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’. 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.’ 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.’ 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.’
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. 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 he might 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, 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.
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. 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.
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, the Advice 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 of spatharokandates (‘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.
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. 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. 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.
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.
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.
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.