The Last Viking: The Life of King Harald Hadrada

Discover the life of Harald Hadrada, adventurer, mercenary, King of Norway, and claimant to the English throne.

Sep 11, 2023By Cale Gressman, BA History, BA Philosophy

harald hadrada last viking


The year was 1066. It would be a year that would end the dominion of the Anglo-Saxons over their island home. They would be replaced by the Normans led by the young William of Normandy, affectionately known as William the Bastard. Everyone knows the Battle of Hastings. However, little attention is paid to another battle that took place to the north that year. This was, of course, the Battle of Stamford Bridge; King Harald Hadrada (Harald Sigurdsson) of Norway had come to make his claim to the English throne.


Harald Hadrada: First Fights, First Flights 

The Death of Olaf II at the Battle of Stiklestad from Billeder af Norges Historie tegnede af P.N. Arbo og ledsaget af en kort opplysende Text efter P.A. Munch, Circa. 1859, Wikimedia Commons


Born in 1015 to an upland Norwegian chieftain by the name of Sigurd Styr, Harald would live a tumultuous and violent life. Harald’s first taste of combat came in the form of the Battle of Stiklestad in 1030. Nominally made ruler of Norway in 1015, Harald’s half-brother Olaf Haraldsson made a vain attempt at regaining the Norwegian crown from Cnut the Great, who had seized it 1029.


Together with his half-brother and approximately 600 men, Olaf met Cnut’s forces on the 29th of July 1030 CE. The result was the battlefield death of Olaf Haraldsson, the total defeat of his forces. Harald Sigurdsson, being gravely wounded, would have to flee. So began his illustrious career. This incident represents not only Harald’s first experience of combat, one in which he was lucky to escape alive, but also a taste of the future political and dynastic struggles that would so characterize his life.


Harald was able to find respite from his grave wounds in the home of a charitable peasant, who assisted him without knowing who exactly he was. After his recovery, Harald and a group of companions made their way east into Sweden. The following year in 1031, Harald and company made their way by ship to the Kievan Rus from Sweden. Upon their arrival in the Kievan Rus, the Heimskringla states, “King Jarisleif gave Harald and Ragnvald a kind reception, and made Harald and Ellif, the son of Earl Ragnvald, chiefs over the land-defence men of the king.” This would begin Harald’s career as a mercenary.

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In the Court of the Wise

The only contemporary image of Yaroslav the Wise is his seal. Circa. 11th century, via Wikimedia Commons


Presenting himself and his companions before Prince Yaroslav the Wise, he entered into the service of the Rus’ court. The fact of Harald and his men being welcomed into the court was not so strange given that Yaroslav had previously helped provide refuge for an exiled Olaf Haraldsson. Already present at the court was the son of Olaf Haraldsson, Magnus the Good.


These two Norwegian guests allowed Yaroslav to have a much freer hand when it came to his campaigns in Poland, as Cnut the Great would not be keen on intervening from his base in Denmark because of the threat to his dominion over Norway from the potential successors of Olaf Haraldsson. Cnut and Poland were not the only threats to Yaroslav though, to the south lay the Pecheneg nomads, whose mainstay was the raiding of Rus’ territory.


Because of these threats, and an insufficient number of troop, Yaroslav and his predecessors relied heavily on the use of foreign mercenaries. Because of the northern position of Yaroslav’s dominion, these foreigners mainly consisted of Scandinavian mercenaries. Harald certainly fit the bill at this point in time.


Yaroslav took the opportunity of the Polish King Boleslaw the Brave’s death in 1025 to make his move on the disputed Cherven Towns against the forces of Boleslaw’s son Mieszko. It is in this conflict that the historian Maciej Lubik argues Harald and his men fought as mercenaries for the Rus’ prince. In the end, the Rus’ were victorious with the Cherven Towns being seized and much of Poland pillaged and burned. After serving several more years in Yaroslav Harald gathered “a great suite of men with him; and on he went to Constantinople.” 


The Varangian Way 

Varangian Guardsmen, an illumination from the 11th-century chronicle of John Skylitzes, via Wikimedia Commons


Arriving in 1034/35, Harald put himself and his men under the service of Emperor Michael IV and became part of the Emperor’s Varangian Guard. The Varangian Guard had its roots in the 10th century and was a valuable core to the Byzantine military. Here they acted not only as loyal and reliable bodyguards of the Byzantine Emperors but also as valuable shock troops that could be relied on. This loyalty was of course bought, as they were never more than mercenaries. Their composition was largely characterized as being Scandinavian, but Slavs, Saxons, and later Anglo-Saxons also filled their ranks.


