Harald Hardrada: King of Norway

By James Turner

Coming back to Norway meant that Harald Hardrada had two relatives to deal with – Sweyn and Magnus. It would make for an interesting path to the Norwegian throne. 

By 1043 the wheel of fortune had turned once more, and the family of Harald Hardrada was triumphant. While Harald had busied himself in his exile waging war across the wine-dark sea in the employ of the empire of the Romans, his nephew Magnus, the illegitimate son of Harald’s half-brother King Olaf II, had become the figurehead of a powerful bloc of Norwegian aristocrats disaffected by the burdens and excesses of Danish overlordship. With their support and after a decade of warfare, Magnus was able to not only secure his hold on Norway, doing much to establish and disseminate notions of royal authority, but also capture the throne of Denmark. Their traditional enemies and tormentors had all fallen by the wayside or been bent to purpose. Cnut the Great and his sons, their power fragmented by internecine rivalries and squabbles, all fell victim to illness and tragedy while the Norwegian aristocrats who had overthrown and then slain Olaf II had all reconciled themselves to Magnus and the notion of Norwegian kingship.


Magnus, whose role in the political unification of Norway and establishment of the kingdom has all too often been overlooked and undervalued, is known to history as Magnus the Good. He earnt this epithet we are told by the 13th-century saga material because rather than seek revenge against his father’s killers and perpetuate a destructive blood feud, Magnus chose to forgive them and work together in challenging Danish hegemony over Norway. Of course, Magnus was only eleven when he was first proclaimed king in 1035, therefore despite the support of several powerful advocates, such as his stepmother Queen Astrid and her brother King Arnud Jacob of Sweden, the extent to which he could have struck back against his aristocratic sponsors is highly questionable. Harald’s epithet of Hardrada on the other hand translates into English into something along the lines of the severe or stern. Wars fought between those famed for their decency and gentleness of heart and those known for their severe and forceful nature seldom last long.

And it was to be war, for Harald arrived in Scandinavia intent upon seizing the throne of Norway for himself. Perhaps he felt like he had come too far, seen too much and served too many simply to present himself to his nephew as just another poor relation, a potential military proxy and advisor in a royal court already replete with vested interests and aristocratic affinities. Harald had departed Constantinople with considerable haste with a meagre handful of ships and a few hundred diehard followers at the most. Yet he was a force to be reckoned with.


He had after a decade of fighting in service to the Byzantine emperors cultivated a formidable reputation amongst his fellow mercenaries as both a warrior and leader. Alongside this hard-won experience, Harald’s war chest was brimming with gold and silver plundered from Anatolia, the Levant, Sicily and the imperial treasury of Constantinople.  He was therefore in an almost uniquely advantageous position to capitalize upon the transient population of Scandinavian mercenaries and adventurers that plied the well-established trade routes that connected Scandinavia with the lands of the Kyivan Rus’ and the worlds of the Black and Mediterranean Seas beyond. In addition to this, Harald was the ally and son-in-law of Grand Prince Jaroslav the Wise, one of the greatest and most powerful rulers in Europe; although at the time of Harald’s great Scandinavian adventure, Jaroslav was embroiled in a conflict with the Byzantine Empire in an attempt to emphasize the economic and cultural independence of the confederacy he ruled over.

Success often brings complications all of its own. Magnus’ invasion of Denmark, following the death of Harthacnut in 1042, heralded the rapid deterioration of the formerly close alliance with the Arnud Jacob. In a display of practically Bismarckian realpolitik, Arnud threw his support, if not many of his actual warriors, behind the focal point of Danish resistance to Magnus’ takeover, Sweyn Estridsson. Sweyn, the maternal nephew of Cnut the Great, used Sweden as a base from which to launch a series of troublesome but ultimately unsuccessful counter-invasions of Denmark, one of which was even undertaken with the cooperation of the of the Danes’ neighbors and traditional enemies the Welfs.  After all, from Arnud Jacob’s point of view there was very little reason to have fought so long to dismantle Danish hegemony over Scandinavia only to see it replaced with a de jure Norwegian overlordship.

Harald, in unwitting imitation of his nephew, travelled up to Sweden in either late 1045 or early 1046 in order to negotiate for the support of a contingent of exiled dissidents and their Swedish hosts. According to the Heimskringla, Harald arrived in Sweden with a single ship packed with gold plundered from the Mediterranean.  This circumspectness perhaps suggests a degree of secrecy on the part of the would-be allies so as not to provide Magnus with forewarning of their intentions. Gold has always, as Cicero says, been the sinews of war and Harald and Sweyn’s first meeting went exceedingly well. With the increasingly open support of Sweyn’s Swedish allies, the two exiles agreed to join forces and work together in their shared goal of ejecting Magnus from both the Norwegian and Danish thrones.

The Alliance of Harald and Sweyn

The Heimskringla, which was written in thirteenth-century Iceland, notes that Sweyn was not only connected to the Swedish royal house but also a relative of Harald. This could be taken as confirmation that Sweyn was already married to King Arnud Jacob’s daughter, Gyda, at the beginning of 1046 which would indeed give him and Harald, whose own wife was a first cousin of the Swedish king a loose familial connection. However, it is just as likely that the saga’s authors have muddled the chronology of Sweyn’s marriage; after all, giving your daughter in marriage to a thrice thwarted exile living on the fringes of your court is a very different proposition than a freshly victorious King of Denmark. There also exists the possibility, given the importance and emphasis placed on what is a fairly distant and tangential familial link, that the saga’s authors somehow conflated Sweyn’s royal Danish mother with Arnud’s similarly named sister.


Backed by the Swedish king and Harald’s own vast reserves of cash, the two quickly gathered a fleet composed mainly of Danish exiles loyal to Sweyn and the kind of masterless men and mercenaries that saw an opportunity in serving under as famed and capable warlord as Harald. Rather than risk an open confrontation between their modest forces and the hegemonically derived armies of Magnus, Harald and Sweyn began to pick apart Magnus’ support by ravaging the coastline of Denmark and Zeeland. The purpose of such attacks, beyond simply enriching themselves, was to disrupt Magnus’ still fragile control of Denmark, displaying to the freshly conquered Danish nobility that the foreign king lacked either the resources or inclination to properly protect them. This tactic not only denied Magnus the resources of his richest and most populous kingdom but almost encouraged elements of the Danish nobility to transfer their allegiance to Sweyn rather than risk becoming the victims of the duo’s raids.

For his part, Magnus seems to have been wrongfooted by the sudden spree of incursions and adopted a defensive strategy withdrawing to his power base in Norway to marshal his supporters and prepare for the coming onslaught. In the end, this attack never came. Instead, a most unusual compromise was reached by the uncle and nephew in which they agreed to share the throne and rule together as joint kings. Quiet how this settlement was reached or who made the first overture is unclear. Despite what may be inferred by modern readers from his epithet ‘the Good’, Magnus had no particular aversion to warfare. He had come of age while functioning as the royal figurehead of a sustained campaign to break Danish overlordship of Norway and while his tender age probably precluded him from assuming overall command, contemporary conceptions of kingship had strong martial connotations, suggesting that he may on occasion have been called upon to accompany military expeditions.

Upon reaching adulthood Magnus was swift, even eager, to take advantage of the power vacuum left by Harthacnut’s death, overcoming bitter resistance and multiple uprisings to secure his grip on Denmark. It appears that Magnus may have harbored some ambitions to piece back together the vast hegemony of his father’s nemesis, Cnut the Great. Magnus who claimed to have been recognized by the childless Harthacnut as his legitimate heir in a treaty between the two, had previously issued threats to Edward, the newly crowned king of England stating his intention to invade Harthacnut’s second kingdom. Perhaps Magnus and his advisors had been taken by surprise by the speed with which their hard-won control of Denmark had been dismantled. It seems most probable, however, that after a solid decade of warfare, Magnus’ supporters within the Norwegian aristocracy were simply tired of fighting and had no wish to face the prolonged bloodshed that was sure to follow if the royal scions were to clash in Norway. This interpretation of events is as we shall see borne out to an extent by the resistance of certain factions within the aristocracy to Harald.


As always, the Heimskringla presents an aggrandizing and idiosyncratic version of events. According to the saga, Sweyn and Harald were feasting together when they fell to arguing about whether Harald’s prized standard Land-Waster possessed magic qualities. Tempers ran hot and Sweyn accused Harald of unseemly ambition and selfishness, scornfully and somewhat incredulously asking what sort of man conspires to overthrow his own nephew. Meanwhile, Harald mockingly pointed out all the times that Sweyn had broken his word to Magnus whose clemency he had accepted time and time again in the aftermath of his numerous uprisings. In all fairness, both made some pretty good points. That night the ever-canny Harald, fearing the worst, fashioned a decoy from a tree stump which he placed underneath the blankets of his bed while he himself lay in wait elsewhere. Sure enough, Harald’s miserable appraisal of the strength of his alliance with Sweyn was vindicated when the Danish warlord came creeping into Harald’s quarters and buried his axe in Harald’s hastily assembled wooden simulacrum. With Sweyn’s treachery and knavish character fully exposed, Harald abandoned their partnership, instead seeking out Magnus who happily greeted his uncle.

