. His nickname (Hardråde in Norwegian, harðráði in Old Norse) means “hard commanding”, which is often translated as “the Merciless” or “the Severe”. Other, more poetic, nicknames were later given to him, such as “the Northern Lightning” or “the last of the Vikings”.

Son of a Ringerike king and half-brother of the Norwegian king Olaf Haraldsson, Harald was forced into exile after Olaf”s defeat at Stiklestad in 1030. He took refuge first in Kiev Rus”, then in Constantinople where he became chief of the Varangian guard. Back in Norway in 1046, he allied himself with the Danish king Sven Estridsen against the new ruler of Norway, Magnus the Good, who agreed to share power with Harald in exchange for abandoning the alliance with Sven. Magnus died the following year, leaving Harald alone as king of Norway.

Harald”s reign was marked by a brutal strengthening of royal authority and several naval campaigns against Denmark, which he tried in vain to conquer. In 1066, he was one of the candidates for the succession to the throne of England. His invasion of Yorkshire was initially successful, but it came to a premature end at Stamford Bridge, where Harald died fighting Harold Godwinson.


Harald was born on the Ringerike in 1015 or 1016. He was the third son of Åsta Gudbrandsdatter by her second husband, Sigurd Syr, a kinglet of the Ringerike who was one of the most important and wealthy lords in the region. Through his mother, Harald was the half-brother of Olaf Haraldsson, who became king of Norway in 1015. He showed great ambitions at a very young age, which distinguished him from his father and brothers, who were more down-to-earth.

According to the Icelandic sagas, in particular the Heimskringla written at the beginning of the 13th century by Snorri Sturluson, Harald is a descendant of Harald of the Fair Hair through his father, as is Olaf through his own father Harald Grenske. Indeed, according to Snorri, Sigurd Syr is the son of Halfdan of Hadafylke, son of Sigurd Rise, son of Harald. Most historians consider this lineage to be a later invention, linked to the political and social context of the time when the sagas were written, several centuries after the death of Harald Hardrada. This prestigious ancestry is never mentioned during Harald”s lifetime, although it would have been a strong argument in favour of his claim to the Norwegian throne.

Olaf was driven out of his kingdom by a revolt in 1028 and Knut the Great, already king of Denmark and England, took the crown of Norway. Olaf returned to Norway in 1030 to regain the throne. On learning of the arrival of his half-brother, Harald, then aged about fifteen, gathered six hundred men before joining him. On July 29, 1030, Olaf”s army faced the Norwegian nobles and peasants loyal to Knut at the battle of Stiklestad, in Trøndelag. Harald distinguished himself on the battlefield, but was seriously wounded, while his brother died, allowing Knut to retain the Norwegian throne.

Exile among the Slavs and Byzantines

After the defeat of Stiklestad, Harald managed to escape to an isolated farm in eastern Norway with the help of Rognvald Brusason. He stayed there to heal his wounds, then set out again towards the north and entered Sweden. In 1031, he arrived in Kiev Rus”, where he probably stayed for some time in Staraia Ladoga. The grand prince Yaroslav the Wise, whose wife was a distant relative of Harald, gave a warm welcome to the exiled prince and his followers. Lacking military leaders, he recognized the young man”s abilities and appointed him captain of his troops. Harald participated in a campaign against the Poles in 1031, and it is possible that he also fought against other opponents of the Kiev principality, such as the Estonian Chuds, the Byzantine Empire or the Pechenegues and other steppe nomads.

It was probably in 1033 or 1034 that Harald and his men went to Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire, to join the Varangian Guard. Although it was supposed to be the emperor”s bodyguard, the Varangian Guard was involved in conflicts throughout the empire. Thus, Harald began by confronting Arab pirates in the Mediterranean before falling upon the cities of Anatolia that supported them. He participated in campaigns as far as the Euphrates, during which, according to the scalde Þjóðólfr Arnórsson (en), he contributed to the capture of eighty Arab fortresses. The sagas report that Harald then went to Jerusalem and fought in the region, but the chronological position of this journey in his life is uncertain. It is more likely that it took place after the peace treaty between Emperor Michael IV and the Fatimid Caliph Al-Mustansir Billah in 1036. In this case, Harald may have been in charge of escorting pilgrims to Jerusalem and the battles mentioned in the sagas oppose him to local brigands.

