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Harold Hardrada

"...and Harald, the king of the Norwegians, met him with 300 ships, and Tostig submitted to him. And they both went into the Humber until they came to York; and Earl Morcar and Earl Edwin fought with them, and the king of the Norwegians had the victory."

Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (Peterborough MS)

The saga of Harald Sigurdsson or, as he is better known, Harold Hardrada (Hardruler or Ruthless) is told by Snorri Sturluson in the Heimskringla, a history of the kings of Norway written c.1230.

In 1030 Olaf Haraldsson (St. Olaf) was killed, fighting to regain his throne after having been driven out by resentful jarls. His half-brother Harald, then only fifteen, was himself wounded in the battle and forced to flee for his own life. In time, relates Snorri, he came to Novgorod in Russia and then to Constantinople (Miklagård), where he enrolled in the service of the Byzantine empress and eventually became commander of the Varangian Guard (Viking mercenaries, mostly from Sweden, who served in the bodyguard of the Byzantine emperor).

Snorri revels in Harald's cunning tricks and swindles fighting against the Saracens in Sicily and Jerusalem. Once, lots were thrown to determine whether Varangians or Byzantines were to have precedence. They first were to be marked, and Harald asked to see the other piece so as not to identify his in the same way. But of course he did. When the winning lot was drawn, he threw it in the sea, saying that it had been his own. The one that remained could be seen to have his rival's mark. From then on, Harald's men always had first choice in berthing their ships or pitching camp.

Another time, when a besieged town could not be forced to surrender, Harald attached burning tinder to the legs of birds and released them. Soon, all the buildings were in flames, as the frightened birds returned to their nests under the thatched roofs of the town. Once, he pretended to have died, and the Varangians asked that the body be brought inside the town for burial. All the inhabitants vied for it, knowing that there would be rich donations for whoever had possession. But, as soon as the coffin was inside the gate, a trumpet sounded and the Varangians rushed inside, "killing the men, plundering all the churches, and taking immense booty."

In 1042, Edward the Confessor came to the throne in England, and Magnus the Good, Olaf's son, became king of Norway and Denmark. Harald determined to return home, asking for the niece of the empress in marriage. But she forbade the match, accused him of theft, and had him imprisoned. Snorri relates that Harald escaped, returned to the palace to put out the eyes of the emperor, and abducted the princess. Stealing a ship, he was blocked from leaving the harbor by a chain stretched across the entrance. Sending some of his men to the stern to raise the bow, Harald ran the ship up on the chain and then, as they moved forward, tipped the ship over the chain. So Harald was able to pass through the Golden Horn. The princess was set ashore with a message to the empress that she had not the power to prevent him from taking the girl.

Harald returned to Novgorod and married the daughter of the prince. He also collected the treasure that had been sent there for safekeeping. "Altogether it was more than had ever been seen in the North in one man's property." Such was Harald's wealth that Magnus was induced to give him half the kingdom. In 1047, when the king died, Harald succeeded to it all. Denmark, however, refused to accept him and instead acknowledged Swein Ulfsson as their king.

For fifteen years, Harald ruthlessly harried the country in an attempt to kill or overthrow Swein. But even a great battle, in which the Danish fleet was defeated, could not drive Swein from his throne and two years later, in 1064, a treaty finally was concluded between the two kings. Neither side was to pay compensation to the other nor were the boundaries of the two countries to change. For Harald, it was an ignominious concession.

Two years later, Earl Tostig visited Harald, seeking support to overthrow his brother Harold, king of England. The greatest Viking of his time would be enticed to make one more conquest.

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