Harald Hardrada: Prelude to Invasion

By James Turner

With Norway under his control, King Harald looks to seize the throne of another kingdom. 

By 1047 it was clear that the decade and a half that Harald had spent honing his talents for warfare in the service of first Grand Prince Yaroslav of Kyiv and then the Emperors of Byzantium had reaped significant dividends. Returning to Scandinavia as a raider and warlord he had successfully convinced his nephew, King Magnus the Good, that it was better to have him as a co-king than an enemy. A decision no doubt eased by the promise of granting the perpetually cash-strapped Magnus access to the huge hoard of plunder that Harald had squirrelled away during his career as a mercenary. How this curious relationship would have functioned is unclear, after a few months of prowling around Norway avoiding each other and farming taxes, Magnus obligingly died suddenly while accompanying his co-king on a joint invasion of Denmark. Having gained the throne of Norway with comparative ease, Harald was left with the far more strenuous task of consolidating power and ruling a country only recently accustomed to kings.


Read more from this series:

An Exemplar of the Age
Exiled Prince
Kievan Rus’
Apprentice Warlord
The Universal Empire
In Service to the Byzantine Empire
Mediterranean Voyages
Fighting in Sicily and Italy
Against the Bulgarians
Overthrowing of an Emperor
Going Back to Norway
King of Norway

At the beginning of the eleventh century, Norway existed as a cultural but not a political entity. While its people, largely defined by linguistic affiliation, had some sense of shared heritage and identity, they were deeply fractured politically. Power, such as it was, rested in the hands of the Jarl, a broad class of petty kings and local aristocrats that were deeply embedded in the communities they ruled over. These Jarls often grouped themselves into loose confederations based upon wider regional identities, but such understandings were informal and highly susceptible to change in response to their members’ personal circumstances.


Harald’s elder half-brother Olaf II had, with the backing of a cabal of Jarls from the Uplands, declared himself king of the whole of Norway and had attempted to impose royal authority over the aristocracy through a combination of direct military intervention and appeals to a shared heritage in the form of his claims to be the descendant of the legendary high king Harald Finehair. Of course, as we have seen, despite making considerable material gains and progress in introducing the principles of royal authority to Norway, many within the Norwegian aristocracy resented the imposition of an outside and largely self-appointed authority. Olaf was forced to flee Norway when the aristocracy abandoned him in the face of a Danish invasion and was subsequently slain in battle against a coalition of Norwegian nobles who opposed his attempts to return to power.

Norwegian royal authority was more meaningfully and lastingly advanced during the reign of Olaf’s son, and Harald’s one-time co-ruler, Magnus the Good. Magnus came to the throne of Norway under extraordinary circumstances despite being both illegitimate and a child; he was whisked away from exile in a foreign court and proclaimed king by an alliance of Norwegian aristocrats. While contemporary Duke William ‘the Bastard” of Normandy experienced attempts by his vassals and rivals to use his illegitimacy as a pretense to undermine or even refute his authority, Magnus never faced any such challenges. Part of this was of course due to cultural differences, in Scandinavia at the time there was far less emphasis placed on differentiating between the forms and parameters of sexual partnerships. Consequently, the line between legitimate and illegitimate appeared blurred or even incidental. Magnus’ mother, a former slave, had not been Olaf’s queen but that did not mean her son, who had been raised within the royal household, could not serve as his father’s primary heir in the absence of more highly-born male children.

The truth is that Olaf was able to succeed his father as king of Norway, despite any concerns raised by his tender age and illegitimacy, because the Norwegian aristocracy were desperate. Following Olaf’s death, Cnut the Great installed his eldest son Sweyn as his proxy ruler of Norway. Under Sweyn, who was advised and supported by his mother, Cnut’s first wife Ælfgifu of Northampton, the family’s traditional overlordship of Norway came more to resemble a Danish occupation with an increasingly heavy financial burden being placed upon the native Norwegian aristocracy. Those Norwegian aristocrats opposed to Sweyn’s’ rule, many of whom had actually been former enemies of Olaf, subsequently found themselves in need of a member of Norwegian royalty to function as a much-needed figurehead of resistance. The gradual but undeniable success of Magnus and his advisors and partners within the nobility in ousting Danish forces from Norway led to the formation of a powerful association between anti-Danish sentiment, Norwegian identity and royal authority.

