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Authors: John Marsden

harald hardrada





First published in 2007

The History Press

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Author's Note and Acknowledgements


Sagas, Skalds and Soldiering

An introduction to a military biography

I     Stiklestad

Norway, 1030

II    Varangian

Russia, 1031–1034

Byzantine Empire, 1034–1041

Constantinople, 1041–1042

Russia, 1042–1045

III   Hardrada

Scandinavia, 1045–1065

IV   Stamford Bridge

England, 1066


An afterword from west-over-sea


Notes and References

Select Bibliography

Author's Note and Acknowledgements

book written in English for a non-academic readership and yet drawing on source material originally set down in Old Norse, Byzantine Greek, Russian, Anglo-Saxon and Latin does require a note as to its policy in the naming of names. As there appears to be no standard form of English spelling of early Scandinavian names, I have used whichever form seems the most appropriate in the historical context and the least intimidating for an English reader. Similarly, the title of ‘earl' is spelled in that English form where it occurs in England, but in its original Old Norse form as
in a Scandinavian context. Sometimes names and terms are also given in their original spelling – set in italics and usually in parentheses – so it might be helpful to explain that the Norse character ð is pronounced ‘th' (as in ra
). I should also mention my specific use of the term
in its original sense of ‘sea-raider' as distinct from the modern usage of ‘Viking' as a generic term for anyone (or anything) associated with early medieval Scandinavia.

Notes have been kept to a minimum and most often used to acknowledge references to or quotations from the work of others, but there are two such authors to whom I owe a more prominent acknowledgement because Sigfús Blöndal's
The Varangians of Byzantium
in the English edition revised and translated by Benedikt S. Benedikz was the work which played a greater part than any other in developing my interest in the man who forms the subject of this book. A more personal acknowledgement is due to my friend John Hamburg of Carrollton, Kentucky, whose unfailing enthusiasm for the same subject played its own part in encouraging this attempt at a biography of Harald Hardrada.



1    Harald Hardrada's World

2    Scandinavia

3    Russia

4    Byzantine Empire

5    Constantinople

6    Stiklestad

7    Stamford Bridge















Sagas, Skalds and Soldiering


hen he is remembered only as a Norwegian king slain in battle at Stamford Bridge in Yorkshire, where his invading army was crushed just three days before the arrival of the conquering Normans, the place of Harald Hardrada in the mainstream of English history amounts to little more than that of the ‘third man' of the undeniably memorable year 1066. He spent no more than eighteen days on English soil, after all, and the subsequent events of that fateful autumn have left him overshadowed, first by the English Harold and ultimately by William the Norman, thus obscuring his reputation – acknowledged by historians ancient and modern – as the most feared warrior of his world and time.

If Stamford Bridge is set into a wider context than that of Anglo-Saxon England, however, it comes into a very different focus as the last of innumerable conflicts fought out along a warrior's way that had ranged across most of Scandinavia and eastward by way of Russia to the far-flung empire of Byzantium through the three and a half decades since a sturdy youngster stood with his half-brother, the king and future saint Olaf, in the blood-fray at Stiklestad in the west of Norway. The most comprehensive accounts of that great arc of warfaring are found in the thirteenth-century collections of sagas of the Norwegian kings, of which the most respected is the one known as
and reliably attributed to the Icelander Snorri Sturluson. His version of Harald's saga is described by the editors of its standard modern English translation as ‘a biography which in Snorri's hands becomes the story of a warrior's progress. Essentially it is the life and career of a professional soldier, starting with a battle – the battle of Stiklestad where Harald, aged fifteen, is wounded and his brother the king killed – and ending in battle, thirty-six years later, at Stamford Bridge.'

It was that observation which first suggested Harald Hardrada to me as the subject for a military biography, most especially because of its use of the term ‘professional soldier'. While there are warrior kings aplenty throughout the history of the early medieval period, and not least in the northern world, Harald can be said to stand almost, if not entirely, alone among them in having spent all the years of his young manhood on active service as a professional soldier – and, quite specifically, in the modern understanding of the term.

Within a year of his escape from the field of Stiklestad, he had crossed the Baltic and found his way into Russia where he reappears among the Scandinavian mercenary fighting-men employed by the Russian princes to whom they were known as
or ‘Varangians'. In that capacity and apparently as a junior officer, he is known to have taken part in a major campaign against the Poles, but assuredly also came up against the subject peoples of the northern forests and the steppe warriors to the south along the Dnieper. Some three years later he arrived in Constantinople, not yet twenty years old but already a battle-hardened commander of his own warrior company, to enter imperial service with the Varangian mercenaries of Byzantium.

