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 Varangian Guard, an elite force of Viking mercenaries. The name Varangian 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.
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 – and there is an isolated hamlet on the plateau to our west in northern New South Wales called Ebor). 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 – I republish a review of Don Hollway’s imaginative The Last Viking below. 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 Varangian 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 Varangian 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 Varangian, 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:
The Saga of Harald Hardrada
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 Varangians 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 Varangians
An exciting addition to the saga of the Varangian 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 Howling Infinite :
Kirkwall Cathedral, Shetland, UK
If you love heroic fantasy a la George R.R. Martin, you’ll love ‘The Last Viking’
And none more so than Harald Hardrada, Harald the Hard-Ruler or Tyrant, whose marauding ways came to an end in England at the Battle of Stamford Bridge, near York, in the pivotal year of 1066. In effect, the 51-year-old invader, by then the king of Norway, was caught by surprise. The Anglo-Saxon King Harold Godwinson unexpectedly quick-marched his army north, covering 200 miles in four or five days instead of the usual two weeks. Hollway calls this “one of the greatest feats of military tactics in medieval history.” Yet even though Harald, the “thunderbolt of the North,” was defeated and killed, he unknowingly exacted a cold revenge. Immediately after this costly, hard-fought victory, the Anglo-Saxon king and his remaining, exhausted troops were compelled to hurry back south to face William of Normandy — soon to be William the Conqueror — at the Battle of Hastings. A fresher, bigger army might have changed English history. As it was, in just three weeks both the age of the Vikings and the reign of the Anglo-Saxons reached a blood-drenched close.
When we think of Vikings, we generally picture dragon ships raiding the coasts of England and Scotland or intrepidly sailing westward across the Atlantic to Iceland and, quite probably, North America. Yet Harald passed much of his young manhood in the wild, wild East, where this “almost legendary Norse hero”— as John Julius Norwich calls him in “Byzantium: The Apogee”— served as a mercenary in the Byzantine Empire’s elite Varangian Guard, eventually becoming its de facto commander. He also participated in diplomatic missions and military actions in the Holy Land, Sicily and Constantinople itself. Beyond that, matters grow somewhat hazy.
Much of what we know about Harald derives from Icelandic sagas, poems and histories, supplemented by Byzantine sources, such as Michael Psellus’s “Chronographia.” In “The Last Viking,” Hollway, a journalist specializing in military history, dramatically weaves together all the facts and most of what is conjectured about the Viking, the result being at once a biography and “a melding, comparison and recounting of the old tales.” Was the handsome blond warrior a favorite of the aging, lustful Empress Zoe? Did he gouge out the eyes of the pusillanimous Emperor Michael V? Was he the secret lover of the Emperor Constantine IX’s mistress? Might the imperial throne have actually been within reach of his sword-arm? Though it’s impossible to be sure, all of these questions could plausibly be answered “yes.” That’s what the skalds and chroniclers believed and that’s the riveting story Hollway tells.
In the year 1030 Harald was 15 years old when he joined his much older half brother Olaf, the deposed king of Norway, in the latter’s attempt to regain his throne. Just before the climactic battle of Stiklestad, Olaf told Harald he was too young for the upcoming clash of arms, to which the teenager reportedly countered, “I will certainly be in this battle. I’m not too weak to handle a sword. If necessary my hand can be strapped to the hilt.” During the fighting, Olaf was killed and Harald left for dead. But the boy survived, recovered from his wounds, and with a small company headed for Russia, traveled up the Neva River to Lake Ladoga and then on to Kiev, where his kinsman Prince Yaroslav ruled. Three years later, only 18, Harald captained that prince’s household guard. Recognizing that he could rise no higher in Kiev, this ambitious, natural-born commander sailed and portaged down the river Dnieper, then crossed the Black Sea to Miklagard, the Big City, as the Scandinavians called Constantinople.
Hollway devotes half his book to Harald’s adventures and machinations during the decade he spent with the Varangian Guard. Toward the end of those years, the Viking and his closest lieutenants were cast into a lightless dungeon, yet nonetheless managed to break out, kidnap the emperor’s mistress and commandeer two galleys. But so what? Escape by sea was blocked by a heavy barrier chain stretched across the estuary known as the Golden Horn. Ever resourceful, Harald ordered his men to row toward it with all their might just as he and the others on board all rushed to the ship’s stern. This raised its bow high enough so that the vessel rode halfway over the chain, at which point everyone immediately raced forward to elevate the galley’s back half, allowing the ship to slide down into open water.
Once back in Kiev, Harald married Yaroslav’s pretty daughter Elisaveta, then journeyed homeward to seize power in Norway and attempt to subjugate Sweden and Denmark. Up to this point, the Viking could be construed a hero or at least a brilliantly audacious and quick-witted soldier of fortune, but in his unrelenting drive to be ruler of all Scandinavia he soon grew treacherous and cruel, looting and burning Danish cities, murdering any nobles who stood against him. His battle standard, white silk bearing the image of a black raven, became known as Land-Waster. The chance to bring England under its sway ultimately led to Harald’s last stand at Stamford Bridge.
A fencer and historical reenactor, Don Hollway excels at describing medieval weaponry, shield walls and battle tactics. Yet this isn’t just a book for military history buffs. If you love Frans Bengtsson’s picaresque masterpiece, “The Long Ships,” Robert Graves’s intrigue-suffused “I, Claudius,” or heroic fantasy in the mold of Robert E. Howard, George R.R. Martin and Howard Andrew Jones, you owe it to yourself to pick up “The Last Viking.” It’s that exciting, that good.
Michael Dirda reviews books for Style every Thursday.
The Last Viking – the True Story of King Harald Hardrada, Don Hollway, Osprey.