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Harald Sigurdsson (1015 – September 25, 1066), later given the epithet Hardrada (Old Norse: Haraldr harðráði, roughly translated as "stern counsel" or "hard ruler", Hardråde in contemporary Norwegian) was the king of Norwaymarker from 1047 until 1066. He also claimed to be the King of Denmark until 1064, often defeating King Sweyn's army and forcing him to leave the country. Many details of his life were chronicled in the Heimskringla. Among English-speakers, he is generally remembered for his invasion of England in 1066. Harald's death is often recorded as the end of the Viking Age.

Early Life and Wandering in the East

Harald was the youngest of King Olaf II's three half-brothers born to Åsta Gudbrandsdatter. His father was Åsta's second husband Sigurd Syr. Harald took part, on the side of Olaf, in the Battle of Stiklestadmarker in 1030. Although wounded, he managed to escape, leaving Norway in exile. He was able to form a band of warriors out of men who had also been exiled as a result of Olaf's death.

In 1031 Harald and his men reached the land of the Kievan Rus, where they served the armies of Yaroslav I the Wise, the Grand Prince of the Rus, whose wife Ingigerd was a distant relative of Harald. Harald is thought to have taken part in Grand Prince Yaroslav's campaign against the Poles, and was appointed joint commander of defense forces. Sometime after this, Harald and his retinue of some five hundred warriors moved on to Constantinoplemarker, capital of the Byzantine Empire, where there had been at least since 1034 an elite royal guard composed largely of Scandinavian Rus and called the Varangian Guard. Harald served in the guard until 1042. In a Greek book written in the 1070s, Kekaumenos's Strategikon, Harald is described as "son of the king of Varangia" and is said to have performed so bravely in Byzantine campaigns in Sicily and Bulgaria that the Emperor appointed him first as manglabites, or member of a special section of the Emperor's personal bodyguard, and then to the title of spatharocandidate ( ). It appears he may have been imprisoned for some time on the orders of the Empress Zoe the Macedonian, it is suggested on charges of misappropriation of funds, but was released, or escaped imprisonment, on the ascension of the new Emperor Constantine IX.

Sometime in 1042, Harald requested permission from the emperor to return to his homeland, but it was denied. "Nonethless", remarks Kekaumenos, "he secretly escaped and ruled over the land instead of his brother [Olaf]". It is likely that the money Hardrada made whilst serving in Constantinople allowed him to fund his claim for the crown of Norway: some later Scandinavian sources note that aside from the significant spoils of battle he had retained, Harald had participated three times in polutasvarf, a term which implied either a pillaging of the palace exchequer on the death of the Emperor, or perhaps the disbursement of funds to the Varangians by the new Emperor in order to ensure their loyalty. Harald had been in Constantinople through the reigns on Romanos III, Michael IV, and Michael V, and thus perhaps had three opportunities, beyond his legitimate revenues, to carry off immense wealth (with Yaroslav of Rus acting as safekeeper for his fortune ). Despite this, Kekaumenos lauds the "loyalty and love" Hardrada had for the Empire.

In 1045, in Rus, where he stayed two or three years before returning to Scandinavia, Harald married Elisabeth, daughter of Yaroslav (she is mentioned in Scandinavian sources as Ellisif). Sources claim they were engaged before his departure but Yaroslav declined to confirm the marriage until Harald distinguished himself [Which Sources?]. During his service in the Byzantine Empire, Harald wrote a love poem addressed to Elisabeth, citing his many heroic deeds and complaining that "a golden-haired maiden of Gard does not like me".

Rise to the Throne of Norway

In Harald's absence, the throne of Norway had been restored to Magnus the Good, illegitimate son of Olaf II. When Harald arrived, he felt his claim to the throne was stronger than Magnus', and the two came close to war. Magnus' advisors, however, recommended the young king not fight his uncle, and a compromise was reached where Harald would jointly rule with Magnus, and Harald would share half of his wealth with Magnus. Less than a year later, in 1047, Magnus was dead, and Harald became sole ruler of Norway.

Having gained sole rule of Norway, Harald then sought the throne of Denmark for himself. In this endeavour, however, he was opposed by an earl named Einar Tambarskjelve, the "chief leader of the farmers in all the districts of Trondheim". Harald had Einar killed, with negative repercussions to his image: according to Sturluson, he was "so strongly detested on account of his deed that the only reason the king's stewards and the farmers did not... do battle with him was the lack of a leader". After killing Einar, Harald embarked on several campaigns against the Danish King Svein Ulfsson, none of which were successful. Karen Larsen comments that "there was no background for a union between the two countries and no demand for it among the people". After fifteen years of fighting, Harald finally gave up on trying to conquer Denmark, and he and Svein agreed to a lifetime truce.

Harald's Denmark campaigns were unpopular at home, most notably in Trøndelag in the north, and this was manifested in some districts' withholding taxes to show their displeasure. Harald dealt with this opposition with brutal force. Sturluson comments that he "had the farmers seized. Some he had maimed, others killed, and of many he confiscated all of their property". Harald maintained control of his nation through the use of his hird, a private standing army maintained by Norwegian lords. Harald's contribution to the strength of Norway's monarchy was the enforcement of a policy that made it so only the king could retain a hird, thus centralising power away from local warlords.

