By James Turner
I heard that the storm of arrows
Raged around King Olaf,
And the king’s brother
Fought beside him Bravely.
Reluctantly, Prince Harald
Left King Olaf Faelln
And went to secret hiding;
He was fifteen year old then. ~ Thjodolf Arnorsson
The eleventh century was a time of profound and systematic change within the Scandinavian world, seeing the redefinition of its internal and external boundaries, the restructuring of its political and social institutions and the rise of some of the region’s most celebrated and storied rulers. It is not a coincidence that many regions throughout Europe and across the circle of the Mediterranean were undergoing related, startling similar, processes during this period.
In many the ways the parallel and increasingly comparable political structures that arose from the bubbling tumult of the eleventh century and their corresponding cultural distortions are in themselves symptoms of the intrinsic interconnectivity of the medieval world. Very few if any of the changes undergone by either Scandinavian society or Europe’s other regional and cultural identities during this period of anabasis were wholly compartmentalized or distinct. Instead, these cascading and overlapping metamorphoses directly informed and influenced one another. If you were brave, you could probably go as far as to say that they were in essence variations of one another, adapted for implementation within different cultural and political contexts.
As outlined in the introduction to this series, the life of Harald Harada, exiled prince turned mercenary warlord who adventured so far across medieval world, is a fascinating and rewarding lens through which to view the transformation of Europe. As we shall see, Harald was born into a dynasty that in short order had become a major fulcrum of political and cultural change in Norway, only to be forced into exile when they fell afoul of an enemy better positioned to capitalise upon these emerging innovations.
Centralisation is a deeply loaded term with conations of a formalized bureaucracy and infrastructure which do not necessarily translate exactly into the Middle Ages. It would instead be better to say that abetted by wider demographic and cultural trends rulers in the eleventh century displayed a heightened capacity to exert authority within increasingly large and internally complex hegemonies. Harald, his brother, his nephew and their perennial enemy, Cnut the Great, can all be counted amongst this broad category of newly resurgent princes alongside the likes of Bolesław the Brave and William the Conqueror. Many of their successes in the construction and imposition of royal authority were also replicated, albeit in a less dramatic fashion, by the Capetian kings of France and the Salian emperors. The emergence of these ambitious hegemonic rulers represents the explosive continuation of the tenth century’s more piecemeal recovery and consolidation following the fragmentation of the Carolingian empire and the resultant devolution of power.
Integral to and adjoining this sweeping but subtle process of political reorientation amongst the laity was the increased coherency of proactive reform movements within the Church. The highly structured hierarchy of the Church, nominally existed in parallel with secular authority, with the exact relationship between the two is a subject of significant contemporary legal and theological debate.
In practice though the regional apparatus and administration of Church dioceses were latticed with those of the secular polities which they geographically overlapped. This traditional integration was deeply rooted in the history of the Church and was derived in part from the Church’s status as a bastion of education and literacy within the early Middle Ages, making it the most consistent source of clerks and administrators. Without the efforts and specialized skills of such men, the ability of secular rulers to meaningfully project their authority beyond their most immediate localities was severely truncated.
In a similar vein, the firmly rooted and encompassing structure of the Church dioceses provided those rulers willing to co-opt them with a relatively efficient means of administering and taxing their holdings. While Bishops and their subordinate churchmen were not subject to the Carolingian monarchs of the ninth century, in the same way as the aristocratic laity, they were deeply embedded in the mechanism of royal governance. Indeed, at times the exact delineation between Church and royal land appears hazy and only loosely enforced.
Prior to our period and the decades immediately preceding, authority within the Church was rather diffuse and was invested in induvial bishops who enjoyed a significant degree of autonomy. Of course, bishops were supervised by archbishops, and the Pope in Rome was accorded a special status but there were yawning gaps in this edifice. Many bishops either had no immediate superior within the hierarchy of the Church or were in practice merely able to shrug off the imposition of any outside authority.
Meanwhile, there was no real consensus on the Papacy’s remit or concerted effort to define and enforce its authority. Instead for much of the early Middle Ages, the Pope was merely first amongst equals. Bishops then tended towards cooperating with the lay rulers of the territories that encompassed their dioceses while doctrinal and theological disputes or irregularities were resolved by either individual bishops or specially convened regional synods. These rulings were usually formulated on an ad hoc basis in response to specific circumstances, a state of affairs that led to a great deal of variation and outright contradiction within the expanding body of canon law and its implementation throughout Europe.
