Post-classical history




Olaf the Stout’s half-brother, Harald, would be known in later life as Harald Hardraada – if Aethelred had been Unraed, ‘ill-advised’ then Harald was ‘severe in counsel’, ‘hard-ruling’ or simply Ruthless. His life was the pinnacle of the Viking Age, his infamous defeat the beginning of its end. Harald’s story also unites many of the separate strands of the Viking experience. Although his main area of interest was Norway, his travels took him throughout the world known to the Vikings, as far south as the coast of North Africa. One source even claimed, however doubtfully, that he ventured in search of Vinland, and even beyond, to the ‘dark failing boundaries of the savage world’.1 Although a man of ‘noble birth’, he spent much of his life as a mercenary, and much of his reign in a ‘war’ with Denmark that often seemed little more than a succession of pirate raids. Although he was one of the most well-travelled of Vikings, his raids and battles for a dozen years were fought not against foreigners, but against fellow Scandinavians. His last campaign united his destiny firmly with that of England.

We are fortunate in that Harald’s remarkable life has been recounted in several works, most notably Snorri Sturluson’s saga, which itself records poems about his deeds that had been sung in his presence. Snorri wrote about all Norway’s early kings, but on Harald he is particularly rich in detail and anecdotes. Two of Harald’s closest companions, Halldor Snorrason and Ulf Ospaksson, who fought at his side and even shared his brief incarceration in a Byzantine jail, were the descendants of notable Icelandic families. In later life, Halldor would return to his native land and insist on regaling the assembly there with tales of his time with King Harald, a habit that fixed many of Harald’s adventures firmly in the mind of other skalds. Snorri Sturluson was one of Halldor’s descendants, and much of his biography of Harald in Heimskringla draws, we may assume, on tales told and retold in his own family.

Harald grew up in Norway, and was occasionally visited by his half-brother Olaf. By the time Olaf commenced his campaign against Canute in 1030, Harald was 15 years old, still quite young by Viking standards, and certainly not expected to serve in Olaf’s army. Harald, however, accompanied Olaf’s forces, perhaps as an observer. Heimskringla reports his argument with Olaf on the eve of the battle of Stilkastad, with Olaf suggesting that he was too young to fight, and Harald protesting that he was old enough to lift a sword, even if the hilt had to be tied to his wrist.

Olaf relented, and Harald was among the men to hear Olaf’s pre-battle address, a reminder that the bulk of his forces comprised hardened soldiers, while the Canute loyalists they faced were primarily conscripted farmers. Although Olaf was outnumbered, he was still confident that he could win, and called upon almighty God to ensure an outcome ‘that He deems right for me.’2 Despite predictable pleas to the Christian god for aid, Olaf’s pre-Stilkastad speech shows the Viking mind still very much in evidence – he advocated a quick and terrifying charge, hoping to cause the less seasoned enemy soldiers to flee before they realized the inferior numbers of their attackers. His speech also made it clear that his grab for the crown was inspired by the traditional desire for more land – when all the talk of God had passed, he assured his men that their true rewards would not be in heaven, but paid in land and chattels taken from the vanquished.

Heimskringla reports Olaf’s final moments, as he and his henchmen were approached by Thorir the Hound, a warrior supposedly shielded from harm by ‘the mighty magic of Finns.’3 As Olaf’s henchmen fell, the king stood alone against a crowd of enemies, notably Thorir, Thorstein Shipbuilder and Finn Arnarson, who between them hacked him down. Thorir reported that contact with Olaf’s blood caused his own wounds to heal. It was the first of several miraculous events associated with Olaf in the afterlife, leading to his later canonization.

The boy Harald, grievously wounded in the battle, was borne to safety by Rognavald Brusason from the distant Orkneys. Rognavald managed to smuggle the injured boy away to a remote house in the forests, and ensure that he was tended until he was able to travel farther afield. Needless to say, Harald’s saga stresses that he did not run away, but had to be dragged from the battlefield by his associates, gravely wounded. Such behaviour befits a glorious hero, although a poem supposedly written at the time by Harald himself is notably lower key, makes no reference to wounds, and instead mentions Olaf’s brother creeping ‘. . . from wood to wood with little honour now.’4

Whatever the circumstances surrounding his escape, the fugitive Harald rejoined Rognavald and a handful of other men by picking his way across the mountains that formed the spine between Norway and modern Sweden. With Scandinavia closed to them and their fortunes in decline, the last supporters of Olaf sought refuge with their relatives in Russia.

Saga sources are suspiciously reticent concerning the next three or four years. Although there are hints of wars and campaigns, and glories won, even Snorri whisks through the Russian years in barely a page. The Russian Primary Chronicle, however, fills the period with a series of internal and external conflicts among the Rus, into which a band of job-seeking Vikings would have fitted quite snugly.

Vladimir, the son of Saint Olga, had died in the year of Harald’s birth, and his domain was now ruled by his son Jaroslav the Wise. Jaroslav’s rise to power had been precarious, involving conflicts with several of his siblings, but he had secured his position with the aid of Viking mercenaries. Now he shared power with a handful of his surviving brothers, and already plotted to seize their lands when the opportunity arose. With Pecheneg tribesmen on the offensive again, Jaroslav was more than willing to take on new recruits, particularly those with whom he had a family connection – his wife Ingigerd was Olaf’s sister-in-law. Dates are difficult to match, but it would seem that the arrival of Harald and his fellow exiles was contemporary with the final moves in Jaroslav’s grab for sole rulership of the region. By 1036, with the help of his new recruits, Jaroslav was the sole master of the Rus domains.

