Harald Hardrada: Kievan Rus’

By James Turner

“King Yaroslave gave Harald and Earl Rognvald and their men a good welcome. He made Harald and Earl Rognvald Ulfsson’s son, Eilif, commanders of his defense forces” – Snorri Sturluson 

State-building in the Middle Ages was an arduous and difficult task. It was made so by the numerous factors and circumstances which make historians so justifiably reluctant to ascribe notions of modern statehood to the overlapping political and cultural conglomerations of Medieval Europe. Medieval kingdoms and principalities in the eleventh century lacked the communications technology and infrastructure to effectively administer and regulate themselves in a centralised manner consistent with a modern understanding of statehood.


Far more important and fundamental a difference though was that they were simply the products of a very different society with a very different way of organizing and conceptualizing their political affiliations. While our modern conception of the nation-state remains more or less securely rooted in the nationalist ideologies of the Enlightenment, in the Middle Ages the conflation of cultural and political affiliation was far less pervasive or definitive. Rather than an outgrowth and political manifestation of distinctive cultural and historic entities, the polities of the medieval period derived their form, function and purpose from an aggregate of the connections, rights and obligations of dominate familial networks.

A fascinating aspect of the Germanic warrior elite-dominated polities which arose in the fifth century following the cessation of  Imperial Authority, such as the Franks and Visigoths, was that they maintained Germanic and Roman law codes in parallel with one another. In theory at least, these alternate codes were applied on a cultural and ethnic basis, Romans living within these fledging kingdoms remained subject to Roman law while their Germanic neighbors were overseen by their own, often no less stringent, traditional laws and statutes. This system was the result of the imposition of political authority by a military elite on top of existing and still valuable cultural and economic structures. While this dual practice had lapsed long before the eleventh century and the lifetime of Harald Hardrada, it ably demonstrates the complicated relationship between civic or legal obligations and political affiliation in the Middle Ages.


The introduction or enforcement of law codes was a potent tool for ambitious rulers to exert their authority over their nominal subjects throughout the Middle Ages. It gave a king or prince a moral and ideological basis for their pre-eminence, provided them with an excuse to meddle freely in their vassals’ affairs, and placed them at the very heart of regional networks. In effect, the administration of justice made those rulers equal to shouldering a burden impossible to ignore, leaving their vassals with but three choices, capitulation, negotiation or defiance.

However, royal authority wasn’t the sole source of law or basis for the administration of justice in medieval Europe during this period and was often inconsistently or unevenly applied. The limited scope and ability to project royal authority during this period meant that communities were by necessity largely self-regulating at a grassroots level, with disputes and even criminal trials being arbitrated by prominent locals. In the tenth and early eleventh century, the Church, whose hierarchy and structure stretched all the way down to the pastoral level, began to make increasingly concerted efforts to maintain, if not law, at least order in the absence of sufficiently powerful or civically engaged secular authorities. The resulting Peace of God and Truce of God movements sought to curb the excesses of small-scale aristocratic warfare and violence to protect the peasantry and the sanctity of Church property.

As previously discussed, the eleventh century saw demographic changes in Europe, the Mediterranean and beyond which led to the adoption and widespread transmission of certain societal and political innovations. This process and the gradually unfolding restructuring of the underpinnings of contemporary society would eventually bloom into the cultural and economic boom of the Twelfth Century Renaissance. Foundational to these developments was the manner in which the first rumblings of these changes abetted European rulers in the construction and projection of some measure of centralized secular authority.

Harald’s elder half-brother was one of this new breed of ambitious hegemonic rulers, emerging from relative obscurity to claim the throne of Norway and vie with the region’s Danish overlords. Despite the veneer put upon his career by later Scandinavian sources, we should be very careful about framing Olaf’s attempts to construct a hegemony as an attempt to unify an independent Norway.


As discussed in the previous entry into this series, while Norway existed as a recognized cultural and ethno-linguistic identity prior to Olaf’s assumption of the throne, its exact geography was ill-defined while its history as a political entity was murky and heavily mythologized. Attempts to exercise royal authority and its accompanying connotations of legal authority and arbitration could be a double-edged sword for aspiring rulers. Olaf’s nascent kingdom was fatally undermined by dissent from members of the traditionally independent Norwegian nobility who either had an understanding with the Danish Kings or else resented the imposition of outside authority upon them by a self-appointed monarch.

To expound just a little further upon this salient point before we return to Harald, medieval nobles’ political horizons were not framed or defined by anything as monumental or artificial as nations. Yes – kingdoms, duchies and other forms of polities existed but such titles were to an extent aspirational or incidental. The boundaries of eleventh-century hegemonies, whatever their origins and past precedents suggested, stretched precisely as far as their rulers’ personal and familial connections allowed them to and no further. When looking at the history of the medieval period up to the eleventh century from a modern perspective, one can sometimes be struck by the idea that the various kingdoms and political entities of Europe are spinning their wheels.

Rather than a consistent process of expansion and consolidation, the territories of rulers who through conquest or diplomacy succeeded in constructing some measure of hegemony were almost inevitably divided after their deaths, triggering another generation or two of brutal internecine warfare. This happened because the culture and society in which these medieval aristocratic families operated did not necessarily value the perpetuation and continuity of a territory’s centralized administration and coherency. What was of cardinal importance to them was that the territory remained within the family and that as many of their children as possible were adequately provided for. The family itself was the primary political entity of the period from which all others were constituted. While individual members of specific familial affinities either vied with one another for control or cooperated to advance their mutual interests, they were all irrevocably connected by their family’s portfolio of aggregate lands and interests to which they all held some stake through the prospect of inheritance.


With the death of his elder half-brother King Olaf II at the Battle of Stiklestad in 1130, the prospects of Harald’s family must have seen rather dim and distant indeed. Supposedly wounded while fighting in the thick of the battle, the young Harald was whisked away by his retainers and taken to convalesce in the remote mountain fringes of the family’s heartland in upper Norway. With the complete military collapse of their cause and a plethora of enemies both within and without Norway this mountain refuge provided Harald and his remaining band of particularly hardcore or desperate followers with only a brief respite. Discretion, it has been said, is the better part of valor; a purposefully risible axiom that is startlingly relevant to the capricious political tides of the eleventh century. The general absence of strong centrally controlled governmental and administrative structures meant that in many ways rulers operated as the first amongst equals, regardless of their constructed mythology or ideological rhetoric.

In practice, in terms of power and wealth, they were firmly in the same order of magnitude as their principal vassals. The personal rather than institutional nature of their realm meant that their hegemony’s available military resources could be highly variable as relationships evolved and interests diverged. In a society in which people maintained an assiduous awareness of their relatives and potential inheritable interests, the great overlapping networks of competing for familial sourced claims and vestigial system of counties and duchies meant few rulers were ever truly secure or wholly unchallenged. The fragility of hegemony in the eleventh century combined with the fluidity of its political structures meant that those dispossessed and defeated nobles who opted to flee into exile had every chance of eventually regaining their lost holdings. Unlike modern political leaders who habitually relinquish their office or can be deposed and alienated from their positions, to the eleventh century mind their titles and claims ran marrow-deep.

Olaf’s return from exile after a year spent sheltering in the court of his brother-in-law Grand Prince Yaroslav the Wise ended in an unarguable and unmitigated disaster. The unflaggingly ambitious and driven ‘would be’ king probably acted too hastily, fearing that his remaining support would ebb away in his absence, he returned to Norway at a time where the ire and resentment of the nobility still burned hot against him. Yet Harald, a younger man with far less to lose, would have been aware of the numerous and manifest career options and routes out of the political wilderness that lay before him.

The eleventh century was something of a golden age for exiled and dispossessed aristocrats, the ongoing consolidation of diffuse political entities and construction of hegemonies inevitably produced losers who would often travel widely, sheltering with their relatives or potential allies as they maneuvered to resurrect their fortunes. These phenomena, while never totally subsiding became far less ubiquitous in the proceeding century as the adoption of chivalric practices and the proliferation of European wide codes of aristocratic conduct meant that the aristocracy had a more substantive mechanism for reconciliation with one another.


Edward the Confessor, the king whose death in 1066 precipitated Harald’s bid for the English throne, spent much of his life living in the court of his maternal relatives, the Dukes of Normandy. A son of Æthelred the Unready by his second wife, Edward’s exile in 1017 was necessitated by the execution of his half-siblings and the conquest of England by the same dynasty of Danish kings that Harald’s brother had fought against. Meanwhile, the Confessor’s cousins, Edward and Edmund, the sons of Æthelred’s immediate successor King Edmund Ironsides, were taken as infants to the court of King Stephen of Hungry.

In 1028, possibly following some threat to the children or attempted assassination, they were moved to Kiev and placed under the care of Yaroslav the Wise. Of course, this meant that they not only shared their exile with Olaf but that Harald arrived in 1130 to a court already well supplied with and accustomed to foreign princes. Harald was bloodied in battle and had a modest collection of followers in tow, but he was only a year older than Edward who was the son of a famous warrior king, while Harald was the mere half-brother of a self-proclaimed monarch.

This collection of princelings was added to in 1031 with the arrival of Andrew, a young relative of King Stephen who had been expelled from Hungary and took refuge with Yaroslav after the king blinded his father. Andrew and the English Princes evidently became quite close during this time, and they eventually joined him in his campaign to secure the throne of Hungary in 1046. Harald on the other hand, seems to have been somewhat isolated from this clique and as we shall see in this series next installment was viewed by Yaroslav primarily as a military rather than dynastic resource.

Clearly such a diverse and extensive assortment of exiled princes did not congregate at Yaroslav’s court by coincidence or because they enjoyed the weather. They came to seek shelter with Yaroslav because he was one the greatest monarchs of his era. An extraordinarily well-connected man with commercial, dynastic and political ties, the Grand Prince was a promising potential patron who possessed the resources necessary to support his guests in their revanchist quests should they tally with his own varied and tangled interests. Yaroslav was the ruler of Kiev and the master of Kievan Rus’, a vibrant and wealthy realm formed from a confederation of closely interconnected principalities and city-states. Its mesial spine formed around the Dnieper River, Kievan Rus’ stretched from the Baltic Sea in the north to the Black sea in the south and was a highly developed section of the trade superhighway which encircled medieval Europe. Its plentiful riverways connected Scandinavian and the North Sea world with the Balkans and the Byzantine Empire, which sat athwart the ancient trade routes that connected Asia to Europe and the Mediterranean. While often less amicable and profitable than their commercial relationships with the Scandinavians or Byzantines, Kievan Rus’ also bridged the gap between the northern Steppes and the kingdoms of Eastern and Central Europe. Kievan Rus’ attainted the summit of its temporal power and sophistication during the reign of Yaroslav the Wise in the eleventh century.

The realm that Yaroslav presided over, and which Harald first discovered upon his arrival in 1030 was principally East Slavic in terms of composition and culture but was significantly influenced by its Scandinavian and Byzantine trading partners. Indeed, many of the flourishes and cultural achievements of the Principalities of Kievan Rus’ during this time were informed by or otherwise made possible by these relationships.  In addition to this cultural and economic interconnectivity, the vast border regions of Kievan Rus’ incorporated and blended with groups from Finnic, Turkic and Iranian cultures. I bring this up because the exact origins, ethno-linguistic composition and cultural equilibrium of Kievan Rus’ is a somewhat contentious issue within modern histography. The currently prevailing theory is that the initial impetuous for the creation or organization of the Rus’ as a political entity in the ninth and tenth century came from Scandinavian traders and explorers who established settlements and trading posts throughout the region. This influx of Scandinavian settlers, while retaining significant commercial and political links to groups within their ancestral homeland seems to have quickly integrated culturally with their Slavic neighbors.

There is, however, a distinct lack of detailed evidence on exactly how this process took place or how what must have been a relatively small number of Scandinavia settlers so drastically affected the political organization of the region. The main source for the foundation of Kievan Rus’ is the Russian Primary Chronicle composed in Kiev by a monk, the auspiciously named Nestor the Chronicler who begins his account with the arrival of the Rus’ from Scandinavia in the late ninth century. However, the Primary Chronicle was only written in 1113 and was commissioned by Sviatopolk II who had potential political reasons for wishing to emphasize his family’s connection and engagement with Scandinavia. Indeed, the early sections of the Primary Chronicle have a distinctly mythological ring to them. After charting the movement and clash of various constituent Slavic peoples, the Primary Chronicle says that despite heroically resisting the imposition of Scandinavian overlordship upon them, the Slavic population of the region invited a trio of Scandinavian brothers to rule over them. The reason given for this strange change of heart in the chronicle was that that the native Slavic population found themselves bereft of law and plagued by war.

To cut a long story short, a kinsman of one of the brothers, named Oleg, succeeded to the throne of Novgorod in the late 870s. He then began a process of aggressive expansion which brought him into conflict with various Slavic groups, other Rus’ adventurers and the Khazars of the steppes. Proving triumphant in these endeavors, Oleg founded the city of Kiev, a new capital located in the heart of his new realm. Really it is exactly the sort of foundational myth that a member of an established ruling dynasty looking to emphasize their special status and maintain links with Scandinavia would seek to perpetuate. Clearly, there is a legitimate and interesting academic discussion to be had here and there exists a broad spectrum of views on the subject with some historians and archaeologists challenging to one extent or another the role Scandinavians played in the region’s political reorganization and urbanization. Such debates, however, can occasionally bear a distinct and divisive political undercurrent.

There are several modern countries which to some extent conceive of themselves as the descendants and inheritors of the Rus’. Certain historical and existing regimes in these countries have signaled their antipathy or hostility to the notion of Scandinavian involvement and cultural hybridization in the formation of Kievan Rus’ because it challenges nationalistic narratives surrounding their history, supposed character and self-identified exceptionalism. Needless to say, this is an inherently self-defeating and lamentable approach to history that we need not dwell on.

The origins and basis of the cultural and economic flourishing of the Kievan Rus’ principalities in the eleventh century can in many ways be found within the essential interconnectivity and cultural conductivity of medieval Europe and the Mediterranean world. The Rus’, the Eastern Slavs, had a culture and political structure that was quite unlike that of any of their neighbors. Yet trade was the lifeblood that kept their cities and hinterlands hale and healthy, it was almost inevitable that their way of life would in some way be informed and affected by the ideas that circulated through it alongside all that wealth. Possibly the best example of this process of adaption and integration can be seen in the Rus’ religious practices and their initial adoption of Christianity. The apparatus and hierarchy of the Church were in some ways still struggling to entrench themselves in Scandinavia at the time of Harald Hardrada’s birth, indeed the following generation would rightly or wrongly subscribe to the belief that the spread of Christianity across Norway and the championing of the Church was one of Olaf’s primary motivations. The Principalities of Kievan Rus’ went through a similar process of rapprochement and reconciliation but rather than the increasingly centralized, monolithic, reform-minded and monastically informed western Church they adopted the distinct precepts, iconography and trappings of the Byzantine led eastern Church.

This adherence to one of the two rapidly diverging forms of mainstream institutional Christianity, rather than the other is principally a matter of proximity and political expediency rather carefully weighted theological concerns.  The precise difference between the two branches of Christianity and its profound political and conceptual ramifications in defining Europe in the medieval period is a topic for another day. Suffice to say that while the Great Schism didn’t formally occur until 1054 east and western churches had already significantly diverged from one another in terms of hierarchy, theology and religious practice. The Schism merely formalized a widening gap that had been created by the collapse of the Western Roman Empire and the continuation of imperial patronage and cooperation in the east. There is some significant evidence to suggest that the conversion of the neighboring Bulgars to Christianity in 863 inspired missionary activity and the incidental proliferation of Christianity within the region in which the Kievan Rus Principalities would form. This upswelling of conversion was significant and promising enough that the Patriarch of Constantinople, St Photios the Great, dispatched a Bishop to the region tasked with ministering and expanding the East Slavic Christian community.

By the early 950s Kievan Rus’ sheltered a sizeable Christian community although it seems that they were still the minority faith with the principalities’ ruling and warrior elites still firmly committed to Slavic paganism. This state of affairs began to change with the conversion of Olga of Kiev, the wife of the deceased Prince Igor and the mother of Sviatoslav I. Olga seems to have converted during the midst of her remarkable regency, ruling Kiev and successfully maintaining its overlordship on behalf of her young son from 945-960.

It is notable that Olga, or as she is known to Orthodox Christians today St. Helena’s, conversion or at least formal baptism seems to have occurred during a visit to the Byzantine capital of Constantinople. While it’s not implausible that the sheer scale, magnificence and lavish ritual of the Byzantine Churches may have awed Olga and sparked some sort of revelatory religious experience, she also had abundant political motivations for converting. Olga had already resisted several dangerous and widespread rebellions and was faced with the looming threat of invasion by the Steppe-bound Pechenegs. By adopting the religion of the Byzantine Emperors she may have hoped to strengthen the political ties which connected them to the Rus’ and invest them in the continuation of her regency. It is telling that when this embassy and daring religious rapprochement failed to translate into concrete political or military support or increased Imperial activity within the region, Olga dispatched another embassy to the Holy Roman Emperor which amongst other things raised the possibility of welcoming Latin priests, missionaries, and bishops within the court of Kiev.

Olga’s adoption of Christianity did much to spread the religion through the upper echelons of Kievan Rus’ society. She ultimately failed, however, to convert her son and successor Sviatoslav who remained an ardent follower of traditional Slavic paganism.  Upon his death fighting the Pechnegs in 972, Sviatoslav was initially succeeded as prince of Kiev and the head of the Kievan Rus’  federation by his son Yaropolk who continued his policy of cleaving to paganism while generally tolerating and cooperating with Christians. Kievan Rus’ first Christian ruler who definitively tied the region’s religious structures and institutions to the Byzantines and the Eastern Church was a younger son of Sviatoslav, Vladimir the Great. Feeling the internecine warfare and outburst of fratricide which resulted from his father’s death, Vladimir found refuge in Norway with his relative Haakon Sigurdsson. In a further demonstration of the essential interconnectivity and transnational character of the era, this was Haakon who was the Norwegian ally and confederate of King Harald Bluetooth of Denmark. Vladimir raised a formidable army in Scandinavia, returning to his ancestral stomping grounds in 978 to oust Yaropolk and claim the throne of Kiev for himself.

It seems that Vladimir initially intended to rule as a pagan as his father and brother had, even instituting a program of religious reform meant to promote and revitalize paganism. By 987 this program had failed and Vladimir’s position as an adherent to a politically isolated minority religion was largely untenable. The Russian Primary Chronicle contains an amusingly apocryphal account of the transition, depicting Vladimir and his court considering and trialing a number of religions before settling on the Eastern Christian Church of the Byzantine Empire. Judaism was ruled out simply because there were no powerful political entities or regions in which it was the majority religion, while Islam was considered before being hastily rejected due to its stipulations concerning the consumption of alcohol. The Western Church of Latin Christianity was, the Primary Chronicle tells us, similarly rejected because Vladimir’s envoys reported the German churches they had visited were meagre drab affairs compared to the splendor of their Byzantine counterparts.

In reality, as amusingly surreal as the Primary Chronicle account of Vladimir’s conversion is, it is nothing more than the indulgent posturing of an Orthodox monk writing in a time and place where their position in Kievan Rus’ society was all but unassailable.  Vladimir probably had very little recourse other than to align himself with the Eastern Church and Byzantines. Kievan Rus’ proximity to the Byzantine Empire and its surrounding halo of Orthodox polities combined with their long-standing trading relations and diplomatic contact meant that the Eastern Church’s permutation of Christianity was already worked into the edifice of Kievan Rus’ society, long before Vladimir’s court formally adopted it. For the rulers of Kievan Rus’, the creation of a religious unity with the Byzantine Emperors led to a commensurate and highly valuable improvement in their political and commercial relations, bringing them into the sphere of Byzantine influence and the universal empire as junior partners. More than that, it bathed them in the reflected glory and majesty of the Byzantine throne, exposing and aligning them with all the cultural sophistication and ideological foundation that that entailed. By the time Vladimir’s son Yaroslav the Wise had prevailed in the traditional war of succession in 1019, Eastern Christianity had been firmly established in Kievan Rus’ while the Byzantine Empire loomed as the dominant formation on its horizon.

A supremely able ruler, Yaroslav made extensive military and diplomatic efforts to exert a measure of control and authority over the Rus’ principalities, reframing a closely intertwined cultural conglomeration into a unified political hierarchy. As part of his solution to the challenges posed by this endeavor, Yaroslav became that most divisive but potentially puissant of eleventh-century figures; a lawgiver publishing and propagating a legal code, Russkaya Pravda. As we shall see Yaroslav’s strategy in attempting to exert control over the principalities of Kievan Rus’ as a whole was informed and complicated by their highly idiosyncratic approach to the division of familial inheritable interest.

This system placed an interesting spin on what was in the eleventh century a growing European wide conflation of a ruler’s personal holdings and interests with the region’s defining civic or political entities. Kievan Rus’ was a federation in which the majority of its constituent principalities were ruled by the scions of a single extended family. Rather than passing the rulership of a particular city or principality vertically through the family line, the Rurikid princes of Kievan Rus seem to have frequently rotated or rearranged their holdings and the exact division of the principalities by family members in response to changing political and dynastic circumstances.

Historians have made extensive efforts in reconstructing and analyzing the viability of this system and there exists some evidence that Yaroslav made an attempt to formalize and codify a pre-existing system in which family members were assigned cities based on their respective seniority and dynastic proximity to the ruler of Kiev. In the next entry of this series, we will briefly sketch the career of Yaroslav prior to 1130, touch again on the changing nature of rulership and military hegemony in the eleventh century before turning to explore how he recruited a certain exiled Norwegian princeling and his followers into a series of expansionary military campaigns.

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