Wednesday, 29 September 2010

The tale of King Harald Hardrada

King Harald Hardrada (wielding battleaxe and clad in red)
Taken from 'The life of King Edward the Confessor'.

The year 1066 AD will always be associated with the Battle of Hastings, and the triumph of Duke William of Normandy over King Harold Godwinsson of England. So much so that 1066 is the most famous date in history, heralding the end of the ‘Dark Ages’ and the beginning of the Medieval Kingdom of England. Less well known however, is one of the major reasons for the English defeat at Hastings, that of the other invasion of England in the Fall of 1066. Fewer of us have heard the name Harald ‘Hardrada’, and know him simply as the Norwegian King who died at the Battle of Stamford Bridge less than three weeks before Hastings. Yet King Harald III Sigurdsson (the epithet Hardrada was given later, and is Old Norwegian for ‘hard ruler’) was a legendary figure in the Scandinavian lands, even before his fateful decision to press his claim to the English throne.

Harald was born in 1015 AD, the youngest son of the recently elected King Olaf II of Norway (who would later be canonised). His father’s rule was unstable, since these were changing times for the Scandinavian Lands. Olaf was trying to convert his subjects to Christianity, and meanwhile the Danes, losing ground in England, were looking to lands closer to home for conquest. In 1028 AD the alliance of the King of Denmark, Cnut the Great, with rebellious jarls (nobles) in Norway forced Olaf and his sons into exile. Not until 1030 did he return, making a last effort to reclaim his throne. The effort came to war, and at the Battle of Stiklestad in 1030, Olaf was killed. Harald, only a boy of barely fifteen, fought alongside his father in the battle too and was badly wounded.

The land of Sicily, where Harald distinguished himself
Photograph by the author.
Harald barely escaped with his life, and with the scattered warriors still loyal to him, he fled to the land of the Kievan Rus (what would later come to be called Russia). Harald and his retinue served the Grand Prince in his wars against Poland as hired mercenaries for several years, before their wanderings took them South, to Constantinople and the Eastern Roman Empire. The Emperor, mistrusting his own Greek bodyguards, who had felled many a ruler before him when they felt their pay was inadequate, formed a new guard composed of exiled northeners from the Viking and Saxon realms. This would later become the feared élite corps of the Roman army, the Varangian Guard. Harald and about five hundred survivors came before the Emperor Michael IV and the Empress Zoe and pledged their service. The Empress accepted immediately the pledge of so noble a man. His charisma, valour and ingenious stratagems soon won the admiration of the Varangians (and Roman chroniclers), and before long, Harald himself had risen in the Roman court to a command of the Guard. Again and again he proved his bravery, in campaigns as far away as Sicily, Italy and Bulgaria in the Emperor’s service. Soon Harald was a wealthy man, and could at last try to reclaim his righful place as King of a faraway land.

In 1042, Harald appealed to the Emperor for release from service. The Empress Zoe was angered, as she had hoped that Harald would have wed her, and tried to prevent his escape. But with the loyalty of the Varangians, Harald was not to be stopped. He stole away from Constantinople, sailed up the Bosphorus and travelled back to Scandinavia through the Eastern Kingdoms. He found Norway under the rule of his illegitimate brother, Magnus the Good. The two shared power, until in 1047, Magnus died and Harald was at last crowned King Harald III of Norway.
The next fifteen years passed with constant war with Denmark, until Harald at last gave up his claim on the Danish throne in 1062. But not long after, suddenly, a new opportunity presented itself. Arriving in Harald’s court, a man by the name of Tostig brought news of the death in England of King Edward the Confessor. Tostig revealed to Harald that he was brother to the new King Harold Godwinsson, and pledged his support and that of the majority of the chieftains of England should Harald seek the English throne. It transpired that Tostig had actually put the same offer to King Svein of Denmark, only days before, but was turned down. Harald, intially uneasy about the venture, soon gave in to Tostig’s persuasion, and agreed to once again open Norway’s claim on the throne of England.
The omens were bad. More than once did Harald have terrifying visions of impending doom, especially after the invasion was launched in the Fall of 1066. One soldier, onboard ship to the British Isles, had a vision of a troll (a fell creature and harbinger of evil news to the Northmen) who chanted:
“Norway’s warrior sea-king
Has been enticed westward
To fill England’s graveyards;
It’s all to my advantage.
Birds of carrion follow
To feast on valiant sea-men;
They know there will be plenty,
And I’ll be there to help them."
                                                - THE OMENS FORTELL HARALD'S DOOM