In 1038, the Varangian guard participated in a Byzantine expedition to Sicily. Led by George Maniakès, its objective was to reconquer the emirate of Sicily. Harald was in contact with Norman mercenaries such as William Bras-de-Fer and Snorri Sturluson reports that he seized four towns on the island. At the end of this expedition, in 1041, a revolt broke out in the south of Italy and the Varègues were sent to quell it. At the side of the Catepan Michel Dokeianos, Harald first achieved several successes, but the Lombards and Normans, led by William Bras-de-Fer, won decisive victories at Olivento in March, then at Montemaggiore in May, The Varangian guard was sent to Bulgaria at the end of 1041 and contributed to the crushing of Peter Deljan”s uprising, which earned Harald the nickname “the burner of Bulgarians” (Bolgara brennir) by Þjóðólfr Arnórsson. On his return to Constantinople, he was showered with honors. According to the Stratégikon of Kékauménos, a Greek book written in the 1070s, “Araltes” (i.e. Harald) was favored by the emperor: he was first appointed manglabites after the Sicilian expedition, then spatharokandidatos after the Bulgarian campaign. The text of the Stratégikon implies that these titles are at the lower levels of the imperial hierarchy.

After the death of Michael IV, in December 1041, the Byzantine court is shaken by the quarrels between the new emperor Michael V and the powerful empress Zoe, widow of his predecessor. Harald no longer enjoys the imperial favor and even finds himself imprisoned for an uncertain reason. According to the sagas, he was arrested for having drawn on the imperial treasury and demanded the hand of a relative of Zoe; according to William of Malmesbury, for having had relations with a woman of the nobility; according to Saxo Grammaticus, for murder. It is possible that Michael V wanted to protect himself from a Varègue who was considered too loyal to his predecessor. There are also several variants as to how Harald got out of prison. He could have escaped with an external accomplice, taking advantage of the revolt against Michael V which broke out in April 1042. The Varangian guard was divided: some of its members protected the emperor, while others, led by Harald, supported the rebels. In the end, Michael V is blinded and sent to a monastery, and the sagas claim that it was Harald himself who gouged out the eyes of the deposed emperor. In June, once Zoë was re-established on the throne with her new husband Constantine IX, Harald asked permission to return to Norway, but the empress refused. Harald manages nevertheless to escape by the Bosphorus with two ships and some faithful. One of the ships was destroyed by the chains stretched across the strait, but the other managed to cross the obstacle and allowed Harald to escape through the Black Sea.

In spite of this departure, Kekaumenos praises the loyalty of the Varangian to the empire, a loyalty that would have persisted after Harald”s accession to the Norwegian throne. According to Þjóðólfr Arnórsson, he participated in eighteen major battles as a member of the Varangian guard. During this period, he accumulated great wealth which he sent to Rus”, under the custody of Yaroslav the Wise, for safety. According to the sagas, this fortune came not only from the booty collected on the battlefields, but also from his participation in three “palace plunders” (polutasvarf), a term that can refer to the funds paid to the Varangians by a new emperor to ensure their loyalty, or to an actual plundering of the account chamber of the imperial palace at the time of a regime change. These three “palace plunders” probably correspond to the disappearances of Roman III in 1034, Michael IV in 1041 and Michael V in 1042, three occasions for Harald to capture large sums of money. It is surely this money which enables him to finance his claims to the throne of Norway.

