The Battle of Largs


Detail from William Hole’s mural of the Battle of Largs, in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery.



Reconstructed chieftain’s longhouse at Borg in the Lofoten Islands, Norway. Housing both people and livestock under one roof, the longhouse was the typical Viking Age dwelling.


It was the growing power of the kings of Scotland that finally brought Norse influence in Man and the Hebrides to an end. Around 1200, the Scots seized the island of Bute and signaled their intention to become a power in the Isles by building a state-of-the-art castle at Rothesay. The Scots king Alexander II (r. 1214 – 49) entered into negotiations with Håkon IV (r. 1217 – 63) to buy the Hebrides from Norway. The negotiations came to nothing. Håkon had restored political stability to Norway after years of civil wars and had adopted his own expansionist policy, which aimed at uniting all the Norse Atlantic colonies under his rule: giving up part of his kingdom was not part of his plan. Frustrated, in 1249 Alexander decided to seize the Hebrides by force, but his campaign was abandoned after he fell ill and died on the island of Kerrara, off Oban. Alexander’s son Alexander III (r. 1249 – 86) made a second offer to purchase the islands in 1260 but when this was rebuffed he sent the earl of Ross to invade Skye. Another Scottish force seized the island of Arran. Lurid accounts of Scots atrocities and the political chaos in the isles convinced Håkon that he needed to intervene personally to restore royal authority in the area. Apparently, at the height of his power – Greenland and Iceland had just submitted to Norwegian rule – Håkon set sail for the Hebrides in July 1263 with what was claimed to be the most powerful fleet ever gathered in Norway. King Magnus Olafsson of Man and Dugald MacRory, whose lands had been ravaged by the Scots, both greeted Håkon warmly when he landed on the Isle of Skye. Other chiefs and petty kings, opposed equally to both Norwegian and Scottish domination, were less enthusiastic and only submitted after Håkon’s forces wasted their lands. By late summer Håkon had thoroughly cowed the Hebrides and he moved his fleet to Lamlash Bay on Arran in the Clyde estuary, where it was well-placed to strike into the heartland of the Scottish kingdom. Alexander III sent a party of Dominican friars to negotiate with Håkon, but this was just a delaying tactic. The Scots deliberately drew out the negotiations, making offers that they knew would be unacceptable, waiting for the onset of autumn to force Håkon’s withdrawal. Some bored members of the Norwegian army carved their names in runes on the wall of a local cave to entertain themselves while they waited. When Håkon became impatient of making any progress he sent sixty ships to sail up Loch Long to Arrochar. From there, their crews dragged the ships across a narrow isthmus into Loch Lomond, whose shores they plundered for weeks. The rest of Håkon’s fleet anchored off the Cumbrae Islands, close to the Ayrshire coast.

At the end of September the weather turned bad. Ten ships returning from the raid on Loch Lomond were wrecked in a storm and on the night of 30 September/1 October a supply ship and a longship were driven ashore on the Scottish mainland at Largs, now a small seaside resort town. When day broke, the Scots tried to seize the beached ships but their crews fought them off until the main Norwegian fleet arrived and chased them away. The next morning King Håkon came on shore to supervise the recovery of the ships. While this was proceeding a large Scots force arrived and fierce fighting broke out as it tried to surround an isolated Norwegian scouting party on a hill overlooking the shore. The outnumbered Norwegians began to run back towards the ships in disarray, suffering many casualties, but they somehow managed to regroup and counter-attack. The Scots fell back under the unexpected assault, gifting the Norwegians enough time to reach their ships and escape. The Norwegians waited at anchor overnight and in the morning recovered their dead and sailed for home. The Battle of Largs had been in reality little more than a skirmish but, with the benefit of hindsight, it came to be seen as a decisive Norwegian defeat.

As he sailed north back through the Hebrides Håkon must have felt that his great expedition had been in vain. King Alexander’s delaying tactics had worked perfectly, he had reached no diplomatic agreement that would prevent the Scots interfering in the Isles and he had been forced to withdraw without even fighting a proper battle. He must have been painfully aware, too, that his authority over the chiefs and petty kings of the Isles would last no longer than it took him to sail home to Norway. Shortly after he arrived in Orkney in early November, Håkon was taken ill and, sending most of his fleet home, he took up residence for the winter in the bishop’s palace at Kirkwall. Håkon’s condition steadily deteriorated and he was soon bed-ridden. As the king lay dying, he gathered the shades of his Viking ancestors around him. He could not sleep, so to help the long winter nights pass more easily, Håkon asked his attendants to read him all the sagas of the kings of Norway beginning with the legendary Halfdan the Black, the father of Harald Fairhair. Shortly after he had finished listening to the saga of his grandfather King Sverre, Håkon lost the power of speech and three days later, in the early hours of the morning on 16 December, he died aged fifty-nine: he was the last Norwegian king to lead a hostile fleet into British waters.