The portents were bad. Harald stopped in the Shetland and Orkney Islands, receiving reinforcements from both and from the Northern Scottish Isles. The fleet sailed down the East coast, and for now all went well. The Norwegians sacked Scarborough and accepted the surrender of many coastal towns. On the 20th of September 1066, Harald won a heroic victory over a large English army, under Earl Morcar and Earl Edwin, at Fulford. A sizeable portion of the elite English forces lay as food for the crows, and so badly mauled were the Earls’ forces, they were fatefully unable to come to the assistance of King Harold at Hastings three weeks later.

King Harold Godwinsson
Image taken from 'The Life of Edward
the Confessor'.
The King of Norway then marched on York with his forces, and those of Tostig, who had just joined him from Flanders. York offered its surrender, and the next day Harald chose two men of every three in his army to accompany him to formally accept the surrender. It was a hot day on the 25th of September 1066, and many of Harald’s men left their armour behind at the ships, carrying only their helmets, axes, shields and swords. Harald reached the River Derwent and the narrow bridge over it at midday, and was faced with a horrifying sight. King Harold himself had arrived with the English army, all equipped with splendid mail coats and glittering spears. Harald himself likened the sight to one of “a field of broken ice”. Harald however, was a brave man, seasoned by war. He gave the order for his flag, the Landwaster, to be unfurled.

But then, twenty horsemen rode up to the Norwegian lines. One of them spoke out, and demanded to know if Tostig was among them. Tostig shouted his reply that he was. The rider stated that King Harold was prepared to offer Tostig one third of his kingdom if the armies would withdraw. Tostig asked what the King of Norway would receive in return for his efforts. The rider uttered an immortal reply:
“King Harold has already declared how much of England he is prepared to grant him: seven feet of ground, or as much more as he is taller than other men.”

                                           - KING HAROLD GODWINSSON THREATENS THE KING OF NORWAY
The death of King Harald
Painting by Peter Nicolai Arbo.
The rider turned and galloped back to the English lines. Harald turned to Tostig and asked who this well spoken man was. “That was King Harold Godwinsson” replied Tostig, to Harald’s amazement. “What a little man that was; but he stood proudly in his stirrups”, was Harald’s reply. Battle was joined. Many fell on both sides. Indeed, on Stamford Bridge itself, one Norwegian warrior personally slew forty Englishmen. A giant of a man, given over to bloodlust, he single handedly held the bridge against England (echoing the valour of Horatius Cocles, the officer who played an outstanding role in the defence of Rome at the birth of the Republic – whose story can be found here). Not until an Englishman sailed beneath the bridge and thrust a spear through the woodwork and into the berserker’s gut were the Norwegians pushed back. The English feigned withdrawal, and in an ominous foreboding of what would transpire at Hastings three weeks later, pounced upon the pursuing Norwegians who broke the shield wall. Harald was killed by an arrow to the throat, yet still the Norwegians fought on. Norwegian reinforcements arrived from the coast, and hurled themselves to war, preferring to die with their brave King than retreat in disgrace. Yet slowly and surely, the Vikings were hewn down. So terrible were their casualties, that of the three hundred ships which bore them to England, only twenty four were needed to bear the survivors. Just three days later, a desperate messenger arrived and leaped off his horse at King Harold’s feet, frantically shouting that Duke William of Normandy had just landed at Pevensey...
The tale of Harald Hardrada is legendary in Norway, and well recorded in epic poetry and more conventional chronicles. The poem is surprisingly readable and gripping, and is available very easily and cheaply from Amazon:
United Kingdom
Penguin Classics:
King Harald's Saga: Harald Hardradi of Norway from Snorri Sturluson's Heimskringla (Classics)
(Quite short and at a very low price, poetic and epic! My recommendation.)

The Echo Library:
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle
(More lofty in tone, containing a large history of Saxon England, including the Battle of Stamford Bridge)

United States

Penguin Classics:
King Harald's Saga: Harald Hardradi of Norway: From Snorri Sturluson's Heimskringla (Penguin Classics)
(Quite short and at a very low price, poetic and epic! My recommendation.)

The Echo Library:
The Anglo Saxon Chronicle: A History of England From Roman Times to the Norman Conquest
(More lofty in tone, containing a large history of Saxon England, including the Battle of Stamford Bridge)

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