Harald Hardrada: An Exemplar of the Age

By James Turner

Disaster has befallen us;
I say the army has been duped.
There was no cause for Harald
To bring his forces westward.
Mighty Harald is fallen
And we are all imperiled;
Norway’s renowned leader
Has lost his life in England ~ Snorri Sturluson

Within certain, unfortunately still pervasive, Anglo-centric views of history, Harald Hardrada is but a bit player in the foundational myth of the Anglo-Norman realm and the first stirrings of a newly recognizable England. Harald’s grand dreams of claiming the throne of England and his subsequent bloody repulsion at the Battle of Stanford Bridge is often framed as a mere prelude, an interesting and necessary diversion that contextualizes an event of genuine historical significance. The Norwegian king’s defeat at the hands of Harold Godwinson and his Anglo-Saxon host has become the stuff of speculative history.


It is more than a little strange, given the great fame and status Harald enjoyed during his own lifetime, that so many of these counterfactual histories and ruminations are contingent upon his absence rather than his triumph. What if Harald had never invaded England, the line of inquiry runs, could a fresh and unbloodied English army have triumphed at Hastings where Harold’s battered and footsore warriors had failed? The image of Harald and William, two would-be conquerors descending upon England like ravening wolves, one from the north and one from the south, is an evocative one and has in the past had a noticeable impact upon the shape of historical debate.

The rapidity with which the dolorous blows of invasion fell has led many, over the years, to detect the faint scent of conspiracy and coordination wafting on the wind. Certainly, it was an unspoken and largely unexamined article of faith amongst Victorian historians that the Norman Conquest, while necessary to the development of England, was essentially unfair and unsporting. Undeniably pivotal as the Battle of Hastings was, we must always remember to tread carefully around these antique historical representations of 1066 and all that impinged upon and were informed by a brand and understanding of national identity entirely alien to the eleventh century. Far from inevitable, or the product of some strange national predestination, Duke William’s bold and incisively opportunistic invasion of England was something of a political and historical aberration.


Harald’s bid for the throne of England on the other hand should be seen in the context of extensive Scandinavian settlement within the British Isles, large portions of which had historically fallen under the sway of Danish or Norwegian hegemony. While Harold Godwinson is often hailed as the last Anglo-Saxon King of England, his father owed his spectacular rise in prominence to the conquests of Danish King Cnut the Great in 1016 and Godwin’s strategic marriage to a Danish noblewoman. Harald and Cnut’s families were perennial enemies throughout much of the early eleventh century as a newly resurgent Norway began to compete with Denmark for supremacy within Scandinavia and its widely flung satellites. Indeed, King Æthelred the Unready paid out vast sums of gold to the Norwegian nobility in the not unreasonable hope that their struggles to shrug off the yoke of Danish dominion would forestall or prevent the Danish invasion of his own realm.

In 1028, Cnut had ousted Harald’s half-brother, King Olaf II, from power and had reasserted his own family’s claims to the Norwegian throne. For Harald then, the invasion of England was an attempt to emulate and surpass the deeds of his family’s great rival and usurp the trappings of their supremacy. In conquering this rich realm on the Scandinavian periphery, Harald would gain the resources and prestige necessary to further perpetuate Norway’s domination of the Scandinavian world.

Far from a warmup for Hastings, Harald’s defeat and death at Stanford Bridge was the crescendo of a three-way power struggle between the kings of England, Denmark and Norway which, whatever its outcome, would have significant effects on the political orientation and organisation of these interconnected hegemonies. Beyond his established role in North Sea politics and impressive reversal of Danish hegemony in Scandinavia, Harald, whose epithet is probably best translated as The Severe, is fascinating because of his incredible and circuitous journey to that point. Fleeing into exile following his half-brother’s death at the Battle of Stiklestad in 1130, the winding path of Harald’s life took him from the Norwegian Fjords to the shining palaces of Constantinople and across the steppes and trading posts of Kievan Russ to the ancient cities of Sicily. Initially taking shelter with his family’s ally, Grand Prince Yaroslav the Wise of Kiev and Novgorod, Harald participated in a number of his host’s military expeditions and was evidently afforded a position of significant military responsibility and autonomy.

After distinguishing himself in several campaigns, the now seasoned Harald and his band of Norwegian exiles and fortune seekers took service with the Varangian Guard, an elite corps of the Byzantine army composed of Rus and Scandinavian warriors. The Varangians were highly prized for their prowess and loyalty, not to mention their insulation from the intrigues of the court and served as both imperial bodyguard and shock troops. Gaining a position of command within the Guard, Harald fought on behalf of Emperor Michael IV in campaigns throughout the Mediterranean and Asia Minor, most notably in the Byzantine invasion of Sicily. where he served alongside a large contingent of Norman mercenaries.