Within a few months of Håkon’s death, Alexander led a fleet to the Isle of Man and forced King Magnus Olafsson to become his feudal vassal. When Magnus died in November 1265, leaving only an illegitimate son called Godred, the rule of Norse kings over Man came to an end. Alexander also sent fleets to plunder and burn their way through the Hebrides. Håkon’s successor, his son Magnus VI (r. 1263 – 80), concluded, rightly, that trying to maintain sovereignty over Man and the Isles would cost far more than they were worth. By the Treaty of Perth in 1266 Magnus gave up all claims to the Kingdom of Man and the Isles in return for a payment of 4,000 marks (approximately 20,000 pounds of silver), an annuity of 100 marks, and a Scottish recognition of Norwegian sovereignty over Orkney and Shetland. It is thought that Norse language in the kingdom died out soon after the Scottish takeover.

It proved to be just as hard for the kings of Scotland to control the Isles as it had been for the kings of Norway. The Scots easily crushed a Manx rebellion under Godred Magnusson in 1275, but in 1290 the Isle of Man was occupied by the English. Thereafter the island changed hands several times before passing permanently to the English crown in 1399. The Gaelic chieftains of the Hebrides defied pacification and in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries the area was effectively autonomous under the MacDonald Lords of the Isles, who ruled from Finlaggan Castle on Islay. The lords maintained their authority with fleets of galleys called birlinns, direct descendants of the Vikings’ longships from which they differed only in having a stern-post rudder in place of a side rudder. Even after the lordship collapsed in 1493, the Hebrides remained turbulent and they did not finally come under firm government control until after the crushing of the 1745 Jacobite rebellion. The Scots king James VI (r. 1567 – 1625) even considered genocide as a way to bring the islands under effective royal control.

The cession of the Kingdom of Man and the Isles to Scotland left Orkney and Shetland as the last Norse possessions in the British Isles. Although the islands were ruled by Scottish earls after 1236, their Norse character remained unaltered. In 1380 Norway and its Atlantic possessions came under the Danish crown through a dynastic union. The Danes took little interest in the islands until 1468 when King Christian I arranged the marriage of his daughter Margaret to the Scottish king James III. The cash-strapped Danish king could not afford to pay his daughter’s dowry and so offered the Orkney Islands to King James as surety for a loan of 50,000 Rhenish guilders. The following year Christian added Shetland to the bargain for an additional 8,000 guilders. It was Christian’s firm intention to redeem the islands as his agreement with King James included guarantees to preserve Norwegian law and customs, but the money was never paid so the arrangement became permanent. In 1471 King James abolished the earldom and annexed the islands as crown lands. The following year the bishopric of Orkney passed from the control of Nidaros to St Andrews. Gradually the islands became more Scottish in character. In 1611, Norwegian law was abolished and Norn, the local Norse dialect, finally died out in the eighteenth century, supplanted by English.

Viking Navigation



The Norse Greenland colony was medieval Europe’s most remote outpost. To reach it from the European continent seafarers needed to cross almost 2,000 miles of open ocean. At the time, only the Malays in the Indian Ocean and the Polynesians in the Pacific undertook longer oceanic voyages, but they did so in warmer and more predictable seas. In the Icelandic sagas, Viking seafarers seem to show an almost casual confidence in their ability to make long open sea voyages but in reality Viking navigation was not an exact art. Viking skippers recognised this and whenever they could they hugged the coast, keeping a safe distance offshore to avoid shoals and reefs, and navigating using landmarks on shore. At night, or if bad weather was setting in, they would seek a safe anchorage, rather than risk getting lost or running aground in darkness or poor visibility. Danes and Swedes, who sailed mostly in the North Sea and the Baltic, very rarely had to sail out of sight of land: Norwegians, setting out for Shetland, the Faeroes, Iceland or Greenland had no choice. When they had to make an open sea crossing, Viking navigators used a technique known as latitude sailing. Leaving his home port, the navigator would sail north or south along the coast to reach a point he knew to be on the same latitude as his intended destination. He would then wait until there was a favourable wind blowing in the right direction and head out onto the open sea and try to follow a heading due east or west to his destination.

In European waters, at least, Viking navigators were heirs to a vast body of seafaring lore and sailing directions that had been passed down orally from generation to generation for centuries. Navigation was a specialised occupation and the leiðsagnarmaðr (pilot) might be the only professional seaman on a ship. This did not mean he was the captain: the ship’s owner was always the captain irrespective of how competent a sailor he was. Successful navigators were experts at reading sea and weather conditions, interpreting the movements of wildlife, which could reveal the direction of land, and observing the positions and altitudes of the sun and stars to determine latitude accurately. However, in common with all navigators before the eighteenth century, Vikings had no means of determining their longitude. The best they could do was to estimate their position based on their speed and direction of travel. It is not known how Viking navigators estimated speed, as there is no evidence for use of the ship log before the fifteenth century, but the evidence of the sagas shows that they could do this with tolerable accuracy. In conditions of poor visibility even the most experienced navigators could suffer from hafvilla (‘confusion’), that is completely losing their bearings. This was most likely to happen when a ship was becalmed for a long period in fog, when it could drift imperceptibly far off its course on the ocean currents.

