The Last Viking: Paul Bernardi Interviews Don Hollway

Don Hollway

The novelist Paul Bernardi sat down with Harald Hardrada historian Don Hollway to talk about The Last Viking
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Don Hollway, Harald plays an all too brief part in the history of these isles but there is so much more to the man. What led you to want to write about him?

I first read Hardrada’s story as a boy and thought, “Wow, what a life that guy led!” I always wanted to tell his tale, but a magazine article wouldn’t do him justice. When my agent said to me, “Vikings are hot right now. Know anything about them?” I said, “Let me tell you a story….”

Compared to say, Harold Godwinson or Duke William of Normandy, there is a perception that the primary sources for Harald’s life are less reliable (certainly those from the Norse context). To what extent does that make telling his story in a credible, yet engaging way more challenging?

All medieval sources are suspect. I cross-referenced as much as possible and disregarded the more farfetched tales. The “engaging” part was up to me. My readers can decide the rest.

Harald was involved in the Battle of Stiklestad at a young age, but it ended in defeat. How did this affect him?

It set him on his life’s path. An outlaw, exiled, he became a mercenary in Russia and then the Byzantine Empire’s Varangian Guard, eventually achieving such rank and power that he decided to carve out a kingdom of his own.

The death of Harald’s brother at Stiklestad

Harald’s story reads like a thrilling novel or TV series. Why hasn’t Hollywood come calling?

I flatter myself that nobody has told his story as well as I have in The Last Viking. A few years ago rumor had it that Leonardo DiCaprio was developing a script about Harald, but apparently nothing ever came of it. Leo, have your people get in touch with my people!

One area of the book that fascinated me was the mission to the Holy Land in the 1030s, only a couple of generations before the First Crusade. How far can we trace the roots of the latter from the former?

They both sprang, in part, from the Saracen destruction of Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulcher in 1009. As part of a peace treaty between the Byzantines and Saracens in 1037, a Christian delegation was sent to rebuild the church. Harald, as a leader of the Varangian Guard, escorted it. Yet decades later the church’s destruction still served as one of the excuses for the First Crusade.

Harald was not only a warrior but also a passionate man, with many love affairs, and a composer of poetry. Was he an early polymath, and, along with his military achievements, the ‘greatest’ of all Vikings?

Depiction of Harald Hardrada

Define “great.” When Harald was a boy, England, Denmark and Norway comprised the North Sea Empire, ruled by King Cnut the Great. As king of Norway, Harald failed to conquer either Denmark or England. He fancied himself as a poet, but was a better patron of poets. He romanced empresses and married a princess, and he rose so high in Byzantine service that at one point the imperial throne was in his grasp, yet had to flee for his life from Constantinople. The Norse of his day did not call Harald “the Great.” They called him Hardrada — Ruthless, Tyrant, Hard Ruler — and for good reason.

With what we know now about Stamford Bridge, one can argue Harald shouldn’t have invaded northern England, but did it make strategic sense at the time?

In the summer of 1066, yes. The Anglo-Saxon army was far to the south of England, awaiting the expected invasion by the Normans under Duke William. Nobody could have expected King Harold Godwinson to march his men north so quickly. It was one of the greatest feats of arms of the age.

How strong was Harald’s claim to the throne of England?

Tenuous. When Cnut’s North Sea Empire died with him, his son Harthacnut became king of Denmark and England, and Harald’s nephew Magnus ruled Norway. Rather than fight, they agreed that on the death of either, his kingdom would go to the other. Yet when Harthacnut died the English named their own king and Denmark broke away. Harald’s claim to England as the heir of Magnus, and thus of Harthacnut, could only be enforced at the point of a sword.

But for Harald’s decision to leave a third of his troops behind to guard their ships and to enjoy the sunshine rather than wear their mail shirts, the battle of Stamford Bridge could have turned out very differently. What then for the battle of Hastings?

Had the Norse won at Stamford Bridge, they would not have immediately marched south against the Normans. When he was ready, Harald would have forced them to meet him, somewhere in the Midlands. That said, William did repel a lesser Danish invasion in 1074/75, so the outcome might have been the same.

Was the Battle of Stamford Bridge the end of the Viking Age?

Historians generally consider it so, but Vikings still raided for years afterward. Harald’s grandson Magnus III, called Barefoot, conquered the Orkneys, Hebrides and even some of Scotland before he was killed in Ireland in 1103. He might be called the last of the Vikings, but he was no Harald Hardrada.

What was Harald’s legacy in Norway?

Perhaps because he went along on the 1066 invasion and felt the effects of war and loss firsthand, Harald’s son King Olaf III was called Kyrre, Peaceful. Under him Norway enjoyed a period of calm lasting until his death in 1095.

Finally, what’s next for you?

My next book, At the Gates of Rome: Alaric of the Goths, Stilicho of Rome and the Fall of the Eternal City, AD 410, is scheduled for May 2022. It’s the story of two great leaders, one Roman, one barbarian, who tried to prevent fall of the Roman Empire, but ended up causing it. It has a big cast, like a Cecil B. DeMille epic. Leo, seriously, ring me up, baby!

Don Hollway is an author, illustrator, and historian. He is also a classical rapier fencer and historical re-enactor. His latest book, The Last Viking: The True Story of King Harald Hardrada is out now and is published by Osprey.

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