Harald Went A Viking

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. The name Varangarian derives from the Greek via Old Norse væringi or ‘pledge’.

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.

Viking Grafitti in Hagia Sophia, Istanbul

Viking graffiti in the Hagia Sophia, Istanbul

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, 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 Kyivan Rus on Lake Ladoga, east of present day Petersburg, and then entered the service of Grand Prince Jaroslav or (Yaroslavl) the Wise in Novgorod. The principality of Kyivan Rus, by the by, was the predecessor of today’s Ukraine, Russia, and Belorussia, and was established and ruled for over a century by Viking warriors. Harald captained the Grand Prince’s soldiery and, so the sagas sing, paid court to Jaroslav’s beautiful daughter Elesiv (Elisabeth). Ukrainian historians maintain that Yaroslavl actually ruled in raked in Kyiv and that his daughter was called Yelizaveta; but they tell the same story.

In Jaroslav’s service, Harold fought Poles, Estonians, Turkic nomads, and Byzantines. He eventually took five hundred Viking warriors to Constantinople – the Norsemen called it Mickelgard, or Great City – 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 traveled to Jerusalem – the Vikings called it Jorsalberg – 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, an illicit 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 Bosporus (see below for more details). but his boat reached the Black Sea and sailed thence to Rus’ once more, and the lovely Princess.

Elisef’s father, the renowned Jaroslav ‘the law giver’, 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.

There’s a  good account of 1066, the “year of the three battles”, in History Extra‘s story of the three battles that lost England.

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:

Further Reading

The Saga of Harald Hardrade

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.

Anglo Saxon Varangarians

An exciting addition 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: New England on the Black Sea

The Vikings of Rus

The principality of Kyivan Rus, with its capital at Kyiv,  was established and ruled for over a century by Viking warriors who ventured south down the great rivers of today’s Ukraine, Russia, and Belorussia. The Viking age lasted from the end of the eighth century to the latter half of the eleventh.

The vikings raided and traded, subjugated and ruled whole countries or parts thereof, transforming existing politics and creating new ones. In so doing, they butted up against the Byzantine Empire, even reaching the gates of Constantinople itself. Envoys of the king of Rus first came to the city in 838, offering peace, friendship and trade. But there was also conflict. In 860, Vikings besieged the city and passing through the Bosporus into the Mediterranean, plundered Byzantine-controlled islands. This was repeated in 959.

Over time, relations became much more cordial. Prince Volodymyr the Great of Kyiv converted to Christianity in 988, a purely political move to secure the goodwill of the Byzantine empire, his most powerful and dangerous neighbour. He adopted the Byzantine orthodoxy, thus drawing  him closer to the empire, and proceeded to convert his subjects. Alliances of mutual benefit were formed, with Vikings fighting Byzantium’s border wars, and were often sealed with marriages between Viking lords and Byzantine princesses.

Constantinople was like a lode star to the Vikings. The princes of Kyivan Rus were attracted to its wealth and commerce, and also to the power, prestige and high culture. Indeed, they endeavoured to replicate it on the Dnieper. Voldymyr’s grandson Yaroslav/Jaroslav (he’s acclaimed by both Ukraine and Russia) rebuilt Kyiv in Byzantium’s image, in brick and stone, built a magnificent cathedral modeled on Theodosius’ Aya Sofia, naming it Saint Sofia, and a raised a Golden Gate like that in the Great City. Princes in other cities followed Kyiv’s example.

Everything was violently undone in 1238 when the Mongols invaded Kyivan Rus, and Kyiv itself was devastated in 1240, and did not recover its former importance and prosperity for centuries. Yet, the cathedral of St Sophia still stands in the heart of Kiev, as it has done for almost a millennium, its golden domes a symbol of the advent of Christianity in eastern Europe.

There’s a fascinating account of Kyivan Rus See Serhii Plokhy’s history of Ukraine, The Gates of Europe.