During nine years of service under three emperors, Harald saw action at sea in the Mediterranean against Saracen corsairs and on land against their shore bases in Asia Minor, led his troop on escort duty to the Holy Land and took part in the Byzantine invasion of Arab-held Sicily, before being despatched against rebellions in the south of Italy and in Bulgaria. His accomplishments in the Sicilian and Bulgarian campaigns earned him promotion to the emperor's personal Varangian bodyguard in Constantinople where he was almost unavoidably – although very probably not innocently – caught up in the whirlpool of Byzantine politics. Subsequently falling from imperial favour, he was briefly imprisoned before escaping in time to play his own grisly part in the downfall of an emperor amid the bloodiest day of rioting ever seen in the city. Shortly afterwards Harald's ambitions turned back towards his homeland and, despite having been refused imperial permission of leave, he launched his ships in a daring departure from Constantinople to begin the long journey north.

From the Black Sea he made his way up the Dnieper and back into Russia, assuredly bringing military intelligence to the Grand Prince in Kiev whose daughter he was to marry before moving north to assemble the great wealth he had acquired in the east and is said to have sent on to Novgorod for safe-keeping. So it was that Harald provided himself with the personal treasury which was later to assume legendary proportions in the hands of the saga-makers but still must have been more than sufficient to fund the force of ships and fighting-men that he would need to challenge his nephew Magnus' sovereignty over Norway and Denmark. By the spring of 1046 he was back in Scandinavia, forging a short-lived alliance with the claimant to Danish kingship and raiding around Denmark on a campaign of intimidation. Before the end of the year, the Danish ally had been discarded and the nephew had accepted his uncle into an uneasy joint kingship, which was to extend only until the following autumn when the sudden death of Magnus left Harald in sole possession of the Norwegian kingdom.

Thus, within less than eighteen months of his return from the east, the professional soldier had emerged in his perhaps more familiar guise of warrior king, and one whose reign was to be almost entirely taken up with conflict – seventeen years of sporadic war on the Danes, interspersed with bitter suppression of recalcitrant Norwegian factions and their Swedish allies, leading finally to the doomed invasion of England – all in seemingly voracious pursuit of dominion, vengeance and conquest.

Even that drastically abbreviated synopsis can leave scarcely any doubt of Harald Hardrada's potential as the subject of a military biography. Indeed, it might be thought to preclude the possibility of any account of his life not dominated by warfaring, and yet the approach to be taken here will still be at some degree of variance from the customary biographical format. While, of course, it will seek to offer a realistic portrait of the man himself – and of other remarkable individuals who played influential roles in his story – its first intention will be a reconstruction in some detail of the extraordinary military career by which he acquired his awesome reputation. Beyond that central concept, however, there lies a broader scope of interest, because to trace the course of Harald's warrior's way would seem to offer an exceptional, even unique, opportunity for exploration of the wide spectrum of warrior cultures – from Bulgar rebels to Norman mercenaries and Pecheneg steppe warriors to Anglo-Saxon housecarls – which he encountered across the greater extent of Scandinavian expansion at its high peak in the first half of the eleventh century.

From that perspective, Harald's mercenary soldiering in the east might be seen as an especially fitting education for a man said to have wanted to become a warlord since infancy. If the teenage years in Russia can be taken to represent a privileged apprenticeship and the wide-ranging experience in Byzantine service his time as a journeyman, taken together they assuredly informed, and in some measure shaped, his return to the northland as a warrior king. Thus the subject and structure of this book are also intended as ‘the life and career of a professional soldier . . . beginning with a battle, the battle of Stiklestad . . . and ending in battle, thirty-six years later at Stamford Bridge', and so Snorri Sturluson's version of Harald's saga would seem to offer itself as my first choice of working template. Such a choice, however, raises all the scholarly doubt as to whether a saga set down in Iceland some two hundred years after the events it describes can be taken as reliable historical evidence for an eleventh-century Norwegian king. There was a time, even as recently as the earlier decades of the twentieth century, when the
konunga sögur
(or ‘kings' sagas') – and especially those forming Snorri's
cycle – were accorded all the respect due to impeccable sources of historical record, but modern scholarship has cast so much doubt on their reliability as to greatly diminish the esteem in which they were formerly held.

The historian's raw material for an understanding of the past is its surviving written record, so the first measure of any document's historical value must usually be its proximity in time and place to the events it describes, and yet in the case of Harald Hardrada the most closely contemporary documentary record cannot be considered any better than uneven. While his invasion of England is properly entered in the
Anglo-Saxon Chronicle
for 1066, his earlier presence in Russia would seem to have entirely escaped the notice of the Kievan monks who were setting down the annals now known as the
Russian Primary Chronicle
within a decade of his death, and yet his service with the Varangians of Byzantium is fully confirmed by a generous notice in a Byzantine document dated to the last quarter of the eleventh century.