For the teenage Harald, his service in Russia was the true test of his military abilities. He fought on Jaroslav’s behalf for several years, against rebellious tribes in Poland, Estonia and regions beyond.5 He also developed a close relationship with Jaroslav himself, such that Jaroslav may have even conceded that he might make a good choice of son-in-law. That, at least, is how Harald seems to have understood it; a closer reading of the sources rather suggests that Harald’s request for the hand of Jaroslav’s daughter Ellisif was gently declined. The young Viking was assured that hemight be an ideal candidate, once he had gained further experience and, more pointedly, regained his lost wealth and inheritance.

Harald’s saga paints the tale as one of frustrated romance, but although it is an entertaining fiction, there are no star-crossed lovers here. Harald offered Jaroslav a deal, and Jaroslav simply named his price – Ellisif was around ten years old at the time, giving Harald a small window of opportunity to find the required wealth and fortune – by the time she reached her late teens, he could reasonably expect her father to have found another husband for her. Returning to Scandinavia was still out of the question, so he took the next best option: Byzantium.

Ever since Vladimir had first sent a company of Viking warriors to the aid of Basil II (see Chapter Five), the emperors of Constantinople had come to place great reliance on the barbarian recruits. The Vikings, known in Constantinople as Varangians, formed an indispensable part of the empire’s military might. They were, of course, expendable, but also highly reliable in battle. Sworn to serve the emperor himself, and without land-holdings that might influence their willingness to obey orders, they were often more trustworthy than local troops, who were too often riddled with factionalism and partisanship for other potential emperors.

Nevertheless, the Varangians were often uncontrollable. One Byzantine writer left an unhappy account of his attempts to lodge in a room near their quarters, where the noise made it impossible to sleep. The Varangians traded on their fearsome reputation, and revelled in their indifference to the high-level ceremonial they were there to guard. A slang term seemingly common among the Byzantine nobility referred to them as ‘wine-bags’, denoting disgust with their consumption of alcohol.6 The relics of the Byzantine world still bear the scars of their passing, from the runic graffiti that was carved into a lion in Athens’ Piraeus harbour, to the name ‘Halfdan’, etched into a balcony in Constantinpole’s cathedral of Saint Sophia, presumably by a Varangian bodyguard tired of standing through yet another interminable Greek Orthodox ceremony.7

Power in Constantinople lay in the hands of Basil the Bulgar-Slayer’s niece, the Empress Zoe, who was to be the wife of three emperors, the adopted mother of a fourth, and eventually a ruler in her own right. When Harald arrived in Constantinople, he did so around the time of the accession of Zoe’s second husband, Emperor Michael IV. Taking the assumed name of Nordbrikt to avoid association with the ruling dynasy of Norway, Harald joined the Varangians as an officer, leading a squadron of men who knew his true identity.8 He was first assigned to clear up a series of pirate attacks in the eastern Mediterranean, leading a Viking fleet against these Arab raiders. Although Harald may have sailed in longships, extant sources specifically refer to his vessels as galeidir (‘galleys’), so it may also be the case that the Vikings were forced to use Byzantine ships in their naval battles.

Harald did not take well to a subordinate role, clashing often with his superiors, particularly the Byzantine general George Maniakes. Although the Muslim raiders had been able to defeat Byzantine shipping, they were no match for Vikings honed by several generations of raiding in northern Europe, and were soon retreating to their strongholds. The Varangian assault continued on land, and as the leader of a detachment, Harald is thought to have fought in Asia Minor, possibly accompanying a mission to Jerusalem itself, where he may have stood watch during the restoration of the Holy Sepulchre, and supposedly bathed in the waters of the river Jordan. This journey was made possible by a newly signed 30-year treaty between Byzantium and the Fatimid Caliphate, although some of the sagas preferred to report it as a military victory for Harald. Snorri’s account is not even sure if Harald fought in Anatolia or Libya.9

Harald, it is said, took part in ‘eighteen fierce-fought battles’ in Serkland, ‘the land of the Saracens’, a term which then unhelpfully encompassed everywhere from north Africa to Turkey. The years 1038–41 supposedly saw him campaigning against Saracens in Sicily, and Lombard invaders in southern Italy. By this point, he had risen high enough in the ranks to be given command of two battalions – his own Viking followers and a group of Normans. Not all of Harald’s soldiers were party to his secret, although rumours seem to have been rife – sagas report attempts by suspicious soldiers to unearth the true name of the mysterious Nordbrikt.

Snorri’s account describes in detail some of Harald’s most cunning ruses – but one must be wary because these stories were already clichéd in Harald’s time. Harald, we are led to believe, used the old ‘incendiary bird’ trick to set fire to the roofs of a besieged town, a ploy credited to a Dane in Saxo, to Saint Olga in the Russian Primary Chronicle, and even to Guthrum in his attack on Cirencester during his war with Alfred the Great. If it was such a cunning plan, why is that up to five other cunning planners get the credit for it elsewhere? Similar doubts arise concerning Harald’s infiltration of a church by means of a mock funeral, springing from his coffin, sword in hand, to the understandable surprise of the congregation. The same story, or rather the same plot occurs twice in Saxo, and in three other authors. It is notable that these incidents do not occur in the extant verses of Harald’s personal skalds – his poets describe him as tough and brave, but not cunning.