Harald returned to Rus” in the second half of 1042. The following year, Yaroslav the Wise attacked Constantinople; he probably benefited from information brought by Harald about the state of the empire. During his second stay in Rus”, Harald married Elisabeth, daughter of Yaroslav and granddaughter of the Swedish king Olof Skötkonung. It is possible that they were promised to each other during Harald”s first stay in Russia, or at least that they met. During his Byzantine years, Harald composed a love poem that might mention Elisabeth. According to the Morkinskinna, Harald asked for Elisabeth”s hand in marriage during his first stay in Rus”, but the grand duke refused because of his poverty. In any case, it was a prestigious marriage for Harald: the other children of Yaroslav married important personalities such as the king of the Franks Henry I, the king of Hungary Andrew I and the daughter of the emperor Constantine IX.

King of Norway

Harald left Novgorod at the beginning of 1045. His goal is to reconquer the kingdom lost by his half-brother Olaf fifteen years earlier. His journey took him to Staraia Ladoga, where he found a boat to cross Lake Ladoga, sail down the Neva and enter the Baltic. He landed in Sigtuna, Sweden, at the end of the year. In his absence, Knut the Great died in 1035 and the throne of Norway passed to Magnus the Good, an illegitimate son of Olaf. It is possible that Harald was aware of this development and may even have been responsible for his return to Norway. Magnus” position in Norway was particularly strong: Knut”s sons Harold Harefoot and Hardeknut died young after competing for the throne of England, and no uprisings or internal crises are documented during his eleven-year reign. He was also elected king of Denmark after Hardeknut”s death in 1042 and managed to defeat Sven Estridsen, a nephew of Knut who claimed the Danish throne.

Harald allied himself with Sven Estridsen and the Swedish king Anund Jacob against Magnus. The trio conducted raids on the coast of Denmark to undermine Magnus” authority in the region and establish his rule before turning to Norway. However, the Norwegians refused to turn against their sovereign and Magnus” advisors suggested that he make an agreement with his uncle. A compromise was reached in 1046: Harald became king of Norway (but not of Denmark) jointly with Magnus, who retained precedence. For his part, Harald agreed to share half his fortune with Magnus, who was in great need of it. During the brief time they shared power, Harald and Magnus each presided over their own court, and the few known meetings between them almost degenerated into a fistfight.

Magnus dies without leaving any heir in 1047. Before dying, he decides that Norway must return to Harald and Denmark to Sven. By learning the news, Harald hurries to gather the Norwegian nobility and declares himself sovereign of the two kingdoms. He announces his intention to invade Denmark to drive out Sven, but the army and the nobility refuse. The troops also bring back the body of Magnus in Norway so that it is buried near his father in Nidaros, against the wish of Harald.

Throughout his reign, Harald led campaigns against Denmark in order to become its king. He attacked the neighboring kingdom almost every year between 1048 and 1064. His attacks mostly took the form of short but violent coastal raids. Thus, he ravaged Jutland in 1048, then plundered the trading post of Hedeby in 1049. Hedeby was then one of the most populated and best defended cities in Scandinavia, but it never recovered from Harald”s raid, and the site was abandoned some fifteen years later.

The conflict between Harald and Sven leads to pitched battles only twice. The first takes place in 1049. According to Saxo Grammaticus, the Danish army, inferior in number, threw itself into the sea at the approach of the Norwegians, and most of the soldiers drowned. The second, decisive battle took place on August 9, 1062 at the mouth of the Nissa, a river in Halland. This battle of the Nissa was won by Harald, but it was a Pyrrhic victory: he was not able to occupy Denmark and the prolonged state of war began to disrupt the stability of his country. An unconditional peace treaty was finally concluded between the two kings in 1064, or 1065 according to the Morkinskinna. Each retains its kingdom within its original borders, without having to pay reparations to the other.

In view of the way he came to power, Harald must convince the Norwegian nobility to support him. For this reason, he entered into a marriage with Tora Torbergsdatter, daughter of Torberg Arneson (no) and representative of one of the most powerful families in the country. His most dangerous rivals were the descendants of Håkon Sigurdsson, from the house of the Lade jarls, who enjoyed a great deal of autonomy from central power in their domain, which extended over northern Norway and Trøndelag. In Harald”s time, they were represented by Einar Tambarskjelve, the husband of one of Håkon”s daughters. Einar got along well with Magnus, but the way Harald sought to strengthen the royal authority could only make him his opponent.