A navigator’s most reliable guide was the Pole Star, which, north of the Tropics, is always above the horizon and always points due north. The Pole Star is also a reliable indicator of latitude. As the still point around which the other stars rotate, the altitude of the Pole Star remains constant all night and, when viewed from any fixed location, remains the same all year round. From night to night a navigator could estimate the height of the Pole Star above the horizon: if it was higher than the previous night, the ship had sailed further north; if it was lower, the ship was further south. In summer in high latitudes the Pole Star could be invisible during the night long twilight. At such times navigators had to rely on the sun, which is due south at noon, for directions. The height of the sun at noon can also be used to determine latitude, though in this case higher means further south, lower means further north. Through observations like these, Norse navigators knew that Cape Farewell in Greenland (59º 46′ N) was almost at the same latitude as Bergen, the main port in western Norway (60º 4′ N). Sailing directions in one copy of Landnámabók advised navigators heading to Greenland to sail a slightly more northerly course, approximately 61º, in order to avoid the Shetland Islands, which share the same latitude as Bergen. A ship from Bergen should first sail north along the coast to Hernar (60º 36′ N), then: ‘sail west but keep far enough north of the Shetlands so that these islands are barely visible in clear weather. One should stay far enough south of the Faeroes so that their steep and high mountains are just halfway up over the horizon. In addition, one should stay far enough south of Iceland so that you can’t see land but just the coast-bound birds. When you reach the east coast of Greenland you should keep a lookout for landmarks and follow the current west around Cape Farewell to the villages on the south-west point.’

The sailing directions do not rely on latitude sailing alone: the navigator is expected to know important landmarks and understand the movements of seabirds. These could provide important clues about the direction of land. During the breeding season (April-August), which was much the same as the Vikings’ sailing season, seabirds feed at sea but return regularly to land to feed their young and to roost at night. Different birds range further to feed than others. Kittiwakes may travel over 100 miles from land to feed, while smaller seabirds such as puffins and guillemots rarely travel more than 6 miles. Observing the flight of seabirds in the morning and evening gives reliable indications of the direction of land. In poor visibility, the presence of puffins and guillemots would also give early warning that land was very close. Some navigators took caged birds with them. When Floki Vilgerdarson set out for Iceland he took three ravens with him. When he released the first, it flew away in the direction of the Faeroe Islands, their last port of call. When he released the second, it circled round for a while before returning to the ship. When he released the third, it flew away straight ahead and by following in that direction Floki found land.

There were many other environmental clues for the navigator who knew how to read them. Whales have regular migration routes and feeding grounds. For instance, there is one south of Iceland, roughly halfway between the Faeroe Islands and Greenland. A build-up of cloud on the horizon may indicate the presence of land. If the sea suddenly slackens in a storm it may be a sign that the ship has sailed into the lee of an island hidden by rain, fog or darkness. The colour and clarity of the sea can provide further clues about a ship’s position. Rivers wash silt into the sea, sometimes clouding it for miles offshore. A seafarer sailing to Greenland would expect to see ice floes when he approached its coast.

Navigation aids

Viking navigators were under no illusions about the dangers of seafaring and it is likely that for many the most important navigation aid was a Thor’s hammer amulet, the thunder god Thor being a protector of travellers and seafarers. Compasses or lodestones were unknown to the Vikings but they may have used other simple navigation aids. One of these was the sounding line, which the Vikings are thought to have adopted from the English late in the Viking Age. This was simply a rope with a weight tied on to one end that was lowered from the ship into the sea to measure its depth. It was especially useful in the shallow shoally waters of the Baltic or southern North Sea. English navigators liked to keep about 10 fathoms (60 feet/18.3 m) of water under their keels when coasting.

Vikings may have used two other navigation aids, the so-called sun stone, and a sun compass. The sun stone is mentioned in a small number of saga sources and is supposed to have been a crystal that was used to locate the position of the sun on overcast days. The Story of Rauð and his Sons describes the use of the sun stone on land:

‘The weather was thick and snowy as Sigurd had predicted. Then King Olaf summoned Sigurd and Dagur to him. The king made people look out and nowhere could they see a clear sky. Then he asked Sigurd to tell where the sun was at that time. He gave a clear assertion. Then the king made them bring the sun stone and held it up and saw where light radiated from the stone and thus directly verified Sigurd’ s prediction.’ (trans J. E. Turville-Petre, Viking Society for Northern Research 1947.)

The sun stone is thought to have been the transparent crystalline form of calcium carbonate known as Iceland Spar, which is known for its polarising qualities. However, modern experiments indicate that the polarising effect is not strong enough to locate the sun’s position under a heavy overcast and works only under a clear sky or light overcast when the sun’s position can be seen with the naked eye anyway. No sun stone has ever been found in a Viking context but one has been recovered from an Elizabethan shipwreck off the Channel Island of Alderney, though this does not prove that it was being used for navigation.