A more trustworthy account, chiefly for its businesslike recitation of facts, was found in 1881, in a Byzantine manuscript that turned up in the archives of a Moscow church. Written in the 1070s by someone who claimed to have served with Harald himself, theAdvice to an Emperor confirmed that a Harald (in Greek, Araltes), brother of Olaf (Julavos) had come to Byzantium with 500 men, fought on the empire’s behalf in Sicily and Bulgaria, served faithfully and was eventually granted the honorary rank ofspatharokandates (‘troop leader’ – hardly the generalship implied by his saga). In time, this Harald asked leave to return to his homeland. When this was refused, says the anonymous account, he stole away.10

The Advice to an Emperor is not clear on why he should have done so, although the saga evidence presents several possibilities. Harald was still in his mid-twenties, at the height of his powers, and, if we are to believe the insinuations of some authors, now cut a figure dashing enough to catch the eye of the Empress Zoe. Her husband, Michael IV, made Harald an official of the court, and within a few months he had supposedly risen to be leader of the palace guard. But Harald’s promotion brought him closer to the intrigues that surrounded the throne. Michael IV announced his intention to put down an uprising in Bulgaria, despite his advanced years and an agonizing case of gangrenous gout.11 Thanks partly to his Varangian cohorts, but chiefly to internal struggles among the rebels, he was able to return to Constantinople in triumph.

But the Bulgarian campaign was the last hurrah for the dying Michael IV. Abdicating and retiring to a monastery, he left the empire in the hands of his nephew Michael Calaphates – Michael the Caulker, whose father had worked in the Constantinople shipyards. Enthroned as Michael V, the new emperor began by paying lip service to Zoe, and to his uncles, all plainly intending to use him as a puppet ruler. But the new emperor soon flexed his imperial muscles, abhorring the long courtly rituals that formed part of his daily routine – as a commoner, he must have felt immensely out of his depth amid the rarefied protocols of Constantinople. He dismissed many of the associates of the former Emperor, including the Varangian Guard itself. For reasons unclear, this led to Harald’s imprisonment. The most romantic explanation, supplied by Snorri Sturluson, whose ancestor Halldor was Harald’s cellmate, was that Harald had fallen out with Zoe. One is a fairytale excuse involving his refusal to send her a lock of his hair.12 Another, more dramatic, involves Harald’s decision to marry Maria, a lady-in-waiting to Zoe. Zoe reputedly flew into a jealous rage, refusing his request and throwing him in jail.13

It is, however, likely that Harald’s fall from grace was associated with more worldly, and historically verifiable, matters. The secret of his true identity (if it ever was a secret in the first place) was finally out, as was the news that his enemy King Canute was dead in England, and that Canute’s sons were fighting over his domains. Meanwhile, St Olaf’s son Magnus the Good had seized Norway (or at least, his ‘supporters’ had done so in the name of the boy, who was still only 11 years old), and Canute’s son Harthacanute had enough problems elsewhere to grudgingly acknowledge his right to the territory. In other words, Norway was back in the hands of a kinsman of Harald’s, and Harald regarded Magnus’s birthright as one that deserved to be ‘shared’ with him. Accordingly, it was time for him to return to his native land. It may well be that it was only at this point that it became clear how much gold and treasure Harald had embezzled during his sojourn in the south. He had regularly sent large amounts of valuables, some legitimately acquired, some pilfered, back up the rivers of the Rus to his putative father-in-law Jaroslav the Wise.14

Whatever the real reason for his imprisonment, it became a subject of Viking legend, thanks perhaps to Halldor’s apparent habit of ceaselessly retelling it in his dotage. Harald and his fellow prisoners had to contend with a snake in their cell, a tale that grew gradually taller, until other sources had him fighting a dragon, and even a lion. Reportedly, they were also rescued by the intercession of the spirit of St Olaf, who appeared to a Byzantine noblewoman and instructed her to rescue the prisoners – perhaps this is the Maria mentioned in some sources. It is more likely, however, that Harald’s release was occasioned by his sometime tormentor, the Empress Zoe. Banished to a convent by her rebellious foster-son Zoe fought back in April 1042, inciting the populace to a riot. Several buildings were damaged during the unrest, and one of them may have been Harald’s prison. Harald and his closest Varangians joined the mob, while other Vikings remained loyal to the new emperor, leading to a battle of Viking upon Viking in the streets of Constantinople. With the tide turning in favour of the rebels, Harald’s men dragged Michael Calaphates from his hiding place. Their instructions were to symbolically render him unfit to rule. In the brutal traditions of Byzantium, this required mutilation, and the sagas report that it was Harald himself who blinded the former emperor with a hot iron. Unfortunately, in doing so the sagas also manage to get the emperor’s name wrong, somewhat compromising their value.15

However, someone certainly did blind the former emperor, and in the aftermath, the elderly Zoe took a third husband, who was enthroned as Constantine IX. But the Golden City had lost much of its lustre for Harald, and nobody was safe at the palace. Constantine himself was soon at odds with his aged wife, and Zoe’s sister Theodora already had a faction building around her. Meanwhile, Harald’s former superior, George Maniakes, had fled to Italy, and was threatening to march on Constantinople with an army of his own. Friend and foe were no longer clearly delineated, and it seemed likely that further service to Constantinople would be a thankless task with diminishing returns. It was time for Harald to leave, but his permission was refused.16

Once again, the sources are unclear. They paint a picture of Harald fleeing the city in his galley, successfully making it past the chain that blocked the Bosphorus strait at the entrance to the Black Sea. An accompanying Viking vessel was not so lucky, and had to be abandoned at the barrier. Harald was supposedly accompanied by the mysterious Maria, although he later set her ashore and left her behind – was she a hostage to secure his safe exit from Byzantium, or a true lover who had a sudden change of heart? It is far more likely that Harald’s real reason for such a dramatic exit was his wealth; Byzantine customs would have exerted a heavy levy on his treasure, and any gold in his possession was not supposed to leave the city at all.

