King Harald Sigurdsson of Norway, called Hardrada, the Hard Ruler, was a Viking hero straight out of fantasy: an outcast prince who won a fortune, romanced empresses, married a queen, and carved a kingdom for himself with his own blade. He launched the last great Norse invasion of England and died like a Viking: laughing, sword in hand. Fantasy heroes, however, are just fiction. Harald Hardrada achieved all that, and more.
Little is known of him before the year 1030, when as a 15-year-old warrior he fought for his elder half-brother King Olaf II at the Battle of Stiklestad. Few battles bear such portent. Sticklestad was fought in part under a total eclipse of the sun, a night fight in the middle of the day, ominous for Christians and pagans alike. Olaf was slain and Harald barely escaped.
Outlawed, exiled, he set out to travel the medieval world. As a mercenary in Russia he rose to command and even aspired to marry the princess Elizaveta, but as a landless mercenary had nothing to offer her. In Constantinople, heart of the Byzantine Empire, he enlisted in the elite, all-Viking Varangian guard, battling their Saracen enemies on land and at sea. He became expert in the use of the two-handed Danish axe – characteristic weapon of the Varangians – and used the Byzantines’ legendary “Greek fire,” medieval napalm. In the Holy Land he escorted an imperial delegation to Jerusalem and fought desert bandits on the road to the River Jordan, where he bathed in the same waters as Christ at his baptism. He joined the Byzantine invasion of Saracen Sicily, freeing – and looting – cities from Messina in the north to Syracuse in the south.
It was in Constantinople that Harald reached the height of power. He had caught the eye of the beautiful but treacherous Empress Zoe, and when even more murderous Emperor Michael V had her thrown in prison Harald took her side. In the heavy street fighting that ensued much of the city was destroyed, thousands were killed and Varangians battled Varangians, but Harald’s men triumphed. He personally blinded Michael.
In gratitude Zoe took Harald as her lover and it was even rumored that he aspired to the throne itself, but the imperial court would never have tolerated a barbarian king. Instead Zoe married a low-level bureaucrat, who ruled as Constantine X. Harald cheated both by wooing Constantine’s mistress, the Empress Maria. She would be the great love of his life, but jealous Zoe had him thrown in prison.
In 1043, however, Harald’s old Russian friends decided to attack Constantinople with 400 ships. They were met with Greek fire and chased off with heavy losses, but in the confusion Harald made a jailbreak, spiriting Maria out of the palace and onto a ship bound for Kiev. Deep down, however, both knew a Byzantine princess would never be happy as a barbarian queen, and Harald sent her home.
Back in Russia – now wealthy with looted riches – Harald married Elizaveta and returned with her to Scandinavia. He literally purchased half of Norway from his nephew, King Magnus, ruling with him as co-king until Magnus died. As sole king he warred with Denmark to add that land to his realm, in 1050 burning the great Danish trading center at Hedeby and engaging in the greatest sea battle of the Viking Age at the River Nisa. Outnumbered two-to-one, Harald’s fleet fought through the night and by morning had driven off the Danes.
It was a great victory, but not decisive. Norway and Denmark bled each other white. Forced to seek peace, Harald took out his frustrations on his own people, plundering any who objected to his high taxes and debased coinage, exiling or murdering rebellious nobles, and earning the nickname Hardrada, Hard Ruler. When, in the summer of 1066, the exiled Anglo-Saxon earl Tostig Godwinson, brother of the English king Harold II, came seeking help to conquer England, Harald couldn’t resist.
Their 1066 assault has gone down in history as the last great Viking invasion of England, with Harald’s capture of York and subsequent defeat and death at the Battle of Stamford Bridge passing into legend as the end of the Viking Age. By that time, though, his place in history was already secure. In many ways Harald Hardrada really was “The Last Viking.”
Don Hollway is the author of The Last Viking: The True Story of King Harald Hardrada, now available from Osprey Publishing. Free sample chapters and links to order at lastvikingbook.com