In addition to his role of leading the resistance against occupation by a distinct cultural and political other, another important source of royal authority during Magnus’ reign was the royal family’s close association with the Church in general and Olaf’s elevation to sainthood in particular. Olaf was first declared a saint a mere year after his death by Bishop Grimketel, an English priest who appears to have encountered Olaf during his conversion in Normandy and who followed him back to Norway where he became one of his principal advisors and established the Diocese of Nidaros. Grimketel’s motivation for establishing Olaf’s cult is not immediately clear; while Olaf did much to establish the apparatus of the Church hierarchy in Norway, most modern historians sound a note of caution regarding traditional claims concerning the king’s tireless evangelizing.


While Olaf established several dioceses in Norway, it appears that he did so only in areas that were already overwhelmingly Christian, providing structure to Norway’s Christian communities as a way of  more easily exerting authority within the region and tapping into local resources. On the other hand, it seems that Olaf was content to reach a personal rapprochement with the local elites of predominately pagan areas and was seldom willing to risk alienating them by insisting on conversion. While it is entirely possible that Grimketel’s beatification of Olaf was the result of genuine religious sentiment or a mark of admiration for a man he clearly knew well, it is also possible that he was motivated by financial and political factors.

Saints, their relics and the pilgrims they attracted were important sources of wealth for religious institutions and it is possible that Grimketel sought to manufacture a royal saint to use the resultant financial and political clout to raise the prestige of his bishopric in the still nascent hierarchy of the Norwegian Church. Whatever the case, Olaf’s cult rapidly grew and spread throughout Norway. It is probable that widespread anti-Danish sentiment made the idea of an unmistakable Norwegian saint, heavily associated with the idea of Norway as an independent entity, particularly appealing. Certainly, after Magnus’ establishment on the throne, the cult received enthusiastic sponsorship from the young king who was only too aware of the many advantages of having a saintly ancestor.

Magnus had by dint of his success in driving out the Danish made great strides in establishing the legitimacy and authority of the Norwegian monarchy. Yet he essentially ruled through consensus, his power and authority were underwritten by the conditional support of an aristocratic cabal. Usurpingly given the way he had muscled his way into power with a combination of military force and naked bribery, Harald was viewed with caution and distrust by much of the Norwegian aristocracy. They, as it turned out quite rightly, feared that the bullish and warlike former mercenary would attempt to secure the throne not through a series of quid pro quo negotiations but by centralizing power within Norway and growing royal authority at their expense. After all, prior to his concordant with Magnus, Harald’s attempt to secure a share of power had seen the Norwegians lose complete control of their hard-won Danish possessions and before even that, Harald had fought beside Olaf II to uphold his elder half-brother’s claims to authority over the Norwegian aristocracy.


One of Magnus’ foremost supporters and advisers was Jarl Einar Thambarskelfir. Einar enters the saga record as a supporter of Olaf I, a famed Viking of Norwegian extraction whose attempts to claim the crown of Norway led to his death in 1000 at the hands of a host led by the then-allied kings of Denmark and Sweden. Despite his apparent loyalty to this would-be royal claimant, Einar was a member of the influential Lade family and a relative of Sweyn Haakonsson, the Norwegian ally and proxy ruler of Danish King Sweyn Forkbeard. As we have seen however, following the death of Olaf II, rather than promote Eniar to the position of a proxy ruler and vassal as a replacement for his Haakonsson relatives, Cnut the Great placed his eldest son Sweyn in charge of Norway. This marginalization and increased financial burdens placed on the Norwegian aristocracy by the occupying regime prompted Einar and a number of his allies to seek out and declare Olaf II’s son, Magnus, king of Norway in 1035.