Harald escaped successfully from Byzantium, and sailed back up the eastern river roads to the domain of Jaroslav the Wise. Some writers romanticize his return as the princely wooing of a blushing bride, but even the sagas cannot hide the pragmatic elements of his marriage to Princess Ellisif. Jaroslav had demanded proof of wealth, and Harald had successfully earned, plundered and embezzled an amount so large that, in the words of Snorri ‘no one in the northern lands had seen its equal in the possession of one man.’17Even in the surviving poetry Harald himself wrote about his wife-to-be, he referred to her as a ‘gold-ringed goddess’.18

Jaroslav permitted the exiled prince to marry his daughter in the winter of 1045. The following spring, Harald sailed up the last of the river-roads to the Gulf of Finland, and then back to Scandinavia itself. He was, as his later actions made clear, determined to win a kingdom at any cost, although not overly concerned about which kingdom it was.

St Olaf’s son Magnus now ruled Norway. The sons of Canute had given up on Norway while they fought over England, and now both of them were dead. Magnus did, however, already have a new enemy in Svein Estridsen,19 Canute’s nephew. Magnus had attempted to buy him off in 1042 by acknowledging him as the ruler of Denmark, but Svein almost immediately mounted a challenge on Norway itself. He was swiftly beaten back and hiding out in Sweden where his path crossed with the returning Harald. Somehow, these two dangerous and untrustworthy men reached an agreement that they should unite against a common foe. If Magnus was going to claim to be the ruler of Norway and Denmark, Harald and Svein would prove him wrong in a time-honoured fashion – they went a-viking.

For all their claims of nobility and kingship, Harald and Svein were still raiders at heart. Their policy of demonstrating Magnus’s unsuitability to rule comprised a series of Viking raids on the coasts of Denmark itself, proof if proof was ever required that the Vikings excluded no one when choosing their victims. With a force of warriors from all over Scandinavia, the Harald-Svein fleet terrorized a kingdom that Magnus claimed to control.

But Harald was a mercenary Viking with mercenary ambitions, and his alliance with Svein was opportunistic. His saga reports a series of intrigues that led him to question his former alliance, though they are all likely to have been later attempts to put a human face on a harsh reality – Harald realized he stood a better chance of getting what he wanted if he switched sides.

In one saga account, Magnus’s advisor, confidante and, perhaps, regent was Astrid, the widow of St Olaf and sister of the Swedish king. Astrid’s involvement brought heavy support from the Swedes, and a sense of continuity. Unfortunately for her but handily for the saga-writing gossip, she was not Magnus’s natural mother – that honour went to Alfhild, a former chambermaid. Alfhild, it is said, wasted no time in reminding Astrid who the king’s mother actually was, while Astrid for her part was quick to remind Alfhild that she was the queen, and that Alfhild had been nothing but a serving wench until Olaf had bedded her. With such feuding behind the scenes, someone at Magnus’s court sent word to Harald the Ruthless, in the name of King Magnus, that it was unseemly for two relatives to be quarrelling. He offered Harald half his kingdom, a joint kingship, if Harald agreed they pool their resources, and put his Byzantine gold to use in strengthening Scandinavia.

This, of course, was what Harald was after all along, but his saga biographers would not dare suggest that he accepted. Instead, they pre-empted him from going back on his word by suggesting that news somehow reached Svein of the secret negotiations.Heimskringla reports a tense dinner conversation between him and Harald, in which small talk turned all too quickly to umbrage. Purportedly, the men were discussing their most valuable possessions, which for Harald was his ‘magical’ banner Landwaster, a flag of some unknown material (probably Byzantine silk) said to guarantee victory to whoever bore it in front of his army. Svein, it is said, scoffed that he would believe such a claim when he saw Harald win three battles against his kinsman King Magnus. It was the word ‘kinsman’ that caused the argument – Harald thought that Svein had made too great a point of reminding him that he was fighting a member of his own family. In the heat of the moment, he even implied that the world would be a better place if he and Magnus were not enemies at all. Svein countered by musing about Harald’s habit of only keeping those parts of promises that suited him best. Harald had the last word, crowing that Svein had kept more promises to Magnus than Harald had broken.20

That night, Harald returned to his ship at anchor, telling his men that he was suspicious about Svein’s intentions. Sure enough, Harald wisely slept elsewhere that evening, while a would-be assassin clambered on to his ship and buried an axe where he would otherwise have been.21 The treaty with Svein was at an end, conveniently through Svein’s actions, not Harald’s betrayal, thereby saving honour in the eyes of his biographers, and Harald sailed for a conference with his estranged nephew.