The existence of the sun compass rests on even more slender evidence than the sun stone. In 1948, excavations of a Norse monastery at Narsarsuaq on Uunartoq Fjord in Greenland uncovered half of a small wooden disc, around 2¾ inches in diameter (7 cm) with a hole in the centre and equidistant notches cut around the edges. When complete, there were probably thirty-two notches. The surface of the disc is incised with lines, some of which are parabolic. It is these parabolic lines that have led to the disc being interpreted as part of a sun compass. If the disc had at its centre a gnomon, then these parabolic lines might represent the course of the sun’s shadow through the day. These devices are easy to make and would have been a useful aid to latitude sailing. If the course of the sun’s shadow was plotted onto the disc at the port of departure, a ship’s latitude relative to the starting place could easily be determined by measuring the length of the sun’s shadow daily at noon. If the shadow falls short of the line, the shorter shadow shows that the sun is higher in the sky, meaning that the ship has sailed south relative to its starting point. If the shadow crosses the line, the longer shadow shows that the sun is lower in the sky, meaning that the ship has sailed north relative to its starting point. Because the altitude of the sun varies with the time of year as well as with latitude, the device would have been absolutely accurate only on the day it was made and it would have become increasingly unreliable the longer a voyage was, limiting its usefulness. Another limitation is that the compass has to be held absolutely level while a reading is being taken – no easy thing in a small ship on a choppy sea. Floating the compass in a bucket of water might have solved this problem, but only if some way could be found to stop it spinning. The disc may simply have been part of a child’s toy or was perhaps a ‘confession disc’, similar to those used by Icelandic priests to count the number of people taking confession. In any case, the monastery at Narsarsuaq was built after the end of the Viking Age, so even if the disc was part of a sun compass, it is not evidence that they were used by Vikings.

It is possible that by the end of the Viking Age, navigators had access to written tables of astronomical observations. An Icelander called Oddi Helgasson (c. 1070/80–c. 1140/50), whose knowledge of astronomy earned him the nickname Star Oddi, compiled a chart showing the direction of sunrise and sunset through the year from different harbours in Iceland, which enabled navigators to take directions. It is very likely that such knowledge was also transmitted orally, from one generation of navigators to the next.

The great raid of Hastein and Björn Ironsides




The greatest of all Viking expeditions to Spain was led by two of the most famous of all Viking leaders, Björn Ironsides and Hastein. Björn was later believed to be one of the many sons of the legendary Ragnar Lodbrok. When he was a child, Björn’s mother was supposed to have given him a magical invulnerability to wounds for which he earned the nickname ‘Ironsides’. Hastein was the wily Viking chieftain who later proved to be such a thorn in the side of Alfred the Great. Björn and Hastein left their base on the Loire in 859 with a fleet of sixty-two ships to raid along the coast of Galicia and Asturias. Finding local resistance too strong, the Vikings moved on to pillage the emirate’s west coast. Here they evidently enjoyed greater success. The emirate’s coastguards captured two longships scouting ahead of the main fleet and found that they were already full of treasure, provisions and captives. The fleet suffered another defeat when it landed at Niebla near Huelva in south-west Spain. The fleet next put into the mouth of the Guadalquivir, perhaps with the intention of sacking Seville for a second time, but it was confronted by the new Moorish fleet. The Vikings had no answer to its incendiary weapons and they fled after several longships were burned. The Viking way was always to move on if resistance proved too strong in one place, knowing that they would eventually catch somewhere off-guard. Finally, at Algeciras, a few miles from Gibraltar, they achieved complete surprise, taking and sacking the town and burning its main mosque.

Björn and Hastein took their fleet through the Straits of Gibraltar into the Mediterranean. Though Vikings had never plundered in the Mediterranean before, the sea was no stranger to piracy, and Italy and Francia suffered frequent raids by Arab and Moorish pirates based in North Africa. The Vikings landed first on the African coast, at Nakur in the vicinity of modern Melilla. Local forces put up only a little resistance before fleeing and the Vikings plundered freely for a week, capturing the harem of a local ruler, which was later ransomed by the emir of Córdoba. The Vikings also captured some black Africans, who they described as blámenn (‘blue men’), who had probably been brought to North Africa by Arab slave traders. The Vikings found them so exotic that they kept some of them. They were eventually sold again as slaves and finished up in Ireland. From Melilla, Björn and Hastein returned to Spain, plundering the coast of Murcia and then the Balearic Islands. Returning to the mainland, the Vikings continued north along the Mediterranean coast, sacking Narbonne and then setting up a winter camp on an island in the Camargue, a marshy delta of the River Rhône. In the spring, Björn and Hastein sailed over 100 miles up the Rhône, sacking Nîmes, Arles and Valence. After the Franks defeated them in a battle, the pair judged it wise to head back to the open sea and sailed east along the Côte d’Azur to Italy.