The Magnusstenen, made by the Danish sculptor and painter Niels Skovgaard in 1898. Photo by Oleryhlolsson / Wikimedia Commons

Following Magnus’ sudden death during the co-King’s joint invasion of Denmark in 1047, Einar opposed Harald’s attempts to press on with the campaign, effectively scuttling the invasion when he returned home to Norway having publicly expressed his lack of faith in Harald’s leadership. Unsurprisingly, in the aftermath of such a public clash, Einar and his family became a focus and rallying point for aristocratic dissent as Harald’s ongoing attempts to consolidate power polarized and alienated broad elements of the Norwegian aristocracy. Harald dealt with this growing nexus of opposition in a typically brutal and ruthless manner. Following a period of growing tensions and escalating clashes between their supporters, Harald intermated that he would be willing to compromise in order to avoid the fast-approaching final plunge into civil war. When in 1150 Einar, his eldest son, and leading supporters arrived at the pre-arranged location of the peace talks, they were fallen upon by Harald’s heavily armed warriors and massacred.

While the king had removed his foremost rival and effectively broke the power of the Jarls of Lade, this brutal act of treachery meant that his authority was far from universally accepted throughout Norway and this continued even during his efforts to expand royal authority. The last and most dramatic of these attempts to shrug off the strictures of Harald’s reign came in 1064 when one of the king’s former lieutenants, Haakon Ivarsson, left his refuge in Sweden and seized control of the Upland region of Norway with the connivance of much of the local population. While the support of the Upland Jarls, including Harald’s father Sigurd Syr, had been crucial in launching Olaf II’s bid for the throne of Norway, the inland region was something of a geographic backwater, far from the commercial nodes or coastal population centers from which central authority had traditionally been exerted. In a sense then, the rebellion may have as much to do with local resentment at Harald’s slowly tightening web of hitherto unaccustomed control as it did Haakon’s ambitions.

Whatever the case, Harald dealt with the uprising with his characteristic mix of expediency and brutality. Despite the logistical challenges of reaching the region, Harald’s troops began burning and pillaging the Uplands in a display of performative retribution until the surviving community leaders agreed to once again accept the king’s tax collectors.


Harald, building upon the example set by previous Scandinavian rulers and no doubt influenced by his experience with the highly sophisticated financial organs of the Byzantine state, made great strides in imposing a royal monopoly over the minting of coinage within Norway. This level of control, not only provided the king with hitherto undreamed-of levels of income as he was free to skim precious metals from the mint and debase the coinage as needed but was also a potent tool for the transmission of royal authority. Harald’s incredible success in this endeavour and the welding of the concept of legitimate coinage to royal authority is attested to by the prominence and primacy of Norwegian-struck coins over foreign currency throughout the Scandinavian world, despite the contemporary proliferation of English coinage. This flood of English coinage had been brought about in the aftermath of the Danish conquest of England and Cnut the Great’s subsequent tendency to meet his financial obligations in Denmark with easily accessible imported English coins.

Much like the Byzantine Emperors whom he had served during his long exile from Scandinavia, Harald was able to use his unprecedented access to hard currency to maintain a large standing force of fighting men that could be rapidly expanded even further during times of war or crisis. Harald’s ability to exert his authority as King was heavily underpinned by his military supremacy within Norway, a state of affairs the king sort to leverage even further by attempting to curtail the Jarl’s rights and abilities to maintain comparable standing bodies of warriors. In 1064 Harald, in the midst of reorienting his foreign policy and hegemonic ambitions, declared that many of his Norwegian subjects had been skimping on their taxes. Under this pretext, he dispatched warbands to many of the country’s most prosperous farming communities with instructions to recoup these alleged losses in a spree of barely organized plundering.