Magnus granted him half the kingdom of Norway, and subordinate status – in all matters of protocol, Magnus was to be considered the superior. Harald agreed, and discovered all too soon why his nephew was so keen to make a deal. When the time came for them to examine their finances, Magnus revealed that he was bankrupt.

The co-rulers embarked on a consolidation of the kingdom along the northern coasts of Norway – better described as the extraction of protection money in order to establish their rulership. Svein hid out on the coasts of Sweden, sailing to Denmark when he was sure he would be unopposed, and demanding similar tribute from the local inhabitants. Denmark was still his, whatever the rulers of Norway might say. Meanwhile, Harald and Magnus were not the happiest of allies. They had already almost come to blows over a parking spot – Harald’s men having berthed their ship in a harbour slot designated for the superior king. Knowing well enough that he could not afford to give a single inch to Harald, Magnus drew up his own ships ready for battle. Harald backed down, commenting that Magnus was being petty, and noting that ‘it is an old custom for the wiser one to yield’. Even in defeat, he still managed to have the final say.22 Had Magnus lived, it is likely that he and Harald would have exchanged more than unkind words. However, Magnus died while on campaign in Denmark in 1047, leaving Harald as the sole ruler of Norway, and the overlordship of Denmark still open to question.

The Viking Age was drawing to a close. The initial conditions for the Viking invasions had waned – Scandinavian settlers had colonized Iceland and points beyond, while the coastal defences of medieval Europe were now significantly stronger. After almost 250 years of raiding and counter-raids, the 1040s find the people left behind in Scandinavia much as the original Vikings had left them – farmers and fishermen, preyed upon by belligerent crews of raiders.

The participants, however, would not have seen it that way. Svein, now ‘collecting tribute’ rather than raiding, had convinced many of the Danes that he was the one with the power to do them and others harm and hence protect them. One such supporter, in an apocryphal but evocative tale, was Thorkel Geysa, a landowner on the Danish coast who refused to believe that Harald the Ruthless would return. Thorkel joked that Harald’s fleet, if it existed, was so feeble that he imagined his own daughter Dótta could fashion anchors out of cheese sufficient to hold it fast.23

Such unwise words put Thorkel’s farm right at the top of Harald’s hit list. As King Harald’s Saga puts it:

It is reported that the watchman who first caught sight of King Harald’s fleet said to Thorkel Geysa’s daughters, ‘I thought you said that Harald would never come to Denmark.’

‘That was yesterday,’ replied Dótta. 24

The daughters of Thorkel Geysa were carried off in chains, and only returned to their father after the payment of a heavy ransom. And so the raiding went on, in a seemingly endless round of pillage and counter-pillage that taxed the poetic skills of the most verbose skald. Eventually, in 1049, Harald sent home his ‘farmer army’ of conscripts, retaining only his professional soldiers and pirates for a terrible assault on Hedeby, at the heart of the Danish trade system. With Hedeby burning behind him, his treasure-laden fleet was pursued by an angry Svein. Heimskringla recounts Harald’s desperate attempt to delay his vengeful pursuers as they gained on him, throwing first plunder, and then prisoners into the sea behind him as a distraction.

Harald’s campaigns in this period were aimed at consolidating the deal he had made with Magnus. Their agreement, much as Harald had tried to bend the rules, was that they would be co-rulers of the region until one of them died, at which point the other would be the sole inheritor. This suited Harald very well with Magnus gone, but some of Magnus’s subordinates were less willing to accept it. Paramount among the objectors were the troublesome inhabitants of Trondheim. While they were allies of Magnus, there was no love lost between them and Harald – although Harald only professed his belief in Christ when it suited him, the earls of Trondheim were unrepentant pagans, and refused to recognize his authority.

This, anyway, is how the pious Snorri would have us understand it – the nominal Christian, relative of the saint, builder of churches is preferable in the long-term to the devout pagan, at least in hindsight. However, while religion often featured in the conflicts in Norway, it was not necessarily the reason, but an excuse. Unrest in Harald’s Norway had less to do with religion than it did with the unwelcome redistribution of wealth.

Einar Paunch-shaker was someone strongly in favour of redistributing wealth in his own favour. Once an enemy of the rulers of Trondheim, he was now married into their dynasty. For years, Einar had collected taxes in Trondheim as Magnus’s representative, but kept the money for himself – better this, Magnus must have reasoned, than the conflict that would otherwise ensue between the ‘king’ of Norway and the fractious earldom. While Harald made a show of finishing the building of Trondheim’s church to St Olaf, begun by Magnus but left unfinished at his death, Einar mounted a publicity stunt of his own, sailing into town with a flotilla of nine ships and several hundred men, daring Harald to find some cause to call him to heel. Harald, however, merely observed the force arriving from his balcony, and said:

Einar of the flailing sword

Will drive me from this country

Unless I first persuade him

To kiss my thin-lipped axe.25

The round of feud and counter-feud, posturing and slander was about to begin again, but Harald was not known for his patience. Einar was a typical man of Trondheim, highly reluctant to accept the authority of whoever called himself the king of Norway, and ready to prove it with a show of force, if necessary. In most cases, this attitude manifested itself at local assemblies, where Einar loudly boasted of his adherence to the letter of all laws. In matters where Harald’s own decisions were subject to ratification by an assembly of local farmers, Einar would often argue a case for rejecting Harald’s rulings. The message he sent to southern Norway was clear – in Trondheim, it was he, not Harald who was in charge.