Hastein’s mistake

According to a colourful but surely legendary account by the Norman monk Dudo of St Quentin, Björn and Hastein landed at the Ligurian port of Luni and mistook it for Rome. Luni had enjoyed modest prosperity in the Roman period as a port for exporting the pure white Cararra marble from the nearby Alpi Apuane, but by the ninth century it was little more than a village and the scant ruins that remain today make it hard to imagine that anyone could ever have mistaken it for Rome. But why spoil a good story? The glory-hungry Vikings were determined to capture the most famous of all cities. Judging the city’s defences to be too strong to storm, Hastein came up with a plan to gain entry by a ruse. Viking emissaries approached the townspeople, telling them that they were exiles seeking provisions and shelter for their sick chieftain. On a return visit the emissaries told the townspeople that their chieftain had died and asked permission to enter the city to give him a Christian burial. The unsuspecting townspeople agreed and a solemn procession of Vikings followed their chief’s coffin to the grave at which point Hastein, still very much alive and fully armed, leapt out of the coffin and slew the city’s bishop. In the resulting confusion, the Vikings sacked the city. When he was told that he had been misinformed, and that he had not after all, sacked Rome, Hastein felt so disappointed that he ordered the massacre of Luni’s entire male population. This story was repeated by many later Norman writers and the same ruse was attributed to later Norman leaders such as Robert Guiscard, Bohemund of Taranto and Roger I of Sicily. It is evidence that medieval warriors admired cunning as much as bravery and skill at arms. The Vikings moved another 60 miles down the Tuscan coast to the mouth of the Arno, sacking Pisa and then, following the river upstream, also the hill-town of Fiesole above Florence. After this the Viking fleet disappears for a year. Björn and Hastein must have wintered somewhere and it may be that they sailed into the eastern Mediterranean to raid the Byzantine Empire. Late Arabic and Spanish sources claim that Vikings raided Greece and Alexandria. If they did it was probably Björn’s and Hastein’s fleet.

The fleet reappears in 861 when it passed through the Straits of Gibraltar again, this time homeward bound. The straits are only 9 miles wide so the chances of the Vikings slipping through unobserved were slim and the Moorish fleet was ready and waiting for them. Of Björn’s and Hastein’s remaining sixty ships, only twenty escaped the ambush the Moors had prepared for them. Björn and Hastein may have been unaware that a strong surface current flows constantly through the straits from the Atlantic into the Mediterranean Sea. During the Second World War, sixty-two German U-boats entered the Mediterranean undetected by riding this underwater current with their engines turned off. Not one was ever able to get out again against the current. Björn and Hastein may have had the same problem, their slow progress against it giving the Moors plenty of time to intercept them.

Undaunted by this disaster Björn and Hastein continued raiding as they sailed homewards. Just before they left Spanish waters, they raided the small Christian kingdom of Navarre and sacked Pamplona. In a spectacular coup they captured its King Garcia I, and ransomed him for the incredible sum of 70,000 gold dinars (approximately 679 pounds /308 kg of gold). The survivors of the expedition returned to the Loire in 862 very rich men. After the expedition, Björn and Hastein split up. Björn headed back to Denmark, perhaps intending to use his wealth and reputation to launch a bid for the throne. He never made it and died in Frisia after losing everything in a shipwreck. Hastein stayed on the Loire: he still had a long and profitable career ahead of him.

The daring nature of Björn’s and Hastein’s expedition secured their reputations as legendary commanders but the cost had been very high: less than a third of those who had set out three years earlier had made it back. This must have given other Vikings pause for thought for, though they continued to raid the Iberian Peninsula until the early eleventh century, there was no return to the Mediterranean. The Straits of Gibraltar had proved to be a dangerous and unavoidable bottleneck for any fleet trying to get into or out of the Mediterranean and in the future the Vikings kept well clear. The Moors defeated major raids in 889, 912 – 13, 966 and 971. The raiders in 889 got as far as Seville before they were defeated, once again, on the fields of Tablada. The survivors of the raid settled in the surrounding countryside and many subsequently converted to Islam. This was the only known Viking settlement in Iberia. During the course of their expeditions to Iberia, Vikings may have accidentally discovered the Atlantic island of Madeira. The evidence for this comes from an unusual source, the DNA of Madeiran house mice, which indicates that they were introduced to the then uninhabited island from Northern Europe, probably as stowaways, some time between around 900 – 1050.