Harald and Denmark

Outside of his energetic if sometimes bloodyhanded attempts to exert royal authority within Norway, Harald’s numerous attempts to reconquer Denmark represented the major preoccupation of his reign. As we have seen, Harald was himself responsible for breaking the Norwegian’s military and political hold over their former overlords when he, in concert with his Danish allies, raided across the length and breadth of the country to draw his nephew Magnus to either the battlefield or the negotiation table.

The initial attempt to re-establish Norwegian hegemony in Denmark was stymied by King Magnus’ sudden death at the beginning of the campaign and the subsequent necessity for Harald to establish authority over the Norwegian aristocracy. Unfortunately for Harald, his former ally, Sweyn Estridsson, the maternal nephew of Cnut the Great, had used this temporary reprieve to wisely cultivate the support of the Danish aristocracy. Declaring himself King of Denmark, he swiftly insinuated himself into the robust traditions and institutions through which his cousin, uncle and grandfather had previously ruled.  Just as Magnus had come to power as a figurehead in the struggle against Danish overlordship, their bitter reversal of fortunes made the rule of a member of their traditional and previously glorious royal family a tempting prospect.

The following war was long and the fighting intermittent, limited for the most part to sporadic periods of intensive raiding. In many ways, this conformed to the broad pattern of western and central European warfare in the eleventh century during which pitched battles were a relative rarity and fighting was usually characterized by raids and intensive border skirmishes. This general adherence was further exacerbated by the geographic situation and Harald’s strategic need to balance the fighting in Denmark with his struggle to overcome internal opposition in Norway and his ongoing rivalry with the Swedish king.

As early as 1048, a mere year after assuming the sole kingship of Norway, Harald can be found leading major raids across Jutland on the Danish coastline. In 1049, he returned to sack the trading town of Hedeby before doing the same to Aarhus itself the following year. In the aftermath of the latter of these raids, Harald found himself confronted by a Danish host led by Sweyn. However, neither king seemed inclined to force a battle and Harald and his army were allowed to withdraw only to be taken by surprise by Sweyn’s continued dogged pursuit and compelled to abandon much of his loot.

The role of plunder is worth considering at this stage of hostilities, particularly when viewed in light of Harald’s wider career. While he may not have possessed the human or financial resources necessary to launch a sustained and earnest invasion of conquest in 1050, each of these raids saw Harald or his commanders return to Norway with a rich number of captives and stolen goods. These regular influxes of wealth provided Harald with further means to reward the loyal service of his warriors as well as allowing him to cultivate new allies within Norway.

By 1062 Harald had judged that his position within Norway was secure enough to commit to another serious and large-scale attempt to conquer Denmark outright. In preparation for this invasion, he gathered a large fleet composed of around 300 ships as well as raised a substantial militia in Norway to complement and bulk out the army’s core of professional warriors and habitual raiders.

According to the Sagas, with both kings eager for a decisive clash they agreed to give battle at a prearranged date and location. When Sweyn apparently demurred to show, causing Harald to send his strategically unwieldy and occasionally fractious militia home. It is at this point, thirteenth century Icelandic court poem Snorri Sturluson tells us, that Sweyn’s fleet rounded the headland striking at Harald’s now weakened army with 300 ships of his own.

The Battle of Niså was, we are reassured by the saga evidence, extraordinarily bloody with Harald ultimately triumphing as a result of the cunning deployment of his forces and harbouring of a tactical reserve that was able to strike a decisive blow at the apex of the battle. Sweyn then escapes tail between his legs with less than a third of his original force.

While it is not impossible that Harald and Sweyn agreed to a decisive battle in an attempt to decide the long-running conflict, in doing so Harald would be sacrificing one major strategic advantage. That is that he, as the attacker, would be free to strike anywhere along Denmark’s prodigious coastline from where he could seek an advantageous position or threaten a vital target which would compel the defender, Sweyn, to react to him. It seems likely that many of the particulars of the battle and its myriad dissimulations was heavily edited or outrightly concocted to appeal to its thirteenth-century audiences’ taste for stories of violence and trickery. Likewise, the idea that Harald’s lieutenant Haakon Ivarsson, who was acknowledged the hero of the battle, deliberately saved Sweyn’s life in order to foreshadow his upcoming rebellion and take over the Uplands is rather confusingly introduced and seems to owe far more to melodrama and narrative structure than it does to history.