This transition from exiled noble to wandering adventurer and mercenary was not entirely unique; disinherited or disenfranchised nobles parlaying their prestige, contacts and martial abilities into positions in foreign courts is a practice that we see throughout the eleventh century and beyond. Harald may have travelled further than many of his peers and enjoyed an almost unprecedented level of success, returning home in the fashion of a true protagonist to reclaim his birthright, but he was an adventurer rather than a pioneer.

The world of eleventh-century Europe was neither self-contained nor especially compartmentalized, benefiting as it did from long-established routes of commerce and communication. Hardrada’s journeys and his interaction with the overlapping cultures and political entities that he encountered are so fascinating and valuable to examine from a global history perspective, precisely because they illuminate this interconnectivity.

Sea trade and the cultural interchanges that it engendered and incentivized had been a fact of life in the Mediterranean and beyond since the time of earliest antiquity. Indeed, it has been theorized that the monopolization of imported luxury goods and distant tin, which was required for the manufacture of the bronze, may well have provided the means and impetuous for the centralization of power in many early bronze age states. The volume, routes and commodities of trade was in a constant change of flux, shifting in response to often conjoined economic and political factors.


In the centuries immediately preceding Hardrada’s birth, Scandinavian raiders and settlers blazed a trail across the riverways of Eastern Europe that connected Scandinavia and the Baltic with the Black Sea and the gates of the Mediterranean.

Harald’s long exile from Norway and his journey also highlight this already established cultural and commercial bridge and is a fascinating lens with which to examine the often-occluded interactivity and blurred edges that prevailed throughout Eleventh century Europe. While, of course, the political landscape and organization of Europe continued to change significantly over time, the eleventh century was a formative one in which the foundations of Europe to come first began to set. These included the collapse of the Bulgarian Empire, the formation of Poland, the formalization of Burgundy and Bohemia as part of the Holy Roman Empire, that empire’s adoption of an elective monarchy, the creation of the kingdom of Croatia, Norman domination of southern Italy and although Harald never lived to see it, the political reorientation of England towards western Europe to name but a few.

Then there were harder to quantify cultural intangibles that bubbled under the surface for much of Harald’s early life, that when they emerged at the end of the century had a radically transformative effect upon the fabric of European society, such as the increasing authority and activity of the Papacy and the emergence of a shared aristocratic cultural element predicated upon the martial traditions of knighthood and its practitioner’s mutually recognized codes of conduct.

While many of the first kingdoms or hegemonies of medieval Europe had their origins in the exercise of supremacy over certain tribal or ethnic groups and the territory they held sway over, these underpinnings of power began to rapidly change in the eleventh century. In a political landscape littered with emerging monolithic features, authority and power were increasingly dependent upon and defined by the connections and claims of individual families who were more than happy to pursue their rights and acquisitions across regional and cultural boundaries.


The crown of Norway which had been simultaneously claimed by Cnut the Great and Harald’s half-brother Olaf II was more a title to be claimed than an office to be discharged, with no set remit or powers beyond that which its bearer could instill within it. His accounts of divine inspiration aside, Olaf’s claim to the throne of Norway was derived from the support of lesser Norwegian kings and aristocrats and his considerable military success. His fall from power and Harald’s fateful exile was the result of aristocratic dissatisfaction and the increasing portion of Norwegian powerbrokers who sided with the Danish Cnut.

Yet when Harald eventually returned from exile, having accumulated great prestige and wealth, the King of Denmark and Norway, which he vied with, was not one of Cnut’s sons but Magnus the Good, Olaf’s illegitimate son. Perhaps Harald felt he had gone too far and been through too much to see himself eclipsed by a younger kinsman.

As eleventh-century Europe roiled and struggled to find a new equilibrium in response to the cultural, political and demographic changes being wrought upon it, incredible opportunities were open to those adventurers bold enough to take advantage of this era of uncertainty. As we shall see, Harald Hardrada can, alongside Duke William of Normandy, be counted amongst the greatest of these adventurers. In our next article, we will begin unraveling the legend of Harald Hardrada in earnest as we examine in detail the political culture of Norway, the history of his family and the circumstances that necessitated his long exile.

James Turner has recently completed his doctoral studies at Durham University before which he attended the University of Glasgow. Deeply afraid of numbers and distrustful of counting, his main research interests surround medieval aristocratic culture and identity.

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If you are interested in reading more about this important figure, see also the new book The Last Viking: The True Story of King Harald Hardrada, by Don Holloway. You learn more about this book from the publisher’s site, or purchase this book on | |

Top Image: Illustration by Julia Lillo