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The Weird Aryan History Series

Lesson #34: The Last Viking


The Viking era in European history may be said to run very roughly from about 775 A.D., when the Norse, on ships, suddenly burst on a startled world that had only the vaguest idea that Scandinavia even existed, until 1066 and the Battle of Stamford Bridge. The last true Viking chieftain and one of the most colorful characters in Viking history was King Harald Hardraada of Norway.

In their pagan days the Norse practiced polygamy, which was one reason for the overcrowding that produced so many land-hungry and adventurous young men ready to go sailing off in the dragon ships. In the ninth century Harald Fairhair was a minor Norse ruler who had the usual collection of wives, but there was a singularly lissome young maiden he wished to add to his collection named Ingeborg. But Ingeborg turned him down on the grounds that his kingdom was too small; no doubt she was a kind of Norse Valley Girl type who liked to shop til she dropped and Harald's piece of turf was too small for her expensive tastes. Well, Harald showed her. He spent a number of years conquering all of Norway, and in due course claimed his reward, nailed his hottie and produced a whole dynasty of swashbuckling kings and adventurers who spent the next two hundred years raising all kinds of hell.

Harald Hardraada's tale begins with a great grandson of Harald Fairhair, one Olaf Tryggvason, being baptized as a Christian as part of a settlement arranged with the English, whom Olaf's Vikings had been subjecting to a particularly pulverizing series of raids. [See The Battle of Maldon, Weird Histories passim.] Olaf, however, not only was acknowledged as leader of the Vikings in northern England, but he also managed to quell enough dissent in Norway to become that country's monarch around 995 A.D.

As a result of this, the throne of king of Norway was then linked to the leadership of at least half of England. When Harald Hardraada (the "hard ruler") finally ascended to the throne, this sparked off one of the final battles between the Vikings and the English.

Harald was the half brother of King Olaf the Stout, a king of Norway who was chased out of his country while trying to violently convert his countrymen to Christianity. Olaf fled to the Viking settlements in Russia, which stretched as far south as Kiev in what is now the Ukraine. These areas had become Christianized, and Olaf raised an army to stage a comeback in Norway. Olaf returned to Norway in 1030, with his 15 year old half brother, Harald, at his side. Together they fought their pagan countrymen but were defeated. Olaf was killed (he was later made a saint by the Christian Church and is to this day patron saint of Norway) and Harald was severely wounded.

The young Harald fled back to Russia, stopping in Kiev to enlist in the army of King Yaroslav, winning great prestige as a soldier. From there he went to Constantinople where he enlisted in the Byzantine emperor's Varangian guard, an elite army unit made up exclusively of Vikings and Rus recruited from the Norse settlements in Christian Russia. He eventually rose to be the commander of this elite military unit. For a decade Harald fought for the Eastern Roman Empire, winning not only great fame but also great wealth and experience as a general. Harald saw an immense amount of the known world as he engaged in campaigns across Asia Minor and the Mediterranean, and it is said that he became fluent in Greek, Latin, Bulgarian, and Arabic, as well as being able to read and write all of those languages. This was quite an accomplishment for any man of that period, never mind a barbarian Northman.

In 1044, he went back to Kiev and married the daughter of King Yaroslav. By 1047, he had worked his way back to Norway where he claimed the Norwegian throne. His royal family tie combined with his by now legendary exploits being enough to silence opposition to his becoming king.

During the next nineteen years, Harald continued trying to Christianize his countrymen, earning for himself the name of "hard ruler." Although a Christian himself, Harald made it a point to ensure that the old strength and toughness remained in his people. He set an example of hardness himself, among other ways by always keeping his Christmas feast "under sail," meaning out at sea with his fleet of ships, feasting and sleeping it off on an open deck under the sky and the stars. In December, in the North Sea, this was a pretty rough-cut habit, even by the standard of the times.

Harald's last great exploit came in 1066. Upon the death of the Anglo-Saxon king, Edward the Confessor, Harald claimed the English crown for himself on the basis of an old legal fiction regarding the shared sovereignty of Norway and northern England. It was something that had been a dead letter for over a century, but Harald used it as a political fig leaf for his expedition of conquest. However, another claimant to the English throne also put in his bid—William, Duke of Normandy, ironically the descendant of Vikings just like Harald himself.

Harald first formed an alliance with Earl Tostig, the disaffected brother of the English king who had succeeded Edward the Confessor, Harold Godwinson. Then Harald sailed for England and seized the town of York as a base for his operations against Harold Godwinson. The English Harold staged a stunning three-day forced march and before Norse Harald could react, the English were on him. The Viking and English armies clashed at the battle of Stamford Bridge, where Harald was killed in battle. He was given a true Viking's funeral pyre, although on land rather than at sea, and Harold Godwinson marched south again to meet his own death in battle against William the Conqueror.

Harald Hardraada seems to be pretty much the Vikings' last hurrah; after his death was when the Swedes and the Norwegians started to get placid and boring and spent their time doing cute little wood carvings instead of looting and pillaging. Possibly they were all Viking'ed out. The Danes are a bit more interesting throughout the Middle Ages; they've got some artistic and flamboyant murders, at least, no doubt due to their continental location right next to the Germans.