Indeed, whatever the exact truth of how the battle came to be fought, there is good reason to believe that the historical Battle of Niså was a good deal harder fought and less decisive than its literary counterpart. Despite Harald’s apparent victory over Sweyn, he was for some reason unable to fully take advantage of it and had to withdraw rather than press on with the invasion. Sweyn’s leadership and the centralized authority of Danish kingship were robust enough that the kingdom’s powerbrokers and aristocrats were willing to fight on despite years of devastating raids and losses in the field. Meanwhile Harald’s government in Norway was based more on his monopoly of military power and the kingdom’s budding financial institutions than it was on a shared aristocratic consensus. This meant that any extended absence from Norway was a potential danger for Harald. Furthermore. the ongoing tax burden of supporting the long-running war and the further efforts it was now evident would be required to actually secure Denmark were a source of considerable internal friction.

In 1064 Harald and Sweyn agreed on a peace treaty in which both recognized the legitimacy and sovereign nature of each other’s thrones, complete with a mutual promise to eschew further hostilities. It was after over a decade of fighting, an admission by Harald that he could not recapture and subdue Denmark without at least seriously endangering his position within Norway. However, as earlier alluded to the peace with Denmark represented a reorientation of Harald’s imperialistic and hegemonic ambitions rather than a renunciation of them.

Meanwhile in England

With the war in Denmark ended, Harald’s eyes fell upon another component of the extended Scandinavian world, England. The kingdom’s comparative affluence and large reserves of manpower had been the lynchpin of Cnut the Great’s North Sea Empire, allowing him not only to retain the kingship of Denmark and Norway in the face of substantive rebellions but to extend his influence to encompass the entire Scandinavian world. In an England still bearing the scars and divisions of a previous Scandinavian invasion, Harald Hardrada spied an opportunity to seize greatness.

England had by the mid-eleventh century long been considered a component of the larger Scandinavian world, its political horizons firmly oriented around the North and Irish Seas. Today the popular imagination tends to think of 1066 in terms of the English, or Anglo-Saxon depending on the authors’ preference, and their Norman adversities. In fact, the aristocracy and warrior class of England were already participants in a hybrid culture. The army that narrowly lost to Duke William the Bastard’s Normans and which scant days earlier had so unexpectedly routed the great army of King Harald was Anglo-Danish in terms of its construction and leadership. The king that commanded them, Harold Godwinson, his coterie of aristocratic supporters as well as a number of the rank-and-file warriors were themselves the English-born descendants of Danes who had settled there in the wake of the Danish invasion.

Since we have previously discussed the way the various scions of the Danish royal family both administered and divided their various kingdoms amongst themselves elsewhere in this series, we will use the broadest of strokes in recapping this period before covering England as it appeared to Harald in 1064 in greater depth. England had slowly been unified over the course of the late ninth and early tenth centuries as the Kings of Wessex absorbed piecemeal the English kingdoms and other territories which had fallen victim to a series of Scandinavian invasions. The result was the creation of a kingdom which was by the standards of the time relativity politically and socially centralized with a powerful monarchy which boasted a formidable array of formalized legal powers and numerous avenues of income. However, as a result of extensive settlement that followed the Vikings’ initial overrunning of several English Kingdoms, regions of England such as the north possessed a large Danish-speaking population.

In 1003 King Sweyn Forkbeard of Denmark invaded England, despite numerous and long-running attempts by the English to forestall the attack by offering financial support to his enemies within Scandinavia. This initial invasion proved to be inconclusive, but it did catalyze a series of grand raids on England by various Scandinavian warlords and opportunists and by 1013, Sweyn, having scented blood in the water, had returned with an even larger host. Sweyn quickly subjected England and forced King Æthelred and his heirs into exile. However, Sweyn died in January of 1014, mere weeks after being crowned king of England.

