VIKING - 10: HARALD 'THE HARD RULER' - Defeat to Glory and Renown, and Back to Defeat

"Unwise is he who thinks only friends laugh around him. On the high seat with close followers he cannot tell what men say out of sight or behind his back".

Havamal

Triumph before the Tears

Viking landing - before Harald Sigurdsson came to claim the English crown he had been at war with the Danes, chasing Svein Estrithsson around the Danish isles and raiding
Viking landing - before Harald Sigurdsson came to claim the English crown he had been at war with the Danes, chasing Svein Estrithsson around the Danish isles and raiding | Source

Harald's banner, 'Land-Oda' or Hrafnsmerki

When seen for the first time there is nothing remarkable about this banner. When viewed by Harald's victims, it took on a whole new meaning. This was 'Land-Waster', as the folk of Yorkshire well knew in the warm September of 1066
When seen for the first time there is nothing remarkable about this banner. When viewed by Harald's victims, it took on a whole new meaning. This was 'Land-Waster', as the folk of Yorkshire well knew in the warm September of 1066

Harald's older half-brother Olaf Haraldsson met his end at Stiklestad on July 29th, AD 1030

'Olaf, Olaf, can you hear me? Give me a sign, dear Lord Iesu, that I might see my brother alive again!' The young Harald was distraught. His half-brother, the great saviour of Norway had slumped to his knees. The flights and shaft of an arrow stirred in the summer breeze as Olaf Haraldsson fought for breath. Harald himself was badly wounded, his right arm spurting blood, still trying to fend off attackers with a heavy sword weighing awkwardly in his left hand. They kept coming on, the folk of the fjords, knowing they were winning. Olaf's hersir, his loyal household retainers, fought off the freemen of southern Norway that had turned against their king. Now, though, they were weakening and - one by one - fell to sword, axe and arrow. There were men all around, thronging to cut down those who sought to uphold the reign of a king they had grown to detest. A king who sought to rid these folk of their old, trusted gods did not deserve to live when he threatened them with the sword if they did not follow the eastern God.

'Cut down his men!', came the cry, 'like the barley in the fields. See, there is that long-legged sprout Harald - catch him before he flees!'

Somehow Harald was able to flee, spirited away from the field of slaughter at Stiklestad in western Norway in that fateful summer of 1030 - away first to the kingdom of the Svear to recover from his wounds. Olaf and the Svear king Onund Jakob along with Knut's jarl Ulf Thorgilsson had not long before beaten the Danes' king, Knut at the Helgeaa, the Holy River in southern Skaane

Days, perhaps weeks went by before the fifteen-year old was taken on to Holmgard in the east. It would be years before he could forgive himself for not dying alongside Olaf, but for now he would serve Jaroslav 'the Wise' the Rus prince, to the best of his skill. Three further summers passed until Jaroslav saw the young man to his ship for the long, hard way south to the black Sea. Harald bade Eilisleif farewell. The fair princess would wait for him, she said, her father would keep her to that promise. The Norse prince was setting off on his next adventure, to Miklagard. Gold beckoned, renown begged to be won - the east would ring to the crashing of shields when Harald fought the Saracens!

The emperor Michael ruled at the time Harald presented himself in his palace overlooking the Bosphoros. From the doorway to his left Michael could see the west, the Middle Sea glistened in the late morning sun. To his right a whole new world shimmered, gold in the heat of the day already five hours old!

'So - you are the giant prince I have heard so much about!' The emperor stepped back to take in the young fellow he would have one day soon as captain of the Varangian Guard one day. For now Harald would be tested against the emperor's foes - and they included the very prelates and princes who smiled when Michael breezed past them on the way to his chair at the head of the long table in the great hall. He could put his faith in the Varangians, however. They would die rather than let his enemies near him, and many were the food-tasters who had passed the last morsels over their tongues!

Yet Harald never forgot who he would have to remove when he reached his homeland. Kalf Arnason, Thorir 'Hund' and Harek of Tjoetta would have to watch their backs when he stepped ashore! For now he would learn how to lead men, what new ways there were of ridding himself of his foes. There was the well-known Greek fire that could be used to bring forth men from their homes, the burning rooves of their homes threatening to set them on fire. And there were wiles. He had heard of the Danish prince, the son of Ragnar Lothbrok who played dead until he was within the walls of the city in Sicilia that he and his men had besieged. Harald used that one more than once, he remembered. Not a drop of the Varangians' blood was spilled!

