Harold III

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Harold III

Harold III (1015-1066), who is surnamed Haardraade, or "Ruthless, " was king of Norway from 1047 to 1066. He was the last of the great Viking aristocratic rulers whose fame extended throughout Europe.

Son of King Sigurd and half brother to King Olaf II (the Saint), Harold was severely wounded at Stiklarsladir fighting at the age of 15 against the largest army ever assembled in Norway. Leaving his dead half brother, he took refuge in a lonely farmhouse. His health recovered, he crossed into Sweden. From there he went to Novgorod, where he was well received by Prince Yaroslav and in 1032 assisted him in a Polish campaign.

Accompanied by a personal following of 500 warriors, Harold followed the traditional Varangian route to Constantinople. He arrived there in 1035 and until 1042 seems to have been the leader of the Varangian guard of the Empress Zoë. During that period he campaigned in the Greek islands, Asia Minor, the Caucasus, Palestine, Sicily, and Bulgaria. He was resourceful, cunning, resilient, and persevering, and if it suited his purpose, could be treacherous, vengeful, and cruel. As Gwyn Jones (1968) pointed out, he was "the epitome of the Viking who lived by rapine and war, believed in fame, riches and power, and employed fair means and foul." Through his sword and courage, he amassed a fortune; his standard, the famed "Land-waster, " became an object of dread to his foes and of pride and reverence to his followers.

Harold left Constantinople because of a dispute with Zoë over a woman and returned home by way of Novgorod, where he married Elizabeth, the daughter of Yaroslav. Almost immediately he allied himself with Sven of Denmark against his nephew Magnus, now king of Norway, and deserted Sven when Magnus for a considerable sum of money offered him part of Norway. In 1047, upon the death of Magnus, he absorbed the rest of Norway and until 1064 carried on a senseless and devastating was against Sven. During this same period he brought to terms the warrior chieftains of Norway and, on the site of an old marketplace, established the city of Oslo.

In 1066, drawn by the never-failing Viking compulsion for wealth and fame overseas, Harold III embarked on the last effective Viking intervention in the affairs of western Europe. Probably urged on by the invitation of Earl Tostig of England but probably more by greed and by the tales and deeds of earlier Vikings, the 50-year-old warrior claimed the throne of England. Defeated at Stamford Bridge by the forces of Harold II, he won only the 7 feet of land that the victor had promised him, but his doom in a Viking holocaust that rivaled the battles told by the skalds of old made possible the conquest of England by a remoter brand of Norseman, William the Conqueror. His was indeed a Viking exit and the exit of the Viking age.

Further Reading

King Harold's Saga: Harald Hardrodi of Norway, translated with an introduction by Magnus Magnusson and Hermann Pálsson (1966) from Snorri Sturluson's Heimskringla, contains most known information on Harold III. Other translations of Snorri Sturluson's Heimskringla are also useful, such as Heimskringla: History of the Kings of Norway, translated with introduction and notes by Lee M. Hollander (1964). Karen Larsen, A History of Norway (1948), has an excellent summary, as does Gwyn Jones, A History of the Vikings (1968). □