Never satisfied, Harald – later given the epithet Hardrada (loosely meaning “hard ruler”) by his own people – King of Norway tried to claim the Danish crown in 1048 AD (and several times thereafter) and then the English crown in 1066 AD. His quest for the latter was his undoing. But before his death at Stamford Bridge, Harald Hardrada had certainly led an expansive life, travelling to distant lands… and killing people there.
Harald Sigurdsson was born around 1015 AD in Ringerike to Asta Gudbrandsdatter and her second husband, Sigurd, one of the wealthiest chieftains in Scandinavia. Harald spent his youth as most Viking lads did – roughhousing, plying willing Viking maidens, and dreaming heroic dreams. He was the youngest of three half-brothers to King Olaf (canonized a year after his death). The revolt in 1028 forced Olaf into exile in Kievan Rus, from which he returned two years later to regain his throne. During those years the half-brothers, notably Harald, had been whipping up support among the Norwegian chieftains. In the ensuing battle at Stiklestad against the Danish King Cnut (the “Great”), Olaf was killed and Harald wounded.
Having recovered in Sweden, Harald arrived at Novgorod among the Rus with some 500 men and was welcomed warmly by Grand Price Yaroslav “the Wise.” Being sorely in need of fierce warriors and a military leader, Yaroslav wisely welcomed the still-young Harald. For the next few years Harald took part in Yaroslav’s military campaigns, against the Poles in 1031, against several unruly vassals, against the Penchenegs and other nomads. Seeking greater fame and especially wealth, Harald moved on south to Constantinople to take service in 1034 with the Byzantine Empire as so many Vikings did while wandering.
As a commander in the Varangian Guard, Harald saw action first against Arab pirates in the Mediterranean and on land against their supporters in Asia Minor. According to the skald Arnorsson, who later set down the saga of Harald (likely at his bequest, so the facts may be somewhat exaggerated), by 1035 he commanded all the Guard, served Emperor Michael IV faithfully, fought in battles around Jerusalem, led a Byzantines military expedition to Sicily, and enjoyed a bunch of other adventures. All of which made Harald very, very rich (what with all the plunder and the rewards from the emperor). In 1042, he returned to the Rus, there marrying Yaroslav’s daughter Ellisif now that he had status and much money.
But all this wandering about and killing people had made Harald home-sick. Cnut’s sons had abandoned Norway to adventure in England, leaving Olaf’s bastard Magnus the Good on the throne. Harald returned to Sweden, rallied an army there, and began raiding the Danish holdings along the Baltic coasts. In 1046 AD, a compromise was reached between Harald and Magnus (perhaps good but not so wise) whereby they would share the rule of Norway – although Harald had to also share half his considerable wealth with the bankrupt Magnus. Two years later, Magnus conveniently died, without a male heir; but the good king decided on his deathbed to divide his kingdom, putting Sweyn Estridsson on the Danish throne and leaving Harald on the Norwegian. Harald was not pleased, and spent the next two decades at war with Sweyn trying to “regain” the throne of Denmark.
Every year, Harald – now nicknamed “Hardrada” – would pillage the coasts of Denmark as he had in the good ol’ days, slaughtering the locals and burning everything that couldn’t be carried back to Norway by ship. In 1048 he ravaged Jutland, and the next year he sacked Hedeby, at the time the most important trading center in Denmark. And so it went for years. But it wasn’t all death and destruction under Harald; he revised the legal code, explored the northern fringes of his lands, and worked to accelerate the spread of Christianity across Scandinavia. He also established a standard coinage for Norway, perhaps so he could increase the taxes. Always a stickler for taxes, he travelled through his realm in winter, accusing farmers and merchants of not paying; his standard punishment was maiming or executing the offender on the spot, so his reign was more solvent than many. Harald eventually even came to terms with Sweyn, signing an unconditional peace in 1064 between the two Viking kingdoms.
It was about this time that Harald’s designs fixated on the crown of England, just across the North Sea. Upon the death of heirless Harthacnut, son of Cnut and supposed king of England (or at least a large part of it) in 1042, the throne there passed to Edward the Confessor. Harald was busy at the time securing the throne of Norway, so didn’t pay much attention. When Edward died in January 1066, however, Harald Hardrada laid claim to the English throne, and was mightily annoyed when Harold Godwinson, one of Edward’s advisors, was proclaimed instead. The reasoning for Harold’s claim to Britain, though convoluted, seemed to make sense to the Vikings.
While kings of their respective lands, Harthacnut and Magnus had agreed that should either die, the other would inherit his kingdom to add to the great “Viking Land.” As Harald had become joint king of Norway with Magnus before the latter’s death, Harald argued that the agreement extended to him as well. It was high time that, with the death of Edward in England, the English lived up to the agreement. When they didn’t, he raised an army and sallied forth.
Harald allied with Tostig Godwinson, Harold’s brother, who was peeved that he himself had been stripped of the earldom of Northumbria by old Edward before he died, as well as the Viking earls of Shetland and the Orkneys and even some men from King Malcolm of Scotland. All told, Harald reportedly had about 9,000 troops (others were off plundering, pillaging and generally raising hell) under his direct command when he captured York and then moved south. Harold, who’d been hanging about in southern England awaiting the Norman invasion led by William, now lurched northward with about 15,000 men, including a number of armored knights. These were the difference when the two bumped into each other near Stamford Bridge. In the melee, the unarmored Harald Hardrada was struck in the throat by an arrow and died as he had lived: charging into battle against daunting odds.