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Haraldr harðráði, 1015 – September 25, 1066, also called Harald Sigurdsson, was the King of Norway from 1047 until 1066. Many details of his life were chronicled in the Heimskringla. Among English-speakers, he is generally known as "Harold Hardrada" and remembered for his invasion of England in 1066. The death of Hardrada is often recorded as the end of the Viking era.

Early lifeEdit

Born in 1015, Harald was the youngest of King Olaf II's three half-brothers born to Åsta Gudbrandsdatter. When Harald was 15, King Olaf was killed, trying to take the throne back from Canute the Great in 1030 at the Battle of Stiklestad. Harald took part in the battle and although wounded, managed to escape before leaving Norway in exile. He was able to form a band of warriors out of men who had also been exiled as a result of Olaf's death. In 1031 Harald and his men reached the land of the Kievan Rus' where they served the armies of Yaroslav I the Wise, the Grand Prince of the Rus. Harald is thought to have taken part in Grand Prince Yaroslav's campaign against the Poles and was appointed joint commander of defense forces.

In the Byzantine EmpireEdit

Some years after Harald and his men had entered the land of the Rus, they packed up and left for the heart of the Byzantine Empire, the city of Constantinople. At the time, the Byzantine Empire was the wealthiest empire in Medieval Europe and the Near East.

Harald and his men pledged themselves to the service of the armies of the empire. Harald's forces joined the elite mercenary unit known as the Varangian Guard. It was not long until Harald had proven himself in battle and gained the respect of his fellow guardsmen. Harald became the leader of the entire force and used this power to undertake his own missions.

Harald's forces won a great many victories in North Africa, Syria and Sicily. Through ingenuity, he and his men were able to besiege and defeat a number of castles. A contemporary source reports such tactics as attaching burning resin to birds, setting the castle ablaze, digging a tunnel and feigning reluctance to fight, only to launch an attack at the most advantageous moment. Harald was able to build a large fortune in plunder from his victories.

Harald took part in the suppression of the uprising of Peter Delyan, who attempted to restore the Bulgarian Empire in 1040 - 1041. In the Norse sagas, he is hailed as "Devastator of Bulgaria" and "Scourge of the Bulgarians" due to his participation, and is even thought to have cut down Peter Delyan in the field of battle. Some say that Harald named Oslo after a Bulgarian he fell in love with, Oslava.

Harald also made a raid into the country of Palestine: “Here it is told that this land came without fire and sword under Harald’s command. He then went out to Jordan and bathed therein, according to the custom of other pilgrims. Harald gave great gifts to our Lord’s graves, to the Holy Cross, and other holy relics in the land of Jerusalem. He also cleared the whole road all the way out to Jordan, by killing the robbers and other disturbers of the peace.”³

Return to NorwayEdit

Using the wealth he had built during his service to the Byzantine Empire, Harald returned to Norway in 1045. He brought with him a number of men who served with him, and, as a result, became an immediate threat to the sitting king, Magnus I, who was the son of Olaf II and nephew of Harald and had returned from exile in 1035 to reclaim his father's throne after the death of Canute the Great.

Snorri Sturluson wrote:

When Harald returned to Constantinople from Jerusalem he longed to return to the North to his native land; and when he heard that Magnus Olafson, his brother’s son, had become king both of Norway and Denmark, he gave up his command in the Greek service. And when the empress Zoe heard of this she became angry and raised an accusation against Harald that he had misapplied the property of the Greek emperor which he had received in the campaigns in which he was the commander of the army…On this account the Greek emperor had Harald made prisoner and carried to prison.

Magnus I agreed to share power with his uncle Harald and the two became co-rulers. However, it was only a year later that Magnus would die. The circumstances surrounding his death were never truly explained. Speculation and increased tension between the two rulers led to the widespread belief that Magnus was killed by Harald so that he alone would control Norway.

Invasion of EnglandEdit

In September 1066, Harald landed in Northern England with a force of around 15,000 men and 300 longships (50 men in each boat). At the Battle of Fulford, two miles south of Jorvik, on 20 September, he won a great victory against the first English forces he met. Believing that King Harold Godwinson was prepared to surrender, Harald confronted the English with roughly half of his forces, to accept his claim to the English throne. His forces were carrying light weapons and wore light armor.

However, Harold Godwinson had ambitions of his own. At the Battle of Stamford Bridge, outside the city of Jorvik, on 25 September 1066, Godwinson's forces met with Harald's. Godwinson's forces were heavily armed, heavily armored, and heavily outnumbered Harald's. Although one of Harald's men was able to block one side of the bridge, when he fell, Godwinson's better armed and better equipped forces cut through Harald's forces easily.

Harald died fighting at this final battle against the forces of King Harold Godwinson of England by an arrow to the throat. He had come to England with the idea of claiming the English Throne as his own, basing this claim on a supposed agreement between Magnus and Harthacanute whereby if either died without heir, the other would inherit both England and Norway. Instead, he met his end. His army was so heavily beaten that fewer than 25 of the 300 recorded longboats Harald used to transport his forces to England were used to carry the survivors back to Norway.

Not long after his victory over King Harald, Harold Godwinson was defeated by William the Conqueror at the Battle of Hastings. The fact that Harold had to make a forced march against Hardrada to fight at Stamford Bridge and then move at utmost speed back south to meet the Norman invasion, all in a matter of days, is widely seen as a primary factor in William's hard-fought victory at Hastings.

LegacyEdit

Harald was the last great Viking king of Norway and his invasion of England and death at the Battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066 proved a true watershed moment. It marked the end of the Viking age. In Norway, although he was at least nominally Christian, Harald's death also marked the beginning of the Christian era.

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