Action shot general in front of varagians

George Maniakes – Strategos attacking a Syrian horseman in the foreground, while Harald Hardrada and his Varagians await the enemy.

Once again, the sources are unclear. They paint a picture of Harald fleeing the city in his galley, successfully making it past the chain that blocked the Bosphorus strait at the entrance to the Black Sea. An accompanying Viking vessel was not so lucky, and had to be abandoned at the barrier. Harald was supposedly accompanied by the mysterious Maria, although he later set her ashore and left her behind – was she a hostage to secure his safe exit from Byzantium, or a true lover who had a sudden change of heart? It is far more likely that Harald’s real reason for such a dramatic exit was his wealth; Byzantine customs would have exerted a heavy levy on his treasure, and any gold in his possession was not supposed to leave the city at all.

Harald escaped successfully from Byzantium, and sailed back up the eastern river roads to the domain of Jaroslav the Wise. Some writers romanticize his return as the princely wooing of a blushing bride, but even the sagas cannot hide the pragmatic elements of his marriage to Princess Ellisif. Jaroslav had demanded proof of wealth, and Harald had successfully earned, plundered and embezzled an amount so large that, in the words of Snorri ‘no one in the northern lands had seen its equal in the possession of one man.’ Even in the surviving poetry Harald himself wrote about his wife-to-be, he referred to her as a ‘gold-ringed goddess’.

Jaroslav permitted the exiled prince to marry his daughter in the winter of 1045. The following spring, Harald sailed up the last of the river-roads to the Gulf of Finland, and then back to Scandinavia itself. He was, as his later actions made clear, determined to win a kingdom at any cost, although not overly concerned about which kingdom it was.

St Olaf’s son Magnus now ruled Norway. The sons of Canute had given up on Norway while they fought over England, and now both of them were dead. Magnus did, however, already have a new enemy in Svein Estridsen, Canute’s nephew. Magnus had attempted to buy him off in 1042 by acknowledging him as the ruler of Denmark, but Svein almost immediately mounted a challenge on Norway itself. He was swiftly beaten back and hiding out in Sweden where his path crossed with the returning Harald. Somehow, these two dangerous and untrustworthy men reached an agreement that they should unite against a common foe. If Magnus was going to claim to be the ruler of Norway and Denmark, Harald and Svein would prove him wrong in a time-honoured fashion – they went a-viking.

For all their claims of nobility and kingship, Harald and Svein were still raiders at heart. Their policy of demonstrating Magnus’s unsuitability to rule comprised a series of Viking raids on the coasts of Denmark itself, proof if proof was ever required that the Vikings excluded no one when choosing their victims. With a force of warriors from all over Scandinavia, the Harald-Svein fleet terrorized a kingdom that Magnus claimed to control.

But Harald was a mercenary Viking with mercenary ambitions, and his alliance with Svein was opportunistic. His saga reports a series of intrigues that led him to question his former alliance, though they are all likely to have been later attempts to put a human face on a harsh reality – Harald realized he stood a better chance of getting what he wanted if he switched sides.

In one saga account, Magnus’s advisor, confidante and, perhaps, regent was Astrid, the widow of St Olaf and sister of the Swedish king. Astrid’s involvement brought heavy support from the Swedes, and a sense of continuity. Unfortunately for her but handily for the saga-writing gossip, she was not Magnus’s natural mother – that honour went to Alfhild, a former chambermaid. Alfhild, it is said, wasted no time in reminding Astrid who the king’s mother actually was, while Astrid for her part was quick to remind Alfhild that she was the queen, and that Alfhild had been nothing but a serving wench until Olaf had bedded her. With such feuding behind the scenes, someone at Magnus’s court sent word to Harald the Ruthless, in the name of King Magnus, that it was unseemly for two relatives to be quarrelling. He offered Harald half his kingdom, a joint kingship, if Harald agreed they pool their resources, and put his Byzantine gold to use in strengthening Scandinavia.