This began to change in the eleventh century when the Papacy, under a series of fiercely ambitious reforming Popes, began to make sustained efforts to promote and exert its authority over the Church. By throwing their weight behind the various threads of the monastically inspired reform movements and by proactively positioning themselves as the arbiters and ultimate authority over of canon law disputes, the Popes and their supporters inextricably linked their moral and institutional authority with the increasing homogeneity of the Church.
Eleventh-century reformers perceived a need not only for a more definitive and universally applicable interpretation of canon law but for a higher and more consistent quality of the pastoral care provided by priests on a grassroots level. The most expedient way of formulating and enforcing these new standards was through recourse to the overarching and established but previously inconsistently realized authority of the Papacy. In promoting and championing the reform movement the Papacy imposed homogeneous standards and practices over the Church, radically increasing its power and exerting its status at the pinnacle of the Church hierarchy.
This process of Church reform and the resultant aggressive push for standardization by the hierarchy of the Church is of particular relevance to the development of Scandinavia during the eleventh century and the changeable fortunes of Harald Hadrada because of the region’s relatively recent adoption of Christianity. Christian missionaries had, of course, been active in Scandinavia since at least the ninth century but the Church as an institution was only shallowly rooted at the dawn of the eleventh. Further in the absence of any direction or supervision from any higher authority, the character of the Church in Scandinavia was heavily influenced by elements of the indigenous culture which had significant repercussions for its position and role within society. Norway, even by the standards of its neighbours experienced fierce resistance to the process of Christianization.
Traditionally Harald’s half-brother, Olaf II, later Saint Olaf, has been presented as a champion of Christianity who worked to complete Norway’s conversion and usher it into the arms of the mother Church. This depiction of Olaf as a zealous proselytizer is almost certainly a gross exaggeration and is the result of historical revisionism on the part of the historians and storytellers of 13th century Christian Iceland. On the other hand, this period did see the establishment of several dioceses within Norway and Olaf II stood to benefit considerably from rapprochement with a reforming and increasingly internally coherent Church.
Olaf’s claim to the throne was exceedingly tenuous and the establishment of a reciprocal relationship with the Church hierarchy in Norway gave him both a moral and spiritual imperative with which to justify his rule to his potential subjects while also enhancing his status and dignity. In addition, this access to the administrative structure of the Church would provide any ruler with the means to manage and mobilize the resources of their territory more efficiently.
Olaf’s contemporary, Olof Skötkonung, possibly the first Christian king of Sweden, followed this model, establishing dioceses in the heartland of his territories but maintained more or less peaceable relations with his pagan neighbours and subjects by retaining the use of various pagan rites in legal and cultural spheres. This conciliatory approach was probably well advised, as seen by the overthrow of the Danish king, Cnut IV, in the 1080s, almost twenty years after even Hardrada’s death. Cnut was a major patron of monastic institutions, recognizing their great utility in the construction of royal authority but provoked a disastrous backlash from his subjects who objected to the imposition of alien taxes and administrative structures.
Scandinavia during Harald’s formative years was made up of Norway, Sweden, and Denmark. But Scandinavian culture and political networks extended across the North and Irish seas, encompassing a number of colonies and petty kingdoms which were heavily hybridized with both their fellow Scandinavian adventures and their Saxon or Celtic neighbours. In addition to these overseas domains, which under Cnut the Great came to include the Kingdom of England itself, the principalities and cities of the Rus shared many cultural and linguistic similarities with Scandinavians and were to some extent the product of a mingling between Scandinavian trade outposts and the region’s Slavic inhabitants. There is also the possibility of some early incursions by the Swedes into the land of the Finns. This broad tripartite division of Scandinavian inhabitants was of course a contemporary one that was predicated upon very real cultural, linguistic and political cleavages. While they almost certainly reflected contemporary understandings of identity, we should be careful not to view these categories as overly prescriptive.
