Harald Hardrada was the King of Norway for two decades in the middle of the eleventh century. He showed early signs of being a proficient military general and fought many battles during his lifetime. His death is considered as the end of the Viking Age and he is famous as the last great Viking. Here are 10 interesting facts about his life and achievements.
#1 He was not known as Harald Hardrada during his life
Harald Hardrada was born Harald Sigurdsson in Ringerike, Norway in 1015. He was given the title Hardrada after his death in stories. Hardrada roughly means ‘stern counsel‘ or ‘hard ruler‘. Harald’s father Sigurd Syr ruled the region of Ringerike. His mother Asta Gudbrandsdatter was also the mother of King Olaf Haraldsson of Norway, who was her son from her first marriage. Hence Harald was half-brother of King Olaf whom he admired and considered a role model.
#2 Harald fought in the Battle of Stiklestad at the age of fifteen
In 1028 there was a revolt in Norway and Harald’s brother Olaf Haraldsson was forced into exile. Two years later Olaf returned to Norway to reclaim his throne and Harald took 600 men with him to help his half-brother. 15 year old Harald fought alongside Olaf against people loyal to Cnut the Great in the Battle of Stiklestad in July 1030. The brothers were defeated. Olaf died in battle and Harald was seriously wounded and had to flee. Despite the defeat Harald showed remarkable military talent during the battle.
#3 Harald served as captain of the forces of Prince Yaroslav of Kievan Rus
A year after the defeat at Battle of Stiklestad, Harald and his men moved to Kievan Rus. Grand Prince Yaroslav the Wise, whose wife was a distant relative of Harald, welcomed Harald just as he had welcomed Olaf after the revolt. Badly in need of military leaders, Yaroslav made Harald captain of his forces. In the early 1030s Harald fought against Kievan rivals in multiple battles, most prominently he was involved in Yaroslav’s campaign against the Poles in 1031.
#4 He was the leader of the elite unit of the Byzantine Army
In mid 1030s Harald and his men moved to the capital of the Byzantine Empire, Constantinople. They joined the elite unit of the Byzantine Army, the Varangian Guard. Soon Harald became the “leader over all the Varangians”. As commander of the army Harald fought in places as far apart as the Mediterranean, Asia Minor, Sicily, the Holy Land and Constantinople. Due to his exploits Harald became a renowned military leader and was well respected.
#5 Harald led the revolt against Michael V after Byzantine Emperor Michael IV died
In 1041, Michael IV, the Byzantine Emperor at the time, died. During the ensuing power struggle between new emperor Michael V and the powerful empress Zoe, Harald was arrested and imprisoned. He managed to escape and became the leader of the revolt against the new emperor. Michael V was blinded and exiled to a monastery and Empress Zoe took the throne. In 1042, Harald requested to return to Norway and although Zoe refused, he managed to escape with two ships and some loyal followers.
#6 He married Princess Elisaveta Yaroslavna of Kiev
During his time earlier at Kievan Rus Harald had requested to marry Yaroslav’s daughter Princess Elisaveta (Elisiv) but was rejected as he was not rich enough. During his time in the Byzantine Empire, Harald had amassed enormous wealth and upon his return Harald married Elisiv. This was significant as Yaroslav’s other children were married to figures such as Henry I of France, Andrew I of Hungary and the daughter of Constantine IX.
#7 He became the joint ruler of Norway along with Magnus in 1046
In 1045 Harald looked to reclaim the Norwegian throne that Olaf had died fighting for. Cnut the Great had turned his attentions to England; and Norway was being ruled by Olaf’s illegitimate son Magnus the Good. Sweyn Estridsson of Denmark had been defeated by Magnus and Harald joined forces with Sweyn against Magnus. However instead of war a compromise was made through which Harald and Magnus would jointly rule Norway and Harald would share half of his sizeable wealth with the bankrupt Magnus.
#8 He was the sole ruler of Norway from 1047 till his death in 1066
In 1047, within a year of co-rule, Magnus died with no heir. He willed Harald to be king of Norway and Sweyn of Denmark. Harald was however not content and in the next two decades there was constant warfare between Harald and Sweyn over Denmark. Despite losing nearly every battle against Harald, Sweyn held on to Denmark. Fatigue and huge costs of these indecisive battles ultimately led to the two kings agreeing to unconditional peace in 1064. Harald remained king of Norway till his death in 1066.
#9 He died at the Battle of Stamford Bridge
After the death of Edward the Confessor, the English throne passed to Harold Godwinson. Hardrada allied with Godwinson’s brother Tostig, who had been exiled by his brother. Together Hardrada and Tostig invaded England from the River Tees in September 1066. They met Harold Godwinson’s army in the Battle of Stamford Bridge on 25 September. Godwinson’s forces hugely outnumbered theirs and both Harald Hardrada and Tostig died in the battle. Harald Hardrada’s death was caused by an arrow that struck his neck. He was buried at the Mary Church in Nidaros, Norway
#10 Harald Hardrada is considered as the last great Viking
Although Harald was known to solve internal disputes by brute force, his reign of Norway was marked by peace and progress. His economic policies are considered good and he developed a Norwegian currency which allowed Norway to participate in international trade. He advanced Christianity in Norway, building and improving churches. Harald Hardrada’s death is considered as the end of Viking Age which lasted for more than two centuries. He is often referred to as the last great Viking. Several monuments have been built in his honor and he appears in multiple fictional books.