As to the early sources originating in the Scandinavian and Baltic world, the most closely contemporary is the work of a German churchman, Adam of Bremen, whose
History of the Archbishops of Hamburg-Bremen
was written in Latin and completed by 1075. Adam's account of Harald, while hardly much better than fragmentary, is almost unrelentingly hostile, and understandably so when its author had derived so much of his information by way of personal contact with Harald's discarded Danish ally and subsequent lifelong enemy, Svein Estridsson. Nonetheless, Adam of Bremen does offer his own acknowledgement of Harald's warlike reputation when he refers to him as the ‘thunderbolt of the north' and, on occasion, can also supply interesting detail to be found in no other source.

The earliest history actually written by a Scandinavian does not appear until at least a hundred years after that of Adam of Bremen from whose work its author, known as Saxo Grammaticus, evidently borrowed material. Saxo's
Gesta Danorum
(or ‘Acts of the Danes') is another Latin history, although one more probably written by a lay clerk than a monk, because Saxo was of a Danish warrior family, a background which may well account for the unswerving loyalty he shows to Svein Estridsson; it would also account for the rather different light he might be thought to throw upon the saga record of warfare between Svein and Harald. The first historian of the Norwegian kings generally believed to have been himself a Norwegian was a contemporary of Saxo known only as ‘Theodoric the Monk' whose Latin
, written around the year 1180, is dedicated to the archbishop of Nidaros (now Trondheim). It is a work which shows extremely scant respect for Norway's royal house and is thus thought likely to have provoked the ruling Norwegian king Sverri Sigurdsson, himself the subject and patron of the first saga set down in writing, to encourage the composition of a history more sympathetic to his ancestors and one which would serve as a counter to Theodoric's

This was to become the work now known as
or ‘Summary', an abbreviation of
Ágrip af Nóregs konunga-sögum
(‘Summary of the sagas of the Norwegian kings'), a title applied only in the last few centuries, and which reflects the incomplete state of the sole surviving manuscript copy while doing less than justice to the landmark significance of the long-lost original. Probably composed as early as the 1190s, and by an Icelander living in Norway, Ágrip is the oldest surviving history of Norwegian kings written in the Old Norse vernacular and was extensively used as a source by saga-makers in the thirteenth century, although they were certainly working from a fuller and better text than that preserved in the surviving manuscript. Of no less importance here, though, is its anonymous author's use of material from the oral tradition to expand upon that found in the Latin histories, because it is just this approach which points the way, followed in subsequent decades by the authors of the more expansive saga histories – and especially those bearing on Harald Hardrada.

Variant versions of Harald's saga are found in the three oldest collections of
– the
, the
– while another, sometimes known as the ‘Separate'
Harald's saga
, is found in a later manuscript volume known as the
. Reference will be made to all of these saga sources throughout the following pages and so this might be a useful point at which to introduce them.

Of the four named above, only the
survives as an original manuscript, the largest of all Icelandic parchments, of which the core was set down by two known Icelandic scribes in the later fourteenth century. A number of further folios, including the text of the ‘Separate'
Harald's saga
, had been added by an unknown hand when it reappeared in a later ownership on the island of Flatey (hence its name, meaning ‘The Book of Flatey') in the second half of the fifteenth century. The three earlier saga collections have all been dated to the first few decades of the thirteenth century, even though none survive as original manuscripts but only as copies of various dates and in no less various conditions.

The collection called
(‘mouldy vellum') was written around the year 1275 by Icelandic scribes reworking an older text – now lost, but referred to as the ‘Oldest
' – which has been dated to at least fifty years earlier, with one scholarly estimate even placing its composition as precisely as the period 1217–22. It was this original text of
, containing sagas of the kings reigning between 1035 and the latter half of the twelfth century, which appears to have been the source of later sections in
and in
and so might be taken to represent the earliest of the thirteenth-century collections unless, of course, all three were drawing upon an unknown common source.

(‘fair vellum') is a title applied through the last few hundred years to a work surviving only in copies deriving from an early thirteenth-century original which is thought to have been written earlier in Nidaros, or the surrounding Trondelag region, and probably by an Icelandic author. Apparently known in medieval times as
Nóregs konunga tal
(‘List of the Kings of Norway'), it is a collection of kings' sagas beginning in the ninth century with Halfdan the Black, father of Harald
(‘fair-hair'), and extending to the year 1177, which was probably also the terminal point of the original
as it certainly was of the third
konunga sögur
collection – and the one of first importance here – which is, of course, the
attributed to Snorri Sturluson.

I have been using the cautious term ‘attributed to' in this context because there is no confirmation of the author's identity in any of the numerous medieval manuscripts of the work – most of them dating from the fourteenth century – even though the great weight of later evidence recognising him as Snorri Sturluson (and the total absence of any suggested rival claimant) puts the question almost entirely beyond doubt. Although there is no known original manuscript, there is one single leaf surviving from a copy set down before 1275 and believed to be the closest to Snorri's original on the evidence of its full text, which is preserved in at least three good transcripts. The title
(‘the world's orb'), which is derived from the work's opening line (‘The orb of the world on which mankind dwells . . .') and has been applied since the seventeenth century, has a cosmic resonance well befitting the scope of its cycle of sixteen sagas extending from the mythic origins and legendary ancestry of the Norwegian royal house through to the last quarter of the twelfth century.

Snorri Sturluson himself was one of the most prominent figures in the Iceland of his time, a man of wealth and power as well as literature and learning. Although born into one of the most powerful Icelandic kindreds around the year 1179, he was to acquire much of his wealth and land through marriage, while also seeking to extend his influence by marrying his daughters into other important Icelandic families. He made two extended visits to the Scandinavian mainland where he is said to have been honoured with the title of
as well as twice holding the presidential post of lawspeaker in the
, the Icelanders' parliament. In his later years, however, Snorri fell victim to a poisonous blend of family feud and political intrigue when offence caused to his resentful in-laws and to the Norwegian king Hakon Hakonsson resulted in an attack on his home by an armed band led by one of his sons-in-law. They found Iceland's most eminent man of letters, sixty-two years of age and utterly defenceless, taking refuge in his cellar and there they murdered him on a September night in the year 1241. Other than that lightly sketched outline, Snorri Sturluson's remarkable life story lies beyond the scope of these pages and yet there are some aspects with such significant bearing upon his authority as Harald Hardrada's saga-maker as to demand due notice here.

When his father, Sturla Thordason of Hvamm, died Snorri was only five years old and was passed into the foster-care of Jon Loptsson, the most cultivated of Icelandic chieftains, whose home at Oddi was the foremost cultural centre in Iceland at a time when Icelanders could genuinely boast the pre-eminent literary culture of the Scandinavian world. There can be little doubt that the civilised ambience of Oddi, and especially its fine library, offered an exceptional stimulus to the literary inclinations of a youngster who might well be thought to have inherited a gift for poetry by way of his mother's descent from the warrior-poet Egil Skalla-Grimsson, who is now best known as the hero of the famous
Egil's saga
, another work often attributed to Snorri's authorship. In fact, there can be no question of Snorri's accomplishment and learning in the art of the
(the Old Norse term for a ‘court-poet'), not only because one work of which he is firmly identified as author is the outstanding medieval treatise on skaldic verse known as the S
norra Edda
(although more usually in the English-speaking world as the
Prose Edda
), but because his own youthful praise-poetry sent to the Norwegian court made so great an impression that he was invited to visit Norway. He was to take up that invitation in 1218 and spent the next two years on the Scandinavian mainland, much of that time in the service of Jarl Skuli, who held the office of regent to the young king Hakon Hakonsson.

The decade following his return from Norway in 1220 represented a period of peace in Icelandic society, a lull before the storm of internecine violence that erupted in the later 1230s. Snorri was already a man of great wealth, perhaps even the richest in Iceland, and settled on the farm at Reykjaholt to which he had moved from his wife's estate in 1206. There he would undoubtedly have built up his own library and there too he apparently had the assistance of an amanuensis, so it was at Reykjaholt that he is thought to have written most, if not all, of his surviving works – not only
, but also his
and, quite possibly,
Egil's saga
too – between the years 1220 and 1230. The key item of evidence supporting this unusually precise dating is a passage found in
Íslendinga saga
(‘Saga of the Icelanders', a history of his own Sturlung kindred written within living memory of Snorri's lifetime by his nephew, Sturla Thordason) which tells how another nephew, Sturla Sigvatsson, spent the winter of 1230–1 at Reykjaholt where he ‘had saga-books copied from the works which Snorri had composed'.

While the writing of
can be convincingly placed at Reykjaholt in the 1220s, the gathering together of all the history and tradition upon which it draws must have represented the work of a lifetime for a man who had by then entered into his fifth decade. It was a pursuit upon which Snorri had probably first embarked in his foster-home at Oddi and continued throughout the following years, especially when his travels around Norway and Sweden during the first sojourn on the Scandinavian mainland would have allowed visits to historic sites associated with Norwegian kings and introduced him also to oral traditions which were to inform his sagas.