The borders of these kingdoms were often far from clear-cut or well-defined and led to a considerable degree of intermingling and political cooperation between already closely related ethno-linguistic groups. Related to this was the existence of strong regional identities throughout Scandinavia and the high-level political fragmentation. The extensive, often virtually unchecked, autonomy afforded to local rulers created a layered system of identity in which immediate familial and local affiliations were paramount. As noted in the introduction to this series, kingship within Scandinavia at this time was more a claim to dominion rather than an actual office or position with a fixed suite of responsibilities and powers. In the early eleventh century, Norway, Sweden and Demark were broad, variable and shapeless cultural conglomerations in which political authority could be exercised through cooperation with local powerbrokers and recourse to naked force.
The notion of statehood in the Middle Ages and what actually constitutes or defines a polity is a difficult but fascinating question. As you will see, the search forms one of the principal thematic threads in our study of the career and journeys of Harald Hardrada. In the medieval period, political entities were not naturally occurring manifestations of a cultural or singular ethnolinguistic group. Instead, they were hegemonic creations that routinely crossed these divides and were formed from the largely personal dynastic and political relationships of their rulers. It can be convincingly argued that this process and the creation of these cobbled-together political entities accelerated in the eleventh century, and I think must be seen as closely related to secular rulers’ increasing capacity to exert authority and power beyond their immediate localities.
As we will touch upon in greater detail imminently, Harald spent his childhood in a world whose horizons were defined in a large part by King Cnut who created a vast personal realm that historians often refer to as the North Sea Empire. The robustness of identity and its relationship with political authority within eleventh-century Scandinavia can perhaps be seen in Cnut’s impressive array of titles, describing himself in 1026 as “King of All of England, King of Denmark, King of the Norwegians and some of the Swedes,”. This vast realm which was formed from Denmark, England, large swatches of southern Norway and the scattered petty kingdoms of the Norse-Gaels was an uneven construction held by Cnut with various degrees of surety on widely different terms. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this conglomeration of territories fragmented upon Cnut’s death, but the specter of a unified greater Scandinavian world lingered on. Indeed, its resurrection and reconstitution under Norwegian hegemony was to become one of the guiding ambitions of Harald Hardrada following his usurpation of the Norwegian throne in 1046.
While nationalism in its strict modern sense did not exist in the eleventh century, we need to be careful to remember that such markers or shorthand for identity could still be significant to medieval people, even if they were not as absolute or formative as eighteenth-century romantics thought. Such signifiers of identity, immediately apparent to contemporaries, could potentially be capitalized upon to cultivate political affinity and mobilize support. On some intellectual and cultural level, Norway and Denmark clearly existed separately from one another even if the actual distinction between the two was in practice fluidic and indistinct.
A more distant example of the politicization of identity, but one whose repercussions were still being felt in Harada’s day, was the unification of England in 927. Certain contemporaries avowed that this process was more than the imposition of hegemony by Wessex on formerly autonomous and distinct kingdoms but was the realization of a sense of a singular Saxon identity. This thesis was accepted by subsequent generations, and it appears even held some resonance in the northern reaches of England where the distinction between Saxon, Scandinavian and Celtic populations was blurred. Ultimately the mythologization that often occurred around the conflux of cultural and political identity was a consciously curated process and simply one of an array of mechanisms through which medieval rulers sought to cultivate a broad base of support.
Norway traces its own legendary political origins to its unification under King Harald Fairhair in the early 870s. However, the historicity of Fairhair, and to a lesser extent the dynasty of Norwegian kings that followed him, are subject of significant controversy. The vast majority of evidence for Harald’s reign once again comes from the Icelandic sagas of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. These sagas were not only centuries removed from his life with it being unclear what primary sources, if any, they drew upon but they were seemingly written with the specific purpose of providing the Scandinavian world and their immediate forebears with a glorious foundation myth.
Whatever the truth regarding Fairhair’s exaggeration or existence sometime around the 970s, the Danish, King Harald Bluetooth, possibly after the collapse of a dynasty of native overlords, claimed the throne of Norway. Despite cooperating closely with one of Norway’s most powerful regional rulers, Haakon Sigurdsson, Bluetooth enjoyed little support or recognition, possibly because of his disastrous failures to exert sovereignty over Sweden and defeats in Germany.