Sweyn’s eldest son, Harald, became King of Demark while his next eldest, Cnut, was left to complete the conquest of England. This task was complicated by the return of King Æthelred and his son Edmund Ironsides from exile, who were able to successfully challenge Cnut’s control of large swathes of England. In 1016 Edmund, who had succeeded his father earlier that year, was defeated at the Battle of Assandun and compelled to come to the negotiating table. At this summit, Cnut and Edmund agreed to end hostilities and split England between them, only for Edmund to die a few weeks later allowing Cnut to do away with the partition and consolidate authority over the entirety of England.

Cnut had married the wealthy and powerful English heiress Ælfgifu of Northampton sometime during his father’s renewed invasion of England in either 1013 or 1014. The advantages of the match were obvious, incentivizing one of the most powerful English aristocratic families and their extensive network of allies, relatives, and clients to support the invasion. At the same time, the match signalled to the other English powerbrokers that the Danes were willing to cooperate and accommodate the native aristocracy rather than simply displace them.  The marriage was dynastically as well as politically successful with Ælfgifu giving birth to two sons Sweyn and Harold Harefoot. However, in 1017 Cnut set aside his marriage to Ælfgifu in pursuit of an even more advantageous union with Æthelred’s widow Queen Emma.

In 1018, Cnut’s brother Harald died making Cnut King of both Denmark and England. Despite his initial ruthlessness in violently removing all opposition to his rule in England and the need to provide his victorious army with suitable rewards of land and treasure, as his reign went on Cnut became increasingly comfortable with cooperating with his English subjects and ruling in the manner of an English king in broad concert with English expectations and customs. Retaining and even building upon the existing apparatus of the English royal government allowed Cnut to efficiently farm taxes and periodically raise colossal sums of money from his new kingdom.

This wealth coupled with access to new sources of manpower allowed Cnut to maintain control of Denmark and Norway and extended his influence right across the North Sea to encompass the entire Scandinavian world. As we have seen when Olaf II of Norway and Anud Jacob of Sweden aligned against him in 1026, Cnut’s response was to dispatch a truly massive fleet formed of both Danish and English forces. While the top tier of the aristocracy changed following the Danish invasion, as Cnut rewarded his allies such as Thorkell the Tall, the remainder of the aristocracy was left relatively intact. Indeed, as Cnut’s reign progressed he began to elevate his most trusted English subjects to earldoms and brokering marriages between prominent Danish families.

Following Cnut’s death in 1035, his son by Queen Emma, Harthacnut, was intended to take his place as the king of Denmark, England and Norway. However, continued opposition to Danish rule in Norway compelled him to remain in Scandinavia which allowed his half-brother, Harold Harefoot, to seize control of England. When Harold died in 1040, Harthacnut was able to finally able to take the throne of England for himself, reuniting much of his father’s hegemony, although in order to do so he was forced to make peace with King Magnus the Good and renounce his claim to the kingship of Norway. The claim to England King Harald Hardrada advanced in 1066 was based both on his rather abstract conception of himself as the inheritor of the imperial legacy of Cnut the Great and the rather strange and dubious notion that as part of their peace treaty in 1040, Harthacnut and Magnus had accepted each other as one another’s heirs. If Magnus had been the rightful king of England as Harthacnut’s heir then Harald as Magnus’ heir also had a claim to the kingdom.

As you know when Harthacnut died in 1042, Magnus wasted little time in invading Denmark but despite some evidence of vague threats directed at Queen Emma he seems to have had neither the resources nor inclination to pursue his claims in England.  Harthacnut’s death provoked a flurry of political activity and scheming in the Anglo-Danish court which eventually lead to the restoration of the English royal family in the form of Edward the Confessor, Harthacnut’s half-brother and the son of King Æthelred and Queen Emma. Edward’s accession to the throne was met with popular acclaim throughout England but having spent the majority of his adult life hiding in exile with his mother’s family in Normandy, he was politically dependent upon the support of a small cabal of extraordinarily powerful Anglo-Danish Earls of mixed origins.