It was his struggles with the Norwegian aristocracy that earned Harald his nickname of harðráði, “the hard-headed one”. The relationship between the king and Einar was bad from the beginning and degenerated until the assassination of Einar and his son Eindride around 1050. The other descendants of Håkon Sigurdsson briefly considered rising up against Harald, but he managed to negotiate a peace with them that lasted until the end of his reign. The region of Trøndelag was then definitively acquired by Harald.

The years 1064-1065 were marked by unrest in the Oppland region. Unhappy that he had not been rewarded for his role in the battle of Nissa, jarl Håkon Ivarsson (no) took advantage of his territorial base in Värmland, in neighbouring Sweden, to enter Oppland and collect taxes from the peasants of the region. It is perhaps this revolt which incites the king of Norway to conclude peace with Sven Estridsen. As the tax collectors that he sends do not manage to make their work, Harald opts for a more brutal method and makes burn farms and villages. His campaign started in Romerike and continued in Hedmark, Hadeland and Ringerike. The confiscation of the goods of the prosperous rural communities of the area comes to replenish the coffers of Harald. Norway seemed to be at peace again at the end of 1065, the king”s opponents having been killed, forced into exile or silenced.

The invasion of England

Once peace was concluded with Denmark, Harald turned to England, over which he believed he had rights. His claims were based on a treaty concluded between his nephew Magnus and Hardeknut in 1038 under which the first to die was supposed to bequeath his domains to the other. Hardeknut having died childless in 1042, Magnus succeeded him in Denmark, but not in England, where Edward the Confessor, a scion of the house of Wessex, ascended the throne. Magnus considered invading England in 1045 before an uprising by Sven Estridsen in Denmark forced him to abandon the plan. As Magnus” successor, Harald also saw himself as the heir to the agreement with Hardeknut. It is possible that he considered intervening in England as early as the 1050s: in 1058, the Welshman Gruffydd ap Llywelyn was supported by a Norwegian fleet led by Magnus, Harald”s son, in his war against Edward the Confessor. This episode would have proved to him that it was impossible to fight in England and Denmark at the same time.

The death of Edward the Confessor, in January 1066, provided Harald with the opportunity to claim the throne of England. He had a useful ally in the person of Tostig Godwinson, the brother of Earl Harold of Wessex, who had been crowned king the day after Edward”s death. Stripped of his earldom of Northumbria in 1065, Tostig spent the first half of 1066 pillaging the English coast at the head of a fleet of Flemish pirates. The context of his alliance with Harald varies according to the sources: the two men could have met in Norway or Scotland, but it is more likely that Tostig rallied Harald after his landing in England, their previous communications having been made through intermediaries.

Harald gathered a fleet at Solund, in the Sognefjord, and left Norway in August. His wife Elisabeth accompanied him, as well as his son Olaf and his two daughters, but he took care to leave his other son Magnus at home and to have him acclaimed king before his departure. He made a stopover in Shetland, then in Orkney, two archipelagos controlled by Norway, where he was joined by several lords and their troops, among them Paul and Erlend Thorfinnsson, the earls of Orkney. He then went to Dunfermline to meet the king of Scotland Malcolm III, who granted him two thousand men. It is then in Tynemouth, on September 8, that Harald is probably joined by Tostig. The king of Norway was then at the head of an army of 10 000 to 15 000 men and a fleet of 240 to 300 ships. Tostig had only a few ships to bring to him, but it was especially his knowledge of the terrain that was useful to Harald.

The Norwegian fleet left Tynemouth and probably landed at the mouth of the Tees. The army then entered the Cleveland area and began to plunder the villages and towns along the coast. They met no resistance until Scarborough, which refused to surrender. Harald burned the town to set an example. After obtaining the surrender of other towns, the Norwegian fleet sailed up the Humber and established an encampment at Riccall. Earls Edwin of Mercy and Morcar of Northumbria (Tostig”s successor) went to meet the invaders at the head of an army and met them at Fulford, a few miles south of York, on September 20. Harald and Tostig won a decisive victory and obtained the surrender of York, the second largest city in the kingdom of England, on September 24.