Invasion of England

With the truce and the recognition that he would not conquer Denmark, Harald turned his attention instead to England. England had, in the early 1040s, belonged to Harthacnut, the son of Cnut the Great. Harald based a claim to the throne of England on an agreement supposedly made by Magnus and Harthacnut, which stated that if either died, the other would inherit the deceased's throne and lands. When Harthacnut died, Magnus assumed the crown of Denmark, but did not press his claim on England, allowing Edward the Confessor to take the throne. The claim was very thin, and Harald likely would not even have pursued it independently. He was pressed to do so by Earl Tostig Godwinson, brother of King Harold Godwinson of England. Tostig pledged his support to Harald, stating, "If you wish to gain possession of England, then I may bring it about that most of the chieftains in England will be on your side and support you".

In September 1066, Harald landed in Northern England with a force of around 15,000 men and 300 longships (50 men in each boat). Earl Tostig was with him. At the Battle of Fulfordmarker, two miles (3 km) south of Yorkmarker, on 20 September, he won a great victory against the first English forces he met. Believing that King Harold was prepared to surrender and the English to accept his claim to the throne, Harald took with him to meet the king only about half of his forces, carrying light weapons and wearing only light armour.

However, Harold Godwinson was not prepared to give up his throne. At the Battle of Stamford Bridgemarker, outside York, on 25 September 1066, Godwinson's forces met with Harald's. Godwinson's forces were heavily armed, heavily armoured, and heavily outnumbered Harald's. Although one of Harald's men single-handedly blocked the English from the bridge for some time, when he fell, Harold Godwinson's better armed and better equipped forces easily cut through Harald's. Harald was killed by an arrow to the throat. Earl Tostig was also killed.

His army was so heavily beaten that only 24 of the 300 recorded longboats Harald used to transport his forces to England were used to carry the survivors back to Norway. Soon after his victory over King Harald, Harold Godwinson was defeated by William the Conqueror at the Battle of Hastingsmarker. The fact that Harold had to make a forced march to fight Hardrada at Stamford Bridge and then move at utmost speed south to meet the Norman invasion, all in a matter of days, is widely seen as a primary factor in William's hard-fought victory at Hastings.

According to Snorri Sturluson, before the battle a man bravely rode up to Harald Hardrada and Tostig and offered Tostig his earldom if he would but turn on Harald Hardrada. When Tostig asked what his brother Harold would be willing to give Harald Hardrada for his trouble, the rider replied that he would be given seven feet of ground as he was taller than other men. Harald Hardrada was impressed with the rider and asked Tostig his name, Tostig replied that the rider was none other than Harold Godwinson. According to Henry of Huntingdon, "Six feet of ground or as much more as he needs, as he is taller than most men", was Harold's response.


Harald was the last great Viking king of Norway and his invasion of England and death at the Battle of Stamford Bridgemarker in 1066 proved a true watershed moment. It marked the end of the Viking age and beginning of the High Middle Ages.

Snorri writes, "One year after King Harald's fall his body was transported from England north to Nidaros [the present Trondheimmarker], and was buried in the Mary Church, which he had built.

It was common observation that King Harald distinguished himself above all other men by wisdom and resources of mind; whether he had to take a resolution suddenly for himself and others, or after long deliberation. He was, also, above all men, bold, brave, and lucky, until his dying day, as above related; and bravery is half victory". To be remembered was one of the most important wishes for a Viking. About a hundred years later his body was reinterred in Elgeseter Priorymarker, which was demolished sometime in the 1600s.

On September 25, 2006, the 940th anniversary of Harald's death, the newspaper Aftenposten published an article on the poor state of Norway's ancient royal burial sites, including that of Harald Hardrada, which is reportedly located underneath a road built across the monastery site. In a follow-up article on September 26, the Municipality of Trondheim revealed they would be examining the possibility of exhuming the king and reinterring him in Nidaros Cathedralmarker, currently the burial place of nine Norwegian kings, among them Magnus I and Magnus II, Harald's predecessor and successor respectively.

Harald in fiction

  • Henry Treece wrote a historical novel about Harald Hardrada called The Last of the Vikings, first published in 1963.
  • In 1980 the Danish American science fiction and fantasy author Poul Anderson published The Last Viking, a three-volume historical novel about Harald.
  • Michael Ennis' epic adventure Byzantium, published 1989, is based on Harald Hardrada's life in Constantinople and eventual flight back to Norway.
  • Harald makes a notable appearance in Thomas Holt novel Meadowland (2005), where the tale of Vinlands discovery is used as the plotline.
  • Harald is a major character in book three of Tim Severin's Viking Series, King's Man (2005). This book meets Harald as he joins the Varangian Guard and follows him till his death at Stamford Bridge.
  • Harald Hardrada is featured in Helen Hollick's novel Harold the King (2006), which follows the history of Harold Godwinson from his first establishment as an Earl to the Battle of Hastings.
  • In 2006, the archeologist-author David Gibbins in his novel Crusader Gold uses Hardrada in his plot trying to follow the lost Jewish treasure "the Menorah" (candelabrum of the Temple in Jerusalemmarker), by having the king escape from the battle in England to seek refuge in Vinland having with him the treasures of Miklagard, (Constantinople ).
  • Harald Hardrada is the main character of the novel Harald and the Holy Cross, written by Al Bas in 2008.




  • Blondal, Sigfus with Benedikz, Benedikt S. (ed.) (2007) The Varangians of Byzantium, Cambridge University Press ISBN 978-0-521-21745-3.
  • Sawyer, P. H. (1994).Kings and Vikings, pp. 118–20, 146–47. Barnes and Noble Books, New York.
  • Sturluson, Snorri (2005). King Harald's Saga (Part of the Heimskringla), pp. 45, 46, 47. Penguin Classics.
  • Snorri Sturulson, Heimskringla, trans. Samuel Lang. (New York: Norroena Society, 1906).

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