King Harald Sigurdsson of Norway in History and Legend

 The landing of King Harald Hardrada near York...King Harald Sigurdsson of Norway in History and Legend

By Camden Alexander McKenna

Honors Thesis, Bates College, 2011

Introduction: In Norway great events took place at that time; King Harald surpassed all the madness of tyrants in his savage wildness. Many churches were destroyed by that man; many Christians were tortured to death by him. But he was a mighty man and renowned for the victories he had previously won in many wars with barbarians in Greece and in the Scythian regions. After he came into his fatherland, however, he never ceased from warfare; he was the thunderbolt of the north, a pestilence to all…

These bold words are recorded by the German chronicler Adam of Bremen, and refer to the most dynamic—and coldblooded—leader that the Viking World had ever seen. His name was Harald Sigurdsson, but he gained eternal fame as King Harald Hardrada, a name first used in the sagas of the Icelanders, which is variously translated as Harald of the Hard-Counsel, Harald the Hard-Ruler, or Harald the Ruthless. His story inflated over time to include legends of his unmatched heroism in battle, acts of trickery and deception that would put the Norse god Loki to shame, and of course anecdotes illustrating more commonplace looting and pillaging in all its bloody detail. We are told that he sailed to the end of the Earth itself just to take a look over the edge. We are told that he faked his own death to gain entrance to a fortified city in a coffin, only to pop out with an axe and murder every one of its dumbstruck inhabitants. We are told that he defeated the King of Africa in single combat; that he was seduced by the Byzantine Empress; and that in his final moments he tore off his armor in a berserk fury, slaughtering hundreds of hapless Englishmen before he was finally put down near Stamford Bridge, Yorkshire, in the fateful year 1066.


Yet behind the legend we find that Harald is a much more complex figure than Adam of Bremen would have you believe. The most extraordinary episodes in Harald’s life were in fact historical, and can be discerned from the tales that have come down to us if only we are willing to tease out the facts from the corpus of myth surrounding him. Harald Sigurdsson lived fifty-one years, from 1015 to 1066, and within that time participated in virtually all spheres of Viking activity. He was born in Norway not far from where Oslo (a city which he founded) is today. Forced into exile after the death of his half-brother Saint Olaf, he travelled through Sweden into Russia where he fought for King Jaroslav against tribes of steppe nomads and Poles, before continuing along the Russian river systems to Constantinople, the gleaming capital of the Byzantine Empire. It was there that he became a mercenary in the service of the Emperor, a position that would lead him throughout Asia Minor, to Bulgaria, to Sicily, and even to the Holy City of Jerusalem. He acquired immense wealth through his service and through less “official” means, namely plundering and theft. Harald used his ill-gotten gains to ensure that when he came back to Scandinavia in 1045, he would be well placed to take the kingship of Norway, which he did, ruling jointly with his nephew Magnus until 1047 and then on his own until his death in 1066. King Harald’s reign was marked by autocratic tendencies hitherto unknown in Norway. He had frequent disputes with the Norwegian aristocracy and the Church, and was generally despised by his subjects, even though, in many ways, he did more good for Norway than his predecessor Magnus “the Good” ever did. His death finally came during the unsuccessful Norwegian invasion of England in the autumn of 1066, at the hands of the English King Harold Godwinson who is better known for losing to the Normans three weeks later at the Battle of Hastings.

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