Harald Hardrada: The last Viking

Harald Hardrada window in Kirkwall Cathedral | Colin Smith / Harald Hardrada / CC BY-SA 2.0

The year 1066 is synonymous with the Norman Conquest and the violent end of Anglo-Saxon rule in England. But what’s been largely forgotten is that, just weeks before the Battle of Hastings, there was another, entirely separate, attack on England. The would-be invaders were Viking warriors headed up by Norway’s King Harald Hardrada, who would be slain at the Battle of Stamford Bridge on 25 September. His death is now regarded as marking the end of the Viking Age – but just who was this remarkable figure whose failed invasion of England has been overshadowed ever since by the exploits of William the Conqueror?

‘Who knows how highly I’ll be heralded one day.’

Hardrada – whose name can translate as ‘Hard Ruler’, ‘Tyrannical’ or simply ‘Resolute’, depending on how you want to think of him – was involved in bloody power struggles from an early age. While still a teenager, Harald joined forces with his half-brother, Olaf II of Norway, who had been toppled and exiled by Cnut the Great of Denmark. The half-siblings fought to regain the throne for Olaf at the Battle of Stiklestad in 1030, where Olaf himself was killed. Harald was injured but managed to go on the run, feeling rather sorry for himself. ‘From copse to copse I crawl and creep now, worthless,’ he wrote. ‘Who knows how highly I’ll be heralded one day.’

It was the start of a new life as a wandering adventurer and warrior. He wound up in the Byzantine capital of Constantinople, which was the Rome, Paris, London or New York of its time: a sprawling, bustling, cosmopolitan metropolis of wealth and intrigue. Here, Harald joined the Varangian Guard – an elite class of largely Norse fighters who protected the Byzantine. ‘They attacked with reckless rage and neither cared about losing blood nor their wounds,” a contemporary source tells us.

Harald distinguished himself in the Varangian Guard, seeing action against pirates on the Mediterranean, and perhaps battling Arab forces as far east as Mesopotamia (the region which encompasses the likes of Iraq and Syria). Frank McLynn, author of 1066: The Year of the Three Battles, sums up Harald’s colourful reputation, describing him as ‘forceful, self-willed, determined, courageous, far-sighted, [he had] a talent for war, was attractive to women but was also a ferocious disciplinarian, wildly ambitious and coldly ruthless, greedy and avaricious, with a lust for loot that became legendary.’

His numerous military skirmishes made him incredibly rich with the spoils of war, but Harald also fell out of favour with the aristocracy and was imprisoned for a period. Eventually released, he was part of a bloody revolt which – according to legend – culminated with Harald blinding the Byzantine Emperor Michael V. Harald was by this point supremely powerful and influential thanks to his aggressive reputation and sheer wealth. But his fate lay back home in his native Scandinavia, where Magnus – the son of his slain half-brother Olaf II – had been crowned King of Norway and Denmark. This may have been one of the reasons Harald began the journey homewards in 1045.

Although Harald originally launched an offensive against Magnus’ forces (in collaboration with Sweyn II of Denmark who had his own beef with Magnus), a compromise was made, with Magnus agreeing to let his uncle become joint ruler of the country. It was an uneasy co-kingship which ended when Magnus died the following year, making Harald the one and only ruler of Norway. However, it would be his ambitions for England that would have such massive consequences for European history, and Harald himself.

His claim on the English throne had a complex origin. Years previously, the previous Norse King of Denmark and England, Harthacnut (son of King Canute), had promised Magnus his kingdoms after his death. Although it had been Edward the Confessor, not Magnus, who’d actually taken over as King of England, Harald believed Harthacnut’s promise still stood. That meant he – as Magnus’ successor – should be next in line after Edward.

When asked what he would offer Hardrada, King Harold allegedly replied: ‘Seven feet of English ground, as he is taller than other men.

When Edward died in early 1066, the nobleman Harold Godwinson took the fiercely contested crown. Encouraged by Harold’s estranged brother Tostig Godwinson, Harald Hardrada mounted an audacious invasion of England, with thousands of troops deployed on hundreds of Viking longships. At first, Harald and Tostig’s forces enjoyed victories against the English earls they encountered. But this only succeeded in rousing the righteous rage of King Harold, who until then had been more concerned about the imminent invasion of the other major claimant to the throne: William, Duke of Normandy.

Harold rallied his forces and charged up the country to take the Norse invaders by surprise in a decisive confrontation that would be remembered as the Battle of Stamford Bridge. It’s said that, just before fighting commenced, a conciliatory King Harold offered Tostig his earldom back to lay down his arms. But, when asked what he would offer Hardrada, King Harold allegedly replied: ‘Seven feet of English ground, as he is taller than other men.’

The battle was a catastrophe for the Vikings. Tostig was killed, as was Harald Hardrada, who according to legend fought with the fury of a berserker. The surviving Norsemen were allowed safe passage home, on far fewer longships than had arrived on England’s shores. Harald’s defeat heralded the end of an era in world history – never again would the Vikings be a threat to British shores. Even more importantly, Harald’s invasion indirectly helped William the Conqueror. If King Harold’s forces hadn’t been so fatigued by the desperate dash northwards and the battle against the Vikings, they may well have been able to defeat William at the Battle of Hastings weeks later. This is why Harald Hardrada deserves to be remembered as more than just a formidable warlord and the last great Viking. His failed designs on England may well have altered the course of our history, and the history of Europe.