As to his documentary sources, Snorri's own prologue to
acknowledges a debt to an earlier historian, the esteemed Icelander Ari Thorgilsson, and to his ‘lives of the kings', presumably a saga-history but a work now long since lost. He does, however, make passing reference to other written sources which have survived into modern times and of these an early version of
Orkneyinga saga
– known to Snorri as
Jarls' saga
– will be of special importance here by reason of its bearing on Harald Hardrada. Meticulous scholarly research into the text of
has identified further documentary sources, notably
, upon which he appears to have drawn but does not mention by name. There is, however, another body of historical record, quite independent of the narrative histories, and this is the wealth of skaldic verse which represented a key primary source for the saga-maker, having been used first by the author of
, to a greater extent by those who composed
, but most extensively of all by Snorri in

These court-poets known as
, almost all of them firmly identified as Icelanders, had been in richly rewarded attendance on Norwegian kings since the time of Harald Fair-hair in the later ninth century. Usually informed at first hand and sometimes even themselves eye-witness to the events they described, their poetry can be taken to represent an immediately contemporary source of history. Before the battle of Stiklestad, Olaf insisted on his skalds sheltering within a shield-wall in order that they should see the conflict and survive to commemorate its deeds in verse for posterity. So too, Thjodolf Arnorsson, who was Harald Hardrada's favourite among his own court-poets, fought beside his king at Stamford Bridge and is thought to have been slain in the battle or to have died soon afterwards of wounds suffered there.
contains very many more examples of the first-hand authority of skaldic verse, as Snorri himself confirms in his prologue when he acknowledges having ‘gathered the best of our information from what we are told in these poems which were recited before the chieftains themselves or their sons'.

The contemporaneity of such information thus lies almost entirely beyond dispute, and yet reasonable doubt might still be cast on its objectivity when, as Snorri admitted, ‘it is the way of the court-poet to lavish greatest praise on those for whom the poems were composed'. Even so, he was still able to ‘regard as the truth everything which is found in those poems concerning their expeditions or their battles . . . because none would dare tell the king of deeds which everyone present would know to be nonsense and untruth. To do so would have been mockery, not praise.' Clearly, then, the skald addressing his praise-poetry to the king in the company of a warrior nobility, at least some of whom could have witnessed the events he was celebrating, might be expected to aggrandise or exaggerate, but he certainly could not lie.

The art of the skald was highly sophisticated in terms of poetic form as well as being a style of writing dominated by the kenning, a compound word-form found throughout the early medieval literatures of the northern world and characterised by idiomatic imagery often alluding to pagan tradition. While such allusions are often elaborate to the point of obscurity for the modern reader, there are more straightforward illustrative examples of the kenning such as the skald Thjodolf's calling Harald Hardrada ‘feeder of ravens' to signify his battle prowess and likewise referring to his warships as ‘ocean dragons'. Scarcely less complex than the most elaborate kennings were the strict forms of stanza, metre and rhyme which defined the structure of skaldic verse and also served to protect it from the corruption which afflicted the folk-tale and similar material preserved in oral tradition. Such was evidently Snorri's own opinion expressed in his prologue to
, where he suggests that ‘these poems are the least likely to be distorted, if properly composed and sensibly interpreted'.

Interpretation was of crucial importance when skaldic verse was used as a source of history, as is demonstrated by examples of misconstrued skaldic references leading to erroneous conclusions found elsewhere in the saga literature. Snorri's own extensive knowledge of the art of the skald is so impressively confirmed by his
that his interpretation of skaldic verse as historical record must be accounted more reliable than that of other saga-makers, and especially so in his meticulous identification of the skalds whose work he quotes and in his subtle indications as to the authority of their evidence. It is a sphere of expertise of most especial value for
Harald's saga
, as Snorri himself implied when he wrote of ‘a great deal of information about King Harald found in the verses which Icelandic poets presented to him and to his sons. Because of his own great interest in poetry, he was one of their very best friends.' Not only was Harald the patron of poets, but he was also a skald in his own right and some number of his verses are preserved in Snorri's saga. ‘No king of Norway was a better poet', in the opinion of the eminent authority Gabriel Turville-Petre, ‘and none showed a deeper appreciation of the art than Harald did, nor expressed his views in more forthright terms.'

While Snorri recognised the legacy of skaldic verse as the most reliable of his sources, he makes a point of emphasising his caution in selecting information about Harald from elsewhere in the oral tradition: ‘Although we have been told various tales and heard about other deeds . . . many of his feats and triumphs have not been included here, partly because of our lack of knowledge and partly because we are reluctant to place on record stories which are not substantiated.'