Earl Leofric of Mercia was English, his father Leofwine having first brought the family to prominence as a result of his service to King Æthelred. However, he had been an early supporter of Cnut whose execution of his elder brother had paved the way for Leofwine’s advancement. He is perhaps better remembered in folklore and popular culture than history as the husband of Lady Godiva. Earl Siward of Northumbria was almost certainly Scandinavian in origin although his personal history and position prior to being raised to an earldom in 1032 are largely unknown. One particularly dubious tradition held that his family line back in Scandinavia originated with a polar bear. Godwin of Wessex was the most powerful and enduringly influential of this trio of uber-earls. His family were middling members of the English aristocracy but through assiduous and capable service to Cnut, he was not only given England’s richest earldom but able to marry the Danish noblewoman Gytha Thorkelsdóttir whose brother was married to Cnut’s sister. The principal difficulty that lay between the newly crowned King Edward and Earl Godwin was that when Godwin had been allied to Harold Harefoot, he had ordered the blinding of Edward’s brother Alfred who had died shortly after his mutilation.

In 1045, Edward grudgingly acquiesced to marry Godwin’s daughter Edith, almost surely in response to immense political pressure. Despite the insinuation of a member of the Godwin family within the center of his household, the king continued to harbour ill will towards the man who in a sense was both his vassal and captor. In 1051, having made considerable strides in securing his own authority as king, Edward rejected the election of one of Godwin’s family members as Archbishop of Canterbury by the cathedral’s canons and instead appointed his own candidate. This was the Norman Robert of Jumièges who almost immediately accused Godwin of treachery and of conspiring to kill the king. Godwin was likely wrong-footed to find that the King had already sought and obtained the support of Earls Leofic and Siward. Outnumbered and outmaneuvered it became increasingly apparent that few of his followers had an appetite for armed conflict with the King, Godwin fled into exile in Flanders.

The following year, however, Godwin returned having marshalled a considerable army with the aid of his sons, Sweyn and Harold. King Edward was reluctantly forced to restore Godwin to his former holdings and take back Queen Edith who he had banished to a nunnery at the first opportunity. The king likely found some small measure of consolation at this turn of events when Godwin died in 1053 shortly after his restoration. The earl’s family, however, retained much of its grip on power under his eldest surviving son Harold. The mid to late 1050s saw King Edward stage successful military interventions in both Scotland and Wales but he seemed unable or disinclined to intervene as Harold divided the kingdom’s richest territories between his brothers. Earl Siward of Northumbria died in 1055 and with his heir being judged too young to effectively exercise authority, the vast conglomeration of lands was awarded to Harold’s younger brother Tostig Godwinson.

Interestingly, later events reveal that Harold was unwilling to intervene on Tostig’s behalf, and it is possible he even opposed the appointment fearing a rival for his control of England and the family. In fact, it seems that despite his heritage, Tostig was something of a friend to Edward, the two having spent a considerable amount of time together at court and sharing a passion for hunting. By placing Tostig in the Earldom of Northumbria, it seems that Edward was, contrary to all appearances, challenging rather than reinforcing Harold’s monopoly within England. Unfortunately for the duo, Tostig proved himself to be terribly unpopular in Northumbria where he was considered something of an interloper and outsider. Despite his seemingly capable leadership during the earlier fighting in Wales, he provided himself unequal to the task of defending his earldom’s northern marches against periodic raids by the Scots.

In 1065, with the king’s health failing and his influence dwindling, the nobility of Northumbria rose in rebellion against Tostig, installing Harold’s brother-in-law, Morcar, as Earl. With the still childless king reduced to a mere political cipher and unwilling to humble himself before the brother who had almost certainly abetted if not outrightly engineered his downfall, Tostig fled into exile. First to Flanders, then to Scotland and finally to the court of King Harald Hadrada 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.

Click here to read more from James Turner

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