The uneasy peace between him and Harald continued for some time, until an occasion when a thief came to trial at the local assembly. Since the thief was one of his own men, Einar was presented with a difficult situation – he could act like Harald, and do whatever he liked, or he could behave as he had always boasted he did, and leave the sentencing to the assembly. Einar overstepped his position by liberating the accused man. Before long, he was summoned to give an account of himself before Harald, and arrived with a heavily armed company. Einar, it seems, was expecting more bluster and posturing, but Harald’s patience had run out. Without waiting for an explanation or warning, Harald’s men cut Einar and his son Eindridi down where they stood. Doubly leaderless, the Trondheim opposition soon melted back to their farms, Einar’s widow Bergljót, lamented that her relative Hakon was not present to bully the men of Trondheim into an act of revenge: ‘Eindridi’s killers would not be rowing down the river now if Hakon had been here on the bank.’26

The slaying of Einar may have removed a potential opponent, but it created considerable ill feeling towards Harald in the region. It also initiated a feud, which threatened to run out of control. Already, Bergljót had sent messengers to Hakon Ivarsson, detailing Harald’s crimes against her family, while Harald was assembling an army in southern Norway.

But Harald had also made political matches in keeping with his new interests. Ellisif, the bride he had laboured for ten years to win from Jaroslav the Wise, was replaced in his affections by Thora, the daughter of Thorberg Arnarson. Ellisif remained Harald’s official wife in Christian eyes, but it was Thora who shared his bed.27 While Ellisif might have been a trophy wife, and represented a useful eastern alliance, Thora brought alliances closer to home. Her uncle Finn Arnarson was powerful enough in the Trondheim region to intercede on Harald’s behalf, brokering a deal in which Harald would compensate Hakon for his crimes. It was the political scandal of its day – a king with a reputation for ignoring the law when it suited him, suddenly forced to attend, or at least appear to attend to the ruling and judgements of a council of farmers. However, Finn was able to secure a deal ‘out of court’ as it were, by approaching Hakon in private and making him an offer. Finn pointed out that Hakon’s situation was going to cost him dearly. If he came out against Harald openly, it would be seen as a revolt – he would either lose and thereby lose his life, or win and be coloured ever more as a traitor.

Harald, however, was not done with the Arnarson family. He also found himself an accidental ally of Finn’s brother Kalf, one of the men who had so brutally cut down St Olaf. On a raiding party in Denmark, Harald saw to it that Kalf was put ashore ahead of the rest of the company, facing insurmountable odds and with reinforcements suspiciously late in arriving. Kalf was killed in the ensuing battle, and Finn immediately suspected that Harald had planned it. For his part, Harald was remarkably reluctant to deny the charges, instead boasting in a poem of his consolidation of power and removal of potential threats:

Now I have caused the deaths

Of thirteen of my enemies;

I kill without compunction

And remember all my killings.

Treason must be scotched

By fair means or foul

Before it overwhelms me;

Oak-trees grow from acorns.28

With the removal of another threat from within his own country, Harald was finally able to turn back to the last great impediment to his overlordship of Scandinavia – the continued presence of Svein Estridsen in Denmark. Harald moved a large part of his military operation to the south of Norway, and at the northern end of the same Vik bay that may have given its name to the Vikings themselves, he founded a new town near modern-day Oslo. The site was carefully chosen for its military advantages; it had good access to surrounding farmland, and was an excellent harbour for assembling warships. It was, moreover, close enough to Denmark to forestall swift raids.

After many years of intermittent warfare, Harald and Svein finally clashed in a major sea battle at Nissa in 1062, in which dozens of longships were lashed together in a marine brawl, and which ended with 70 Danish ships emptied of their crews. Skirmishes went on for a couple more years, but Nissa had taken a lot out of the combatants – not just in terms of their willingness to keep fighting, but also because of the expense. It is possible that Harald’s reserves of cash from his Byzantine days were running low, and he was experiencing some difficulty in collecting taxes, particularly from the Trondheim region that had constantly resisted his rule. Ten years was long enough to fight over Denmark, and Harald was prepared to sue for peace. At a meeting with Svein, the two men conceded that each was the true ruler of his kingdom, and departed in a state of truce.

There was, however, already trouble brewing elsewhere, dating back to the agreements with his nephew that had brought Harald back to Scandinavia in the first place. The co-ruler arrangement with Harald was not the only double-or-nothing bet that the late King Magnus had made during his life. He had made a similar promise to Harthacanute, king of England, that whoever of them outlived the other would inherit the domains of both. But Harthacanute had died in 1042, five years before Magnus. In the strictest terms of their agreement, Magnus had been the rightful king of England for five years before his own death, and in the strictest terms of the other agreement, Magnus’s lands were Harald’s by right. With Harald established as Magnus’s rightful heir, he had thus inherited a tenuous claim to the throne of England itself. This fact was not lost on the English earl Godwine, who attempted to persuade King Edward the Confessor to send a fleet of ships to the aid of Svein Estridsen, who, like Harthacanute, was a grandson of Svein Forkbeard.

In the first week of January 1066, the English king Edward the Confessor died in his early fifties. His last surviving nephew had predeceased him a couple of years earlier, and he had no children of his own. With the passing of Edward, there was no obvious candidate for the throne of England – the original Saxon line was all but at an end. The only available adult candidates were the descendants of Vikings.