As well as the evidence he had gleaned from the skalds and earlier saga-makers, Snorri Sturluson was singularly fortunate in his access to an important source bearing on Harald Hardrada within his own family, because he himself was directly descended from a daughter of Halldor Snorrason who had been one of Harald's two principal lieutenants throughout his years as a Varangian in Byzantine service. A formidable character in his own right – and one who will make further appearances in these pages – Halldor is recognised by the most authoritative modern work on the subject as ‘the Icelandic Varangian who is most popular in Norse sources, being in this respect close to King Harald himself . . . [and] almost certainly the source for the bulk of the Icelandic tradition in respect of the King's Varangian career'.
Halldor returned to Norway with Harald and apparently remained for a time at court after his accession to the kingship, but relations between the two were not often the most harmonious and eventually Halldor made his way home to Iceland where he earned great renown as a tale-spinner, principally on the strength of his adventuring in the east. His stories may even have been worked into a saga, albeit one which survived only in oral tradition and was probably never set down in writing, although Halldor himself is the subject of two tales preserved in the
manuscript collections. It was probably inevitable that Halldor's original stories should have become corrupted during more than a century of oral transmission, even had they not been greatly elaborated already in the course of Halldor's own repeated retellings, and yet Snorri's family connection can still be said to have provided him with privileged access to material for his
Harald's saga
which had its origin – even if no more than that – in genuinely first-hand recollections of Harald Hardrada's Varangian years.

The word
is sometimes translated into English as ‘history'; however, for all the care with which Snorri Sturluson claims to have handled his sources, the
Harald's saga
still cannot really be read as history in the modern sense of the term. It does offer the most comprehensive medieval account of three and a half decades of Harald's career and yet its narrative, inevitably uneven over so wide a compass, sometimes falling short on plausibility and on occasion quite inaccurate on points of detail, must be constantly checked against other records, most especially those bearing on Russian, Byzantine and Anglo-Saxon contexts. While its principal authority as an historical document must rest upon its preservation of the closely contemporary skaldic poetry – a total of more than ninety strophes (eight-line stanza form) or half-strophes from a dozen different skalds – it also deserves credit for its preservation of other evidence, ultimately deriving from oral tradition and however degraded, which might otherwise have been entirely lost to history.

In many respects, Snorri's sagas bear a resemblance to medieval hagiographies (or lives of saints), which themselves derive from oral traditions preserved in monastic communities. Indeed, his
Olaf Tryggvason's saga
Olaf the Saint's saga
were almost certainly informed by lives of those two fiercely evangelistic warrior kings written in the Icelandic monastery of Thingeyrar, and his
Harald's saga
might be recognised as their secular counterpart with the similar intention of preserving a reputation held high in the folk memory of his own time. If such was his purpose, then Snorri can surely be said to have succeeded because the portrait of Harald Hardrada which emerges from the pages of his saga quite unmistakably reflects the reputation of the most feared warrior of the northern world.

In his obituary of Harald in the closing pages of the saga, Snorri writes of having ‘no particular accounts of his youth until he took part in the battle of Stiklestad at the age of fifteen'. Now that is a puzzling statement indeed because there is one anecdote, however historically dubious, which is specifically concerned with Harald in early childhood and must have been known to Snorri when it was included in his
Olaf the Saint's saga
, the longest of all sixteen in the
collection and almost certainly written before
Harald's saga
. Moreover, a fairly full account of Harald's parentage, ancestry and background can be pieced together, principally from
Olaf the Saint's saga
but also from other sagas in the
collection, and might be usefully surveyed to conclude this introduction.

First of all, though, there is a question of nomenclature. Thus far, as also in the title, I have used the name-form ‘Harald Hardrada' simply because it is probably the one most immediately recognisable to an English-speaking readership and even though no form of ‘Hardrada' is found applied to Harald in any of the skaldic poetry or other closely contemporary sources and so would seem not to have been used in his own time. ‘Hardrada', while often taken to mean ‘the hard ruler', represents the anglicised form of the Norse term
, literally ‘hard counsel' although perhaps better translated as ‘ruthless'. As to how Harald might have been known to his contemporaries, it is hardly unexpected to find Adam of Bremen calling him
(‘evil' or ‘wicked'), although rather more curious is the cognomen
har fagera
applied to him by the northern recension of the
Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.
har fagera
represents an Old English corruption of
, the cognomen borne by Harald's celebrated ancestor Harald Fair-hair, it is hardly likely that a late eleventh-century Anglo-Saxon chronicler would have confused the Norwegian king killed in England as recently as 1066 with a namesake who had died some hundred and twenty years earlier, but perhaps it is just possible that he took
to have been a family surname.

The earliest known association of
with Harald in a Scandinavian source occurs in the verse treatise
attributed to Orkney/Icelandic authorship in the mid-twelfth century, but it is there applied to him and to other warlords simply as an adjective. Its application to Harald as a specifically personal byname does not appear until more than a century later when, as Turville-Petre explains, ‘Norwegians and Icelanders of a much later age developed the suitable nickname
. . . [which] seems to creep into chapter-headings and regnal lists probably during the latter half of the thirteenth century'.