Although opposed by King Olaf Tryggvason, a reputed descendant of Harald Fairhair, from his power base in Viken on the border with Sweden, Bluetooth’s immediate descendant continued his claims of dominion in Norway. In 1000 Bluetooth’s son, Sweyn Forkbeard, entered into an alliance with King Olof Skötkonung of Sweden, defeating Olaf at the battle of Svolder. This victory allowed Sweyn to extend his authority deep into southern Norway and compel the cooperation of much of the Norwegian aristocracy using the sons of Haakon as proxies. In fact, Sweyn’s position in Scandinavia was so secure that he was able to prosecute a series of raids in England which gradually escalated into a full-blown war of conquest against Æthelred the Unready.
When Sweyn died in 1014, Denmark and his Scandinavian territories were inherited by his eldest son, Harald, who it seems met with little success. Sweyn’s younger son, Cnut, completed his father’s conquest of England and upon inheriting Denmark from the hapless Harald in 1018 began campaigning aggressively to establish hegemony in Scandinavia. The army with which Cnut was able to reassert control of England was of a notable international character, articulating the interconnectivity and expansive character of the eleventh-century world. It was composed of not only Danes and significant numbers of Swedes and Norwegians but also a Polish contingent, sent by his maternal uncle. Upon securing the throne, Cnut, who was married to a Saxon noblewoman of Northumbrian extraction, adopted a conciliatory approach to the Church within England as well as adopting and upholding many of the customs and institutions traditionally associated with English kingship.
Our hero Harald Hardrada was born into a world defined by this ongoing struggle for power in 1015. His father was Sigurd Syr, the Jarl or petty king of Ringerike in Viken, a region heavily associated with Olaf Tryggvason and the semi-mythical Norwegian royal line. Indeed, the poet Snorri Sturluson and several other sagas claim that he was a patrilineal descendant of Harald Fairhair’s son, the little-known Sigurd Rise. This is almost certainly a later poetic affection meant to provide Harada with an established heroic linage and to create a pleasing sense of continuity between the great kings of medieval Norway.
Harald’s mother was the formidable Åsta Gudbrandsdatter. Åsta had previously been married to the dashing Jarl of Vestfold, Harald Grenske, yet another supposed descendant of Fairhair. Harald was despite his nominal membership in the royal Norwegian line a supporter of Haakon Sigurdson, the Norwegian confederate and proxy of Harald Bluetooth. According to the sagas, the marriage ended in a lurid and dramatic manner utterly typical of the genre. Grenske abandoned his pregnant wife in order to court his foster sister, the Swedish noblewoman Sigrid the Haughty, only for Sigrid, who was decidedly unimpressed by his advances, to have him and another of her suitors burnt to death. The couple’s sole child, Olaf was therefore reputed to be born a month after his fathers’ death, sometime around 995.
Olaf grew up highly ambitious and with pretensions to royal status which were evidently encouraged by his mother and cautiously supported by his stepfather. Sigurd was an aristocrat of relatively modest means. While he consistently supported Olaf’s claims and proved particularly valuable in persuading many of his fellow petty kings and local ruler to acknowledge Olaf’s sovereignty, he was neither temperately nor materially equipped to pursue power for himself. It has been suggested by historians that that Sigurd’s seemingly unflattering epithet Syr, which means porcine or pig-like, might in fact be a reference to his assiduous dedication to farming and estate management.
Interestingly, given his later prominence, Harald was not Sigurd and Åsta first child and it appears that he had four older siblings, although precious little is known about them. The lives of his two older brothers Guttorm and Halfdan are particularly obscure and it is somewhat unclear if they survived their family’s temporary fall from grace. Harald was born during the first flowerings of Olaf’s authority within Normandy and it seems clear that growing up he looked to his elder half-brother rather than his father as a role model. It is probably that it was this devotion and his later actions on Olaf’s behalf that were responsible for springboarding his military career.
The details of Olaf’s life prior to his claiming of the throne of Norway, provided by the sagas, smack heavily of invention. The young Olaf seems to have been everywhere and experienced several lifetimes’ worth of adventures and military exploits. He invaded Estonian where he won a great battle, participated in a raid on England led by the delightfully named Swedish Viking, Thorkell the Tall, fought the Finns in 1008 and spent time in the court of Duke Richard of Normandy where he reportedly had a profound religious experience and became an ardent devotee of Christianity. If nothing else, the sagas successfully capture the great mobility of prospective Scandinavian warlords during this period and the sheer breadth of their horizons.