Edward’s half-Danish brother-in-law Harold, son of the scheming earl Godwine, was proclaimed as the new king of England. Meanwhile, Edward’s Norman cousin, William the Bastard, not only claimed that he had been promised the throne by the ailing Edward, but that Harold Godwinson (called Godwinson hereafter to avoid confusion with Harald the Ruthless) had sworn, on holy relics no less, to do all in his power to ensure that promise would be made good. Not only was Godwinson a usurper in William’s eyes, he had broken an oath made before God.29 For some reason, Godwinson’s younger brother Tostig, Earl of Northumbria, thought that he should have the throne of England.30 It was Godwinson’s claim that the dying Edward had promised the kingdom to him. It was Tostig’s complaint, very much in the Viking spirit, that regardless of Godwinson’s family seniority, the elders of England should choose the ‘king whom they deem most fitting’.31

Tostig certainly involved himself in enough drama elsewhere. Siward, his predecessor as the ruler of Northumbria, had kept the Scots busy by supporting the exiled Malcolm against the usurper Macbeth – a tale told better elsewhere.32 Malcolm repaid his English supporters by raiding along their borders, but Tostig made a careful treaty between Scotland and England. However, when Godwinson became king in Edward’s place, he showed little friendliness towards his brother. In fact, when Northumbria rose in revolt in 1065, Godwinson was prepared to listen to the rebels’ demands, and to exile his troublesome sibling from England altogether. With nothing left to lose, Tostig went looking abroad for help against Godwinson, turning first to the Scots, then to his cousin Svein Estridsen in Denmark.

According to Harald’s saga, Svein, in a remarkably civil and un-Viking reply, turned Tostig down. Although Tostig appealed to Svein’s ancestry, the conquests of Forkbeard, and the empire of Canute the Great, Svein meekly announced that he knew his limitations. He refused to accept flattering parallels drawn between himself and his uncle Canute, and announced that he lacked the finances, endurance and right to embark upon the invasion of England on Tostig’s behalf. Tostig taunted him with hints of who his second choice of ally would be. ‘I shall,’ he said, ‘find a chieftain who is less faint-hearted than you to engage in a great enterprise.’33 Tostig next called on Harald the Ruthless. He, his sagas claim, could not see much potential in persuading Norwegians to sail across the North Sea on behalf of an allegedly disinherited Englishman, particularly one who was half-Dane. ‘The English,’ said Harald, ‘are not altogether reliable.’34

But Tostig would not let up. Heimskringla reports a heated debate between him and Harald, with Harald reluctant to discuss the invasion of Britain, and Tostig cunningly drawing parallels between England and Denmark. Denmark, argued Tostig, had eluded Harald for a decade because the local people’s hearts and minds belonged to Svein Estridsen. Yet if he wanted England, the presence of Tostig would ensure that the local people supported Harald. His army would be welcomed as liberators, and England would be his for the taking. None of this was actually true, and it is likely that both Harald and Tostig were planning to double-cross each other. However, Tostig won Harald round to the idea of an English invasion. The word went out from Oslo and Trondheim, that Harald was preparing the raid to end all raids.

The invasion fleet assembled in the waters off Trondheim, plagued by bad omens – warriors in Harald’s company reported dreams of carrion birds perched on all the prows of the ships, and of an unearthly woman riding a man-eating wolf into battle at the head of the English army. Harald himself dreamed of his brother St Olaf, who warned him that there was a difference between an honourable death while fighting for one’s birthright, and falling in battle while attempting to steal someone else’s.35 Such portents are mere touches of extra drama in the sagas, added by later chroniclers – had Harald become the next king of England, it is likely that old soldiers’ memories would have dredged up far more positive predictions. But the reports of the bad omens do suggest a sense of guilt, as if many of the Norsemen knew that they had only excuses for war, not legitimate reasons. The invasion of England was merely one more Viking raid, on the scale of the earlier Great Heathen Host.

Perhaps Harald had some presentiment of disaster. He left his son Magnus behind, not as regent or viceroy, but as a king with equal powers. He took his first wife Ellisif and their two daughters with him, dropping them off at the Orkneys en route. When he reached the coast of Scotland he took his fleet south, landing in the Cleveland area and finding no resistance – the usurper Godwinson was busy in the south, making preparations to repel another invasion, this time threatened from Normandy. He was also occupied with a succession of pirate raids on England’s south coasts, which turned out to be led by Tostig – had Harald and his unlikely ally agreed that Tostig would cause a diversion while Harald softened up Tostig’s old earldom in Northumbria?36

Tostig arrived in the north of England, meeting Harald at the mouth of the River Tyne on 8 September. If Harald had been expecting Tostig to bring a significant number of fighting men with him, he would have been annoyed to discover his ‘ally’ arriving with only a dozen ships, and most of those were likely to have been Orkney vessels that would have joined Harald anyway. Nevertheless, the combined party laid siege to Scarborough, burning part of the town before its capitulation. Their fleet sailed south along the coast of Northumbria, looting where there was resistance, and taking hostages where there was not. Tostig knew Northumbria well, and knew the likely dispositions of troops in the region.

Harald’s ultimate target was York, the seat of power of Erik Bloodaxe a century earlier. If the fleet met with no worthy resistance on the coasts, they would find their enemies in York. The fleet sailed up the River Humber, and the soldiers disembarked ready to face a foe on land. Had the local earls, Edwin and Morkere, had more faith in Godwinson, they might have retreated behind the walls of York and waited for reinforcements. They had sent word to the south of the Viking invasion, but did not expect any help, and resolved to meet the Vikings head-on.