What can be said with confidence is that Harald was not known to Snorri Sturluson as
because, while other saga titles in
– such as
Olaf the Saint's saga
Magnus the Good's saga
, to name those of Harald's half-brother and nephew as just two examples – incorporate bynames established and current in the early thirteenth century, his own saga is headed with the straightforward patronymic as
Harald Sigurdsson's saga
, which will conveniently serve here to introduce the subject of his parentage. Harald's father was Sigurd Halfdansson, a great-grandson of Harald Fair-hair and king of Ringerike in the Uppland region north of Oslofjord. Sigurd's very practical interest in farming earned him the less than kingly nickname of
(or ‘sow' because he ‘nosed about rooting up the ground') from the saga-makers. While Sigurd Syr appears on occasion as the full equal of his peers and a respected voice often tempered with wise caution, other anecdotes in Snorri's
Olaf the Saint's saga
seem to delight in portraying him as the harassed second husband of the formidable Ásta Gudbrondsdottir, the wife who bore him two daughters and three sons, of whom the youngest was Harald.

Ásta had formerly been married to Harald Gudrodsson, called
(‘of Grenland', a district south of Westfold), another great-grandson of Harald Fair-hair and ruler of the southern part of Norway on behalf of the Danish king Harald Gormsson, called ‘bluetooth'. Harald Grenske is said to have been killed in Sweden towards the end of 994 or early in the following year (although saga accounts of the circumstances are historically untrustworthy), leaving Ásta to return to her parents as a widow pregnant with his son, the future king and saint Olaf, to whom she gave birth in the summer of 995.

Thus when she remarried shortly afterwards, Ásta brought with her a stepson to be raised by Sigurd Syr until the twelve-year-old Olaf Haraldsson – already possessed of great strength, accomplished with bow and spear, brimming over with self-confidence and fired with great ambition according to his saga in
– was given by his mother into the charge of an experienced viking warrior who took him raiding around the Baltic. The saga, fully supported by skaldic verses, records his fighting in no fewer than five battles in Sweden, Finland and Holland before he eventually arrived in England as one of the huge raiding force led by Thorkell the Tall which descended on Kent in the August of 1009.

After some three years of warfaring in England, including the battle of Ringmere and the siege of Canterbury, Olaf crossed the Channel to Normandy, effectively a Scandinavian colony which had begun as a viking base on the Seine in the later ninth century and became thoroughly gallicised into a French province within seventy years, yet still offering a haven to northmen at large in Europe into the eleventh century. There he entered the service of Duke Richard II, evidently as a mercenary fighting-man according to saga accounts of his campaigning corroborated by the eleventh-century Norman historian William of Jumièges, who also records the duke's having stood as sponsor for Olaf's baptism into the Christian faith at Rouen in 1013. Even though William's account of Olaf's conversion discredits the sagas' claim for his having been baptised by Olaf Tryggvason in very early childhood, his entry into the faith can be recognised now as an event of the greatest significance for his Norwegian homeland as well as for his own place in history, because less than two years later he was back in Norway fiercely determined to complete the campaign of conversion left unfinished by Olaf Tryggvason. Yet to do so he would first need to fulfil another ambition and reclaim the sovereignty of the unified kingdom lost some fifteen years before when Olaf Tryggvason, facing defeat at the battle of Svold, had flung himself overboard from his beleaguered warship.

The kingdom which had fallen from the hand of Olaf Tryggvason thus became a fruit of victory shared between the victors: the Danish king Svein Haraldsson, called ‘forkbeard', his Norwegian son-in-law Erik Hakonsson, jarl of Lade (
, near Trondheim), and the Swedish king Olaf Eriksson who apparently owed some form of allegiance to Svein of Denmark. By the time of Olaf Haraldsson's return to his homeland – certainly by 1015, although possibly in the autumn of 1014 – there had been a shift in the political balance of the tripartite lordship imposed on Norway some fifteen years earlier. Svein Forkbeard had died in England in the first weeks of 1014, barely a month after winning the English crown, and the subsequent attention of his son Cnut became firmly fixed on winning his father's English conquest for himself. Olaf of Sweden had already passed responsibility for much of his Norwegian interest to Jarl Svein, the brother of Erik of Lade who by this time had joined Cnut in assembling an invasion fleet which would soon be on its way to England, leaving his Norwegian lordship in the care of his son Hakon.

Thus it was the young Jarl Hakon whom Olaf encountered, took by surprise and made captive, when he arrived off the west coast of Norway with two
(oceangoing merchant craft as distinct from warships) and 120 warriors. Having secured Hakon's submission and surrender, Olaf released the young jarl unharmed and allowed his departure to join his father in the service of Cnut in England, before setting out on his own progress eastward through Norway seeking support for his cause. In fact, as just one among numerous descendants of Harald Fair-hair, Olaf cannot be said to have had any outstanding claim to the kingship of Norway, but his burly physique (he was known as ‘Olaf the Stout' in his lifetime) and warfaring experience, his sheer self-assurance and persuasive oratory would have offered him as an impressive candidate for kingship. He was almost certainly also in possession of a substantial treasury, accumulated in the course of his viking career and not least from sharing in payments of
with which Anglo-Saxon England regularly bought off Scandinavian raiding armies in the tenth and eleventh centuries.

