When we were in Istanbul in 2014, we were particular keen to see the famous Viking graffiti on a rail of the gallery of the beautiful Aya Sofya basilica. And there indeed it was, carved by Halvden, a 9th Century soldier of the Emperor’s Varangarian Guard, an elite force of Viking mercenaries. This year, we visited York, successively a Roman, Saxon, and Viking city.
I have an intense interest in connections, in the valences that link people, times, and places. And in York, there were many. Constantine, the creator of the Byzantine Empire, and founder of Constantinople, was declared emperor here on the death in York of his father. His statue sits (literally) outside York Minster. The Roman brickage we saw in Ephesus, Palmyra, and Jerusalem was replicated here in York, and in the forts of Hadrian’s Wall. And it was exciting to discover another connection to Istanbul, and that long-departed Viking warrior.
My story recalls one the most famous dates in English history, the the Battle of Hastings. But I shall not retell the story of that battle, nor of the battle at Stamford Bridge which preceded it. Rather, I will describe one particular Viking’s adventurous journeying before he met his doom near York in September 1066.
Harald Sigurdsson, named Hardrada (“Stern Counsel” or “Hard Ruler”), was born about 1015, and he was the first King to perish in 1066. King of Norway, his appetite grew with the eating, and he made unsuccessful plays for the thrones of Denmark and England. Failing the first, he invaded and raided east of what was then Eoforic (formerly Roman Eboracum and Viking Jorvik, and today, York). His protagonist that day was one Harold Godwinson of Wessex, otherwise known as Harold II, King of England. Harold marched his army all the way up to Eoforic to confront his almost-namesake and Harald’s ally, one Tostig Goodwinson, Saxon turncoat and also, Harold’s embittered brother. In four days, Harold marched his army 180 miles from London, meeting and defeating Harald and Tostig at Stamford Bridge, just east of York. Hearing that William the Bastard, Duke of Normandy had landed near Hastings to challenge his claim to the English throne, King Harold then marched his army south again. 241 miles this time. The rest, as they say, is history.
King Harald is not hard to find on the Internet. There are websites, histories, and even novels that tell his story in lesser and greater detail. And, rumour has it, Leonardo DiCaprio is pondering the prospect of making a movie about him, and possibly starring in it. There are also many resources dealing with the Varangarian Guard. I recommend Frank Westenfelder’s succinct blog history of mercenaries, Soldiers of Misfortune. So what follows is my own sensationalist synopsis, written as much for entertainment as for education.
As a teen Harald was caught up in internecine warfare between battling Viking eorls. Brothers and half-brothers, rebels and pretenders fought for lands and crowns in the realms that now constitute Scandinavia. Young Harald often fought and failed, and on failing, he fled. He washed up in Kieven Rus’ on Lake Ladoga, east of present day Petersburg, and then entered the service of Grand Prince Jaroslav the Wise in Novgarod. He captained the Grand Prince’s soldiery and, so the sagas sing, paid court to Jaroslav’s beautiful daughter Elesiv (Elisabeth). He fought Poles, Estonians, Turkic nomads, and Byzantines. He eventually took five hundred Viking warriors to Constantinople, where his martial reputation saw him rise to head the Varangarian Guard, that same mob that our Istanbul graffitist served in. Whilst this was specifically the emperors’s bodyguard, as an elite force, it fought on the empire’s frontiers against Arab pirates and raiders, marauding nomads from the steppes, Saracens, Normans and Bulgarians. The sagas say that Harald even travelled to Jerusalem, protecting caravans of Christian pilgrims. Just picture it. A brigade of Norseman slashing and bashing their way through the wadis and wastelands of Syria, fifty years before the first crusaders put Jerusalem to the sword.
Harald passed twelve years in Byzantium, departing a wealthy warrior. Not that his leaving was without complications. Implicated in murky financial dealings (including a fair amount of looting and blackmail), Byzantine power struggles, and, possibly, a love affair with the Empress Zoe, he fled with his men in two ships. One was trapped by the famous chain that was strung across the Bosphorus, but his boat reached the Black Sea and sailed thence to Rus’ once more, and the lovely Princess. Elisef’s father, I might add, the renowned Jaroslav, was in fact the son of a Viking Varangarian, and this may have been a reason he gave Harald sanctuary and employment in the first place, and encouraged him to seek service in Constantinople. Whilst there, Harald had secured sufficient funds to finance a bid for the Norwegian throne. After much battling and bargaining, he succeeded, and indeed, ruled Norway for twenty years until he made the fateful decision to try his hand in England.
Tostig was angry that Harold has taken the earldom of Northumbria away from him, and so encouraged Harald to challenge his brother’s disputed claim to the English throne. It is mooted that Viking Harald and French William each believed that he had been promised said crown by the dying English king, Edward the Confessor. Both therefore came ashore with their forces to claim what they reckoned was their inheritance. Which was why the unfortunate Harold did his exhausting round-trip in September and October of 1066.
At Stamford Bridge, Harald’s long run of good fortune ran out. the Norns, having long ignored him, decided to cut his thread. The Viking army was heavily beaten, and Harald himself was struck in the throat by an arrow and killed early on in the battle in a state of “berserkergang” or “battle rage”. He wore no body armour nor carried a shield, fighting fiercely with both hands clutching his heavy sword. Dying thus, sword in his hand, he was assured entry into Valhalla.
And so our story ends. Scholars have considered Harald’s death in battle as the end of The Viking Age. He is also reckoned to have been the last great Viking king, indeed, the last great Viking.
© Paul Hemphill 2015
There is a song for every occasion, and with our our sojourn in York, and Viking fact and fiction echoing along its ersatz City Walls, I would like to share my very own Viking saga: Summer is the Time (To Go a’Viking).
An exciting additon to the saga of the Varangarian Guard is recent evidence that in the wake of they Norman Conquest, Saxon exiles emigrated from conquered England and joined the Emperor’s bodyguard. They acquired quite a reputation for martial prowess, and were believed to have established a city in what is today the Crimean Peninsula. Read Caitlin Green’s well-written post:
The original source for much of what we know of Harald is The Heimskringia Saga. therein is much more fascinating detail of his adventures, including the full story of his escape from Constantinople. All of Harald’s Varangarians piled onto two ships and rowed like crazy for the chain. As they approached, he had every man who wasn’t rowing pick up any baggage he had and run to the back of the boat, so that the prow of was raised and the stern lay low in the water. Thus, the ships managed to run themselves halfway up onto the chain, whereupon all the vikings at the stern ran to the front with their gear, so that the ships tilted forward and came down on the other side. At least, that was the plan. Harald’s ship made it but the other broke its keel and sank, along with half of his men. The Saga is available in the online Gutenberg Library. Go to Saga 8, The Saga of Harald Hardrade.
For a very good account of 1066, the “year of the three battles”, see History Extra’s story of the three battles that lost England.
And for more: