Friday, September 26, 2008

From the Cultural Desk: Harald Hardråde and the Battle of Stamford Bridge

We've got another very interesting historical post from our Cultural Advisor, Colin Thomsen. Keep reading to learn about how close England came to becoming a full-fledged Norwegian province!

This weekend we at the Sons of Norway culture desk will be raising a drinking horn in honor of King Harald Hardråde, Norway’s last great Viking king who died only 942 years ago this week at the Battle of Stamford Bridge in England. Had he survived the battle and won the day, Harald might have very well conquered all of England and turned it into a Norwegian province.

The most interesting information about Harald’s life comes to us from the Heimskringla, the sagas of the Norwegian kings, written by the 13th century Icelandic scholar Snorri Sturluson. Snorri’s book was based a long oral tradition and written several hundred years after the events it describes, and so its relation to historical fact as we would think of it is quite complicated. Nonetheless, as a work of literature, the Heimskringla paints a fascinating portrait of an ambitious, ruthless ruler who would have given Machiavelli nightmares.

We know that the future King Harald Hardråde was born Harald Sigurdsson in 1015 in Norway. He was the half-brother of Olaf Haraldsson, better known as Saint Olaf. The saga tells us that at the age of 15 Harald fought alongside his brother at the fateful Battle of Stiklestad, where Olaf was killed. Harald was wounded and forced to flee the battlefield along with a band of followers. Together they hid in the forest and eventually escaped to Russia, where they joined the court of Yaroslav the Wise. Harald traveled far and wide, hunting pirates in Greece and serving as a soldier in the Byzantine Empire. He plundered from the Arabian Peninsula to North Africa and Sicily, conquering some 80 towns and becoming enormously wealthy. This part of the saga is filled with colorful stories showing how Harlad used a combination of bravery, brutality and cunning to achieve victory at any cost.

Eventually Harald returned to Norway where his nephew, Saint Olaf’s son Magnus, ruled as king. Due to a mixture of political pressure and the threat of violence, Magnus was forced to divide Norway between the two of them. However, after just a year, Magnus mysteriously died, leaving Harald king over all Norway.

Harald ruled over Norway for about 20 years. He spent a lot of time raiding and burning Danish towns, as well as crushing rebellions and destroying enemies within Norway. His penchant for violence earned him the name Hardråde, which translates roughly as “hard ruler” or “tyrant.” He also built many churches and founded the city of Oslo.

In 1066 Harald invaded England with a huge army and won an early victory at the Battle of Fulford on September 20th. Five days later he was surprised by a much larger English force at Stamford Bridge. The Norwegians hadn’t expected the English to arrive for a few days, and many of the soldiers had left their armor in their ships. Nonetheless Harald prepared a shield wall and fought the English tenaciously. The saga says that “King Harald then was in a rage, and ran out in front of the array, and hewed down with both hands; so that neither helmet nor armor could withstand him, and all who were nearest gave way before him.” A Viking age poet remembered it this way:

Where battle-storm was ringing,
Where arrow-cloud was singing,
Harald stood there,
Of armor bare,
His deadly sword still swinging.
The foeman feel its bite;
His Norsemen rush to fight,
Danger to share,
With Harald there,
Where steel on steel was ringing.

Harald was then cut down by an arrow and his closest followers were soon killed as well. The English king, Harold Godwinson, offered the Norsemen quarter, but they refused, preferring to die with their king.

Godwinson would not have long to enjoy his victory. Immediately after the battle he was forced to march his army south to confront William the Conqueror, a Norman French nobleman who had designs of his own on England. On October 10th, Godwinson would lose the Battle of Hastings to William, who would soon become master of all England. His campaign in England is known as the Norman Conquest and it would have an enormous impact on the course of English history, language and culture.

It’s interesting to imagine what could have happened if Harald had succeeded. England’s ties to Scandinavia would have been strengthened; Norse language and culture would have taken root there; the Norwegian royal family would have grown far richer off the tributes of the English countryside; and English might well be today considered a Scandinavian language. Many historians consider Harald’s death to be the end of the Viking Age. To read the saga of Harald Hardråde, click here.

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