This, of course, was what Harald was after all along, but his saga biographers would not dare suggest that he accepted. Instead, they pre-empted him from going back on his word by suggesting that news somehow reached Svein of the secret negotiations. Heimskringla reports a tense dinner conversation between him and Harald, in which small talk turned all too quickly to umbrage. Purportedly, the men were discussing their most valuable possessions, which for Harald was his ‘magical’ banner Landwaster, a flag of some unknown material (probably Byzantine silk) said to guarantee victory to whoever bore it in front of his army. Svein, it is said, scoffed that he would believe such a claim when he saw Harald win three battles against his kinsman King Magnus. It was the word ‘kinsman’ that caused the argument – Harald thought that Svein had made too great a point of reminding him that he was fighting a member of his own family. In the heat of the moment, he even implied that the world would be a better place if he and Magnus were not enemies at all. Svein countered by musing about Harald’s habit of only keeping those parts of promises that suited him best. Harald had the last word, crowing that Svein had kept more promises to Magnus than Harald had broken.

That night, Harald returned to his ship at anchor, telling his men that he was suspicious about Svein’s intentions. Sure enough, Harald wisely slept elsewhere that evening, while a would-be assassin clambered on to his ship and buried an axe where he would otherwise have been. The treaty with Svein was at an end, conveniently through Svein’s actions, not Harald’s betrayal, thereby saving honour in the eyes of his biographers, and Harald sailed for a conference with his estranged nephew.

Magnus granted him half the kingdom of Norway, and subordinate status – in all matters of protocol, Magnus was to be considered the superior. Harald agreed, and discovered all too soon why his nephew was so keen to make a deal. When the time came for them to examine their finances, Magnus revealed that he was bankrupt.

The co-rulers embarked on a consolidation of the kingdom along the northern coasts of Norway – better described as the extraction of protection money in order to establish their rulership. Svein hid out on the coasts of Sweden, sailing to Denmark when he was sure he would be unopposed, and demanding similar tribute from the local inhabitants. Denmark was still his, whatever the rulers of Norway might say. Meanwhile, Harald and Magnus were not the happiest of allies. They had already almost come to blows over a parking spot – Harald’s men having berthed their ship in a harbour slot designated for the superior king. Knowing well enough that he could not afford to give a single inch to Harald, Magnus drew up his own ships ready for battle. Harald backed down, commenting that Magnus was being petty, and noting that ‘it is an old custom for the wiser one to yield’. Even in defeat, he still managed to have the final say. Had Magnus lived, it is likely that he and Harald would have exchanged more than unkind words. However, Magnus died while on campaign in Denmark in 1047, leaving Harald as the sole ruler of Norway, and the overlordship of Denmark still open to question.

The Viking Age was drawing to a close. The initial conditions for the Viking invasions had waned – Scandinavian settlers had colonized Iceland and points beyond, while the coastal defences of medieval Europe were now significantly stronger. After almost 250 years of raiding and counter-raids, the 1040s find the people left behind in Scandinavia much as the original Vikings had left them – farmers and fishermen, preyed upon by belligerent crews of raiders.

The participants, however, would not have seen it that way. Svein, now ‘collecting tribute’ rather than raiding, had convinced many of the Danes that he was the one with the power to do them and others harm and hence protect them. One such supporter, in an apocryphal but evocative tale, was Thorkel Geysa, a landowner on the Danish coast who refused to believe that Harald the Ruthless would return. Thorkel joked that Harald’s fleet, if it existed, was so feeble that he imagined his own daughter Dótta could fashion anchors out of cheese sufficient to hold it fast.

Such unwise words put Thorkel’s farm right at the top of Harald’s hit list. As King Harald’s Saga puts it:

It is reported that the watchman who first caught sight of King Harald’s fleet said to Thorkel Geysa’s daughters, ‘I thought you said that Harald would never come to Denmark.’

‘That was yesterday,’ replied Dótta.

The daughters of Thorkel Geysa were carried off in chains, and only returned to their father after the payment of a heavy ransom. And so the raiding went on, in a seemingly endless round of pillage and counter-pillage that taxed the poetic skills of the most verbose skald. Eventually, in 1049, Harald sent home his ‘farmer army’ of conscripts, retaining only his professional soldiers and pirates for a terrible assault on Hedeby, at the heart of the Danish trade system. With Hedeby burning behind him, his treasure-laden fleet was pursued by an angry Svein. Heimskringla recounts Harald’s desperate attempt to delay his vengeful pursuers as they gained on him, throwing first plunder, and then prisoners into the sea behind him as a distraction.

Harald’s campaigns in this period were aimed at consolidating the deal he had made with Magnus. Their agreement, much as Harald had tried to bend the rules, was that they would be co-rulers of the region until one of them died, at which point the other would be the sole inheritor. This suited Harald very well with Magnus gone, but some of Magnus’s subordinates were less willing to accept it. Paramount among the objectors were the troublesome inhabitants of Trondheim. While they were allies of Magnus, there was no love lost between them and Harald – although Harald only professed his belief in Christ when it suited him, the earls of Trondheim were unrepentant pagans, and refused to recognize his authority.

This, anyway, is how the pious Snorri would have us understand it – the nominal Christian, relative of the saint, builder of churches is preferable in the long-term to the devout pagan, at least in hindsight. However, while religion often featured in the conflicts in Norway, it was not necessarily the reason, but an excuse. Unrest in Harald’s Norway had less to do with religion than it did with the unwelcome redistribution of wealth.

Einar Paunch-shaker was someone strongly in favour of redistributing wealth in his own favour. Once an enemy of the rulers of Trondheim, he was now married into their dynasty. For years, Einar had collected taxes in Trondheim as Magnus’s representative, but kept the money for himself – better this, Magnus must have reasoned, than the conflict that would otherwise ensue between the ‘king’ of Norway and the fractious earldom. While Harald made a show of finishing the building of Trondheim’s church to St Olaf, begun by Magnus but left unfinished at his death, Einar mounted a publicity stunt of his own, sailing into town with a flotilla of nine ships and several hundred men, daring Harald to find some cause to call him to heel. Harald, however, merely observed the force arriving from his balcony, and said:

Einar of the flailing sword

Will drive me from this country

Unless I first persuade him

To kiss my thin-lipped axe.

The round of feud and counter-feud, posturing and slander was about to begin again, but Harald was not known for his patience. Einar was a typical man of Trondheim, highly reluctant to accept the authority of whoever called himself the king of Norway, and ready to prove it with a show of force, if necessary. In most cases, this attitude manifested itself at local assemblies, where Einar loudly boasted of his adherence to the letter of all laws. In matters where Harald’s own decisions were subject to ratification by an assembly of local farmers, Einar would often argue a case for rejecting Harald’s rulings. The message he sent to southern Norway was clear – in Trondheim, it was he, not Harald who was in charge.

The uneasy peace between him and Harald continued for some time, until an occasion when a thief came to trial at the local assembly. Since the thief was one of his own men, Einar was presented with a difficult situation – he could act like Harald, and do whatever he liked, or he could behave as he had always boasted he did, and leave the sentencing to the assembly. Einar overstepped his position by liberating the accused man. Before long, he was summoned to give an account of himself before Harald, and arrived with a heavily armed company. Einar, it seems, was expecting more bluster and posturing, but Harald’s patience had run out. Without waiting for an explanation or warning, Harald’s men cut Einar and his son Eindridi down where they stood. Doubly leaderless, the Trondheim opposition soon melted back to their farms, Einar’s widow Bergljót, lamented that her relative Hakon was not present to bully the men of Trondheim into an act of revenge: ‘Eindridi’s killers would not be rowing down the river now if Hakon had been here on the bank.’

The slaying of Einar may have removed a potential opponent, but it created considerable ill feeling towards Harald in the region. It also initiated a feud, which threatened to run out of control. Already, Bergljót had sent messengers to Hakon Ivarsson, detailing Harald’s crimes against her family, while Harald was assembling an army in southern Norway.

But Harald had also made political matches in keeping with his new interests. Ellisif, the bride he had laboured for ten years to win from Jaroslav the Wise, was replaced in his affections by Thora, the daughter of Thorberg Arnarson. Ellisif remained Harald’s official wife in Christian eyes, but it was Thora who shared his bed. While Ellisif might have been a trophy wife, and represented a useful eastern alliance, Thora brought alliances closer to home. Her uncle Finn Arnarson was powerful enough in the Trondheim region to intercede on Harald’s behalf, brokering a deal in which Harald would compensate Hakon for his crimes. It was the political scandal of its day – a king with a reputation for ignoring the law when it suited him, suddenly forced to attend, or at least appear to attend to the ruling and judgements of a council of farmers. However, Finn was able to secure a deal ‘out of court’ as it were, by approaching Hakon in private and making him an offer. Finn pointed out that Hakon’s situation was going to cost him dearly. If he came out against Harald openly, it would be seen as a revolt – he would either lose and thereby lose his life, or win and be coloured ever more as a traitor.

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