But when Michael had been set aside and Constantine 'Monomachos' was taken as the empress Zoe's third husband things began to unravel. When an emperor died his Varangians could roam the palace unchecked and take of his what they wished. Harald was accused of taking more than his share, salting away silver from taxes not declared as collected. At Zoe's command Harald and a number of hid men were imprisoned. Harald saw Olaf in his sleep, so he said. The dead king told Harald he would be freed.

'How? When we are here in the depths of the palace?!' Harald was glad to see Olaf, but could not understand how he would be freed. A young woman - a servant of Zoe, Olaf told him, who was sweet on the Norseman would see to their being freed. They would get beyond the chains that held out ships - and held in those not meant to leave! - and sail upriver on the Dnieper to claim the gold and treasure already forwarded to Holmgard. He would claim the hand of Eiliseif from Jaroslav, take her with him and claim the throne of Norway for his own.

'You wish for me to help you take your nephew Magnus' throne?' Svein Estrithsson had ruled for some years as regent over the Danish lands for Magnus. He had his own dreams, but for now Harald would take the first step for him. Harald went to war against Magnus. Shields clashed, swords bit and axes hewed. Svein saw his chance to claim the throne of Denmark for himself whilst the two Norsemen locked horns, but Magnus realised he could not hold off his uncle and offered to share the throne.

Now Svein was being chased from pillar to post around the islands, to Skaane and Gotland whilst Harald razed the ground. Harald had a banner, Land Oda - Land Waster - which was to put the fear of God into men's hearts, chill their souls! Land Oda was the black raven, Odin's bird brought back to life by a Christian king to scare his foes.

[Land Oda would one day see life in a different guise, but enough of that for now]!

Harald finally let Svein settle down, and turned his anger to his enemies within Norway. Some were already dead when he returned home, the others were frightened off or left for the Western Isles. Harald earned his nickname. He was the Hard Ruler. Tribute was brought forth when demanded; laws were enforced; men bowed to the God Olaf died for. But peace befell the Hard Ruler. He was softening in his fifty-first year. Men called him 'Emma' behind his back. 'Emma' was Harald's calf-length mailcoat, hanging un-needed in his bed-chamber for all anyone knew...

That was until Tostig Godwinson showed.

'You remember the promise Harthaknut made to Magnus?'

'Promise? Of course, the English throne! Aye, I remember they agreed whichever of the two lived longer would lay claim to the kingdom. Harthaknut died in his cups, did he not? I shall lay the crown on my own head this year, so help me God!'

'I have been given men and ships by my brother-in-law, the Count Baldwin of Flanders. I have also been promised men and ships by King Malcolm. I do not want the throne -' Tostig began.

'Just as well - that's mine!' Harald laughed long and loud. His court laughed with him.

They agreed that their fleets would meet off Saint Abb's Head, in the sea east of the Firth of Forth after a campaign of slash and burn around the coast by Tostig to try his brother. Harold Godwinson was watching out already for Duke William on the south coast, and as he could not be everywhere at once the coast would be clear. Tostig was thrashed by the fyrd each time he made a landing, losing many of his men and ships by the time the fleets met in the after-year. Nevertheless King Harald had gathered over three hundred ships from all around the islands, from Man and Orkney, from the Faeroes and Iceland. His stallari Eystein 'Orre' - the fellow sounded like a moorcock when he laughed - and Styrkar led landings down the coast at Teesmouth, at Skarthiburh (Scarborough) where Harald used his Greek fire to best effect, and near the mouth of the Hymbra (Humber).

The combined army was made up mainly of West Norse, Flemings, some Danes of Tostig's own household and a few malcontent English thegns who saw Tostig as a way of enriching themselves. Disembarking at Richale (Riccall) they crossed overland and crushed the select fyrd summoned from between Jorvik (York) and Ceaster (Chester) under Earl Morkere and his older brother Earl Edwin. Worse for the two young earls was that they had not seen fit to draw the king - their brother-in-law now that their sister the widow Aelfgifu had wedded Harold - into the struggle.

Harold Godwinson had his eyes in the north, however. He knew of the landings made by Tostig and Harald 'Hardraada', and he knew by the time he reached Tadceaster (Tadcaster) that the Norse army had beaten the northern earls at Gata Fulford (Gate Fulford) to the east of Jorvik - known to the Angles as Eoferwic - and he found out from scouts sent out to seek out the foe that Harald and Tostig awaited hostages and gold at Staenfordes Brycg (Stamford Bridge) on the banks of the River Deorewent (Derwent). Moreover they had sent half the army back to the ships, along with their heavy chain mail and weapons.

On the morning of September 24th the men on both sides of the Deorewent saw clouds of dust over the western ridge of the broad dale from the direct of Jorvik.

'Good! We shall be on our way south to take the throne of this kingdom before the week is out!' Harald clapped his hands with glee.