The Alliance of Harald and Magnus

While the Heimskringla skips past all the no doubt intensive and heated negotiations, which must surely have preceded this reunion, in favor of emphasizing familial sentiment and unity, it goes to considerable pains to underscore that while Harald and Magnus shared power, Magnus was acknowledged by all as the senior king. Outside the confines of the saga the matter of Magnus’ seniority and the exact nature of their agreement are far from certain. Many of the examples that the Heimskringla cites to signify Magnus’ higher status, such as precedence in seating arrangements and use of the royal jetty reflect the status symbols and concerns of thirteenth-century Scandinavian kingship.

As we have discussed elsewhere in this series, the monarchies of mid-eleventh-century Europe tended to derive their authority and efficacy from the personal qualities and connections of their incumbents rather than offices and institutions with predefined remits and responsibilities. This was particularly the case in Norway in which royal authority had to be constructed from scratch by Olaf II and then gained by Magnus and his cabal of aristocratic supporters following its erosion by rebellion and Danish occupation. The royal rights and privileges with which Heimskringla credits Magnus were created in an attempt by monarchs to distinguish themselves more thoroughly from their foremost followers and build institutional authority to bulwark their often-variable personal authority. It is possible that by conferring the easily identifiable trappings and authority of thirteenth-century kingship upon Magnus, the saga is lessening the severity of Harald’s usurpation of power in the eyes of the work’s intended audience.

On the other hand, the Heimskringla’s depiction of the two kings operating separate courts and only occasionally coming together to confer and cooperate on larger issues has a definite ring of truth about it and is broadly in keeping with our understanding of eleventh-century rulership. With precious little in the way of governmental apparatus or formal institutions, the king’s power rested upon his ability to form and maintain connections with local powerbrokers whose loyalty was maintained in part through the distribution of patronage and largesse.

The Magnus Stone created by Niels Skovgaard in Skibelund Krat, Denmark. Photo by Oleryhlolsson / Wikimedia Commons

Magnus and Harald each operated a separate royal court formed by their household and supporters which both traveled across Norway levelling taxes and cultivating support from the localities to the varying extent that opportunity and circumstances allowed. In this way, a kingdom could support two kings without constantly tripping over one another, although their varying relationships with members of the aristocracy and the need for local powerbrokers to come to a separate understanding with both kings almost inevitably became potentially dangerous sources of tension. Indeed, the Heimskringla specifically mentions that the relationship between the dual kings was at times strained by their followers and subjects competing for advantage or attempting to play the two kings off against one another. Many of these arguments were, according to the saga, caused by the coemption between uncle and nephew over the trappings and privileges that had by the thirteenth century come to denote royal status.

Also, of considerable interest to the topic of how Harald first came to power in Norway and the mechanism through which this joint kingship functioned is the saga’s lengthy description of how Magnus and Harald agreed to share their wealth as a precondition of their joint rule. Indeed, whatever the feeling of his supporters towards yet another potentially lengthy war, access to Harald’s horde of plundered Mediterranean gold may have been an important factor in Magnus’ decision to accept a co-ruler, particularly if as the Heimskringla claims that the co-ruler was explicitly junior to him. Magnus as we have seen came to power as the royal figurehead of an essentially anti-Danish aristocratic uprising who then presided over ten years of war.

Under such circumstances, with no royal treasury to inherit and with only limited opportunity to levy meaningful taxes upon the nobility, Magnus was in desperate need of money to secure royal authority and enable his imperial ambitions. Money which Harald had, for now at least, in plentiful supply. Interestingly the narrative of the Heimskringla which depicts Harald as being largely accepting of his nephew’s precedence uses its depiction of the division of these funds as the moment that Harald pushes back against Magnus, reminding his fellow king of his own place in their shared family history and Magnus’ reliance on his continuing goodwill and cooperation.

When at a feast in which Magnus, pleading poverty, eagerly anticipates the impending infusion of funds into his coffers, Harald recognizes that Magnus’ only remaining piece of golden jewelry had originally been taken, he suggests unjustly, by Olaf II from Harald’s father, the petty king Sigurd Syr. In doing so he reminds Magnus that he, Harald, is entangled in every aspect of their family’s legacy, from trinket to kingdom. Magnus’ ownership of everything he inherited from his father is complicated by Harald’s own claims. While the story of Magnus’ golden trinket is almost certainly a literal affectation meant to enthrall and entertain thirteenth-century Scandinavian audiences, it is clear that Harald leveraged his substantive financial, as well as military, resources in persuading Magnus and his supporters in accepting Harald as co-king. If this strategic redistribution of wealth, whether it involved access to a shared treasury, the splitting of funds or more likely the distribution of bribes and one-off payments, it seems probable that the historical Harald took pains to ensure that his money bought him the influence and authority he wished it to and ensure that Magnus was properly resigned to having a co-ruler.