Nonetheless, he was to find opinion in Norway sharply divided between himself and Hakon's uncle, Jarl Svein, who had already fled inland to marshal his own support, and so Olaf turned south to Ringerike where he sought the advice and assistance of Sigurd Syr, who solemnly warned his stepson of the formidable powers whom he sought to challenge. Nonetheless, Sigurd was still ready to help his stepson and brought together an assembly of provincial kings and chieftains of the Upplands which was eventually won over by Olaf's oratory and acclaimed him king. As men of central Norway began flocking to his standard, Olaf made his way north into the Trondelag, heartland of the jarls of Lade, and even there opposition had not the strength to withstand him, at least until Jarl Svein launched a counter-attack on Nidaros which drove Olaf back to the south. There he mustered his forces and assembled a warfleet for the inevitable decisive battle which was fought off Nesjar, a headland on the western shore of Oslofjord, on Palm Sunday in the year 1016.

The victory went to Olaf and with it the kingship of all Norway; the defeated Jarl Svein fled east into Sweden, where he died of sickness the following autumn, and the jarls Erik and Hakon became otherwise engaged with Cnut who was now king in England. In the customary way of victorious warrior kings, Olaf bestowed generous gifts on his supporters, and especially upon the stepfather who had not only helped bring the Uppland kings to Olaf's cause but also, according to the saga, brought with him ‘a great body of men' when he joined his stepson's forces in the decisive battle. It seems likely that Olaf's gift-giving to Sigurd Syr was to be the last meeting of the two men, because when the saga next tells of Olaf at Ringerike, some two years after the victory at Nesjar, it mentions that Sigurd had died the previous winter. In fact, that account of Olaf's visit to his mother is of particular significance here because it represents the very first appearance of Harald Hardrada in the

In celebration of her son's homecoming, the proud Ásta prepared a great banquet for Olaf who ‘alone now bore the title of king in Norway' and after the feast brought her three young sons (by Sigurd) to meet their royal half-brother. The saga account of that meeting, while hardly to be considered other than an apocryphal anecdote, does at least have the ring of plausibility when it tells how the king sought to test the character of the three young princes by pretending to become suddenly and thunderously angry. While Guthorm the eldest and Halfdan the second son drew back in fear, the reaction of Harald the youngest was simply to give a tug to his tormentor's beard. If, as the saga claims, Olaf really did respond to Harald's bold gesture by telling the three-year-old that ‘You will be vengeful one day, my kinsman', history was to prove him no poor judge of character.

The following day, as Olaf walked with his mother around the farm they saw the three boys at play, Guthorm and Halfdan building farmhouses and barns which they imagined stocking with cattle and sheep, while Harald was nearby at the edge of a pool floating chips of wood into the water. When asked what they were, Harald said these were his warships and Olaf replied: ‘It may well be that you will have command of warships one day, kinsman.'

Calling the three boys over to him, Olaf asked each in turn what he would most like to own. ‘Cornfields' was Guthorm's choice, while Halfdan chose ‘cattle' and so many as would surround the lake when they were watered, but when it came to Harald's turn he had no hesitation in demanding ‘housecarls', the fighting men who formed a king's retinue. ‘And how many housecarls would you wish to have?' asked the king. ‘As many as would eat all my brother Halfdan's cattle at a single meal!' came the reply. Olaf was laughing when he turned to Ásta saying, ‘In this one, mother, you are raising a warrior king', and, indeed, there is good reason to believe that such had been her intention from the first. The saga relates more than one anecdote bearing on Ásta's ambitions for her sons and it would seem likely that it was she rather than her husband Sigurd who had chosen the name given to their youngest boy. If so, then her choice carries its own remarkable significance because the name
derives from the Old Norse term
, ‘ruler of warriors'.

Some dozen years had passed before there is any saga reference to Harald meeting again with Olaf, although this time it was to be in very different circumstances because much had changed since 1018. Driven from power in Norway, Olaf had found refuge in Russia and it was from there that he returned in 1030 in a doomed attempt to reclaim his kingdom by the sword. News of his coming had apparently reached Ringerike even before he had passed through Sweden and the first to meet him as he approached the border was his half-brother Harald – now fifteen years old and described by the saga as ‘so manly as if he were already full-grown' – who brought some seven hundred Upplanders to join Olaf's modest army on its westward advance into the Trondelag.