Read more in In That Howlong Infinite :

Kirkwall Cathedral, Shetland, UK

Kirkwall Cathedral, Shetland, UK

The Watchers Of The Water

A song about Gallipoli, sung by a Turkish soldier

Back in the last century, before ANZAC Day became the secular Christmas that it has become, before marketing people and populist politicians saw its commercial and political potential, before the fatal shore became a crowded place of annual pilgrimage, my Turkish friend, the late Naim Mehmet Turfan, gave me a grainy picture of a Turkish soldier at Gelibolu carrying a large howitzer shell on his back. Then there was this great film by Australian director Peter Weir, starring young Mel Gibson and Mark Lee. There were these images of small boats approaching a dark and alien shore, of Lighthorsemen sadly farewelling their Walers as they embarked as infantry, and of the doomed Colonel Barton humming along to a gramophone recording of Bizet’s beautiful duet from The Pearl Fishers, ‘Au fond du temple saint’ before joining his men in the forlorn hope of The Nek.

There were other melodies I could never quite get out of my head. One I first heard in a musical in Beirut before that magical city entered its Dark Ages  –  Al Mahatta, written by the famous Rabbani Brothers and starring the Lebanese diva Fayrouz. And The Foggy Dew, one of the most lyrical and poignant of the Irish rebel songs:

Right proudly high over Dublin town, they hung out the flag of war. ‘Twas better to die ‘neath that Irish sky than at Suvla or at Sud el Bar…Twas England bade our Wild Geese go that small nations might be free,  But their lonely graves are by Suvla’s waves or the fringe of the grey North Sea.

Over three thousand Irishmen died at Gallipoli.

The song grew out of these many inspirations.

It was first performed in public by HuldreFolk in the closing concert of Coffs Harbour Folk Festival at the RSL on Australia Day 1984. When we had finished, there was absolutely silence in the hall. Then a voice cried out “the sky didn’t fall down!”, and the hall erupted with applause.

Some Notes on Gallipoli and the Anzacs for readers unfamiliar with the history. 

Monday 25th April is Australia and New Zealand’s national day of remembrance for all Anzac solders killed and wounded in their nation’s wars, and to honour servicemen and women past and present. At first, the Anzacs fought in the British Empire’s Wars, beginning with the Boer War, and then through two World Wars. From the mid -twentieth century, they have fought and died in what could ostensibly be called America’s wars even though these were waged under UN, EU or western alliance auspices: Korea, Gulf Wars II and III, Afghanistan, and the current interventions in Syria and Iraq. Incidentally, Australian veterans are presently commanding mercenary forces hired by the Gulf coalition that is laying waste to towns and villages in Yemen (with the help of American and British weaponry).

At the heart of the Anzac Day remembrance is the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps’ role the Dardanelles campaign of 1915-16, Winston Churchill’s grandiose and ill-conceived plan to take the Ottoman Empire out of the war by seizing the strategic strait between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean, thereby threatening Istanbul, the Ottoman capital. It was a military failure. From the initial seaborne assault to the evacuation, it lasted eight months and cost 114,000 lives with 230,000 wounded.

Gallipoli is cited as the crucible of Australian nationhood, but the Anzacs’ part in the doomed campaign was but a sideshow of the wider campaign. Although it is celebrated in Australian song and story, it was the Ottomans’ most significant victory in the war that was to destroy the seven hundred year old Ottoman Empire secure the reputation of its most successful general Mustafa Kemal, who as Ataturk, became the founder of modern Turkey.

Some thirty four thousand British soldiers died on the peninsula, including 3,400 Irishmen, and ten thousand Frenchmen – many of these latter being “colonial” troops from West and North Africa. Australia lost near on ten thousand and NZ three. Some 1,400 Indian soldiers perished for the King Emperor. Fifty seven thousand allied soldiers died, and seventy five thousand were wounded. The Ottoman army lost fifty seven thousand men, and one hundred and seven thousand were wounded (although these figures are probably much higher). An overlooked fact is that some two thirds of the “Turkish” solders in Kemal’s division were actually Arabs from present day Syrian and Palestine. Gallipoli was indeed a multicultural microcosm of a world at war.

Whilst the flower of antipodean youth is said to have perished on Gallipoli’s fatal shore, this was just the overture. Anzac troops were despatched to the Western Front, and between 1919 and 1918, 45,000 Aussies died there and 124,000 were wounded.

There are abundant primary and secondary sources relating to the Dardanelles campaign and the Anzacs, but here is a wiki primer: Gallipoli Campaign

And here is HukdreFolk’s rendering of Russian poet Yevtushenko’s account of the parade of German prisoners of war through the streets of Moscow in 1941, juxtaposed with The Watchers of the Water.

Anthem for Doomed Youth
Wilfred Owen

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,—
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.