An embassy to the king of the Majus

There probably were also more peaceful contacts between the Vikings and the Moors. There was strong demand in the Emirate of Córdoba and in the Moorish states in North Africa for Frankish, Slavic, English and Irish slaves, and many of these would have been supplied either directly or indirectly through middlemen by Viking slave traders. Many of the younger male captives were destined to be castrated: al-Andalus was famous as the main supplier of eunuchs to the Islamic world. In 845, after the Viking attack on Seville, the emir Abd al-Rahman sent an embassy led by al-Ghazal to visit the king of the Majus with gifts for him and his queen. Al-Ghazal described the land of the Majus as an island, three days journey from the mainland. There were other islands in the vicinity, which the king ruled too. Before his audience, al-Ghazal insisted that he should not be asked to kneel before the king. This was agreed, but when he arrived at the king’s hall he found that the entrance had been lowered so that he would be forced to enter on his knees. The perfect diplomat, al-Ghazal resolved the difficulty by lying on his back and pushing himself in, feet first. This would very likely have impressed rather than irritated his hosts, who would have recognised something of themselves in his determination not to be humiliated. The king’s wife Noud took a fancy to al-Ghazal and seduced him, assuring him that the Majus did not suffer from sexual jealousy and that women were free to leave their husbands at will. Al-Ghazal was correct that Scandinavian women had the right to divorce, but as for the absence of sexual jealousy, this was wishful thinking. A wife’s adultery was usually taken very seriously by her husband and in some parts of Scandinavia he had the right to kill both her and her lover if they were caught together: he may actually have mistaken a favoured concubine for a queen. It is not known which king al-Ghazal visited. If he had mistaken the Jutland peninsula for an island he may have visited the Danish king Horik. Alternatively, he may have visited a Viking warlord in Ireland, possibly Turgeis, whose wife was called Auðr, which is not too different to Noud. The purpose of al-Ghazal’s embassy is not stated either but it was almost certainly to do with trade – slaves if he had gone to Ireland, furs from the northern forests if he had gone to Denmark.

Ultimately the Vikings had no great impact on the Iberian Peninsula. Their raids were bloody and destructive but both the Christians and the Moors were able to contain them. As a result, the Vikings did not act as a catalyst for change by upsetting the local balance of power as they did in so many other places that they raided. Writing in the 1150s, the Andalusian geographer al-Zuhri summarised the Vikings as: ‘fierce, brave and strong, and excellent seamen. When they attacked, the coastal peoples fled for fear of them. They only appeared every six or seven years, never in less than forty ships and sometimes up to one hundred. They overcame anyone they met at sea, robbed them and took them captive’. So, just another bunch of barbarians.

The Carolingian and Ottonian Forification

Vikings – To Paris!

In general, there is little evidence of change or advances in fortification in northern and central Europe during the period between the collapse of the Roman Empire and the ninth century. The infrastructure of the Roman world did not exist and many of the Roman city walls fell into disrepair. In places walls were deliberately demolished, either for a ready supply of dressed stone or to make way for new structures. Settlements often moved to sites near the former Roman towns but outside the walls, as in the cases of York and London. Nevertheless, many of these returned to the former Roman sites in the ninth and tenth centuries, and in some places the Roman walls were still defensible. In 946 they proved too much for the combined armies of King Louis IV and King Otto I, who abandoned their siege of Senlis (defended by the troops of Hugh Capet, later the first Capetian king of France) after deciding that an assault would be too costly. In 985 King Lothar (of France) had to use an arsenal of machines and a siege tower to overcome the third-century walls of Verdun. In the previous century the same walls had saved the city from sack by the Vikings.

During the Viking Era fortification became much more widespread and previously undefended trading emporia were given defenses. An obvious explanation for this might be the advent of large-scale raiding by the Vikings and later the Magyars. Italy was also part of the Frankish world after 774 and suffered heavily from Saracen raids and later invasion. Undoubtedly this was a contributory factor, but there is evidence of a change in attitude in the Frankish Empire before the ninth century. The Carolingians made a conscious effort to imitate Rome, and this included Roman architectural styles, and their conquests brought them into close contact with Byzantine fortifications in Italy, themselves descended from the Roman model.

The Franks needed new forts to secure their hold on conquered territories. In areas formerly controlled by the Romans, such as southern Germany, earlier fortifications were certainly reused and repaired, but the defenses of these sites have often been difficult to date, if they have been researched at all. Former Roman villae were also used both by the Agilolfing dux Tassilo (r. 747–788) and by his Frankish successors in Bavaria. Until very recently it was wrongly assumed that Frankish and Slavic fortifications could be differentiated on the basis of style, the assumption being that the Franks built more advanced defenses from stone. Many of the early fortifications on the eastern frontier with the Slavs were of similar type to their enemies’. The construction of what became a deep belt of fortresses began in the Carolingian period and continued under the Ottonians. In Germany during the tenth century a huge building programme was begun under the Saxon dynasty. This may have been initiated by Henry I’s Burgenordnung of c. 925, although it has proved very difficult to link any known fortifications with it. The style of fortification on the eastern frontier varied. One object was certainly defense of rural settlements against raiders, particularly the Magyars, but also the Slavs. In the reign of Otto II similar defenses were organized on the comparatively short Danish frontier.

The Viking threat posed an altogether different problem than frontier raids by the Slavs, not least because the Vikings were capable of penetrating well inland up navigable rivers. An interesting solution to this problem was attempted by Charles the Bald. Carroll Gillmor suggests that the idea may have struck him when he built a bridge across the Marne to block the retreat of some raiders. When he held an assembly at Pitres in 864 he ordered the building of fortifications on the Seine to prevent the Northmen from passing further upriver. The idea was a bridge with powerful fortifications of wood and stone at each end. The site was Pont-de-l’Arche. Excavation has revealed a square enclosure with 270 meter-long sides on the north bank. Originally there was a clay rampart, but this was cut away to place a line of 4.5-meter tree trunks, which were then faced with stone on the outer side. Unfortunately there is no way of knowing the height of the work, as it was leveled in the later Middle Ages. The earth and timber rampart with stone facing was no more advanced than many fortifications had been in the Iron Age, but a more serious problem may have been that it was built very slowly and not properly garrisoned, despite the king’s demands. Another work was built at Les Ponts-de-Cé on the Loire, but that seems to have been ineffective as well. Elsewhere Charles did contribute to the defense of the realm. In his reign and those of his successors Carloman and Charles the Fat, many old walls of towns were repaired and new fortifications built round monasteries, including St. Bertin, which subsequently saw off a Viking attack in 891. However, it was not only the king who began to build forts, although this was supposed to be a royal prerogative. Although Charles had ordered the destruction of private fortifications at Pitres, he was unable to prevent unauthorized construction and a dangerous trend (from the royal point of view) had begun.

Similar measures against Viking attacks were taken on the Rhine and Meuse in East Francia after Danish attacks in 863, 880–881 and 884–885. Town defenses were strengthened, the royal palace at Nijmegen was given ramparts, and a castle was built by Duke Henry at Duisburg. In Flanders, more or less an independent polity at this time, Bruges and Ghent were fortified by Count Baldwin. Most interesting in this region, however, are five ninth-century circular earthworks with palisades on the islands off the coast of Zealand–Flanders. They had two roads across the site, meeting at the middle, and varied from 144 to 265 meters in diameter. Since no occupation layer was found, they were probably refuges. Only Middelburg on Walcheren survived this period to become a settlement. In the central Netherlands another unusual fortification was the Hunnenschans, a late Carolingian meter-high horseshoe-shaped earthwork with a palisade, enclosing an area 100 meters in diameter. In 2007 a further earthwork was discovered at Appel, just to the west, while to the south is another, Duno, with a roughly semicircular series of banks and ditches. Both appear to have been tenth century. There are uncertainties about the excavation and recording of data at Duno and Hunnenschans, but Appel at least seems to have had links to the counts of Hamaland and bog-iron production.

Fortifications also proliferated in the tenth century throughout the kingdom of Germany, and not only in the Slavic frontier zone, where there were hundreds of them. Many continued to resemble earlier Saxon, Frankish and Slav fortifications, while some were simple palisaded enclosures. Fortifications built by nobles often followed a similar pattern to royal ones, if on a smaller scale. There can be no doubt that there was a strategy of “defense in depth” on the eastern frontier. The East Frankish and German rulers were well aware that individual fortifications had a limited capacity to hinder the movement of enemy forces, just as they knew that it was difficult to stop enemy forces from “crossing the frontier.” Periods of intense construction of fortifications on the frontier appear to coincide with preparation for or consolidation of advances into Slavic territory, especially by the Ottonian kings, or anticipated trouble from the east.4 However, it has to be borne in mind that there were other reasons for fortification building. The kings of the Saxon Ottonian dynasty were keenly aware of the need to project their image and power as kings and emperors, and one way of doing this was to build imposing structures. Other powerful landowners also built fortifications for the same reasons; even if they were not able to compete with the German kings, they could still imitate them and compete with each other.

Many German scholars trace the origins of the “classic” medieval fortress types to the eleventh century, although the disappearance of many earlier fortifications has distorted the picture somewhat. The larger fortresses in Germany, often known as hohenburgen, had inner and one or more outer enclosures, not dissimilar in principle to many earlier German and Slavic fortifications. Whenever possible they were constructed on higher ground. However, a new development was the appearance of the Bergfried, a free-standing tower, either on the most vulnerable side of the main enclosure as an additional defense, or in the center of the enclosure and unattached to it. Usually the Bergfried was tall and slender and lacked windows; it was not designed for permanent habitation, but as a last resort if the main or outer defenses were overrun. Increasingly these fortifications were built or rebuilt of stone. According to Adam of Bremen, the archbishop of Hamburg planned to encompass the entire town of Hamburg with stone walls, but he died having built only a fortified stone structure with towers and battlements. This was certainly a response to the threat from the Slavs, which had increased after the revolt of 983. In 1008 Henry II also fortified Bamberg with walls, outworks and a strong tower. By contrast, the defenses at Meissen were probably made of wood, as the Slavs attempted to set light to them in 1015. Others were smaller, ringforts or square palisaded enclosures with or without a ditch. They too frequently included a Bergfried. Alternatively, towers could be built entirely on their own. Most were built of wood in this era, but stone towers were constructed on similar principles both before and after 1100. These towers were more common in low-lying areas, where they also fulfilled the function of watchtower.