'There is too much dust to be a small party of nobles and our hostages, even if they had a hundred pack horses laden with gold!' Tostig was more reserved. Before long his worst fears were realised. 'God, we have our work cut out for us to come away alive from here!'

Above them on the western ridge was a sight to chill the blood. Men and weapons, sword blades, shining new axe blades, shield bosses reflected the morning sun, 'like a field of broken ice', (as Snorri Sturluson would write one day).

A lone warrior held back many of Harold's men on the narrow bridge before he was struck down when someone took a small boat under the bridge and pierced the giant with a spear from below. (Painful!) The fighting began in earnest after a 'herald' tried to bargain with Tostig. The 'herald' was Tostig's brother Harold himself, unknown to Harald Sigurdsson. Not long into the battle Harald Sigurdsson was killed by an arrow to the windpipe and he sank to his knees. Tostig was in command now, with Styrkar until Eystein 'Orre' showed on the road from Richale with more men. But after a six mile run in chain mail, carrying heavy weapons and shields, Eystein and his reinforcements collapsed with the heat of a warm September afternoon. Tostig was killed soon afterwards and no-one knows what became of Styrkar (there is a tale that he fled, killed a waggoner not far from the battle and took one of his horses).

Harald's sons Olaf and Magnus were allowed to take their father's corpse home in one of the two dozen ships that were needed to ferry the survivors home by way of Kirkjuvagr (Kirkwall).

*Of the Land Oda banner, it is said remnants of the banner were taken by some of the Norsemen back to the Western Isles. Somehow a scrap of the banner came into the possession of the Clan MacLeod chieftains on Skye, where it was known as the 'Fairy flag'. A story goes that the clan chiefs were given a warning through the remnant, of an attack by their rivals, the Morrison clan. The castle was evacuated in time. These days the tattered, thin fabric can be seen in a dimly-lit case at Dunvegan Castle.

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An end to the saga none could foresee...

A well-aimed arrow struck the tall king in his throat. Fighting to the death, Harald would have taken a long time to die, dropping to his knees out of sight behind his 'hersir', (his retainers)
A well-aimed arrow struck the tall king in his throat. Fighting to the death, Harald would have taken a long time to die, dropping to his knees out of sight behind his 'hersir', (his retainers)

From near tragedy to triumph and on to tragedy. Harald Sigurdsson's career from fighting beside ill-fated half-brother (Saint) Olaf at Stiklestad in August, 1030 by way of the east. On to the Byzantine emperor's Varangian Guard; marriage to Ellisif, daughter of Jaroslav 'the Wise' in Kiev; to kingship over Norway; death by an arrow to the throat in southern Northumbria after routing Earl Morkere's select fyrd with Tostig Godwinson.

There are some misinterpretations - Snorri Sturlusson wrote his accounts of the Norse kings long after the events - including the idea that the English fought on horseback at Stamford Bridge near York in late September, 1066. Otherwise a great yarn, if bereft of detail.

Overland from central Norway to Sweden, then by river from the Baltic to the Black Sea...

The way east - after the death of his half-brother Olaf at Stiklestad, on August 31st,  Harald was smuggled out of harm's way, east first to Sweden and on to Holmgard (Novgorod) before going south to Miklagard (Constantinople)
The way east - after the death of his half-brother Olaf at Stiklestad, on August 31st, Harald was smuggled out of harm's way, east first to Sweden and on to Holmgard (Novgorod) before going south to Miklagard (Constantinople) | Source

Read Kelly DeVries' well researched account of Harald Sigurdsson's campaign in Northumbria, September 1066, what led to it and the outcome after initial successes along the coast and at York on September 23rd, 1066.

Extensively researched and referenced with accurate historical background going back to Earl Godwin and his relationship with his older sons, Svein, Harold and Tostig..

Danish stamp commemmorating the location of three ships at Skuldelev, sunk to prevent Harald's fleet landing in Roskilde Fjord
Danish stamp commemmorating the location of three ships at Skuldelev, sunk to prevent Harald's fleet landing in Roskilde Fjord | Source

There is another book that touches on Harald's saga

David Gibbins' archaeological yarn 'Crusader Gold'. Has Harald taken the gold menorah, a Hebrew religious candlestick whilst in Constantinople as a captain of the Varangian Guard? The story begins at the time of the Roman occupation of Palestine and takes you through the Crusades to the Nazis and on to modern-day Turkey, once the Byzantine Empire.

A sort of Indiana Jones, Mr Gibbins' Jack Howard tracks the treasured menorah.

Next - 11: Seafarers' Marine Technology (1)

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