This was the organization that Harald joined. He began his time with the Varangians first taking to the Greek islands in the Aegean to fight Saracen corsairs. The poet Tjodolv Arnorsson depicts Harald as having engaged in 18 major battles and having conquered 80 Arab strongholds. Harald also took part in an invasion led by the famed George Maniaces, with the assistance of Norman mercenaries like William Iron Arm, in an effort to conquer the Emirate of Sicily from Muslim hands in 1003.


Later in 1041, Harald would be fighting these same Normans as they led a revolt in Southern Italy, which ultimately forced the Byzantines out of the peninsula. He and the Varangians were then sent to put down a Bulgarian revolt led by a certain Peter Deljan in 1040. For his service, Harald was awarded the title Manglavites, which allowed him to become part of the palace guard.


The Heimskringla even claims that Harald went on an expedition to Palestine, “Harald went with his men to the land of Jerusalem and then up to the city of Jerusalem, and wheresoever he came in the land all the towns and strongholds were given up to him.” However, all good things must come to an end as they say.


Byzantine Intrigue

Mosaic of Empress Zoe, from the Hagia Sophia Istanbul, photo by Myrabella, via Wikimedia Commons


After the death of Michael IV in 1041, Empress Zoe remarried a man named Constantinus Monomachus. Soon thereafter, Harald was thrown into prison by Emperor Constantine IX, on the charge of embezzlement. Harald would not be imprisoned long before a palace revolt in 1042 resulted in not only him being freed, but Emperor Constantine being seized and blinded. The Heimskringla states, “The men armed themselves forthwith and went to where the emperor slept. They took the emperor prisoner and put out both the eyes of him… it is told that Harald himself blinded the Greek emperor … ” However, it is not known exactly what Harald’s role in the whole thing was. Regardless of guilt, Harald and his men would leave Byzantium after escaping imprisonment in 1043/44 and returning to the Kievan Rus.


Going Two Ways

Harald Hadrada, Stained glass window in Lerwick Town Hall, via Ancient Origins


Harald Sigurdsson would stay in Prince Yaroslav’s court through 1044/45. He resided here with the earnings from nearly a decade of military service with the Byzantines, which had been sent to the Rus’ prince for safekeeping. In the spring of 1045, Harald was allowed to marry Yaroslav’s daughter Ellisiv. That summer he and his men would begin their journey back to Norway, landing in Sigtuna, Sweden that same summer. Harald Sigurdsson was dead set on claiming the Norwegian throne.


Magnus Olafsson was the illegitimate son of Olaf Haraldsson and had resided in Prince Yaroslav’s court after the death of his father at the Battle of Stiklestad in 1030. In 1035, while his uncle Harald Sigurdsson made his way to Constantinople to serve in the Varangians, he would return to Norway. Here King Cnut’s successor, Haarthucnut, ruled England and Denmark. Haarthucnut would recognize Magnus’ sovereignty over Norway. After Haarthucnut’s death in 1042, Magnus became ruler of Denmark, and he appointed Svein Estridsson as his viceroy, who would soon be exiled for challenging Magnus’ rule.


King Harthacnut, Viking King of England, from the Genaeological roll of Kings, via the Royal Collections Trust


In 1045, Harald Sigurdsson would make his return from the east to claim the Norwegian throne. At Sigtuna, Sweden, Harald met with the exiled Svein Estridsson and they, along with the Swedish King Anund Jakob, would form an alliance. After a period of raiding by the coalition and fearing the loss of his entire kingdom, Magnus chose to come to terms with his uncle in 1046. They would become co-rulers, with Harald ruling from Norway while giving Magnus a portion of his wealth. This put him at odds with his former compatriot Svein, which would have far-reaching consequences for Harald.


In 1047, Magnus the Good died, leaving the Norwegian throne solely to Harald Sigurdsson. However, Svein Estridsson would inherit the Danish throne. This bit of bad luck for Harald resulted in years of conflict between the two, with Harald attempting to seize the Danish throne. This war would last from 1047-64, with Harald earning the nickname Harald Hardrada (Hard-Ruler) for his brutal methods of keeping his subordinates in line.


However, it never panned out. By 1064 Harald Hardrada was forced to make peace with Svein Estridsson. The final phase of Harald Hardrada’s life began in 1066 when the English king, Edward the Confessor, died childless.