On the same day as the surrender of York, Harold Godwinson arrived at Tadcaster at the head of his troops. From there, he probably sent scouts to spy on the Norwegian fleet at Riccall, a few kilometers away. On the morning of September 25, Harald and Tostig left Riccall, where they left a third of their men, to go to Stamford Bridge, where they were to meet with the inhabitants of York to determine how the city should be governed. The Norwegians do not expect to encounter any difficulties and wear only light armor. Since Harald had left no troops in York, the English army had no trouble crossing the city to attack the invaders at Stamford Bridge. Taken by surprise and outnumbered, the Norwegians suffered a crushing defeat. Harald, in a state of berserksgangr, was killed by an arrow in the throat near the beginning of the confrontation.

Harald Hardrada enters into two unions:

Régis Boyer considers that “Thora was not the wife of Harald but only his concubine. Concubinage was part of the customs of the time.

Dying at about fifty, Harald was the first Norwegian king to reach such an advanced age since Harald of the Fair Hair. If his iron fist undermined his popularity in his own country, he was nevertheless an exceptional warrior and a remarkable general, which earned him a special place in the Heimskringla, the saga of the kings of Norway written by Snorri Sturluson in the 13th century:

“It was the general opinion that King Harald surpassed all other men in wisdom and sagacity, whether he had to act quickly or make long-range plans for himself or for others. In arms he was the bravest of men. King Harald was a handsome man, of noble bearing, fair of hair and beard, with long whiskers; one eyebrow was a little higher than the other; he had large hands and feet, both well made. He was five aunts high. He was cruel to his enemies and ruthless to any opposition made to him.”

– Heimskringla, chapter 99, § 87-88

The imposing size of Harald is the subject of an anecdote reported by Snorri, as well as by the English chronicler Henry of Huntingdon. Before the battle of Stamford Bridge, Harold Godwinson is said to have offered Tostig back his earldom of Northumbria, promising his ally Harald “seven feet of land or so much more as he is taller than other men”.

The monk Theodoricus, a contemporary of Snorri, describes Harald as “a valiant man, of good counsel, bold in arms, firm in purpose and ambitious”, while Ágrip notes that “he ruled with great firmness yet peacefully. And there was no other king who, of all men, was so great in sagacity and enterprise.”

On the other hand, Adam of Bremen, contemporary of the king, makes him a much less recommendable character:

“King Harald, by his cruelty, prevailed over all tyrants. Many churches were destroyed on his orders, and many Christians died under torture. Back home, he did not stop waging war. He spread in the North like thunder, and struck the Danish islands with a fatal misfortune, plundered all the maritime provinces of the Slavic country, subdued the Orkneys and extended a bloody empire to Iceland. Reigning over many peoples he was hated by all for his cruelty and his taste for profit.”

– History of the Archbishops of Hamburg, Book III, Chapter 17

He also notes that the archbishop stigmatizes him for appropriating the offerings brought to the tomb of Saint Olaf to distribute to his men of war.

Snorri describes Harald Hardrada as the founder of the city of Oslo. Although the site was occupied before his time, he contributed to its development, especially by founding a church dedicated to the Virgin Mary. In 1905, a monument to the king was unveiled in the square named after him (Harald Hårdrådes plass) in the old town. It is a bronze bas-relief by the Norwegian sculptor Lars Utne (no) representing Harald on horseback. Another bas-relief of Harald on horseback appears on the western facade of the Oslo City Hall. The work of Anne Grimdalen (en), it was inaugurated in 1950.

Secondary sources


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  13. Грифы // Газель — Германий. — М. : Советская энциклопедия, 1952. — С. 219. — (Большая советская энциклопедия : [в 51 т.] / гл. ред. Б. А. Введенский ; 1949—1958, т. 10). (Дата обращения: 21 октября 2018)
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