Harald Hardrada Sigurdsson, King of Norway, was one of the claimants to the English throne following the death of Edward the Confessor in January 1066. Kaye Jones summarises Harald Hardrada’s life and his death at the hands of England’s Harold II at the Battle of Stamford Bridge, 25 September 1066.
Born in 1015, Harald ‘Hardrada’ Sigurdsson was the son of the Norwegian king, Sigurd the Sow. At the age of 15 Harald fought his first battle alongside his half brother, Olaf, at Sticklestad. Olaf was killed while the injured Harald fled to Kiev where he was given refuge by King Yaroslav. Harald stayed there for three or four years and then travelled to Constantinople to work for the Emperor of Byzantine.
Harald possessed natural fighting ability and quickly rose to become the commander of the emperor’s special guard. Having amassed a great personal wealth, Harald left Constantinople in 1043. After a brief time in Kiev, where he married King Yaroslav’s daughter, he returned to Norway.
‘Hardrada’, Hard Ruler
With the death of Magnus, in 1046, Harald became the new king. His reputation for crushing enemies and his continuous warfare in Denmark earned him the nickname ‘Hardrada’, Hard Ruler. Harald believed that, as the successor to the Danish kings, he also had a claim to the throne of England. After Edward the Confessor‘s death on 5 January 1066, Harald planned to invade England to assert his claim and take the country by force. He was aided by Tostig Godwinson, the brother of England’s new king, Harold II, who probably visited him in the spring of 1066. Within a few months, Harald’s fleet was assembled and ready to depart. His first ports of call were Shetland and Orkney, where he gathered reinforcements before sailing to England. On 10 September, with approximately 300 ships, he arrived at the mouth of the River Tyne. He was joined by Tostig and the pair began their conquest of the north of England.
Battle of Stamford Bridge
At the Battle of Fulford Gate, they easily repelled local resistance and were able to take the city of York. On 25 September 25, Harald was confronted by the English army at the Battle of Stamford Bridge. Until the previous year, Tostig had been the earl of Northumbria until, accused of increasing brutality and misrule, his lands were confiscated by the king and Tostig was forced to take refuge in his wife’s native home of Flanders. King Harold offered to reinstate Tostig’s lands if he switched sides but his brother refused.
The Battle of Stamford Bridge (pictured with Harald Hardrada in the middle wielding a battle-axe) was fought on foot with swords, spears and axes. According to legend, the bridge was manned by one member of the Norwegian army. A beast of a man he slay forty Englishmen who tried to take him on. He was only moved when one of the English soldiers drifted silently down the river, possibly in a boat or swill-tub, and was able to spear him from under the bridge. With the giant Norwegian now dead, the English army took control and beat the Norwegians back over the bridge. With his line almost in tatters, King Harald charged out and ran at the English, only to be shot in the throat with an arrow.
King Harald had fallen but the battle was not over. Tostig refused his brother’s renewed offer of reconciliation and picked up the Norwegian battle standard. It took the alleged gruesome decapitation of Tostig by his own brother, Harold, to end the battle.
Harold’s celebrations were brought to an abrupt end – the king received word that Duke William of Normandy and his army had landed in England.