One of Many Kings

Harold Godwinson crowns himself, from The Life of Edward the Confessor, 13th century, via Wikimedia Commons


As a result of Edward’s death, there was the problem of who should succeed the English King. Harold Godwinson would make the first move and managed to get himself elected and crowned as King of the English. This was challenged on two fronts. To the south by the Duke of Normandy, William the Bastard, and to the north by Harald Hardrada. Harald believed that through his claim to Denmark (still held by Svein Estridsson) he also had a claim to the English throne. He decided to make good on this claim.


Among the English nobility, some were none too happy with their new ruler Harold Godwinson, including the king’s own brother Tostig, who had been expelled as Earl of Northumbria. Tostig went to Hardrada and made an alliance with him. In this, Harald saw the opportunity to take the English throne. In alliance, the two set out in September of that year with over 300 ships, going via the Shetland Islands and Orkney until they landed in Northumbria going via the Humber.


The Battle of Stamford Bridge, by Peter Nicolai Arbo, 1870, via Historic-UK


Herein they were engaged by the forces of Earls Edwin and Morcar, who fearing that the southern forces wouldn’t get there in time, decided to attack the Northern invaders on September 20th. This proved to be a poor choice as both were defeated by the forces of Harald and Tostig at the Battle of Fulford.


Instead of occupying York, only about a mile from Fulford, they decided to establish their camp at Stamford Bridge, which spans over the River Derwent. Hearing of the events in the north, King Harold Godwinson with his army of Housecarls, numbering several thousand strong, departed for the north, recruiting levies as they went.


Harold Godwinson made a lightning-quick forced march from the south of England to where Harald and Tostig were camped in only four days — a distance of 185 miles. Briefly resting at Tadcaster, Godwinson heard the news that the Norwegian host was nearby, and, in order to achieve the element of surprise, he moved his troops onward to Stamford Bridge. They arrived at dawn on the 25th of September.


Harald Hadrada: The Last Viking 

The Battle of Stamford Bridge, from The Life of King Edward the Confessor by Matthew Paris, 1200-59, Wikimedia Commons


This quick move by the Anglo-Saxon host caught Harald and Tostig by surprise. Elements of Harald’s troops attempted to delay the English on the west side of the river to give the Norwegians time to arm themselves and form battle lines. They were quickly pushed back and it was only thanks to the efforts of a lone Norse warrior — who, with a massive axe, held his own on the bridge before being brought down by a spear to the groin — that the Norse were able to form their lines.


The Norsemen formed a traditional shield wall against their foes, which the oncoming English threw themselves against. The fighting lasted all day, but it was to no avail. In the middle of the battle Harald Sigurdsson, King of Norway was struck down: “King Harald Sigurdson was hit by an arrow in the windpipe, and that was his death-wound.” 


After Harald’s demise, Harold Godwinson offered Tostig peace talks, but the Norwegians rejected this. Tostig soon joined Harald in the grave and the Norse shield wall disintegrated with many being cut down by the surging English or else drowning in the river. The rest were chased back to their ships. Godwinson offered mercy to those who had been captured and allowed them to return home. Granted there were not many who did — of the 300 vessels that had arrived only a mere two dozen would make their way home.


William the Conquerer on Bayeuax Tapestry, photo by Myrabella, via Wikimedia Commons


In the end, Harald Hardrada would have his revenge. Almost as soon as the Battle of Stamford Bridge concluded, Harold Godwinson would have to wheel his troops around to go and face the oncoming invasion of William the Bastard and his Normans. At the Battle of Hastings on October 25, 1066, the Anglo-Saxon dominion of England would end with the death of King Harold in battle. Duke William the Bastard would become King William the Conqueror and it might be supposed that he could thank Harald Hardrada for softening up the English forces prior to his arrival.


Going from a political exile to a mercenary commander in both the Kievan Rus and Byzantium to becoming the King of Norway, Harald’s life was fit for the sagas, which is probably why they wrote one for him. Throughout his life, Harald was able to take part in the political/military affairs of the people he was around. This was due not only to his pedigree as one of the successors of King Olaf Haraldsson but also due to his military acumen and the demand for those qualities. However, his true legacy comes from being “the Last Viking” to ever try to invade England.

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By Cale GressmanBA History, BA PhilosophyCale was born in Colorado and currently lives in Northern Minnesota. He completed his BA in History, Philosophy, and Religion at the University of North Dakota and graduated in May of 2022. He is taking a gap year before applying for graduate school to complete his PhD in history. He is passionate about history in a wide range of areas, including American, European, military, and intellectual/philosophical history. He also enjoys writing and historical research.