With the support of a collation of Jarls drawn from the Norwegian uplands, Olaf declared himself king of Norway in 1015. Quickly proving himself a highly energic and capable ruler, Olaf quashed the Danish-aligned Norwegian nobles at the battle of Nesjar the following year and began the laborious process of subjugating the nobility of southern Norway. Probably mindful of the circumstances which brought about the downfall of his predecessor, Olaf Tryggvason, the young king campaigned extensively against the Swedish king, Olof Skötkonung, whose proxies still controlled much of eastern Norway. Olaf, who had by far the better of the protracted fighting, eventually compelled the Swedish king to make peace and disrupted any potential repeat of the opportunistic alliance of Sweden and Demark by marrying Olof’s illegitimate daughter in 1019.
Downfall of Olaf
During this period, Olaf enjoyed considerable success, exerting his authority over much of Norway and even engaging in several fruitful foreign adventures, such as the imposition of overlordship upon the Orkney Isles and leading a grand raid against Denmark. Olaf’s growing power and authority within Norway, which as we have discussed can be seen as simultaneously novel for the region and as part of an emerging eleventh-century trend of increasing robust hegemonic rulers, alarmed and threatened many of the Norwegian nobility.
Perhaps sensing blood in the water and temporarily unburdened by other political concerns in 1026 Cnut the Great unleashed a massive invasion fleet composed of both his Danish and English subjects. This force was opposed by Olaf and his brother-in-law, King Amund Jacob of Sweden who inflicted disproportionate casualties upon the combined Anglo-Danish army but was nevertheless eventually completed to quit the battlefield. Struggling to contain Cnut’s dogged advances into Norway, things went from bad to worse for Olaf in 1029 when his forces were decisively defeated by an alliance of Norwegian rebels backed by Cnut.
This reversal was so precipitous that Olaf was compelled to flee his kingdom and seek refuge with Yaroslav the Wise, Grand Prince of Kievan Rus. Yaroslav was married to another sister of Amund Jacob and Olaf spent a year licking his wounds in his brother-in-law’s court before the sudden death of one of Cnut’s principal lieutenants in Norway provided him with the opportunity to return home. Upon arriving in eastern Norway, Olaf was met by none other than his teenage half-brother, Harald who had gathered a modest army of 600 men from the family’s power base in the Uplands. Accepting Harald and his company into his retinue, Olaf set about reestablishing his support amongst the Norwegian nobility and gathering together an army. Before he could properly entrench himself or build significant political momentum, however, the Norwegian king found himself once more being brought to battle by a collation of dissident nobles.
Although only fifteen, Harald seems to have directly participated in the Battle of Stiklestad where he is said to have acquitted himself admirably. These first stirrings of what was to become a highly prosperous and successful military career aside, the battle was a disaster and King Olaf was slain. A wounded Harald was whisked away by a handful of his brother’s surviving retainers and hidden on a remote farmstead in the eastern Uplands. With his family’s dynastic prospects in tatters and opposed implacably by both the might of Cnut and the majority of the Norwegian nobility, the desolate youth once more emulated the example of his royal half-brother. Seemingly the most visible and politically viable remaining member of the newly established Norwegian royal family, Harald fled eastward towards Kievan Rus and his brother’s ally, Yaroslav the Wise. Accompanied by a band of hardcore and desperate followers and we can summarize the guttering dream of a united Norway and his position in it.
Harald had fallen foul of a political world in which grand appeals to cultural identity and the dream of a unified kingdom were subordinate to the nobilities personal political and hegemonic concerns. Olaf was in many ways a victim of his own success. This antipathy and the sheer explosive violence with which the Norwegian nobility rose up against him are a testament to the manner in which his attempts to construct a strong and effective Norwegian monarchy shook the pillars of his world. Travelling beyond Norway for the first time in his life, to the rugged and frayed peripheries of the Scandinavian world, it is fascinating to speculate what Harald, bloodied but unbowed, would have made of a culture similar but yet so very different from his own. As we shall in our next article, during his time in the court of Yaroslav, Harald campaigns on his host’s behalf against people and polities in central and eastern Europe he may never have met before and begins in earnest a military career which will take him from the battlefields of the Mediterranean to the throne of Norway.
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.
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 Amazon.com | Amazon.ca | Amazon.co.uk
Top Image: Illustration by Julia Lillo