The most significant change in fortification style in the eleventh century was the development of what we now call the motte-and-bailey castle, which originated in West Francia. It consisted of two elements, a mound (motte) surrounded by a ditch, on which some form of tower or fortified house was usually built, often with a palisade around its base, and an outer yard (bailey) enclosed by a palisade and ditch. The bailey was usually large enough to enclose several buildings and animals if necessary. Sometimes there was more than one bailey. In our period the defenses were almost invariably of wood. The main strength of these castles was their earthworks and ditches with their steep banks: the wooden fortifications alone would not have presented a serious obstacle, but the whole structure was very difficult to assault, although the wood was obviously vulnerable to fire in the right conditions. In addition, the castles were relatively cheap and easy to build and did not require a skilled labor force. However, medieval accounts suggesting that mottes could be thrown up in a few days either exaggerate the ease of building or refer to very small mottes. Larger ones may have taken many months to build.

Various reasons have been suggested for the spread of motte-and-bailey castles in the eleventh century: for instance, that they were used widely by the Angevin counts as defense against Vikings, that they arose as a result of “feudalization” (the fragmentation of power and the growth of fiefdoms), and even that the design may have been Viking in origin, hence its widespread use in the territory they were granted, Normandy. Since there is no evidence whatever for such a design in Viking Scandinavia, the last explanation is improbable. Even if correct, the argument that motte-and-bailey castles appeared precisely where fiefdoms did in the feudalization process, in northern Europe, gives a reason for the spread of castles, but not the appearance of a new type of castle. According to D.J. Cathcart King, the earliest known example of the motte-and-bailey design was at Les Rues-des-Vignes (medieval Vinchy), Nord-Pas-de-Calais, known of from 979. Fulk Nerra and Geoffrey Martel, who reigned as counts of Anjou 987–1040 and 1040–1060, used various types of fortification, as often to secure control of territory they had gained as much as to defend their frontiers against Vikings and neighboring lords. They constructed stone towers as well as ringforts and mottes. The deciding factor was probably the speed at which they had to be constructed. The strategy of constructing forts rapidly after an initial advance into enemy territory and then improving them later was used by the Normans in England. Nevertheless, on the continent the simple ringfort continued in use, although some were converted with the addition of a motte. During the Norman conquest of England it seems that ringworks were often built first and converted to motte-and-bailey castles later.

Bernard Bachrach has highlighted Fulk Nerra’s strategy of building each castle no more than 35 kilometers from the nearest—in other words, within a day’s ride. In England and Wales this strategy was particularly useful to Duke William for securing control of a hostile territory. Each motte-and-bailey castle built by the Normans after their invasion was designed so that a small number of occupants could control the immediate district or estate and be safe from attack, but were also within reach of relief from neighboring castles. In addition, the appearance of the castle would have had a powerful intimidating effect on the English. An interesting aspect of William’s castle-building is that most of the sites were new, and in many regions such as Somerset it seems that the old Anglo-Saxon burhs were initially avoided. The most likely reason is the Norman perception of them as centers of resistance, where large concentrations of hostile people were available to attack any garrison. This was not unreasonable, as the fate of the garrison at York in 1069 showed, although there the English had Danish help. The break-up of old estates and the creation of new ones also meant that central locations for control of estates changed, to places where castles were needed by the new landowners.



Harald Hardrada

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.


Action shot general in front of varagians

George Maniakes – Strategos attacking a Syrian horseman in the foreground, while Harald Hardrada and his Varagians await the enemy.

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.’ Even in the surviving poetry Harald himself wrote about his wife-to-be, he referred to her as a ‘gold-ringed goddess’.

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, 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.

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. 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. 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.

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.

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.

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.’

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. 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.



On September 25th, along the road to York at a river crossing called Stamford Bridge, the English met Hardrada and the Norse army marching from their camp on the coast to take the surrender of York. Not expecting a battle, Hardrada and his men had left their armor back at their ships, coming only with shield and arms.


To buy time for the Norse to form their array for battle, a lone champion endeavored to hold the narrow bridge against the English. His name now lost, this fearsome warrior held the bridge against all attackers, hewing men down with his deadly long-axe. No more than three-at-a-time could approach him, and each time he sent Harold’s redoubtable Huscarls reeling back, bloodied or dead.

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.

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. For some reason, Godwinson’s younger brother Tostig, Earl of Northumbria, thought that he should have the throne of England. 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’.

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. 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.’ 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.’

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. 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?

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. 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.

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.

When the battle itself began, Harald fought out in the front of his men, overexposed, and was hit in the throat by an arrow. 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. 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.