The two sides finally met on 20 September, two miles south of York, at a place identified by modern historians as Gate Fulford.37 The armies faced each other on the road itself, their flanks cut off by the River Ouse on one side, and impassable swamp on the other. Harald kept his men on the left of the Viking line, prominently displaying his banner, Landwaster. Tostig was kept highly visible on the right side, presumably to lure the English into a charge against the traitor, instead of more sensibly holding their ground. If it was a deliberate ploy, it worked, with the English concentrating their attack on Tostig, allowing Harald to direct Landwaster straight at a weakened front line. The Northumbrians were routed, and York lay undefended.

Harald was clearly settling in for the long haul. York was left relatively unharmed. Harald took hostages from the people of York, but also left some of his own – the arrangement has all the signs of an alliance or treaty, and not a victory. This, perhaps, is where Tostig’s true value began to show; had Harald been the leader of an army of Viking conquest, he might have expected no help, but as the supporter of an English claimant to the throne, he had better treatment. York became the centre of the resistance to Godwinson. People of Northumbria were even invited to swell the ranks of Harald’s army, turning it from an army of conquest into an army of restoration.

If anything defeated Harald’s designs on England, it was an ancient relic of forgotten conquerors. Almost a thousand years earlier, legions such as XX Valeria Victrix and II Augusta had kept their troops busy with immense public works. Since Roman times, England had been crossed by a network of good roads, as straight as possible, slicing through hills and across dales, and built to last. Wide enough to permit 16 horsemen riding abreast, they had lasted for many centuries as the arteries of England, carrying merchants and farmers safely without the hindrances of marshy ground or impenetrable woodland. The network embraced the core of old Britannia – only petering out to the west, where it ran into the territories of Wales and Cornwall. Thanks to the old Roman roads, it was still possible to quickly march a force of military men from London, the Romans’ Londinium, all the way to the old Roman city of Eboracum – York. Even as Harald and Tostig celebrated their conquest of Northumbria, Godwinson was on his way north. The Viking invaders had grossly overestimated the time it would take for the English army to extricate itself from the south. On 24 September, as they finalized the surrender of York, Godwinson’s relief force was less than a day’s march away, in Tadcaster.

It is impossible to know the exact date when Godwinson heard of Harald’s arrival. He had between one and two weeks to put a plan into action, and, perhaps conveniently, already had an army preparing to resist invasion, albeit from another direction. Nevertheless, for him to move several thousand men 200 miles north in such a short time was an incredible feat. Many of them may have been mounted on horseback, which would have made the journey somewhat easier for them, if not on the horses. Others may have been picked up en route, as Godwinson’s force passed through towns on its northward journey, but it is likely that a significant proportion of Godwinson’s army had all but jogged 20 miles a day, some for as long as a week.

On 25 September, much to everyone’s surprise, Godwinson’s army arrived in York, where the townsfolk were swift to deny that they had made any deals with the invader – the sources imply that although they had agreed to swap hostages, the exchange had not yet taken place. Godwinson did not stop at York, but kept his troops moving, until they ran into the astonished Vikings on the banks of the River Derwent, at Stamford Bridge.38

The impression left by both the more reliable the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, and the dubious King Harald’s Saga is that Harald was put very much on the defensive. He also received yet another portent of his demise, when he was thrown from his horse while reviewing his troops. Godwinson himself approached the enemy lines, calling out to Tostig that there was still time for him to switch sides, and promising him ‘a third of his kingdom’ (presumably his reinstatement as lord of Northumbria) if he abandoned the Viking cause. Tostig, however, refused – Harald for his part was annoyed because he only learned of Godwinson’s identity after the man had retreated back out of arrow range.39

When the battle itself began, Harald fought out in the front of his men, overexposed, and was hit in the throat by an arrow.40 In a moment of unfortunate inaccuracy, Manuscript ‘D’ of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles says at this point ‘. . . so was killed Harald Fairhair,’ confusing this Harald with one who had died some 130 years earlier.41 The battle went on for a considerable time without him, with the Vikings rallying first to Tostig until he was also killed, and then to Eystein Orri. Eystein was the son of Thorberg Arnarson and the betrothed of Harald’s daughter Maria. King Harald’s Saga makes much of the brave reinforcement provided by Eystein and his men, alluding to their terrible exhaustion after having dashed over from the beached Viking fleet – forgetting, perhaps that the men they were fighting had been on a week-long forced march. In the end, the Vikings were routed.

With Harald and Tostig dead, both the Vikings and the English rebels had lost the leaders that galvanized their campaign. Within the Viking army, the death toll was particularly severe among the ‘nobility’ – many leaders of war-bands lay dead on the field at Stamford Bridge. The new leader of the Vikings was Harald’s son Olaf (later King Olaf III the Peaceful), who was granted permission to leave in his ships. Such was the speed of his departure, that he left the body of Harald the Ruthless behind. It would be another year before it was returned to Norway, where it was interred in Trondheim.

The Viking Age in England had fittingly come to an end, in Northumbria, the place that had seen its beginnings. God-winson turned his exhausted men around and began a second forced march, back to the south. On 14 October, he would die in the Battle of Hastings, where William the Bastard, the great-great-grandson of the Viking leader Hrolf, would be rebranded as ‘the Conqueror’ and become the new ruler of England.

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