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
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
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.