This bust of Sweyn was made from a cast of the skull taken when his grave was opened in Roskilde Cathedral in 1911. Photo by John Lee / Wikimedia Commons

Invasion of Denmark

Unfortunately for the Norwegian co-kings, in their earlier campaign Harald and Sweyn had so thoroughly undermined Norway’s tenuous overlordship of Denmark that during Harald’s defection and the no doubt lengthy period of negotiation that followed, Sweyn had not only declared himself King of Denmark but succeeded in exerting at least some degree of authority over most of his new kingdom. In 1047, with the cracks in their joint rule already starting to form, Harald and Magnus raised fresh levies from across Norway and together launched yet another invasion of Denmark.

Magnus the Good died in the opening stages of this invasion, shortly after landing in Denmark. The exact cause of death and the circumstances surrounding it are unclear, and the few accounts that cover it, all offer contradictory and often chronologically muddled explanations. The Heimskringla claims that upon falling ill, the bedridden Magnus was visited by a vision of his father who essentially summons him to heaven to avoid a great evil he would have committed later in life which would have stained his soul and sent him hell-bound. Those of you of an untrusting disposition may suspect that Harald was responsible for his nephew and co-king’s sudden death. It could well be the case, sadly we just fundamentally lack the evidence to do anything more than idly speculate.

While the eve of a clash with your foremost enemy may seem like an inopportune moment to dispose of a troublesome family member and colleague, it is possible that Harald felt that he could not risk Magnus succeeding. Were the young king to reap gold and glory from the reconquest of Denmark he would be far harder to remove. Conversely, he may, flushed with triumph, begin to rethink his relationship with Harald and the entire issue of a co-king. It was an arrangement after all that had been imposed upon him, at least partly through the threat of force and was laced with tension and hostility. If this was the case, it appears that Harald may have overestimated his influence on the Norwegian aristocracy and the strength of the relationships he had managed to establish in the months following his return to Norway. While Harald wished to press on with the invasion, a large section of the nobility led by Magnus’ ally and former sponsor, Einar Thambarskelfir, uncertain and distrustful of Harald’s leadership returned home to Norway in order to bury Magnus. Without the support of the Norwegian aristocracy Harald was compelled to call off the invasion.

While unable to launch or sustain a full-scale invasion of Denmark in the years that followed his assumption of sole ruler, he did launch extensive raids across the Danish coastline and hinterlands, the riches extracted from such expedients and the alliances forged during them further abetted his consolidation of power in Norway. In 1050, Harald invited Einar, who had continued to be a focus for aristocratic dissent and opposition to Harald’s rule, to peace talks, seemingly in a last-ditch attempt to avert the impending war between the two factions. Having lured them to the parley site, Harald then had Einar, his follower and most prominent supporters massacred. A brutally direct and effective assertion of royal power and authority that did much to silence aristocratic opposition to his rule.

Like Olaf II and Magnus before him, Harald also extensively promoted and patronized the Church within Norway as a way of further consolidating authority. Support of the Church and the proliferation of its teaching and structures not only provided Harald with a powerfully emotive ideological precedence for his personal authority and the institution of kingship but it also crucially gave him access to the Church’s resources and administrative apparatus which was vital to effective taxation. Unlike his half-brother or nephew, however, Harald strove to keep the growing Norwegian Church firmly underneath his thumb, directing and supervising its growth through the importation of clerics from the Byzantine empire and the Principalities of Kyiv Rus, in addition to more traditional sources such as England and the Frankish successor kingdoms. When the Papacy dispatched legates to his court to protest the willful proliferation of alien ideas and doctrines, Harald angrily had the envoys tossed out, declaring in a telling precursor to the Investiture Crisis that the appointment of bishops within his country was entirely his own business.

In addition to the cultivation of the Church and its accompanying institutions throughout Norway and his often-violent curbing of the aristocratic pretensions towards autonomy, Harald cultivated royal authority through a monopolization on the minting of coinage. While the Norwegians would have long been exposed to the customary tight controls, the English monarchy held on the minting of coinage, it is possible that Harald was further inspired to take this extraordinary step in the codification and display of royal authority as a result of his experience of the Byzantine court.

Harald had returned to Scandinavia as a warlord in search of land at the head of a force of ravening raiders. Through means fair and foul, he had leveraged his vast military experience and financial resources into being accepted as Magnus’ co-king, so avoiding an internecine conflict which had the potential to break Norway’s hard-won supremacy within the region. As sole King of Norway, Harald’s iron will and relentless promotion of royal authority built upon Magnus’ earlier attempts to foster Norwegian unity, conclusively establishing the Kingdom of Norway as a political rather than merely cultural entity. In the next installment in the series, we shall touch upon Harald’s rule of Norway in greater detail, his ongoing attempts to conquer Denmark and his growing interest in the conquest of England.

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: Our illustration is by Julia Lillo